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Commons Chamber

Volume 700: debated on Thursday 16 September 2021

House of Commons

Thursday 16 September 2021

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

BUSINESS BEFORE QUESTIONS

Contingencies Fund Account 2020-21

Resolved,

That there be laid before this House an Account of the Contingencies Fund 2020-21, showing –

1. A Statement of Financial Position

2. A Statement of Cash Flows and

3. Notes to the Accounts; together with the Certificate and Report of the Comptroller and Auditor General thereon.—(Maria Caulfield.)

Oral Answers to Questions

Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

Before we move on to questions, may I just say that I wish Oliver Dowden well? He worked well, but I know he has a very able replacement. I welcome the new Secretary of State, who I know must have the greatest interest in rugby league; I welcome her team—herself and the new Minister.

The Secretary of State was asked—

Football Governance

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for that very warm welcome.

Football is central to our national life, which is why my predecessor announced this root-and-branch review of the game led by the fans. This might be a good point to mention my own interest in football, as well as in rugby league. My great grandfathers were founding members of Everton football club, although I am a Liverpool supporter, so I declare my interest on day one.

My Department has supported the chair and advisory panel to collect more than 100 hours of evidence and 20,000 responses from football fans. I look forward to receiving the final report of my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) and the recommendations later this autumn, and I am ready to take bold action whenever necessary to protect the identity of our national game.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer and I welcome her to her new post and congratulate her on the appointment. The interim report from the chair of the panel makes it clear that the panel intends to introduce a golden share for fans to have a veto over certain reserved powers such as club names and colours and similar powers to those under assets of community value legislation to protect stadiums and training grounds. This is a welcome recognition of the power of football fans, but what discussions has the Department had in preparation for the final report with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and local government to make sure we can move quickly on the recommendations that we know are coming in the autumn?

I obviously do not want to predict the findings of the final report or predetermine the outcome, but, as the hon. Gentleman says, the interim report is available on the Government website. My predecessor saw at first hand at Brentford that a golden share can do what the hon. Gentleman outlines without undermining the ownership of clubs. The review has been extensive, involving over 150 clubs and 20,000 fans, and my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford has met numerous organisations and stakeholders throughout the industry. I look forward, as the hon. Gentleman does, to my hon. Friend’s report later this year. I can promise from the Department’s perspective that it will be extensive and will certainly have consulted many people.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on her appointment; she will do a sterling job, as she has done at the Department of Health and Social Care in extremely difficult circumstances over the past year and a half. The fan-led review is hugely important, especially given the recent European super league proposals. What discussions is she having with football clubs on the review and does she plan to meet any clubs in the near future?

The review is a root-and-branch examination of football in this country and looks at the financial sustainability of the football pyramid as well as governance, regulations, ownership and the merits of an independent regulator. There is much work to do; being just 35 minutes into the job I have not arranged a meeting yet, but I will be holding a roundtable this coming week with football industry representatives.

The Secretary of State will be fed up with congratulations soon, but let me add mine as well. She mentioned the question of ownership in football. She knows the north-west well enough where we have seen the collapse of Bury football club because of incompetence and malign owners, and very recently a hostile takeover bid for Rochdale football club in my constituency, which was resisted and, fortunately, defeated. There needs to be some review not only of a potential super league but of the capacity of owners to deliver to the communities that spawned their clubs in the first place. Will the Secretary of State make sure that that is taken properly on board following the review?

I absolutely will. Fans are the lifeblood of football and sport. The review is considering the issue of club ownership in light of the submissions and evidence from supporters representing more than 150 clubs, and I will certainly consider any proposals very seriously.

Gigabit Broadband

As the current broadband Minister I can say that, as Members will have seen, across the country gigabit broadband is now at 47%, up from just 10% in November 2019. This Government will leave no stone unturned to get that number as high as possible as quickly as possible.

May I, too, offer my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Secretary of State on her very recent promotion?

I thank the Minister for his response. Residents of the newly built Parc Derwen estate in my Bridgend constituency, and others across the UK, have found themselves tied to disagreeable fibre providers and unable to seek competitive quotes due to restrictions placed on them by developers as they are laying infrastructure. What will my hon. Friend do to ensure a competitive market as we roll out gigabit broadband?

My hon. Friend is right that competition is a crucial part of a functioning broadband market. FibreNest, the company that he refers to, says that it is willing to let other providers use its networks, and it is a commercial decision for the company. It is important that all the right steps are taken to ensure that that promise becomes a reality, and the Government will work with him and the company to ensure that it does so.

It is very good to see my hon. Friend in his place at the Dispatch Box. As a rural constituency, Montgomeryshire is very reliant on the roll-out of Project Gigabit, which I welcome very much. Not only is that integral to increased speeds, but the backbone of that fibre network is key to our levelling-up ambitions. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to deliver it at pace?

My hon. Friend is very kind; I hope that is not the kiss of death. He is right that, in areas such as Wales in particular, the power of levelling up through digital infrastructure is key. We have recently made positive announcements with the Welsh Government. We look forward to making more, and I know that Montgomeryshire will be a key part of delivering that mission.

I congratulate the Minister on retaining his position and welcome the new Secretary of State to hers. The Minister’s is a wide-ranging and critical role, not least because we need our broadband. Parliament, our businesses, our students, our economy and our social lives depend on it—but it is another broken promise. Full fibre by 2025 was the Prime Minister’s pledge, and the 2020 Budget set aside £5 billion to deliver it. Will the Minister confirm that only £1.2 billion of that £5 billion is planned to be spent by 2025 and that, far from full fibre, we will not even get affordable broadband? According to Ofcom, more than 2 million households find it hard to afford broadband, yet the Government are slashing broadband price controls, slashing the broadband budget, slashing universal credit support, and slashing gigabit targets. When will we get the broadband we need?

I enjoyed the hon. Lady’s speech, Mr Speaker. The fact remains that this is a £5 billion commitment to—

Order. I just say gently to the Minister that I make the judgment call. He is very kind to offer his assistance, but I will let him know when I need it.

Absolutely, Mr Speaker.

The fact remains that this is a £5 billion commitment to getting as close to 100% broadband across this country as fast as we possibly can. The only barrier to doing that is the speed with which we can dig up the roads and lay the cables. This Government will do every single thing we can to make sure that every single barrier is removed in order to spend every penny of that £5 billion as quickly as we possibly can.

Fraudulent Online Advertisements

The Government are committed to tackling online fraud. That is why, later this year, we will be consulting on the online advertising programme, which is considering all options, including legislation, to tackle paid-for advertising online. Meanwhile, the draft online safety Bill, which is currently in prelegislative scrutiny, will address fraudulent user-generated content.

Paid-for scam adverts are rife online, and it is not unusual for people to lose their entire life savings to them. The Prime Minister told the Liaison Committee in July that

“one of the key objectives of the Online Safety Bill is to tackle online fraud,”

but the Bill as drafted does not cover paid-for scam adverts at all. I am pleased that the prelegislative scrutiny Committee is going to take a look at this, but will the Minister review the Department’s currently indefensible position? We cannot wait years for the other process that he referred to to work its way through the system.

The right hon. Gentleman is right to raise a hugely important issue. I and this Government share his impatience to tackle it, but that is why we are talking, through the online advertising programme, about looking at every single option, whether it is to tackle user-generated content through one mechanism or, potentially, advertising through another. It is about getting that combination of measures right so that we can achieve the maximum possible effect.

May I, through the Minister, pass on my congratulations to the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Ms Dorries), on her appointment?

In line with the whole issue of fraudulent adverts, there is also the big issue of the appalling behaviour of gambling companies and their advertising, which causes huge problems and addiction for many young people. May I, through the Minister, ask the new Secretary of State whether she would take a meeting with families bereaved as a result of gambling addiction?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that terrible scourge. I am happy to tell him that my hon. Friend the Secretary of State would be delighted to take the meeting he suggests.

May I, too, extend a warm welcome to the new Secretary of State and the new Minister? I hope that, as Digital Secretary, she has changed her parliamentary password.

Online fraud is a growing goldmine for fraudsters and online child abuse is a growing goldmine for paedophiles. Latest figures from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the Internet Watch Foundation show a 70% increase in sexual communication offences with children, and a 77% increase in self-generated child sexual abuse material. Why are the Government still stubbornly and inexplicably refusing Labour’s call and the NSPCC’s call for the immediate implementation in the online safety Bill of personal criminal liability for senior tech executives whose actions consistently and significantly put children at risk? We already have such a legal regime that works in financial services and in health and safety. There must be a compelling reason why the Government refuse to do the same to protect our children online. Can the Minister tell us what it is?

As the hon. Lady knows, the Bill is going through the pre-legislative scrutiny process. We are entirely aware of the issues she raises. The aim of the Bill and the aim of the Government’s approach will always be to take the most effective attitude to tackling them. As the Bill goes through that process, we will of course continue to look at all the options, but our priority will be the effectiveness of the legislation. A mechanism may well work well in other industries, but that does not necessarily mean we should copy and paste it into another.

Youth Investment Fund

As I am sure the hon. Member would agree, youth services play a vital role in supporting young people, and the £500 million youth investment fund remains a manifesto commitment. It builds on more than £12 billion given this year to local authorities, who have the statutory duty to allocate funding to youth services in line with their local needs. Detailed plans for the fund are subject to the 2021 spending review, which, as she knows, will be coming later in October.

Will the Minister join me in welcoming the innovation and expansion we have seen in the Scouts this week with the launch of the Squirrels, which will open up Scouting opportunities for four and five-year-olds? The sector is hugely innovative, but it is also really struggling financially. It has been two years since the £500 million youth investment fund was announced, but not a penny has been spent. Can the Minister tell the sector when it can expect that money to come forward, or whether the Government have raided our children’s piggy banks?

We all, I am sure, have Scout troops in our constituencies to which we would pay tribute, and the expansion is hugely welcome. I am afraid, as I said in my answer, that the detailed plans for the fund are subject to the 2021 spending review. I look forward to being able to talk more about those plans after the spending review.

Musicians: Touring the EU

5. What progress the Government have made on supporting touring musicians to continue to work in Europe following the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. (903480)

12. What support her Department is providing to help touring musicians to work in Europe following the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. (903491)

Ministers, officials and diplomats have been speaking to EU member states to establish arrangements for touring musicians and other artists. I can confirm that at least 19 out of 27 member states allow some visa and permit-free touring. We are continuing to engage with the remaining member states to encourage them to align requirements more closely with our own.

The reality is that there has been limited progress on this matter. South Shields is home to many independent musicians, who used to be able to showcase their talents right across Europe. The cost and bureaucracy involved now prohibits them from doing so. Carry on Touring has written to the Minister with a solution: a pan-European EU visa and work permit waiver. Will she please ask the new Secretary of State to use her first day to implement it?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question; I had a wonderful break up in the north-east and enjoyed her constituency over the summer. I will be happy to ask the Secretary of State to look at that proposal, but we put forward, as part of the EU negotiations, a very fair proposal to our EU member state counterparts, which, unfortunately, they rejected. I know that my former Cabinet Office colleague, the right hon. Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) did a lot of work in this area as well. There has been a lot of engagement at ministerial level with our counterparts and we intend to continue that work, because we know that this is an important issue and a frustration not just for some of the major touring artists but, more importantly, for some of the smaller groups who may not have the financial funds to be able to negotiate some of the complexities in this area.

North East Fife is home to, among others, StAnza festival and East Neuk festival, where local artists can share their work and experience with performers from Europe and beyond, but clearly—I agree with the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck)—sufficient steps are not being taken. Bureaucracy is stifling this industry. What other steps can the Minister take to ensure that we get people out to Europe and performing?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. As I mentioned, there have been intensive negotiations at a ministerial level with our EU counterparts and a lot of progress has been made. As I mentioned in my opening reply, we now have agreements with 19 of the 27 members states that allow visa and permit-free touring, but we want to make more progress because we know this is a very important issue for musicians and artists across the country.

We welcome all the new Ministers, but I want to be clear on this issue: the Minister said in response to those questions that extensive efforts are being made, yet on 4 August when the Department published a statement describing the situation, the industry was clear that nothing has changed. Will she refer to that 4 August statement on touring and tell me, since the original Brexit deal was signed, exactly what has changed?

I thank the hon. Lady for her passion, and we share that intensity of desire to get this issue sorted for UK musicians. The challenge is our desire to secure the same freedoms for our musicians in the EU that EU musicians are allowed when they come over to the UK. It is a shame, because the quality of musicianship in our country is second to none, so in a sense EU member states are missing out if they continue not to provide the freedoms that we provide to their artists. We will continue our intensive negotiations, but we have to accept that this is not in our control. We put forward a very fair and sensible deal to our EU counterparts and it is for them to agree the same freedoms that we grant them.

Covid-19: Live Events Sector

6. What steps her Department is taking to help the live events sector to return and recover from the covid-19 outbreak. (903481)

In July, we removed all restrictions, enabling audiences to return to live events. In August, the Government announced a live events reinsurance scheme worth £750 million, which will instil confidence and support events previously unable to obtain covid-19 cancellation insurance. DCMS has continued to support the events sector throughout the pandemic, including through the £2 billion culture recovery fund.

I warmly welcome the new Secretary of State. The live music sector has had an enormously challenging 18 months. Although I strongly welcome Government interventions such as the culture recovery fund and the live events reinsurance scheme, VAT on tickets for live events is set to double by the end of this month. As we all know, live music is not only essential to our economy, but plays a vital role in bringing us together after so many months of lockdown. As live events return, will the Government consider a permanent extension of VAT relief on music tickets to aid the sector’s recovery and to ensure that the show can go on?

I assure my hon. Friend that I will be working closely with the Chancellor to discuss the support required for the live events sector. The 5% rate on VAT for event tickets has been extended until 30 September 2021, when the 12.5% reduced rate will be introduced until March 2022. We have already provided £21 million to festivals and £2.5 million to grassroots music venues through the culture recovery fund, and our reinsurance scheme is designed to support the continuation of live events.

Has the Secretary of State any information on the take-up of that reinsurance scheme? Some promoters have said it is so inadequate, and covers such specific circumstances, that there is almost no point in taking it out. Was it always the Government’s intention to design a scheme in such a way that they could claim to be acting, while being safe in the knowledge that the scheme would not actually be used?

At this stage in my appointment, I am afraid I cannot give the hon. Gentleman an exact figure for the take-up, but I will write to him.

Tourism Industry

The Government have already provided more than £35 billion for the tourism, leisure and hospitality sectors in the form of grants, loans and tax breaks throughout the pandemic. When I last spoke to the House about this, the figure was £25 billion, so there has been a considerable increase since then. As our tourism recovery plan makes clear, we will continue to support the sector’s return to pre-pandemic levels and beyond, hopefully well ahead of independent forecasts. For example, the £10 million national lottery days out campaign, to be launched next month, will stimulate demand for more off-season day trips to tourist sites across the UK this autumn and winter.

Tourism and hospitality has often been viewed as a Cinderella industry, but we know, particularly after covid-19, how vital it is not only to local economies such as mine in Hastings and Rye—of which it represents more than 30%—but to the UK economy, and also what a wide range of opportunities it offers globally. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to encourage people, particularly the young, to choose this industry as a fantastic career path?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this topic. I know that she is passionate about the sector, having visited her fantastic constituency on a beautiful sunny day in June this year.

We recognise the importance of recovering from the pandemic with a more resilient tourism industry that will offer exciting, good-quality, well-paid jobs to young people as well as long-term careers for everyone, throughout the country. We work closely with the Tourism Industry Council to ensure that the sector is signposted to key Government initiatives such as the £2.5 billion national skills fund and the UK-wide kickstart scheme.

I thank the Minister for all the help that he has given us over the recent period. In my constituency, tourism is a key marker for economic growth, jobs, wages and so forth. May I ask the Minister what has been done in co-operation and partnership with the Northern Ireland Assembly, and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment in particular, to ensure that we all benefit in this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—always better together?

I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. I had the privilege of visiting Northern Ireland this summer, and saw many tourist attractions there. We work very co-operatively with our colleagues in Northern Ireland, including, obviously, Members in this House, who I know talk passionately—as the hon. Gentleman does—about tourism and the value of tourism. Obviously, the tourism recovery plan has implications for the whole United Kingdom, although some elements are devolved, but we work closely with our Northern Ireland colleagues, and there is Northern Ireland representation on the Tourism Industry Council. They contribute significantly, and I hope that positive relationship continues.

I thank the Minister for all he has been doing over the last 18 months to support the sector, and for meeting hoteliers in my constituency this week. He will recall that, despite Cornwall’s having the busiest summer it has ever had, many hotels were operating at less than capacity because of the lack of availability of staff. As he will understand, one of the issues is accommodation, and the current limit of £58 that staff are allowed to offset on accommodation provided by their employer. Will he commit to work with me to get that figure reviewed, so that we can have a more workable solution for the future?

I thank my hon. Friend for his continued passion and support for the sector throughout the country, let alone in his own fantastic constituency, which I have also had the pleasure of visiting. Perhaps I have travelled a bit too much, although I am sure there is no such thing.

This issue was indeed raised by my hon. Friend’s constituents during the conversation that we had earlier this week, and they provided some compelling information. I make the commitment to him and his constituents that we will look very carefully at the issues raised, and that I will work across Departments to see what solutions can be found.

Public Service Broadcasting

Public service broadcasting remains critical to the UK’s media landscape, and the Government are committed to ensuring that it continues to thrive. We will present proposals in the form of a broadcasting White Paper to update the existing public service broadcasting framework later this year.

I admit I was hoping that the Secretary of State would answer this question so that I could say “from one red to another”, although maybe not in the full range of meaning of that term. I am the secretary of the National Union of Journalists parliamentary group. NUJ members are concerned about the future of public broadcasting, because of the sale of Channel 4, because of the 25% cut that has already been incurred at the BBC and because of reports that the Government are considering refusing even an inflation-rate increase in the BBC licence fee. Will the Minister meet a delegation from the NUJ parliamentary group to discuss these concerns?

Topical Questions

I want to start by saying how delighted I am to have been appointed Secretary of State at DCMS. This is one of the most important Departments in Government, economically, socially and culturally, and I am determined to ensure that our sectors bounce back stronger than ever from covid. We continue to support them through this stage of the recovery, particularly through our £750 million events insurance scheme. London Fashion Week and London Tech Week are back with a bang. The creative and tech industries are British powerhouses, and I am committed to driving them to even greater heights. In the meantime, we have all enjoyed a fabulous summer of sport. It started with the Euros final, followed by incredible success at the Olympics and the Paralympics, and it was topped off by Emma Raducanu’s wonderful victory on Saturday—the best tennis match I have ever watched. I am sure the whole House will join me in congratulating our fantastic athletes.

Can I express my delight at the arrival of my hon. Friend in Cabinet? She demonstrates that you do not need to be a boring conformist to get on in this world. Returning to the boring conformity, however, I shall put my substantive question to her. What assessment has she made of delegating the decision on what is harmful and what is not harmful to the online platform providers?

The fact is that the Online Safety Bill does not delegate that decision to online platforms. What it does is define the harmful content that companies must address. The Government will set out the categories for those harmful contents later. Companies will need to ensure that children are protected from any content that meets this definition, and that will clearly be directed by Government; it will not be delegated to them.

We know that the new Secretary of State has set out her own views and interpretation of racism online, because she has written about it, so I am sure she will remember what the Prime Minister said about the torrent of online racist abuse against England footballers on 14 July. This is what he said:

“Today we are taking practical steps to ensure that the football banning order regime is changed, so that if a person is guilty of racist online abuse of footballers, they will not be going to the match—no ifs, no buts, no exemptions and no excuses.”—[Official Report, 14 July 2021; Vol. 699, c. 362.]

I am really pleased that the Prime Minister heeded my call to extend banning orders to online racism. Can the Secretary of State tell us exactly what practical steps have been taken to change the football banning order regime since 14 July?

I am afraid that I am going to have to write to the hon. Lady, being new to the job as I am. I will do that immediately.

T3. May I also offer my congratulations to the new Secretary of State? In Eastbourne, the ambition for a mixed augmented reality studio is beginning to take shape. What would this mean? Skilled jobs, an injection into the hospitality sector and keeping us at the forefront of film-making. What support can the sector and MediaBite, the project lead, anticipate from the Government, and will the Minister join me in wishing them well in their endeavour and in their bid to Innovate UK? (903469)

I absolutely join my hon. Friend in endorsing that bid. It is a key ambition of this Government to ensure that augmented reality and all those future technologies are made a reality not just in London and the big cities but across the whole country, so Eastbourne is a real opportunity. I would be happy, for instance, to facilitate a meeting with the BFI or something of that nature in order for her to help to pursue this endeavour.

I would also like to welcome the Secretary of State to her place. I have been glancing at her oeuvre, and now is perhaps not the time to discuss the alarming dumbing down she once identified in the once highbrow artform of panto or, indeed, to ponder her long anti-gay rights voting record. Just as well there are no homosexuals in the arts sector.

Instead, let us continue to focus on Afghanistan. We know the Taliban respect only violent power. They care nothing for culture or heritage. UNESCO is monitoring the evolving situation, focusing on the universal rights to education, freedom of expression and heritage. Does the Secretary of State agree that the women standing up for their rights and national culture in street protests are extraordinarily brave? Will she outline what the UK Government will be doing to protect all those who feel abandoned in Afghanistan, whether they are women, LGBT people or minorities who fear for their lives and futures?

Order. Topical questions are meant to be short and punchy, not big, long questions. If you want to ask a long question, come in earlier, please. We have a very short time.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I thank the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson) for his warm and kind words of welcome.

Of course, we all stand with the women of Afghanistan. I know the hon. Gentleman has been looking through my long tweet history of 20 years, or whenever I first went on Twitter, and he will therefore know that I have repeatedly supported the women of Afghanistan and will continue to do so.

T5. Last year there was full gigabit-capable broadband in just 13% of households in my Eddisbury constituency. Thanks to UK Government initiatives such as the rural voucher scheme, the figure now stands at 47%, but we still have a long way to go, which is why I am launching a survey of the broadband and mobile coverage of my local residents to find out where the notspots are. Will the Minister agree to meet me to assess that survey and to discuss what more can be done to ensure that we get full coverage right across the constituency? (903472)

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the world-leading pace of this country’s broadband roll-out, but we know there is more to do. I would encourage everybody in his constituency to fill in his broadband survey, and I would be very happy to meet him.

T2. The lockdowns during the pandemic have brought into sharp focus the stark digital divide in our country. Despite Government promises, 1.9 million households still do not have internet access, and many more, including in my Slough constituency, rely on expensive pay-as-you-go services. Is it not about time that the Government finally bridged this divide? (903468)

The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the need for affordable broadband and mobile access, which is why this Government have worked with the companies during the pandemic and since to make sure there are social tariffs so that cheaper products are available. Such tariffs are a crucial part of making sure everyone has the access we all need in the 21st century.

T6. D. H. Lawrence is Ashfield’s most famous son, and I thank the Government for the extra funding they supplied last year for the D. H. Lawrence Centre in Eastwood. Will the Secretary of State now back my bid to get a D. H. Lawrence statue in Eastwood to celebrate his life and works? (903473)

That sounds like a very good idea, and I know there are many D. H. Lawrence fans in this House, including my hon. Friend. I should explain that it is not normal practice—in fact, it is very rare—for central Government to fund or get particularly involved in new memorials and statues. Of course, organisations often propose, fund, develop and deliver memorials commemorating a huge variety of events and people at local and sometimes national level. These groups should work with the relevant planning authority and other organisations to identify a suitable site and obtain the necessary planning permissions. I hope his proposal is treated sympathetically.

T4. When last in power, the Taliban destroyed 70% of the artifacts in the National Museum of Afghanistan, including many significant works of Afghanistan’s pre-Islamic history. With academics now facing persecution and libraries and museums under threat of destruction and looting, what steps can the Government take with their international allies to prevent a further cultural genocide? (903470)

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, and we are all alarmed about the situation. We are closely monitoring the situation in Afghanistan and stand ready to provide whatever support we can to help to protect Afghanistan’s rich cultural heritage for future generations. We urge all parties in Afghanistan to protect the cultural heritage of their country, including the museums and cultural institutions.

Warm congratulations to the Secretary of State. It was a big relief to everyone that the Government withdrew their vaccine passport plan but, if we do see the return of vaccine passport ideas or other covid restrictions, please can the Government distinguish between events and conferences, where covid-secure measures and tracing are highly developed, and nightclubs and mass gatherings, where more precautions may be needed? They are very different sorts of venues, and they require different sorts of precautions.

I know that conference venues and organisers have put a huge amount of work into reopening safely, with many already using voluntary certification. I appreciate my right hon. Friend’s huge support in this area. I take her point about the nature of business events; they are more organised and structured than some other events. The Prime Minister announced a range of plan B measures. Further details will be coming out, but I should emphasise that they are plan B. I would be happy to talk further with her.

T7. I join the new Secretary of State in congratulating Emma Raducanu on her historic victory this week; we are at a pivotal moment for women’s sport. I also commend BBC Wales on committing to show Wales’s 2023 FIFA women’s World cup qualifiers on mainstream TV because, as the saying goes, if you can’t see it, you can’t be it—visibility matters. So what commitments can the Secretary of State give to encourage women to participate in all sports, especially at grassroots level? (903474)

I know the hon. Lady’s passion for all things sport. We should probably take the opportunity also to congratulate Alfie Hewett, Gordon Reid and Joe Salisbury on their success last Saturday in the United States. On the point the hon. Lady is raising on women’s sport, I can tell her that that is absolutely a priority of mine and of the Department. W£58e have a women in sport working group, which is very effectively looking at what further actions we can take to promote and support women’s sport. I would be happy to continue talking to her about this and other issues.

Before we begin questions to the Attorney General, may I take a moment to welcome back the Attorney General from maternity leave? May I also thank the stand-in Attorney General, Sir Michael Ellis, for his service while she was away?

Attorney General

The Attorney General was asked—

Financial Crime: Prosecution Rates

Thank you, Mr Speaker. May I take this opportunity to place on the record my gratitude to you, to the Prime Minister and the Government, to Opposition parties, to the whole of Parliament and to the brilliant team at the Attorney General’s office for all of their work, which enabled me to take that precious time with my baby? On behalf of my family, may I say that we are incredibly grateful?

The Crown Prosecution Service and the Serious Fraud Office both play a crucial role in tackling financial crime. In 2020-21, the CPS prosecuted more than 6,500 defendants for fraud and forgery, with a conviction rate of 85.6%, and the SFO secured successful judicial outcomes in 84% of cases over the past four financial years.

It is now estimated that 86% of reported fraud is cyber-related. I am concerned that the CPS, the SFO and Action Fraud need the right skills and sense of urgency to deal with this rising crime, which has devastating effects on people’s lives. Can my right hon. and learned Friend update the House on that?

My hon. Friend rightly highlights the significant increase in cyber-crime. I am particularly interested in the issue, and last year I addressed the Cambridge International Symposium on Economic Crime and outlined that cyber-crime is a key priority for this Government. That is why in March this year the CPS launched its first ever economic crime strategy, to ensure that it remains ahead of the changing nature of this complex crime.

Mobile Phone Data: Criminal Trials

Effective handling of digital information is crucial to ensuring robust disclosure practices and effective trials. Alongside the Home Secretary and the Lord Chancellor, I will be co-hosting a tech event later this year with industry experts to investigate novel approaches to managing mobile device data throughout the criminal justice process. The revised disclosure guidelines that I published earlier this year specifically address technological issues, to assist practitioners in this ever-complex field.

Could my right hon. and learned Friend please explain how mobile phone data is being used to track and capture people smugglers who are sending illegal immigrants over the channel?

My hon. Friend raises an important and concerning issue. People smuggling is a terrible crime that blights the lives of vulnerable people and I welcome all the efforts the Government are making to combat it. The Crown Prosecution Service regularly uses mobile phone data when prosecuting offences under the Immigration Act 2016. Phone metadata can identify the location at which the phone was used, while the information content can identify details of the offence, or even wider offences. The CPS is highly cognisant of the effective use of mobile data, where available, to pursue effective prosecutions.

Effective and Accountable Justice

3. What steps she is taking with the Secretary of State for Justice to ensure an effective and accountable criminal justice system. (903458)

Together with colleagues in the Home Office, the Crown Prosecution Service and the Ministry of Justice, we have developed a criminal justice action plan to drive system recovery as we rebuild after the pandemic. Progress against the action plan will be measured by a set of criminal justice scorecards, which will be published quarterly from this autumn. This approach will enable a cross-system response to dips in performance and hold each part of the system accountable for improvement.

As a former Scottish Justice Secretary, I am well aware of Scotland’s distinct legal jurisdiction, but broadcasting and human rights are reserved responsibilities. Craig Murray, a Scottish journalist, has been jailed for eight months without appeal. Is the Attorney General able to make any representations to ensure that the European convention on human rights and other protocols are followed when they apply to such rights and powers?

We must ensure that all journalists have the right to express themselves and work in a free society. We are incredibly proud of that tradition in this country and our human rights regime rightly protects freedom of expression. I am happy to discuss this vital matter further with the hon. Gentleman.

I welcome the Attorney General back to her place. I am sure she will agree that it is also right to pay particular tribute to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis) for the way in which he discharged his duties as the Attorney General to the very high standards and with the impartiality of that office—it could not have been done better.

Does the Attorney General agree that for an effective system it is important that we have not only a fully joined-up plan but effective funding for all parts of the justice system? What steps is she taking to ensure a joint approach to getting the best possible outcome for the Law Officers’ Department, the CPS and the Ministry of Justice in the coming spending review?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the need for resources as we rebuild after the pandemic. We need to ensure that the court backlog, which we all accept exists, is dealt with. That is why we have been working across Government, with the sector and with local bodies to ensure that comprehensive support is available for victims and witnesses. After all, it is victims for whom we are here and for whom we need to fight.

I welcome the Attorney General back to her place—it is good to see her—and thank the right hon. and learned Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis) for all his work during her maternity leave.

The court backlog is at a record high, with victims waiting years for their day in court. The latest Government data reveals that in the year ending March 2021, a staggering 1 million victims of crime abandoned their case because they lost faith in the justice system. The CPS budget has been cut by 33% in real terms over the past decade. Ahead of the comprehensive spending review, what specifically will the Attorney General say to the Treasury? What does she say specifically to the millions of victims who have lost faith in the system?

As I say, we accept that there is a court backlog, and it is a priority for this Government as we build back from the pandemic. The CPS has implemented a number of changes, with cross-system partners, to assist the criminal justice system in its response to covid. I was pleased that the independent inspectorate praised the CPS response to the pandemic. The CPS has recently introduced specific measures to accelerate its management of cases in the context of the pandemic.

The Chancellor has been clear that there will need to be tough choices as we come out of the pandemic. The public expect us to deliver the highest-quality services at the best value, ensuring that every pound is well spent. The CPS has received funding uplifts in the past three spending rounds, including £85 million to allow it to recruit more than 350 new prosecutors to boost capacity and support court recovery.

I have listened to what the Attorney General has said, but say to her that the criminal justice system is on its knees. In rape cases, 44% of victims are pulling out before their case gets to court. The latest Crown Prosecution Service data shows that it would take the Government 22 years to reach their own target of returning to 2016 rape prosecution levels—22 years! It is absolutely not good enough, and we see this Government repeatedly fail rape victims. Will the Attorney General tell me what she plans to do to ensure that the Government meet their target, or will she sit on her hands and oversee the further decriminalisation of rape?

The assertion that there has been a decriminalisation of rape is simply not backed up by the facts and is a very damaging narrative to proffer. It is very important that we recognise that, yes, there have been delays in the system, and I recognise how distressing those delays are. I want to reassure the hon. Lady that progress is being made to boost court capacity and to enable cases to continue to flow through the system. That includes harnessing technology, such as the cloud video platform, making use of the Nightingale courts and exploring the use of extended operating hours in court. The special measure allowing vulnerable victims, including rape victims and those who are witnesses in those cases, to pre-record their cross-examination evidence to reduce waiting times, which is under section 28, has been rapidly rolled out to cover all 82 Crown courts as of 23 November last year, and the CPS was a key partner in ensuring that that roll-out went smoothly.

I welcome the Attorney General back to her place and wish her growing family all the very best.

Does the Attorney General agree that any effective criminal justice system must ensure that cases are brought in a timely manner? Will she join me in welcoming the £50 million announced by the Scottish Government to clear the court backlog, and outline any advice that she has given to her Cabinet colleagues to ensure that victims can access effective and prompt justice through the court system?

There has been a real focus on dealing with the backlog and ensuring a better flow of cases right from reporting at the police station through to conviction. That was most pertinently highlighted in the recent rape review published by this Government with a particular focus on those victims. There have been a huge number of changes implemented by the CPS with cross-system partners to assist the criminal justice response to covid. As I have mentioned, it includes the interim charging protocol, which is designed to be clear that the high-harm crimes and covid-related crimes, such as spitting and assaults on essential workers, are prioritised. That will be and has been an effective step forward in dealing with the backlog.

Understanding of the Law

4. What steps the Government are taking to increase public understanding of the law among young people. (903460)

It is vital that children of all ages learn about our famous legal system. My office works very closely with the Department for Education to ensure that the curriculum covers a full range of important legal concepts, including fundamental rights and criminal law. My office also works very closely with members of the pro bono and public legal education committees, who run programmes to engage and educate young people about the law outside the curriculum.

Our legal system is the cornerstone of our society, so does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that we need to work with not just with schools but voluntary organisations to make sure that young people understand not just the law and our legal process, but Parliament’s role in forming the law?

My hon. Friend has put it very well. Understanding the law is vital for young people. To that end, I wholeheartedly support pro bono work as part of education and a way in which students can support their communities to understand the law, their rights and what is required of them. When I was both training for and practising at the self-employed Bar, I undertook pro bono work and also volunteered for the free representation unit. I encourage all practitioners, young and older, to maintain that very proud tradition of the Bar.

In 1975, a 17-year-old young man died while on Army training. He was a recent recruit. The family have never believed the account of his death given by the Ministry of Defence. In 1998, my predecessor wrote to the then Attorney General about the case. Now it appears that new evidence has come forward. Will the Attorney General meet me and some of the family members to discuss this, in their pursuit of the truth?

I send my condolences to the family, and applaud the hon. Lady’s campaigning and work on the issue. I do not know about the case other than what she has just told me, but I am very happy to meet her to discuss it further.

Covid-19: Criminal Justice System

5. What steps the Government are taking to support the recovery of the criminal justice system since the easing of covid-19 restrictions. (903462)

I frequently meet criminal justice partners to discuss the important issue of criminal justice capacity since the covid-19 restrictions have been eased. The covid outbreak has been felt keenly by the criminal justice system. I have been proud of the resilience that the criminal justice agencies have demonstrated. There is still more to do, but both the Crown Prosecution Service and the Serious Fraud Office have been commended for their efforts during this difficult time, and I thank them for continuing to support the delivery of justice.

I support the Government’s efforts to address the recovery, and pay tribute to all those working hard across the country to make this happen, but can my right hon. and learned Friend tell me how victims are being supported so that they do not drop out of the criminal justice process due to the time lag?

I regularly meet the Director of Public Prosecutions and CPS teams around the country. I was pleased to meet CPS South West last year to learn more about its case progression and response to the pandemic. In February this year, the Government announced an additional £40 million to support victims of crime during the pandemic and beyond. Throughout this period, almost £600,000 of funding has been made available to assist helpline services, and £3 million per annum until 2022 has been committed to independent sexual violence advisers. That is a reflection of the comprehensive package of support put forward by this Government to help to build back better after the pandemic.

Refugee Rights: International Law

8. What recent assessment she has made of the compatibility of the Government’s proposals on asylum with (a) the UN’s convention on the status of refugees and (b) the rule of law. (903466)

Any request for my advice is subject to the Law Officers’ convention, but I must make it clear that the UK prides itself on its leadership within the international system and discharges its international obligations in good faith. We have a proud history of providing protection to those who need it, in accordance with our international obligations. The Home Office’s new plan for immigration is based on fairness, and the Government stand by our moral and legal obligations to help innocent civilians fleeing cruelty from all over the world.

Speaking in the House on Tuesday of the Home Secretary’s plan literally to push back migrant children and their parents arriving by boats in the channel, the now former Justice Secretary, the right hon. and learned Member for South Swindon (Robert Buckland), said that these actions would not even

“come close to breaking international law”—[Official Report, 14 September 2021; Vol. 700, c. 799.]

Given the number of leading UK legal experts with no axe to grind who say the absolute opposite, can the Attorney General at least reassure the House that she has not advised the Home Secretary that pushback plans would be either legal or moral?

The Government are committed to addressing the unacceptable rise in dangerous and unnecessary small boat crossings, and are continuing to explore all options available to bring the numbers down. Our primary focus is on preventing people from entering the channel, tackling the criminal gangs responsible and protecting lives. As part of the Home Office’s ongoing operational response, it will continue to evaluate and test a range of safe and legal options for stopping small boats.

Unduly Lenient Sentences

7. What recent comparative assessment she has made of the annual performance of the unduly lenient sentence scheme. (903464)

In 2020 my office received, and as the Law Officers we reviewed, 552 referrals under the unduly lenient sentence scheme. Ninety-seven of those were referred to the Court of Appeal and 61 sentences were increased. In February, I was proud to present in the Court of Appeal a case in which the victim was raped while in a relationship, and I was successful in increasing the defendant’s sentence. It is important that victims report these crimes and that justice is seen to be done.

Last month Cleveland police’s former head of corporate communications, Mr Green, pleaded guilty to making indecent images of children. The district judge gave Mr Green a sentence that involved no jail time and a community order lasting just 24 months. That strikes me as an unduly lenient sentence in any case, but given the position of trust he held in his senior role in Cleveland police, I believe that the case must be reviewed. Will the Attorney General review Mr Green’s sentence and ensure that justice is heard for the victims of his crime?

I thank my hon. Friend for his tireless work on behalf of those who have been affected by cases of this nature. This case was brought to my attention by Steve Turner, the Cleveland police and crime commissioner. As my hon. Friend will be aware, I can only review sentences that fall within the unduly lenient sentence scheme, and as this case was heard at the magistrates court it is ineligible.

AUKUS

With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement about our friendship with Australia and the United States, and the security of the Indo-Pacific.

Yesterday I joined President Biden and Prime Minister Morrison to create a new trilateral defence partnership between our countries known as AUKUS. Australia has, for the first time, taken the momentous decision to acquire a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines, and it has asked for our help in achieving this ambition. I am delighted to tell the House that we have agreed to this request and we shall place the UK’s expertise in this field, amassed over decades, at the assistance of our Australian friends. The first task of AUKUS will be an 18-month trilateral collaboration to determine the best way of delivering advanced nuclear submarines for Australia—emphasising, of course, that they will be powered by nuclear reactors, not armed with nuclear weapons, so the nuclear non-proliferation treaty places no prohibition on that work. The House will understand how Australia’s future possession of that capability will help safeguard the peace and security of the Indo-Pacific.

Nuclear submarines are the capital ships of our age, propelled by an effectively inexhaustible source of energy, allowing them to circumnavigate the world without surfacing, deriving oxygen and fresh water from the sea around them. While on patrol, they keep silent watch over vast expanses of ocean, protecting shipping, gathering intelligence, deterring adversaries, and guarding the trade routes on which our livelihoods depend.

To design, build, operate and then safely decommission a nuclear submarine ranks among the most complex and technically demanding enterprises yet devised. Only six nations possess nuclear-powered submarines, and to help another country join this tiny circle is a decision of the utmost gravity, requiring perhaps the closest relationship of trust that can exist between sovereign states. I hope that I speak for the House when I say that I have no hesitation about trusting Australia, a fellow maritime democracy, joined to us by blood and history, which stood by Britain through two world wars at immense sacrifice.

Today, the UK and Australia defend the same interests, promote the same values and face the same threats: we are as closely aligned in international policy as any two countries in the world. One of the great prizes of this enterprise is that Australia, the UK and the US will become inseparable partners in a project that will last for decades, creating opportunities for still greater defence and industrial co-operation.

The integrated review of foreign and defence policy described Britain’s renewed focus on the Indo-Pacific, a region that is fast becoming the geopolitical centre of the world, and ever more important for British trade and therefore British jobs and British livelihoods. If there were ever any question about what global Britain’s tilt towards the Indo-Pacific would mean in reality, or what capabilities we might offer, this partnership with Australia and the US provides the answer. It amounts to a new pillar of our strategy, demonstrating Britain’s generational commitment to the security of the Indo-Pacific and showing exactly how we can help one of our oldest friends to preserve regional stability. It comes after the UK’s success in becoming a dialogue partner of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and our application to join the trans-Pacific free trade area.

At the same time, this project will create hundreds of highly skilled jobs across the UK, including in Scotland, the north of England and the midlands, reinforcing our industrial base and our national scientific expertise, exemplified by the British companies participating in this week’s Defence and Security Equipment International event.

A nuclear submarine programme exists within a different realm of engineering from any other marine project, requiring a mastery of disciplines ranging from propulsion to acoustics. In these fields and many others, we will have a new opportunity to strengthen Britain’s position as a science and technology superpower, and by generating economies of scale, this project could reduce the cost of the next generation of nuclear submarines for the Royal Navy, helping us to renew our own capabilities.

While our partnership will begin with nuclear-powered submarines, now that we have created AUKUS, we expect to accelerate the development of other advanced defence systems, including in cyber, artificial intelligence, quantum computing and undersea capabilities. This partnership will open a new chapter in Britain’s friendship with our closest allies, help to safeguard the security of the Indo-Pacific, create jobs at home and reinforce our country’s place at the leading edge of technology. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Prime Minister for an advance copy of his statement. The recent events in Afghanistan show us how precarious international stability can be. New challenges can emerge and issues in faraway corners of the globe can quickly turn into threats at home, so Labour welcomes increased co-operation with our allies. Australia and America are two of our closest security partners. Sharing resources and intelligence with them and enhancing capabilities makes them safer, makes Britain safer, and makes the world safer.

The lesson of the past few weeks is that Britain must look after our most important relationships, or our influence and security quickly decline. Labour welcomes this announcement, but may I ask the Prime Minister to outline in a bit more detail what the agreement means in practice? The strategic review identified China as a “systemic competitor”. China’s assertiveness does pose risks to UK interests in a secure Pacific region, in stable trading environments and in democracy and human rights. We need to deal with those risks, defend our values and defend our interests, but the same review also rightly stated that the UK must maintain a commercial relationship with China, and we must work with them on the defining global issues of the day, such as climate change and pandemic preparedness. Without diplomatic strategy and skill, those goals will come into conflict. So what plan does the Prime Minister have to ensure that this new arrangement increases, rather than decreases our ability to influence China?

In order to protect our security and interests, we also need to look after our broader alliances. NATO remains our most important strategic alliance. It is also the most successful, having delivered peace and security in Europe for three quarters of a century. Whatever the merits of an Indo-Pacific tilt, maintaining security in Europe must remain our primary objective. Will the Prime Minister guarantee that the arrangement will not see resources redirected from Europe and the high north to the Pacific? Will he also guarantee that the arrangement will strengthen rather than weaken the NATO alliance, including our indispensable bilateral relationship with France? We are also in the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing arrangements with Canada, New Zealand, Australia and the US, which is vital to our security. Will the Prime Minister assure the House that this new trilateral arrangement will not weaken our intelligence capabilities by producing a two-tier Five Eyes operation?

Finally, the arrangement clearly brings potential economic opportunities for Britain. We need the well-paid, high-skilled jobs that the defence industry provides in every corner of Britain. The Prime Minister said that the project will create hundreds of skilled jobs. Will he give more detail on what he has done to ensure that Britain gets its fair share of any contracts that come out of the arrangements? What will he do to ensure that no region or nation in Britain misses out on any job opportunities that the arrangement may bring?

I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for welcoming the statement and AUKUS. I will answer some of the detailed points that he made.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman began by asking whether AUKUS was in any sense adversarial to China and how we will manage the relationship with China. It is important for the House to understand that it is not intended to be adversarial towards any other power; it merely reflects how the close relationship that we have with the United States and Australia, the shared values that we have and the sheer level of trust between us enables us to go to the extraordinary extent of sharing nuclear technology in the way in which we propose. Obviously, we also have a shared interest in promoting democracy, human rights, freedom of navigation and freedom of trade around the world, which are values and perspectives that I hope the whole House will support.

On the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s point about NATO, the House should be in no doubt that the Government’s commitment to NATO is absolutely unshakeable and indeed has been strengthened by the massive commitments that we have made. With the biggest uplift in defence spending since the cold war—£24 billion—2.2% of our GDP now goes on defence spending. He rightly raises the question of our military relationship with France, which, again, is rock-solid. We stand shoulder to shoulder with the French, whether in the Sahel, where we are running a joint operation against terrorists in Mali, or in Estonia, where we have the largest NATO operation.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman asked reasonably about the jobs that this great project will unquestionably produce. What I can say is that there will be an 18-month scoping exercise to establish where the work should go between the three partners, but clearly there are deep pools of expertise throughout the United Kingdom, whether in Derby, Plymouth, Scotland or Barrow. I have no doubt whatever that it will bring hundreds of high-skilled, high-wage jobs of the kind that we want to see, and increasingly are seeing, in our country.

Finally, it is a pleasure to hear the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s change of heart about NATO—I had to say this, Mr Speaker, pain me though it does—after he only recently campaigned to install a Prime Minister who wanted us to withdraw from NATO.

We must work with but stand up to China. This is about a more co-ordinated, long-term strategy in challenging China’s increasing, hostile dominance in the South China sea. But as the Prime Minister says, it is also a reminder of how we must work with alliances and rekindle an appetite to robustly defend international standards, so we cannot gloss over how bruised NATO now feels after the withdrawal from Afghanistan. I hope the Prime Minister would agree that there is an opportunity for Britain to help shape western thinking and reinvigorate international resolve in what we stand for and are willing to defend. Would he agree today that this initiative is in response to the increasing, constant competition that we now face? I hope he now recognises that our peacetime defence budget is no longer adequate, and we will soon need to increase it to 3% of GDP if we are to contain the threats that now we face.

I thank my right hon. Friend very much. The increase that we have seen in our defence spending is unparalleled in modern times. It is the biggest uplift since the cold war—£24 billion. I think everybody can see the value of that and the importance of that, and, by the way, it is enabling us to take part in this historic partnership in the way that we are. On his point about our relationship with China, I just want to be clear with the House. Yes, it is true that this a huge increase in the levels of trust between the US, the UK and Australia—it is a fantastic defence technology partnership that we are building—but from the perspective of our friends and partners around the world, it is not actually revolutionary. We already have been co-operating over, for instance, the Collins class submarines in Australia.

Let me begin by thanking the Prime Minister for advance sight of the statement and for the briefing from the National Security Adviser that was arranged last night.

Over the course of the last number of weeks and months, we have all witnessed on the streets of Kabul the devastating consequences of failure when international co-operation falters. Deepening co-operation and advancing agreements with allies that seek to aid stability and security is an important step, especially if past mistakes are never to be repeated, and I welcome this announcement. In particular, the recognition of the growing cyber-threat in this agreement may be overdue but it is none the less welcome. I would hope that the extent of this co-operation on cyber-security can and will be extended to include our other key allies, especially in Europe.

There are a number of points and questions I would like to raise about how this agreement was reached and what has been agreed. First, can the Prime Minister inform us as to what discussions have been held with other NATO allies in advance of this announcement and what interaction there will be with this initiative? Were these allies informed that this agreement was being progressed at the recent G7 summit in Cornwall?

Secondly, on the nuclear agreements, I understand and welcome the fact that the Australian Prime Minister has firmly ruled out any development of any nuclear weaponry, but in terms of future obligations under nuclear non-proliferation treaties, can the Prime Minister give a cast-iron guarantee that this agreement can never be used as a stepping stone to nuclear weaponry if any future Australian Administration were to change this approach?

Finally, on the broader geopolitical positioning that this agreement signals, a number of military experts, including the US Defence Secretary, have previously stated that the resources of allies on the European continent would be better targeted regionally rather than risk being stretched thinly across the Pacific. With all the focus of this agreement on the Indo-Pacific, what risks are there that vigilant eyes are taken off the threats closer to home, specifically from the Putin regime in Moscow, or indeed matching up the UK and the EU strategic interest in shoring up stability and providing the humanitarian assistance that is needed in parts of Africa?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for what I think was a broad welcome of this AUKUS agreement. It is historic and it is good for the whole of the United Kingdom. There is no conflict with NATO; NATO members are obviously fully up to speed with what is happening and this in no way affects the NATO relationships, which are absolutely fundamental for our security. There is also no prospect of its breaking the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, as I informed the House earlier, and no risk at all that it will mean that the United Kingdom or any of our allies take our eye off the ball on the threat from the Putin regime or Russia. The House should therefore understand that this is a defence technology agreement that is very sensible given the huge geopolitical weight now to be found in the Indo-Pacific region; the economic growth in that area is phenomenal and the security issues there are very important for our country—such as in the maintenance of trade flows—and that is why it is vital that we take part in this agreement.

My right hon. Friend said yesterday that this partnership has

“the aim of working hand in glove to preserve security and stability in the Indo-Pacific.”

What are the implications of this pact for the stance and response the United Kingdom would take should China attempt to invade Taiwan?

The United Kingdom remains determined to defend international law, and that is the strong advice we would give to our friends across the world and the strong advice we would give to the Government in Beijing.

I warmly welcome this agreement on nuclear technology co-operation with Australia, but what steps are being taken to develop defence partnership and technology agreements with other countries such as India, Japan, South Korea and Singapore, who have a lot to offer in terms of technology that we could gain from for our own defence?

The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and we are currently developing partnerships around the world including in the Indo-Pacific region. For instance, we may wish to develop the future combat air system—FCAS—with our Japanese friends.

This par is enormously welcome because it makes us safer in an area of the world where there are particular challenges to our ability to trade, secure our interests and protect our allies. Those who serve on our submarines do mission-critical work, but because they are our silent protectors they are often forgotten. So will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking them because they keep us safe every hour of every day, and will he confirm this is the first step towards further upgrading our presence in the Indo-Pacific?

I pay tribute to our submariners, who have had a particularly difficult time during covid, when the necessity of protecting submarines has been particularly acute. My hon. Friend makes a good point about the further steps we can take now within the context of AUKUS; this is just the beginning of collaboration on defence technology. I have mentioned some of the areas in which we now wish to go further such as cyber, AI and undersea defences; there are many areas now where countries with shared values and a shared belief in democracy will want to take collaboration much further.

As consistent internationalists, Liberal Democrats welcome this enhanced co-operation with our Australian allies, especially because it is for our mutual security. Just because the Prime Minister has failed on past occasions to effectively co-operate internationally does not mean we will not give him credit on occasions like this. But further to his answer to the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), in the context of standing up for our national interests against threats from China, Russia or elsewhere will the Prime Minister confirm that the UK is seeking to enhance co-operation with other allies in the Indo-Pacific region such as India, Japan and South Korea, and will he give more detail on that or at least commit to the House to come back with more detail?

What I can tell the House is that, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, the carrier strike group is now in that region, and it has been doing exercises with a total of 40 other countries—friends and partners around the world—from India right the way through to Japan. I am not going to give much more detail now about FCAS, for reasons that I am sure the House will appreciate, but the UK will be developing friendships and partnerships throughout that region, for the very good political, security and economic reasons that I have given the House.

I very much welcome the Prime Minister’s announcement. One of the reasons that some of us have opposed our foreign interventions since 2003 is that we felt they acted as a distraction from many greater dangers around the world, including in Indochina, so this agreement is very welcome. Will the Prime Minister confirm, though, the extent to which jobs and skills in this country will be reinforced, if not enhanced? For example, are the 12 submarines that are presently within the French contract going to be re-bid for?

I do not want to go into the details of the contracts, but the House will understand that what we are doing is seeking, with our American friends and our Australian friends, to help the Royal Australian Navy to acquire the type of nuclear submarines that are appropriate for the current geopolitical situation they find themselves in. I have absolutely no doubt that the skills and expertise that are available in this country—across the whole UK—will be called upon extensively to fulfil that objective.

It is important that we maintain a diplomatic dialogue with China. Without it, solving some of the world’s greatest challenges, such as climate change, will not be achievable. Will the Prime Minister tell the House what is being done to increase our influence with China, and what impact this alliance might have on COP26 negotiations later in the year?

I can tell the hon. Lady that the President-designate of COP, my right hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma), was in Beijing recently and had very productive conversations with his Chinese counterparts. We are hopeful that China will be able to go even further than its current commitment to get to net zero by 2060. We are hoping that we will see a very productive commitment from China.

I welcome the news of this partnership. Will the Prime Minister look at using it to drive forward closer working with our allies towards a more secure and resilient supply chain for digital technology so that we can be less reliant on countries such as China, which the Government have quite rightly identified as a competitor in this space?

Yes, and the opportunities are boundless. We are building on firm foundations. It is 50 years since the five power defence arrangements, the oldest defence agreement in the Pacific, which colleagues will know involves Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand and the UK. There are already structures in that region. AUKUS adds a new structure and a deeply intensified level of co-operation, on a scale that has not been seen before.

I warmly welcome the deepening of our defence and security relationships with our long-standing friends and allies, Australia and the United States, and the bipartisan support for that, not only here but in Australia. At its base, must not this agreement ultimately also be part of the defence not only of our interests but of the rules-based international order, democracy and human rights, and an alliance of democracies? Does the Prime Minister accept that foreign aid soft power is an important component of that too?

Yes, it certainly is. That is why I think the UK can be very proud of the massive commitments that we make—£10 billion this year alone in official development assistance spending. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that this enhanced defence agreement between the UK, Australia and the US is founded on shared values.

Does the Prime Minister agree that this new partnership with Australia, which builds on the recently announced trade deal that will boost jobs and businesses across the country, including the east midlands, shows the huge opportunities available to global Britain as we look beyond our friends and allies in Europe to become a truly global power on the world stage?

Yes, I think is the short answer to that superb question. [Laughter.] I really do not think I could have put it better myself.

The recognition that cyber-warfare is as much a part of modern conflict as troops on the ground is reassuring, but the statement was a bit light on mentions of industrialised weaponised misinformation which has caused so much damage over recent years. What reassurance can the Prime Minister give that cyber-troops based here and in hostile states will be high on the AUKUS agenda?

The Five Eyes partnership is also of huge importance. We share intelligence on a very, very free basis with our Five Eyes friends, but cyber, AI and so on will now be progressed within the AUKUS context as well.

Will the Prime Minister accept the thanks of the House for deepening collaboration with some of our oldest allies and putting flesh on the bones of global Britain? In that vein, will he join me in welcoming to London Mohamed bin Zayed to not only deepen further links, but unleash economic benefits as well as tackling issues such as defence, climate change and regional instability?

Yes. I will indeed be seeing Mohamed bin Zayed very shortly—in fact, just after I leave the House today. I think I am right in saying—my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will correct me—that our relationship with the Gulf States is our single fastest growing market.

Maintaining and strengthening our alliances is now more important than ever. I welcome today’s announcement, but can the Prime Minister answer the question posed by the Leader of the Opposition, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), which was how this trilateral agreement sits with our Five Eyes relationships, and whether it will strengthen them and not weaken them?

It sits within the Five Eyes arrangement. The Five Eyes arrangement obviously comprises Canada and New Zealand as well. They, for various reasons, are not part of this very greatly intensified technological partnership. The Five Eyes intelligence-sharing partnership is of absolutely huge value to the security of the western world. It remains one of the pillars of our strategic defence.

In welcoming AUKUS, which is a fantastic opportunity for new jobs and development to come to the north-west of England, does my right hon. Friend agree that it also dovetails nicely with our ambitions towards the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership, and shows our intent towards a stronger presence in our tilt towards the Indo-Pacific?

Yes. The whole Indo-Pacific tilt, of which this is a part, is a recognition of the fact that the CPTPP area my hon. Friend talks about is a £9 trillion trade area in which the UK has an increasing diplomatic and commercial presence.

I welcome the statement. China’s assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region can be destabilising, particularly in the South China sea. What support will be given to Taiwan at this difficult time?

We vindicate international law. One of the reasons we have sent the carrier strike group to that part of the world is to make that point.

Does the Prime Minister agree that this new partnership is an absolutely golden opportunity for jobs across the country, including at home in the midlands? It not only gives people the opportunity to defend our shared interests and values across the world, but the opportunity of a high-skilled job and the security of a pay packet.

Yes, that is exactly right, and I thank my hon. Friend. The UK leads the world in some of these technologies. The factories, plants, ports and docks that make this stuff are distributed across the United Kingdom. There are opportunities for high-wage, high-skilled jobs that will last a generation and more.

The human rights atrocities against the Uyghur people in China have yet to abate. They continue with such brutality. While co-operation is welcome, how will this new strategy make protecting human rights more possible since escalation of operations can have a chilling impact on diplomacy?

I think it is very important that we continue to engage with our Chinese partners, but to engage very firmly on the points that we care about, whether it is human rights in Hong Kong, democracy in Hong Kong or the treatment of the Uyghurs. The UK, as the hon. Lady knows, has imposed sanctions on those who exploit forced labour in Xinjiang and taken many other steps besides.

For 60 years, we have been manufacturing nuclear submarines and we are a world leader. I can confirm that this is a great Union story, with the supply chain even finding its way to the landlocked Montgomeryshire in the middle of Wales. May I ask the Prime Minister to confirm that, while, of course, the security and the safety of the world is foremost, this will be great for jobs across the United Kingdom?

I can certainly assure my hon. Friend that this will be great for jobs across the United Kingdom, but as I said, there is an 18-month scoping programme to work out exactly how the labour is going to be divvied up.

I have listened very carefully to the Prime Minister’s statement. He mentioned the new well-paid jobs, which we all welcome, and all countries of the UK, but he did not mention Wales. Will he tell me why Wales has been left out of this jobs fest?

All parts of the United Kingdom, including the great Principality of Wales, will—I have no doubt—benefit from this agreement.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement. It is right, in an ever-changing geopolitical landscape, that we review and, where possible, strengthen our links with like-minded countries around the world. Will he confirm that this new partnership will help us to continue to protect the rules-based international system in the region? I am thinking particularly of Hong Kong.

What this does is allow the three countries that share very close perspectives on human rights, the rule of law, free trade and international shipping to come together and, above all, to uphold our belief in democracy. We do not wish to be adversarial towards any other global power, but we wish to underscore that we work together to uphold those values, whether in our military co-operation or in technological transfer.

The New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, has said that Australia’s new nuclear submarine would not be allowed in its waters due to a nuclear-free policy, yet under this great Union, Trident nuclear submarines are forced on Scotland. Indeed, we recently read that senior MOD officials have been looking at where to base its Trident fleet when Scotland becomes independent. Although France and the US were mentioned, will the Prime Minister confirm that they are not looking at the proposal of an “imperial days of empire” solution of creating a British overseas territory in Scotland?

I think most commonsensical people will welcome the arrival of jobs across the whole of the United Kingdom, particularly in Scotland. By the way, the Type 26 frigate programme, which I have seen being built in Govan, is worth £19.5 billion to this country and, like the nuclear submarine programme, will generate jobs for decades and decades to come. It is a great thing for the whole of the UK.

The Prime Minister will know the glorious tourism, hospitality and history offered by Hastings and Rye, but he may not know that we have some fantastic defence manufacturing and vacuum engineering businesses—a sector that I would like to see growing in Hastings and Rye, because we really need to expand those well-paid jobs. Will he promise to consider those sorts of jobs in Hastings and Rye as we move forward under this amazing partnership?

Absolutely. Of course, Hastings and Rye was the last place in which this island suffered a reversal at the hands of the French, but our relations with the French remain very good. My hon. Friend is certainly right about the benefits that this will bring throughout the UK, including, I hope, Hastings and Rye.

I welcome this development in the light of the strategic challenge posed by an increasingly assertive China, but the Prime Minister will be aware of the sensitivities in relation to the timing of the announcement, given the launch of the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy today. What further reassurance can he provide that the new partnership will not come at the expense of defence co-operation with our European NATO allies?

This is not zero-sum. I have spoken to the House already about the depth of our co-operation with the French—which has a nuclear dimension as well—whether it is in Estonia or in Mali. One of the potential winners from this technological partnership is the French company Talis, which of course has many people working in this country.

I welcome the agreement, which shows the depth of our relationship with one of our oldest and closest allies, but can the Prime Minister confirm that it allows us to expand it into even more areas for the protection of our people and those of our allies?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. AUKUS is a big, big leap forward in terms of trust—agreeing to share nuclear propulsion systems is a giant step—but what this means now is that we will build on that platform to co-operate on cyber, artificial intelligence and all the other types of technology in respect of which it is vital that we stick together.

We welcome co-operation with our allies for mutual security, and we welcome co-ordinated action in the Indo-Pacific, but today in relation to Hong Kong the Government have failed to uphold their duty under the joint declaration at a time when democratic values have effectively been snuffed out. Because of our special obligations to Hongkongers, if we lead the way by imposing Magnitsky sanctions on those involved in this crackdown, our allies will follow. Will the Prime Minister finally take meaningful action on Hong Kong?

I think most people in this country would consider that a bit bizarre. We have not only stood up for human rights in Hong Kong, but have taken the step of welcoming the British nationals (overseas), 30,000 of whom are coming to this country. We should be very proud of what we are doing to protect and help them, and we will continue to do so.

I warmly welcome this alliance. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it shows that we are successfully delivering the integrated review, and are deepening our foreign policy, defence and security relationships with our global allies?

Yes. I wish to repeat that this makes visible and incarnates the Indo-Pacific tilt that we have been talking about. It is an incredibly important development for our relations in the Indo-Pacific. However, it in no way detracts from our commitment to the north Atlantic area, to the European theatre and to our overall security.

Obviously we have an interest in maintaining a peaceful region in the Indo-Pacific, so I welcome this, but will the Prime Minister make something clear? He has described the agreement as being essentially about technological transfer, not about a major commitment of military assets. Can he guarantee that that is where we are going, and that no overstretch will be involved as a result of this agreement?

Yes, of course, although I remind the House that the carrier strike group is out there expressing British influence—hard power and soft power—8,000 miles away, which is something that very few other countries can do.

I note that our friends from New Zealand have already announced that the new submarines will be banned from their waters, but can I press my right hon. Friend on the opportunities to expand co-operation with India, which is a key strategic partner in the region?

I should stress to the House that what New Zealand has said is its historic position; it has been in that place for 30 years or more. What my hon. Friend says about India is absolutely right. Again, there is a great deal of community of interest and values, and we should pursue that.

I am pleased that the Government recognise the importance of protecting and growing sovereign and allied strategic capability, especially given their recent attempt to hand over domestic nuclear power capability to the Chinese. During the passage of the National Security and Investment Bill and the Telecoms (Security) Bill, Labour called for just such partnerships with countries that share our values to develop key technologies such as 6G. Can the Prime Minister set out how he plans to develop further partnerships, and whether European countries might be included?

Yes, we will continue to pursue that type of partnership with every other country where we think that it can be done without any threat to our critical national infrastructure. I think that is what the House would support.

I am pleased to hear the Prime Minister’s commitment to Welsh workers and that they will be eligible for these opportunities, because workers in Pontypridd have already lost their jobs at BA in Llantrisant and GE in Nantgarw. I urge the Prime Minister to meet the leaders of the devolved nations, because he clearly needs a constitutional lesson. Wales is not a principality; it is a country—a country that has been forgotten by this Westminster Government. Will he commit to meeting them to look at contract opportunities for Welsh workers?

There will be jobs and growth across the whole of the UK as a result of this partnership, but above all as a result of the policies that this Government have been pursuing, which are leading to higher wages and higher skills—a policy that I am afraid the Labour party continually opposes.

I thank the Prime Minister for his statement. He will know that Northern Ireland plays an integral part in the procurement and manufacture of defence products; we have the highest technical and scientific manufacturers. We wish to be part of this move, and I know the Prime Minister wishes Northern Ireland to be part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, better together, but we need to be assured. Will he tell us today in the Chamber that Northern Ireland will play its part?

Of course Northern Ireland will play its part, not least in the shipbuilding strategy that will follow after the spending review. I should have made more of that. I am delighted to say that Harland and Wolff has, as I understand it, just taken on another 1,000 apprentices for the first time in a very long time to get ready for exactly that strategy.

Business of the House

The business for the week commencing Monday 20 September include:

Monday 20 September—Consideration of a Business of the House motion, followed by all stages of the Social Security (Up-rating of Benefits) Bill, followed by a motion to approve an instruction relating to the Elections Bill.

Tuesday 21 September—Opposition day (6th allotted day). There will be a debate on a motion in the name of the official Opposition, subject to be announced.

Wednesday 22 September—Remaining stages of the Compensation (London Capital & Finance Plc and Fraud Compensation Fund) Bill, followed by Second Reading of the Subsidy Control Bill, followed by a motion to appoint an external member of the Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body.

Thursday 23 September—General debate on baby loss awareness week, followed by a motion on human rights in Kashmir. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

At the conclusion of business on Thursday 23 September, the House will rise for the conference recess and return on Monday 18 October.

The provisional business for the week commencing 18 October will include:

Monday 18 October—Second Reading of the Judicial Review and Courts Bill.

I thank the Leader of the House for the forthcoming business. I am glad to see him still in his place. There were rumours that it might have been the right hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson) opposite me. He has been told to “shut up and go away,” and I am therefore relieved that I do not have to spend time today explaining that I am the Member for Bristol West and not the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq). Perhaps I will not throw away my flashcards just yet; you never know.

This week inflation has leaped to 3.2%, the highest jump since records began in 1997. This comes in the same week as the Government rammed through their Tory tax rise, hitting hard-working families. Yesterday, they did not even bother to turn up to vote on their cruel and callous cut to universal credit, the biggest ever overnight cut to social security.

The Prime Minister seems to have deliberately used his reshuffle to distract from the fact that he will be taking more than £1,000 from 6 million households. Meanwhile, his sacked Ministers take home nearly £20,000 in severance pay. Nearly half of all people receiving universal credit are in work. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions thinks that people should just work harder to make up the difference, but from April the Government will be taking away more than 75p of every £1 that a full-time worker on universal credit earns.

One in six families cannot make ends meet already, and now key workers are facing a pay freeze, a personal allowance freeze, rising council tax and an unfair national insurance rise, and the price of bread and all the basics is going up. This Tory tax rise was not a plan last week to tackle social care or the NHS waiting list, and it is still not a plan this week. Working people know the Government are not on their side. They know the Government prioritise their friends over the British people. Could the Leader of the House please explain why the Government are pressing ahead with this?

Then there is the astronomical cost of childcare hitting working families. That is yet another broken promise from this Government, failing parents and children. A staggering third of all parents pay more for childcare than for their rent or mortgage. Just to let the Government know, as they often seem completely ignorant of the actual cost of living, a full-time childcare place costs £14,000 a year. The Government say they want to help people into work, but even before the pandemic nearly 1 million mothers wanted to work but could not afford to do so.

It is not just parents being squeezed but childminders, nursery workers and all the people working in childcare, 93% of whom are women. They are suffering on poverty pay after years of real-terms pay cuts under successive Tory Governments. The average wage in this sector is £7.42 an hour and, shamefully, one in 10 staff earns less than £5 an hour. The Government are not on the side of parents, they are not on the side of childcare workers and now they want to take even more money from them. This makes no sense educationally, socially or economically. We debated a petition on this crucial issue on Monday, but will the Leader of the House make Government time available for a full debate on the childcare sector?

The pandemic is still raging, and bereaved families are still waiting for a public inquiry so that lessons can be learned now to help now. I ask the Leader of the House again, when will the Government’s covid inquiry start?

The hon. Member for Delyn (Rob Roberts) has had his Conservative party membership suspended, although for only 12 weeks. I wonder if this says something about the seriousness, or lack thereof, with which some people treat sexual harassment. Will the Leader of the House finally find time for this House to debate Labour’s motion, which we first tabled back in July, to close the recall loophole and to allow the people of Delyn to decide for themselves whether that Member should continue to represent them?

Finally, last week I took a tour of the basement and some of the most damaged parts of the Palace. I understand that the Leader of the House also recently took the tour so, like me, he must have seen the high-voltage electricity lines next to the gas pipes and the wiring that goes nobody knows where. Has he now revised his previous view that restoration and renewal of this place is just

“a little bit of banging and noise”?—[Official Report, 11 March 2021; Vol. 690, c. 1018.]

Does he now agree that we must press ahead with a full decant, which we have voted for, so that we can get on with protecting this magnificent symbol of British democracy that we are so proud of, not for us but for the British people we serve?

I think the hon. Lady was ungallant in relation to my right hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson), who has been a very hard-working and diligent public servant over many years. It is inelegant not to thank people after a reshuffle for the service they have provided and to gloat instead; I am rather surprised at the hon. Lady behaving in that way.

The hon. Lady made some important points about inflation, but she will of course remember that monetary policy is run independently by the Bank of England, as a result of a decision taken by Gordon Brown when he was the Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1997. The main control of inflation therefore rests with an independent body, but Her Majesty’s Government are doing their side of the bargain, although opposed by the Opposition, in ensuring that fiscal policy is responsible.

The two causes of inflation are widely believed to be the connection between monetary policy and fiscal policy. One of them is independently determined, but Her Majesty’s Government have taken steps to shore up the finances of this country. That must be correct, and the sensible and right thing to do, and universal credit is part of that; £9 billion of additional support has been provided to people on UC during the pandemic as exceptional support because of the circumstances that arose during the pandemic. As the pandemic is ending and as the furlough scheme is ending, it is right that we return to normal. What my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions so rightly pointed out was that those on UC who have children or limited capability to work, for example, through a disability, are able to earn up to £293 per month before the taper rate kicks in, rising to £515 for those who do not receive housing support. What she said is absolutely right and reasonable.

The hon. Lady then moved on to the issue of children in poverty, so I can point out to her that since 2010, a period of majority Conservative government, 100,000 fewer children are living in absolute poverty. That is one of the successes of which those on this side of the House are rightly proud. There is up to £2,000 per year per child of tax-free childcare, which was introduced by the Conservatives. We have given her an Opposition day next week if she wants a debate on that. She may have been listening when I read that out, but in case she was not, let me read it out again: the subject is to be announced. Perhaps she is hinting at what the subject may be, but it seems to me that when time is provided for an Opposition day and the hon. Lady raises pressing issues, one can fit a round peg in a round hole, and she can answer her own question.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made it clear that the covid inquiry will begin before the end of this parliamentary Session. This Session will run, as usual—since the reforms in 2010—until around May, so the date has already been set out.

The right hon. Lady—the hon. Lady; I am sorry to have promoted her inadvertently, though no doubt the Privy Council for her is merely a matter of time—raised the question of suspension from this House and recall. The Government did bring forward a motion, one that was agreed by the Commission and supported by the chairman of the independent expert panel, and it was a pity that the hon. Lady blocked it. If she decides not to block it, it will be back on the Order Paper straightaway. [Interruption.] She chunters, “Amended it.” She is an experienced parliamentarian and knows full well that amendments block when there is not time set aside for debate: so she blocked it.

As regards restoration and renewal, the hon. Lady’s oratory on my views was fundamentally inaccurate. It is well recognised that work needs to be carried out and that we need to re-plumb and re-wire. We have already done a huge amount of work ensuring that the fire safety systems are improved, and we had a successful fire safety test earlier this week to ensure that the structure of the building and the lives within the building are safe. The work is planned and I am supporting it enthusiastically.

That is a very helpful heckle. The right hon. Gentleman is a great expert on this issue and asbestos is one of the key parts of it.

What I have always been opposed to is spending very large amounts of taxpayers’ money. We had forecasts of £10 billion to £20 billion for trying to turn this place into Disneyland. That I am opposed to; that I will continue to be opposed to. We want rewiring, replumbing and the removal of asbestos, but we do not want Disneyland.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his reappointment. However, we have seen some Cabinet changes. One of the most important, for me, is the new Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government. Could we now have an early debate on the proposed planning Bill so that we can have our input, rather than having a Bill thrust upon us without pre-legislative scrutiny? That would allow Members across the House to give their views to the new Secretary of State.

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s kind words. On the point he makes, I think he proves that that actually already happens, because nobody would ever dare stop him expressing his views on planning reform to everybody in the Government. The Government are, of course, listening to what people have to say, but the process that has been followed is the proper constitutional one. There has been a White Paper, which is a discussion document setting out the intentions of policy, to and about which there have been many responses and thoughts. That will lead to a Bill that will go through the House in the normal process. I think that I can reassure my hon. Friend that the Bill will be thoroughly discussed and that his views will be extremely welcome, particularly to my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove).

What happened to the right hon. Gentleman yesterday? All afternoon, the nation was at one: “What about the Mogg? Surely a big office of state awaits—a promotion is more than due.” Well, maybe he should not have said “No more taxes” in the week that his Prime Minister hiked them through the roof. Anyway, we are glad that he is back with us, doing what he does best: announcing the business of the week.

This is now getting beyond a joke. The scenes from a packed Prime Minister’s questions yesterday were simply a disgrace, with barely a face mask on a Tory mush. The House staff are now getting increasingly nervous and anxious about what they are observing, and it seems as if the Tories have absolutely no regard whatever for the safety of their colleagues and the staff who are here to support and help us.

The Government’s own advice states:

“Wear a face covering in crowded and enclosed settings where you come into contact with people you do not normally meet.”

Now, I do not normally meet any of you lot—I am quite happy with that situation; I have no desire to meet you on a regular basis—and yesterday at PMQs this place must have been about the most crowded enclosed space in the whole UK. The Health Secretary even excused the Tory “no face mask” policy, suggesting that people cannot catch covid from friends. Is this House not sending the worst possible message to the country and contributing to all sorts of confusion? Will the Leader of the House now be a leader? For goodness’ sake, put a face mask on!

We know that the Leader of the House likes his obscure historical battle references—he will probably quote one to me again, as if I am in any way interested in what he has to say—but there is a battle for Scotland going on just now and it is being fought with ideas, with democracy at its core and with a vision for what a nation can be, free from this place. So he can stuff his battles of Flodden and Falkirk where his top hat don’t shine, because this battle of Scotland will be won by its people.

In the cheerfulness and bonhomie that the hon. Gentleman brings to this House, he is competing with Countess Mona Lott herself. If that is the battle for ideas, they are ideas of gloom, doom and lugubriousness that I think are not particularly welcome in this House.

As regards face masks, the policy is extremely straightforward: face coverings are not mandatory for Members in the House of Commons Chamber, voting Lobbies, the Members’ Lobby and Westminster Hall. The advice of Her Majesty’s Government on face coverings is that they are not required by law in the workplace. The Government removed the legal requirement to wear face coverings in public places in indoor spaces. If someone is in a crowded indoor space where they come into contact with people they do not normally meet, wearing a face covering can help to reduce the spread of covid.

Is it not interesting that the hon. Gentleman—and perhaps this applies to the nationalists generally—does not normally meet other MPs? Perhaps that is because they are not very assiduous in their attendance in the House of Commons, but Members on my side of the House, who are rigorous and regular attendants, meet one another regularly and therefore are completely in accordance with the guidance of Her Majesty’s Government. Is it not a pity that some people do not like to come to Parliament? If they came a bit more, worked a bit harder and put their elbow to the grindstone, or wherever one puts one’s elbow—if they put their elbow to the wheel—they might not need to wear face coverings either, because they would meet Members of Parliament more regularly.

First, in Hitchin and Harpenden, we are fortunate to benefit from beautiful countryside, including parts of the Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty. Will the Leader of the House confirm what mechanisms are in place to enable me to secure the extension of the area of outstanding natural beauty towards Hitchin?

Secondly, there are many good house builders in this country, but there are some poor ones. Will the Leader of the House consider providing time for a debate on how to deal with poor house builders—such as Crest Nicholson, which is badly mistreating leaseholders at Allwoods Place in Hitchin in my constituency—that mistreat leaseholders?

I am glad to say that legislation is coming forward that will deal with the issue of poor house builders and set up an ombudsman who will have the ability to ensure that house builders are held to account. People have the right to expect that a new build house is built to a proper standard. As constituency MPs, we have all dealt with house builders that have let constituents down and been relatively unaccountable and unhelpful in their approach to residents with genuine complaints.

As regards the natural beauty of my hon. Friend’s constituency, part of North East Somerset is in an area of outstanding natural beauty; I do not really mind about these bureaucratic definitions because the truth is that the whole of North East Somerset is stunningly beautiful. It is one of the most beautiful parts of not only our great country but anywhere in the world. The hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) is sitting in her usual place, and I include Bath in that description—the whole of Bath and North East Somerset. We can view our areas as being of the greatest natural beauty without necessarily having a bureaucrat telling us so.

I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the business for next week, and particularly for the Backbench Business on Thursday when, as Members will have noted from the business statement, there will be a debate on Baby Loss Awareness Week. Of course, Baby Loss Awareness Week actually takes place during the conference recess, so we cannot have it in the week when it should be heard. With that in mind, if Members throughout the House intend to make an application for a debate on a specific date or commemorative event, will they please make their applications to the Backbench Business Committee as early as possible? We cannot always guarantee that debates will occur exactly when Members want, as we depend on the Executive to allow us the time and on the parliamentary calendar, but the sooner we know, the sooner we can put the wheels in motion to facilitate Members’ requests.

I have dozens, if not hundreds, of constituents who are refugees and asylum seekers in a state of limbo, if not purgatory, plaintively waiting in vain for the Home Office to determine their status. May we have a debate in Government time on the Home Office’s handling of such cases and how refugees and asylum seekers are left in this awful state, not knowing their future?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments about the business next week. He asked for that debate last week and I am glad we have been able to facilitate it. His point about early application is one well made, and I hope that Members were listening.

As regards a debate in Government time in relation to questions on asylum and Afghanistan, there are Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office questions on Tuesday 26 September—actually, I think that is a misprint and it should be October. There will be opportunities to raise those issues with Ministers in the normal way, but I suggest it would also be suitable for the hon. Gentleman’s Committee to provide time.

Parents who have prematurely born children who require time in neonatal intensive care can go through a whole range of different emotions, from worry to pride to guilt, and they require all different types of support, from practical to financial and emotional as well. Can we have a debate in Government time about what support the Government provide to parents with children in neonatal intensive care?

May I thank my hon. Friend for his public service as a Minister of the Crown, which he carried out with great distinction and for which his constituents and the country can be very grateful?

I am also grateful to my hon. Friend for coming straight to this House to raise an important issue for his own constituents and for others. I know that he has had personal experience of how difficult it can be for parents in this situation. It is important to make it clear what support is available and what can be done. I will make sure that his comments are passed on to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, but I also suggest that a Westminster Hall debate would be a very good starting point on this crucial subject.

My young constituent Sara Walbyoff from Calidcot lives with a rare form of spina bifida and this week has been meeting with Olympians and Paralympians at Great Ormond Street Hospital to talk about her experience of living with the condition. Sara’s family supports the campaign of Shine, the spina bifida charity, to fortify flour products with folic acid, which the Government have been consulting on now for two years. So please can the Government announce that they will do it?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising this important issue and I wish Sara well. The campaign is an important one. I will pass on the hon. Lady’s comments to the Health Secretary. The question of compulsory medication is always a difficult and sensitive one, so it is not an issue that is easy to answer straightforwardly.