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Volume 701: debated on Wednesday 20 October 2021

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

David Amess and James Brokenshire were both tragically taken from us. Both served this place with integrity and served their constituents well. As we offer our heartfelt love and prayers to their families, their families have offered us a new path to a new politics, built on kindness and love.

Sarah Everard and Claudia Lawrence were both from York. Right now, women are feeling unsafe—many women are unsafe—and the very people who should be protecting us are telling us to engage with potential perpetrators to identify them, to flag down a bus or to know the laws of arrest better. That has taken a toll on confidence in the police. As women, we are confident and determined to change that, so that every girl and every woman can live at home without fear, can go to school or work without harassment, can go online without objectification and can walk our streets safely again. What steps will the Prime Minister take to ensure that women with lived experience can lead on this work, and by when?

I thank the hon. Lady very much for her question. She raises a most important issue—one of the most important issues that this country faces. I want all people in this country, particularly women, to feel confident in our police force, and I believe that they can and should. What we are doing now, to ensure that women in particular feel safe at night, is investing in safer streets, better street lighting and more CCTV, but as I think the whole House understands, what we must also do is deal with the systemic problems in the criminal justice system. We must ensure that men—I am afraid it is almost always men—get prosecuted for rape and for crimes of serious sexual and domestic violence in the way that they should, that we secure the convictions that we should, and that when we secure those convictions, those individuals get the tough sentencing they deserve. That is what this side of the House believes in.

Q3. Having a prematurely born child in neonatal intensive care means that for families, every day can be a struggle —practically, financially and emotionally. Trying to continue with life as normal while racked with worry and a guilt that simply never leaves you is just not possible. That is why the Prime Minister’s commitment to deliver neonatal leave and pay for parents in that situation is so important. Will he meet me to discuss how quickly we can put that through Parliament so that parents get this support as quickly as possible? (903731)

I will make sure that my hon. Friend has the relevant meeting as fast as we can organise it. I know that many parents, particularly those who have premature and sick babies, feel that the current system is not working well for them. That is why, I can tell my hon. Friend, we will legislate to allow parents of children in neonatal care to take extended leave. Details of the policy were published last year and we will bring forward the legislation as soon as possible.

Can I pay tribute to Ernie Ross, a formidable campaigner who served this place and his constituents with great distinction for three decades? I will pay my respects and tribute to James Brokenshire immediately after Prime Minister’s questions.

I thank the whole House for the way the tributes to Sir David were handled on Monday. We saw the best of this House, and I want to see if we can use that collaborative spirit to make progress on one of the issues that was raised on Monday: tackling violent extremism. It is three years since the Government promised an online safety Bill, but it is not yet before the House. Meanwhile, the damage caused by harmful content online is worse than ever with dangerous algorithms on Facebook and Instagram. Hope not Hate has shown me an example of violent Islamism and far-right propaganda on TikTok. What I was shown has been reported to the moderators but it stayed online because, apparently, it did not contravene the guidelines. I have to say, I find that hard to believe.

Will the Prime Minister build on the desire shown by this House on Monday to get things done and commit to bring forward the Second Reading of the online safety Bill by the end of this calendar year? If he does, we will support it.

I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for the spirit in which he has approached this issue. I echo what he says about the need for co-operation across the House, because the safety of MPs—indeed, of all public servants and everybody who engages with the public—is of vital importance. The online safety Bill is of huge importance and is one of the most important tools in our armoury. What we are doing is ensuring that we crack down on companies that promote illegal and dangerous content, and we will be toughening up those provisions.

What we will also do is ensure that the online safety Bill completes its stages in the House before Christmas—or rather, that we bring it forward before Christmas in the way that the right hon. and learned Gentleman suggests. I am delighted that he is offering his support and we look forward to that.

I think from that—this is not a challenge; it is to clarify—that the pre-legislative scrutiny will be finished in early December and the Second Reading could be before the end of this calendar year. We do need to get on with it.

Telegram has been described as the “app of choice” for extremists. If you can believe it, Mr Speaker, as we were paying tribute to Sir David on Monday—as we were paying our respects—Telegram users were able to access videos of murders and violent threats against politicians, the LGBT community, women and Jews. Some of those posts are illegal; all of them are harmful. Hope not Hate and the Board of Deputies have said that Telegram

“has facilitated and nurtured a subculture that cheerleads for…terrorists”.

Tough sanctions are clearly needed, yet under the Government’s current proposals, directors of platforms failing to crack down on extremism would still not face criminal sanctions. Why is that?

This Government have brought forward an online harms Bill and the right hon. and learned Gentleman has heard what I have said about the Second Reading before Christmas. In the collegiate spirit in which he began his questioning, I can tell him that we will continue to look at ways in which we can toughen up those provisions and come down hard on those who irresponsibly allow dangerous and extremist content to permeate the internet. I am delighted that he is taking this new tough line and I very much hope that he will get the rest of his party to join him in the Lobby with us.

I did start in a collegiate spirit, and I will continue in a collegiate spirit, because I listened hard to what was being said on the Government Benches on Monday about the concerns about this issue. We need to recognise the measures in the Bill, but we need tough and effective sanctions—that means criminal sanctions—and that does matter. It is, frankly, beyond belief that, as the Mirror reported yesterday, 40 hours of hateful content from Anjem Choudary could be easily accessed online. The Prime Minister and the Government could stop this by making it clear that directors of companies are criminally liable for failing to tackle this type of material on their sites. We do not need to delay, so in the collaborative spirit we saw in this House on Monday, will the Prime Minister commit to taking this away, looking at it again and working with all of us to strengthen his proposed legislation?

I have already said that we are willing to look at anything to strengthen the legislation. I have said that we are willing to bring it forward, and we will bring it forward to Second Reading before Christmas. Yes, of course we will have criminal sanctions with tough sentences for those who are responsible for allowing this foul content to permeate the internet, but what we hope for also is that, no matter how tough the proposals we produce, the Opposition will support it.

We are making progress. We have the Second Reading committed to before Christmas—that is a good thing—and I think the Prime Minister has now committed to criminal sanctions. At the moment, they are a fallback position at the discretion of the Minister. They should, in my view, be on the face of the Bill as the automatic default for the failure to act. If we are making progress on that, then we are beginning to address some of the issues that were identified across the House on Monday.

I turn now to the report of the commission for countering extremism, which was set up in the wake of the horrific Manchester bombings. Eight months ago, that commission made recommendations to plug gaps in existing legislation and strategy—gaps that extremists have been able to exploit and are continuing to exploit—yet Sir Mark Rowley, formerly head of our counter-terrorism policing, who led on those recommendations, said just this week:

“I have had no feedback from the Home Office on their plans in relation to our report on the absence of a coherent legal framework to tackle hateful extremism”.

Given the seriousness of the matter and the clear need for action, why have the Government not responded to this important work? Will the Prime Minister now commit to act swiftly on the commission’s recommendations?

The Government and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary work with all parties to tackle violent extremism. The UK has one of the strongest counter-terrorism and counter-extremism systems in the world, as a consequence of which we have foiled 31 terrorist plots since 2017. I pay tribute to the work of Sir Mark Rowley, with whom I worked extremely closely while I was in London, and all those who were involved in foiling those terrorist plots. I can tell you, Mr Speaker, that they will receive the complete support of this House and of this Government; nor will we allow those who are convicted to be released early from prison, because that was one of the most important things that this Government passed and which the Labour party opposed.

Really, after the week we have just had, I do not want to descend to that kind of knockabout. [Interruption.] Either we take this seriously—I am taking my lead from what those on the Government Benches were saying on Monday about the need to tackle this—and go forward together, or we do a disservice to those we pay tributes to.

There are clearly problems with the Government’s counter-extremism strategy. Internet users are increasingly likely to come across extremist content online. The Government’s own independent reviewer has said that there is “no evidence” that the Government’s key deradicalisation programme is effective—that is the Government’s independent reviewer saying that—and we have seen a spate of lone-attack killings, with the perpetrator invariably radicalised online. We all, across this House, want to stop this, but at the moment things are getting worse not better, so what urgent plans does the Prime Minister have to fix these glaring problems?

I am all in favour of a collegiate and co-operative approach, in which case I think it would be a fine thing if the Opposition would withdraw their opposition to our measures to stop the early release of serious extremists and violent offenders. That is all I am trying to say, in a collegiate approach, and I am sure that that is what the people of this country would wish to see. But we will continue to do everything that we can to strengthen our counter-terrorism operation and to support all those who are involved in keeping us safe. Obviously, it is too early to draw any particular conclusions from the appalling killing of our colleague, but we will draw all relevant conclusions from that investigation.

The inescapable desire of this House on Monday finally to clamp down on the extremism, hate and abuse that festers online is incredibly welcome. However, closing down anonymous accounts would not have prevented the murder of Jo Cox or of PC Keith Palmer and, although we do not know the full circumstances surrounding his death, neither would it have saved Sir David. If we are to get serious about stopping violent attacks, we must stop online spaces being safe spaces for terrorists. We must ensure that unaccountable and arrogant social media companies take responsibility for their platforms. We must end the delays, get on with the legislation, and clean out the cesspit once and for all.

I have prosecuted terrorists and I have prosecuted extremists. I have worked with Sir Mark and others. Dozens of Labour MPs have worked hard on tackling social media companies on these issues. I started collegiately, and I will continue collegiately: we know what it takes, and we can help. Will the Prime Minister now capture the spirit that we have seen this week, and agree to work with us on a cross-party basis so that we can tackle violent extremism, and its enablers, together?

I am delighted to join the right hon. and learned Gentleman in committing to tackle online harms and violent extremism together, and that is what the Government are doing. That is why we brought forward the online harms Bill, and that is why we are investing record sums in counter-terrorism. In addition, I think what the whole country and the whole House would certainly want to see—and I say this to the right hon. and learned Gentleman in a collegiate spirit—is a commitment by the Labour party in future to support measures, and not to allow the early release of terrorists and those convicted of such offences from prison. If we hear that from the Labour party, I think it would be a fine thing.

Q4. Knowing my right hon. Friend’s commitment to UK bioscience, and his understanding of the exciting potential for improving mental health treatments for conditions such as depression, trauma and addiction, will he cut through the current barriers to research into psilocybin and similar compounds, so that the British public can receive, and British science research and British pharmaceutical companies can enable, potential treatments for those most debilitating conditions to be delivered at the earliest possible opportunity? (903732)

I thank my hon. Friend, who I know has a very active interest in this area. We will consider recent advice from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs on reducing barriers to research with controlled drugs, such as the one he describes, and we will be getting back to him as soon as possible.

May I join the Leader of the Opposition in sending condolences to the family of Ernie Ross?

In 11 short days, world leaders will gather in Glasgow for COP26. This is our best chance, and very likely our last chance, to confront the climate emergency faced by our planet. That is why it was such a devastating blow that, on the eve of COP26, the UK Government rejected the Scottish cluster bid to gain track 1 status for carbon capture and storage. Today, The Press and Journal, has said that there is

“no valid reason and no acceptable excuse”

for that decision, and it has called for an immediate U-turn on that colossal mistake. We know that the decision was not made on technical or logical grounds; this devastating decision was purely political. Scotland’s north-east was promised that investment in 2014, but it is a promise that has been broken time and again. Will the Prime Minister finally live up to those promises, or are they simply not worth the Tory election leaflets they are written on?

We remain absolutely committed to helping industrial clusters to decarbonise across the whole country, of course including Scotland. I know that there was disappointment about the Acorn bid in Aberdeen. That is why it has been selected as a reserve cluster. There can be no more vivid testimony to this Government’s commitment to Scotland, or indeed to fighting climate change, than the fact that the whole world is about to come to Scotland to look at what Scotland is doing to help tackle climate change. I congratulate the people of Scotland on their efforts.

People across Scotland are looking for answers today, and they are getting none. All they see is yet another Tory broken promise. It is bad enough that this UK Government are holding back carbon capture in Scotland, but they are proving an active barrier to renewable energy opportunities across the board. Tidal stream energy has the potential to generate 20% of UK generation capacity—exactly the same as nuclear. All the industry needs is a ringfenced budget of £71 million, a drop in the ocean compared with the £23 billion that this Government are throwing at the nuclear plant at Hinkley. But the UK Government are failing to give that support, threatening shovel-ready projects such as MeyGen in the north of Scotland. At the very least, Prime Minister, stand up today and guarantee a ringfenced budget for tidal stream energy and save that renewable industry from being lost overseas.

Actually, do you know what, Mr Speaker? I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on raising tidal energy. He is absolutely right. I have seen the amazing projects that are under way. I think the House will acknowledge that we are putting huge sums into clean, green energy generation. The right hon. Gentleman is far too gloomy about the prospects of Acorn in Aberdeen. I think he needs to be seized with an unaccustomed spirit of optimism, because the Acorn project still has strong potential, and that is why it has been selected as a reserve cluster. He should keep hope alive rather than spreading gloom in the way that he does.

Q5. It is always a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford)—the new quiet man of British politics. [Laughter.] Long may it continue. The weekend before last, I went to sea with the Brixham trawlers. Brixham fish market is now turning over £1.4 million a week. It is looking forward to its share of the levelling-up fund, but it is also looking forward to the previously announced £100 million fisheries and seafood scheme. When will we see pillars 2 and 3 launched, and will the Prime Minister reaffirm his commitment to our coastal communities and our fishing sector? (903733)

I thank my hon. Friend for what he is doing for fishing, for coastal communities and for Brixham in particular. I understand that the fish market in Brixham was outstandingly successful the other day. We are going to make sure that we continue to support fishing and the seafood business across the country. The scheme has approved funding in Brixham, Salcombe and Dartmouth, and a further £100 million is being made available through the UK seafood fund to support our fisheries.

Diolch yn fawr iawn, Llefarydd.

If COP26 is to be successful, people must be at the heart of our net zero emissions strategy. For too long, the UK economy has left too many people behind, with wealth and investment hoarded in the south-east of England. Devolving powers over the Crown Estate would bring half a billion pounds-worth of offshore wind and tidal stream potential—assets, of course, currently controlled by Westminster—under Welsh control. Scotland, meanwhile, already has those powers. Will the Prime Minister support my Bill to devolve the management of the Crown Estate to Wales?

As the right hon. Lady already knows, the Crown Estate works closely with the Welsh Government and Natural Resources Wales. I am sorry to have to tell her that my view is that the devolution of the Crown Estate in Wales would fragment the market, complicate existing processes and make it more difficult for Wales, as well as the whole UK, to move forward to net zero.

Q7. Delivering new homes is key to levelling up, as is putting that power in the hands of local people and making sure we build the right number in the right places. However, my constituents, especially in Thievesdale and Ordsall, are concerned about over-intensive developments in our local plan. Will the Prime Minister confirm that the minimum housing requirement for Bassetlaw is 4,896, not the 10,000 claimed by the Labour-run council? (903735)

Well, Mr Speaker, I am not surprised to say that my hon. Friend is completely right. This Government are determined to give the people of this country the homes they need. We are building record numbers of homes, but we owe it to our kinder, gentler politics to be accurate about what is going on in our constituencies. This Government do not set local housing targets. I understand that the draft Bassetlaw local plan is subject to consultation. I encourage him and his constituents to make their views known.

Q2. Tomorrow, at 2.50 pm, my constituency will fall silent as we mark exactly 50 years since Scotland’s largest peacetime explosion ripped through Clarkston Toll in East Renfrewshire. Ten shops were demolished by the ignition of gas, which had escaped from a fractured gas main beneath the shops. A passing bus was caught up in the blast. Twenty-two people died, mostly women, and over 100 were injured. Tomorrow, 50 years on, the community and the families will come together for a memorial service. Will the Prime Minister join me in acknowledging the terrible losses that many families locally suffered and the continuing sorrow in the community, and in reflecting that the victims of the Clarkston disaster must never be forgotten? (903730)

I thank the hon. Lady for raising this anniversary. She is right to commemorate the victims of the Clarkston disaster. Our thoughts and our condolences continue to be with the families of those who lost loved ones. Of course, we must do everything in our power to make sure that no such tragedy is repeated.

Q9. The failings of Greater Manchester police, which have led to it being placed in special measures, are well documented, including the failure to record 80,000 crimes, including domestic violence and sexual offences, in a single year. It is particularly important that the force addresses what the recent Manchester Evening News investigation called its “culture of denial…and secrecy”. After the horrific murder of Sarah Everard, it is crucial that we tackle the cover-up culture. Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister therefore join me in calling for Greater Manchester police to urgently review its internal culture? Will he also consider reforming the law on whistleblowing, so that people in Greater Manchester police and other organisations can speak up against wrongdoing in confidence? (903738)

Yes. It is vital that people should have the confidence to speak up against wrongdoing wherever they find it, particularly, of course, in the police. I believe that the people of Greater Manchester deserve better. I support and agree with what my hon. Friend says.

I will just say one thing. It is the responsibility of the Mayor of Greater Manchester to ensure that the police force acts—not a point that will be taken up on the Labour Benches—swiftly and decisively to address the failures that his constituents are currently finding.

Q6. I join colleagues in paying tribute to the former hon. Member for Southend West. He was a good friend and an esteemed parliamentarian. I also wish to pay tribute to the former right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup. He served this House and the country assiduously, and will be missed by Members across the House.Heating bills, food shops and fuel costs are all rising at a staggering speed. This winter, millions of families on universal credit will be forced to choose between eating and heating. Given the crisis in living costs we are now facing, will the Prime Minister reconsider his scrapping of the universal credit uplift and reinstate the £20 a week lifeline he has just taken away? (903734)

What we are doing is ensuring that we keep the costs of heating down with the price cap. We have increased the warm homes allowance by £150 for 780,000 homes. We have just given local councils another half a billion pounds to help poorer families over the winter. The most important thing that is happening in this country is that wages are going up. There is a huge jobs boom now, thanks to the policies that this Government have pursued.

Q13. I am sure my right hon. Friend would agree that homeless people should be assisted and not arrested. The review of the repeal of the Vagrancy Act 1824 has now been concluded. Does he agree with me, therefore, that it is now time that the amendments to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which are being considered in the other place, should be adopted so that we can consign the Vagrancy Act to the history books forever and give the police the powers that they need to combat trespass, aggressive begging and other antisocial behaviour? (903742)

My hon. Friend is a passionate campaigner on this issue and he has done a lot of good things in this area. No one should be criminalised simply for having nowhere to live, and I think the time has come to reconsider the Vagrancy Act—and also to redouble our efforts to fight homelessness, as I think we have done successfully over the pandemic but must continue to do.

Q8. University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire NHS Trust has dealt with more than 600 attacks on staff during the pandemic. To deter further attacks, staff in the hospital’s A&E department are now wearing body cameras. It simply is not right that doctors and nurses should have to go to such lengths just to feel safe at work. Will the Prime Minister join me in condemning those abhorrent attacks and say what immediate steps he will take to better protect our NHS heroes as they go about their work, treating patients and saving lives? (903737)

I join the hon. Lady absolutely in condemning attacks on all public servants and particularly on NHS staff, who are trying to save people and help people in their lives. What we are doing—what we have already done—is to toughen the sentences for those who assault or harass public servants.

Given the recent tragic circumstances, there has inevitably been a focus on the security of Members and their staff. One aspect that is often overlooked is the fact that it is our staff who are on the frontline in receiving the abusive emails and correspondence, and they take the hostile phone calls. They are private citizens, simply trying to earn a living, put food on the table and pay for their rent or their mortgage, yet they are caught up in this vicious cycle of venom and abuse that is directed towards us. Will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to acknowledge the fantastic work that our staff do and give them the credit that they so rightly deserve?

I think that my hon. Friend spoke there for the entire House of Commons, because we all know that it is our staff, our caseworkers and our office managers who are so often in the frontline, who have to deal with anger, with intemperate behaviour and with abuse, and they cope with it magnificently. We all know the risks that they run in their daily lives and, indeed, we have seen how some House of Commons staff have paid for their sacrifice even with their lives. I thoroughly echo, support and concur with what my hon. Friend said.