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Volume 703: debated on Wednesday 17 November 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.

The Prime Minister will be aware of the considerable public concern in relation to the impression that significant political donations can help acquire a peerage. The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) will publish a Bill later today that will prohibit large party donors from being nominated to the other place for a period of five years. Will the Prime Minister offer full Government support to my hon. Friend’s efforts?

I will study his proposals with care when the Opposition parties commit to stop taking funds from the unions in order to control their politics.

Q2. During a recent visit to Barnet Hospital, I was told that A&E there was routinely seeing twice the number of people for which it was designed. Thanks to the hard work of staff and big funding increases, the NHS is seeing more patients and delivering more tests, treatments and operations than at any time in its history, but what are the Government doing to urgently assist the NHS to tackle spiralling demand for healthcare and a tough winter ahead? (904173)

I thank my right hon. Friend for what she does to represent her hospital, and I thank the NHS staff for the amazing work that they are doing. We are supporting them, as she knows, by recruiting 50,000 more nurses and putting another £4.5 billion into the NHS over the rest of this financial year. The best thing we can do to protect our NHS over this winter is for everybody to come forward and get their booster vaccination.

Trust matters, and after the last fortnight the Prime Minister has got a lot of work to do. A central plank in this Government’s promise to the north of England is a Crossrail of the north with at least an entirely new high-speed rail line between Manchester and Leeds. A Crossrail for the north; an entirely new line—that is the promise. It has already been made, so I do not want the Prime Minister fobbing off the House about waiting until tomorrow; he can say today: will he stick by that promise, yes or no?

He should wait and see what is going to be announced tomorrow, because we will produce a fantastic integrated rail plan—[Interruption.] I am not going to spoil it for them—why would I? We are going to produce a fantastic—[Interruption.]

Order. I expect Front Benchers to behave better than they are doing at the moment. If you do not want to listen to the answer, let me know now. I do, and I cannot hear when you all shout together. We want better politics. I expect better politics from both sides. Let us show a little more decorum than we are seeing at the moment.

When we produce our integrated rail plan tomorrow, people across the House and across the country will see what we are doing to cut journey times to make life easier and better for people in the north-east, in the north-west and in the midlands—across the whole of the north of the country—with the biggest programme of investment in rail for a century. What we are doing is giving people in those communities the same access to commuter-type services that people in the south-east of this country have felt entitled to for more than a century. That is going to be levelling up across the whole of the UK.

That was a lot of words, but it was not a yes, so that is one important promise to the north that he will not stand by. Let us look at another. In February this year, the Prime Minister told this House:

“I can certainly confirm that we are going to develop the eastern leg as well as the whole of the HS2.”—[Official Report, 10 February 2021; Vol. 689, c. 325.]

The whole of HS2—that is a new high-speed line, running continuously, no gaps, between Birmingham and Leeds. Will the Prime Minister confirm that he stands by that promise?

I am afraid that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is in danger of getting hoist by his own petard. He needs to wait and see what we announce tomorrow, because I think he will find that the people of Leeds, the people of Nottingham, the people of Sheffield and the people of the whole of the north-west and the north-east of this country will benefit massively from what we are going to announce.

Again, a lot of words, but not a yes. So that is two important promises to the north that the Prime Minister will not stand by. No wonder trust in the Prime Minister is at an all-time low. Across the country, and belatedly across this House, there is now agreement that Owen Paterson broke the rules and that the Government should not have tried to let him off the hook. Many Government Members have apologised— the Business Secretary has apologised for his part, and the Leader of the House has apologised for his part, but they were following the Prime Minister’s lead. Will he do the decent thing and just say sorry for trying to give the green light to corruption?

Well, yes, as I have said before, it certainly was a mistake to conflate the case of an individual Member, no matter how sad, with the point of principle at stake. We do need a cross-party approach on an appeals process. We also need a cross-party approach on the way forward, and that is why we have tabled the proposals to take forward the report of the independent Committee on Standards in Public Life of 2018, with those two key principles: first, that everybody in this House should focus primarily and above all on their job here in this House; and, secondly, that no one should exploit their position in order to advance the commercial interests of anybody else. That is our position. We want to take forward those reforms. In the meantime, perhaps the right hon. and learned Gentleman can clear up from his proposals whether he would continue to be able to take money, as he did, from Mishcon de Reya and other legal firms. [Interruption.]

Order. Prime Minister, as you know, and I do remind you, it is Prime Minister’s questions, not Leader of the Opposition’s questions.

That is not an apology. Everybody else has apologised for the Prime Minister, but he will not apologise for himself—a coward, not a leader. Weeks defending corruption and yesterday a screeching last-minute U-turn to avoid defeat on Labour’s plan to ban MPs from dodgy second contracts. Waving one white flag will not be enough to restore trust. There are plenty of Opposition days to come, and we will not let the Prime Minister water down the proposals or pretend that it is job done. We still have not shut the revolving door where Ministers are regulating a company one minute and working for it the next. There are plenty of cases that still stain this House. There are two simple steps to sorting it out: proper independence and powers for the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, and banning these job swaps. Will the Prime Minister take those steps?

I have called for, as you know Mr Speaker, and as you have called for, a cross-party approach to this. What I think we need to do is work together on the basis of the independent report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life to take things forward and to address the appeals process. What I think everybody can see is that in a classic, lawyerly way, the right hon. and learned Gentleman is now trying to prosecute others for exactly the course of action that he took himself. What I think the nation wants to know, because his register is incomplete, is who paid Mishcon de Reya and who paid the £25,000? Who paid him for his—

Order. Prime Minister, I do not want to fall out about it. I have made it very clear. It is Prime Minister’s questions; it is not for the Opposition to answer your questions. [Interruption.] Whether we like it or not, those are the rules of the game that we are all into, and we play by the rules, don’t we? We respect this House, so let us respect the House.

That new-found commitment to upholding standards did not last long.

Here is the difference: when somebody in my party misbehaves, I kick them out. When somebody—[Interruption.]

Order. Mr Clarkson, Mr Francois—[Interruption.] Order. Look, this is not good. We have lost a dear friend, and I want to show that this House has learned from it. I do not want each other to be shouted down. I want questions to be respected, and I expect the public actually to be able to hear the questions and the answers, because I am struggling to do so in this Chair. I need no more of this.

When somebody in my party misbehaves, I kick them out. When somebody in the Prime Minister’s party misbehaves, he tries to get them off the hook. I lead; he covers up.

Let us try another issue. We know that Owen Paterson was a paid lobbyist for Randox. We know that he sat in on a call between Randox and the Minister responsible for handling health contracts. We know that Randox has been awarded Government contracts worth almost £600 million without competition or tender. Against that backdrop, the public are concerned that taxpayers’ money may have been influenced by paid lobbying. There is only one way to get to the bottom of this: a full, transparent investigation. If the Prime Minister votes for Labour’s motion this afternoon, that investigation can start. Will he vote for it, or will he vote for another cover-up?

I am very happy to publish all the details of the Randox contracts, which have been investigated by the National Audit Office already. But talking of cover-ups, I am sorry, Mr Speaker, but we still have not heard why the right hon. and learned Gentleman will not tell us—[Interruption.]

Order. Prime Minister, sit down! Prime Minister, I am not going to be challenged. You may be the Prime Minister of this country, but in this House I am in charge, and we are going to carry on. That is the end of that. I call Keir Starmer.

I think the Prime Minister just said he is happy to publish all the Randox papers in relation to these contracts, so we will take that and we will pursue it. I remind the Prime Minister that when I was Director of Public Prosecutions, I prosecuted MPs who broke the rules. He has been investigated by every organisation he has ever been elected to. That is the difference.

Billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money handed to their mates and donors; Tory MPs getting rich by working as lobbyists, one not even bothering to turn up because he is in the Caribbean advising tax havens—and the Prime Minister somehow expects us to believe that he is the man to clean up Westminster! He led his troops through the sewers to cover up corruption, and he cannot even say sorry. The truth is that beneath the bluster, he still thinks it is one rule for him and another for his mates. At the same time as his Government are engulfed in sleaze, they are rowing back on the promises they made to the north, and it is working people who are paying the price. Is it any wonder that people are beginning to think that the joke isn’t funny any more?

It is plain from listening to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that he seeks to criticise this Government while refusing to explain his own position. You have ruled on that, Mr Speaker—[Interruption.] You have ruled on that, Mr Speaker, and I hear you, I hear you—but his own “Mishconduct” is absolutely clear to everybody. [Interruption.] His own “Mishconduct” is absolutely clear. Meantime, we will get on, on a cross-party basis—we will get on, on a cross-party basis —with taking forward the business that I have outlined. And we will get on with the business of this Government, which is leading the country out of the pandemic and—

Order. Prime Minister, I am struggling to hear, but if I am correct about what was said, it was about the Leader of the Opposition and misconduct. We cannot accuse somebody of misconduct. [Interruption.] Order. Before the Leader of the House gives me an answer, all I am going to say is that I cannot hear. If it was said, I want it withdrawn. If it was not said, I will accept that. [Interruption.] Just a moment! I call the Prime Minister.

Mr Speaker, I referred to the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s “Mishconduct”, because that is what he is guilty of.

Order. I do not think today has done this House any good. I will be quite honest; I think it has been ill-tempered. I think it shows the public that this House has not learned from the other week. I need this House to gain respect, but it starts by individuals showing respect to each other.

Q3. The people of Leigh have never accepted our forced merger with the rival town—friendly rivals—of Wigan back in 1973. Will the Prime Minister tell me how we can escape the big government of big Wigan by getting our own council back? (904174)

I thank my hon. Friend for his campaign against local Labour government overtaxing and delivering inadequate services. The local boundary commission will look at the boundary reviews, but in the meantime I will support him in any way that I can.

It used always to be said that the Tory MPs were behind the Prime Minister, but—my goodness—look at the gaps on the third, fourth and fifth Benches. The rebellion has clearly started.

This Tory sleaze scandal has now been hitting the headlines for the past 14 days, yet it is pretty obvious that the Prime Minister spent less than 10 minutes coming up with yesterday’s half-hearted, half-baked, and already half-botched proposals. These so-called reforms do not even scratch the surface. This sleaze scandal runs far, far deeper. Month after month the public have witnessed scandal after scandal: peerages handed to millionaire donors; VIP lanes; gifted covid contracts to Tory pals; dodgy donations for luxury holidays and home renovations. The Prime Minister and his Government have been up to their necks in sleaze. Will the Prime Minister tell us exactly which one of those scandals his proposals would have stopped?

I thank the humble crofter, as the right hon. Gentleman refers to himself, for his question. What I think we can do is pursue a cross-party approach, based on the report of the independent Committee on Standards in Public Life, which has much of profit in it. Among other things it says is that it is important that this House should be augmented with outside experience of the world, and it is important that Members of this House should have experience of the private sector, as he does. On a cross-party basis we should proceed with the couple of reforms that I have indicated.

This is about Tory sleaze and Tory corruption, and the Prime Minister has basically admitted that not one of this Government’s sleaze scandals would have been stopped by his so-called plan. Perhaps we should not be surprised, considering that the Prime Minister has been at the rotten core of all these scandals. The trail of sleaze and scandal all leads back to the funding of the Conservative party. Since 2010, the Tory party has made nine of its former treasurers Members of the House of Lords, and every single one of them has something in common: they have handed over £3 million to the Prime Minister’s party. That is the very definition of corruption. It is the public’s definition of corruption. Will this Government finally accept that this is corruption, or is the Prime Minister the only person in the country who has the brass neck to argue that it was all one big coincidence?

I will not comment on the missing £600,000 from the Scottish National party’s accounts, but what I will say, in all sincerity and heeding what you said earlier, Mr Speaker, is that I think that these constant attacks on the UK’s levels of corruption and sleaze do a massive disservice to billions of people around the world who genuinely suffer from Governments who are corrupt, and who genuinely have no ability to scrutinise their MPs. This is one of the cleanest democracies in the world, and people should be proud of it.

Q4. Will the Prime Minister join me in celebrating the 50th anniversary this year of the formation of the 177-mile path for walkers along Offa’s Dyke, which runs through Clwyd South, and give his support to the recently launched Offa’s Dyke rescue fund to repair and preserve this monument and nature reserve for future generations? (904175)

I had the good fortune to walk Offa’s Dyke very recently. I am delighted that English and Welsh organisations are working together to protect that fantastic national monument, and Historic England has committed to give almost £300,000 more to that great cause.

Ambulance response times are now the worst ever, people are waiting for ambulances longer than ever, and with A&Es in crisis, patients are stuck in ambulances outside hospital longer than ever. Waiting times are not statistics; they are about people—people often in great pain and in danger—so why are this Government closing ambulance stations in parts of our country? Why is the West Midlands ambulance service closing up to 10 community stations, including in Rugby, Oswestry and Craven Arms? With this health crisis for our ambulance services and in our A&Es, injured, sick and elderly people are being hit. When will the Prime Minister deal with this health crisis?

I appreciate that ambulance crews and ambulance services are doing an amazing job, particularly at this time of year, and I thank them for what they are doing. We are supporting them with more cash. Another £450 million was awarded to 120 trusts to upgrade their facilities, and as the right hon. Gentleman knows, we are putting another £36 billion into dealing with the backlog, which is fundamentally affecting the NHS so badly at the moment, through the levy that we have instituted, which I do not think he supported.

Q5. Domestic heating accounts for 30% of UK carbon emissions. I support the Government’s incentive scheme to replace old gas boilers with environmentally friendly alternatives. However, now that we are building more homes than we have been for many years, can we build on the success of COP26? What progress is being made on the standards for new-build homes, to make sure that they are fit for the future? (904176)

I thank my hon. Friend, who is totally right to focus on the issue of future-proofing homes and making them low carbon. By 2025, our future homes standard will ensure that new homes produce at least 75% fewer CO2 emissions.

Q6.   Last week I visited a GP practice in my constituency of Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough and was horrified to hear about the amount of abuse that staff are currently experiencing. Their workloads are under extreme pressure and this is not helped by the Prime Minister making demands about appointments while he has still failed on his manifesto pledge to recruit 6,000 more GPs. Will the Prime Minister apologise for this broken promise to GPs and their staff, who are on the frontline working under ever increasing pressure and depleted staffing resources? (904177)

First of all, I want to thank GPs for everything they are doing, particularly during the booster roll-out. As well as recruiting as many GPs as we can, we have 10,000 more nurses this year than last year and 25,000 more healthcare professionals altogether. There are more people now working in the NHS than at any time in its history, and because of our investment—the extra £36 billion that we are putting in—there will be even more, and I am afraid that the hon. Lady voted against that investment.

Q7. Following on from COP26, can my right hon. Friend confirm that maximising carbon capture and storage capacity across the whole United Kingdom is a priority for the Government—[Interruption.]despite the doom and gloom, and words of rejection from SNP Members? Will he also confirm that the Acorn carbon capture and storage and hydrogen project in my constituency has a key role to play in this country’s future carbon capture and storage capacity targets to meet net zero? (904178)

My hon. Friend is quite right to champion carbon capture and storage, which has a great future in Scotland in spite of all the gloomstering of the SNP. The Scottish cluster remains on the reserve. We will continue to study it and, we hope, bring it forward in due time.

Q8. The River Tyne, with its world-renowned offshore and subsea sectors, has been repeatedly sidelined by the Government, despite my and others constantly lobbying Ministers for investment that would massively increase employment opportunities and help the UK’s transition to net zero. However, I am very excited to see our voice is now being magnified by a new Tyne taskforce set up by local authorities, the port, businesses and the combined authority. Will the Prime Minister, here and now, commit his Government to work with us to realise the full potential of our great river? (904179)

The hon. Lady is absolutely right that the River Tyne is a massive economic asset for the whole of the north-east. It has suffered from historic contamination, but we are going to work with the North East local enterprise partnership to invest another £6 million to help to develop clear plans for sustainable economic growth along the whole of the estuary.

Q9.   Crawley constituency was one of the most negatively affected by the covid-19 pandemic, but thanks to significant support from the Government we are seeing recovery. Unemployment is now beginning to come down and we look to a confident future. In that vein, will my right hon. Friend please look favourably on Crawley’s platinum jubilee city-status bid? (904180)

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend. I was not aware until today that Crawley was bidding to become a city—

Q13. Every year, 100,000 babies are born premature or sick in the UK and admitted to neonatal intensive care units. The Prime Minister will be aware that today is World Prematurity Day. There is cross-party agreement in the House to bring forward neonatal leave and pay. Rather than wait for a complex and controversial employment Bill, will the Prime Minister bring forward a standalone Bill to legislate for that, so that next World Prematurity Day the 100,000 babies and their parents do not have to choose between spending time in the hospital or unpaid leave from work? (904184)

The hon. Gentleman is a passionate campaigner in this area. One way or another—I will get back to him on the exact way—we will legislate to allow parents of children in neonatal care to take extended leave, giving them more time during the most vulnerable and stressful days of their lives.

Q10. Further education colleges like Hopwood Hall College in my constituency will play an essential part in building back better. The team at Hopwood have supported over 8,000 learners on courses as diverse as small business management and animal management, as well as six new T-level courses. May I invite my right hon. Friend to come and visit the inspirational team and the students at Hopwood Hall, and, as a special treat, come and see Middleton’s very own flamboyance of flamingos and our endangered potoroos? (904181)

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind invitation. I will certainly keep it mind. The Government are absolutely committed to reforming technical education through new T-levels. That is why we are investing a further £65 million to develop teacher retention, and support and recruitment for teachers in further education. As for the potoroos in his area, are they wild? I will do my utmost to come and inspect them.

Q14. My constituent Laura told me that Remembrance Sunday hurts. It hurts because there have been no medals for her grandad’s service and the thousands of men involved in nuclear weapons tests overseas between 1952 and 1991. It hurts because studies of such veterans have shown increased miscarriages, increased birth defects and the same rate of genetic damage as clean-up workers at Chernobyl. And it hurts because the UK is the only nuclear power on earth that has denied recognition. So I ask the Prime Minister: will he recognise nuclear testing veterans today and agree to meet them? The Leader of the Opposition has. (904185)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for bringing this to my attention. I will certainly make sure that we get a proper meeting with the representatives of the nuclear veterans that she mentions.

Q11. When I was in Greece with Save the Children, I learned that change at any border was quickly communicated down the line. If migrants and asylum seekers knew that they would be directly returned to France or taken to a third country pending application, would they risk a dangerous and illegal crossing and make their way to France in the first place? I ask my right hon. Friend: what further measures are being considered? This is an issue of great concern in Eastbourne, along the coast and across the country, and I am anxious to be able to reassure my constituents that there are plans ahead. (904182)

I thank my hon. Friend very much, and she has much relevant experience from her work for Save the Children in Greece. Our only credible way of fixing this is with our new plan for immigration. That will be made possible with our new Nationality and Borders Bill, which will make it possible for us to distinguish at last between those who come here legally and those who come here illegally. I hope very much that it will command the support of the whole House.

In May, part of Northwich station in my constituency collapsed. I have asked the Transport Secretary to intervene and build back better and fairer to allow access for people with disabilities. He has declined my kind offer, so I ask the Prime Minister to intervene: no bluster, substance, build back better and fairer Northwich station—it is in the north of England.

I am tempted to invite the hon. Gentleman to wait and see what we do for rail funding tomorrow, but I will certainly look at what he had to say about Northwich station with keen interest.

Q12. Over 4,200 servicewomen and veterans used a democratic process to contribute to the Defence Committee’s inquiry into women in the armed forces. A formal response is still awaited from the Ministry of Defence. While the majority of women enjoy a fulfilling career in the military, shocking issues were raised around sexual assault, bullying and harassment. I know that the Prime Minister agrees that our armed forces are the best in the world. Would he also agree that we need to make sure that the British Army is the best place to serve as a woman? (904183)

I thank my hon. Friend; she is campaigning on a very important issue. Too often, we find that our armed forces fail to provide the wonderful women in our armed forces with the support they deserve. That is why I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary has secured a parliamentary inquiry into this for the first time. It is vital that we support and encourage women in our armed forces, who make a massive difference to those services.

It has cost businesses in Northern Ireland £850 million to date to operate the failed and suffocating protocol. Lord Frost is today in Belfast. When will the Prime Minister fix this by legitimately activating article 16?

I thank the hon. Gentleman, and I think the word that I would fasten on in his question is “legitimately”. There is no question but that the use of article 16, which, after all, has been done by the EU Commission to stop vaccines being exported to this country, is something that is perfectly legal and within the bounds of the protocol.

Q15.   I recently visited Humphrey Perkins School in beautiful Barrow upon Soar. The students asked me, “What are the Government doing to engage children and students from all backgrounds to encourage them to aspire to become an MP, or even Prime Minister?” (904186)

What I would say to my hon. Friend and her students is that nothing that is said or takes place in this House—none of the argy-bargy, the repartee and the occasional abuse to which we subject each other—should in any way deter anybody from seeking a career in politics, because it is a wonderful privilege and we are all very lucky to be here.

In my constituency of Edinburgh West, numerous people come to us with delays from the Department for Work and Pensions with pensions and benefits, to add to the delays that others are facing with passports and with the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency. Can the Prime Minister tell us who—among the many jobs being done at the moment—is making sure that the Departments of Government are running smoothly and quickly?

I think that actually the Department for Work and Pensions, under the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), has performed outstanding service. It has performed miracles. Among the things that it has achieved is helping to get millions of people effectively back into employment, in spite of all the difficulties that we have faced. We now have unemployment running at virtually record lows, in spite of all the difficulties we have faced in this pandemic and as we come out of furlough. That is largely thanks to the work of the DWP. Of course there is more that can be done and people can always up their game, but I think that the DWP and its officials working across the country —huge numbers of men and women—have done an outstanding job.

In July 2019, I was in Manchester when the Prime Minister committed to building a new line, Northern Powerhouse Rail, between Manchester and Leeds. That commitment was reaffirmed in our manifesto in November 2019, and last month it was reaffirmed in the Prime Minister’s conference speech in Manchester. Were the voters of the north right to take the Prime Minister at his word?

Yes, and they should wait and see what is unveiled tomorrow, when my right hon. Friend may learn something to his advantage.