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Volume 704: debated on Wednesday 1 December 2021

Today, I am wearing a purple tie in recognition of the International Day of People with Disabilities this coming Friday. In July, we published the UK’s first national disability strategy to help to create a society that works for everybody.

I know that the thoughts of the whole House will be with those who are continuing to face disruption caused by Storm Arwen. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy will update the House on the continuing response to Storm Arwen after Prime Minister’s questions.

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 and I have a shared commitment to protecting our natural environment and improving our biodiversity across the country. Indeed, that is why I am campaigning to extend the Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty towards the south-west of Hitchin. Will my right hon. Friend set out how he plans to strengthen the protections for our countryside, while also ensuring that housing developments are both green and sustainable for the long term?

Yes, indeed. I can tell my hon. Friend that Natural England is considering an extension of the Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty, and I am sure that it will listen to his passionate appeal very carefully.

May I join the Prime Minister in his words on disability and the victims of extreme weather? May I also mark World AIDS Day? Extraordinary advances mean that people living with HIV on effective treatment can now enjoy normal life expectancy and are no longer at risk of passing on the virus. It is within our hands to end new transmissions in the UK this decade. We must do so.

As millions of people were locked down last year, was a Christmas party thrown in Downing Street for dozens of people on 18 December?

What I can tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman is that all guidance was followed completely in No. 10. May I recommend that he does the same with his own Christmas party, which is advertised for 15 December and to which, unaccountably, he has failed to invite the deputy Leader of the Opposition?

Nice try, but that won’t work. The defence seems to be that no rules were broken. Well, I have the rules that were in place at the time of the party. They are very clear that

“you must not have a work Christmas lunch or party”.

Does the Prime Minister really expect the country to believe that while people were banned from seeing their loved ones at Christmas last year, it was fine for him and his friends to throw a boozy party in Downing Street?

I have said what I have said about No. 10 and the events of 12 months ago, but since the right hon. and learned Gentleman asks about what we are asking the country to do this year, which I think is a more relevant consideration, let me say that the important thing to do is not only to follow the guidance that we have set out but, when it comes to dealing with the omicron variant, to make sure that—as we have said, Mr Speaker—you wear a mask on public transport and in shops, and that you self-isolate if you come into contact with somebody who has omicron. Above all, what we are doing is strengthening our measures at the borders. But in particular, Mr Speaker—and I think that this is very valuable for everybody to hear—get your booster!

I know that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is eligible for his booster. I am not going to ask him, Mr Speaker, as I am forbidden to ask him questions, but I hope very much that he has had it.

The Prime Minister says that we should concentrate on what he is asking the country to do. We are asking the country to follow the rules. The Prime Minister does not deny that there was a Downing Street Christmas party last year. He says that no rules were broken. Both those things cannot be true. He is taking the British public for fools.

As for following the rules, Prime Minister, it might be good just to look behind you when it comes to the question of masks. As ever, there is one rule for them and another rule for everybody else.

At the last election, the Prime Minister promised to build 40 new hospitals. It is on page 10 of his manifesto. With waiting lists so high, that is a very important commitment. The Cabinet Office and the Treasury have checked on progress, and it is reported that they have a reached a damning conclusion. I know that the Chancellor will have seen that. They have concluded that the project needs a “red flag” because it is unachievable. Prime Minister, is that true?

No. The right hon. and learned Gentleman plays politics and asks frivolous questions, but we are getting on with delivering on the people’s priorities. We are making record investments in the NHS, on top of the £34 billion with which we began, and then the £97 billion that we put in to fight covid. We are helping to build another 40 new hospitals with an injection of £36 billion of investment, which that party voted against.

Well, this is strange, Mr Speaker, because the Government have not been denying the reports about the red flag and they have not done so since, but now the Prime Minister is. There is obviously some confusion on those Benches over whether the Cabinet Office and the Treasury think he is on course to break yet another promise, this time on the building of new hospitals. He can clear that up this afternoon. If he is so confident in his answer, why does he not publish the progress report in full and let us all see it?

What we are doing is not only building 40 new hospitals—and it is incredible that we have been able to keep going throughout the pandemic—[Interruption.] Yes, it is. We are not only building those hospitals, but making record investments in our NHS. We have more doctors and more nurses working in our NHS than at any time in the history of that magnificent organisation. Rather than running down what they are trying to do and casting doubt on their efforts, the right hon. and learned Gentleman should get behind them and, in particular, he should support our booster campaign.

Well, there we have it. The Prime Minister says, “I deny that my hospital building programme has been flagged red as unachievable, but I do not have the confidence to publish the report.”

The more we look at this promise, the murkier it gets. I have a document here, which was sent to the NHS by the Department of Health and Social Care. It is called “New hospital programme communications playbook”—I kid you not—and it offers

“advice to make it easier to talk about the programme”.

You might think that everyone knows what a new hospital is. I certainly thought I knew what a new hospital was before I read this guide, but it instructs everyone to describe refurbishments and alterations in existing hospitals as new hospitals. We can all agree that refurbishments are a very good thing, but they are not new hospitals. So how many of the 40 are fix-up jobs on existing hospitals and how many are actually the new hospitals that the Prime Minister promised?

You obviously do not always go around building on greenfield sites. You rebuild hospitals, and that is what we have said for the last two and a half years. It is the biggest programme of hospital building this country has ever undertaken. It has been made possible by this people’s Government, and it is in addition to what we are doing with the community diagnostics hubs and in addition to what we are doing in investing in our NHS. I have said it once and I will say it again: the Opposition had the opportunity to vote for that £36 billion but they turned it down. We are getting on with the people’s priorities; they are playing politics.

It is no wonder that so many Tory donors paid so much for that wallpaper last year—the Prime Minister probably told them he was building a new flat. It is the same old story from this Prime Minister, week in, week out: defending the indefensible, and broken promises. His mates were found to be corrupt; he tried to get them off the hook. Downing Street throws parties during lockdown; he says it is not a problem. He promised that there would be no tax rises, then he put up tax. He promised that there would be a rail revolution in the north, then he cancelled the trains. He promised that no one would have to sell their home for care, then along came his working-class dementia tax. He promised 40 new hospitals, but even if we count the paint jobs, his own watchdog says he cannot deliver it. Is it not the truth that any promises from this Prime Minister are not worth the manifesto paper they are written on?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman drivels on irrelevantly about wallpaper and parties, playing politics. By the way, I am told that when the Deputy Leader of the Opposition and shadow Secretary of State for the future of work was told that she was not invited, she denounced it as idiotic, childish and pathetic. They are getting on with factional infighting; we are delivering for the people of this country. Today, cutting tax for the lowest paid people in this country. As a result of our universal credit changes, 1.9 million families are getting £1,000 more in their pay packets this year. The biggest programme of rail infrastructure this century, with three new high-speed lines. And we are fixing social care. They have no plan whatever, and don’t forget that their resort to absolutely every problem is either to take this country back into lockdown or to open up to uncontrolled immigration. That is their approach. We are delivering on the people’s priorities, and we have more people in work now, as a result of the balanced and proportionate approach that we are taking, than we had before the pandemic began. If we had listened to Captain Hindsight, we would all still be in lockdown. That is the truth.

Q4. Thank you, Mr Speaker. The Prime Minister will know that we will not be able to stop the endless waves of illegal migrants crossing the English channel until we break free from the constraints of the European convention on human rights, which impedes our ability to tackle this tragic situation and protects even the most violent criminals from being deported. Does he agree that it is time to take back control and fulfil our 2015 manifesto commitment to get rid of Labour’s Human Rights Act and bring in a British Bill of Rights? (904476)

We will certainly review the human rights system, but in the meantime there is something we can all do next Tuesday and Wednesday, because our Nationality and Borders Bill is coming back to the House after long gestation. The Bill gives us the power to make the distinction at last between illegal and legal migrants to this country, it gives Border Force the power to turn people back at sea, and it gives us the power to send people overseas for screening, rather than doing it in this country. I am not asking the Opposition but telling them: it would be a great thing if they backed our Nationality and Borders Bill and undermined the criminals.

I associate myself with the Prime Minister’s remarks on disability, and of course our thoughts are very much with all those who are recovering from Storm Arwen. Like the Leader of the Opposition, of course we commemorate World AIDS Day.

Mr Speaker, I am sure your thoughts and the thoughts of the House are with the family and friends of Siobhan Cattigan, the Scotland rugby player who unfortunately died over the weekend at the age of 26, having won 19 caps.

It is deeply regrettable that, once again, we are forced to spend so much time in this House discussing the Prime Minister’s misconduct, but when the person in charge so blatantly breaks the rules, it needs to be talked about. Last Christmas the Prime Minister hosted a packed party in Downing Street, an event that broke the lockdown rules that everyone else was expected to follow. He might deny it, but I spoke to the Daily Mirror this morning and it confirmed what happened. The newspaper has legal advice on the potential illegality. At a time when public health messaging is so vital, how are people possibly expected to trust the Prime Minister when he thinks it is one rule for him and another rule for everybody else?

The SNP should concentrate its line of attack more closely. I have said before that the right hon. Gentleman is talking total nonsense. Frankly, he would have been better off saying something about the victims of Storm Arwen in Scotland.

If I did not hear it, he was drowned out by his supporters. We need to work together—the Government of the UK working with the Scottish authorities—to help those people get their power back, and that is what we are doing.

That is a disgraceful answer. The Prime Minister did not even listen, because I mentioned Storm Arwen.

The real reason why all this matters is that we find ourselves at another very difficult moment in this pandemic. This is a time when leadership matters, when truth matters and when trust matters. Only this morning, leaked SAGE advice confirmed that the UK Government’s current international travel restrictions will identify significantly fewer cases. It is exactly the same advice that the Prime Minister received from the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales on Monday, and he has ignored that advice.

Since then other countries, like Ireland and the US, have moved rapidly on international travel to protect their people. Will the Prime Minister finally convene a four-nation Cobra meeting to tighten travel restrictions, or will he continue to ignore the Scottish Government, the Welsh Government and his own SAGE advisers and imperil the health of the public of these islands?

Of course we want to work closely with the right hon. Gentleman. There will be abundant opportunities today and in the weeks ahead to concert our activity, but he is simply wrong in what he says about the steps the Government have taken to prevent the seeding of this variant from abroad. This country was actually the first to respond to the 10 countries that are most likely to seed the new omicron variant in this country. We put them on the red list, so people not only have pre-departure tests but they are quarantined. He is not right in what he says, and every other country in the world—[Interruption.] I do not mind if the right hon. Gentleman shouts. I tell him very calmly and quietly that 100% of passengers arriving from every other country in the world must take a PCR test, and they cannot get out of quarantine unless they test negative. Those balanced and proportionate measures are designed to protect the British people from the omicron variant, and that is the right approach to take.

Q5. Britain has some of the most unaffordable childcare in the developed world, which reduces opportunities for working families, particularly single parents, deepens gender pay gaps and makes levelling up much harder. Will the Prime Minister meet me to discuss the proposal in my just-published policy paper “Poverty Trapped” for an immediate review to design out these internationally uncompetitive costs, while still delivering a safe and enriching level of care for our children too? (904477)

I thank my hon. Friend for that. He is completely right about the importance of childcare and the transformative influence it can have, which is why we have spent £3.5 billion in each of the past three years on free childcare entitlements, particularly for the most disadvantaged. I am always happy to meet him and to discuss his ideas further.

Farmers across our country are crucial to our nation’s prosperity, as has been shown, once again through the pandemic, but many are now on the brink. Farmers across the country, in villages such as Hodnet, Baschurch and Woodseaves and countless others, are about to see their payments cut by at least 5%, starting this very month. The Prime Minister promised a new support system, rewarding more sustainable farming, but in the meantime he seems prepared to see many British farms go bankrupt. There is an easy solution: stop cutting the current system’s essential payments until the new scheme is fully rolled out. Will the Prime Minister do that, and help our struggling farmers before it is too late?

British food and farming does an absolutely outstanding job, and it is growing the whole time. Last night, I met representatives of the UK food and farming industry, which we support and continue to support with the same level of payments. But what we are also doing is opening up new opportunities for them around the world. I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that in every single embassy there is now a dedicated expert on supporting UK food and farming exports to the rest of the world, which support 4 million jobs in this country and earn this country £21 billion of revenue.

Q6. More needs to be done to tackle the people trafficking gangs that exploit migrants across Europe, promising to get them to this country. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is totally unacceptable that companies such as Facebook allow those smugglers to offer their services on their platforms—not only routes into the country, but the sale of forged British papers in order to aid their access? Does he agree that when this House passes the Online Safety Bill we will have the power to do more to make companies such as Facebook take down content that promotes illegal activity? (904478)

I thank my hon. Friend for that. He is absolutely right to say that too many of these gangs are using social media, which is why the online harms Bill is so important. It will indeed be of assistance to us in taking down that kind of material.

Q2. Women have been left with internal damage and pain that they describe as being like “razor blades inside them”. Many have lost their careers and some have even lost their lives. It is impossible to know exactly how many women are left suffering. So why will the Prime Minister not give these mesh-damaged women the redress that they were recommended in the Cumberlege report? (904474)

I am very grateful to the hon. Lady, who raises an extremely important issue about a phenomenon that I know has caused huge distress to many, many women in this country. We published the Cumberlege report, and if there is anything more we can do, I am certainly willing to look at it. I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising this.

Q8. The levelling-up agenda has already changed so many areas of our country for the better. In my constituency, our town centre in Worksop is in desperate need of regeneration and of finally solving our flooding problems. Unfortunately, my council in Bassetlaw missed the deadline for the latest round of grants. What can this Government do to help support areas such as mine, which have struggled with their bids, in order to make sure they are successful the next time around? (904480)

Step No. 1 is to vote out those dozy Labour councillors. I thank my hon. Friend for his excellent representation of Bassetlaw and can tell him that the second round of bidding for the levelling-up fund will open in spring next year.

Q3. Between 2010 and 2019, West Midlands police lost 2,221 officers. The force should receive an additional 1,200 new recruits by 2023 via the police uplift programme, but that will still leave a shortfall of 1,000 officers. This lack of frontline police has left the force stretched and under significant pressure, with officers telling me that“there are simply insufficient resources to investigate every crime.”Will the Prime Minister commit to providing West Midlands police with a fairer funding deal to ensure that the force can return officer numbers to 2010 levels? (904475)

I thank the police officers in the west midlands, and I thank the hon. Lady for drawing attention to what we are doing to increase the number of police officers—[Interruption.] No, we are on track: of the 20,000 that I pledged on the steps of Downing Street two and a half years ago, we have already recruited another 11,000. I am proud to say that our police officer workforce is more representative of the whole of this country, with more women and more people from ethnic minorities, than ever before.

Q9. Last week, the Chief Minister of Gibraltar, the hon. Fabian Picardo, appeared before the European Scrutiny Committee and gave evidence about the continuing negotiations between Gibraltar and the European Union on their future relationship. The Chief Minister made it clear in his evidence that his ambition was that Gibraltar’s future should be “British, British, British”. Will my right hon. Friend say what the Government are doing to support the Chief Minister to achieve that aim and, in particular, to exclude any role for the European Court of Justice? (904481)

Frankly, I cannot really improve on the verdict of my friend Fabian Picardo, the Chief Minister of Gibraltar: Gibraltar is British, British, British and will remain so. By the way, I see no future role for the European Court of Justice.

Q7. My constituency of Edinburgh West has some of the most polluted streets in our country. An estimated one in 29 deaths in Edinburgh are related to air pollution and we do not meet World Health Organisation guidelines, so will the Prime Minister meet me to discuss whether his Government can support my private Member’s Bill, which would tackle the issue, bring us into line and let us all breathe a little easier? (904479)

I thank the hon. Lady for raising that issue; it is incredibly important, which is why we are now moving to all-out electric vehicles across the whole of the country, faster than any other European country. The World Health Organisation has praised our clean air strategy as an example for the rest of the world to follow. We will set out our evidence-based approach and the targets we are setting, but I would of course be happy to make sure that the hon. Lady meets the relevant Minister to set out her case.

Q11. Last month, the drug company Pfizer announced the successful trial of a new treatment called Paxlovid. The trial showed the drug to be roughly 90% successful, or better, at stopping death. Our current vaccine strategy is an enormous success, but it leads to a never-ending biological arms race against the mutating virus. As a supplement to a vaccine strategy, this treatment will allow Governments around the world to avoid the need for future emergency restrictions. What are the Government doing in the short term to secure supplies of this revolutionary treatment and in the long-term to enable the building of factories to produce it in Britain? (904483)

My right hon. Friend is spot on. The roll-out of Paxlovid in the NHS will of course depend on its approval by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, but the Government have, as a precaution, already invested in hundreds of thousands of courses of the drug.

Q10. Wales has 11% of the UK rail network, yet receives only 2% of UK rail enhancement funding and, as reported on WalesOnline, will be denied billions of consequential funding from HS2. Having under-delivered on rail in the north, and having under-delivered on rail in Wales, why should anyone trust this Government to deliver on their promises? (904482)

I am afraid that she has completely failed to look at what Sir Peter Hendy set out in his Union connectivity review. It is a fantastic agenda for change and improvement, particularly in Wales and particularly on the north Welsh corridor where the railway links deserve to be improved and will be improved under this Government.

Q13. Getting investment into Gedling is important. At a previous PMQs, I put aside my political differences with Labour-run Gedling Borough Council to champion its levelling-up fund bid, which, like other funding bids that it has made was sadly unsuccessful. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is important that councils such as Gedling now take stock and learn from this experience and will he confirm that help from Government will be available to do that so that, in future, hopefully Gedling and other councils will be able to make more successful bids. (904485)

Yes, of course, we are very happy to help Gedling and other Labour-run councils to get their act together where necessary and to put in those bids. Just to remind my hon. Friend, more levelling-up fund bids come due in the spring of next year, and I wish Gedling well in its future bids.

Q12. My grandfather, along with thousands of others, came to this country 70 years ago, working seven days a week in squalid conditions to help rebuild this country. Now, the Home Secretary’s Nationality and Borders Bill means that she can revoke our British citizenship and deport us for even the most minor wrongdoings. Given the horrific track record of the Government and the Home Office, with their treatment of minorities, the hostile environment and the Windrush scandal, let me ask the Prime Minister the burning question that is now on the lips of everyone from a black, Asian and minority ethnic background right across the country, “When is he coming for me?” (904484)

The hon. Gentleman should look at the Conservative Front Bench today, and he should withdraw what he has just said—he should withdraw it. What he said was absolutely shameful, and, as he knows full well, the Nationality and Borders Bill does nothing of the kind. It helps us to fight the evil gangs who are predating on people’s willingness to cross the channel in unseaworthy boats and I would have thought that a sensible Labour party would support it.

Q14. This Saturday is Small Business Saturday. I am proud to represent some fantastic local businesses, such as Kays of Grantham, the Stamford Notebook Company and the Bourne Bookshop. This Government have provided unprecedented support throughout the pandemic. Can the Prime Minister assure me that his commitment to our high streets will continue long into the future? (904486)

I thank my hon. Friend for all the support that he gives to Grantham and Stamford. I can tell him that Small Business Saturday is receiving huge support from the Government. We had a kind of festival last night to celebrate it in Downing Street. I encourage everybody to get out this Saturday—safely with their mask on, Mr Speaker, when they are in a shop, but that should be no inhibition on people buying in their shops up and down this country.

Q15. Next week, the 97th victim of the Hillsborough tragedy will receive the Freedom of Liverpool. Andrew Devine passed away earlier this year, aged 55, having defied the odds to survive the injuries that he sustained at Hillsborough aged 22. A coroner’s inquest in Liverpool in July ruled that he was unlawfully killed as a result of the disaster, making him the 97th victim. Following my tabling last week of early-day motion 649 on Hillsborough and the national curriculum, will the Prime Minister agree to meet me to discuss the roll-out of the Hillsborough real truth legacy project, including the addition of the Hillsborough disaster to the national curriculum and help to consign to history the narrative of lies and smears peddled by some elements of the media and the establishment over the past 32 years through the power of education? (904487)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the powerful point that he has just made. Even though 32 years have passed since that devastating tragedy, I know that the wounds remain very raw in Liverpool. The Government are committed, as he knows, to continuing engagement with the bereaved families, and to ensuring that the lessons from that tragedy continue to be properly learned and that the victims of Hillsborough are never forgotten. I am happy to ensure that the hon. Gentleman meets the relevant Minister to take forward an agenda that I think is shared by people up and down the country.