The Prime Minister was asked—
May I start by wishing you, Mr Speaker, and all Members a happy new year?
Thanks to the heroic efforts of our vaccination programme and people coming forward up and down the country, we managed to ensure that families could still celebrate Christmas. With more than 34 million people now boosted, I want to take this opportunity to say that anybody who has not yet done so should come forward and get boosted now.
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.
With Sadiq Khan’s Transport for London in tatters and the Welsh Labour-nationalist coalition in Cardiff Bay an unfunded devolved disaster, does the Prime Minister agree that the great British public do not need to look back at the last UK Labour Government to see what the Opposition’s answer to all our problems is? It is to bang at the doors of the Treasury and demand that the taxpayer bail them out of their own ineptitude and incompetence.
It is not just Labour’s record in London or in Wales: every Labour Government in history since the second world war has left office with unemployment higher than when they came in. That is because only Conservatives can be trusted to deliver on the economy and on the people’s priorities, which is why, thanks to the policies that we have pursued, this country now has the fastest economic growth in the G7.
A happy new year to you, Mr Speaker, and to the rest of the House.
Over the Christmas break, the world lost a giant in the fight for equality and human rights: the great Desmond Tutu. I offer my condolences to his family and to the people of South Africa.
I thank all the key workers who have kept our essential services running over the festive period. In particular, I thank all the staff and volunteers working at vaccination sites and our amazing NHS staff, who are working incredibly hard in incredibly stretched circumstances. We will come to that after Prime Minister’s questions, with the Prime Minister’s statement. I also thank the formidable Sue Gray, who has been busier than Santa over the festive period.
In October, the Prime Minister said that fears about inflation were “unfounded”, but working people across the country are starting the new year facing rising bills and ballooning prices, so how did he get it so wrong?
Of course, I said no such thing, because inflation is always something that we have to be careful about. We are making sure that we protect the people of this country throughout what is unquestionably going to be a difficult period, which is why we have lifted the living wage by record sums and why we make sure that people have cold weather payments, the warm home discount and all the other protections, including the £500 million fund we have put in to help local councils look after people through what will be a difficult period. The most important thing we can do to look after people during this very difficult time is to ensure that we take the balanced and proportionate approach that we are taking to ensure that we are able to keep our country and our society going, which is exactly what we are doing. That is why we have doubled down on the booster programme and why we are sticking with plan B. That is the right approach for the country.
Inflation is about to hit 6%. That is the highest rate since the early ‘90s, when the Conservatives had been in power for more than a decade—when they were mired in sleaze, with a divided party and a Prime Minister losing the support of his Back Benchers and governing shambolically, and a Labour party ready to take over and provide Britain with a better future. Familiar stuff, Mr Speaker? The Prime Minister promised that wage rises would offset inflation. They have not and they will not. Millions of British workers now face a further pay cut and the Chancellor is handing them a tax hike. What will the Prime Minister do to get a grip of this?
It is great to be here with the right hon. Lady, the shadow Secretary of State for the Future of Work—we know the future job that she has in mind. I wish her well. What we are focused on is delivering jobs for the British people. It is a quite extraordinary thing that there are now record numbers of people in work—420,000 more than there were before the pandemic began. We have youth unemployment at a record low. Never let it be forgotten that when omicron hit this country, what was the instinctive response of Labour Members? [Interruption.] That is right, Mr Speaker. They said that we needed a road map to lock down. If we had listened to them, we would not have anybody working at all.
I have heard on the grapevine that there might be a vacancy for Prime Minister soon, so perhaps I should have aspirations.
The Prime Minister pretends that it is not his fault. He blames the global forces. He blames the markets. We are an aspirational party. Perhaps the Prime Minister needs to be more aspirational for this country. The Prime Minister has made political choices that have led us to this place. His Government have failed to invest in long-term energy security. His Government decided to let gas storages collapse. His Government let the energy market run out of control: 27 energy companies have gone bust in the past year, and now household bills are going through the roof, or, as the Money Saving Expert Martin Lewis put it, there will be a “seismic” hit to energy bills. Cannot the Prime Minister see what is happening? Yet again, working families are picking up the tab for his incompetence.
The right hon. Lady talks about energy. I think the House would agree that she has a lot more energy than the current Leader of the Opposition. I welcome her point, because what the Government are doing is supporting people throughout the pandemic: 2.2 million people supported with the warm home discount, worth £140 per week, which we introduced; pensioners supported with the £300 winter fuel payments; and there are cold weather payments worth £25 a week for 4 million people up and down the country. That is what we are doing, and that is on top of everything that we are doing to support people on low incomes. We are cutting taxes for those on universal credit and increasing the living wage—£1,000 more for everybody on the living wage. These are record sums. Let me remind the House of the fundamental difference between that Labour party and this Government. Labour Members would have kept us in lockdown in July. When omicron hit, they were calling for further restrictions. [Interruption.] That is right, Mr Speaker. We have been able to keep this country moving, keep the economy growing, and keep the money going into people’s pockets.
I will tell you what this Prime Minister is doing, Mr Speaker. He is increasing taxes for the hard-working people of this country. That is what he is doing. That is what he did not promise to do in his manifesto, but that is what he is doing to the people.
“The poorest households spend three times more of their income on household energy bills than the richest households spend”,
“VAT on…energy bills…makes gas and electricity…more expensive.”
Those are not my words, but the words of the Prime Minister himself. When energy bills are to be hiked again in April, any decent Government would find a way to help British families. Even Tory Back Benchers have finally accepted Labour’s call for a cut in VAT on energy bills, so will the Prime Minister finally stand up to his Chancellor and do the same?
The right hon. Lady obviously did not listen to my previous answer. Let me remind her that the warm home discount already supports 2.2 million people to the tune of £140 a week. Pensioners are supported with £300 through the winter fuel payment, and there are cold weather payments for 4 million people. The Opposition now have the effrontery, having campaigned to remain in the European Union—and she did too, did she not? [Hon. Members: “Yes!”] Oh yes, she campaigned to remain in the EU. [Interruption.] Oh yes she did—and they now have the barefaced cheek to come to this House of Commons and say that they want to cut VAT on fuel—[Interruption]—and so did the shadow Foreign Secretary—when everyone knows full well that that would be absolutely impossible if we were to do what Labour would do, go back into the EU and remain aligned with the EU single market. That is the objective of the Labour party. It cannot be trusted on Brexit, and it cannot be trusted on the economy.
Prime Minister, how’s it going? Are you okay?
The Prime Minister and his Chancellor have presided over economic mismanagement, low growth, and neglect of our public services, and what is their solution to fix that? Whacking more taxes on to working people. When the tax rises are combined with soaring energy prices, the average family faces a £1,200 hit. This is an iceberg, right ahead of us, so will the Prime Minister finally stop and change course—[Interruption.]
As a direct result of what we have already done on universal credit, a single mother with two kids is £1,200 better off. As a result of what we have done with the living wage—introduced by this Conservative Government, never let it be forgotten—everyone on that living wage has seen another £1,000 of income every year. But that is not the point. We will continue to look after people throughout the pandemic, but the fundamental point is that because of the steps that the Government have taken—because of the tough decisions we have taken, and because of our balanced and proportionate approach to covid—we have been able to keep this country open and keep our economy moving. We have kept our economy more open than any comparable economy in Europe, and the Opposition know it, although they opposed it on every step of the way. That is why people are seeing increases in employment, and increases in their pay packets as well.
The Prime Minister always gives with one hand and takes away more with the other. Under this Prime Minister, the country is worse off. Prices of everyday goods are soaring out of control. Hard-earned savings will be hit, and the wages of working people will not go as far. Inflation is not an economic theory; it has serious consequences for people’s lives. We need serious solutions to stop people falling into poverty or debt, but instead we have this Prime Minister and his incompetent leadership.
Every time we are faced with a challenge, he denies that there is a problem. He tries to laugh it off. He looks for someone else to blame. May I suggest to the Prime Minister that this is not about brushing his hair, but about brushing up his act? Does he accept that his incompetence is taking our country backwards and costing our country dear?
No—what I would tell the House and the country is that Labour incompetence has ruined this country time and time again. There has never been a Labour Government that have left office with unemployment lower than when they came in. And what is the right hon. Lady’s answer to the energy crisis? It is to nationalise our energy.
It was in fact Labour’s failure to invest in supply over a decade or more that reduced our ability to have cheaper, cleaner energy. We are rectifying that. We are taking the tough decisions that this country needs for the long term. It is because we have taken those tough decisions—because we have taken the balanced and proportionate approach we have that they opposed every step of the way—that we have youth unemployment at a record low. We have 420,000 more people in jobs now than there were before the pandemic began, and we have not only the most open society and economy in Europe but the fast economic growth in the G7. That is completely contrary to what the right hon. Lady has just said, and it is because of our stable, balanced and proportionate approach. Never let it be forgotten that when omicron presented itself, what did they vote for? They reached for the lever of more restrictions. They said lockdown; we said boosters. They carp from the sidelines; we get on with the job.
Yes. I thank my hon. Friend, who is completely right. That is why this Government are taking the tough decision to invest in the long-term future of our energy supply, investing in massively increasing our supply of renewables but nuclear as well. That is the right way forward for this country. It was Labour, of course, who completely failed to take those decisions, with the result that nuclear, in particular, fell away dramatically. It is absolutely farcical that Labour’s answer today to the energy price rises that my hon. Friend correctly diagnoses is to nationalise our energy—[Interruption.] Yes it is. Is it? Well, maybe they have changed their minds now, but it was. Maybe they have had second thoughts. But their answer was to nationalise our energy sector and to send bills even higher, and that is not the way forward.
I wish you, Mr Speaker, colleagues and all staff a guid new year.
Over the last few weeks, serious warnings have grown over the Tory cost of living crisis, which will hit the majority of families over the coming months. New research from the Resolution Foundation has found that, on average, families will be £1,200 worse off from April as a result of Tory cuts, tax hikes and soaring energy bills. For members of the Tory Government, £1,200 might not seem very much. For the Foreign Secretary it is just another taxpayer-funded lunch in Mayfair. For the Prime Minister it is just a roll of fancy wallpaper for his taxpayer-funded flat. But for the vast majority of families, losing £1,200 a year will be catastrophic. For some it will mean that they cannot afford to pay their rent and bills, to heat their homes or to put food on the table. So will the Prime Minister apologise for leaving millions of families worse off, and will he commit to an emergency financial package to reverse his Tory cost of living crisis?
I find that criticism hard to take from the humble crofter, if I may say so—with whom, I stress, I normally have very good relations off the pitch. What we are doing is helping families up and down the country with the taper rate, ensuring that a single mother with two kids gets £1,200 more on universal credit, £1,000 more as a result of the increase to the living wage. The crucial thing I am trying to get over this afternoon is that we, unlike virtually any other European economy, have been able to keep going and keep people in work. We now have more people in work than there were before the pandemic began. That is because of the balanced and proportionate approach we have taken, and the right hon. Gentleman’s support would be welcome and deserved.
My goodness, Mr Speaker—we are talking about a Tory cost of living crisis. So much for a new year, a new start: it is the same nonsense from this failing Prime Minister. We have had the year of Tory sleaze, but now we have the year of Tory squeeze for family budgets. Economists have warned that UK living standards will worsen in 2022, with the poorest households hit hardest by Tory cuts, tax hikes and soaring inflation driven by his Government’s policy. Under this Prime Minister, the UK already has the worst levels of poverty and inequality in north-west Europe. Now the Tories are making millions of families poorer. In Scotland, the SNP Government are mitigating this Tory poverty crisis by doubling the Scottish child payment to £20 per week. I ask the Prime Minister this: will he match the Scottish Government and introduce a £20 child payment across the UK, or will the Tories push hundreds of thousands of children into poverty as a direct result of his policies?
The right hon. Gentleman is talking, I am afraid, total nonsense. This Government are absolutely determined, as I have said throughout this pandemic, to look after particularly the poorest and the neediest. That is what the Chancellor did: all his packages were extremely progressive in their effect. When I came in to office, we ensured that we uprated the local housing allowance, because I understand the importance of that allowance for families on low incomes. We are supporting vulnerable renters. That is why we are putting money into local authorities to help families up and down the country who are facing tough times. The right hon. Gentleman’s fundamental point is wrong. He is just wrong about what is happening in this country. If we look at the statistics, we see that economic inequality is down in this country. Income inequality is down and poverty is down, and I will tell you why—because we get people in to work. We get people in to jobs. That is our answer.
I cannot believe that Hillingdon is not included in that list, but it is no surprise to me that Bromley runs such a tight ship; I have been familiar with Bromley over many years and my hon. Friend and I have campaigned there together. I commend particularly Ade Adetosoye CBE on his achievement.
Happy new year, Mr Speaker! I am sure the Prime Minister will want to join me and my Liberal Democrat colleagues in welcoming my hon. Friend the new Member for North Shropshire (Helen Morgan).
People’s already high heating bills are about to jump by more than 50%, with average energy bills rising by nearly £700 a year. Gas price rises will push millions more families into fuel poverty, when we know many are already afraid even to open their heating bills. Does the Prime Minister accept that he could be doing much more than he is to prevent millions of people from going hungry and cold this year while he remains—for now at least—in the warmth and comfort of No. 10?
Of course I welcome the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Helen Morgan) to her place; but as for the rest of what the right hon. Gentleman had to say, I think balls was the word—you were right first time, Mr Speaker. Your word, Mr Speaker, not mine. I simply advise the House to go back over what I have just said about all the protections that we are putting in place—the winter fuel payments, the warm home allowance, what we are doing to support pensioners, the £650 million we are putting in to support local councils. He talks about long-term energy solutions; is this the same Ed Balls/Davey who was an Energy Minister?
I think my right hon. Friend’s amendment may have re-emerged in another place, and I thank him. He knows a great deal about the issue and I understand what he is trying to do. We are taking, for the time being, a different approach, and that is having record numbers of people working in our NHS—more than ever before, with 5,000 more doctors this year than last year, and 10,000 more nurses. That is thanks to the investment that this House voted through, and that that Opposition, unbelievably, opposed.
May I extend my deepest sympathies to the right hon. Lady? I am sure the whole House, and everybody who has listened, will have shared her feelings and will simply wish to extend their condolences in view of her mother’s condition. I know how her feelings must be exacerbated by the difficulties that so many people up and down the country are facing because of the restrictions that we are having to put on care homes, and I sympathise deeply. We do have to try to strike a balance and to keep home care residents safe and to do what we can to prevent the epidemic from taking hold in care homes. We continue to allow three nominated visitors to care homes, and there should be no limit to the duration of those visits. I understand the particular distress and anxiety that the right hon. Lady’s circumstances are causing. May I suggest that she has a meeting, as soon as it can be arranged, with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care?
My hon. Friend has drawn attention to a very important consideration as we try to abate the increases in the costs of gas and of energy. For people in rural constituencies such as her own, it will be important that we have frozen fuel duty for the 12th year in a row, that the energy price cap itself remains in place, and that we are doing everything we can to help people with the energy efficiency of their homes. We are also taking all the other measures that I have explained to the House, but the most important thing that we can do to help people in her constituency and across the country is to have sustainable, clean, cheaper forms of energy, and that is what this Government are investing in now. We are taking the tough decisions necessary.
Of course, as the hon. Gentleman knows, one of the first things we did when covid struck was make sure that statutory sick pay was payable from day one, so it is up to 75% more generous if a person needs to self-isolate. The current statutory sick pay is, of course, a minimum—more than half of employees get contractual sick pay from their employer—but the most important thing we can do is ensure that we continue to keep people in work and in higher-wage, higher-skilled jobs, and that is what we are doing.
Over 10 million people have been automatically enrolled into workplace pensions already: that has put another £28.4 billion into pensions, so it is a great success. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will be listening closely to what my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden) has said.
Actually, in my experience, what most Londoners want is protection from high-taxing Labour councils, but what they will also get is that we will deliver on our pledge to protect residents from serious fire safety risks, and also to manage the injustice that leaseholders face. The House can look forward to being updated shortly.
Yes, because we are going to get on with our job of levelling up across the whole of the UK, making sure that every part of this United Kingdom shares in our ambition to be a science superpower, which is what we are and what we will be. Ulverston has a rich history in the life sciences, and we are in regular consultation—not just officials in BEIS—with my hon. Friend and with officials in the sector to see what more we can do to further investment in the area.
A number of people in my constituency have contacted me about the lack of NHS dentists and the prohibitive cost of private dental treatment. Just a few weeks ago one constituent contacted me and said:
“I work full-time as a mental health support worker, I am on minimum wage and can barely afford the reduced NHS dental costs. In the past three months I have had to go to the emergency dentist three times for the same tooth, with the infection initially getting so bad I collapsed at work. The problem is not being dealt with because you need a second appointment which isn’t classed as an emergency and thus needs your ‘regular’ dentist.”
Does the Prime Minister agree that such stories amount to nothing less than a national scandal? What steps will he take to reduce the backlog of NHS dental appointments, and will he commit to increasing the number of NHS dentists across England?
I thank the hon. Gentleman, but that goes to show why it is so important to keep this country going and to keep people going to the dentist. One of the troubles we have had during lockdown is that people have not been going—there are 10 million unfilled fillings, I am told. That is why we are putting record investment into dentistry and into the NHS—£36 billion. [Interruption.] For all their caterwauling, the Opposition opposed that investment.
Can we remedy the current flawed budgetary process whereby it is possible to build 14,000 new homes in my constituency without any commensurate increase in general practice capacity? As we house the next generation, we must make sure that the infrastructure goes in at the same time.
Yes. I thank my hon. Friend, and he is completely right: we cannot build new homes without putting in the infrastructure to go with it. That is why we have a colossal programme of infrastructure investment—the biggest for a century. That is why we are not only investing in more GPs but investing another £250 million into more GP practices—[Interruption.] The Opposition are cachinnating away as usual. They voted against that spending.
Millions across the United Kingdom are facing great difficulty with their energy bills. Some 30% of those bills is actually driven by the Government, in the form of VAT and various green levies. Now that we have left the EU, can we use our Brexit freedom to at least review the VAT on those bills? Given that some of the green levies are spent on madcap ideas, such as subsidising Drax B power station to the tune of £1 billion a year and bringing in wood chips from America when there is fuel down the road, can we have a review of the green levies as well so that people are not faced with the burden of unsustainable fuel bills?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman. I can tell him that we are addressing the issue of fuel. We should not forget that the cap is still in place, and all the mitigations that I have talked about are there, but we are determined to do what we can to help people through this pandemic. What we must do above all is make sure this country has a better supply of cheap and affordable energy, which the Opposition hopelessly refused to institute during their 13 wasted years in government.
Last week my constituent Edna Constable turned 100 years old. She lived through the second world war, and now she is living through a pandemic. Will my right hon. Friend join me in wishing her a belated happy birthday, and will he pay tribute not just to the care workers taking care of her in Fountains care home but to care workers across my constituency and across the rest of the country, who go over and above to protect the most vulnerable in our society?
I thank my hon. Friend very much. I want to thank all the staff at Fountains care home for everything they have been doing to look after people throughout the pandemic. In particular, I want to join my hon. Friend in wishing the centenarian Edna a very happy 100th birthday.
Groundbreaking research published yesterday in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, from King’s College London in partnership with Compass Pathways, has now established that psilocybin can be safely administered and may have significant therapeutic benefit in treatment-resistant depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. As someone who knows first-hand how debilitating PTSD is, as well as hearing from many constituents who have developed the condition as a result of sexual assault or their experience serving in our armed forces, I ask the Prime Minister to commit today to a review of the regulatory regime that would allow further and more rapid research in this vital area of mental health support, for which current treatment options are sorely lacking.
I thank the hon. Lady for her question, and I appreciate the personal experience that makes her interested in psilocybin. I am aware of interest in the area and it has been talked about several times. I propose that she has a meeting, as soon as it can be arranged, with the relevant Minister in the Department of Health and Social Care.
Apparently the Government are thinking of relaxing visa controls for India in order to get a free trade deal. While a free trade deal is valuable in itself, we should not be held to ransom. Does the Prime Minister agree that our new working-class voters who voted for Brexit did not vote to replace immigration from Europe with more immigration from the rest of the world, any more than that when they were told that we would take back control, we would lose control of the channel? Will he convince us that he is determined to connect to our supporters and control immigration?
Yes. I do not recognise the account that my right hon. Friend has given: we do not do free trade deals on that basis. Indeed, I can tell him that since we took back control, net immigration has gone down—[Interruption.] That is all the Opposition want—their answer is, everywhere and always, uncontrolled immigration. That is their approach to the economy, and it is not the right way forward. That is why our Nationality and Borders Bill, currently in the House of Lords, is so important—it will enable us to take back control of our borders properly and to tackle illegal immigration. What would be good would be to hear some support from the Labour Benches.
Five years ago, when the Prime Minister was Foreign Secretary, my constituent Luke Symons was taken captive by the Houthis in Yemen. Fortunately, the Prime Minister has a former Foreign Secretary sat next to him and another behind him, both of whom served in the last five years. Luke Symons is still in captivity in Sanaa, even though other nations—including the Americans—have managed to get their citizens released. Will the Prime Minister pledge that his Government will do everything they can to get Luke released from captivity in Yemen and arrange for the Foreign Secretary to meet my constituent, Mr Robert Cummings, who is Luke’s grandfather, to discuss how to go about doing that?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this case again. I remember it, and it is very sad. I know that our staff in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office work hard to try to release people from the positions they find themselves in around the world. Luke Symons is no exception, but I will certainly make sure that the hon. Gentleman has a meeting with the relevant Minister to report on the progress we are making.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Nobody wants to mislead the House, and I am sure that the Prime Minister would not wish to do so. I quoted the Prime Minister saying that fears about inflation were “unfounded”, and he said that he did not say that. However, the Sky journalist Beth Rigby has now put the clip on social media. I wonder whether the Prime Minister would like to correct the record.