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Volume 708: debated on Wednesday 2 February 2022

This Sunday, Her Majesty the Queen will become the first British monarch to celebrate a platinum jubilee. While it is a moment of national celebration, it will be a day of mixed emotions for Her Majesty, as of course the day also marks 70 years since the death of her beloved father George VI. I know the whole House will want to join me in thanking Her Majesty for her tireless service. We look forward to celebrating her historic reign with a series of national events in June. 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.

On Monday, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care said mandatory vaccinations would be subject to a consultation. Can the Prime Minister make it unequivocally clear—no ifs, no buts, no qualifications—that mandatory vaccinations for NHS staff will be abandoned? Will he also make it clear that that is also true for care workers, many of whom have already lost their jobs? What support will the Government be giving to get those care workers back into the care sector, and will those who have lost their jobs get compensation?

I thank my right hon. Friend for her thoughtful work on this. I want to stress that vaccines remain our best line of defence, and I think that NHS staff and all those who work in the care sector have a professional responsibility to get vaccinated. However, as my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary told the House on Monday, given the difference between omicron and delta, it is right—my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Esther McVey) is right—that we revisit the balance of risks and opportunities. The Health Secretary has said we will launch a consultation and, subject to the responses and the will of this House, the Government will revoke the regulations.

Following your opening remarks, Mr Speaker, I want to say to Government Members that theirs is the party of Winston Churchill. Our parties stood together as we defeated fascism in Europe. Now their leader stands in the House of Commons parroting the conspiracy theories of violent fascists to try to score cheap political points. He knows exactly what he is doing. It is time to restore some dignity.

One of the most absurd claims made on behalf of Operation Save Big Dog is the Prime Minister and the Chancellor writing in The Sunday Times that they are the “tax-cutting Conservatives.” Why do these alleged tax cutters keep raising taxes on working people?

On the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s first point, I do not want to make heavy weather of this, but I am informed that in 2013 he apologised and took full responsibility for what had happened on his watch, and I think that was the right thing to do.

On what we are doing to tackle the cost of living and taxation, our covid recovery plan is vital in helping people with the cost of living: lifting up universal credit payments by cutting the tax that people effectively pay, lifting the living wage, and helping councils with another half a billion pounds for those who are facing particular hardship. What we are also doing, and this is absolutely vital, is increasing the number of high-wage, high-skill jobs in this country. There are 420,000 more on the payroll than there were before the pandemic began, because we have had the fastest exit from covid of any European economy, because we had the fastest vaccine and booster roll-out.

It is not just the national insurance rise. Thresholds for income tax frozen—a stealth tax on working people. The threshold for tuition fees frozen—a stealth tax on working people. Local authorities forced to increase council tax—a stealth tax on working people. You can be as stealthy as you like, but you cannot hide reality. We have the highest tax burden for 70 years in the middle of an inflation crisis. I ask the Prime Minister again: why do he and the Chancellor keep raising taxes on working people?

What we are doing is helping people with the cost of living, cutting taxes for those on universal credit, as I have said, and helping people with the cost of their fuel, with the cold weather payments and the warm home payment—doing all the things that this country would expect. We are lifting the living wage, which this party introduced. This Government have increased that by a record amount. Above all, the most important thing we are doing is helping people into work, with 500,000 people off welfare and into work under our way to work scheme. There are more people in work now than before the pandemic began, and that is the record of this Government. Never forget that there has never been a Labour Government who left office with unemployment lower than when they came to power.

Lots of words, lots of bluster, but no answers. A word of warning, Prime Minister: that will not work with the police.

I will tell the Prime Minister why the Government are putting taxes up: low growth. In the decade of Tory Government before the pandemic, growth slumped. It was much, much weaker than under the last Labour Government. If the Tories matched our record on growth, we would have £30 billion more to spend on public services without having to raise a single tax. Surely even this Prime Minister does not need someone else to tell him that he and the Chancellor are having to raise taxes because the Tories failed to grow the economy over a decade.

No, I think everybody in this country can see that we have been through the biggest pandemic for 100 years and that we have looked after the people of this country to the tune of £400 billion, which we put into furlough and all the other schemes, with 11.7 million people protected. Everybody knows the cost of that. At the same time, despite all the difficulties we have faced, we have now got the fastest growth in the G7. That is absolutely true. We have youth unemployment at a record low. We have got three times as much tech investment coming into this country as France, and twice as much as Germany. [Interruption.] Yes, that is absolutely true. If we want to know about Labour economics, never forget that the last time they were in office, when they were finally booted out, they left a note saying, “There is no money left.” That is the way they run the country.

The UK has suffered the worst economic crisis in the G7. The Prime Minister has more chance of persuading the public that he did not hold any parties than he has of persuading them that the economy is booming. High taxes are not just the result of low growth. Under this Government we have seen a pandemic of waste and fraud, from the Prime Minister’s yacht to Government contracts for mates of Ministers. They have treated taxpayers as an ATM for their mates and their lifestyles. Now we find that they have written off £8.7 billion on personal protective equipment and the Chancellor is writing off £4.3 billion in fraud. That is enough to cover the tax hike he is inflicting on working people. Why did this Government block the National Crime Agency from investigating all the billions they lost to fraud?

Of course we despise fraud and those who steal from the taxpayer, which is why we have already recovered £743 million in lost furlough money and £2.2 billion that was stolen in bounce back loans, and we will go on. But I have to tell you, Mr Speaker, that I am proud of what this Government and this country did: securing record quantities of PPE in record time, and furloughing and looking after the entirety of British business and society in the way that we did.

Once again, Captain Hindsight comes to this House and attacks the Government for doing exactly what he urged us to do 18 months ago. Mr Speaker, it so happens that I have been rustling in my notes and I have found a letter dated 22 April 2020—which I will place for your convenience in the Library of the House—from the shadow Chancellor, the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves), to the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), suggesting that we could secure PPE supplies from a theatrical costumier and get ventilators from a professional football agent. No wonder fraud was running at £21 billion a year under Labour. I am proud of what this Government did to secure PPE and I am proud of the way we protected this country.

Who wants to be the first to leave? Please put your hand up, because I am going to pick one of you.

The Prime Minister might want to sharpen how he answers questions under interview; he is going to need to in the next few weeks. Waste and low growth explain why we have high taxes, but they do not explain why it is always working people who are asked to pay more. Yesterday he ordered his troops not to support a windfall tax on oil and gas companies. As a result, the country is missing out on over £1 billion that we could have used to cut taxes on energy bills for working people. Today he is ordering his troops to vote for tax cuts for banks. As a result, the country is missing out on another £1 billion that we could have spent cutting taxes for working people. Why are the Chancellor and the Prime Minister protecting oil companies and bank profits while putting taxes up on working people?

Let’s just get to the heart of what this is all about. This is all about dealing with the consequences of the biggest pandemic that this country has seen, with an unprecedented economic crisis, in which the state had to come forward and look after the people of this country to the tune of £408 billion. Everybody can see the fiscal impacts of that. Shall I tell the House what this Government and this country are voting for, and what we are doing? We are investing now in 45,000 more NHS workers—more people in our NHS—this year than there were last year: 10,900 more nurses; about 5,000 more doctors; 9 million more scans and 100 community diagnostics hubs to help people to get the scans and the treatment that they need. And the incredible, lamentable thing is that the Opposition—the party of Nye Bevan—voted against those funds and that investment, and they would have made our covid recovery impossible.

For all the bluster, the truth is that the Conservative party is the party of high taxes because it is the party of low growth; it is the party of high taxes because it is the party of eye-watering waste.

We know that this Prime Minister has no respect for decency or honesty. I can take it when it is aimed at me, but I will not accept it when he gaslights the British public, writing absurd articles about cutting taxes at a time when he is squeezing working people to the pips. Isn’t it the case that he and his Chancellor are the Tory Thelma and Louise, hand in hand as they drive the country off the cliff, and into the abyss of low growth and high tax? [Interruption.]

Mr Gullis, I think you have been trolled for long enough and you do not want to be trolled any more. That is the last comment I have—otherwise I will ring your mother.

I think the right hon. and learned Gentleman is Dick Dastardly and Muttley, both of them pulling in different directions—we know they have different views.

We are getting on with the job, and of course I think it is absolutely extraordinary that the Opposition have done nothing to support our covid recovery plan and they voted against our plans to support the NHS. Just in the last few days, while the right hon. and learned Gentleman has been fixated on the issues that he is absolutely determined to escalate, we have opened freeports across the country, and we are getting 500,000 people off welfare into work with our Way to Work plan.

In just a few short minutes—I hope the right hon. and learned Gentleman will hang around, because he will hear him—my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Levelling Up will deliver the long-awaited levelling up White Paper, full of good stuff, including 55 education investment areas across our country. It is a wonderful economic and moral mission to level up and give opportunity across the whole country, and a fantastic vision for this country. The Opposition have nothing of the kind to offer the people of this country.

While we are getting on with coming out of covid, and we are the second fastest, or the fastest economic recovery in the G7—the fastest, the fastest—the right hon. and learned Gentleman would have kept us in lockdown. We are fixing the NHS and social care, when the Opposition voted against it, and they have no plan. We are building a coalition—[Interruption.] We are building a coalition—[Interruption.]

Order. Prime Minister, I am this way, not that way—maybe Specsavers might be the answer to see where I am—but can I just say that Dame Caroline Dinenage is desperate to get the next question to you? I call Dame Caroline Dinenage.

Q2. Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. First, I would like to give my condolences to the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), and say how good it is to see her back in her place.Sophie Fairall was just 10 years old when she died in September. Childhood cancer is often described as rare, yet cancer is the biggest killer of children under 14. Sophie’s GP failed to diagnose her cancer, and it was only when she went to A&E that they discovered the tumour in her little body that was 12 cm long. On World Cancer Day on Friday, I would like to ask the Prime Minister to please advocate for more and better training for general practice to identify cancer in children. (905432)

I thank my hon. Friend. I am very sorry to hear of Sophie’s case, and my thoughts are with her family and her friends. She is right that research is crucial in tackling childhood cancers. That is why we are investing in more research, but it is also vital that we do tests, diagnostic scans and screens early enough, and that is why it is also important that not only has National Institute for Health and Care Excellence updated its guidance on referring childhood cancers in February last year, but we are investing in 100 new diagnostic centres in community hubs.

I am sure that you, Mr Speaker, and the rest of the House will want to join me in celebrating and supporting World Cancer Day.

Mr Speaker, in relation to your earlier statement, I have a difficulty reconciling the Prime Minister’s version of events with other evidence and, as you know, I have a duty to reflect and represent the deep public anger with the Prime Minister. That said, I respect the absolute impartiality that you take in your role, and I want to set it on the record that I respect both you and the authority of the Chair.

This morning, the Telegraph newspaper revealed that the Prime Minister attended a party in his flat on 13 November 2020. The Prime Minister previously told the House that no party took place. The police are now investigating this party, and we face a very real prospect of a sitting Prime Minister being questioned under caution and being fined in office. If he is questioned, he must go, and if he is fined, he must resign. Mr Speaker, you will agree that the House should not be treated with contempt, so can the Prime Minister—[Interruption.] Here we go again. So can the Prime Minister update the House on his whereabouts on the evening of 13 November? Surely he does not need to wait for an investigation to tell us exactly where he was.

“Here we go again” says the right hon. Gentleman opposite, and I must say those were entirely my feelings: he asked exactly the same questions, as I recall, in the Chamber a few days ago. He knows that the process must go on, but I can tell him what has been going on in Downing Street in November and throughout: we have been delivering the fastest vaccine and booster roll-out anywhere in Europe; we have been getting people back into work; and we have been helping to bring the west together to defy what I think is completely unacceptable threats and intimidation from the Putin regime against Ukraine. That is what we have been doing.

That was a disgraceful response, and I have to say to the Prime Minister that he should read the room and see the expressions on some of his colleagues’ faces; he has lost it. We have now reached the ridiculous scenario of a Prime Minister who cannot even tell us where he was. He lives in a world where he thinks everything is owed to him, and he never pauses to think what he owes to the public. The Prime Minister is now a dangerous distraction at home and a running joke on the international stage. What does it tell the Prime Minister and the public that on the morning he has returned from Ukraine the Chair of the Select Committee on Defence has submitted a letter of no confidence in him?

It tells me that it is more vital than ever for the Government of this country to get on with the job and deliver our covid recovery plan, and that is what we are doing.

Q3.   I would like to say diolch—thank you—to the Prime Minister for visiting my Ynys Môn constituency, where he saw at first hand the enormous beneficial impact the new nuclear plant Wylfa Newydd could have if built on Anglesey. Nuclear power must play a role if we are to meet our carbon and net-zero commitments, level up and combat rising energy prices. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the rapid deployment of nuclear technology must be a priority for this Government, and if so will my right hon. Friend commit to financing a nuclear plant at the Wylfa site in this Parliament? (905433)

It was a great joy to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency, where I believe she is known as “Atomic Kitten”—or so she informed me—and she outlined in great detail her plans for Wylfa. It is a fantastic vision and a fantastic site, and it remains a very interesting and attractive prospect for new nuclear power.

I am not sure if the Prime Minister has noticed but while he has been partying working families in Northern Ireland have lost £1,000 from their universal credit, their national insurance has been put up by this Government and their energy bills are going through the roof. He is very fond of telling us that we are all in this together; isn’t it the truth that this Prime Minister has only ever been it for himself and his rich mates?

No, I am in it to serve my country and the entire United Kingdom, and I am also proud that we have had the biggest investment in Northern Ireland since devolution began and we have cut taxation on universal credit.

Q5. South Western Railway has totally cut off Dorset, Somerset, most of Wiltshire and Devon from its direct rail services to London as well as slashing our service in half, most of which is totally unnecessary. Will my right hon. Friend support me and my neighbouring colleagues in getting direct services back to West Dorset and having a timetable that is fit for our region? (905435)

I thank my hon. Friend very much for his question; he knows whereof he speaks. He is an expert in the subject and has lobbied very effectively for his constituents and reflected their frustrations. I am told that the timetable is expected to return to December 2021 levels from Saturday 19 February.

Q4. I was out this weekend speaking to a constituent who has a cold and leaky house. She has already seen her bills go up from £100 to £170 a month. The Government have failed to insulate her house and failed to control her fuel bills. Bribing people with their own money is no plan. The Prime Minister has no plan to cut VAT and no plan to get the oil and gas industry to contribute. Another constituent, who voted for the Prime Minister, went further and called him “despicable.” What use is a Prime Minister who has no plan for families struggling with the cost of living and who has lost the trust of the people of this country? (905434)

The hon. Member talks about cutting VAT. I wonder whether he voted for Brexit and our ability to cut VAT—perhaps he could indicate. We delivered that and celebrated its anniversary on Monday. I sympathise very much with his constituent and understand the pressures that people are facing on the costs of living, but what we have got to do is invest and protect them. We are putting in £12 billion-worth of support and financial help for families in hardship this year, which is absolutely vital after the pandemic. The most important thing is to have a jobs-led economic recovery. In case I failed to make myself clear before you wound me up, Mr Speaker, that is why we have the fastest economic growth in the G7.

Q6. The Greater Manchester mayoral clean air zone scheme—in effect, a congestion charge affecting all 500 square miles of Greater Manchester, including my constituents in Leigh—is a job-destroying tax on ordinary working people. We all want clean air, but the model proposed by Mayor Burnham is unworkable and economically devastating, with charges of £60 per day per lorry driver. Taxis, white van men and even buses will be caught by it. Will the PM intervene to prevent Mayor Burnham from inflicting this disastrous Labour scheme on Greater Manchester? (905436)

I know from my own experience how vital it is when trying to clean up air in a great city not to penalise business unjustly, and particularly small businesses. It has become clear that the scheme proposed by the Labour Mayor in Manchester is completely unworkable and will do more damage to businesses and residents in Manchester. We must find an alternative that does not punish local residents. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will say more about that in the coming days.

Q8.    If the Prime Minister receives a fixed penalty notice for attending a party or hosting a party during lockdown, will he inform the House, and will he resign? (905438)

Q7. Since I was elected, my fabulous constituency has really seen the green shoots of prosperity. Government support is bringing a green revolution to Blyth Valley. However, with such growth there has been increased congestion on our roads, and we are in desperate need of upgrades to road infrastructure. Will my right hon. Friend please meet me to discuss the urgent problem and help Blyth Valley out of its ever-increasing traffic jam? (905437)

My hon. Friend is the best champion that Blyth could possibly have. He does a quite amazing job. I thank him in particular for helping to secure the Britishvolt gigafactory in Blyth—an absolutely amazing investment. Of course, growth and prosperity bring challenges when it comes to congestion on our roads, and we have to tackle that. We are working with the council on a bid for the Blyth relief road, and I will ensure that he gets a meeting with the Transport Secretary to discuss it further.

Q10. The problem with a distracted Prime Minister is that he makes the wrong choices. While he has been living it up, many of my constituents are living on the breadline as food, energy and taxes shoot up. In York, rent prices are now the highest in the north and some of the highest in the country. York is now in the top 10 places in the country where there is a cost of living crisis, pushing my constituents further into poverty and debt. When will he stop protecting himself and start protecting my constituents? (905440)

One of the first things I did when I became Prime Minister was ensure that we looked after people on low incomes by increasing local housing allowance, by increasing the living wage—not once but twice, and by record amounts—and by doing what we have now done with universal credit. The most important thing about the UK economy right now is that we have a strong, jobs-led recovery, and that is what is going to drive up wages, drive up productivity and drive up growth. That is what this Government are delivering.

I thank my right hon. Friend very much for his question. Very briefly, I can tell the House that the mission, which I hope everybody will support, was to stand shoulder to shoulder with Ukraine, for our country to show that we stand with the people of Ukraine, and to show that we stand for the sovereign and territorial integrity of Ukraine at a very difficult time. On the borders of Ukraine, as everybody knows, there are about 125,000 Russian troops massing. The situation is very perilous, and the job of the UK is to lead the west in bringing together the most important countries in creating a package of economic sanctions that will deter President Putin from what I believe would be a disastrous miscalculation, and also to strengthen our support for the Ukrainian people and, indeed, the Ukrainian army. We are doing that by supplying lethal but defensive weaponry, as well as training, to the Ukrainians, which is greatly appreciated. But I must say that the situation remains risky and it is vital that diplomacy finds a way forward.

Q14. On a related issue, after the publication of the Russia report the Prime Minister claimed“tackling illicit finance and driving dirty money and money launderers out of the UK is a priority.”His warnings to Mr Putin of late would surely have carried more bite if he had used the 18 months since the publication of the Russia report to legislate for an economic crime Act to stop the flow of dirty money from Russia. Why has he not prioritised this issue of national security? (905444)

Contrary to some of the myths that are peddled, this Government have come down very hard on dirty money from Russia and everywhere else—that is why we brought in the unexplained wealth orders—and indeed China, which Opposition Members might like to consider. That is why we have sanctions on Russia following what it did in Crimea in 2014. We have Magnitsky sanctions on everybody involved in the poisoning of Alexei Navalny. To the hon. Gentleman’s point, we are bringing forward the economic crime Bill, and it will be voted on in the third Session of this Parliament.

Q11. Two years ago this week, despite the best efforts of the Opposition, this Government delivered on the democratic decision to leave the European Union. [Interruption.] Despite there being a global pandemic in the two years since, more than 70 free trade agreements have been signed. However, as we recover, many more opportunities can be realised. Will the Prime Minister commit to appointing a Minister with responsibility for realising the Brexit freedoms and benefits that will boost all our constituencies? (905441)

Mr Speaker, you can hear from the chuntering opposite that they still want to take this thing back. They still want to cancel Brexit, but it is largely thanks to Brexit that we had the fastest vaccine roll-out in Europe, that we have been able to deliver our freeports and that we have been able to do 60 or 70 free trade deals around the world. I will not anticipate any decisions I may make about the Government, but I certainly think it would be a good idea to have a Minister driving that post-Brexit agenda.

Q15. Let us just recap, Mr Speaker. First we were told that we must wait for the Sue Gray report; then we were told that we must wait for the police investigation to conclude. We had, “There was no party,” then we had, “If there was a party, I was not there,” and then we had, “If there was a party, all rules were followed.” But no one believes the Prime Minister. If any of the above were true, why did Allegra Stratton have to resign? (905445)

I explained that sad matter on the Floor of the House. No one wanted Allegra to resign, and I was very sad that she did.

Q12.   My constituent Jinty Sheerin has launched a campaign for a dedicated menopause clinic in Devon. Women in East Devon currently face a 120-mile round trip to get to the nearest specialist menopause clinic. It is not good enough, is it? Will my right hon. Friend outline what steps the Government are taking to improve access to menopause services in Devon and the south-west? (905442)

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this very important campaign. We are committed to improving menopause care so that all women can have access to the support that they need to manage the symptoms. Menopause will be a priority in our women’s health strategy, and we are committed to establishing a UK-wide menopause taskforce.

If the Prime Minister needs a Metropolitan police inquiry to tell him whether he attended a party on 13 November in his own Downing Street flat, why should we believe that he is a fit and proper person to have his hand on the button of our independent nuclear deterrent?

I hesitate to remind the hon. Lady that she campaigned actively to install a Prime Minister who wanted to get rid of our nuclear deterrent altogether.

Q13. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, the Government and our NHS have done an amazing job with the vaccine roll-out, making it a resounding success. Will he join me in thanking the wonderful NHS workers, volunteers and pharmacists who have worked so hard to help to make that possible in Dewsbury, Mirfield, Kirkburton and Denby Dale? (905443)

I thank my hon. Friend, who does a fantastic job in representing his communities, and I thank all of them—everyone involved in the roll-out in Dewsbury, Mirfield, Kirkburton and Denby Dale. It was an extraordinary national effort. Anyone who has visited a vaccine centre will know that feeling of pride in what was happening; that feeling of energy in a collective effort to make our society and our country literally healthier day by day. I thank all those people from the bottom of my heart.

That is the end of Prime Minister’s questions. Will those who wish to leave please do so quietly and quickly?