Women and Equalities
The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—
We know that rape and sexual offences are still too often hidden crimes and we want to see more victims having the confidence to report. We have seen a large increase in police-recorded sexual offences. There is some good news in that, because it is likely to reflect victims having additional confidence to come forward to report in the wake of some high-profile cases and the reopening of the night-time economy. We are committed to doing everything we can to prevent these crimes and bring perpetrators to justice. That is why we have outlined, through our rape review, a robust plan of action to drive improvement at every stage of the criminal justice system.
One in 75 women who report rape see their case come to a conclusion and a conviction. What does the Minister say to women who say, “I haven’t had my case properly investigated, I haven’t had my day in court and the police are telling me there will be no further action—why don’t I just get my brothers and cousins to go round and sort him out?”? What does she say to people who are so desperate that they take the law into their own hands?
I would never condone people taking the law into their own hands, and I am sure that the hon. Member agrees. However, we are aware that there are issues across the whole criminal justice system. On the Crown Prosecution Service and court system, we have opened ourselves up to transparency and our partners in the police forces and the CPS have said that they need to do more. To improve the rate of rape prosecutions, we have set ambitious asks of all our partners across the criminal justice system, and I will continue pushing that.
Labour Members believe it is time for judges to be able to hand out enhanced sentences and increased punishments for all crimes that are committed on the basis of prejudice against women, so why are the Government seeking to overturn our call to make misogyny a hate crime?
I have had a number of questions on this topic this morning. The Government are considering the Law Commission’s proposals on this issue. That is sensible and right. I am sure that all hon. Members would agree that there is no point in our putting measures on the statute book that would have a harmful effect on prosecutions, but that is exactly what the Law Commission’s legal experts have suggested would happen. We are therefore not minded to make misogyny a hate crime, because that is not the way to tackle these systemic issues. We are determined to deal with violence against women and girls, but I am afraid that that is not the way to do it.
Public sexual harassment is a gateway crime to some of the more serious sexual offences highlighted by my hon. Friend. She may not agree that misogyny should be a hate crime, but does she agree with the Law Commission that public sexual harassment should be a specific crime? Please can we see action to have it legislated for quickly rather than pushed into the long grass?
My right hon. Friend is right that the Home Office is looking carefully at whether there should be additional offences. I draw her attention to the fact that a number of measures are already on the statute book. I encourage women and girls to come forward; in fact, we are producing and creating a high-profile national communications campaign across TV and all our broadcast systems to encourage exactly that. We want to stamp it out and for perpetrators to be tackled.
Women and girls who are victims of human trafficking suffer the most appalling sexual offences, yet in 2020 there were only 13 convictions for human trafficking. Today, I have published my private Member’s Bill—the Human Trafficking (Sentencing) Bill—which would require the Government to review the situation to ensure that more victims see the perpetrators behind bars. Given what the Minister has said, will she assure me that the Government will support my Bill on Friday?
I thank my hon. Friend for his consistent advocacy for the victims of some of these most appalling crimes. He and I have spoken in detail about the measures that the Government are already taking to protect women and girls. Through our modern slavery legislation, they are at the centre of our protective measures. We will put our arms around them. We are already supporting them through the national referral mechanism, and we should be proud of that work. We are leading the world in our support for victims of trafficking.
The Minister’s awareness of problems with tackling sexual crimes is not good enough. We need action. Recording misogyny as a hate crime helps to
“seek justice and get support for victims”.
It helps to
“build a picture of intelligence which informs policing plans,”
and it sends
“a powerful message that this behaviour is not acceptable and there will be consequences.”
Those are direct quotes from officers in the North Yorkshire police and Nottinghamshire’s chief constable. Can the Minister explain why the Government seem to disagree and are planning to overturn Labour’s amendment to make misogyny a hate crime?
I am afraid the hon. Lady was not listening to the response I gave earlier. I was very clear that we do not seek, as responsible legislators, to put measures on the statute book that have a harmful effect. The experts at the Law Commission—[Interruption.] I wonder why she is shaking her head. I advise her to read its report in detail, which is clear that the Labour amendment she champions would make it harder for us to prosecute sexual offenders and rapists. We on the Government Benches would not like to see that taking place.
I have been listening: I have been listening to police forces, to their officers and to victims. That is why we support the amendment.
Next week marks a year since Sarah Everard’s kidnap and murder. That appalling case should have spurred action to tackle the epidemic of violence against women. Instead, sexual offences and rape have hit record highs, while prosecutions have fallen to record lows. We must treat this violence as seriously as we treat terrorism and organised crime. Will the Government make violence against women and girls a strategic policing requirement?
I think there is a lot of agreement across the House, despite the tone with which the hon. Lady has spoken to me. Violence against women and girls and dealing with rape prosecutions is a priority, which is why we have allocated record sums to tackle those horrendous crimes. The measures she mentions are something we are looking at and we will come forward with more information shortly.
The Government are clear that we want transgender people to be able to live their lives as they wish. The previous Government consulted on the Gender Recognition Act 2004. Having listened to the full range of views expressed, we concluded that the balance currently struck in the legislation is correct. We therefore do not intend to change the requirements of the Act.
On Monday, the Minister for Equalities, the hon. Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer) said the Government would remove the rule whereby a trans person’s spouse has to consent to their gaining a gender recognition certificate. Yesterday, that had changed to helping to avoid spousal consent issues. Can the Minister categorically confirm today that the Government will remove that veto power altogether?
Yes, I did use the shorthand of spousal veto, which I know lawyers say does not exist. The no-fault divorce legislation about to be enacted will remove that effect that people are being asked to have removed. That is the advice I have received. If the hon. Lady says that the advice is wrong I will double-check it, but the advice I have received is that the new Act will remove that obstacle to divorce.
The Government believe the circumstances of one’s birth should not determine life outcomes. As part of our plan to increase opportunity, we recently published the levelling-up White Paper to address regional disparities, which is one of the key drivers of social mobility across the UK.
In the civil service’s most recent diversity data, there is data on all the protected characteristics but nothing on social background, which has historically been a problem in the civil service, particularly at senior levels. Will my hon. Friend look at that so that we know whether the civil service is open to all backgrounds and is making its own contribution to social mobility?
Social background is not a protected characteristic in the Equality Act 2010, but the civil service did begin implementing socio-economic background measures for its workforce in 2018. Many Departments collect that data, but declaration rates have not yet reached a sufficient threshold for publication. However, I understand that the Cabinet Office is working with Departments to increase declaration rates to enable publication in next year’s civil service statistics publication.
On a visit to Holy Family School in Keighley earlier this month, I was able to share the fantastic news that my constituency will become one of the Government’s key education investment areas. What role will my hon. Friend’s Department play to ensure that increasing social mobility is at the heart of plans, alongside the levelling-up White Paper, to transform the life chances of young people across Keighley?
I am delighted that my hon. Friend’s constituency will benefit from the Government’s education investment areas and will invest in areas where educational attainment is weakest. Important initiatives such as that will help us to spread opportunity and level up the country. Equality has an important role to play and my officials are working closely with Departments to encourage focused and evidence-based action.
On social mobility, does the Minister appreciate that some are concerned about the proposals that would mean that people would not have access to funding for tuition fees unless they meet certain grades at GCSE and A-level? Will that not impact more heavily on poorer families?
I thank the right hon. Lady for her question. The Department for Education will have done an equalities impact assessment on any new policies that it will announce. Those will be taken into account to make sure that people who are most at risk and most vulnerable are not prevented from taking up education in any way.
Children from poorer backgrounds are four times more likely to suffer a serious brain injury by their fifth birthday and again in their teenage years than children from wealthier backgrounds. That obviously limits their opportunities in life. What will the Government do about that?
Hate Crime: Misogyny
As I said, the Government currently have no plans to make misogyny a hate crime. The reason is that we have consulted the legal experts on that subject. The Law Commission concluded that the proposal could do more harm than good in our efforts to tackle violence against women and girls, and I am sure that the hon. Lady would not wish to see that happen.
I thank the Minister for that, but the reality is that more than 80% of 18 to 24-year-olds have already experienced sexual harassment in a public place. If the Government were to legislate, it would allow the police to act. Does she not agree that, more importantly, it would also send a message out to people across this country that misogyny, sexual harassment and bullying based on gender is unacceptable in every sector of life?
No, I do not agree, and that is not what the Law Commission said. It said that that would be actively unhelpful and harmful to our efforts to tackle exactly the issues that the hon. Lady mentioned. I am afraid that I am at risk of repeating myself: we want to bring these perpetrators to justice and we are tackling this issue at the source. Making misogyny a hate crime would make it more difficult to prosecute all forms of hate crime, including those related to race and ethnicity.
I fear that I am going to ask the Minister to repeat herself, because the Government’s response to persistent violence against women and girls has been to support the Path Community app, which asks women to protect themselves by sharing journeys home, and to launch StreetSafe, which asks women to report where they feel unsafe. That yet again puts the onus on women when they are not the problem. Last year, a study of sexual aggression in UK male university students found a correlation between misogynistic views and a proclivity for sexual violence against women. What message does it send that the Government’s response to persistent violence against women is, “There’s an app for that.”? I urge the Minister, please, to tackle the root cause and work with the Home Office to make misogyny a hate crime.
Women in the Workplace
To support women in the workplace, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy will extend redundancy protections after return from maternity leave and introduce neonatal leave and pay and one week of unpaid carer’s leave. It has also recently consulted on measures to increase the availability of flexible working, and it looks forward to publishing its response to that in due course.
We know that women face particular challenges in, for example, caring responsibilities and making progress in paid work, but rather than addressing that problem, the Government’s Way to Work scheme will pressure people to take any job quickly rather than helping them to obtain good, sustainable jobs that they are qualified for. What discussions has the Minister had with colleagues at the Department for Work and Pensions about supporting women into good-quality, well-paid jobs and not just the first thing that turns up?
I am afraid that I disagree with the hon. Gentleman. As I have just heard from the Minister responsible—the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies)—individual circumstances are taken into account and we are doing the very best we can for women in the workplace.
Maternity Action has recently highlighted that
“over the past decade the value of the basic rate of maternity, paternity and parental pay has also declined relative to women’s median weekly earnings, from 42% in 2012, to just 37% from April this year.”
Of course, new parents now also face a Tory cost of living crisis. There is overwhelming evidence for the value of supporting the youngest members of our society and the families who care for them, so will the Minister urge her colleagues to match reality to the rhetoric, introduce the long-awaited employment Bill and take the steps necessary to support parental leave and pay to better support new parents?
I thank my hon. Friend for that really important question. I have to say that I have been shocked by the really disgusting remarks that have been levelled at the chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission in particular. It is a disgrace that people are attacking the body that is supposed to be furthering equality in this country. No good can come of that.
I am sure that colleagues across the House share my desire for more people from minorities to take part in public life. That is one goal that we all share, but it is in jeopardy when the EHRC chair, an experienced parliamentarian from an ethnic and religious minority, can be subjected to vile, horrific personal abuse simply for encouraging others to comply with equality law. We support her. It is not healthy for our democracy for online smears and falsehoods, especially the ones that have been put forward by Vice News, repeated by those in the mainstream media who should know better, and deliberately designed to undermine public confidence in the independent regulator responsible—
ILO Convention 190
The Government have made clear our intention to ratify International Labour Organisation convention 190 on violence and harassment. I am pleased to confirm that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions plans to deposit the signed instrument of ratification at the ILO in Geneva shortly.
Ratifying ILO convention 190 on workplace violence and harassment is a key demand of the new “Get me home safely” campaign led by Unite the union. It is also meant to be a key priority for this Government, but the Minister has simply said that there will be moves to sign the convention. There have been many, many promises. What on earth is happening? Is there a seeming reluctance to accept ILO convention 190? Will the Minister get on and make sure that it is signed? There has been a huge increase in violence against women, particularly in the workplace.
The UK already has the necessary legislation in place to implement the convention. We will be required to report on compliance to the ILO in due course. The visit to deposit the ratification has been delayed as a result of covid-19 and the omicron variant; we will achieve it at the soonest possible date.
The appointment of Katharine Birbalsingh as chair of the Social Mobility Commission has been a welcome boost to the agenda. I would like to inform the House that she has begun the recruitment process for new social mobility commissioners to support her in delivering change. I look forward to meeting the new board when the process is complete. Its work will be critical to helping the Government to deliver our levelling-up agenda.
Under new rules introduced last month, out-of-work universal credit claimants have just four weeks to find work; the previous limit was three months. Given that women are more likely than men to claim universal credit, as Welsh charity Chwarae Teg has highlighted, will the Minister confirm what consideration, if any, was given to how women would be affected? Has a full equalities impact assessment been carried out?
I fully agree with my hon. Friend and would encourage all of us to choose our words wisely. It is important to remember that hate crime is a devastating and often violent crime, requiring evidence to be presented in court and proved to a criminal standard. I would encourage victims always to report such crimes.
Black, Asian and ethnic minority women face overwhelming health inequalities in our country, as has been revealed by the recent NHS Race & Health Observatory report. The Government promised us a comprehensive women’s health strategy by the end of 2021, and they have broken that promise. Instead, we have had a vague vision document, and now a taskforce to increase understanding of the problem, but no concrete steps to solve it. The Conservatives have had 12 years in which to act. When are they going to do so?
I am afraid it is not the case that nothing has been done. I have been working very closely with Ministers across Departments, looking at the very issues the hon. Lady has raised. We did launch a women’s health strategy in December, and more will be coming. She may not have noticed this, but on 23 December the Government published “Our Vision for the Women’s Health Strategy for England”, and there is far more detail to come. These are not issues on which we ever stop working, and I hope to be able to work with Members across the House to deliver on the strategy.
I am of course appalled to hear of that tragic case, and either I or a Minister from the Ministry of Justice will be happy to meet my right hon. Friend. It is vital that we protect the public, particularly from sex offenders, which is why offenders on licence are subject to a number of conditions, including where they live and work.
The Government value the vital role that kinship carers play. Eligible kinship carers who adopt are entitled to adoption leave and pay, and employed kinship carers may also be eligible for other leave entitlements to balance work with caring, including emergency leave, the right to request flexible working, and unpaid parental leave. However, we will continue to look at this issue.
In relation to the challenge in the High Court to the Government’s decision not to extend the universal credit uplift to those on legacy benefits during the pandemic, Mr Justice Swift said:
“My conclusion is that the difference in treatment…resulting from the 2020 Regulations was justified”.
I would ask the hon. Gentleman’s constituent to please use the benefits calculator on gov.uk and to talk to his work coach in case there is any support locally that he is missing out on.
Four in 10 young women in this country have received an unsolicited naked image of a man’s genitals. This sort of abuse has absolutely no place in our society. Will my hon. Friend please ensure that this is made a sex offence in the online safety Bill?
I thank my right hon. Friend for her consistent campaigning against this disgusting form of abuse against women and girls. I can do no more than refer to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who is sitting behind me and who has himself committed to introducing cyber-flashing as an offence as soon as possible.
The Prime Minister was asked—
I can announce to the House that in the light of the increasingly threatening behaviour from Russia, and in line with our previous support, the UK will shortly be providing a further package of military support to Ukraine. This will include lethal aid in the form of defensive weapons and non-lethal aid.
I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in congratulating Team GB’s curling teams for winning gold and silver medals at the winter Olympics.
I know that Members across the House will want to offer condolences to the family and friends of our former colleague Sir Richard Shepherd, who sadly died earlier this week. He served as the MP for Aldridge-Brownhills for 36 years.
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.
By 2027, Didcot in my constituency will be 42% larger than it was a decade earlier; Wantage and Grove will be 59% larger. There are thousands more houses going up in Wallingford, Faringdon and all the villages I represent, but not a single new GP surgery. Does my right hon. Friend agree that where we build new houses, we have to build new infrastructure so that people can still access the services they need?
Yes, of course my hon. Friend is right. That is why we are making record investments in the NHS and in schools and roads—as we can, thanks to the strong growth in our economy. I will make sure that he gets a meeting with the relevant Minister to discuss his immediate local concerns.
I join the Prime Minister in his comments in relation to Sir Richard Shepherd. We all want to deter aggression in Europe. We are not dealing with breakaway republics, and Putin is not a peacekeeper; a sovereign nation has been invaded. The Prime Minister promised that in the event of an invasion, he would unleash a full package of sanctions. If not now, then when?
As I said, the UK has been out in front in offering military support to Ukraine, and I am grateful for what the right hon. and learned Gentleman said yesterday about the need to make sure we keep ammunition in reserve for what could be a protracted struggle over this issue.
Let the House be in no doubt about the extent of the package set out yesterday and about what we are already doing, because I do not think people quite realise that the UK is out in front. We have sanctioned 275 individuals already, and yesterday we announced measures that place banks worth £37 billion under sanctions, in addition to more oligarchs. There is more to come. We will be stopping Russia raising sovereign debt, and we will be stopping Russian companies raising money or, as I said yesterday, even clearing in sterling and dollars on international markets.
That will hit Putin where it hurts, but it is vital that, after this first barrage, we work in lockstep with friends and allies around the world to squeeze him simultaneously in London, Paris and New York. Unity is absolutely vital.
I hear what the Prime Minister says about sequencing and further sanctions, but there has already been an invasion. There is clearly concern across the House that his strategy could—unintentionally, I accept—send the wrong message. If the Prime Minister were now to bring forward his full package of sanctions, including excluding Russia from financial mechanisms such as SWIFT and a ban on trading in Russian sovereign debt, he will have the full support of the House. Will he do so?
I am grateful for the general support that the Opposition have given not just to our economic sanctions but to the package of military support, which will intensify. We want to see de-escalation by Vladimir Putin. There is still hope that he will see sense, but we are ready to escalate our sanctions very rapidly, as I have set out.
Under the measures that this House has already approved, we can now target any Russian entity or individual. Not only can we already target the so-called breakaway republics in the oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk but we can target members of the Duma who voted to recognise them. This is the most far-reaching legislation of its kind, and I am glad that it has the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s support.
It does have my support, and we will support it if it is used. We must also do more to defeat Putin’s campaign of lies and disinformation. Russia Today is his personal propaganda tool. I can see no reason why it should be allowed to continue broadcasting in this country, so will the Prime Minister now ask Ofcom to review its licence?
I believe my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has already asked Ofcom to review that matter, but we live in a democracy and a country that believes in free speech. I think it is important that we leave it to Ofcom to decide which media organisations to ban, rather than politicians—that is what Russia does.
The request was for a review, and I am glad to hear that the review is now happening. [Interruption.] I will not be deflected from the unity that this House needs at the moment.
At the weekend, the Prime Minister said that if Russia invades Ukraine, he will “open up the matryoshka dolls” of Russian-owned companies and Russian-owned entities to find the ultimate beneficiaries within. Well, Russia has invaded and it is time to act. If he brings forward the required legislation to do this, he will have Labour’s support. Will he commit to doing so in the coming days?
As I said, we are bringing forward in the next wave of sanctions measures that will stop all Russian banks, all oligarchs, all Russian individuals raising money on London markets. We are also accelerating the economic crime Bill, which will enable us in the UK to peel back the—[Interruption.] In the next Session. It will enable us to peel back the façade of beneficial ownership of property in the UK and of companies. It has gone on for far too long and this Government are going to tackle it. But on all these measures it is very important that the House remembers that they are more effective when all financial centres move forward together, and that is what the UK has been organising.
I think I heard the Prime Minister say that the economic crime Bill will be in the next Session, but I hope I misheard that. I can assure him that if he brings it forward in this Session, in the coming days, it will have our support. There is no reason to delay this.
Let me turn to the Elections Bill. As it stands, the Bill would allow unfettered donations from overseas to be made to UK political parties from shell companies and individuals with no connections to the UK. Labour has proposed amendments that would protect our democracy from the flood of foreign money drowning our politics. We can all now see how serious this is, so will the Prime Minister now change course and support these measures in the House of Lords?
We have very tough laws—tough rules—in this country to stop foreign donations. We do not accept foreign donations; people have to be on the UK electoral register in order to give to a UK political party. Before the right hon. and learned Gentleman starts chucking it around, I just remind him that the largest single corporate donation to the Labour party came from a member of the Chinese communist party. [Interruption.]
No, Mr Speaker, at this moment, as the House agreed yesterday, we have to stand united, and I am not going to be deflected from that. I note that the Prime Minister did not agree to change the Elections Bill. I think that is a mistake, and I ask him to take it away and look at those amendments in the Lords again. Putin has invaded a sovereign European nation. He has attacked because he fears openness and democracy, and because he knows that, given a choice, people will not choose to live under erratic, violent rule. He seeks division, so we must stay united. He hopes for inaction, so we must take a stand. He believes that we are too corrupted to do the right thing, so we must prove him wrong, and I believe we can. So will the Prime Minister work across the House to ensure that this is the end of the era of oligarch impunity by saying that this House and this country will no longer be homes for their loot?
I do not think any Government could conceivably be doing more to root out corrupt Russian money, and that is what we are going to do. We can be proud of what we have already done and the measures we have set out. I am genuinely grateful for the tone of the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s last question and for the support he has given. He is right to say that it is absolutely vital that we in the UK should stand united. People around the world can see that the UK was the first to call out what President Putin was doing in Ukraine. We have been instrumental in bringing the western world together in lockstep to deal with the problem—to bring together the economic package of sanctions that I have set out.
As I have said, there is still time for President Putin to de-escalate, but we must be in absolutely no doubt that what is at stake is not just the democracy of Ukraine, but the principle of democracy around the world. That is why the unity of this House is so important today. It is absolutely vital that the United Kingdom stands together against aggression in Ukraine, and I am grateful for the broad support that we have had today from the Leader of the Opposition.
Yes. As a cyclist, I share my hon. Friend’s passion on this issue. We do need to crack down on speeding, which plays a role in excessive deaths on our roads. The Department for Transport is updating the circular on the use of speed and red-light cameras that my hon. Friend mentioned and I urge him to get in touch with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport.
Yesterday, we on the SNP Benches made it clear that the SNP stands united against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which needs to be met with tougher and stronger sanctions. As the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) rightly said, however, we should not be waiting for Russia to attack others before we clean up the corruption that Russian money has been fuelling in the UK.
Under the Tories, a sewer of dirty Russian money has been allowed to run through London for years. In 2017, I went to the Prime Minister when he was Foreign Secretary and raised the issue of limited partnerships, of which 113 have been used to move $20.8 billion out of Russian banks—corruption on an industrial scale. Why did the Prime Minister do nothing back then, and why is he still doing nothing now?
The right hon. Gentleman was right to come to me then—I have always enjoyed talking to him, as I have told him many times—and he is right on the issue. We do need to stop corrupt Russian money in London and every other financial capital. That is why we have already taken the steps we have taken, but we are going much further to uncloak the true owners of Russian companies and Russian properties in this country, and it is high time. No country is doing more than the UK to tackle this issue.
That meeting was five years ago, and I offered to work with the Prime Minister. Five years ago, and nothing has happened. The truth is that Russian oligarchs who give the right people in power a golden handshake have been welcomed into London for years. Their activities were not stopped; they were encouraged. Plenty of those golden handshakes just so happened to find their way into the coffers of the Conservative party—in fact, £2.3 million since the Prime Minister took office.
A leading American think-tank has publicly raised concerns that
“the close ties between Russian money and the United Kingdom’s ruling conservative party”
are a block to stronger sanctions. How can our allies trust this Prime Minister to clean up dirty Russian money in the UK when he will not even clean up his own political party? Will he finally commit to giving up the £2.3 million that his party has raised from Russian oligarchs?
I just think it is very important for the House to understand that we do not raise money from Russian oligarchs. People who give money to this—[Interruption.] We raise money from people who are registered to vote on the UK register of interests. That is how we do it. The right hon. Gentleman’s indignation is, I am afraid, a bit much coming from somebody whose very own Alex Salmond is a leading presenter, as far as I know, on Russia Today, which the Leader of the Opposition has just called on this country to ban.
I am always happy to meet my hon. Friend—and I congratulate him on his recent elevation—but I must say that the Environment Agency faces many challenges and does an outstanding job of building flood defences. Some 314,000 homes are better protected since 2015 and we continue to invest massively to help them. I am always happy to meet my hon. Friend.
Yesterday, when I asked the Prime Minister about Russian meddling in UK elections, he looked very shifty before claiming that he was not aware of any. Yet, when he was—[Interruption.] Yet, when he was Foreign Secretary in 2017, he appeared at a joint press conference with the Russian Foreign Minister. When Lavrov claimed that there was no evidence that Russia had interfered in UK elections in any way, the now Prime Minister corrected him by saying that there was no evidence of “successful” interference. Can the Prime Minister tell us what evidence he has seen of unsuccessful interference? Has he actually read the Russia report, which is very clear that there is credible evidence of interference? [Interruption.] Given that, as his Defence Secretary said earlier this week, information is as powerful as any tank, can he explain why he is turning a blind eye to allegations of Russian disruption—
We are tackling the cost of living crisis, which is caused by a global inflation spike, with everything that we can. I thank my right hon. Friend the Chancellor in particular for what he is doing to abate the costs of energy—lifting the living wage by the biggest ever amount and helping people on universal credit. The single best thing that we have done on the cost of living is making sure that we have millions more people into work. There are 430,000 more in employment now than there were before the pandemic began. That is how we are tackling the cost of living, and we will get on with it.
When I was Mayor of London I always yearned to be in a position to put that through Parliament, and now I am. I am very grateful to my hon. Friend and we will ensure we give parliamentary time to make it possible. It will be a boon for cyclists and a boon for taxi drivers, and it is high time we did it.
The whole of Government is engaged in that campaign. To that end, we have expanded free school meals for five to seven-year-olds, which helps 1.3 million children, we have boosted the Healthy Start vouchers by one third and, of course, the holiday food and activities programme continues to run, with a £200 million fund. The best thing we can do as a country and a society, however, is keep going with our plan for economic growth with higher-wage, higher-skilled jobs putting bread on the table of families up and down this country.
I thank my hon. Friend for everything she does to champion steel. She is right that it is of strategic importance for our country; we must look at ways we can help the steel industry to have access to cheaper, low-carbon energy, and this Government will do everything we can to ensure that that happens. So far we have provided over £600 million since 2013 to help with the cost of energy and put in a £350 million industrial energy transformation fund, but I stress to the House that that alone will not be enough. As we transition to a low-carbon future, hydrocarbons must also have their place.
I think that the whole House understands the pressures on carers and the immense amount that they contribute to our society. We are doing our best to support people throughout our country. I think the House also understands that we cannot indefinitely support universal free testing. We are uprating the carers allowance, and of course carers are also entitled to the increases that we are putting through in universal credit.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point about the immunosuppressed and the need to identify them correctly. We currently think that there are 1.3 million. Yes, of course they will have access not only to testing but to vaccines and boosters, as well as priority access for new therapeutics and antivirals.
I totally share the hon. Gentleman’s feelings about his constituents and the tragic loss in the family concerned. We must crack down more on knife crime. That is one of the reasons we are putting more police out on the streets. It is also why we are rounding up the county lines drugs gangs, who play a big part in this, sadly. We have done 2,000 so far and there is more to do. That is why we are recruiting many more police and giving them the powers they need to come down hard on those gangs.
Yes, I thank my hon. Friend, who is a great champion for Warrington. Warrington has secured £20 million for new zero-emission buses. I am delighted to say—this is a statistic that I can barely believe but it is here in my brief—that 80% of buses in Britain’s urban areas are already produced domestically, which is a fantastic thing. We all want to see more of that, and I hope that Warrington will consider excellent UK bus manufacturers when it comes to its next contract.
Yesterday the Prime Minister told me that we can sanction Duma members through the Government’s new sanctions package. The Minister for Europe and North America, the right hon. Member for Braintree (James Cleverly), told the House that we can sanction Duma members not through the new regime but as an extension of pre-existing sanction rules. Yet this morning the Foreign Secretary said that the legislation for sanctions against Duma members will take weeks to be made legally watertight. So, Prime Minister, who is right? How can we say that we are standing strong against Russian aggression when our sanctions response is such a muddle and such a mess?
The whole House would agree, I hope, that it is quite a thing to sanction parliamentarians, and that is what we are doing, and not only that—just in the past couple of days, we have put forward the biggest package of sanctions against Russia that this country has ever introduced, and we are coming forward with even more. They will have an impact not just on Duma Members and people who voted for the secession of the oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk, but on the entire Putin regime, and I am glad that the Labour Opposition, at least for now, support the sanctions.
This is day six for thousands of households across East Sussex who have no power and no water. As we become more and more reliant on electricity, we must become more resilient. Can I ask the Prime Minister to ensure that the utility companies work together, that water companies have to have generators in place so that the water does not fail when the power does, and that local resilience forums are fit for purpose and communicate with their local communities? We need more help on this, Prime Minister—please help us.
I thank my hon. Friend very much for what he says about people in East Sussex. I know how tough it is for people who have been short of power for days on end, and it is no consolation to them for me to say that 97% of those who lost power have now been reconnected. We are working as fast as we can with local authorities and the electricity companies to ensure that they get their power back, but also to ensure that we build in more resilience for the future.
Let us be clear about this: is it not an absolute disgrace that a Privy Counsellor, adviser to the Queen and former First Minister of Scotland sees fit to broadcast his half-baked world views week after week on Russian television?
The Prime Minister will have seen the devastation in Shrewsbury from the flooding of the River Severn. This is the third year in a row that Shrewsbury has faced these appalling floods. I chair the caucus of 44 Conservative MPs who have the River Severn, Britain’s longest river, flowing through their constituencies. Will my right hon. Friend help me and our caucus to do everything possible to find a long-term solution to managing Britain’s longest river? In the meantime, we have put forward four opportunities for flood defences in Shrewsbury to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Will he please take an interest in those, because Shrewsbury cannot afford a fourth year in a row of flooding?
My hon. Friend is completely right in what he says about the Severn and the violence of the flooding in the Severn area, which I have seen for myself several times. There are still flood warnings in place along the Severn, and all I can tell him is that we are working flat out to put in place the remediations to help people who have suffered from flooding, but we are also investing £5.2 billion in the flood defences of this country.
I have the utmost respect for the media, and I of course study it as much as I can, but I have to say that the package that the UK has put forward has been leading the world, and there is more to come. [Interruption.] I hear somebody on the Opposition Benches saying that it is weak so far, but it is not—it is strong and it will be very strong. Something that would also be strong would be to take the Whip away from the 14 Labour Members who say that the aggressor in Ukraine is NATO. That would be a strong thing to do.