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Volume 709: debated on Wednesday 23 February 2022

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.

2.   Following last week’s Q&A at the Shepley Village Association, and after receiving a huge number of complaints from constituents, it is clear to me that speeding is a major problem not just in Shepley, but across all parts of Dewsbury, Mirfield, Kirkburton and Denby Dale. Does my right hon. Friend agree that rather than action being taken after people have been killed or seriously injured in collisions, prevention is better than cure and the Department for Transport circular 2007 needs a long overdue review? (905690)

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.

4. The River Wye, pollution, flooding, house building and the wider environment are all important to my right hon. Friend, so will he meet me to discuss the future of the Environment Agency? (905692)

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—

The challenge is to get those on the Front Bench moving quickly. We want to get speed into this, so I am sure that she is ending now.

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? Why is he playing fast and loose with our national security—

I repeat what I told the hon. Lady ages ago—if I have got her right. I have seen absolutely no evidence of successful Russian interference in any electoral event.

7. I welcome the steps that the Government are taking this year to help hard-working families in Orpington with their energy bills. The majority of people receive at least £350 of support. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that even those not eligible for the council tax rebate will still receive additional support thanks to discretionary funding set aside for local authorities? (905695)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I can tell him that the people of Orpington and elsewhere will receive support if they do not qualify for the council tax rebate from the £144 million fund that he rightly mentions.

5. How does the Prime Minister think it looks, when we are in a cost of living crisis, with our constituents struggling to put food on the table or coats on their kids’ backs, and members of his Cabinet are throwing their toys out of the pram because they want to eat foie gras and wear fur? (905693)

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.

8. Last month, I held a careers fair at the Woodlands Campus of Solihull College, which trains apprentices for the automotive, construction and aviation industry. These apprentices are talented and hard-working, which is why Flybe has chosen Birmingham Airport in my constituency as its national headquarters. Will the Prime Minister take up my invitation to visit Solihull College and meet these wonderful apprentices and then also visit Birmingham Airport to see how the aviation industry is recovering from the pandemic? (905696)

6. The right hon. Member for Sherwood (Mark Spencer) is currently under investigation for Islamophobia, following accusations that he told a fellow MP that her being a Muslim was making colleagues uncomfortable. How did the Government punish this behaviour? With a promotion that puts the accused Member in charge of the complaints procedure. Of course, we all know that the Prime Minister himself is no stranger to derogatory remarks about Muslim women, so let me ask the Prime Minister— (905694)

10.   I have just come from a meeting with the London Pedicabs Operators Association, Transport for London and the Department for Transport, where sadly my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) confirmed that on Friday he will be objecting once again to my Pedicabs (London) Bill, which means it will fall. Does my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister agree that it is time we legislated for pedicabs, to ensure that they are safe for women and girls to use, that we rid ourselves of the dodgy fares and that the noise they create is regulated? Will he work with me to legislate for and to regulate pedicabs once and for all? (905698)

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.

9. We have a humanitarian crisis of food poverty in all the constituencies represented in this House. We have more food banks than branches of McDonald’s, and people face starving or freezing in their homes at this very moment because of the horrific cost of living crisis and because of political choices made by this Government. In 2015, the Government signed up to delivering the 2030 sustainable development goals domestically, including ending hunger. Can the Prime Minister tell me who, and what Department, is responsible for delivering the goal of ending hunger domestically, and can he send me a copy of the plan to deliver it? (905697)

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.

12. Liberty Speciality Steels is an important steelworks in my Stocksbridge constituency, which produces high-quality steel and has provided high-value jobs for generations. Sadly, following the collapse of Greensill Capital, the parent company Liberty Steel has faced financial uncertainty for some time, threatening the business and thousands of jobs. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the steel industry sits at the heart of our levelling-up agenda, and will he commit to looking at all options to support the business through this period of uncertainty, as the Government have done so effectively for Sheffield Forgemasters and British Steel? (905700)

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.

11. Unpaid family carers are treated appallingly by this Government. I am not talking about paid care staff in care homes, but about people who provide care, unpaid, for family members. While food and energy costs skyrocket, carer’s allowance is increasing in April by only £2 to a miserly £69 a week. That insulting amount will be more than swallowed up by the £2.50 cost of a single lateral flow test so that carers can keep the person they care for safe. How can the Prime Minister justify this tax on caring? (905699)

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.

14. Can I follow up my right hon. Friend’s statement on Monday on removing the covid restrictions? I welcome the further support for the immunosuppressed. Will he ensure that the NHS reviews the system for identifying the most vulnerable, as I think that some who are at risk are in danger of being missed—for example, those with blood cancers—and will he then ensure that the relevant testing and antiviral drugs will be readily available, alongside boosters, for the immunosuppressed but also for their carers? (905702)

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.

13. Last October, a promising young footballer in my constituency called Kamran Khalid, a former winner of Chelsea FC’s Asian Star scheme who had played for the famous Senrab FC in Wanstead, was on his way home to see his mum after finishing at the gym, and he was stabbed 24 times—murdered just yards from his front door. One of the alleged perpetrators was as young as 15. I hope that the Prime Minister would agree with me that far more needs to be done to stamp out the scourge of knife crime, including addressing the underlying causes. Will he agree to meet me and Kamran’s mother Samina, who has said that losing her 18-year-old son has “left a void in her heart forever”,to discuss what more can be done to make our streets safer and ensure that other families do not ever have to suffer this heartbreaking loss? (905701)

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.

15. The Government’s commitment to £25 million for a new electric bus fleet in Warrington will have a transformational effect on public transport across Warrington. Does the Prime Minister agree that the right way to spend that £25 million is by buying British-made buses, supporting highly skilled manufacturing jobs right across the United Kingdom? (905703)

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?

That was a brilliant, powerful question with which I think the whole House assented. Would it not have been more powerful if it had come from the leader of the Scottish National party?

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.

The leader in this morning’s Times is a scathing criticism of the Government’s limited sanctions against Russia. If the Prime Minister will not listen to Members of this House, will he at least listen to The Times newspaper?

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.