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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 710: debated on Wednesday 9 March 2022

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Northern Ireland Protocol

1. What recent progress the Government has made in negotiations with the EU on the Northern Ireland Protocol. (905870)

9. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on negotiations on the Northern Ireland Protocol. (905881)

I begin with some brief remarks regarding the public apology to be delivered on Friday 11 March by the Northern Ireland parties to victims and survivors of historical institutional abuse.

The Hart report into historical institutional abuse in Northern Ireland was published in 2017. I particularly thank and note the hard work of the Northern Ireland Office, the Northern Ireland civil service and my predecessors, my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley), who put so much time and focus into this, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith), who delivered the Historical Institutional Abuse (Northern Ireland) Act in December 2019, securing a key recommendation of the Hart report to establish a redress system for victims who suffered abuse while resident in these institutions in Northern Ireland.

It is only right that victims and survivors are now receiving a formal apology for the abhorrent abuse they suffered while residing in institutions that were meant to care for them. This is another key recommendation of the Hart report, and it is to be welcomed. For too many years, the voices of victims and their appeals for help went unheard, and on 11 March they will receive a full and unconditional apology that is so deserved.

In answer to Questions 1 and 9, I regularly meet Cabinet colleagues to discuss Northern Ireland matters, including the Northern Ireland protocol. The situation in Northern Ireland is serious, and the Government are keeping all options available to make sure we achieve a positive outcome.

I am pleased to hear the Secretary of State’s statement.

The Russian war of aggression against Ukraine threatens to undermine global food security, including for people across these islands, by cutting the world off from 30% of all grain supplies and undermining global production of fertiliser for other foodstuffs. Unbelievably, recent media reports suggest that senior Brexiteers are pressing the Government to trigger article 16 and proclaim unfinished business with the EU. Such action would be reckless and unnecessary even without a war raging on the European continent. Will the Government take triggering article 16 off the table once and for all?

Absolutely not. We are very clear that we have to keep all options on the table. Article 16 is part of the protocol and, if we cannot resolve these issues, it is the proper legal process to take things forward. Ultimately, the right result, and the result on which we and the Foreign Secretary are focused, is getting a resolution by agreement with the EU. Be in no doubt that we are determined to make sure Northern Ireland can access goods from Great Britain in the way it should, which we should all support.

Many of us in this House are deeply concerned about the lack of progress in these negotiations. Does the Secretary of State recognise that the sovereignty issue for Northern Ireland still remains on the table with regard to EU lawmaking? Although the context is quite different, it is worth remembering that we are also dealing with the Ukrainian situation, which is also an issue of sovereignty.

My hon. Friend makes an important and accurate point. The reality is that we have not seen enough progress, and are not yet seeing enough flexibility and pragmatism from the EU. What is positive is that there is a recognition now, including in the conversations I have had with Vice-President Šefčovič, that issues with the protocol need to be resolved. We all want to see that happen at a much faster pace, and to see more flexibility on all these issues, both on trade and, as he rightly says, on remembering that Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom and its internal market.

We know that viruses and many infectious agents do not stick to international, let alone domestic, borders, as we have seen in both the human and animal health settings. With that in mind, does my right hon. Friend agree that if the UK and the EU were to agree a veterinary and SPS—sanitary and phytosanitary—agreement, that would not only protect the biosecurity of the UK, but facilitate trade and the movement of plant and animal produce between Great Britain and Northern Ireland?

My hon. Friend gives an example of one area where we are keen to see flexibility from the EU, so that we can see some resolution. We have put forward a range of constructive proposals to meet the objectives—respecting the single market of the EU while making sure that we achieve our prime priority, which is protecting all aspects of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement—such as the green channel proposals, which can deal with east-west customs and those SPS burdens that he mentioned. We have to make sure that we find a resolution that works, and that means goods can flow from Great Britain to Northern Ireland—the goods that are not at risk of moving to the EU—in the way they always have done.

The Prime Minister has told the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) that negotiations on the protocol have only a 30% chance of success. Does the Secretary of State share that assessment?

I am not sure I am in a position to give betting odds in terms of percentages. The experience we have had with the EU so far, in the past six to nine months, has shown us a lack of the pragmatism and flexibility that we need to see. We have not seen the EU move in a way that allows us to resolve the issues of the protocol, either the trade issues or the wider issues of identity and sovereignty. It is important that we do that. We have to be realistic about the reality of that lack of progress and flexibility, which is why I am clear that we take no options off the table.

The reason the Secretary of State cannot give a direct answer to the question is because Ministers and the Prime Minister have been telling so many people informally so many different answers. That is a reason why there is such a lack of trust in the Government at the moment. Queen’s University Belfast has just carried out a poll, which found:

“The UK government is by far the most distrusted…of all actors”.

That is because so much is happening in the shadows; Ministers are telling people different things behind closed doors. Since the Executive collapsed, there has been no statement to the House. Following five rounds of negotiations between the UK and the EU Governments, there has not been a single statement to the House. Will the Secretary of State promise to bring discussions out of the shadows and start making statements to the House, so that we can have things on the record and not behind closed doors?

I think the hon. Gentleman misunderstands how negotiations need to work. We have been clear that it is right and appropriate that we have the space to have those private negotiations with the EU, which is why we have not gone out and publicly outlined some of the specific details we have put. But we have been very clear, and I am very clear publicly as well as privately, that we take no options off the table. We do need to resolve this. There is a point at which there is a judgment call for the UK Government to make on whether those negotiations are able to progress in a way that gives us confidence that we can get to a positive resolution. We have not seen that flexibility from the EU yet, but we will continue to strain every sinew, and the Foreign Secretary continues to talk to Maroš Šefčovič, to do everything we can to get a resolution that works. But we have to be very clear: this is about a resolution that respects all aspects of the Good Friday agreement and protects the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland.

The period of purdah in the run-up to the Northern Ireland Assembly election is fast approaching. Does my right hon. Friend acknowledge the need to make real, serious progress before that period commences? Does he anticipate that such progress will be made?

It is important that we get progress as quickly as possible, regardless of the pre-election period in Northern Ireland, because every day that we are not seeing that flexibility from the EU is another day when consumers in Northern Ireland cannot access products; when the Jewish community cannot access, technically, under the EU provisions, kosher food; when businesses cannot get access to the products they need; and when more than 200 Great Britain businesses are not supplying Northern Ireland. That affects the economy of both Northern Ireland and the wider UK, and we need to resolve that as quickly as we can.

Further to that answer, may I draw to the Secretary of State’s attention the situation of my constituent from Dromore who is disabled and confined to a wheelchair? Three weeks ago, the ramp on the back of her disability-adapted motor vehicle broke. When she went to order the spare part from the supplier in England, she was told it could not be sent to her because she was not registered with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to trade with the rest of the United Kingdom. That is precisely the kind of difficulty that the protocol is causing for ordinary people in Northern Ireland and the idea that we just ignore it, sweep it under the carpet and forget about article 16 ignores the rights of my constituents.

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. There are multiple examples out there, whether it is the issues for the Jewish community that I just outlined or the individual case he has. Both he and I have heard of cases of other people who are unable to access products and goods, some of which are very important so that they can continue to live their lives in the way that any other UK citizen could. That is not good enough. We need to be clear with the EU that its current lack of flexibility puts at risk the very thing that the protocol was there to protect: the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland. It is right that we keep the pressure on. We will strain every sinew, and I hope the EU will show flexibility and pragmatism to resolve the issue that it now recognises, which is that the protocol is not working and is, I have to say, just not sustainable in its current form.

At this time, households throughout the United Kingdom, including in Northern Ireland, are struggling because of rapidly increasing home-heating costs. In Northern Ireland, we are subject to European Union VAT rules, which means that if the Chancellor of the Exchequer sought to reduce VAT on home-heating oil, he would need the permission of the EU and all 27 member states. Surely, it cannot be right that my constituents are being deprived of the support they need from the Government because of the protocol.

In February this year we put a further £250 million into the Executive to allow them more flexibility, on top of their underspend, to support people at a time when there are such pressures. The right hon. Gentleman is quite right to highlight another of the many areas where the protocol is creating real problems on the ground for people in their everyday lives. We must remember that the protocol itself says it will not disrupt the everyday lives of people in their communities; the right hon. Gentleman has given yet another example of how the implementation of the protocol is doing exactly that. That has to stop.

I associate myself and my party with the Secretary of State’s remarks at the outset about victims of historical abuse and the forthcoming apology.

Another important part of the Northern Ireland protocol is article 3, which says:

“The United Kingdom shall ensure that the Common Travel Area and the rights and privileges associated therewith can continue to apply…in particular with respect to free movement to, from and within”—

the island of Ireland—

“for Union citizens and their family members, irrespective of their nationality.”

Does the Secretary of State recognise the potential economic and political strain that the introduction of an electronic travel authorisation system could put on freedom of movement across the border? What engagement does he plan to have with the Government of Northern Ireland and the Government of the Republic and their partners in the EU in respect of how to make sure such frictions do not take effect?

I am sure the hon. Gentleman will be aware that throughout the pandemic we have made sure we have kept the common travel area flowing and open. That has not necessarily been the case on the part of the Irish Government at certain points, but we have done that; we think it is important and we will continue to do that. I am looking to have further talks with the Irish Government. My officials have been talking to them about all these issues this week and last week, and I will continue to do that myself as well.

Her Majesty the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee

Next month marks 75 years since the young Princess Elizabeth made her famous pledge:

“I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service”.

My Department is working closely with colleagues across Government, and we will play our full part in celebrating the achievement of Her Majesty the Queen on the occasion of her platinum jubilee. It will be the nation’s opportunity to recognise all that she has given to the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, to express to her all she means to us, and to say to her with gratitude and in unity: long may she reign over us—God save the Queen.

I very much associate myself with the Minister’s remarks. I know the celebration of the platinum jubilee will be a cross-Government effort, but will he assure me that he is working with the devolved Administrations to ensure it is an entire-UK event, with all parts of the United Kingdom joining together to celebrate this momentous occasion?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: this is an occasion that should unite the whole of the United Kingdom—all regions and all nations of the United Kingdom. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are working closely with local authorities and the Government in Northern Ireland to make sure that this is something that brings communities together. We will want to remember some of the 25 occasions that the Queen has visited Northern Ireland: three of them as Princess Elizabeth and 22 of them as Queen. We want to involve young people and we want to use the opportunity of the jubilee to celebrate the best of Northern Ireland.

I recently was proud to join colleagues from across the House in setting up the all-party group for the Queen’s platinum jubilee. Can the Minister tell us what steps he is taking to ensure that the celebration extends across the United Kingdom and that it is used to showcase the benefits of our UK, with Northern Ireland as an integral part of it?

This occasion should bring us all together. In that light and specifically with reference to Northern Ireland, I would like to welcome the comments of the Leader of Sinn Fein who said that she wanted to

“extend to the British Queen a word of congratulations because 70 years is quite some achievement.”

She said:

“That is what you call a lifetime of service.”

Those comments have made it easier for us in Northern Ireland to celebrate this in all communities across the whole of Northern Ireland.

The platinum jubilee presents a great opportunity to celebrate and reaffirm the place of all parts of our United Kingdom, especially in Northern Ireland, which, this year, has celebrated its centenary year. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the celebrations will include UK-wide events, including in Northern Ireland, to celebrate all 70 years of Her Majesty’s service? Will he also encourage all primary school-aged children in North West Durham to take part in my competition to design a platinum jubilee card for Her Majesty?

The example that my hon. Friend gives of the competition that he is running in his own constituency will, I am sure, be replicated across the House. I can give him the assurance that Northern Ireland will participate in all of the national events around the jubilee: the platinum pudding competition; the big jubilee lunch. This is a great celebration for us all to enjoy in a spirit of unity.

The Minister was right to reflect on the comments from the Leader of Sinn Fein. They are rare and he will know that, in Northern Ireland, there still pervades a lack of generosity about the huge commitment and dignity that Her Majesty has shown our United Kingdom. He will also know that there is a stark contrast between the Northern Ireland Office’s position on celebrating the centenary last year, with the construction of a forum and the allocation of funds, and the tame approach when it comes to the platinum jubilee. Will the Minister outline whether he will dedicate significant resource, so that we can celebrate this historic achievement in style?

I do not totally agree with the characterisation of the hon. Gentleman around the centenary programme that the Northern Ireland Office ran. I thought that it was bold, that it was inclusive and that it recognised the unique circumstances—[Interruption.] Oh, the hon. Gentleman said that he welcomed it. Sorry, I misheard him. Mr Speaker, I apologise to the hon. Gentleman. I am so used to criticism from the Democratic Unionist party that that rare outbreak of consensus passed me by. I can give him my total assurance that we will be marking this jubilee with full throttle, joy and celebration, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be coming forward with some very innovative ideas about how we will mark it, especially in Northern Ireland.

Promoting Trade and Investment

May I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Greg Smith) that it is particularly good to see him in his place today?

I recently attended the Northern Ireland Day at the Dubai Expo, where I met many Northern Irish businesses already exporting globally, including White’s Oats, Kiverco and Greenfields. We also had the opportunity to meet with two sovereign wealth funds, which, I am pleased to report to the House, have accepted our invitation to come to Northern Ireland and look at the opportunities to invest in Northern Ireland as part of their programme of investing in the United Kingdom.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. Thanks to our exit from the European Union, the United Kingdom is able to strike trade deals around the world without being constrained by the bureaucrats in Brussels. Can he assure me that he is working with his colleagues in the Department for International Trade to ensure that businesses in Northern Ireland which export their products are given full and due consideration in all trade deal negotiations?

I can assure my hon. Friend that, as a former Minister of State for Trade Policy, I bring that worldview to my role as Minister of State in Northern Ireland. The short answer to his question is yes; I am delighted that we have now opened a new Department for International Trade hub in the heart of Belfast. I recently met the Economy Minister, Gordon Lyons at the Northern Ireland Showcase and we introduced him to the President of the Board of Trade before Christmas. We have put £8 million into Invest NI to help it to promote Northern Ireland abroad. Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom’s offer to the world and will benefit fully from our international trade agreements.

While it is obviously important to bring investment into Northern Ireland, my constituents in Derry are struggling right now with soaring energy bills. A mile across the border, the Irish Government are cutting vehicle excise duty by up to 20% for petrol and diesel. This Government are very keen and very quick to raise national insurance contributions and to cut universal credit. Will they be quick to cut vehicle excise duty to save people from the soaring costs that are crippling home budgets?

On 3 February this year the Government announced that the Northern Ireland Executive will receive an additional £250 million to help them to support households with the cost of living. He mentions tax changes, but it would be imprudent of me as a junior Minister to comment ahead of the Chancellor’s making statements to the House.

It was a real pity that we could not land the return of the world rally championship to Belfast in 2022. Can the Minister please confirm that we will pull out all the stops for 2023?

I can. We did extensive work with the Department for the Economy and the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) was heavily involved in lobbying on that. We think it would be a great thing to bring to Northern Ireland and we are determined to build on the work we have already done to see whether that is possible next year.

Last week, I was in Northern Ireland with members of the UK Trade and Business Commission, where we heard from a major supermarket about the impact that the protocol could have in future if the grace periods no longer exist. I listened carefully to the Secretary of State’s answer to the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Dr Hudson) earlier, when he suggested an SPS agreement as a way forward. Can we be clear that the Government are seeking an SPS agreement with the EU that differentiates the goods that are at risk of going into the EU, and those that are not?

I must say to the right hon. Gentleman, whom I hold in high regard, that I was delighted that he was in Northern Ireland to hear first-hand some of the challenges Northern Ireland is facing. What we are seeking, as the Secretary of State, the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister have all made very clear, is to take the protocol back in its application to how it was intended. It says in the protocol that,

“the application of this Protocol should impact as little as possible on the everyday life of communities in…Northern Ireland”.

It also refers to,

“the importance of maintaining the integral place of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom’s internal market”.

The disruption that the implementation of the protocol is having in Northern Ireland is not sustainable. That is why the Government are committed to finding a negotiated solution.

On inward investment, the realisation of the redevelopment of Casement Park, a third sporting stadium in Belfast, would give Northern Ireland the opportunity to host sporting events on an international stage and bring communities together. What input or influence, if any, have the Secretary of State and his Minister on that? Could the £1.2 billion that the Northern Ireland Executive have returned to the Treasury since 2016 be used to realise such projects for Northern Ireland?

I welcome the comments from the Labour Front Bench. We look at a whole range of opportunities for investment in Northern Ireland, to give it the opportunity to attract inward investment and to host international events. That will be a core part of what we are able to do through levelling up, and it is a key thing that the Secretary of State and I have been driving through our city and growth deals to help Northern Ireland and communities in Northern Ireland to attract investment that creates jobs and prosperity, which is the best way to underpin peace.

Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Act 2022

7. What assessment he has made of the potential impact of the Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Act 2022 on political stability in Northern Ireland. (905879)

The Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Act 2022 was specifically designed to improve the sustainability of the Northern Ireland institutions. The benefits include allowing more time and space for the formation of an Executive following an election or the resignation of the First or Deputy First Minister.

I was pleased to serve on the Bill Committee for that legislation, and it is now clear that it was timely, given the recent resignations of Northern Ireland’s First Minister and Deputy First Minister. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that he is emphasising to Northern Ireland’s political parties that they all need to play their part and work together to achieve stable devolved Government?

Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. He is absolutely right. I continue to speak to a range of stakeholders, including the party leaders in Northern Ireland, about the importance of having a strong, functioning Northern Ireland Executive. A couple of them are in the Chamber now, and I have expressed to them my desire to have a First Minister and Deputy First Minister nominated now and after the May elections.

The Government have been clear that they want to legislate for the language and culture package of New Decade, New Approach before the Assembly rises for the elections, which is only two weeks away. Is that pledge going to happen in the next two weeks?

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. I am absolutely committed to ensuring that we deliver on our promise, as is the Prime Minister, as we set out last summer, and indeed that we deliver on all our commitments in the New Decade, New Approach deal, which brought Stormont back.

Before we come to Prime Minister’s questions, I would like to point out that the British Sign Language interpretation of proceedings is available to watch on

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


Never before has this House listened to an address such as the one given yesterday by President Zelensky. I want to tell the House that, working with our friends and allies across the free world, we will be doing even more in the coming days to protect the people of Ukraine. My right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary will set out more details for the House later.

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.

My son Ben died of an aortic dissection at age 44, leaving a wife and two young children. It is a condition that kills 2,000 every year needlessly—more than those who die on the roads—yet most people do not know anything about it until it devastates their family, as it did mine. So many of these cases are preventable by identifying those at risk and through early and accurate diagnosis. Will the Prime Minister commend the work of the Aortic Dissection Charitable Trust in working with all aspects of the patient pathway for this condition? In particular, will he commit to public funding for research into the diagnosis of aortic dissection and into genetic screening for it?

May I first say to my hon. Friend how very sorry I am, as I am sure the whole House is, for the loss of her son Ben? She is a passionate advocate for this work, and I also thank the Aortic Dissection Charitable Trust. She is completely right that accurate and fast diagnosis and treatment is crucial, which is why I am pleased that the National Institute for Health Research is looking to do further work in this area, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care will meet her at his earliest convenience.

The typical energy bill is going up by £700 next month, and that is because of pressures before Russia invaded Ukraine. What is the Chancellor’s solution? A forced £200 loan for every household, to be paid back in mandatory instalments over five years. The big gamble behind that policy was that energy costs would drop quickly after a short spike. That bet now looks certain to fail. When will the Prime Minister force the Chancellor into a U-turn?

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has set out plans to help families with energy costs and unprecedented measures to abate council tax by £150, in addition to all the other schemes that we are putting forward. Yes, the right hon. and learned Gentleman is absolutely right that we need to meet the long-term impacts of the spike in energy prices, which is why I will be setting out an energy independence plan for this country in the course of the next few days, to ensure that we undo some of the damage of previous decisions—not least the Labour Government’s decision not to invest in nuclear—and so that we prepare our people for the long term, with a sustainable, cost-efficient energy supply.

I do not think the Prime Minister understands the mess he is in. Working families are facing a £700 spike in April. They will not even receive their £200 loan from the Chancellor until October. The wholesale price of oil and gas is now ballooning, so by October when the loan finally comes in, household bills are set to shoot up by another £1,000. It is a total mess, so I ask again: when is the Prime Minister going to force the Chancellor to U-turn?

If the right hon. and learned Gentleman is asking for the Chancellor to U-turn on the support we are giving families and households, I think that he is absolutely out of his mind. We are going to continue to give people support throughout this difficult period, as we did throughout the coronavirus epidemic, with unprecedented levels of support. We have a £200 discount on bills, a £150 non-repayable reduction in council tax, and £144 million extra to help councils support vulnerable families with their energy bills. Altogether, there is a £20 billion package of financial help that we are giving the British people, and we will continue to do more. A U-turn is the last thing we want.

We will see how long that position lasts. Let me try to help the Prime Minister by coming at this from a different angle. Before Russia invaded Ukraine, North sea oil and gas companies were making bumper profits. BP made £9.5 billion, Shell made £14 billion—in their own words,

“more cash than we know what to do with.”

Since then, the international price of oil and gas has skyrocketed, and so will their profits. When will the Prime Minister admit he has got this badly wrong, put a windfall tax on those super-profits, and use the money to cut household energy bills?

The net result of that would simply be to see the oil companies put their prices up yet higher and make it more difficult for them to do what we need them to do—which, by the way, I think they are doing very responsibly at the moment—which is divesting from dependence on Russian oil and gas. That is the way forward for this country: to take a sober, responsible approach to end our dependence on hydrocarbons altogether, particularly Russian hydrocarbons. We are taking steps to rectify some of the mistakes made by the Labour Government and have a long-term, sustainable, independent energy supply policy. That is what this country needs.

Protecting energy profits, not working people—doesn’t that say it all? Britain cannot afford another crisis like this. We need to improve our long-term energy security. That starts with supporting new nuclear and renewables, but the Conservatives have effectively banned new onshore wind. As a direct result of this short-sighted approach, we are using more gas every year than we import from Russia. That is ludicrous, so will the Prime Minister relax planning laws, end the block on onshore wind, and stop supporting policies that make us so dependent on foreign gas?

It is thanks to the policies that this Government have pursued that we are dependent on Russian gas for only 3% of our gas needs, unlike virtually every other European country. It is thanks to the massive investment we have made in renewables that we are—as I have said many times in this House—the Saudi Arabia of wind power, producing more offshore wind than virtually any other country in the world. By the way, this may be news to some of his party, but I think the right hon. and learned Gentleman just committed to supporting more nuclear power. Great news! There is more joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth than over a hundred others. Those were the people who cancelled our nuclear efforts during the time they were in power—they did completely the wrong thing. I am delighted to now welcome them into the fold.

Come off it! Labour is pro-nuclear. This Prime Minister cannot get a single brick laid of a new nuclear plant. Energy security is not just about supply; it is also about reducing demand. Our housing stock is the least efficient in Europe. That is why Labour set out a plan to upgrade the 19 million British homes that desperately need it within a decade, saving families £400 on their energy bills and cutting UK gas imports by 15%, whereas all the Government have is a failed policy. Taking all their announcements together, it will take 75 years to deliver the upgrades that we need. That is a lifetime, when we need urgent action. When is the Prime Minister going to get on with it?

I just remind the House that under the Labour Government, our nuclear output fell from about 25% to 10% of our energy needs, and as I recall, that was because of the decisions they took. We are now going to rectify that. The right hon. and learned Gentleman asked about the cost of energy bills, and we are helping households with the cost of energy bills to the tune of £9.1 billion. Why can this Government afford to do that? Why can we afford to put huge quantities of taxpayers’ money into supporting households with their energy costs? I will tell you why, Mr Speaker: it is because we have the fastest growth in the G7. Do not forget that if we had listened to Captain Hindsight, we would have stayed in lockdown and never achieved it.

Twelve years in power and that is the best the Prime Minister can do. The Ukrainian people are fighting for democracy. We must stand with them, and that means taking the toughest possible measures against Putin. Let us be honest that there will be costs here at home. We can withstand those costs, and we must, by using a windfall tax to keep bills down for working people and by starting a new era of energy policy, never again at the mercy of a dictator, by supporting new nuclear after years of neglect, sprinting on renewables, including onshore wind, and having an urgent national mission to upgrade homes, ending years of dither and delay. Why is the Prime Minister offering the same failed energy policy that cast us into the security crisis and allowed bills to rocket? [Interruption.]

Order. I want to hear the answer. Standing up will not catch my eye; in fact, it has the opposite effect on me.

What we are junking is the failed energy policies that left us without enough nuclear power, and what we will do is go forward with policies that allow this country to be independent in our energy supply, maximising renewables, making sure that we use transitional hydrocarbons and going for nuclear as well. As I say, I am overjoyed that Labour now seems to occupy that position. What we will also do, and here the right hon. and learned Gentleman has been supportive, is ensure that as a House of Commons we work together to maintain our opposition to Vladimir Putin’s vile war in Ukraine. There, together with the toughest possible economic sanctions and by maintaining our military support for the people of Ukraine, I have no doubt that although there will be dark days ahead and difficult times, we will come through it stronger. I have no doubt that Vladimir Putin will fail and we will succeed in restoring a sovereign and independent Ukraine.

Q5. For more than two decades, Thames Water has been trying to build a reservoir in my constituency that would be more than 30 metres high and would cover the equivalent of more than 2,500 football pitches. This has been a shadow over the local community, which does not think that Thames Water has proven the need for this proposal. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if a company seeks to do something like this, it has to show why it is needed, why it is better than the alternatives and what the environmental impact will be? The company cannot behave as though it is inevitable, whether the local community want it or not. (905973)

I thank my hon. Friend. He is a fantastic champion for his constituents in Wantage. As I understand it, the decision on the Abingdon reservoir has not actually been made, but we would expect Thames Water to consult further on the proposal. I know that it will have heard the points that he has rightly made.

We are now 14 days into Putin’s war. In that time, I have genuinely tried to work constructively with the UK Government and I will continue to seek to do that. Nobody should support the Government, however, when it comes to their response to the refugee crisis—760 visa approvals in two weeks is disgraceful.

In that time, Poland has taken over 1.2 million refugees, Hungary has taken over 190,000 refugees, Germany has taken over 50,000 refugees, Italy has taken over 7,000 refugees and Ireland—a country of just over 5 million people—has given sanctuary to three times as many refugees as the United Kingdom. Those numbers do not lie; they tell a devastating truth. Does the Prime Minister find it acceptable that his Home Secretary has overseen one of the slowest, most bureaucratic and incompetent refugee responses in the whole of Europe?

I think everybody sympathises with the plight of refugees. The Government want to do everything we can to welcome them and that is indeed what we are doing. The numbers are almost 1,000 as I speak to the right hon. Gentleman today, and they will rise very sharply. They are uncapped and we expect those numbers to rise to in the region of hundreds of thousands.

As Vladimir Putin doubles down in his attacks, we will go further and there will be routes by which the whole country can offer a welcome to vulnerable people fleeing from Ukraine. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities will be setting out that route in the course of the next few days. This Government have a proud, proud record. We have done more to resettle vulnerable people than any other European country since 2015.

I do not think the Prime Minister understands the scale of the challenge or the urgency. These are people fleeing war crimes, torn apart from their families as their homes are shelled, and the Home Secretary is blocking them with endless paperwork. That is not just incompetence; this is ideology. In the face of the biggest refugee crisis in Europe since the second world war, the UK Government will not set aside the hostile environment. [Interruption.] By the way, we are seeing the hostile environment this afternoon—Conservative Members might quieten down a bit.

We have seen that too many times from a Tory Home Office: the Windrush scandal, the “Go home” vans, and the inhumane Nationality and Borders Bill. The UK Home Office is raising barriers and bureaucracy when we should be offering care and compassion. I say to the Prime Minister that he should not let the history of failure repeat itself. Scotland stands ready to offer sanctuary and refuge, so will he join the rest of the European continent and waive the visa restrictions for refugees fleeing war in Ukraine?

This country has an unparalleled record—[Interruption.] Just since—[Interruption.] Since I have been Prime Minister, look at the numbers we have taken from Afghanistan and Hong Kong. The right hon. Gentleman lectures the Home Secretary, but this is a Government unlike any other: the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Home Secretary are directly descended from refugees. We understand how much refugees have to give to this country and we understand how much this country has to gain from welcoming refugees. We will be generous and we are being generous.

What we are doing is making sure that, in those neighbouring countries, the UK is out in front giving humanitarian assistance and we are in every capital. [Interruption.] SNP Members laugh, they mock, they scoff, but this country is leading in every respect. We are also the single biggest donor of humanitarian aid to the Ukraine warzone—the single biggest donor—and the right hon. Gentleman should be proud of that.

Q6. I commend the Prime Minister’s response to the Ukrainian crisis, but people across the country are genuinely concerned by our response on refugees—by the bureaucracy and the tone of our response. He has shown with vaccines that Government change comes from the very top. I urge him to look again at resetting our policy and taking control of a more humane approach to those women and men fleeing from Ukraine. (905974)

I thank my right hon. Friend very much, and I thank him for all the work that he does in this area, but I hope he will have heard what I just said in my answer to the leader of the SNP, which is that this Government are I think unlike any other in our understanding of what refugees can give and the benefits to this country. We have done more than any other to resettle vulnerable people since 2015. There is a huge opportunity now for us to do even more. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Levelling Up will be setting out a route by which the British people—not just the family reunion route, which can run into the hundreds of thousands, but a route by which everybody in this country—can offer a home to people fleeing Ukraine. My right hon. Friend will be setting that out in the course of the next few days.

The Prime Minister will be acutely aware of the pressures facing households across the United Kingdom, including in Northern Ireland, with the rapid increase in the cost of heating homes and running a motor vehicle. Heating a home has more than doubled for many households in Northern Ireland in recent weeks. Will the Prime Minister commit to bringing forward a package of measures designed to help households, including a cut in VAT on home heating fuel and reducing or cutting excise duty on fuel for motorists, and will he ensure that those measures apply to Northern Ireland, where the Northern Ireland protocol once again presents a problem in this Government taking control over the affairs of all of the United Kingdom? Will the decisions that the Treasury takes apply to the whole of the United Kingdom?

We will make sure that we do everything to support the people of the whole of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, and we have already extended a further £250 million to help the people of Northern Ireland with the costs of living, particularly heating. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, excise on fuel has been frozen for the last 12 years. We will ensure that the people of Northern Ireland continue to be protected, along with everybody in the UK, from the cost of living crisis, but the House should be in no doubt that the pressures on energy will continue. We need a pan-UK solution, and that is what we are going to be setting out.

Q7. The world has changed. Energy security is vital, but so too is food security. Our food and drink manufacturers and those in the food supply chain proved their worth during the pandemic. Given the importance to our country of this sector and the need to ensure its competitiveness, its resilience and a high degree of self-sufficiency, will the Prime Minister now take the opportunity to review many of the proposed regulatory burdens such as on HFSS—high in fat, salt and sugar—products and the promotional and marketing restrictions that could adversely affect this important sector at this critical time? (905975)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that food security is a crucial issue. It is affected of course by the cost of energy, and the energy inputs into agriculture are certainly something that we need to address. There is also a separate issue to do with childhood obesity. The House passed measures already in the autumn—the ones to which he refers—and we are giving the industry more time to adjust to the impact of those measures.

Q2. In addition to the increase in fuel prices, our constituents are reporting to us that the energy companies are doubling standing charges. In France, energy supply company EDF has had energy price rises to domestic customers capped at 4%, but this Government’s price cap allows EDF to increase prices to UK customers by 54%. My question is: why? (905969)

We have an overall cap, and obviously EDF is incorporated differently in the UK from its incorporation in France. We will do everything in our power to abate the costs of energy across the country, as we already are, but what is needed is a short-term, medium-term and long-term energy strategy so that we have sustainable supplies.

Q9. Soon after I was elected, I found out that, at Shotley Bridge, an eight-bed community hospital in my constituency had been replaced with a zero-bed unit—something some Labour councillors had known about, but said nothing about during the election campaign. After campaigning hard with Ministers and the Secretary of State, and working with my local NHS trust, a new 16-bed unit is now in the final stages of planning, and has been confirmed as part of this Government’s hospital building programme. Can the Prime Minister confirm that this new community hospital is now full steam ahead, and will he commit to coming to Consett to kick off the building works if the plan goes ahead by the end of next year? (905977)

Yes, I am delighted that there will be a new hospital at Shotley Bridge, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work he has done to lobby for that. It proves that, in spite of the pandemic and in spite of war in Ukraine, this Government are getting on with the job.

Q3. I have just been to a very harrowing meeting with families who have members of their families in care homes and hospitals who have suffered an unjustifiable denial of access to those loved ones and have been massively restricted. It continues, despite the post-covid environment. Is the Prime Minister prepared to introduce legislation to make access to loved ones in care homes and hospitals a legal right, and not at the discretion of the care home or hospital concerned? (905971)

I thank the hon. Gentleman very much. I think everybody understands the anguish of people who have not been able to see their loved ones during the pandemic, and as he knows, we have relaxed the restrictions in care homes. I would be happy to offer a meeting between him and the relevant Health Minister to discuss his further concerns.

Q11. The Government have already stopped issuing golden visas, so that those cannot be exploited by oligarchs and crime lords. However, some could already be here, living in luxury London penthouse flats that they bought with dirty cash. Will the Prime Minister pledge that anybody who is put on the sanctions list in the coming days and is already in the UK on a golden visa will have it ripped up, so that they can be thrown out? (905979)

Yes. I thank the House for what we have done to accelerate the economic crime measures. We will be able to whip aside the veil of anonymity. Ownership of the luxurious dwellings to which my hon. Friend refers will be exposed and, yes, we will be able to take away the ability to remain in this country.

Q4. As energy costs spiral, I want to raise the issue of people who use extra electricity to charge their electric wheelchairs, or to run ventilators or a stairlift. It is not right that people with a disability or serious medical condition should face unmanageable debt, or go without food, to pay the costs of electricity on which they absolutely rely. They need a real cut to their bills right now. Why is the Prime Minister not looking at drawing on the profits of the North sea oil and gas companies to help the most vulnerable families with those costs? (905972)

I thank the hon. Lady very much and she raises an important issue. Clearly, the spike in energy prices is going to fall most heavily on vulnerable people such as the ones she mentioned, and we will certainly be looking at ways to abate their costs.

Q13. I do not know what I have done to deserve that. Residents in the village of Hamble in my constituency are currently facing the prospect of a quarry being given planning permission, with 144 lorries per day in that congested area and one-road access. Will my right hon. Friend agree to meet me to discuss how we can tighten the regulations on where quarries can be built, to take into account the health implication, our environment, and our local communities? (905981)

I thank my hon. Friend. He is a great champion for Eastleigh. The planning framework is robust and should ensure that quarries do not have an adverse impact on the environment or on health. I will ensure that he gets a meeting with the relevant Minister to discuss his concerns further.

Q8. In recent weeks we have seen how serious and dangerous Russia’s covert influence in Britain can be. We have seen that Putin actively seeks to influence the culture, media, and politics of democratic nations. Our national security is of the greatest importance, and Britain cannot become home to those who prop up Putin and his war. With that in mind, has the Prime Minister ever overruled Security Service advice when appointing a peer to the other place? (905976)

No, and actually the Kremlin has singled out the UK for being in the lead on global sanctions—[Interruption.] Yes it has, and in leading the world in defiance of the odious war that Putin is leading in Ukraine.

Yesterday, President Zelensky drew on the words of Churchill in this Chamber. As we salute the courage of the people of Ukraine, it reminds us that we can meet in freedom today only because of the courage of a generation of men and women who, in the second world war, defended us from annihilation. Among them is my friend Flight Lieutenant Colin Bell DFC, who flew his de Havilland Mosquito in 50 missions over Nazi Germany. Colin Bell is with us today. On Saturday, he celebrated his 101st birthday. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] Will the Prime Minister join me in wishing Colin a very happy birthday and thank him for what he did to allow us to be here today?

The whole House will want to join me in thanking Colin Bell and wishing him a very happy 101st birthday.

Q10. People across these islands have displayed remarkable generosity, including in Argyll and Bute, where Oban Helps Ukraine has been overwhelmed by donations of money, clothes and offers of shelter. Sadly, the Government’s reluctance to allow fleeing women and children to come here lags far behind the desire of the people here to provide them with a roof and a bed. Does not the Prime Minister fear that, when this war is concluded, and despite whatever else they may have done, his Government will stand accused of lacking the one thing that the Ukrainian people needed most: basic humanity? (905978)

I really do not think that that question reflects the views of people around the world. Nor does it reflect reality because this Government have done more than any other European country to support people by way of direct bilateral humanitarian aid, and we have two very generous schemes for allowing people to come to this country. This is a Government who believe in welcoming people fleeing from zones of conflict.

The hon. Member shakes his head. Look at our record. Look at what we have done just in the last two years. He should be proud of what we have done.

We were pleased to welcome both the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to Blackpool the day after the launch of the levelling up White Paper. Will he meet me to discuss how we can ensure that Blackpool is not just a testbed for innovation in many areas of levelling up but a showcase for the impact that it can have on the community that I represent?

I thank my hon. Friend for his wonderful work in Blackpool for the communities he represents. It was fantastic to be with him and to see the extension and upgrading of the tram network in Blackpool, which will help to drive the economy and help to bring in high-wage, high-skilled jobs, in the way we hope to do across the whole of the UK as we get on with levelling up.

In the months before world war two, the UK took in more than 60,000 Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution. Over half a century ago, we took in more than 27,000 Ugandans expelled by Idi Amin. Since then, we have taken Tamils escaping civil war, Bosnians escaping genocide and Syrians escaping Assad. But this week, the Home Office turned away hundreds of Ukrainian refugees escaping Putin’s bombs because they did not have the right paperwork. Can the Prime Minister not see that that flies in the face of our country’s proud tradition of providing sanctuary? Since the Home Office is clearly not up to the task, will he send in armed forces personnel to speed up the process so that Ukrainian refugees can come here quickly and safely?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman very much. The whole House wants to do as much as we can as fast as possible, but what he says about the UK is, I am afraid, completely wrong, because we have visa centres open in Warsaw, Budapest, Prague, Rzeszów in Poland, Chi inău in Moldova, Bucharest and elsewhere. We have already got 1,000 people in under the existing scheme. That number will climb very sharply. Look at what we have done already—15,000 from Afghanistan, 104,000 applications from Hong Kong Chinese, and I think there were about 25,000 from Syria. No one has been turned away. That is simply—[Interruption.] We want to be as generous—[Interruption.] It is important to have checks. Let me make this point to the House because I think people need to understand.

There are some people who would like to dispense with checks altogether and simply to wave people through—[Interruption.] I hear the voices on the Opposition Benches, and I think that that is irresponsible and is not the approach that we should be taking. The Schengen countries have a different arrangement. We must be in no doubt, as I said in answer to a previous question, that the Kremlin has singled out this country for the approach that we are taking, and we know how unscrupulous Vladimir Putin can be in his methods. It would not be right to expose this country to unnecessary security risk and we will not do it. We are going to be as generous as we can possibly be, but we must have checks.

My community in Tipton came together on Sunday to commemorate the 100 years since the devastating explosion at the Dudley Port munitions factory and the 19 girls who were recklessly murdered by the owner of that factory. In the Black Country, it is vital that we acknowledge both the pride and the pain of our industrial heritage. May I ask my right hon. Friend, therefore, to reaffirm his commitment today to the Black Country to ensure that we honour the legacy of those girls from that factory in Dudley Port 100 years ago? The one way that he can do that for my community in Tipton is to come to Tipton to see that beating heart of the Black Country, and we will welcome him with open arms.

Long ago, when I was a reporter, Tipton was on my beat—many years ago—and wild horses could not keep me away from Tipton. I’ll be back.

I have a constituent whose elderly parents are seeking refuge in the United Kingdom from Ukraine. Her parents are both in their 80s. They have made it to Hungary. They went to the visa application centre, as instructed by the Home Office hotline, and they were told, “Come back on 22 March.” Then, and only then, will their biometrics be processed. That is the harsh reality—no spin, no subterfuge. Prime Minister, when will refugees from Ukraine be welcomed into the United Kingdom?

I thank the hon. Gentleman. If he would be kind enough, I would be grateful if he passed me the details of the case that he mentioned and I would be happy to give it to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. We are moving heaven and earth, because we understand the value to this country of refugees. We also understand the imperative of helping people fleeing a war zone in terror. That is why the people of this country want to open their arms, and we are going to help them to do it with a new humanitarian route, in addition to the family reunion route that we have already set out. That family reunion route alone could bring hundreds of thousands of people here. I think the whole House understands that; we will do even more through the new humanitarian route.