Skip to main content


Volume 711: debated on Wednesday 23 March 2022

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.

The degrading strip-search of Child Q two years ago, in a school that should have been a safe place, at the hands of police officers she should have been able to trust, has caused anger and distress across the country. On Monday, the Minister for Crime and Policing failed to answer four separate questions in this Chamber about when he first knew about Child Q and what urgent action he took in response, so I ask the Prime Minister: when did he first hear about the strip-search of Child Q in her school? Does he believe that the characteristic dither and delay of his Government in responding to this appalling case is remotely acceptable when it comes to the safety of children?

I think that that is a completely ridiculous characterisation of the response of the Government, because of course the reports of the incident are deeply distressing and deeply concerning—everybody shares the hon. Lady’s feelings about that—but the Metropolitan police have rightly apologised and the Independent Office for Police Conduct is investigating. For that reason, it would not be right to comment further.

Q2. People across North East Hertfordshire are coming together to provide support and refuge to families fleeing the invasion in Ukraine. The Baldock and District action committee is about to welcome four families to our community. Does the Prime Minister agree that that shows the open-hearted generosity of the British people? Will he continue to do all he can with the Minister for Refugees to make the process as simple and speedy as possible? (906241)

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend and all those involved in the two big schemes that we have now for welcoming people from Ukraine. The Homes for Ukraine scheme is now open; I think that about 40,000 have already applied and 150,000 families across the country have said that they want to welcome Ukrainians. That is a fantastic thing, and I thank Baldock and District for helping to lead the way.

Eight hundred loyal British workers fired over Zoom, instantly replaced by foreign agency workers shipped in on less than the minimum wage—if the Prime Minister cannot stop that, what is the point of his Government?

We condemn the callous behaviour of P&O. I think it is no way to treat hard-working employees, and I can tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman that we will not sit by. It looks to me as though, under section 194 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, the company concerned has broken the law, and we will therefore be taking action, and encouraging workers themselves to take action under the Employment Rights Act 1996—and both those Acts were passed by Conservative Governments. If the company is found guilty, it will face fines running into millions of pounds. In addition, we will be taking steps to protect all mariners who are working in UK waters and ensure that they are paid the living wage.

When Owen Paterson was on the ropes, the Prime Minister was prepared to rip up the entire rule book to save his jobs. P&O workers want him to show the same fight in relation to them. The Government had advance warning of these mass sackings—a memo was sent to the Transport Secretary and to the Prime Minister’s office—but they did not lift a finger to stop them. Did the Prime Minister not understand the memo, or did he just not bother to read it?

I think what the right hon. and learned Gentleman needs to rip up are his pre-scripted questions, because I just answered that question. The point at issue is whether or not the Government were properly notified. It is not about what happened previously. I knew about it on the Thursday when it became public, but the company concerned has a duty to notify the Government 45 days before taking action of that kind, which is why we are taking the action that we are taking to protect hard-working people. What we are also doing this month, by the way, is lifting the living wage for all workers across our country by a further £1,000, so it is up by £5,000 since 2015.

I think the Prime Minister just said that he knew about it on the day. I take it from that answer that the Prime Minister did not read his WhatsApp briefing. Let us test his rhetoric. Since he came to office, P&O has received more than £38 million-worth of Government contracts, and the parent company, DP World, is lined up for £50 million of taxpayers’ money under the freeport scheme. The Government are apparently reviewing these contracts, but reviews do not save jobs. Can the Prime Minister guarantee that those companies will not get a penny more of taxpayers’ money, or a single tax break, until they reinstate the workforce?

Yes, we are—against the company concerned, under the 1992 and 1996 Acts. That is the right thing to do, because it seems to me that that the company has broken the law. But if the right hon. and learned Gentleman is asking this Government to do what Labour usually wants us to do and actively pitchfork away investment around the country from overseas, that is not what we will do. We will take ’em to court, we will defend the rights of British workers, but what we will not do is launch a wholehearted campaign against overseas investment, as Labour would want, because that is completely wrong—and wrong for those workers.

Those at DP World must be quaking in their boots. The Prime Minister says how disappointed he is in them, while handing them £50 million.

The Prime Minister has referred to the law. Speaking of hollow reviews, as the law stands it is not illegal to pay seafarers less than the national minimum wage, even if they are working out of UK ports and in UK waters. Two years ago, the Prime Minister’s Government admitted that that was unjustifiable, and promised, two years ago—you’ve guessed it—to review it. Two years on, despite what the Prime Minister says today, nothing has been done, which has left the gate wide open for P&O. British workers do not need another empty review; they need action, so when will the Prime Minister fix that gap in the law?

With great humility, I must ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman to listen to the answer that I gave to his first question. That would help him to scrap his third or fourth question and try another one. We are going to address the defects in the National Minimum Wage Act 1998, and ensure that everyone working in the UK exclusive economic zone is paid the living wage as people are in the rest of the country.

The problem is, that is what the Prime Minister said two years ago. It did not happen, and P&O took advantage of the gap left wide open by this Prime Minister. P&O’s behaviour comes off the back of a string of fire and rehire cases, with profitable companies threatening to fire workers unless they accept a pay cut. The Prime Minister keeps telling us just how opposed he is to fire and rehire, but as we saw on Monday, he does not have the backbone to ban it. While he sits on his hands, more and more workers are having their lives turned upside down by this appalling practice. What good to them is a Prime Minister who is all mouth and no trousers?

The most notable practitioner of fire and rehire is, of course, the Labour party itself. The right hon. and learned Gentleman may be interested to know that we will be vindicating the rights of British workers—UK employees—under UK law, but I can tell him that the law that P&O itself is allegedly relying on was introduced as a result of EU directives. Never forget—[Interruption.] He may not like it, but that is the reality. He would have kept us unable to change it and unable to get out of it. He would have made it impossible for us to protect UK employees in the way that we are going to do. What we are doing above all is ensuring that workers in this country have the best protection of all, which is a job. Under this Government, thanks to the steps we have taken and thanks to the stewardship of the economy by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, which you will be hearing about a little more, Mr Speaker, we have 600,000 more people in payrolled employment than before the pandemic began.

The Prime Minister can complain all he likes, but on Monday he ordered all of his lot to abstain on a vote to ban fire and rehire. And they all did! Then, to add insult to injury, after the vote his party posted a message saying that, where possible, they will look to find P&O workers new jobs. Pathetic! They do not want new jobs; they want their old jobs back. They do not want a Prime Minister hoisting the white flag; they want him to fight for their livelihoods. There are 82,000 seafarers in this country. I have spoken to dockers, engineers, deckhands and sailors, and they are all worried about what this means for them. This morning, one of them said to me: “If P&O can get away with this, other companies will get rid of us too and replace us with cheap labour from abroad.” Why does the Prime Minister think that they will take a crumb of comfort from his half-arsed bluster and waffle today?

P&O is plainly not going to get away with it any more than any other company that treats its employees in that scandalous way. This is a historic moment for this country, actually, because it is now two years to the day since we went into lockdown. That plunged this country into the biggest, deepest loss of output than we have seen in our lifetimes. Thanks to the Chancellor, who protected the economy, jobs and companies, we have now been able to come out faster and more effectively than any other comparable economy. We have unemployment back down to 3.9%, we have 600,000 more people on the payroll and the best assurance we can give workers around the country is that the economy is now bigger than it was before the pandemic began. We will continue to get the big calls right, as we got the big calls right during the pandemic. Labour got the big calls wrong. They would do absolutely nothing to protect workers, let alone P&O workers, because not only would they have kept us in lockdown, but they would have kept those ships in port, unable to move. That is the reality. There has never been a Labour Government that left office with unemployment lower than when they began. That is the reality and that is their record on jobs.

Q3. I strongly support the Government’s intention to make England smoke-free by 2030, but on the current trajectory we are going to miss that target. It is vital that we discourage young people from starting to smoke and encourage people who already smoke to give up. So does my right hon. Friend agree that it is now time to raise the age of legal sale of tobacco products from 18 to 21 and impose a levy on the profits of the big tobacco companies, in order to raise £700 million that we can put into smoking cessation services, on the basis that the polluter pays? (906242)

I thank my hon. Friend very much, and he is absolutely right about smoking; it is the biggest single cause of preventable death in this country. As he will know, Javed Khan OBE is undertaking an independent review of smoking, and I am sure he will want to take my hon. Friend’s suggestions into account.

In a matter of seconds, at 12.16 pm, a Virgin Atlantic aircraft is due to depart Heathrow airport to go to Warsaw to pick up 50 young orphans who have left Ukraine and are coming to spend the next period of their life in Scotland, with the sanctuary we can offer them. I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has helped to make sure that we can offer a new start to these young people, away from the war. I thank the Governments in London and in Edinburgh, and in particular the immigration Minister, the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), and the refugee Minister in the House of Lords, Lord Harrington. This is a good day for those 50 young people, but let us hope that it is the beginning of something much more significant for many more young people we can offer sanctuary to.

This morning, we have official confirmation that inflation is at its highest level in 30 years, but families do not need official confirmation to know that the cost of food and energy is now at a price they simply cannot afford. The very people who bore the brunt of the health pandemic are now being hammered by the poverty pandemic. This is not just a cost of living crisis—this is an emergency. That is why, in Scotland, the SNP Government are doubling the Scottish child payment and raising the benefits they control by 6%—that is double the rate the Chancellor has proposed for the benefits that he has control over. So this is a very simple question for the Prime Minister: if he truly understands that this is an emergency, will he match the Scottish Government’s commitment and lift all benefits by 6%?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman very much. We all recognise that global inflation is causing a real cost of living crisis, not just here, but around the world; in the United States, inflation is now running at more than 8%, and we are at the levels in other European countries. We are doing everything we can to help people. The Chancellor has put another £9.1 billion into reducing the costs of energy for families. [Interruption.] I do not know quite what Members are shouting out, but we want to do more. I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that Scotland is in the lead in helping this country to solve its energy problems, not just with more offshore wind, but by abandoning the phobia of our own hydrocarbons, which I think are going to be vital for transition and to avoid our being blackmailed by Putin’s Russia.

On the right hon. Gentleman’s point about the orphans, I am grateful to him for his efforts and I thank him. If I may say, without embarrassing him further, it is another example of the burgeoning co-operation between us.

Of course, we want to make sure we open our doors in Scotland and welcome refugees, and that we have that generosity of spirit—but we will leave that there for now.

I say to the Prime Minister that inflation is at 6% and increasing. We need to make sure that those who are the most vulnerable have that increase in benefits that they need in order to pay for fuel. The Chancellor needs to ditch the official photographer and listen to Martin Lewis. Family finances are at breaking point; they cannot tighten their budgets any more. These families have no room to manoeuvre, but the truth is that the Chancellor does. Lower borrowing and increased taxes mean that he is sitting with £20 billion to spend today. But instead this Chancellor is making a political choice: the choice to push people further into hardship by hiking taxes, cutting universal credit, and giving companies free rein to slash workers’ pay through fire and rehire. So the test for the Prime Minister is this: will the Government use the full £20 billion they are sitting on to scrap the national insurance tax hike and put money into people’s pockets, or will he simply make this Tory poverty pandemic even worse?

I just advise Mystic Meg over there that he has only 10 minutes to wait before he will have the answer to that question.

Q5. I warmly welcome the improvements to our national Ukraine refugee response, but in the weeks since these improved measures, numbers fleeing Putin’s invasion have sadly doubled to 3.5 million, and are expected to go even higher. Does the Prime Minister agree that our response must still move much faster, with a shift to processing applications in the UK and cutting the red tape and bureaucracy, so we can match the scale of Europe’s worst humanitarian crisis since the second world war? (906244)

My hon. Friend is right that we will see many more people coming here. He is right that the instincts of this country are to be as generous as possible. That is why we have made sure that applications can now be processed online very quickly, so people can come here with their passports. Under the family reunion scheme alone, I think the numbers are now running in excess of 16,000 people coming here.

While Ofgem can cap rising gas and electricity bills, other fuels such as heating oil, liquefied petroleum gas and solid fuel remain unregulated. Many households in rural Scotland depend on such fuels. There are also areas awash with energy, both on and offshore, yet with huge and rising numbers of people in fuel poverty. Will the Prime Minister regulate and cap such fuels, to alleviate hardship and end the perversity of energy-rich Scotland but fuel-poor Scots?

The hon. Gentleman is right that energy-rich Scotland and the hydrocarbons that we have in this country should be used to help the British people. We should not be needlessly reliant on oil and gas from Putin’s Russia. I think that is the policy of Alba but, unfortunately, is not yet the policy of the SNP.

Q7. I am so proud to represent a vibrant Ukrainian community in Huddersfield and Colne Valley. This Friday, at the Ukrainian club in Huddersfield, they will be collecting medical supply donations to send to Ukraine and the surrounding nations. Will the Prime Minister join me in thanking all our community in West Yorkshire, who have rallied round their Ukrainian neighbours and friends, and will he continue to put the UK at the forefront of donations of not only humanitarian and medical supplies, but the military aid that is allowing the Ukrainian people to fight so bravely against Putin and his cronies? (906246)

I thank the Ukrainian community in Yorkshire for everything they are doing and, of course, Ukrainian communities up and down the country and the people of this country as a whole. I am proud that we are the biggest bilateral donor, I think, other than the United States, of aid to Ukraine. I am also proud, as I know the whole House is, of the work that is being done continuously to give the Ukrainians the tools they need to defend themselves.

Q4. The Football Association is refusing to move the semi-final between Liverpool and Manchester City from Wembley. There are no trains from the north-west that day, which means 50,000 or 60,000 people will have to go by road—bad for the fans and bad for the environment. Unfortunately, this is typical of the insensitivity of the FA, who thinks that fit and proper people to run our football clubs are Russian kleptocrats and people who are wanted for human rights abuses. Does the Prime Minister agree that now is the time to legislate to set up an independent regulator for football, with fan involvement? (906243)

I thank the hon. Gentleman very much. I am not going to comment on the travel arrangements for the particular match—[Interruption.] The deputy Leader of the Labour party shouts for me to secure her a train. I am sure the FA will have heard the message that the hon. Gentleman has given.

What I can say is that I do agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), who has just conducted a review on the matter, that we should indeed have an independent regulator for football.

Q12. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is a great champion for steel, and we have just had brilliant news on the removal of the US steel tariffs. Will he reaffirm the commitment he made at the Dispatch Box on 31 January that the Chancellor will bring forward a package of measures on our steel energy costs? If the Chancellor is not able to make good on that commitment today, will he ensure that he does so as soon as he can? (906251)

I agree with my hon. Friend passionately, and I think that it is vital that we undo the damage done by the insane policies of the previous Labour Government, which whacked up the cost of energy for British industry, including steel. I will be bringing forward a British energy security strategy that will address the needs of British steel, British ceramics and the whole of British industry.

Q6.   I am sure the Prime Minister will share my delight that Bradford has been shortlisted to be the UK city of culture 2025 and will want to offer his support for our bid—it would bring immense benefits and kudos to Britain’s youngest city. With over 120 languages spoken across the city, with its unique cultural heritage and diversity and, let us not forget, the amazing food, and as the birthplace of David Hockney and the Brontës, Bradford has it all—apart from Government support. One practical way in which the Prime Minister could help is by reversing the Transport Secretary’s snub to Bradford in the integrated rail plan. So will the Prime Minister look again at this issue and commit to delivering a real northern powerhouse rail, including a stop in Bradford city? (906245)

I congratulate Bradford on being shortlisted in the way that that wonderful city has been, but I think the hon. Lady is wrong about what the integrated rail plan said, because already it commits to cutting the journey times from Leeds to Bradford from 20 minutes to 12 minutes, if I remember correctly. And we continue to look at ways of making sure that high-speed rail goes direct to Bradford.

The horrifying effects of events in Ukraine must be central to our focus, and we should do all possible to stand together in support. A war in Europe also has challenging domestic outcomes, with higher energy costs, rising food prices and effects on supplies and inflation and across the economy in general. Does the Prime Minister agree that this is a time when we need to come together as a nation common and that anyone seeking to weaponise Putin’s deliberate and calculated consequences of the war will only undermine the unity of our nation at a time when Europe is in crisis?

I thank my right hon. Friend very much for what he has said. One of the most important things that has confounded Vladimir Putin has not only been the heroic resistance of the Ukrainians but the unity of the rest of the world and, I must say, so far, the relative unity—the important unity—of this House.

Q8. The Prime Minister has been very supportive of nuclear testing veterans, so I am sure that he will be shocked that, today, The Mirror has uncovered 140 pages of data previously hidden in the footnote of a 1988 Government report. There is now concern that the High Court and this House may have been inadvertently misinformed in 2008, when told that only 159 men in UK nuclear weapons tests were exposed to dangerous radiation, when today’s data shows exposure numbers were actually 2,314. Will the Prime Minister urgently investigate this and arrange to meet personally in Downing Street with my constituent, her grandad and other nuclear testing veterans to bring an end to this national scandal? (906247)

I thank the hon. Member very much for bringing those facts—new facts—to the attention of the House, and I know that my office has already been in touch with the group concerned to make sure that we have a proper meeting. I hope very much that she will be there, and we will be able to discuss all the issues that she has raised.

May I begin, as chair of the all-party group on surrogacy, by thanking the Government, and the Home Secretary in particular for her work in bringing Ukrainian surrogates to safety here? Sadly, in my role as chair of the all-party group against antisemitism, the news is not so positive. We have recently heard from Jewish students who are suffering record antisemitic attacks on university campuses, including allegations of their work being marked down by their own professors. This is completely outrageous, and one would expect the National Union of Students to be on their side, but instead of helping the students it has been inviting somebody who is engaged in antisemitic conspiracy theories—a rapper—to a conference. Will the Prime Minister do everything in his power to ensure that campuses are a safe place for British Jewish students?

Our universities have, for far too long, been tolerant of casual or indeed systematic antisemitism. I hope that everybody understands the need for change—for rapid and irreversible change—but it is also important that we have an antisemitism taskforce devoted to rooting out antisemitism in education at all levels.

Q9. Last week, the Government did nothing to stop P&O Ferries sacking 800 seafarers on the spot. On the same day, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley) was forced to come to the House to announce more than 1,100 DWP job losses and 42 centre closures, risking a further 7,000 jobs, including 1,300 in the north-east. Working people are, once again, being hammered by this Government in the middle of a cost of living crisis, causing genuine suffering. Why will the Prime Minister not act to protect local communities from losing real high-quality jobs? (906248)

I renew my sympathies with the case of the P&O workers, and I have explained to the House what we are doing, and we will do that. What we are also doing is helping the workforce up and down the country to get the coaching they need. We have doubled the number of work coaches, and what we are seeing is employment climbing and vacancies growing. We are helping this country into work, which is what Conservatives do.

I have a growing number of constituents who are struggling to go about their lives or even get to work because their driving licences are stuck at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency. Will the Prime Minister make it clear at the Dispatch Box that the service from the agency falls significantly below what we expect, and will he ask the Transport Secretary to meet me, and any other Members of this House—we may need a big room—to explain how we can help the agency out of the hole in which it has put itself?

Yes. Like everybody in this House, I have read some surprising things about what has been going on at the DVLA. We need to make sure that it is given every possible encouragement and support to expedite the supply of driving licences to the people of this country.

Q10. It is nice to see the Prime Minister back in his place; I missed him last week. A fantasy castle, perhaps Snow White, too, and certainly girls, girls, girls were promised at a party—less burlesque, more Berlusconi. According to a former Minister, it seems that the Prime Minister has been entertained at these bunga bunga parties, hosted by his close friend, a Russian oligarch. Given that his many weaknesses could leave him open to blackmail, why does the Prime Minister think that MI6 may not entirely trust him? (906249)

Last week, I was not here to benefit from one of the hon. Gentleman’s elaborately confected questions. I admire his style, but I am afraid that I simply fail to detect any crouton of substance in the minestrone of nonsense that he has just spoken.

Wrexham is a town based on brewing, mining and football. It is a town evolving in aspiration, prosperity and creativity while retaining its Welsh identity. Will the Prime Minister congratulate Wrexham on being shortlisted for the city of culture, and on being the first Welsh town to be so?

Not only is Wrexham shortlisted for the city of culture, with all the distinctions my hon. Friend mentions, but it is the city of vaccines. Without the AstraZeneca vaccines bottled in Wrexham, we literally would not be where we are today.

Q11. Former Treasury Minister Lord Agnew has described the Chancellor’s failure on covid fraud as “one of the most colossal cock-ups in recent government management and taxpayers are paying for this”. We now know the Chancellor’s failure has cost the country £11.8 billion—almost exactly the same as the amount that national insurance on working people will increase in the coming year. Does the Prime Minister think it is fair to demand that working people pay the bill for the Chancellor’s failures? (906250)

I remember the hon. Gentleman when he was doing planning at Islington Council, and a complete cock-up he made of that. What I can tell him is that this Government made sure that we got the personal protective equipment and the supplies that were needed in record time. That was absolutely vital, at a time when the Opposition were calling on us to go further and faster. Never forget that under the last Labour Government, there was £23 billion lost in fraud every year.

I welcome the important interim report from Dr Hilary Cass in which she highlights the need for more research into why so many young girls are presenting with gender distress. Will my right hon. Friend agree to meet me and other concerned colleagues to discuss how we can constructively support those young people who are experiencing gender distress?

I would be very happy to meet my hon. Friend. This is one of those issues that the whole House is coming to realise requires extreme sensitivity, tact, love and care. We must recognise that when people want to make a transition in their lives, they should be treated with the maximum possible generosity and respect. We have systems in this country that allow that and have done for a long time, and we should be very proud of that, but I want to say in addition that I think, when it comes to distinguishing between a man and a woman, the basic facts of biology remain overwhelmingly important.

Q13. The Prime Minister met the chairman of P&O owners DP World to discuss setting up a freeport in London. Just last year, the Foreign Secretary also met DP World. DP World runs ports in the UK that employ more than 600 workers. If the Prime Minister wants to remove the latest suspicion of his conflicts of interest, will he tell his Dubai millionaire friends that if they want contracts to run freeports here, they must reinstate P&O workers and guarantee the jobs of DP World workers too? (906252)

I have one overwhelming interest, which is to protect and preserve the jobs and livelihoods of the British people. That is what we are doing. That is what we will do with the P&O workers, but we will also ensure that we continue to attract overseas investment in the record ways we currently are. The Opposition would drive it away—we will not.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the expulsion of Asians from Uganda, the country where I was born. Under Ted Heath’s Government, people across the country opened up their homes for many of those Asians, who then settled and became part of the fabric of our great nation. That British generosity is again being seen as people open up their homes for those fleeing Ukraine and coming to our country. May I urge the Prime Minister to pick up those files from 50 years ago, wipe off the dust and take on board those positive lessons, so that we can ensure that the Homes for Ukraine scheme has maximum success?

Yes, I think the whole country can be proud of the way the UK welcomed people fleeing Idi Amin’s Uganda. Several Members of the House, including the Home Secretary herself and her family, were beneficiaries of that scheme and that moment. This country is overwhelmingly generous to people fleeing in fear of their lives and will continue to be so.

Eight hundred British workers were sacked over Zoom by P&O, owned by the Government of Dubai, to be replaced with foreign exploited agency workers on less than two quid an hour. The Prime Minister can pass an instrument now to close the loophole so that the national minimum wage applies on UK international routes. Is he going to stand up for British workers or the oil state dictator Dubai?

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s question. I knew he was going to ask it and he was right to ask it. I anticipated his question earlier on. We are going to make sure that everybody working in the UK exclusive economic zone gets paid the living wage, and we will do it as fast as we possibly can with the Opposition’s assistance.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment to take legal action to hold P&O Ferries and DP World to account. I again call on them to reverse their action and reinstate the workers. Dover and Kent are already badly affected by this business, including on the roads and in the business community. Will he meet me to discuss specific support for our affected area, including the A2 upgrade for national transport links and an east Kent enterprise zone to cover and include the port of Dover?

My hon. Friend is right in what she says about P&O and about the 800 workers. I will make sure that she gets all the meetings she needs to make sure that we continue with all our fantastic investments in Dover, whether transport, education or otherwise.