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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 711: debated on Wednesday 30 March 2022

Women and Equalities

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Conversion Therapy Ban

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to begin by acknowledging the enormously personal statement that my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Dr Wallis) made this morning. I hope I speak for the whole House in sending our support. It is so important that people are free to be safe to be themselves, whoever they are and whoever they love.

We remain wholly committed to bringing forward proposals to ban conversion therapy practices. We recently concluded a consultation period on the proposals being analysed, based on which we will be developing legislation to be brought forward later this spring.

My best wishes also go to the hon. Member for Bridgend (Dr Wallis). The Minister will be aware that the Cabinet Office recently tendered a contract for the provision of a conversion therapy victim support service. Does he agree that including a consent loophole in the Government’s proposals to ban conversion therapy will allow some of its worst practitioners off the hook, inevitably creating more victims who will need support?

No, we do not agree. We believe that, in a free and open society, consenting adults—provided that there is appropriate advice and information so that people understand exactly what they are doing—should be able to take informed decisions for themselves.

May I echo the words of the Minister in respect of the hon. Member for Bridgend (Dr Wallis)? As the Minister rightly said, it has now been two months since the consultation on banning conversion therapy closed and almost three years since the Government made the pledge to ban this insidious practice. Why is it taking so long?

Actually, I secured the first Westminster Hall debate on the subject in 2015. I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that, if it were easy, Governments would have done it before. We have taken time to analyse the results, and we have had a significant response. It is important that we get this right; that is why we are analysing the significant response and bringing forward the legislation later this spring.

I would also like to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Dr Wallis) for his incredible bravery. Can the Minister reassure me, and indeed the whole House, that legislation on conversion therapy will be introduced to this place prior to the conference that is scheduled to be hosted by the Government in the summer? Will he let us know how preparations for the conference are going?

I can give my right hon. Friend the commitment that the Government remain committed to bringing forward the legislation. It is a matter for business managers when the exact parliamentary slot will be, but a Bill team has been stood up and we are progressing at pace.

I very much understand the intentions behind the proposed Bill, but can my hon. Friend tell the House what evidence has come to light of unacceptable conversion therapy practices in the UK, by which I mean practices that are not already illegal, but that the Government think should be banned?

My hon. Friend raises a very fair point. Both the national LGBT survey of over 100,000 LGBT people and the in-depth Coventry report demonstrated that violent and harmful talking conversion practices continue to take place. That is why we need to act.

I would like to add my best wishes to the hon. Member for Bridgend (Dr Wallis). The Scottish Government are clear about the need to act to end conversion practices in Scotland. They have established an expert advisory group to inform their approach to banning this abhorrent practice. The group will include people with personal experience of conversion practice, representatives from LGBTI organisations, faith communities, mental health professionals and academics; it will meet for the first time tomorrow and complete its work by the summer, reflecting the Scottish Government’s recognition of the urgency of the issue. Given that the UK Government’s consultation on their proposed ban ended on 4 February, can the Minister confirm that the UK Government’s approach will be taken forward on a similarly inclusive and urgent basis?

I can certainly confirm that we are taking it forward on an urgent basis. Since I took up the role with responsibility for LGBT+ issues, I have engaged with a wide variety of stakeholders, including those who have been victims of conversion therapy. I have engaged with all the stakeholders, listed by the hon. Lady, from whom the Scottish Government took evidence, from an England and Wales point of view.

People with Down Syndrome

2. What steps the Government are taking to help ensure equality and freedom from discrimination for people with Down Syndrome. (906378)

The Government are proud to support the Down Syndrome Bill, which was introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox). The Bill aims to tackle inequalities and ensure that services and support meet the unique needs of people with Down syndrome.

I welcome the passage of the Down Syndrome Bill through Parliament. Will my hon. Friend commit herself to consulting people living with Down syndrome and other disabilities during the development of the guidance to ensure that their voices are heard?

Absolutely. That is essential. People with Down syndrome and other disabilities, as well as their advocates, will be involved in each phase of the development of the guidance. There will be a national call for evidence, and a formal consultation on the draft guidance on will be available to anyone who wants to share their views. We will provide details of the call for evidence shortly.

I thank the Minister for her response, and I thank the hon. Member for Gedling (Tom Randall) for posing the question. What steps is the Minister taking, in co-ordination with her counterpart in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, to promote the appearance on television of our talented Down syndrome actors in order to ensure that programmes such as “Call the Midwife”—one of my favourites—are not one-offs, and that it becomes a normal part of life for children to see someone like themselves on TV and know that they too can fulfil their dreams with hard work and determination?

The passage of the Down Syndrome Bill has given a platform to many people with the condition. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman greatly enjoyed meeting actors, models and many other people with Down syndrome who showed how much they can achieve during the recent parliamentary events, and we look forward to continuing to showcase that.

I, too, want to associate myself with the comments about the hon. Member for Bridgend (Dr Wallis).

A constituent recently contacted me about her struggle with the cost of living crisis. She is the sole carer of a young daughter and, after 25 years of misdiagnosis, she has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She is already struggling to make ends meet and now her energy bills are set to triple. Last week’s spring statement included nothing about mental health and barely mentioned disabilities, whereas Labour has a plan to ease the cost of living and provide mental health services for 1 million more people each year. Where is the Government’s plan to help the millions of people like my constituent?

This issue would normally be covered by questions to a different Department, but, as the mental health Minister, I can tell the hon. Lady that we do have a plan. We are making a great deal of investment in mental health and making further investment in the catch-up programme. We also have a mental health strategy on which we have been working this year, and we will ensure that we address the issue of people with bipolar disorder in that strategy.

Social Mobility

The Government believe that the circumstances of a person’s birth should not determine life outcomes. We recently published our levelling up White Paper to address regional disparities across the UK and put more money into the pockets of those who need it most. We are also bolstering the Social Mobility Commission by appointing new commissioners who will help to improve public understanding of how opportunity is created and made accessible to all.

For too long, the focus on social mobility has been about what a person looks like and not what that person can offer. Can the Minister confirm that we will consign that approach to history, and instead focus on what everyday people can offer the country and ensure that they have the opportunity that they deserve?

My hon. Friend is right: social mobility is very much about the individual. He will be pleased to know that the Government are taking a new approach to equality which goes beyond the protected characteristics in the Equality Act 2010 and also takes account of socioeconomic and regional disparities. He will have noticed that we have released our strategy for racial equality, “Inclusive Britain”, which is based on some of the principles to which he has referred.

Social mobility is a laudable aim that everyone in the House agrees with, but this week I was shocked to see Action for Children report that nearly half of children surveyed from low-income backgrounds say that they worry about their families’ finances. That kind of stress will help no child to do well at school and will help no child to succeed. We know that family finances and the ability to work are also constrained by childcare. So can the Minister say what she is doing in her role to work across Government to help on family finances and, in particular, to help parents who need to fund the cost of childcare?

I have another role as Minister for Levelling Up Communities, and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities recently invested £300 million in a flagship programme to support the families who need help the most. The hon. Lady will have heard from other Ministers in various Departments what we have been doing about the cost of living, and I refer her to their statements.

Careers in Science, Computing and Engineering

5. What steps she is taking to encourage more women to enter careers in science, computing and engineering. (906381)

We have seen good progress on increasing the number of girls studying science, technology, engineering and maths—STEM—subjects at school, but we know that too many women drop out of STEM careers because of caring responsibilities. That is why we recently announced a new scheme to help women into STEM roles after taking time out of work to care for their family. This will help organisations to recruit those who are too often overlooked because of a gap on their CV when providing employment support.

Given the obvious labour shortages in construction, can I encourage Ministers to work with groups such as Women into Construction to encourage women to take on apprenticeships and careers in engineering and construction?

My right hon. Friend can consider Ministers suitably encouraged. I speak as an engineer who also had an apprenticeship, and I know how important organisations such as Women into Construction are. We will do everything we can to work with them and to support women into apprenticeships and engineering.

Equality Act 2010: Implementation by Local Authorities

6. What recent representations she has received on the implementation by local authorities of the provisions of the Equality Act 2010. (906382)

The Equality Act’s provisions, including the public sector equality duty, apply to local authorities, and they are legally bound to implement them. The Equality and Human Rights Commission, an independent public body, is responsible for enforcing the Equality Act 2010 across the public sector, including in local authorities. The EHRC makes its own decisions on how it exercises its functions.

I thank the Minister for that response. Women from my constituency and across Fife have had their coffee mornings cancelled by Fife Council officers for reasons that have not been adequately explained. Does the Minister agree that preventing women from lawfully organising and discussing matters of importance under the protected characteristic of sex forms part of an emerging culture of women being cancelled, intimidated and silenced and is deeply harmful? Does she further agree that all public bodies, including police services and local authorities, must observe the clear definition set out by the inner house of the Court of Session on the category of sex in the Equality Act, and that an attack on one protected characteristic should be considered an attack on all protected characteristics, and must be robustly challenged and cease?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s sentiments. I do not think it right that women should be prevented from organising on the basis of their sex. Freedom of belief and speech are vital pillars of our democratic society and no one should be silenced from expressing their legitimately held opinions. Like any public body in this country, the hon. Gentleman’s local council must have regard to its public sector equality duty in all its functions and decision making, including the case he refers to. He may wish to pick the issue up with the Scottish Government, as they are responsible for education policy of the kind we are discussing. I do not know the particular details of this case, but if he writes to me, I might be able to provide more information.

As the Minister has set out, local authorities have a duty to have regard to equality in all their work, and it is local authorities that facilitate our elections, so would the Minister agree that getting more information about who stands for election published might help us to ensure that our electoral system is as fair and open as it can be?

Yes, I would agree with that. Local authorities carry out the work of providing that information to the electorate, but if there is something specific that my right hon. Friend thinks they could be doing more of, I would be happy to look into that in my capacity as local government Minister.

What urgent conversations is the Minister having with British Cycling to ensure that elite female athletes such as Dame Laura Kenny, a six-time Olympic medallist, and her team-mates will not lose their places and have their records broken because of British Cycling’s inability to uphold section 195 of the 2010 Equality Act and implement the agreed guidance from the Sports Council Equality Group on transgender inclusion in sport, which was published in October last year?

The hon. Lady makes an important point. I have not had any specific discussions with British Cycling, but I am glad she has raised this issue with me. I will pick up the matter with my colleagues in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport who look at sports guidance and see what we can do to provide clarity on the subject.

Investment for Businesses: Female and Minority Entrepreneurs

8. What steps the Government are taking to reduce the barriers faced by female and minority entrepreneurs in seeking investment for businesses. (906384)

The Government’s flagship start-up loans programme, delivered through the British Business Bank, has been instrumental in reducing access-to-finance barriers faced by all entrepreneurs, including those faced by female and minority entrepreneurs. Since the launch of the programme, around 40% of the loans issued, valued at approximately £320 million, went to female entrepreneurs. Black, Asian and ethnic minority businesses have received around 20% of the loans issued, valued at £160 million.

A record 140,000 women started their own business in the last year, but research shows that only 1% of venture capital funding goes to businesses led by women. Will my hon. Friend agree to meet me and the #overbeingunderfunded campaign, run by my constituents Sarah King and Claire Dunn, to discuss how we can better use Government schemes such as the seed enterprise investment scheme to address this inequality?

The seed enterprise investment scheme is one of three tax-advantaged venture capital schemes that provide tax incentives to individuals who invest in companies at various stages of growth. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to talk about the world-leading generosity of this scheme. I will find out whether a Minister in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy or the Treasury is available to meet her and her constituents on this specific issue.

Energy Costs for Disabled People

9. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on energy costs for disabled people. (906385)

The Treasury recently announced £9.1 billion of support for energy customers, including a bill rebate, a council tax reduction and continuing support for the most vulnerable households. Furthermore, a doubling of the household support fund was announced in the spring statement, which is again getting help to where it is needed most.

On behalf of the Liberal Democrats, I commend the hon. Member for Bridgend (Dr Wallis) for his bravery in speaking out. We wish him all the best. I think I speak for everyone in the Chamber when I say that we are here to support him.

Disability charities estimate that the number of disabled people in fuel poverty could double this year. A constituent recently told me, “I stay in bed to keep warm and to keep up with my energy costs. I skip meals to cope with my grocery costs.” Will the Government and the Minister support our call to reinstate the £1,000 universal credit uplift and to keep in line—

I assure the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) that I regularly meet many disabled people and disability organisations. I am aware of this issue and the natural anxiety about rising costs felt by many who live on a fixed income. That is why the Government are already acting in the way I set out.

HM Prison and Probation Service: Equality Assessment for Fitness Testing

10. If she will undertake an equalities impact assessment of HM Prison and Probation Service’s equality assessment for fitness testing. (906386)

The HMPPS staff fitness testing policy was reviewed, updated and published in 2021. An equality impact assessment was undertaken in 2021, and it remains a live document. It will be reviewed and updated regularly as work in this area progresses. HMPPS staff networks, diversity and inclusion experts and trade unions were fully consulted during the policy review, and they contributed to the equality analysis.

The Minister will be aware of concerns, particularly from the Prison Officers Association, that far more female officers than male officers are failing this test. Will he meet the Prison Officers Association to discuss this issue?

The hon. Gentleman takes a consistent interest in this point, and I am happy to mention his question to the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins). I can confirm that, since prison officer fitness testing resumed last July, 90% of female officers passed on the first attempt, and none failed by the third attempt.

Topical Questions

“Inclusive Britain” is the Government’s response to the report by the independent Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, and it sets out a groundbreaking action plan to tackle negative disparities, promote unity and build a fairer Britain for all. This includes developing a new model history curriculum by 2024; working with a panel of academics and businesspeople to promote fairness in the workplace; and developing a new national framework for how the use of police powers is scrutinised at local level. The measures in the action plan will help to level up the country by tackling the drivers of persistent ethnic disparities in education, employment, health and criminal justice.

The Minister will be aware that a recent survey of 27,000 parents by Pregnant Then Screwed found that about two thirds are paying more for childcare than they are for their rent or mortgage. This is pushing many mothers out of the workforce or into working fewer hours. Does she agree that the Government need to address this as a matter of urgency if we want to keep women in the workforce and in well-paid jobs?

I agree with the hon. Lady that childcare is a very important issue if we want to keep women in the workplace. We have spent more than £3.5 billion in each of the past three years on our early education entitlement and we continue to support families with their childcare costs.

T3. I welcome the Down Syndrome Bill and fully support its passage through Parliament. How will the Minister ensure that from the perspective of equality the Bill will not have the unintended consequence of prioritising support for Down’s syndrome over other genetic and chromosome disorders? Some of those, although not as well-known, are thought to be just as prevalent, if not more so, and certainly no less impactful for the families affected, for example, 22q11.2 deletion syndrome. [Interruption.] (906393)

Order. I ask Members, please, not to walk in front of other Members while they are asking questions.

The Government are committed to considering the overlaps and linkages of the experiences of people with Down’s syndrome and those of people with other genetic conditions, such as 22q11.2 deletion syndrome, in the development of the guidance. The national call for evidence will ensure that the guidance also benefits people with other genetic conditions too.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. First, may I associate myself with the warm and supportive remarks made from all across this House to the hon. Member for Bridgend?

Women are bearing the brunt of the Conservative cost of living crisis. At the sharp end, as the Women’s Budget Group has said, they are the “shock absorbers” of poverty, cutting essentials for themselves so that their kids do not go without. So will the Minister inform the House as to what assessment her Government have made of the financial impact of the Chancellor’s autumn Budget last year and his spring statement last week?

The Treasury looks at all impacts in the round, and the financial statement the Chancellor announced last week would have had an equalities impact assessment, which would have taken into account all the various measures and their impact, based on protected characteristics.

In practice, it is disappointing that it did not include that analysis and the Minister does not appear aware of the impact of her Government’s policies on women. I can enlighten her: put together, the 2021 autumn Budget and the 2022 spring statement take £28 billion from the pockets of women over the next six years. That is £1,000 for every woman in the country. So why is her Government still refusing to impose a windfall tax to reduce bills for everyone and provide up to £600 for the households who need it, many of them run by women?

I simply do not recognise the figures that the hon. Lady is putting forward; it is not right to say that we are taking money out of the pockets of women. We have put forward a spring statement and a financial package that is looking after the interests of everyone in this country, because we look after people irrespective of their sex, gender, race; we look at people based on socioeconomic characteristics in particular and those who are most vulnerable or disadvantaged.

T4. I have been fighting hard to keep body image up the agenda. The Advertising Standards Authority has closed its call for evidence. The Select Committee on Health and Social Care has started an inquiry on this and the online harms Bill has the chance to address body image. That being said, what action has the Minister taken following the Select Committee on Women and Equalities report, “Changing the perfect picture: an inquiry into body image”? (906394)

I thank my hon. Friend for his continued work on this important issue. As we all know, poor body image can affect lifestyle choices, and physical and mental health, and is associated with lower confidence and low aspirations. So we have been taking steps to ensure that young people have the skills to keep themselves safe, through our work on media literacy and promoting understanding that the online environment is not always reflective of reality.

T2.   Hymenoplasty and so-called “virginity testing” are disgraceful forms of abuse against women and girls. I was therefore pleased when the Government committed earlier this year to banning them. Will the Minister update the House on when this legislation will be introduced so that women and girls are protected from these inhumane practices? (906392)

The Government are committed to safeguarding women and girls, which is why on 18 November 2021 we tabled an amendment to the Health and Care Bill to ban virginity testing, which passed unopposed in the House of Commons.

T5. There is no doubt that our first female Prime Minister led the way by showing women that they can reach the highest office and do the job well. What steps are the Government taking to encourage more women to seek elected office? Will the Minister consider a similar accolade to that of the Falkland Islands and celebrate a Margaret Thatcher day? (906395)

I would be very supportive of a Margaret Thatcher day, but I think that is more a question for the Prime Minister than for me. My hon. Friend will know that all parties do quite a lot to support women into elected office and across the House we can agree that that is an important thing to continue.

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—


The whole House will have read the statement today from my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Dr Wallis)—I know that the House stands with you and will give you the support you need to live freely as yourself.

I thank Donna Ockenden and her whole team for the compassionate approach she has taken throughout the distressing review of maternity care at Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS Trust. Every woman who gives birth has the right to a safe birth, and my heart therefore goes out to the families for the distress and suffering they have endured. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care will make an oral statement this afternoon to set out the Government’s response.

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.

While our focus is rightly on Ukraine, the Prime Minister will be aware of the great concern of many people across the Baltic states. Will he outline the role that the joint expeditionary force can play in countering Russian aggression and improving the defensive posture for our allies in the Baltics?

The joint expeditionary force, or the JEF, is an increasingly important grouping of the Nordic countries, the Baltic countries, the Dutch and ourselves, and we are committed to working together in an active way to counter Russian aggression and support our Ukrainian friends. We had a successful meeting a couple of weeks ago and will have further such meetings in the course of the next few weeks.

May I start by joining the Prime Minister in his remarks in relation to the hon. Member for Bridgend (Dr Wallis)?

Does the Prime Minister still think that he and the Chancellor are tax-cutting Conservatives?

Yes, I certainly do, because this Government have just introduced not only the biggest cut in fuel duty ever but the biggest cut in tax for working people in the last 10 years. Seventy per cent. of the population paying national insurance contributions will have a substantial tax cut as a result of what the Chancellor did, and if we take together—[Interruption.] The Opposition do not like it, Mr Speaker, but it is true. They always put up taxes; that is why. We cut taxes. They love putting up taxes. If we take together what we are doing with income tax and national insurance, it is the biggest tax cut for 25 years, proposed by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor.

Cut the nonsense and treat the British people with a bit of respect. Let me take the Prime Minister through this slowly: 15 tax rises and the highest tax burden for 70 years. For every £6 the Government are taking in tax rises, they are handing only £1 back. Prime Minister, is that cutting taxes or is that raising taxes?

I do not know where the right hon. and learned Gentleman has been for the past two years, but even by the standards—[Interruption.] Yes, he has. Even by the standards of Captain Hindsight, to obliterate the biggest pandemic for the past century from his memory and to obliterate the £408 billion that we have had to spend to look after people up and down the country is quite extraordinary. This is a Government who are getting on with reducing the tax burden wherever we can. There is one measure that I think the right hon. and learned Gentleman should support, and that is the health and care levy to fund our NHS. That is the one that the Opposition oppose. They are all in favour of every other tax rise.

I can only hope that the Prime Minister’s police questionnaire was a bit more convincing than that.

This year, the British people face the worst fall in living standards on record. While they are counting every penny, the Prime Minister is hitting them with higher taxes, but in 2024, when there just so happens to be a general election, the Government will introduce a small tax cut. That is not taking difficult decisions; that is putting the Tory re-election campaign over and above helping people pay their bills. How did he find a Chancellor as utterly cynical as he is?

What we have is a Chancellor who took the tough decisions to look after the UK economy throughout the pandemic, and who protected people up and down the land with £408 billion-worth of support. By the way, if we had listened to Captain Hindsight—and this is the truth—we would not have come out of lockdown in July last year. We would have stayed in lockdown over Christmas and new year, with the result that the UK economy would not be growing in the way that it is, so we would not be able to make the investments that we are now making. Under Labour, we would have to tax more and borrow more. It cannot be trusted with the economy.

The tough decisions—give me a break! We know who those two always ask to pay: income stealth tax—a tax on working people; the tuition fee raid—a tax on working people; the national insurance hike—a tax on working people. All of this while oil and gas companies see unexpected bumper profits. A windfall tax would raise billions and ease the burden on working people. The former chief executive office of BP, Lord John Browne, says a windfall tax is “justifiable”. The current CEO says that BP has, in his words,

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

Why is the Prime Minister more interested in shielding oil and gas profits than supporting working people?

That is a classic example of what Labour got wrong during its period in office. The oil and gas companies are now investing £20 billion in ensuring that we have long-term energy supplies. I remember that the 1997 Labour manifesto actually said that there was “no economic case” for more nuclear power. We are now having to make good the historic mistakes of the Labour party by investing in our long-term energy supply. That is what we are doing. Everything that Labour is proposing would deter investment, meaning higher prices for consumers and households up and down the land being worse off.

There we have it: the Conservatives are the party of excess oil and gas profits; we are the party of working people.

Talking of parties, the Prime Minister told the House that no rules were broken in Downing Street during lockdown. The police have now concluded that there was widespread criminality. The “Ministerial Code” says that Ministers who “knowingly” mislead the House should resign. Why is he still here?

Hang on a minute. The right hon. and learned Gentleman has just changed his position. We do at least expect some consistency from this human weather vane. It was only a week or so ago when he said that I should not resign. What is his position, Mr Speaker? Of course the investigators must get on with their job, but, in the meantime, we will get on with our job. We are focusing on tackling the cost of living, and helping people through the spike in fuel prices—the £9.1 billion that the Chancellor has set out. I have mentioned nuclear power and I have mentioned tackling our energy supplies, which Labour totally failed to do, but, far more important perhaps even than that, we are tackling illiteracy and innumeracy in our schools. We are investing billions in tutoring. That is what we are focusing on, and that is what the people of this country want us to focus on.

There are only two possible explanations. Either the Prime Minister is trashing the ministerial code, or he is claiming he was repeatedly lied to by his own advisers and did not know what was going on in his own house and his own office. Come off it! He really does think it is one rule for him and another rule for everyone else—that he can pass off criminality in his office and ask others to follow the law, that he can keep raising taxes and call himself a tax cutter, and that he can hike tax during a cost of living crisis and get credit for giving a bit back just before an election. When is he going to stop taking the British public for fools?

This is the Leader of the Opposition who would have kept this country in lockdown and made it absolutely impossible. He has zero consistency on any issue, but one thing we know is that he would like to take us back into the European Union and take us back into lockdown if he possibly could. Thanks to what this Government have done, we have unemployment back down to the levels it was before the pandemic, the economy bigger than it was and record vacancies. The difference between the Opposition and us is that they want to keep people on benefits and we want to help people into work. That is what we are doing, in record numbers. They want to raise taxes; we want to cut taxes, and that is what we are doing. We are tackling illiteracy; they did not give a damn.

We are getting on with making this country the best place to invest. The last time I updated the House on the number of unicorns in this country—that is, tech companies worth more than $1 billion—I said we had 100. I can inform you now, Mr Speaker, that we have 120. The Opposition do not want to hear it, but let me tell you: that is more than France. It is more than Germany. It is more than Israel. It is more than France, Germany and Israel combined. That is what is happening under this Government. That is what is happening because of the tough decisions we have taken. We take the tough decisions. We deliver; they play politics.

Q4. The UK Government’s work connecting rural areas such as Brecon and Radnorshire to superfast broadband will become a lot harder tomorrow, when the Welsh Government withdraw their matched funding for the scheme, forcing the cost of installation back on to homes and businesses in my constituency. Welsh Labour’s decision means that my constituents will lose out, as local authorities in England continue to fund the scheme. Does my right hon. Friend agree that broadband is critical to the growth of the rural economy, and will he double his Government’s efforts to connect my constituents, despite Welsh Labour’s letting us down yet again? (906366)

Yes. We are spending £69 million already to support the roll-out of superfast broadband in Wales. I wish the Welsh Government had not withdrawn their broadband scheme, but we will do our best to make up the difference as fast as possible.

It is good to see the hon. Member for Bridgend (Dr Wallis) in the Chamber, and I commend him for his statement earlier today.

Last night, millions of families will have been desperately trying to figure out how they will possibly afford the £700 energy price hike that will hit them this Friday. At the very same time, Tory MPs were gathering across the street for a champagne bash in the Park Plaza. We all know that the Tories partied during lockdown, and now they are—[Interruption.]

Order. Mr Fabricant, Easter is upon us. I do not need you to ruin your Easter. Let us hear—[Interruption.] Order, all of you. Let us hear SNP leader Ian Blackford.

They shout and scream when we are raising the Tory cost of living crisis. We all know that the Tories partied during lockdown and now they are partying through the cost of living emergency.

Last week the Chancellor got it badly, badly wrong with the spring statement, and ever since the Prime Minister has been busy briefing against him, saying that more needs to be done. For once I agree with the Prime Minister. So if he really believes that more needs to be done, can he tell us exactly what he will order his Chancellor to do to help the millions of families who are facing a £700 price hike this Friday?

I think the right hon. Gentleman is in error in what he says about events last night, but he is, like me, a living testament to the benefits of moderation in all things. To get to his point, this week, for instance, the living wage is going up again by record amounts, and thanks to what the Chancellor has done we are putting £9.1 billion into helping people up and down the country. I might respectfully suggest that the thing the Scottish nationalist Government—with whom, as I say, we work increasingly well—could focus on for the long-term prosperity of Scotland is the educational system, where I am sad to see Scotland’s once-glorious record falling behind.

What a load of absolute baloney. The Prime Minister is dangerously out of touch. Food banks are warning that people are having to choose their food based on whether they can afford the gas to boil it. Families are having to choose what rooms to heat or whether they can turn on the heating at all. Some in the Tory Cabinet clearly believe that better weather means that they can happily sit on their hands and do nothing until next winter. They obviously do not get, or do not care, that in many parts of Scotland the weather will barely reach above freezing over the next week. The Chancellor thinks his £200 loan, which is forcing people into energy debt, is somehow a solution, but it clearly is not. So before the Prime Minister and his Chancellor go off on their Easter holidays, will they, at the very least, turn this loan into a grant and finally put some cash into people’s pockets when they need it, right now?

Of course we are doing everything that we can, with the £9.1 billion and the cold weather payments. The right hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the problem, and we are making huge investments in supporting people right now, with another £1 billion, by the way, through the household support fund to help vulnerable families. But when he talks about the cost of energy in Scotland, how absolutely preposterous it is that the Scottish nationalist party should still be opposed to the use of any of our native hydrocarbons in this country, with the result that the Europeans are importing oil and gas from Putin’s Russia. It is totally absurd.

Q7. Following on from the publication of the schools White Paper, one of my most important campaigns is to secure provision of quality post-16 education within the Bolsover constituency, where there is currently none. Young people in my constituency have to travel long distances at considerable cost to access their education. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss how we can right this wrong for the young people of the Bolsover constituency and give them the education that they deserve? (906369)

I thank my hon. Friend, who is a great champion for Bolsover and for his constituents. Free and subsidised travel is provided to Bolsover students travelling, so far, to two of the three excellent colleges that are going to be offering T-levels from 2023, but I will make sure that he gets a meeting with my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary to discuss further what we can do.

During the second world war, my grandmother, like countless other people across our country, opened her home to evacuees, including two German Jewish boys. Over 70 years later, the British people want to shelter desperate refugees again. Two weeks ago, I was speaking to refugee families on the Ukrainian-Polish border at Medyka. Some desperately wanted to come to our country. One elderly couple told me that they had been told that it was just too complicated, and now the Government’s own figures say the same. Paperwork is being put ahead of people. When wealthy businessmen from more than 50 countries can come to the UK visa-free, why does the Prime Minister insist that a traumatised Ukrainian mother and child must first fill out a visa form?

The right hon. Gentleman is right about the generosity of his country, and he is right to draw attention to his family’s own generosity in this matter. Everyone is pulling together. The number of people who have come forward to offer their home is incredible, but I really do not think he should deprecate what the UK is offering. Some 25,000 people have already got visas. We are processing 1,000 a day. There is no upper limit to the number we can take. This is a country that has already been the most generous in taking people from Afghanistan, with 15,000 under Operation Pitting. We have 104,000 applications from the Hong Kong Chinese. This is a country that is overwhelmingly generous to people coming in fear of their lives. [Interruption.] Yes it is, and so are this Government.

I do not think anyone involved in partnering operations over the past 10 or 20 years could fail to be humbled by the extraordinary courage and commitment of the Ukrainian people in defending their country, aided and abetted by the lethal aid from this country. They are all appreciative of this Government and this Prime Minister being first out the door to deliver that. Does the Prime Minister agree that while others may now begin to tire, now is the time to double down on the aid we give to Ukraine? Actually, we might end up breaking a pretty poor Russian army and bringing peace to that part of the world, while consigning the likes of Vladimir Putin to the dustbin of history, where he belongs.

That is absolutely right, and I thank my hon. Friend very much for his bravery in going to see for himself only the other day. It is right that we should double down on military defensive support in the way that we are. By the way, can anyone imagine a Labour Government, eight of whose Front Benchers voted to get rid of our nuclear deterrent—[Interruption.] Yes, they did, and recently. Can anyone imagine them doing the same? We will go on with that. What we will also do, and I hope we have the support of the Opposition in this, is ensure there is no backsliding on sanctions by any of our friends and partners around the world. In fact, we need now to ratchet up the economic pressure on Vladimir Putin, and it is certainly inconceivable that any sanctions could be taken off simply because there was a ceasefire. That would be absolutely unthinkable, in my view.

Q2. Households are experiencing soaring energy costs. We are in the middle of a global climate emergency. Against that backdrop, Norway can feed energy into our national grid at a cost of £1.36 per megawatt-hour. France pays 17p per megawatt-hour. Germany, the Netherlands and Luxembourg pay nothing to feed into our grid. Can the Prime Minister explain then why Scotland’s renewables sector is being punished with grid connection charges of £7.36 per megawatt-hour? (906364)

Scotland’s renewables sector is leading the world. I am grateful to the Scottish Government for all the help and support they are giving in developing that incredible resource in the North sea. By the way, I think there is also a role for hydrocarbons as we transition. We need to ensure that we have a grid that enables us to take that electricity onshore and transmit it around the country, and that is what I will be setting out in the British energy security strategy—the long-term investment that this country needs and that the parties opposite completely fail to address.

Last week, following a huge resident and parish council-led campaign, the planning application for a new mega-prison in my constituency was refused. Does my right hon. Friend agree that with the proposals for that site being close to where HS2 and East West Rail cross, it is a matter of fairness that communities already suffering at the hands of the construction of big state infrastructure should not be asked to take more? Will he instruct the Ministry of Justice not to appeal that planning decision?

My hon. Friend is a doughty campaigner for his constituency. He has made an important point about a planning matter about which I do not think I should really comment, but I am sure that the relevant Ministers will have heard him loud and clear.

Q3.   With the Government losing an estimated £4 billion to fraud in the furlough scheme, surely the Prime Minister should have tackled that fraud—especially when, in his own party in North Tyneside, furlough was claimed for a member of party staff even though he continued to work. (906365)

If the hon. Lady is really saying that we should not have rolled out the furlough scheme at the speed that we did, I think everybody in this country understands that it was a heroic thing. I remember that, two years ago, the Opposition were yammering and clamouring for us to go faster—and we did; we produced a fantastic scheme. And yes, fraudsters will be hunted down: we have put another £100 million into tracking down fraud in this country. Some £23 billion a year was lost under Labour in fraud.

I was delighted to learn this week that 37 of the 39 state schools in the Bracknell constituency are now graded good or outstanding. Will the Prime Minister join me in thanking our fantastic teachers, staff, governors and pupils? Does he agree that the new education White Paper offers a blueprint for our schools that we can all be proud of?

Q5. Over 2 million tonnes of edible food is wasted on farms and in factories every year. Funding was introduced in 2019 to cover the costs of getting food to charities to reach those in need. The Prime Minister will know, however, that the Government have now cut that critical funding to zero. Funding for food waste diversion helps to support community projects such as the Threehills community supermarket in Glasgow, so can he explain why he is ignoring calls from Feeding Britain, Good Food Scotland and FareShare to continue that worthwhile initiative and is instead cutting off a lifeline to those struggling with the cost of living crisis? (906367)

I thank the hon. Gentleman very much. I think he is referring to the strategy that we have for food waste. As far as I know, we continue to support it, but I would be happy to update him by letter.

I thank the Prime Minister for his earlier remarks concerning the Donna Ockenden report into avoidable maternity deaths and injuries at the Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS Trust. The report makes for devastating reading, the more so because women’s voices were ignored. My constituent Hayley Matthews begged staff for a C-section throughout her 36-hour labour, but was forced into a natural birth. Her son Jack arrived blue and floppy and, within hours of his birth, he tragically died. Will the Prime Minister join me in offering heartfelt sympathies to all the families affected and grateful thanks to the 1,862 women who shared their experiences with the Ockenden review to ensure that maternity care is safer, kinder and more compassionate for the women who come after them?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. I think everybody will thank the women concerned for taking up the issue in the way that they have and we extend our heartfelt sympathies to the victims and their families for what they have suffered. It is very important that people get the answers that they deserve and that we have the right approach to the issue in the future. That is why we are investing very substantially in maternity services and also, of course, very substantially in midwives and in our NHS altogether.

Q6. Prime Minister, every day I hear from more and more of my Rotherham constituents who are struggling to put food on the table, to keep their lights on and to fuel their cars. The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that the Government’s measures will only offset falling living standards by a third. This is the biggest financial squeeze since the 1950s. Prime Minister, do not blame Ukraine and do not blame covid. This is down to your Government’s policies and your political choices. How do you sleep at night? (906368)

I do agree that people are facing a very tough time at the moment, and we have to do everything we can. I do not agree with the hon. Member’s analysis, but I think that the causes are certainly to do with the inflationary impact of the world coming out of covid, and the energy price spike is at the root of it. What we are doing is to help people with universal credit, which we have lifted by £1,000. We have helped people with the living wage, which is going up now by a record amount, and cutting taxes on working people in the way that we are. But of course we cannot do everything right now, and what we will do is ensure that we have a stronger economic performance and we have people in work. The most important thing is that we have people getting into work now in a way that was not possible—certainly would not have been possible—if we had stuck to the policies that were proposed by the Labour Opposition. That is why we have a strong economy, and that is the best recipe. It is better to be off benefits and into work, and that is what we are doing.

One of my earliest campaigns was to reopen Stafford’s Shire Hall, so I am delighted that this iconic building is finally set to reopen this summer. Can I thank the Government for providing £1.6 million in funding to create a hub for small businesses in Shire Hall, but can I also ask my right hon. Friend to help regenerate the rest of Stafford town centre and our high streets to help level up the west midlands and support our local businesses?

I thank my hon. Friend for her fantastic work to reopen Shire Hall—she is a passionate campaigner for Stafford—and Stafford was awarded over £14 million lately through the future high streets fund.

Q8. My constituency has one of the highest rates of child poverty in the entire country, with too many already struggling between heating and eating. The Government’s recent real-terms social security cut will now push even more families, children and pensioners into desperation. Does the Prime Minister agree that the biggest squeeze in household finances since records began does not come out of the blue, but is due to Conservative economics and the notion that, while some have the pleasure of partying, the rest of us should suffer? (906370)

No, we are absolutely dedicated to levelling up across our entire country and making sure that we reduce poverty. That is why I am proud that there are now half a million fewer kids actually in workless households, 200,000 fewer kids—200,000 fewer—in poverty and 1.3 million fewer in absolute poverty. The way we have done that is by helping people into work, and we are going to go further—investing in more work coaches, and massively increasing our training budget so that people get the skills that they need. That is our approach—helping people by getting them into work.

Today’s announcement by our serving United Kingdom judges of their withdrawal from the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal is now the right decision, and I support it, as does my right hon. Friend. Does he agree with me that, on this sad day for the people of Hong Kong and at a time when the international rule of law is under unprecedented challenge, it is for us here in Britain to stand up for what is right, to be resolute in the face of tyranny and to make sure that the international rules-based order is defended at every opportunity?

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend. I know how passionately he has campaigned on this issue. I also thank the judges in Hong Kong’s court for everything that they have been doing. Evidently, they have concluded that the constraints of the national security law make it impossible for them to continue to serve in the way they would want. I appreciate and understand their decision. It is vital that we all continue to make our points to the Chinese, as I did in my conversation with President Xi the other day, about freedom in Hong Kong and the treatment of the Uyghurs. We will continue to do that.

Q9. Gas and electric prices and bills are through the roof. The “just about managing” are no longer managing; they are coming to surgeries and queuing at food banks. Last week, the Government had a golden opportunity to tackle this. Why the devil did they not take that opportunity to do something to relieve the pressure on our constituents? (906371)

I understand the pressure that people are under, but the best thing we can do, rather than endlessly taxing more and borrowing more, is make sure that we support people through this tough time, which we are doing, and ensure that we have a strong and growing economy in which we get people into work. We are cutting the cost of energy, but we are also taking the long-term decisions that the Labour party failed to take to invest in our energy for the future.

Today’s updated Government figures show that of 28,300 applications submitted under the sponsorship scheme by people displaced in Putin’s war, just 2,700 have been processed. Can my right hon. Friend tell the House how many to date of those people have actually arrived in the United Kingdom? Will he give his support to my noble Friend Lord Harrington to cut through the Home Office red tape, simplify the application process and get people into the country?

We are processing 1,000 a day. Twenty-five thousand visas have already been issued; as I just told the House, almost 200,000 families have opened their homes and their arms to Ukrainians coming in fear of their lives, and there is no limit on the scheme. I think we can be incredibly proud of what the UK is doing.

Q10.   A cornerstone of the last Conservative manifesto was a guarantee that the basic state pension would rise by 2.5%, the rate of inflation, or earnings growth, whichever was the highest. Instead, from April the state pension will rise by less than half of the current inflation rate. How does the Prime Minister explain this abject betrayal of some of the most vulnerable people in our communities, who are squeezed by rocketing energy and food prices on the one hand and the miserliness of this Government on the other? (906372)

Actually, what we have done is protected pensioners so that, as a result of the triple lock, their incomes are £720 higher than they would have been had we just relied on inflation. As it is, their incomes continue to increase with inflation, and they have gone up faster and further than those of people in work. We look after elderly people and we always will.

On Monday, the Foreign Secretary agreed that in these uncertain times we need to expand our soft power capabilities, yet the Government are imminently to make a funding decision that may result in the closure of British Council country operations and a reduction in its international footprint. Will the Prime Minister intervene to ensure that that does not happen, given how much I know he understands and appreciates the important work the British Council does?

I am very happy to meet my hon. Friend to talk about this issue, which he has campaigned on many times, but I can tell him that the British Council, for which I have huge regard, has received a massive grant and loans to allow it to continue its activities.

Q11. You will forgive me, Mr Speaker, if I start by saying that, given the Prime Minister’s preferences for fantasy castles and Peppa Pig, he is welcome to come and visit Zog Playland at Warwick castle.In Warwick and Leamington, as across the country, the cost of living crunch is really serious. As we have heard, energy bills are set to double by the end of this year and food prices to rise by 10% to 15% by year end, and fuel is already 22% up year on year. It must be hard for the Prime Minister to stay in touch with financial reality, given that donors and friends pay for flights and holidays and many of his bills. We also have a “200 Million Dollar Man” Chancellor—[Interruption]—who is so out of touch that he is contactless. The public believe— (906373)

The Chancellor is so out of touch, he is contactless. The public believe that the—[Interruption.]

Order. Shut up and be quiet—behave yourselves.

I hope that is the end of the question. I think the Prime Minister has got the gist of it, because I certainly have.

Much as I admire the hon. Gentleman’s style, I think it would be better in a light essay in The Guardian. What we are doing is tackling the cost of living by dealing with the spike in energy prices and making sure that we take the right long-term decisions to take this country forward—decisions that Labour completely shirked.

I welcome what the Government are doing to help, where they can, with the cost of living crisis, but in North Devon and across the south-west we have a housing crisis that needs urgent action. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to better understand the severity and complexity of our housing shortage and steps that the Government may take?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the need to provide local homes for local people. We totally understand that—by the way, we are building a record number of homes in spite of all the difficulties that we have faced—and that is why we have introduced higher rates of stamp duty on second homes, removed the second home discount and are using £11.5 billion to build 180,000 affordable homes across the country. It is always the Conservatives who build affordable homes—that is true—and Labour who talk about it.

Q12. Last Friday, it emerged that there had been an oil spill in Beverley Brook, a river that flows through Richmond Park to the Thames. Black waste oil and iridescence can now be seen along 13 km of the watercourse, posing a serious threat to fish and local wildlife. The Environment Agency is investigating, but it is understaffed and underfunded while also battling water companies over sewage discharge. Will the Government commit to strengthening the powers of the Office for Environmental Protection, as the Lib Dems tried to do through the passage of the Environment Bill, so that it can hold the Government and other public authorities to account over environmental damage in the same way that the European Commission was able to? (906374)

I know what is behind the hon. Member’s question: a desire to return to the jurisdiction of the European Union. We want to ensure that we use our landmark Environment Act 2021 to continue to improve the quality of our rivers, and that is what we are doing.