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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 712: debated on Wednesday 27 April 2022

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Shared Prosperity Fund

1. What assessment he has made of the potential impact of the shared prosperity fund on Northern Ireland. (906577)

May I first wish the hon. Lady a very happy birthday? Do not worry—I can assure the House that I will not be singing.

The shared prosperity fund is a central pillar of the Government’s ambitious levelling-up agenda and will deliver for communities across Northern Ireland. The fund will inject around £127 million into Northern Ireland over the next three years to support communities, boost local business, and invest in people and skills. We will be working closely with the Northern Ireland Executive and other key stakeholders to develop a plan that reflects the needs of Northern Ireland’s economy and society.

I thank the Secretary of State for his kind words.

According to the latest Asda Cebr income tracker, Northern Ireland has seen the largest relative fall in discretionary income, amounting to a huge drop of 13.3%. Living standards in Northern Ireland are under the most pressure in the UK, thanks to the Tory cost of living crisis, made in Downing Street. Does the Secretary of State agree that short-changing Northern Ireland with the shared prosperity fund, as in Wales, will only make things worse?

Actually, we are boosting our investment in Northern Ireland. If the hon. Lady looks back over the past couple of years, to the previous spending review and the current one, she will see that we have just put in the largest block grant budget for Northern Ireland since devolution began in 1998, and that is aside from the extra investment we are making through the community renewal fund and the new deal, with £400 million for a range of infrastructure projects. We are making the biggest investment in Northern Ireland in decades, and I am proud of that. But she is right that we need to see productivity and employment continue to grow in Northern Ireland, as they have over the past few months, so that we have a prosperous Northern Ireland that can build on the benefits of the Good Friday agreement.

The Northern Ireland Finance Minister has said that the shared prosperity money for Northern Ireland is £90 million short of what was provided by the EU. The Conservative manifesto promised that the shared prosperity fund would “at a minimum match” the size of the EU structural funding it replaced. When can we expect the shortfall to be made up?

It is worth the hon. Gentleman’s while having a clear look at all the figures going into Northern Ireland, because he is not making a like-for-like comparison. At the spending review we announced that the funding for the UK SPF will ramp up over the years, so that we get to a point where it will at least match the receipts of the EU structural funds. The EU regional development fund and the European social fund, on average, reaching about £1.5 billion a year—

I suggest that the hon. Gentleman reads Hansard later, because I answered that question about 30 seconds ago.

But is the Secretary of State aware that in the first round of levelling-up funding, Wales applied for and received almost 50% more than was first allocated, and for Scotland the figure was 10%, yet Northern Ireland got 3% less? Will he assure us today that the same will not happen with the shared prosperity fund, and that levelling up for Northern Ireland means more than just being hit by the same tax rises that are being inflicted on the rest of the UK by this Tory Government?

Again, the hon. Gentleman needs to look at the figures in the round and realise that, as I have said, we have been making the biggest investment in Northern Ireland in decades—indeed, he may want to apologise for the previous Labour Government’s lack of funding for Northern Ireland. We now have the biggest sum of funding since devolution began in 1998. I saw for myself just this week the benefits that the levelling-up programme and the community renewal funding are making to community projects and businesses in Northern Ireland. That builds on the £2 billion from New Decade, New Approach and the £400 million new deal money, which will boost Northern Ireland. We will continue to do that to see Northern Ireland prosper in future.

The Secretary of State will know that there is £300 million in a bank account in Stormont that cannot be spent because the Democratic Unionist party walked out of the Executive. He will also know that there are families in Northern Ireland who cannot heat their homes or feed their children. If the Executive cannot meet after the election, will he commit to working with me to get that money into people’s pockets as soon as possible?

I agree in part with the hon. Gentleman —it does not happen all that often at the Dispatch Box—because I want to see that money being spent for the benefit of people in Northern Ireland, but I disagree with his analysis of why it is not being spent. That is money from last year’s budget, and for a couple of years running now the current Department of Finance in Northern Ireland has consistently underspent. The Executive needs to find ways of ensuring that the money is properly spent.

I have to say that the hon. Gentleman has also identified a real issue with the Northern Ireland protocol, because the UK has put substantial extra money into the pockets of people across the UK through VAT and fuel duty cuts, but we cannot do some of that directly in Northern Ireland because of the protocol. We have therefore made that money available to the Executive and I want to see it get to the people of Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland Protocol

2. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on negotiations on the Northern Ireland Protocol. (906578)

13. What recent assessment he has made of the impact of the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol on businesses in Northern Ireland.

I meet Cabinet colleagues regularly to discuss Northern Ireland matters, including the Northern Ireland protocol. The protocol does not command the confidence of a significant part of Northern Ireland’s population. This is about making sure that we get the balance right, and deliver on the balance in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. That agreement must have primacy, which we have been clear about on many occasions in this House. This is more than an issue of trade; it is about peace and stability, identity and the territorial integrity of the United Kingdom. (906590)

On trade, I am sure that the Minister will join me in welcoming the latest round of UK-US trade talks yesterday, and the progress on the US policy, and joint policy, of worker-centred trade deals. When we were in Washington last month, it was made absolutely clear to us in Congress that this would be derailed by what many there would see as the undermining of peace on the island of Ireland. They included in that not only the Good Friday agreement, but the Northern Ireland protocol. Is the right hon. Gentleman really going to put at risk a trade deal with the world’s biggest economy?

Obviously, the focus of the UK Government’s work is to get trade deals that work for the United Kingdom as a whole United Kingdom. Northern Ireland wants to and should be able to benefit from those trade deals. We have also got to make sure—this should always be our prime focus—in a shared way with our friends in the US, who have a strong interest in the Good Friday agreement, and strong involvement in it and support for it, the primacy and delivery of the Good Friday agreement. I remind the right hon. Gentleman that the Good Friday agreement has three strands, and east-west is one of them.

The cost of shipping from Great Britain to Northern Ireland is up 27%. Nine out of 10 traders in Northern Ireland are reported to face difficulties with six out of 10 forced to re-route goods because of the protocol. The European Union’s interpretation of the protocol is damaging business now, it is undermining the Good Friday agreement now and it is threatening Northern Ireland’s rightful full place as part of our United Kingdom now, so does my right hon. Friend agree that the time to fix it is right now?

My hon. Friend makes a very important and accurate point. The protocol and its implementation are having a profound impact, and change is needed urgently to resolve the issues that affect businesses, consumers and communities. I remind the House that this is the consistent position of the UK Government going back to March 2019, when the now Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster outlined the importance of the Good Friday agreement. The Attorney General himself outlined that the Good Friday agreement will always have primacy for the UK Government. It is right that we deliver on that, and we will do.

After five months since the Government renewed negotiations with the European Union on the protocol, we have no visible progress, have we? Instead, we have a series of op-eds aimlessly threatening article 16. Now, bizarrely, the Prime Minister confirms on a visit to India that he is ready to tear apart his own deal, while expecting the Indian Government to trust him with a new one. Will the Government get a grip on treating negotiations with the respect they deserve, and use something called statecraft, and diligence, to find a settlement with the European Union?

I have got used to listening to those on the Opposition Front Bench defending the European Union against the people of the UK on a regular basis, but that was quite something. The reality is that the EU’s protocol implementation —and we are not seeing in the negotiations the flexibility from the EU that we need to see to find a resolution—is detrimentally affecting the people of Northern Ireland. I would respectfully say to the hon. Lady that she should think about standing up for the people of Northern Ireland and the people of the UK. That is what we will do to defend and protect the Good Friday agreement and resolve these issues.

In those discussions with Cabinet colleagues, will my right hon. Friend commit to pointing out that there would be a terrible hypocrisy if, having pointed out to Russia and her allies the importance of abiding by an international rules-based system, we were then to countenance breaking our internationally agreed obligations?

Our position has been consistent, whether set out by the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union or the Attorney General in March 2019. The Secretary of State pointed out that if

“the objectives of the protocol were no longer being proportionately served by its provisions because, for example, it was no longer protecting the 1998 agreement in all its dimensions”—[Official Report, 12 March 2019; Vol. 656, c. 289]

the UK could seek agreement to end the provisions, which would be, for obvious reasons, no longer necessary to achieve the protocol’s objectives. The objectives of the protocol are very clear and they respect the Good Friday agreement. At the moment, that is under massive threat in all three strands, and we need to make sure we are protecting the peace and prosperity that we have seen in Northern Ireland thanks to the Good Friday agreement.

Another week, another rattle of the sabre by threatening to deploy article 16. I wonder who the Secretary of State imagines is impressed by such behaviour, apart from a number of hardliners in a Conservative and Unionist party that seems increasingly incapable of conserving or unifying anything, least of all itself.

I suggest that the hon. Gentleman might want to have a closer look at what is happening in Northern Ireland, in the sense that there is a view across all parties that we need to resolve the issues in the protocol. Some parties have stronger views than others about what those issues are. Nobody in the Unionist community supports the protocol any more, so it does not have consent across the communities. We no longer have a First or Deputy First Minister, and we no longer have a North South Ministerial Council. That is the Good Friday agreement under threat. I do not know what the hon. Gentleman stands for, but I stand for defending the Good Friday agreement and defending the United Kingdom, its people and its residents. We will do that.

In trying to find an alternative to the Northern Ireland protocol that has cross-community support, what note has the Secretary of State taken of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee report of March 2019? The report made it very clear that there are acceptable technological, technical and procedural ways of dealing with the border that do not involve onerous checks of the sort that we see now.

My right hon. Friend correctly points out that there are now technical solutions. We have tried to talk to the EU about them, and we want the EU to show flexibility and recognise that there are solutions that can work today to deliver what is required in a way that works in Northern Ireland and protects the single market. We understand and respect the EU’s desire to protect their single market. For us, it is about the Good Friday agreement and the people of Northern Ireland.

If we are going to use the situation in Ukraine as an example, does the Secretary of State agree that the last piece of advice we would ever give to a sovereign nation such as Ukraine is to cede control of part of its territory to a foreign entity? And yet those who advocate the protocol advocate precisely that—that a large degree of the laws and regulations in Northern Ireland should be imposed by the European Union, and that I and my colleagues should have no say whatsoever in how they are drawn up. The Secretary of State and the Government last year published a Command Paper, indicating steps that they would take to restore Northern Ireland’s place within the UK internal market. When will the Government take those steps?

The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point, not least because in the vision outlined in its opening pages, the protocol makes it clear that we will not disrupt the everyday lives of people and their communities, and that we will respect the internal market of the United Kingdom and all aspects of the Good Friday agreement. Those are the effective vision statements that we are determined to deliver on. As I said, we will keep everything on the table. We want to get a resolution, by agreement with the EU, that respects all aspects of the Good Friday agreement. If we cannot do that, we will need to take action to ensure we deliver on the peace and prosperity of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.

The Government are a co-guarantor of the Belfast agreement. The Secretary of State will know that since the introduction of the protocol, the North South Ministerial Council is no longer functioning, and we do not have a fully functioning Northern Ireland Executive. The Assembly is limited in what it can do, and the east-west relationship is at its weakest point since probably 1998. The Government therefore need to send out a clear message to Washington and others that the protocol is incompatible with the aim of maintaining Northern Ireland’s political stability and political institutions, because it changes Northern Ireland’s constitutional status without the consent of the people of Northern Ireland, and that is not acceptable.

I understand the point that the right hon. Gentleman is making. We find ourselves in a ridiculous situation where the EU’s position on implementing the protocol means that the very document that was designed to help to protect the Belfast/Good Friday agreement is the thing that is putting it most at risk. We recognise that, and we are very clear that that needs to be resolved.

As I say, we take nothing off the table. We want to get an agreement with the EU, and we want them to recognise the challenges that this is creating for businesses and communities in Northern Ireland. We are clear that we need to, and we will, resolve this issue. If we cannot do so by agreement, we will have to do what is right for the people of the United Kingdom and, obviously, the people of Northern Ireland.

Levelling Up White Paper

3. What assessment he has made of the impact of the “Levelling Up the United Kingdom” White Paper on communities in Northern Ireland. (906579)

The “Levelling Up” White Paper sets out clearly and compellingly the Government’s mission to spread prosperity and opportunity to every part of our United Kingdom. Alongside the £617 million in city and growth deal funding, the levelling up, community renewal and community ownership funds have invested £62 million to date in the people and places most in need in Northern Ireland as a demonstration of our commitment to the people of Northern Ireland.

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing 11 successful levelling up fund applications? Does he agree that the levelling-up agenda, together with the levelling-up fund, the shared prosperity fund and some of the other funds that he mentioned, is an excellent example of how the might of the UK economy can be shared throughout every nation of the UK?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. The levelling-up fund and our commitment to Northern Ireland are unshakeable. The levelling-up fund is yet another demonstration of why Northern Ireland’s place is integrally as part of the United Kingdom. I am looking forward this afternoon to joining the Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Neil O'Brien), at the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs to hear him explain the vision for the next phase of levelling up in Northern Ireland.

Women's Services

4. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of resources for women’s services in Northern Ireland. (906580)

10. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of resources for women’s services in Northern Ireland. (906587)

Women in Northern Ireland cannot currently access the same basic healthcare support that is available in the rest of the UK. This is unacceptable. I have committed to return to Parliament directly following the Assembly elections in May and, if necessary, we will make regulations to ensure that services are commissioned.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s confirmation that he will act on abortion services in Northern Ireland after the elections in May, but does he understand that it is hard for women to take his word at face value after so many missed deadlines on this important issue, which will have had real health impacts? Will he please put on record that he intends to lay the regulations that he has prepared before Parliament within a month of the Queen’s Speech?

I recognise the hon. Lady’s support for this policy and for women in Northern Ireland. The Department of Health in Northern Ireland must make the services available to women and girls. If it does not, as I have said, I made a commitment to the House on 24 March via a written ministerial statement that I will make regulations to resolve this unacceptable situation that must be fixed for the people and the ladies of Northern Ireland.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s assurances that he will act if necessary after the Queen’s Speech and the elections in Northern Ireland. Does he have a date in mind when women in Northern Ireland will be able to access this essential reproductive healthcare service? When will they actually be able to get the service that this House voted for over two years ago?

I am sure that the right hon. Lady recognises that this has primarily been an issue for the Northern Ireland Executive to deliver on. I have been clear: they have not done that, that is not good enough and we need to resolve that issue. We are already recruiting the team from my Department to put the commissioning in place. I will return to the House soon after the May elections if that has not been progressed by the Department of Health to lay the regulations to ensure that these services are provided.

Northern Ireland Legacy Matters

5. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on his legislative proposals on Northern Ireland legacy matters. [R] (906582)

The Government’s core and shared objectives in addressing the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past are to implement an effective investigation and information recovery process that will provide answers for families, deliver on our commitments to those who served in Northern Ireland and help society move forward.

Consensus is historically difficult to achieve in Northern Ireland but when it comes to dealing with the past I am sure that we can all agree that the current process is failing those who have suffered, so we need a new way of delivering justice, and soon. Does the Secretary of State agree that his Bill or any proposals he brings forward must not in any way weaken or undermine our commitment to international law?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman and I appreciate his support on a point that I have made consistently: the current system is failing everybody. That is why we need to bring forward proposals that work for the people of Northern Ireland, for the victims as well as those who served so admirably in Northern Ireland to protect life and country. I can assure him that we are absolutely determined that this will be article 2-compliant. It has to be for it to be effective for everybody.

The sacrifice made by members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, GC, is one that I and many across Northern Ireland will never forget. Over 300 officers were killed and 9,000 injured at the hands, mainly, of the IRA. A recent report by the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland laden with innuendo has caused great hurt among former RUC officers and families who lost loved ones. Will the Secretary of State ensure that the service and sacrifice of the RUC, the Ulster Defence Regiment and all those who donned a uniform are not besmirched under the auspices of addressing the legacy of the past?

Yes, absolutely. The hon. Lady makes a very important point. There are so many people—hundreds of thousands—across the RUC and the armed forces who put their own lives at risk to protect others, and there is a huge difference between those who went out every day to protect life and those who went out determined to destroy lives. There can never be a moral equivalence; we would never accept one. She is absolutely right.

Platinum Jubilee

The Northern Ireland Office is working collaboratively with partners on a range of proposals to celebrate Her Majesty’s platinum jubilee. I am pleased to tell the House that next week we will unveil a jubilee hamper, bringing together the very best of Northern Ireland’s food and drink produce, which we will be presenting to Windsor Castle, Clarence House and Kensington Palace. We want the jubilee in Northern Ireland to bring communities together and celebrate the amazing personal achievement of Her Majesty the Queen.

My right hon. Friend has touched on the deep respect and admiration that everyone across the United Kingdom has for Her Majesty the Queen—something that we see in Northern Ireland and that I see in Wales, particularly in my constituency of Clwyd South. Does he agree that that is amply demonstrated not only by the plans that he will outline but by the many street parties and local events being planned by communities large and small across the UK?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: this will be an event and a weekend that brings all citizens of our United Kingdom together in celebration as we collectively salute the service of Her Majesty the Queen.

We should never forget, of course, that Her Majesty the Queen was among thousands who lost close family members during the troubles and that, by her actions, she has supported the efforts towards peace and reconciliation. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Her Majesty’s platinum jubilee is a fantastic opportunity for communities across Northern Ireland to come together not only to mark this important milestone but to recognise how much progress has been made towards peace and prosperity during her reign?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In Northern Ireland we are determined that the celebration of this historic event will bring communities together. I have acknowledged previously in this House the words of the leader of Sinn Féin, who extended her congratulations to Her Majesty, saying that

“70 years is quite some achievement.”

This jubilee can be celebrated across communities and in every part of our United Kingdom, and we are determined that it will be.

The Minister will recall that at Northern Ireland questions six weeks ago, he said that

“we will be marking this jubilee with full throttle, joy and celebration,”

and that he and the Secretary of State would be

“coming forward with some very innovative ideas”.—[Official Report, 9 March 2022; Vol. 710, c. 311.]

So far we have a hamper and the potential for an annual garden party. I do not want our celebrations to be lacklustre; I want the NIO to bring a level of sparkle and joy to the platinum jubilee celebrations. Is there more to the plans the Minister will unveil next week?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I, and the whole of the Northern Ireland Office, will be sparkling throughout the jubilee celebrations. We will be unveiling very shortly another very exciting proposal—a competition in Northern Ireland’s schools for something to be presented to Her Majesty on behalf of the young people of Northern Ireland. I assure the hon. Gentleman that he will not be disappointed, and I say that knowing that that is a very high bar to cross with the Democratic Unionist party.

Nationality and Borders Bill: Implementation

7. What recent discussions he has had with the (a) Northern Ireland Executive and (b) Irish Government on plans for implementing the provisions of the Nationality and Borders Bill. (906584)

The Government continue our close co-operation with both the Irish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive on immigration matters, including on the Nationality and Borders Bill. We will continue to work, as we always do, to ensure that we are protecting the Good Friday agreement and the common travel area.

The Nationality and Borders Bill will grant UK Ministers draconian powers to strip UK citizens of their citizenship so long as they can claim citizenship in another country. As most Northern Irish people can claim Irish citizenship, Northern Ireland’s people are threatened in a way no other people in the UK are; they could be stripped of their citizenship without warning or notice. How can the Secretary of State justify that?

I thought the hon. Lady was going to outline all the excellent work that the SNP will do in Scotland to start finally taking part in the asylum scheme. At the moment, only one council in Scotland is doing that. Regarding the Nationality and Borders Bill, we will continue to deliver on the Good Friday agreement and respect all its parts, including people’s right to be Northern Irish, Irish, or Northern Irish and British—something we have always done and will continue to do.

That is the end of Northern Ireland questions. 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 parliamentlive.tv.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

As this will be the final PMQs of this Session, I wanted to remind the House of what we have achieved. More than 20 Acts of Parliament have been passed, including our National Insurance Contributions Act 2022, which will increase the thresholds from July and be worth an average of £330 a year—the largest single personal tax cut for a decade—and our Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Act 2022 to respond to Putin’s illegal war in Ukraine. We hope by the end of the Session to have passed our Nationality and Borders Bill, to take control of our immigration system; our Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, to make our streets safer; and our Health and Care Bill, to reduce bureaucracy and help to cut the covid backlogs. Only today, new figures show that already, since 2019, we have recruited over 13,500 additional police—well ahead of our 12,000 target. Those police are already on our streets, making our communities safer. We are focusing on delivering the people’s priorities, and there is plenty more to come in the Queen’s Speech on 10 May.

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.

As a proud maritime nation, the United Kingdom has long relied on its coastal communities to help to deliver national prosperity, but today too many of them face shared challenges and disproportionately high levels of deprivation. Does my right hon. Friend therefore agree that to ensure that beautiful constituencies such as mine—Hastings and Rye—can properly unleash their full potential, a specific and targeted Government strategy focusing on coastal communities is needed; and will he meet me to discuss this?

Yes indeed, and if my hon. Friend looks at the levelling-up White Paper she will find that it is clearly directed at enhancing and improving the lives of people in our coastal communities, tilting resource and attention to those fantastic communities. I will make sure that she gets a meeting with the relevant Minister as soon as possible.

I know the Prime Minister has whipped his Back Benchers to scream and shout, and that is fine, but I hope he has also sent a clear message that there is no place for sexism and misogyny or for looking down on people because of where they come from, in his party, in this House, or in modern Britain.

Next year, the UK is set for the slowest growth and the highest inflation in the G7. Why is the Prime Minister failing to manage the economy?

First, in response to what the right hon. and learned Gentleman said about sexism and misogyny, let me say that I exchanged messages with the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) over the weekend, and I will repeat what I said to her. There can be absolutely no place for such behaviour or such expression in this House, and we should treat each other with the respect that each other deserves.

On the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s point about the economy, yes of course it is true that there is a crisis of inflation around the world, but this Government are tackling it in all the ways you would expect, Mr Speaker. We are helping people with the cost of their energy—putting in far more than Labour would—and we have a British energy security strategy to undo the mistakes made by previous Labour Governments. Above all, we made sure that we had the fastest growth in the G7 last year, which would not have been possible if we had listened to him—frankly, had we listened to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, we would not have come out of lockdown in July last year. Never forget that no Labour Government have left office with unemployment lower than when they came in.

The Prime Minister sounds like the Comical Ali of the cost of living crisis. He pretends the economy is booming and where there are problems they are global, but in the real world our growth is set to be slower than every G20 country except one—Russia—and our inflation is going to be double that in the rest of the G7. Does he think that denying the facts staring him in the face makes things better or worse for working people?

The facts are, as the International Monetary Fund has said, that the UK came out of covid faster than anybody else. That is why we had the fastest growth in the G7 last year. That would not have happened if we had listened to Captain Hindsight. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman studies its forecasts, he will see that we will return to being the fastest by 2024 and the fastest in 2025. That is what the IMF forecast says—read it. He asks about working people. This is the Government, this is the party that supports working people, unlike Labour, with the biggest increase—[Interruption.] Yes, I will tell them what is going up: the living wage is going up by record amounts, employment is going up by record amounts. Five hundred thousand more people—[Interruption.] They do not want to hear it. Let me give them the figures: 500,000 more people in paid employment now than there were before the pandemic began and youth unemployment at or near record lows. Under Labour, just to remind everybody, youth unemployment rose by 45%.

These must be the Oxford Union debating skills we have been hearing so much about: failing to answer the question, rambling incoherently, throwing in garbled metaphors. Powerful stuff, Prime Minister. Here is the problem: it is not just his words that are complacent; it is his actions as well. The cost of living crisis was blindingly obvious months ago, but he said that worries about inflation were unfounded and he backed a tax-hiking Budget. Does he think that his choice to be the only leader in the G7 to raise taxes during a cost of living crisis has made things better or worse for working people?

As I have just explained to the House, and will repeat once more, this Government and our Chancellor cut taxes on working people. The national insurance contribution went down by an average of £330. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman is talking about the health and care levy—maybe that is what he is droning on about—that is what is enabling us to pay for 50,000 more nurses and to pay for clearing the covid backlog. How tragic, how pitiful that the party of Bevan should now be opposed to that investment in the NHS.

The Prime Minister is an ostrich, perfectly happy keeping his head in the sand. Working people are worried about paying their bills. They are spending less and cutting back. That is bad for business and bad for growth. Working people are looking for help, but this week millions will look at their payslip and see a tax rise with his fingerprints all over it. Does he think that his 15th tax rise has made things better or worse for working people?

What we are doing for working people is not only lifting the living wage by a record amount and helping people on universal credit with a £1,000 tax cut, but cutting national insurance contributions and lifting the threshold so that, on average, people pay £330 less. What we are also doing is taking our country and our economy forward, investing in our NHS, which is a priority for the people of this country—unlike for the Labour party—and ensuring that we have record creation of jobs. That is what matters: high-wage, high-skill jobs. Half a million more—[Interruption.] Labour Members do not care about jobs; we do. We believe in high-wage, high-skill jobs and that is the answer for the economy.

It is as if the Prime Minister is only just waking up to the cost of living crisis. And his big idea: fewer MOTs—it actually makes the cones hotline sound visionary and inspirational.

North sea oil producers are making so much unexpected profit that they call themselves a “cash machine”. That cash could be used to keep energy bills down. Instead, the Prime Minister chooses to protect their profits, let household bills rocket and slap taxes on working people who are earning a living. Does he think that that choice has made things better or worse for working people?

What we are doing is making things better for working people than his plans would by a mile. We are putting in more to support people with their energy costs than he would with his new tax on business. We are putting in £9.1 billion, with an immediate £150 cut in people’s council tax. Labour’s thing raises only £6.6 billion, and it clobbers the very businesses that we need to invest in energy to bring the prices down for people across this country. Clean, green energy—the wind farms, the hydrogen that this country needs. What this Government are also doing is reversing the tragic, historic mistake of the Labour party in refusing to invest in nuclear. We are going to have a nuclear reactor every year, not a nuclear reactor every decade, which is what we got under Labour.

So the Conservatives are the party of excess oil and gas profits and we are the party of working people. This Tory Government have had their head in the sand throughout the cost of living crisis. First, they let prices get out of control and then they denied it was happening. They failed to do anything about it and then they made it worse with higher taxes. Because of the Prime Minister’s choices, we are set to have the slowest growth and the highest inflation in the G7.

A vote for Labour next week is a vote for a very different set of choices. We would ask oil and gas companies to pay their fair share and reduce energy costs. We would not hammer working people with the worst possible tax at the worst possible time. We would insulate homes to get bills down. And we would close the tax avoidance schemes that have helped the Prime Minister’s Chancellor—where is he?—to reduce his family’s tax bill while putting everyone else’s up. That is a proper plan for the economy, so why does the Prime Minister not get on with it and finally make choices that make things better, not worse, for working people?

I have listened to the right hon. and learned Gentleman over many weeks and many years, and this guy is doomed to be a permanent spectator. We have a plan to fix the NHS and fix social care; the Opposition have no plan. We have a plan to fix our borders with our deal with Rwanda; they have no plan. We have a plan to take our economy forward; they have no plan.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about the elections in a few days’ time. Let me remind him that everywhere we look at a Labour administration, it is a bankrupt shambles. Labour-run Hammersmith Council spent £27,000 on EU flags three years after the referendum. Labour-run Nottingham Council—bankrupt because of its investment in some communist energy plan, of the kind that he now favours; he should apologise for it. Labour-run Croydon—bankrupt because of its dodgy property deals. And never forget Labour-run Britain in 2010—bankrupt because of what the Labour Government did, and they said that they had “no money” left.

If the right hon. and learned Gentleman looks at council tax—he boasts that he lives in Islington or Camden, or somewhere like that—he should contrast neighbouring Westminster, which has the lowest council tax in the country and better services, too. That is the difference between Labour and Conservative across the country. Vote Conservative on 5 May.

2. Will the Prime Minister join me in welcoming the huge step forward this week in the regeneration of Heanor town centre in my constituency with the successful purchase of the run-down old grammar school building, using the Government’s towns fund money? Does he agree that that is exactly the sort of local delivery that people should be voting on in next week’s local election? (906666)

My hon. Friend is entirely right: those are the issues on which people will be voting. As I said, they will be voting for better value, better services and lower council tax, and I hope they will be voting Conservative.

May I associate myself with the remarks of the Leader of the Opposition about the absolutely disgusting misogyny and sexism witnessed by the deputy leader of the Labour party? What has happened over the past few days should shame us all.

This morning, the Trussell Trust confirmed that 830,000 children across the UK are being left to depend on emergency food parcels. Instead of convening a Tory talking shop at Cabinet, the Prime Minister should be acting to help those children and help families through the cost of living emergency. If he is genuinely looking for ideas to tackle this Tory-made crisis, he would be wiser to look beyond his Cabinet colleagues, who, of course, know that he will not be there for very much longer.

As a parting gift, here is an idea for the Prime Minister. The Scottish Government have introduced, and now doubled, the game-changing Scottish child payment of at least £1,040 a year, helping those families who are being hit the hardest. Is the Prime Minister prepared to match that payment across the UK to help families through this emergency?

Of course it is important to do everything we can to help families in a tough time. That is why we have massively increased the funds available to local councils to support families facing particular hardship. The holiday activities fund, now running at £200 million, is there as well. We will do everything we can to support families throughout this period when we are dealing with the aftershocks of the covid pandemic. If I may say so—the right hon. Gentleman may not appreciate my pointing it out, but it is true—I think that this is another example of the vital strength of our economic union, and of the importance of support from the UK Treasury, which is what he gets.

My goodness! We have children facing poverty, and the Scottish Government are responding with the child payment—by the way, it will increase again later this year—but we get nothing but empty words from the Prime Minister. We heard plenty of desperate pre-election waffle, but I will take it as a no: there is no support for hard-pressed families. It is clearer by the day that the Prime Minister’s supposed plan to fight the Tory-made cost of living crisis is not only non-fiscal, but non-existent.

I will try again. Here are three other ideas for the Prime Minister that would help families with their soaring costs right now: scrapping his national insurance tax hike, reversing the Tory cuts to universal credit and matching Scotland’s 6% benefits rise instead of imposing a real-terms cut. Those are three things that would make a difference to millions of people. Has the Prime Minister come to terms with the reality that if he fails to act now, the voters will send him and his sleaze-ridden party a message by voting SNP next Thursday?

We are helping families up and down the country with the universal credit taper. The right hon. Gentleman asks about universal credit; we are tapering it so that working people get another £1,000 in their pocket. We are helping families in the way that I have described, and I remind the House that under this Government there are now far fewer children in workless households than there were before this Government came in. That is because we believe in championing work, championing employment and helping people into high-wage, high-skill jobs. That is what counts—and as for our respective political longevities, I would not like to bet on him outlasting me.

3. Last April, the West Berkshire child and adolescent mental health services received an additional £120 million to tackle waiting times for autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder diagnoses. Twelve months on, it has outlined a general ambition to reduce delays but has set no targets or timescales for improvement, and some parents are still waiting two years for their children to be seen. Does my right hon. Friend agree that when a significant amount of public money is invested, people have a right to know how and when services will be improved, and will he support my campaign for a 12-month maximum wait for any family in West Berkshire seeking a diagnosis of this kind? (906667)

My hon. Friend is running a great campaign, and she is absolutely right: the Government are indeed providing funds to improve autism and learning disability services, but it is also important for people to receive the diagnoses and assessments that they need within 12 weeks, and the measures in our Health and Care Bill will improve local accountability for those services.

The Road Haulage Association has confirmed that the cost of moving goods from this part of the United Kingdom to Northern Ireland has risen by 27% in the first year of the operation of the protocol. The Irish sea border is harming our economy and undermining political stability in Northern Ireland. Next week, the people of Northern Ireland will go to the polls to elect an Assembly. What hope can the Prime Minister give them that the protocol will be removed and Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market will be restored?

I think the whole House will want to support the balance and symmetry of the Good Friday agreement. That is what really matters, and it is a great legacy for all of us. It is vital for the protocol—or the arrangements that we have in Northern Ireland—to command the support of all sides, and that is what this Government will undertake to ensure.

6. I am grateful to the Prime Minister for the additional funds and support that Mansfield has received in recent years for education and skills, for tackling crime, and for our town centre, which will be bidding for the levelling-up fund this spring, but Mansfield residents now want to see the tangible outcomes of those capital funds for the town centre. Will my right hon. Friend look seriously at how we might help to accelerate the often lengthy process of moving from successful funding announcement to spades in the ground, so that our residents can benefit from those investments? (906670)

My hon. Friend is a fantastic champion for Mansfield and, indeed, the wider area. I am delighted that Mansfield was awarded £12 million as part of the towns fund. I cannot endorse any specific project, but the next round is coming up shortly and will be announced in the autumn.

4. Fifty-six Members of this House are under investigation for sexual misconduct, and that includes three members of the Prime Minister’s Cabinet. He has just rightly said that there can be no place for sexism and misogyny in the House. Can he now confirm that he considers sexual harassment—unlike, apparently, bullying and lying—to be grounds for dismissal under the ministerial code? (906668)

Of course sexual harassment is intolerable, and it is quite right that Members should now have a procedure whereby they can bring it to the attention of the House authorities. I think that that is a good thing, and of course sexual harassment is grounds for dismissal.

7. Financial scams have increased dramatically in recent years and are now the most common form of crime, harming millions of families every year. Most of them are made possible by online platforms such as Facebook and Google, which make vast profits from advertising fraudsters. Does my right hon. Friend agree that companies that profit from promoting fraud should help to pay the costs of fraud, and online platforms should compensate the victims whom they have helped to create, and will he work with me to achieve that end? (906671)

I have known my hon. Friend for many years, and this is typical of his creativity. We will be looking at exactly how we could make that kind of measure work. I think it is important for us to proceed with care and get it right, and I will ensure that my hon. Friend has a meeting with the relevant Minister in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport as soon as possible.

5. Hundreds and thousands of people are still shielding. They are living in fear of covid, as they know that the vaccine has not mounted an antibody response for them and they remain at increased risk of serious illness or death. There is hope, though. Evusheld gives immunocompromised people 83% protection for six months. Sadly, the Government have not ordered any of it, despite the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency giving its approval on 17 March. I appreciate that the Prime Minister might not have all the details to hand, so will he meet me to talk about this life-saving and life-changing drug? (906669)

I thank the hon. Lady very much; she is absolutely right to speak up for those who are shielding and who are anxious. We are doing everything we can to protect and reassure them. On Evusheld, we are evaluating it at the moment, but I will ensure that she has a meeting as soon as possible with the Department of Health.

8.   My Conservative council in Kensington and Chelsea charges £500 less council tax than neighbouring Labour Camden, and it has four times as many bin collections. You have not misheard: £500 less; four times as many. Does my right hon. Friend agree that everyone who wants low council tax and good services needs to vote Conservative? (906673)

Do I agree with my hon. Friend? There is not a syllable with which any sensible person in this country could possibly dissent.

9. Last week, a headline in The Daily Telegraphnot normally a paper that I read—stated: “Northern Ireland could be forced to follow EU rules on Covid tests”. The Chancellor has told the House that Northern Ireland could not benefit from moves to scrap VAT on energy efficiency measures because of the protocol, and now the protocol’s restrictions threaten a shortage of covid tests in Northern Ireland. The financial costs of the protocol can be measured, but the true cost, in relation to VAT, medicines, covid tests and damaged relationships, is much, much greater. When are the Government and my Prime Minister going to restore our place in the United Kingdom? (906674)

I thank the hon. Gentleman very much. There is clearly an economic cost to the protocol. That is also now turning into a political problem, and an imbalance in sentiment about it. We need to rectify that balance for the sake of the Good Friday agreement, on which this country depends.

12. By 2025, Liberal Democrat Eastleigh Borough Council will have a debt of £650 million, which is £6,300 for every resident in Eastleigh. Does the Prime Minister think it acceptable for this council to become a speculative property developer, and what advice would he give to my constituents next week if they want to put a stop to this casino council and its profligate ways? (906677)

My hon. Friend is completely right about Eastleigh Borough Council and the debts it has run up. I cannot even see the leader of the Liberal Democrats in his place here. He is not even delivering value for money for his own constituents.

10. The cost of household food bills is set to rise by £271 this year as prices soar. The supermarkets are lowering their prices to help customers who are struggling to buy food. The Resolution Foundation has reported that 1.3 million low-income Britons will be pushed into absolute poverty by the cost of living crisis, but this Government are doing nothing to protect people who are struggling. If the supermarkets are stepping in to protect people’s pockets, what will the Prime Minister do? (906675)

What we have done in just the last few months is put in £22 million to help people with the cost of living. I want to pay tribute to those businesses that are now trying to protect consumers from the impact of the global inflation crisis. The fact is that many, many businesses now have the cash reserves not to take prices, as they put it, but to shield consumers from the impact, and I hope that they do so.

13. I was recently contacted by my counterpart, the Chair of the Ukrainian Treasury Committee, with some ideas on how we can further tighten the screw on the Russian economy, particularly through the international tax regime. I was, of course, able to affirm the full support for the Ukrainian people right across this House. The gentleman concerned also knows the work that my right hon. Friend has done to promote sanctions internationally, but will the Prime Minister meet me to consider these new proposals to make sure that no stone is left unturned in facing up to Putin’s vile regime? (906678)

I thank my right hon. Friend for what he and his Select Committee have been doing in this area to tighten the screw on Putin’s regime. UK companies have already shown that they think very carefully about investments and doing business with Putin’s Russia. As my right hon. Friend knows, we banned all new outward investment in Russia, but I am very happy to have a meeting as soon as possible to make sure these further ideas are transmitted to the Government.

11. Last night we learned that the Home Secretary put the Member for Wakefield (Imran Ahmad Khan) on an expert panel offering advice on sexual exploitation. At the time, he was under police investigation following allegations that he had assaulted a minor, of which he has since been found guilty. He sat on the panel long after the Conservative party received a complaint from his victim. Is the Prime Minister not ashamed that his party did not take the victim seriously and put someone who abused a minor in such an important position? Does he wish to take this opportunity to apologise to them? (906676)

I believe the Home Office has already made a statement about it. If there is any further comment to make, it will make a statement.

14. Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council has secured millions of pounds of Government investment for our high street, but we have a problem with persistent antisocial behaviour on the high street. Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister therefore welcome the recent appointment of a new chief constable for Staffordshire and a new borough commander for Newcastle, and the fact that Newcastle will get its own dedicated response unit? Will he also set out what further measures the Government are taking to combat crime and antisocial behaviour? (906679)

My hon. Friend is an avid champion for his constituents. He might have missed what I said earlier, but there are now 13,576 more police on the streets of this country as a result of the actions taken by this Government. There are also tougher sentences, which were opposed by the party opposite. We are cracking down on drugs gangs, whereas the Labour party is soft on drugs. I think the Leader of the Opposition said he would decriminalise drugs and that he did not want people found with class A drugs to face prison sentences—I think I heard him say that.

Of course, we are also cracking down on cross-channel gangs that risk the lives of migrants in the English channel. We are cracking down on them and, as far as I know, the Labour party would scrap the economic and migration partnership with Rwanda. We have a plan; they do not.

Some 4.5 million people pay for their gas and electricity through a prepayment meter. They are already paying more for their energy than direct debit customers, and the number of people who are disconnecting themselves because they have run out of money for the meter is increasing. What is the Prime Minister going to do to ensure that all our constituents have a right to light and warmth?

We are working with Ofgem and all the companies to ensure that we protect people at this difficult time. We are also making sure that we support people, and not just through the cold weather payment and the winter fuel payment. By giving £0.5 billion more to councils, we are making sure that we look after the types of people to whom the right hon. Gentleman refers, who are finding it particularly tough. We will do everything we can to shield the people of this country as we get through the aftershocks of covid and deal with a global inflation problem.

Within the past hour or so, it has been reported that some 287 Members of this House have been sanctioned by the Russian state. I am sure nobody here is rushing to change their summer holiday plans, but perhaps the Prime Minister will assure us that he will continue his excellent relationship with President Zelensky and continue to provide the Ukrainian people and military with the support they need.

It is no disrespect to those who have not been sanctioned when I say that all those 287 should regard it as a badge of honour. What we will do is keep up our robust and principled support for the Ukrainian people and for their right to protect their lives and families, and to defend themselves. That is what this country is doing and it has the overwhelming support of the whole House.

Today, a court has found that the Government acted unlawfully when their policies led to the discharge of untested patients from hospitals to care homes at the start of the pandemic. The court also found no evidence that the former Health Secretary addressed the issue of the risk to care home residents of such transmission, despite the Government insisting at the time that a “protective ring” had been thrown around care homes.

The Government have once again been found to have broken the law. Will the Prime Minister apologise to the families of the thousands and thousands of people who died in care homes in the first half of 2020? Will he also apologise to care workers for the shameful comment that he made in July 2020, when he said that

“too many care homes didn’t…follow…procedures in the way that they could have”?

Of course, I want to renew my apologies and sympathies to all those who lost loved ones during the pandemic—people who lost loved ones in care homes. I want to remind the House of what an incredibly difficult time that was and how difficult that decision was. We did not know very much about the disease. The point I was trying to make, to which the hon. Lady refers, is that the thing we did not know in particular was that covid could be transmitted asymptomatically in the way that it was. I wish we had known more about that at the time. As for the ruling she mentions, we will study it and of course respond further in due course.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. As you have just heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Ben Everitt), the Interfax news agency announced less than an hour ago, in Moscow, that the foreign ministry of the Russian Government will now sanction 287 Members and former Members of the House of Commons—from both sides of this House. I am proud to say that both you and I are on that list. Are you able to give any advice to right hon. and hon. Members of the House of Commons regarding this?

Normally I would not, but I think this is an important matter, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for letting me know at the start of questions that he wanted to catch my eye. Although the issue he has raised is not strictly a point of order, I am of course alarmed to hear what he has reported to the Chamber. Rather than give a knee-jerk reaction now, I am sure that the Government will rapidly be assessing the implications of this move. I am therefore asking them to keep me and the House authorities briefed on this very important issue, and I shall make sure that Members are kept informed as appropriate.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I am distressed that I am not on the list—I am also slightly surprised. I can assume only that the Russian Federation accepts that everything I have said about President Putin over the past few years is true: he is a barbarous villain and we must make sure that he fails.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The Prime Minister and the hon. Member for Kensington (Felicity Buchan) incorrectly claimed that council tax is lower in Conservative councils; according to the Government’s own live figures, the average council tax bill for a Conservative council is £1,642 while the average for a Labour council is £1,313. So, Conservative council tax bills—this is a fact—are £329 higher than Labour council tax bills. May I seek your advice, Mr Speaker, on how to ensure those facts are put on record?

We are not going to continue a debate from an earlier question, and the hon. Gentleman has answered his own question, but I do hope he let the hon. Member for Kensington (Felicity Buchan) know he was going to mention her in the Chamber; if not, I am sure he will drop her a line.