The Secretary of State was asked—
I am sure the whole House will want to join me in sending love and best wishes to parents, teachers, and the village of Llanfair Caereinion in Powys following the traumatic incident involving their school on Monday. I hope very much that my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Craig Williams) will be able to pass on the House’s very best wishes.
I regularly discuss rail infrastructure in Wales with the Secretary of State for Transport. More than £340 million has already been provided for rail enhancements in Wales, including the core valley lines and Cardiff Central station.
From the Queen’s Speech, we learned of a new public sector body to oversee Britain’s railways. Given the importance of the railway infrastructure and the benefits of linking north Wales to HS2, and in view of the problems, delays and cuts in services that we are seeing in Scotland owing to the mismanagement of ScotRail by the SNP—[Interruption.] Have Scottish National party Members tried taking a train this week?
Given those factors, can the Secretary of State tell us what discussions the Government have had with devolved Administrations to boost connectivity across the United Kingdom, and to ensure that lines are properly funded and appropriately managed?
I do not know why some Members on the Opposition Benches were being so derogatory during the hon. Lady’s extremely valid question. It was perfectly reasonable for her to highlight the fact that transport infrastructure in the UK is in the UK, and that any suggestion that it should in some way be devolved underestimates completely the economic value that it provides.
I agree with the general comments that the hon. Lady made, but the UK Government have been working alongside the Welsh Government where they can on infrastructure projects, particularly those involving rail, and the record reinforces that. We are also spending many millions of pounds on infrastructure more broadly, and I think she will support that—along with, I hope, others on the Opposition Benches.
As my right hon. Friend will know, there is considerable and long-standing support in north Wales for the electrification of the line between Wrexham and Bidston, which would link two important enterprise zones and put Wrexham and the whole of north-east Wales in commuting reach of Liverpool, and would be generally welcomed by the local business community. What discussions has he had with colleagues in the Department for Transport about advancing this project?
My right hon. Friend has made a good point. The Government recognise the importance of the line to which he has referred, and I know that Liverpool City Region Combined Authority and Transport for Wales have been discussing the opportunities presented by battery-powered trains.
My right hon. Friend also made a good point about cross-border connectivity and the need for us to view these areas as economic regions and not be disrupted in any way by the artificial boundaries that devolution sometimes creates. I assure him that we will have further meetings with the Department for Transport about this issue.
This Government cancelled Labour’s plans for electrification of the line to Swansea, citing the pretext that it would not speed up journeys. However, there is an urgent need for electrification to combat climate change and decrease reliance on imported fossil fuels. Will the Secretary of State talk to his colleagues about reinstating the plans for electrification of that line, extending electrification further west through my constituency to the Pembrokeshire ports, and supporting these moves through increased investment in renewable forms of electricity generation?
The hon. Lady has raised, quite reasonably, a point that she has raised before. I agree with her on most of the issues that she has raised, apart from the background to the cancellation of electrification, a decision which, as she knows, was taken in the context of bimodal trains as an equally beneficial alternative. However, her general views about rail infrastructure and net zero are entirely shared by the Government. I hope that she might be able to make the same compelling case to her colleagues in Cardiff as she makes to us.
Wales contains 11% of the UK’s railway infrastructure, but in recent years has received only 1% of the Government’s investment. As if that were not bad enough, classifying HS2 as an England and Wales project is denying Wales nearly £5 billion of investment. I know that the Secretary of State does not like it when we remind the Welsh public that his Government is short-changing Wales, but now the leader of the Welsh Conservatives agrees with us, as does the Welsh Affairs Committee. Perhaps if the Government had given Wales a fair settlement to upgrade its railways, the Chancellor would not have had to fork out £10,000 for a helicopter to make a round trip from London to Powys. When will the Secretary of State use his position at the Cabinet table to ensure that his Government cough up?
A good question interspersed with some slightly trite comments; the hon. Gentleman might have done better had he avoided them. He overlooks the fact we have invested £340 million so far, with £125 million for the core valley lines, £58 million for Cardiff Central station, £76 million for the electrification of the Severn tunnel, £4.7 million for St Clears station in my own constituency, £4 million for Bow Street station—I could go on forever. He underestimates and undervalues the investments we have already made.
Having represented a border community for the last 17 years, one is cognisant of the interdependence we have in Shropshire with Wales, with our friends across the border, with my right hon. Friend’s Department and with the Senedd. We are campaigning in Shropshire for the electrification of the line from Birmingham to Shrewsbury, which will help passengers going on to mid-Wales. Will he take an interest in that scheme to ensure that the people of mid-Wales can benefit from quicker times to Birmingham via this electrification process?
Costs of Living: Households and Businesses
To alleviate the immediate impacts of this global crisis, we have injected support worth over £22 billion in 2023. For businesses, we have cut fuel duty and provided help to high energy-using businesses. In the longer term, our Plan for Jobs will ensure long-term prosperity for Wales, including the development of the Wylfa nuclear power station.
The Scottish Government introduced the Scottish child payment to tackle child poverty head on. That payment doubled to £20 and is set to increase further and be extended to children under the age of 15, resulting in 50,000 children being taken out of relative poverty. Given that Wales has persistently had the highest child poverty rate in the UK, does the Secretary of State not agree that welfare powers should now be devolved to Wales so that the Welsh Government can introduce a targeted child payment of their own?
Even the Welsh Government have not made that argument to me. I think they fully recognise that the proper and fair distribution of welfare is done most effectively and cost-effectively on a UK-wide basis, but I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman has raised this issue because the money that the Scottish Government are using is available as a consequence of the Barnett formula, and the situation is the same in Wales.
In relation to the cost of living crisis faced by people in Wales and across the United Kingdom, the Prime Minister told the Welsh Tory party conference that the UK Government would
“put our arms around the British people again as we did during covid”.
Based on the evidence of the Sue Gray report, they are more likely to be linking arms in a conga line. Can the Secretary of State for Wales tell me what discussions he has had with the Chancellor on an emergency Budget to help the poorest households in Wales and across the United Kingdom?
The hon. and learned Lady rightly refers to the fact that the Chancellor may yet be making further comments about this particular issue, just as he did throughout the pandemic. For those who think that the Treasury is neither flexible nor conscious of these challenges, the fact is that there was ample evidence during the pandemic—and now, of course, during the current challenges we face—to disprove that theory. I can tell her, and everyone else in the House, that I have really regular conversations with Treasury Ministers and with the Chancellor himself about exactly these challenges.
Would my right hon. Friend agree that one of the best ways to help people during the cost of living crisis is to make sure that we have a vibrant economy and a low rate of unemployment? Would he also agree that having the lowest rate of unemployment since 1974 is helping many families across Wales and the rest of the UK at the moment?
Absolutely. I think most people believe that growing our way out of a cost of living challenge is infinitely preferable to spending our way out of a cost of living challenge. My hon. Friend is right to point out that we want to be flexible, rapid and generous. When there are occasions, as there inevitably will be for Members across the House, where individual constituents somehow do not fit the solutions we have, there are other measures that I hope local authorities will be able to deploy to assist them.
We now know that the energy price cap is expected to rise to £2,800 a year in October, which means that typical household bills in Wales, having already gone up by £700, will go up by another £800.
It is now 138 days since Labour proposed a windfall tax on oil and gas producer profits so that people across Wales can get help right now. Every day the Government delay is another day they are letting down people in Wales and across the United Kingdom. The Secretary of State voted against a windfall tax last week. What is his alternative to help the people of Wales, and where is it?
I suspect the hon. Lady reads the same news channels I read, so she will be aware that the Treasury will make a further announcement imminently. [Interruption.] She may be annoyed by my answer, but it is only reasonable that I suggest she waits until the Chancellor sets out precisely what his plans are.
May I suggest that the hon. Lady applies equal pressure to her colleagues in Cardiff? They have the power to intervene on things like business rates, council tax and income tax, which they have not done. In the meantime, however, they are thinking of imposing a tourism tax, costing Welsh taxpayers £100 million in the process. They are buying a farm that nobody wants and providing free musical instruments to young people under the age of 16.
Welsh voters gave their verdict on the Welsh Government in the election the week before last, and there is not a single Tory council left in the whole of Wales. The Secretary of State’s party was wiped out.
As the Secretary of State’s answer demonstrates, he does not have a plan and we have not had a plan from the Chancellor. Does he think that buying value supermarket brands, getting a better-paid job or riding around on the buses all day to keep warm is the Government’s answer to the cost of living crisis?
The hon. Lady clearly did not listen, or did not want to listen, to my previous answer. When we know the Chancellor is about to make a statement in the Chamber on all these issues, would it not be more sensible to allow the Treasury to spell out exactly what its plans are and how they will benefit businesses and individual families in Wales before making such highly politicised comments?
I add my party’s commiserations to everybody affected by the bus accident in Llanfair Caereinion.
The Oakeley Arms in my constituency is a superb inn located in a grade II listed building at the heart of Snowdonia national park. It is off grid, it is limited by regulations on energy efficiency measures and its owners now face a quadrupling in energy bills. Does the Secretary of State agree that small businesses need more support? Will he speak to the Chancellor about extending the price cap to our hard-pressed small and medium-sized businesses?
I will definitely speak to the Chancellor, as I often do about these things. Perhaps I could suggest a deal to the right hon. Lady: I will speak to the Chancellor to get further information if she will speak to her leader in Cardiff to get him to call off the dogs by cancelling the tourism tax that the Welsh Government want to impose on businesses, causing further hardship for people in her constituency.
If the Secretary of State kept to the powers he has in Westminster, perhaps he would have better support. There are now no Tory councillors in any of the Plaid-held councils along the west coast of Wales.
Rumours of an economic package are rife, not because the Government care about struggling households and businesses but because, of course, they want to distract from their own lawbreaking. Household energy bills will likely increase to £2,800 in the autumn, yet the Chancellor is sitting on his hands until it proves politically convenient. Is the Secretary of State not ashamed of his Government’s behaviour?
I despair sometimes, with the greatest respect. I urge the right hon. Lady to wait, for what should not be a great deal more time, to hear precisely what we have in store on the cost of living challenges. I remind her that, throughout the pandemic and the cost of living challenges, the Treasury has been unbelievably flexible, unbelievably adaptable and, in some respects, unbelievably generous. To try to pre-empt the Chancellor by making cheap political points undermines the value of what those contributions may be, and it does a disservice to the businesses and individuals that the right hon. Lady purports to support.
The Wales Office has worked tirelessly to ensure there will be a freeport, which will deliver jobs and investment into Wales. As announced earlier this month, an agreement has now been reached between the UK and Welsh Governments to deliver that freeport, and this agreement will be backed by millions of pounds of Government funding.
I welcome the Government’s decision to have at least one freeport in Wales like the Solent freeport, which covers part of my constituency. Does my hon. Friend agree that, as well as bringing jobs and trade to Wales, it will bring mutual benefits to other freeports, it will be vibrant, and it is a stark reminder of why the Union between Wales and England is so important?
I agree with both of those excellent points. We have already seen that the Thames freeport has suggested that there will be 21,000 jobs directly and indirectly created, so we know that the Welsh freeport will deliver jobs. I also agree that it is going to be good for the Union and good for Wales to have vessels of all kinds coming from all over the world, bringing their jobs and investment with them, including perhaps from across the Union—we may even look forward to seeing a few ferries from Scotland, if the SNP Government can actually get around to building them.
Cost of Living: Households in Newport West
My ministerial colleagues and I fully acknowledge that there is a cost of living challenge, which has been caused by a combination of the covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine. That is why we are providing £22 billion for households across the UK to try to get through this crisis.
The people of Newport West are facing the harsh effects of this Government’s failure to tackle the cost of living crisis. My constituent Hettie contacted my office because she is a single mum of two and must choose between food and heating. Both her cooker and her hot water are gas, so as the prices rise so do her bills. She works, in her words, “Every hour possible”. She is scared for her and her children’s future, and she is not alone. Local people need to see real action. If Tory Ministers will not take any fiscal steps, will the Minister do what many people in Newport West want and back a windfall tax on oil and gas companies?
Taxes are a matter for the Chancellor, but what I can say is that I absolutely acknowledge that there is a challenge at the moment, which has been brought about by the international situation. That is why the Government are putting £22 billion aside. It is why they have changed universal credit to help people such as the hon. Lady’s constituent who are out working, and why we have increased the minimum wage. It is why national insurance contributions are going to fall, we have extended the warm home discount and put in place a whole package of other measures. While we are spending money helping people get through the cost of living challenge, the Welsh Government are spending money buying up farms in mid-Wales and increasing the number of Senedd Members.
Trade and Foreign Direct Investment
The Wales Office works closely with the Department for International Trade to promote the excellent opportunities that there are to invest in Wales. Wales is an attractive destination for foreign companies to come to, to invest in and to create jobs in, as we have seen with the continued support from companies such as Airbus, which only recently announced plans to increase wing production in Broughton.
As the trade envoy to Brazil, I see the huge economic growth opportunities for both the UK and Brazil in the post-Brexit and post-pandemic environment. Does my hon. Friend agree that, like Dudley North, Wales plays a huge part in UK plc and that therefore we want to see the Welsh dragon flying just as proudly as the Black Country flag?
I am delighted to say that Wales has an excellent trading relationship with Brazil. In 2021, we exported nearly £85 million-worth of goods to the country, while importing £165 million-worth of goods. Wales has good trade and investment with countries across the world. We have seen 72 direct investments in the last financial year, with 1,500 jobs created. Only last week, the Secretary of State for Wales and I were with the Member for the Vale of Glamorgan looking at the new Aston Martin supercar factory in the Vale of Glamorgan.
Free Trade Agreements with Australia and New Zealand: Welsh Farmers
The Secretary of State for Wales and I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues on free trade arrangements. The Wales Office works closely with the Department for International Trade to ensure that Wales will enjoy the benefits that will flood in both directions from free trade deals with Australia and New Zealand.
The Government’s own impact assessment states that the Australia and New Zealand FTAs will see a reduction in gross value added in agriculture of more than £142 million. The measures are likely to have a disproportionate impact on Welsh agriculture because of its reliance on livestock and dairy farming. NFU Cymru is calling for Wales-specific impact assessments, so will the Minister ensure that they are delivered and that he starts working for Welsh farmers, rather than undercutting them and destroying the industry?
I cannot really accept what the hon. Gentleman says. We were able to import lamb, beef and other kinds of food from Australia and New Zealand when we were members of the European Union. Both countries had an agreement that allowed them to export goods to us without paying tariffs, up to a certain quota, and the fact of the matter is that they never met that quota. It is a bit of a myth that there is cheap beef and lamb in Australia and New Zealand; anyone who wants to look at a website can see what people pay for those goods in Australian and New Zealand supermarkets. They have no plans to increase their flocks or herds. The trade deals that have been agreed are going to be good for farmers and for industry more widely throughout Wales.
Senedd Representation and Levelling-up Agenda
It is mystifying that this proposal was announced on the same day as the Queen’s Speech. It will impose a £100 million burden on Welsh taxpayers and demolish a voting system that has served us well for years, and there has been no consultation with any voters at all. Even the Lib Dems describe it as a stitch-up.
The Welsh Government have decided that they want to increase the size of the Senedd, but there are real concerns that that will lead to a lack of proportionality in representation. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the money would be much better spent on public services?
Indeed, I do. I have to say that if this Government were making suggestions of that nature that involved the constitution and voting measures, pretty well all Opposition Members would be saying that that should be subject to a public referendum at the very least. I suggest that the proper course of action for the Welsh Government is to seek the approval of their voters before they proceed with any of the extremely costly measures proposed.
My colleagues and I are aware that the number of people on universal credit has fallen both in Rhondda and across Wales over the past year. We will continue delivering for residents through schemes such as in-work progression, kickstart and our plan for jobs.
The thing is, 6,320 households in the Rhondda are in receipt of universal credit, and when the Government cut universal credit by £20 a week last year, that took £6.5 million out of the Rhondda economy. That is one reason why the food bank in Tylorstown—ironically, it is in the old Conservative club—now has to provide food to the tune of 3 tonnes a month, although families are not able to contribute so much. When will the Secretary of State restore the extra £20 a week in universal credit?
The Chancellor will make interventions clear in due course. The context to the hon. Gentleman’s perfectly reasonable question is that there has been a 7% increase in the number of people in work in Rhondda and the number of people who are unemployed in Wales is down 23,000 in the past year—he did not mention that. I very much hope that the increases in the national living wage and the national minimum wage will help to offset some of the issues he has raised.
The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant)—who is my occasional friend, when he is not slagging me off on Twitter—is right to talk about the Rhondda, because there are areas of real poverty, as there are in parts in Lichfield. Does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State agree that there are many ways to help people, some of which he has named, that there is an urgent need to address food and fuel inflation, and that that can be done in other ways, which the Treasury may well talk about, and not just by raising universal credit?
On that particular point, I agree with my hon. Friend—I would probably describe him as my permanent friend. It is perfectly right that we wait and see what the Chancellor says. We have tried to set out short, medium and long-term measures that will help with the current challenge and we will of course hear more in due course.
Shared Prosperity Fund
Unsurprisingly, I contest the hon. Gentleman’s assertion. I would just say this: by 2024-25, the annual funding from the shared prosperity fund will match the average annual funding that Wales would have received from the European Regional Development Fund after adjusting for inflation. If he does not take that from me, or does not believe me, I can tell him that it is from Guto Ifan, research associate at the Welsh Governance Centre. That indicates that we are going in the right direction with the shared prosperity fund. Would it not be good, just for a moment, if the Welsh Government supported those very ambitious opportunities?
Order. I know the whole House will want to join me in expressing our outrage and deep sorrow following the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Texas. I know that our thoughts and prayers are with those affected and all of the families who have lost loved ones.
Before we come to Prime Minister’s questions, I want to welcome Nick Munting and his family to the Gallery. Nick has worked in Parliament for over 30 years, primarily as a sous chef but also as an Associate Serjeant at Arms. Unfortunately, Nick has had to leave his role because of ill health and he is much missed by his colleagues. I know that all Members, particularly the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones), Nick’s constituency MP, will wish to join me in thanking Nick for his long service to the House and in sending good wishes to Nick and his family.
I would like to point out that a British Sign Language interpretation of proceedings is available to watch on parliamentlive.tv.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Mr Speaker, I want to begin by echoing what you have just said about the reports of the fatal shooting in a Texan primary school. Our thoughts are with all those affected by this horrific attack.
Yesterday, I welcomed the Emir of Qatar to Downing Street. It is excellent news that Qatar announced that it will invest up to £10 billion in the UK through our new strategic investment partnership. Not only will that boost local economies and support jobs; it will support our green economy and decarbonisation.
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.
Cambridge is one of the most expensive places in the country to live, but unlike many cheaper places, NHS workers in the city get no high cost of living supplement. NHS workers in Cambridge pay higher rents than NHS workers in outer-London boroughs, such as Redbridge, Croydon, Bexley and Barking, and yet they get paid 15% less. That makes it very difficult for the NHS in Cambridge, including Addenbrooke’s Hospital, to retain and recruit staff. Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister work with me to make sure that NHS workers in South Cambridgeshire and Cambridge get paid fairly?
My hon. Friend is a fantastic champion for his constituents and for Addenbrooke’s. We are very proud of our NHS, which is why we are putting in record investment. I hope that the independent NHS Pay Review Body will listen carefully to what he has just said.
My thoughts and, I know, the thoughts of the whole House are with the families of the victims of yesterday’s school shooting in Texas. Nineteen children have died, some as young as seven, as well as two adults believed to be teachers. It is an unspeakable tragedy, and our hearts are with the American people.
Last weekend marked the anniversary of both the Manchester bombing and the murder of Lee Rigby, and we remember them this year as we do every year. Today is also the anniversary of the killing of George Floyd, a reminder that we must all tackle the racism that is still experienced by so many in our country and beyond.
The Sue Gray report was published this morning and I look forward to discussing that during this afternoon’s statement with the Prime Minister. For now, I want to focus on the cost of living affecting the whole country.
Since we stood here last week and I asked the Prime Minister yet again to back Labour’s plans for a windfall tax to reduce energy bills, hundreds of millions of pounds have been added to the bills of families across the country, and hundreds of millions of pounds have landed in the bank accounts of energy companies. It sounds like he has finally seen sense and the inevitable U-turn may finally have arrived, so when can people across the country expect him to use those oil and gas profits to bring down their bills?
There is nothing original about a Labour plan to tax business. Labour wants to tax business the whole time. Every day, the party wants to put up taxes on business. What we are doing is helping people. The right hon. and learned Gentleman asks when we are going to help people. We are helping people now. We are putting £22 billion into people’s pockets already, cutting council tax by £150, cutting fuel duty, and cutting national insurance contributions by an average of £330 for people who pay NICs. How can we afford that? We can because we have a strong economy, because we came out of covid fast, which would not have been possible if we had listened to Labour.
Fifteen tax rises and the Prime Minister pretends they are a low-tax Government. It has been four and a half months since Labour first called for a windfall tax on oil and gas profits. I have raised it week in, week out, and every week he has a new reason for not doing it. The Business Secretary said it is “bad”, the Justice Secretary called it disastrous, and even this weekend the Health Secretary and the Northern Ireland Secretary opposed it. The Prime Minister ordered all his MPs to vote against it last week, and now—surprise, surprise—he is backing it. Prime Minister, I am told that hindsight is a wonderful thing! [Laughter.] But while he dithered and delayed, households across the country suffered when they did not need to.
There is no surprise about Labour’s lust to put up taxes; there is nothing original about that thought. Labour Members get off on it; they absolutely love to confiscate other people’s assets. What we prefer to do is make sure that we have the measures in place to drive investment in our country and drive jobs, and it is thanks to the steps that we took and thanks to the fact that we came out of covid faster than any other European country, which would not have been possible had we listened to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, that we now have unemployment at the lowest—[Interruption.] Listen to this—Labour used to care about this, Mr Speaker. We now have unemployment at the lowest level since 1974. Put that in your pipe.
I actually thought that, with this U-turn, the Prime Minister might get his head out of the sand, but obviously not. The reality is that every day of his dithering and his delay, £53 million has been added to Britain’s household bills. While he is distracted by trying to save his own job, the country has been counting the cost. But complacency is nothing new for this Government: back in October, the Chancellor delivered a mini-Budget that has to be reread to be believed. With inflation already climbing, he said that he understood people were concerned about it, and that the Government were “ready…to act”. Since then, inflation has risen to a 40-year high—the highest rate of any G7 country. If the Government were so ready to act six months ago, why have they not done so?
The Government have acted, and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor continues to act. This is the Government who not only put in the living wage—it was a Conservative institution—but have now raised it by £1,000, a record amount. Families on universal credit have another £1,000. Thanks to the £9.1 billion that we have already put in to support people’s cost of heating, we are abating the costs of fuel for people up and down the country, and of course we are going to do more. We are going to put our arms around the people of this country, just as we did throughout the covid pandemic. We can do that because we took the tough decisions to drive the fastest vaccine roll-out in Europe, which would not have been possible if we had listened to the right hon. and learned Gentleman. Let me take another statistic: youth unemployment—Labour used to care about it—is at or near a record low.
It was not just the Chancellor back in September—the Prime Minister called fears about inflation “unfounded”. He was the last person to spot the cost of living crisis, just as he is the last person to back Labour’s plan to help people through it. It was not just on inflation that they got it badly wrong. In the same speech, the Chancellor boasted about growth, as the Prime Minister does today, and how we would do better than all our major competitors. It was obvious that he was being complacent. Lo and behold, Britain is set to have the lowest growth of any major country except Russia, despite our brilliant businesses and all we have to offer. Why has his Government inflicted on Britain the twin-headed Hydra of the highest inflation and the lowest growth?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman loves running this country down. [Interruption.] How many times did he come to this place and say that the United Kingdom had the highest covid death rate in Europe? How many times? He was proved completely wrong. Did he ever apologise? Absolutely not. Did he ever take it back? Absolutely not. Actually, because of the steps we took, last year we had the fastest growth in the G7, and we will return to the fastest growth by 2024-25, thanks to the decisions that this Government took. [Interruption.] Labour does not care about getting people into jobs. We care about the working people of this country and making sure we have a high-wage, high-skill, high-employment economy, and that is what we are delivering.
The Prime Minister talks about running this country down; he is running this country down! It was not just complacency on Labour’s windfall tax, which he is now backing; it was not just complacency on inflation, which is now through the roof; and it was not just complacency on growth, which is now spluttering along at the back of the pack, because his Chancellor also claimed that people should
“keep more of the rewards of those efforts.”—[Official Report, 27 October 2021; Vol. 702, c. 286.]
Then he put their taxes up. Does the Prime Minister want to explain to hard-working people, whose wages are running out sooner and sooner each month and who are facing astronomical bills and prices, just how his 15 tax rises since taking office have helped them to keep more of their rewards in their pocket?
First of all, what we are doing is making sure that after a huge pandemic we are funding our vital public services, which we can because of the steps that we took. What we are also doing is making sure that we put more money back into people’s pockets through the measures I have outlined today, whether through cutting national insurance contributions, lifting the living wage or lifting universal credit. All that is made possible because we took the responsible and sensible steps to protect our economy throughout covid and then to come out strongly. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is completely wrong about this country’s growth performance. He runs it down. He was proved wrong about covid, and he is going to be proved wrong again.
Last week, I raised the case of Phoenix Halliwell, whose kidney condition means he needs daily dialysis and whose energy bill has gone through the roof as a result. I am glad that as a result, Government officials got in touch with Phoenix yesterday, and I hope that will result in more support for people who are vulnerable, but it should not be left to Labour to turn up week after week to make the Prime Minister aware of the consequences of his dither and delay.
I want to raise another issue where the Government are sleepwalking into disaster. With the summer holidays looming, there are reports that the Home Office already has a backlog of 500,000 passports to issue. That is potentially more than half a million people worrying whether they will get away this summer. Can the Prime Minister reassure people that they will not miss out on their holidays due to the failures of his Home Office?
I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman very much, but I can tell him, actually, that what we are doing is massively increasing the speed with which the Passport Office delivers. To the best of my knowledge, everybody is getting their passport within four to six weeks. That is because we are driving the leadership of this country and we are getting things done that would never have been possible if we had listened to the Opposition. We got Brexit done when he voted 48 times—48 times—to undo the will of the people. We got the vaccine roll-out done when he would have kept us in the European Medicines Agency. We were the first European country to help the Ukrainians resist Vladimir Putin. Does anybody seriously believe for a second that the Opposition would have done it? [Interruption.]
Let me say very plainly: does anybody seriously think for a second that the Labour party would have done that when eight of the shadow Front Bench, including the shadow Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), who is mysteriously not in his place, voted recently to get rid of this country’s independent nuclear deterrent, and when the Leader of the Opposition campaigned to put Vladimir Corbyn—I mean, sorry, Jeremy Corbyn—in Downing Street?
We get on. We do the difficult things. We take the tough decisions. Social care: we are fixing it. We deliver; they dither. [Interruption.]
As my hon. Friend, who I know has taken a keen interest in this for a while, Evusheld has the potential to reduce the risk of infection. We must look at the evidence before we can make a decision about whether it should be available, but I will make sure that the Department of Health and Social Care keeps him updated on the progress we are making.
I want to join others today in expressing my deepest sorrow at the horrific events in Texas yesterday. Some 19 children and two teachers have needlessly lost their lives. Many of us in Scotland will be remembering the tragic events that took place in Dunblane 26 years ago. The thoughts and prayers of the SNP are with the families suffering today, but we also hope that lawmakers will finally act to bring to an end the scourge of gun violence that plagues the United States.
The reports of the Prime Minister’s and Downing Street’s lawbreaking have been damning: empty bottles littering offices; rooms so crowded people were sitting on each other’s laps; and security forced to intervene because parties were so outrageous. At the centre was the Prime Minister orchestrating it and grabbing a glass for himself to toast the partygoers. For eight months, we have heard every excuse under the sun, but now we have all seen the damning photo evidence. While people stayed at home to protect the NHS, the Prime Minister was engaging in drinking and debauchery that makes a mockery of the gut-wrenching sacrifices that each and every person made. Will the Prime Minister now take the opportunity and resign?
I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that, much as I appreciate his advice, he will have a further opportunity, which I am sure he will take with his customary length, to debate that matter in the course of the statement that will follow directly after PMQs.
These are serious matters, but it is all a joke to the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister has lost the trust of the public. He has lost what little moral authority he had left. The Prime Minister has apologised many times, but not because he feels any genuine remorse. He still refuses to even admit that there were parties and that he presided over them. He apologised for one simple reason: he got caught. The reality is that no apology will ever be enough for the families of people who lost loved ones—the families who followed the rules, who stayed at home while their nearest and dearest were dying, and who are now forced to look at photographs of the Prime Minister, surrounded by drink, toasting to a party in the middle of a lockdown.
If the Prime Minister will not accept that he must resign, those on the Tory Benches must act. This Prime Minister, who has broken the law and shown a cavalier attitude to the truth, cannot be allowed to remain in office. Time is up, Prime Minister. Resign! Resign before this House is forced to remove you!
Hear, hear, Mr Speaker—up the Vale!
I thank my hon. Friend for his campaign, and I think he is entirely right. We have adopted the measures that he proposes in the Bill so that those who leave properties derelict unreasonably could face an unlimited fine.
I was pleased to meet the Prime Minister last week in Royal Hillsborough in my constituency. We welcome his commitment to introduce legislation to deal with the protocol and the Irish sea border, and to protect the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. That will take some time. In the meantime, as in the rest of the United Kingdom, hard-pressed households in Northern Ireland are suffering from the cost of living crisis. Will the Prime Minister give me an assurance that any measures that are brought forward by the Chancellor in the near future to help hard-pressed households will apply to Northern Ireland, and that the protocol will not be allowed to prevent Northern Ireland citizens receiving the support they need from the Government at this time?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman very much. As he knows, I have already detailed to the House a package of measures to support families across the whole of the UK. I may say that I also think it would be an advantage to the people of Northern Ireland, in tackling the issues that we all face across the UK, if Stormont were to be restored.
I thank the hon. Member for his excellent question. Rural fuel duty relief is there to compensate motorists by helping retailers in some more remote rural areas where pump prices can be significantly higher. It currently operates on a geographical basis, but I am happy to ensure that he gets a meeting with the relevant Minister as fast as possible.
Yes, I can. I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is absolutely right that Labour’s instinct everywhere and always is to put up tax, with all its—[Interruption.] Well, Labour Members are bragging about it today—it is ludicrous. What we are doing is not only cutting people’s contributions under national insurance but helping businesses to invest with the 130% super deduction that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor put in. That is helping us to have a high-wage, high-skill economy, with unemployment—yes, I have said this before, Mr Speaker—at its lowest since 1974.
Shockingly, the party has failed to act on the report and still will not explain why. That is why Rotherham child sexual exploitation survivor Sammy Woodhouse has called for an independent investigation into the failure, warning that the Conservative party has
“broken the trust of victims”.
Will the Prime Minister personally back that call and launch an independent investigation into the failure to act so that victims can have confidence that his party will never again turn a blind eye?
Yes. I thank my hon. Friend very much. She and I have talked about this. This is a subject in which I take a direct personal interest. There are things we can do to make childcare more affordable. One issue is that not enough people take up tax-free childcare, so we need to have more take-up of what is on offer. We can also look at ways in which we can reform and improve the system.
Let us be clear: if there is an issue with fire safety in a building, extra steps should be taken and remediation should be made. When it comes to self-evacuation, the Home Office has launched a new consultation to support the fire safety of residents who are unable to self-evacuate, but if the hon. Lady has further representations to make on that point, I will be very happy to ensure she gets a meeting with a Minister in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.
What we are doing for the people of Putney, and indeed the people throughout the country, is making sure that we invest now in protecting them, as I have said to the House and I have said repeatedly, not just with the increases in universal credit, the living wage and the warm home discount and cutting fuel bills, but with the £330 cut in NICs. The reason we can do that is that we have a robust economic position and strong employment. That is giving us the revenue to pay and to cushion people at this difficult time. It would not have been possible if we had listened to the Labour party during covid.
This weekend tens of thousands of Huddersfield sports fans are coming down to London. On Saturday, Huddersfield Giants are in their first rugby league challenge cup final for over a decade, and, on Sunday, it is Huddersfield Town in the championship play-off final for a place in the premier league. As well as wishing the best of luck to both Huddersfield teams, will the Prime Minister, agree with me that the best way that Labour-run Kirklees Council can honour the sporting tradition of Huddersfield is by following through with its pledge to house the new national rugby league museum in its birthplace, the George Hotel in Huddersfield, and not pull out of that deal, as it has indicated it wants to do?
Is that the Labour council pulling out of its deal? I am not surprised. All I can say is that I congratulate my hon. Friend on his campaign for a national rugby league museum and I urge him to take it up with the Arts Council or other relevant bodies.
From furlough onwards everything we have done since the pandemic began has been to get money into the pockets of the working people of this country; those are the people who time and again we have prioritised. I do not for a moment doubt that things are tough—I do not doubt it for a moment—but it is our intention to get this country through it, and we will get through it very well by putting our arms around people as we can, and as we will because of the fiscal firepower we have, but also by making sure that we continue with the high wage, high skill, high employment economy that we have. The best way to get money into people’s pockets is for them to have a job.
Does the Prime Minister agree that when the Leader of the Opposition spins his myth of a low tax Labour party, he clearly needs a memory jog? [Interruption.] May I remind Labour Members that in 2019 they all stood on a manifesto that would have inflicted the highest tax burden on the people of this country in peacetime—and that is probably why there are so few of them over there on the Labour Benches?
Yes, Labour campaigned to put up taxes on business to the highest level this country has ever seen; that was the Leader of the Opposition’s ambition, and that is what they would do again. Be in no doubt, that is what they love to do—we can feel the lust for tax rising off those Opposition Benches—and that is why there has never been a Labour Government who left office with unemployment lower than when they came in.
The Prime Minister will recall that I previously raised with him the plight of 170 British Council contractors who remain in Afghanistan in fear of their lives, 85 of whom are deemed to be at very high risk. I had a positive meeting with the refugee Minister, Lord Harrington, last week, but we face bureaucracy that is preventing the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office from helping these people now courtesy of the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme. Will the Prime Minister help us cut through that red tape and help these people, as we owe them a debt of obligation and time is running out?
I will see what we can do to help those particular people but I just remind the House that we not only evacuated 25,000 people under Op Pitting, which was a great credit to this country, but since then have supported 4,600 more to come to this country, and we will do what we can to help the people my hon. Friend mentions.
Everybody in work—30 million workers—will get a tax cut in July, on top of everything that we are already doing, but that is not the end of what this Government are going to do to look after people. I told the House before this afternoon that we will continue to use our fiscal firepower to look after the British people through the covid aftershocks and beyond.
On Monday at 3.25 pm, a school bus crashed into a group of schoolchildren in Llanfair Caereinion. Three children were airlifted to hospital, with another child and the bus driver taken by ambulance, and a fifth child was discharged at the scene. Everyone is in a stable condition. Clearly, this is a tragic accident that will stay with the community for some time. Will the Prime Minister join me and, I am sure, the whole House in sending our love and prayers to those in hospital? Will he also praise the teaching staff of both the primary and the high school, Wales Air Ambulance and Dyfed-Powys police for their heroic and continuing response to the community?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this very sad incident. I am sure that the thoughts of the whole House will be with those who have been affected. I want to join him, in particular, in paying tribute to the emergency services and, of course, the teachers and staff at the school, who did so much to help.
I begin by saying how grateful I am to the hon. Member for raising that case. I am afraid that I do not know directly about the events that she describes. What she says is very concerning and I will make sure that she gets a meeting with the relevant Minister as soon as possible.