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Volume 715: debated on Wednesday 8 June 2022

This week is Carer’s Week, and I am sure the whole House will want to join me in thanking the millions of carers across the UK for all they do to support their loved ones. We have seen the vital role that carers have played in our communities during the pandemic, and we all owe them a debt of gratitude. Through our reforms on adult social care, this Government are committed to continuing to support carers.

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.

I associate myself with the Prime Minister’s remarks about the importance of carers in our country.

This week’s events have demonstrated just how loathed this Prime Minister is—and that is only in his own party. As his Administration is too distracted by their internal divisions to deal with the challenges that we face, can he explain, if 148 of his own Back Benchers do not trust him, why on earth the country should?

I thank the hon. Lady very much for her question, and I can assure her that in a long political career so far—but barely begun—I have of course picked up political opponents all over the place. That is because—[Interruption.] That is because this Government have done some very big and very remarkable things that they did not necessarily approve of. What I want her to know is that absolutely nothing and no one, least of all her, is going to stop us from getting on with delivering for the British people.

Q2. The whole House will unite behind the Prime Minister on his determination to hold Ukrainian war criminals to account, but is he aware that there are five alleged Rwandan war crimes perpetrators living freely in the UK, who have been doing so now for 16 years and have neither been extradited nor put before the British courts under our existing laws? As he prepares to go to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Rwanda, will he look carefully at this issue, because it is bound to be raised with him? Will he reassure the House and the Rwandan Government that he takes these matters extremely seriously, and that what has so far been justice massively delayed for 16 years will not be grotesquely denied? (900309)

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. He raises an issue on which the UK has campaigned for a long time, and no country is more committed than we are to bringing war criminals to justice. I know that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has raised the subject recently with the International Criminal Court. However, as he knows—and I will certainly, of course, study the case and take it up appropriately—it is the subject of an ongoing investigation, and it would not be appropriate for me to comment on it further.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I could not make out whether that introductory noise was cheers or boos. [Interruption.] The trouble is, I do not know whether it is directed at me or the Prime Minister.

I join the Prime Minister in his comments about carers. Why did his Culture Secretary, who I think is hiding along the Front Bench, say that successive Conservative Governments left our health service “wanting and inadequate” when the pandemic hit?

Everybody knows that when the pandemic hit, it was an entirely novel virus for which the whole world was unprepared. Nobody at that stage knew how to test for it and nobody knew what the right quarantine rules should have been. But, as it happens, not only did the UK Government and our amazing NHS approve the first vaccine anywhere in the world but we were first to get it into anybody’s arms and we had the fastest roll-out anywhere in Europe, none of which would have been possible if we had listened to the right hon. and learned Gentleman.

I think the Prime Minister just agreed with the Culture Secretary. He did not deny it. Perhaps she said it because it is true.

It starts with GPs. People were unhappy with the service that they were getting before the pandemic—there were not enough GPs and it was too hard to get an appointment—and that is why he promised 6,000 new GPs, but his Health Secretary admits that he will not keep that promise. Despite the hard work of doctors, people cannot see a GP in person, and they are unhappier than ever with GP services. If GP provision was “wanting and inadequate” before the pandemic, what is it now?

I am afraid that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is simply wrong. He is wrong about what we are doing. Of course, we have got to clear the covid backlogs. Everybody understands that, and everybody understands the pressure that the NHS is under, but it is responding magnificently. I can tell him that, thanks to the investments that the Government have put in, we now have 4,300 more doctors and record numbers in training, we have 11,800 more nurses this year than last year and 72,000 in training. That is because of the investment that we put in, which was opposed by the Opposition. The only reason why we were able to make that investment is because we have a strong and robust economy thanks to the decisions we took.

The Prime Minister talks big but I have a letter here to the Prime Minister from the right hon. Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) in which he said, “under you”—that is you, Prime Minister—

“the Government seems to lack a sense of mission. It has a large majority, but no long-term plan.”

The Prime Minister’s “big plan” act is so tired that even once-loyal MPs do not believe him.

It is not just about waiting for a GP appointment but waiting for all NHS treatment. Take cancer: for over a decade, waiting times for cancer care have been going up. The Prime Minister’s solution was supposed to be diagnostic hubs. The Health Secretary has been on a victory lap this week, but here is the rub: since those hubs were opened last year, 135,000 extra people are now waiting for scans and tests. Can the Prime Minister think of a better way to describe soaring cancer waiting lists than “wanting and inadequate”?

It is entirely right that, after the pandemic, people are now coming forward to get their cancer tests. We have actively encouraged that, and that is the right thing for people to do. But as a result of the community diagnostic hubs that we are bringing in— 100 of them across the country—we are able to cut the times for cancer diagnosis and help people to get their scans and tests faster. Above all, we can do that because we are hiring more radiographers, we are hiring more nurses and we are hiring more professionals in our NHS because of the investments that we made, which, as I say, the party of Bevan tragically opposed.

The problem is that the cancer waits have been going up for 10 years and they are even higher now, so blaming the pandemic just will not wash.

Perhaps the Culture Secretary was talking about the state of NHS buildings. Before the pandemic, the National Audit Office said that they were a risk to patients. The Government’s response: paint jobs and fix-ups, pretending that is the same as building new hospitals. The Treasury and the Cabinet Office apparently do not think the refurbs will even be delivered. Take University Hospital of North Tees: the ceiling is falling in, the roof leaks and staff have to hose down the pipes to stop them freezing over. Failure to fix “wanting and inadequate” NHS buildings is putting patients at risk, isn’t it, Prime Minister?

This line of criticism is satirical coming from Labour, attacking our hospital building programme when the Labour Government were the authors of the PFI scheme that bankrupted so many hospitals. [Interruption.] They were. What we are doing instead is building 48 new hospitals—[Interruption.] Yes, we are—thanks to the biggest capital investment programme in the history of the NHS. From memory, we put in £33 billion as soon as we came in, then another £92 billion to cope with the pandemic, plus another £39 billion in the health and care levy. Labour Members opposed that funding. They opposed the health and care levy. They do not have a leg to stand on. We are building the foundations of our health service’s future and they should support it. [Interruption.]

Order. Can I just say to both of you that you need to calm down? And there are two over here as well. The four of you could have a very nice cup of tea if you wish.

Oh dear. Prime Minister, dear, dear me. [Interruption.] Pretending no rules were—[Interruption.] He chunters on. Pretending no rules were broken did not work, pretending the economy is booming did not work and pretending to build 40 new hospitals will not work either. Conservative Members want him to change, but he cannot. As always with this Prime Minister, when he is falling short he just changes the rules and lowers the bar. In March, he proposed changing the NHS contract. He wants to double the length of time patients can be made to wait for surgery from one year to two years. On top of that, he scrapped zero tolerance of 12-hour waits at A&E. “24 Hours in A&E” used to be a TV programme. Now, it is his policy. Well, it is health week and he is telling all of them—[Interruption.]

Order. Mr Cleverly, we have a tea party gathering. I am sure you do not want to be part of it. I want to hear the question. The problem is so do our constituents. [Interruption.] I would not if I were you, and I think one or two of you might be going early. Look, I need to hear the question in the same way that I expect to hear the answer, so please.

Mr Speaker, I bet they wish they had been this organised on Monday.

It is health week and the Prime Minister is telling Conservative Members that he is going to turn over a new leaf, so why does he not start by scrapping his plans to green- light “wanting and inadequate” NHS standards?

I have to tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman that I just think this line of attack is not working—[Interruption.] It is not working because they refused to approve—[Interruption.]

Order. Once again, I think the two of you need to calm down. We do not want to see empty Front Benches.

Not only have we raised standards in the NHS, and not only are we reducing waiting times for those who have had to wait the longest, but more fundamentally, we are doing what the people of this country can see is simple common sense: using our economic strength to invest in doctors and nurses and get people on the wards, giving people their scans, screens and tests in a more timely manner and taking our NHS forward. We are on target to recruit 50,000 more nurses, thanks to this Government—[Interruption.] I am just going to repeat this, because the right hon. and learned Gentleman does not seem to have heard it so far—and thanks to the investments that the Labour party opposed. Perhaps he can explain why they opposed them.

Raising taxes because you have failed to grow the economy is not a plan for the NHS, and everyone sitting behind the Prime Minister knows it. Members of his Cabinet admit that the Conservatives left our health system “wanting and inadequate” when the pandemic hit. He has been in power for three years and things are getting worse, not better. There are fewer GPs, more waits for cancer tests, buildings are still crumbling and he is changing the rules to cover up his failure.

There is real human pain as a result. Today, I spoke to Hamza Semakula. He is 20 and plays semi-professional football for Hendon. He tore his anterior cruciate ligament earlier this year and, because of the two-year wait for surgery, he had to crowdfund for a private operation. I also spoke to Akshay Patel. Last year, his mother woke up unable to breathe. Akshay called 999 six times. In his last call, he said:

“I rang an hour ago for an ambulance as she had difficulty breathing, and now she’s dead.”

Even the Prime Minister must admit that Akshay, Bina and Hamza deserve better than a “wanting and inadequate” Government, utterly unable to improve our NHS.

I think everybody in the House has sympathy with Akshay and the other constituents, and their families, that he mentions. I share their feelings, but when we look at what this Government are doing— I must say this to the right hon. and learned Gentleman—we see that we are making colossal investments in our NHS. We are cutting waiting times, raising standards, paying nurses more and supporting our fantastic NHS. By the way, he continually came to this House—I will just remind him of this—and said that we had the worst covid record in Europe. It turned out to be completely untrue; he still has not retracted it. We can make those investments because of the strength of the UK economy, because of the fiscal firepower that we have to deploy. We have the lowest unemployment now since 1974 and we are going to continue to grow our economy for the long term.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman asks about the mission of this Government. It is to unite and level up across our whole country, to unleash the potential of our entire country. We have the biggest tutoring programme in history for young people and are raising literacy and numeracy standards for 11-year-olds from 65% adequacy to 90%—that is the highest objective that a Government could achieve. We are expanding home ownership, as the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and I will do for millions of people who currently do not have it—[Interruption.] No. We are cutting the costs of business to make this the enterprise centre of Europe. That is our vision, creating high-wage, high-skilled jobs for this country. As for jobs, I am going to get on with mine and I hope he gets on with his.

Q3. Changing the subject completely, in North East Hertfordshire we are very concerned about sewage overflows into our precious chalk streams. This is damaging to the flora and fauna, and also restricts the use of these precious streams for leisure. The Environment Act 2021 includes some important measures, and I welcome the fact that the Government have consulted on their reduction plan for storm overflows, but when can we expect to see meaningful improvements and real reductions in the amount of sewage going into our rivers? (900310)

I share my right hon. and learned Friend’s concern. Our sewage plan is the biggest investment by any Government. We have made it clear that water companies must do more. Actually, we are already seeing improvement, but the regulator is ensuring that the water companies do more to deliver on their obligations, and we will not hesitate to take further action as needed.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. May I associate myself with the remarks of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in supporting our carers?

Week after week, when I have called on this Prime Minister to resign I have been met with a wall of noise from the Tory Benches. I thought that they were trying to shout me down—[Interruption]—but all this time it turns out that 41% of them have been cheering me on! Let us be clear. At least the numbers do not lie: 41% of his own MPs have no confidence in him, 66% of MPs across the House do not support him, and 97% of Scottish MPs want the Minister for the Union shown the door. We now have a lame duck Prime Minister presiding over a divided party and a disunited kingdom. How does the Prime Minister expect to continue when even Unionist leaders in Scotland will not back him?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his characteristically warm words. And actually, the biggest and most powerful and effective advocate of the United Kingdom over my time has been that man there. I do not know how long he is going to last as leader of the SNP here, but long may he rest in place. He is the Araldite that is keeping our kingdom together, and I thank him for what he is doing. [Hon. Members: “More!”]

I can say to the Prime Minister that I will be standing shoulder to shoulder with our First Minister as we take our country to independence.

The Prime Minister is acting like Monty Python’s black knight, running around declaring, “It’s just a flesh wound!” No amount of delusion and denial will save the Prime Minister from the truth. This story will not go away until he goes away. For once in his life, he needs to wake up to reality. Prime Minister, it’s over, it’s done.

The Prime Minister has no options left, but Scotland does. Scotland has the choice of an independent future. It is not just the Prime Minister that we have zero confidence in, but the broken Westminster system that puts a man like him in power. Can the Prime Minister tell us how it is democratic that Scotland is stuck with a Prime Minister we do not trust, a Conservative party we do not support, and Tory Governments we have not voted for since 1955?

We had a referendum, as I have told the House before, in 2014, and I think that the right hon. Gentleman should respect the mandate of the people. He keeps saying that he wants independence for his country. Our country is independent—though the Leader of the Opposition tried 48 times to reverse it —and the only way that independence would ever be reversed is if we had the disaster of a Labour-SNP coalition to take us back into the EU.

Q4. Earlier this week, the Prime Minister wrote that“you cannot just spend your way out of inflation, and you cannot tax your way into growth…We will cut the costs of government.” Hear, hear—I completely agree. May I suggest that, as a strong start, he scraps the inflated white elephant that is HS2, saving the Government tens of billions of pounds from a budget that is spiralling out of control? (900311)

In case my right hon. Friend missed what else I said, we are cutting taxes for everybody who pays national insurance contributions by an average of £330 just next month. As for HS2, it will deliver long-term growth and prosperity for the whole country, unite and level up, deliver more revenues and put us in a better position to cut taxes in future.

We have heard reports today that the Prime Minister refused to consult the First Treasury Counsel on his plans to rip up the protocol. This question might be a bit redundant, as the Prime Minister might not be around for very much longer, but given his record of casual lawbreaking, will he give a commitment to the people of Northern Ireland that he will not break international law any time soon?

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the reports that he has seen this morning are not correct. I can also tell him that the most important commitment that I think everybody in this House has made is to the balance and symmetry of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. That is our highest legal international priority, and that is what we must deliver.

Q6. The north Wales mainline railway has had little investment for more than a century. In practice, that means that jobs at Manchester airport are poorly accessible to many of my constituents: they face a two-hour commute, whereas a similar journey in the south-east of the country takes just 45 minutes. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the north Wales line features in the updated rail network enhancements pipeline at the decision-to-develop stage? (900313)

Listen, I am a great enthusiast for this project. We are looking at it, and I can tell my hon. Friend that Network Rail has received funding to carry out feasibility work on improving north Wales mainline journey times. Travellers in north Wales could have no more effective advocate than my hon. Friend.

Q5. Despite the Prime Minister’s promises of new hospitals and more doctors and nurses, the Brontë birth centre at my local hospital in Batley and Spen is temporarily shut and is at risk of permanent closure due to staff shortages and lack of resources. The reality on the ground is that after 12 years of Conservative mismanagement, the NHS is broken. Can the Prime Minister explain to expectant parents in my constituency why, despite his promises, they are now forced to travel miles to give birth, and why his Government voted against the effective long-term workforce plan for the NHS proposed by his right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt)? (900312)

I will certainly look into what has happened at the centre in Batley and Spen that the hon. Lady mentions. What I can tell her, though, is that across the country we are investing massively in staff, in premises, in technology and in diagnostic centres. For Opposition Members to carp and criticise is frankly absurd, because they voted against the health and care levy that is putting billions into our NHS. They need to sort out their position: either they support it or they do not.

Q8. Will my right hon. Friend join me in complimenting Bradford on becoming the 2025 city of culture? Will he also praise the team from Durham, who gave a fantastic representation of what County Durham had to offer? Bradford must really be extraordinary to have beaten us.In 2025, Durham will celebrate the bicentenary of the Stockton and Darlington passenger railway, which of course will distract people from Bradford. I believe that my right hon. Friend is the best person to lead on delivering levelling up for the north-east. To that end, will he encourage progress on the Ferryhill station development, reinvigorate the Leamside line and help to deliver a great county deal for County Durham? (900315)

I thank my hon. Friend for what he has said. He and I have campaigned on this, and I have been following his campaign for a long time. I am told that the Department for Transport is currently reviewing the business case for exactly what he has just requested. We are putting the funding in, which is unlike anything that the Labour party could ever have delivered.

Q7.   In Monday’s confidence vote the Prime Minister secured the support of just two of Scotland’s 59 MPs, which means that, from the massed ranks of his Scottish Conservative colleagues, he secured as much support as there are pandas in Edinburgh zoo. The Prime Minister is an intelligent man, and he must know that that position is untenable. If he is not going to do the decent thing and resign as Prime Minister, surely it is past time that he wrote a letter of resignation to himself to stand down as Minister for the Union. (900314)

I redirect the hon. Gentleman to what I said to my friend the leader of the SNP, the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford). The more SNP Members campaign, in the current circumstances, for breaking up our United Kingdom—with all its strength and all its merits—the more damage they do to their own case.

Q11. Last week, the Princes Centre in Princes Risborough, which supports adults with a variety of mental health challenges, learning disabilities and conditions such as dementia, celebrated 10 years as an independent daycare provider. It was clear to me from my recent visit what a happy, welcoming and supportive atmosphere had been created for all service users. Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking and congratulating the manager, Kim Challoner, and her whole team of staff, volunteers and trustees on delivering this first-class service, and as Chequers is but a hop, skip and a jump from Princes Risborough, will he deliver those congratulations in person? (900319)

I thank my hon. Friend, who, among his many other distinctions, is my Member of Parliament, and I join him in thanking the entire team at the Princes Centre for everything that they do. I will certainly keep his kind invitation in mind.

Q9. I would have more sympathy with the words “get on with the job” if it had actually started in the first place. Two weeks ago, the Prime Minister told the House: “To the best of my knowledge, everybody is getting their passport within four to six weeks .”—[Official Report, 25 May 2022; Vol. 715, c. 287-288.]However, the Passport Office is currently quoting a 10-week service time, and many of my constituents are waiting considerably longer than that. Cancelled summer trips could cost families more than £1 billion. Does the Prime Minister accept that the Passport Office’s backlog is placing additional pressure on families who are already struggling with the cost of living crisis? (900316)

Actually, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that 91% of people are getting their passports within six weeks, and we are putting hundreds and hundreds more staff members into the Passport Office. The strength of demand, by the way, is a sign of the robustness of the economy, because everybody is wanting to go on holiday, and quite right too.

When it comes to travel chaos, may I ask whether we have yet heard any condemnation from the Opposition of the RMT and its reckless and wanton strike? What about that?

Q14.   As my right hon. Friend knows, my constituency is facing unrealistic housing targets, which is putting pressure on the council to try to develop a local plan that would close a successful working docks and mean the loss of beloved open spaces such as Deangate Ridge, all in the name of meeting an arbitrary target. Can he reassure my constituents who are facing this level of over- development that there will be greater flexibility in respect of housing numbers, so that the council can produce a local plan that delivers appropriate housing while protecting important sites such as those? (900322)

I know that my hon. Friend speaks for colleagues up and down the country. We want to make sure that councils are able to build in the right place and sensitively to local needs. That is what we insist on, but I want to make it absolutely clear that part of the genius of levelling up is that it will encourage us to take some of the pressure and heat out of the south-east of England, which has been overburdened for decades, and we can do it.

Q10. My constituent Mark is trying to sponsor two sisters from Ukraine to come to the UK. These two sisters were housed in dangerous temporary accommodation in Montenegro for several weeks while the UK Home Office refused to process the application of the younger sister because she is 13 and travelling without her parents, even though she had her 18-year-old sister with her. The 18-year-old sister is now in London but the 13-year-old sister has been sent back to her home town in Ukraine, which is under siege. Will the Prime Minister tell me, hand on heart: does he think sending vulnerable children back to a war zone is the right policy? (900317)

Of course I understand the hon. Lady’s indignation about the case she mentions, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will be looking into it, but the record of this country in processing I think well over 100,000—120,000—visas for Ukrainians so far is very creditable and I thank all the staff who have been involved in that effort.

My right hon. Friend will remember that, in March, I asked him about increased research funding for aortic dissection, as called for by the Aortic Dissection Charitable Trust. Will he update me on the progress on that? Will he also recognise the immense value of the patient awareness videos that have been introduced by the trust, featuring “Whispering” Bob Harris, survivors and relatives of patients to help those going through this awful condition for the first time?

I thank my hon. Friend for her fantastic work on this, and I know the personal circumstances that give her an understanding of that campaign. I can tell her that the National Institute for Health Research is looking at what more we can do to support research on aortic dissection, and I know that she is meeting my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary shortly.

Q12. The Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra and the Kyiv Symphony Orchestra are due to visit the UK this summer to perform at the BBC Proms, the Edinburgh Festival and other venues. Other European countries are waiving their visas, but to get to the UK, the musicians are facing visa delays and prohibitive visa costs of £18,000 and £10,000 respectively. We should be doing all we can to support these Ukrainian musicians, so will the Prime Minister match our European neighbours and enable these Ukrainian artists to tour to the UK this year by expediting their visa applications and waiving their visa fees? (900320)

I think the hon. Lady needs to bring this particular case to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, but I can tell the House—[Interruption.] I know, by the way, that many hon. Members are showing a lead by having Ukrainians to stay in their own homes, and I thank all hon. Members who are doing that, thanks to the scheme that the UK Government have put in place. I think we should be very proud of what we are doing.

The Prime Minister knows from his visits to Redcar and Cleveland that we enjoy miles of beautiful, uninterrupted coastline. However, since October last year, we have seen thousands of dead and dying crustaceans being washed ashore. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs conducted an investigation into that, leading to the theory that algal bloom is the primary cause of these deaths. However, the report does nothing to support the fishermen left devastated by this freak event through no fault of their own. Will the Prime Minister look at how he can support this vital industry to get them back on its feet?

My hon. Friend and I were walking together on the seafront in Redcar—eating a lemon top, actually—when somebody raised that very point with us. I can tell him that we have ruled out chemical pollution, but we are making another £100 million of investment, including in communities such as his, and working with the fishing industry to help it to recover from this problem.

Q13. The poorest in this country currently pay the highest fuel costs through prepayment meters that have higher standing charges and higher tariffs. Belgium ensures a social tariff for the poorest and most vulnerable. As the perverse and pernicious euphemism of self-disconnection enters the lexicon—when in fact it is a politically imposed choice, not something chosen by individuals—is it not time that we provided a social tariff and ended the injustice of prepayment meters? (900321)

I thank the hon. Member and I can tell him that what we are doing right now is helping 8 million households across the country with £1,200 of support, £300 for pensioners who are in receipt of the cold weather payment, plus £400 for every household in the country. That is the support we are giving right now to help people with the cost of energy. The only reason we can do it, as I have said before to the House, is because of the strength of the economy and the brave, tough calls we got right during the pandemic.

I think the hon. Member has been here long enough to know that points of order come after statements. We do not need to tell him the rules of the House.