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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 716: debated on Wednesday 22 June 2022

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Trade between NI and rest of UK

1. What steps his Department is taking to support businesses trading between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. (900559)

9. What steps his Department is taking to support businesses trading between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. (900567)

10. What steps his Department is taking to support businesses trading between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. (900568)

12. What steps his Department is taking to support businesses trading between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. (900571)

Mr Speaker, I thank you and the team at the Houses of Parliament for the unveiling this morning of the plaque recognising Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson.

We cannot allow the Northern Ireland protocol to continue to prevent the free movement of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which is why we have introduced legislation that will allow businesses to trade freely again. We are providing reassurance for business by continuing to operate the standstill arrangements, and we will work with businesses on the details of any new models.

Does the Secretary of State agree that trade between our Union is of the utmost importance and that we should do all we can in this place to make sure it is not hindered in any way?

Absolutely—the Government are steadfastly committed to Northern Ireland’s integral place in the United Kingdom. We will never be neutral on the Union. The proposed legislation we recently introduced will fix the practical problems the protocol has created in Northern Ireland, avoiding a hard border, protecting the integrity of the UK and safeguarding the EU single market.

Businesses based in Great Britain, such as the Snowdonia Cheese Company in my constituency, tell me that while it is possible for them to trade with Northern Ireland, doing so can be very involved, costly and restrictive. The current application of the Northern Ireland protocol is therefore hampering business growth and success. Will my right hon. Friend confirm how businesses like Snowdonia Cheese stand to benefit from the provisions in the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill?

My hon. Friend makes an important point on why the Bill matters. Freedom to move products within the UK’s internal market without impediment is critical. The proposed legislation will enable businesses to trade freely once again by delivering new green and red lane arrangements. It will remove unnecessary costs and work for businesses trading within the UK, while ensuring the necessary checks are done, quite properly, for goods entering the EU.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Government will continue to work closely with businesses to ensure that we address all their needs, so that trade with Northern Ireland and Rother Valley boom?

Absolutely. My hon. Friend is right. We want to see trade booming across the United Kingdom and for the United Kingdom. We will continue to work closely with businesses. The purpose of the secondary legislative powers in the Bill is to allow us to flesh out precise technical details in our proposals, working with business, who we will always engage with, to ensure that our solutions work and deliver for them and for the people of Northern Ireland. We will be doing that with them, as well as with other stakeholders, both in Northern Ireland and Great Britain, over the next months to ensure that the new systems address their needs.

As my right hon. Friend says, there are huge opportunities for trade within the Union, including with spaceports in Cornwall and Scotland. Given Northern Ireland’s expertise and strength in the manufacture of spacecraft components, can my right hon. Friend assure me that when it comes to procurement, businesses in Northern Ireland are as well placed as any to bid for these—I cannot resist this—stellar opportunities?

My hon. Friend is always fired on rocket-powered fuel when asking direct questions like that—and I am afraid that, no, I cannot top that.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Northern Ireland has real expertise in advanced engineering, manufacturing and aerospace. It is right that we take measures, in taking the Bill through, to ensure that businesses across the United Kingdom—and yes, from my point of view, obviously, predominantly those businesses in Northern Ireland—can absolutely benefit from the opportunities that are there for the UK, bringing UK businesses together in a global way that can see their business grow and create more jobs.

The Government claim that their protocol Bill is designed to protect the Good Friday agreement, while being in the middle of a demolition derby of its core values, creating regression and polarisation that will take us years to fix. The Secretary of State should know that the Human Rights Act is a cornerstone commitment of the Good Friday agreement. What legal advice has he received and what representations has he made to Cabinet colleagues about the compatibility of the Bill of Rights and the 1998 agreement that he is charged with protecting?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. It is important that we deliver and protect all aspects of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement; I have made the point several times at the Dispatch Box over the past couple of years that we have to ensure that we protect all three strands, not just one. I am pleased that the hon. Lady recently said:

“I do not love the protocol”.—[Official Report, 15 December 2021; Vol. 705, c. 374WH.]

There is no doubt that there are a lot of challenges for businesses, so I hope that she will support the Bill, which seeks to fix those challenges.

The latest business to report disruption to its supply is a photo-framing business in Newtownards whose supplier has said that the profit margin is not worth the hassle of sending its order, so it has been cancelled. That is another of the 200 companies that trade between England and Northern Ireland; the tale is repeated for businesses in every postcode. The Government must do the right thing and restore our position, not just constitutionally but financially for businesses. Will the Secretary of State give a date for the withdrawal Bill’s Second Reading?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I cannot confirm the exact date at this point, but we have introduced the Bill and he can be reassured that the Government are committed to resolving the problems with the protocol, restoring the primacy of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and restoring sovereignty and territorial integrity for the whole United Kingdom. It is imperative that we ensure that people in Northern Ireland have the same benefits, laws and courts as everybody everywhere else in the United Kingdom. I have been very clear that, as part of that, we want to ensure that we deliver strand 1, which means the reformation of the Northern Ireland Executive as soon as possible.

Even a fool now knows that Brexit has damaged UK trade and GDP, but do the Government have any assessment of the GDP gain and the benefit to business that the protocol has given Northern Ireland, especially as it is the only part of the UK outside London to record growth, and the only part of the UK inside the single market? It is no coincidence that it has seen growth.

I am sure that if the hon. Gentleman does a bit of research, he will see that it is actually quite a complicated picture. It is good to see Northern Ireland growing back quickly: with a larger proportion of the economy in Northern Ireland based on the public sector, and with the phenomenal support that the Chancellor has put in, that is to be welcomed. We want to see Northern Ireland’s economy growing; it was struggling before covid. We are making sure to put that support in, but I have to say that that would be even easier were it not for the protocol, which is preventing some of the Chancellor’s measures from benefiting the people of Northern Ireland.

Given that so much policy that affects and benefits business is devolved, is not the best support that politicians of all stripes could give Northern Irish business to get Stormont back up and running?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We all want to see Stormont back up and running. It is important that we see all the Ministers back with their full powers. We have caretaker Ministers in place now, thanks to legislation that we passed recently, but having Stormont making spending decisions, getting money out the door and supporting businesses and people in Northern Ireland is the right thing to do.

Northern Ireland Protocol Negotiations

2. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on progress in the Northern Ireland protocol negotiations. (900560)

I have regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues about issues affecting Northern Ireland more widely, including the Northern Ireland protocol.

The Secretary of State will be aware that the Northern Ireland Business Brexit Working Group, which represents 14 industries, released a statement last week stating that

“there are significant concerns about the introduction of an all-encompassing dual regulatory regime.”

I understand that dairy farmers have similar concerns. Having heard about those issues, can the Secretary of State tell us what consultation the Government did with businesses before introducing this regime?

We are in continual engagement with business. We have had more than two meetings a month with the wider group, and the Minister of State and I have made more than 30 visits to businesses that are members of those groups. We are in constant communication with business. It is important that we design the details in conjunction with business to ensure that businesses that are doing well and sectors such as dairy that benefit from the economy across the island of Ireland do not lose out. We must also ensure that we deliver for the businesses that are so detrimentally affected by the problems with the EU’s implementation of the protocol.

The EU is rightfully focused on protecting its own single market, but may I respectfully request that we first and foremost protect the single market of the United Kingdom? Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the practical and durable solution set out in the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill will do just that?

My hon. Friend is spot on, as ever. Our legislation will restore the balance inherent in the objectives of the protocol, avoiding a hard border, protecting the integrity of the United Kingdom and safeguarding the EU single market. It is right that we are doing the right thing by the businesses and citizens of Northern Ireland, who are businesses and citizens of the United Kingdom and the UK internal market.

When the Government introduced the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, the Secretary of State was quite honest about his lawbreaking, and here we are again. The man who resigned over his actions, the former head of the Government Legal Department, says that the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill is “next-level” lawbreaking. Based on this Government’s track record, why should anyone believe what the Minister claims about this Bill’s legality?

The hon. Gentleman tends to make a habit of standing at the Dispatch Box and taking the side of the EU over the UK, which is disappointing: what he should be doing is supporting the UK economy and supporting businesses and people in Northern Ireland, who want to see a resolution. We have set out a package in this legislation that is within the law and delivers for the people of Northern Ireland by delivering on what should be the priority for all of us: the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, in all three strands.

The Secretary of State mentions the Good Friday/Belfast agreement, but the Foreign Secretary argues for unilateral action on the protocol because it does not have the necessary support in one of the communities in Northern Ireland. I say that the EU must show more flexibility and listen to the Unionist concerns, but if cross-community support is so important to the Government, can he confirm that the current plans also have the support of the nationalist community?

The hon. Gentleman talks about the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, but his tweets in the last couple of weeks have highlighted that he has possibly not even read it; I suggest that he at least gets equipped with who the signatories to the agreement are, so that he understands who the co-guarantors are.

We are focused on delivering all three strands of the agreement. One thing that has been common and clear from the leaders of all the parties in Northern Ireland is that, in one form or another, they all—nationalists and Unionists—want to see changes to the Northern Ireland protocol. They all acknowledge that there are problems with it and that it is not working for businesses and citizens in Northern Ireland. Eventually, if we are not able to get an agreement with the EU, we will have to take forward measures to secure a resolution of the problems that all those people and businesses are outlining. We would rather do that by agreement with the EU, but it is right that we take action.

The EU has threatened to remove access for Northern Ireland businesses to the single market. To police this, it would have to create a hard border on the island of Ireland; that is the only consequence of its actions. Does the Secretary of State agree that such a threat from the EU indicates that, far from wanting to protect the Good Friday agreement and peace and stability in Northern Ireland, it simply wants to punish Northern Ireland businesses because the UK Government want to protect the UK internal market?

The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. It is right that we are looking to deliver on all three strands of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. We will never be looking at any sort of infrastructure; there cannot be a hard border on the island, in the same way that there should not be a hard border between east and west. That is the issue of the three strands. We recognise that the EU’s focus is on its single market. We recognise that we will ensure that its single market is protected, but we will defend all three strands of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.

The Secretary of State will be aware that the former Prime Minister Tony Blair has stated that the protocol presents a real risk to the Good Friday agreement. Does he agree that the agreement and the political institutions can operate only on the basis of cross-community consensus and not the majority rule that some in this House are now advocating? Does he also agree that in order to achieve that cross-community consensus, the Government need to proceed with legislation that will resolve the real difficulties that the protocol is presenting for the people of Northern Ireland and our place in the Union?

Yes; the Government have been clear that we are determined that the political settlement in Northern Ireland is based on respect and understanding between all communities and the consent of those communities. The protocol is clearly undermining that, and that has to be resolved. That is what we are seeking to do through our legislation. We would like to get an agreement with the EU, but we need to move on and get this legislation in place as we have been unable to secure that agreement with the EU, in order to protect the internal market of the UK, the people and businesses of Northern Ireland and all three aspects of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.

The Government invested a great deal of good faith in signing the protocol and they were entitled to expect the same good faith in return. It is now pretty clear that the protocol, in practice, has not proved to be compatible with the Good Friday agreement. Will the Government now consider triggering article 16, particularly given the casual, if fleeting, use of that measure by Ursula von der Leyen?

My right hon. Friend makes an important point about how the EU has already triggered article 16, for example, to create disruption with the vaccine roll-out during covid, which highlighted how it views the north-south potential and the potential of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. We are determined to resolve the issues overall. As we have said previously, we do not want to trigger article 16. We take nothing off the table, but we are very clear that our proposed legislation resolves the issues that the protocol is creating and it is the right move to take.

NI Protocol Bill: Discussions with the EU

Our preference remains to resolve the problems with the protocol through talks. Our door remains open to discussions, but the EU has so far not been willing to make meaningful changes to the protocol, which are necessary to deliver the solutions needed.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but the Government walked away from negotiations. By rejecting negotiation in favour of lawbreaking and, in doing so, disregarding the wishes of the majority of MLAs, businesses and the Northern Irish public, the UK Government have utterly destroyed the trust that not only the EU had in the UK, but that Ireland and the United States had too. Trust is easily lost and hard won, so how do the Government plan to be seen as a good faith partner in international negotiations ever again?

Last year, we published a Command Paper that set out solutions, with which the EU has never properly engaged. It did publish its ideas in October, which the business community in Northern Ireland said did not work. We have continually been in engagements and negotiations with the EU. It has been clear that it is not willing to show the flexibility needed to resolve the protocol issues, which is why we have introduced this Bill.

The hon. Gentleman might want to look back at Hansard to see the statement from the Foreign Secretary when we introduced the Bill. We are very clear, as I have said today, that we will continue to negotiate with the EU. We would like to seek a resolution by agreeing with the EU, but it is right that we table this legislation at this point as well to resolve the issues.

Belfast harbour has reported levels of trade and increase in turnover of profits of 17% to £73.3 million from 2021, with pre-tax profits up 13% to £34 million. Can the Secretary of State advise the House why their Government would jeopardise 25.6 million tonnes of cargo, a 9% increase on the 23.5 million a year earlier, which was up by 5% on the previous record levels of 2019, by unilaterally changing the Northern Ireland protocol?

The hon. Gentleman should read the full article, because then he would realise that, between the easements, the standstill and the grace periods, we are not actually fully implementing the protocol let alone the other business that Belfast harbour takes in that has nothing to do with the protocol. What we do know is that—

Order. Mr Docherty-Hughes, I think those whippets that you own need a little walk. That is where you will be going shortly.

I will leave the hon. Gentleman to read the article, so that he can realise just how wrong his question was.

Many of the issues related to trade and movement of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland are plant and animal-related. What progress have the Government made in trying to secure an arrangement between the UK and the EU on veterinary and sanitary and phytosanitary matters? That would address these issues and also enhance the UK’s biosecurity.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. One frustration with this failure by the EU to see the flexibility that we need is that, by resolving some of these issues, we could have avoided the need for us to legislate and to take this period of time to resolve things. Our legislation will resolve all of these issues and create a method that not only protects the EU single market, but, importantly, works for businesses, works for citizens, and works for all three aspects of the Good Friday agreement, dealing with those very issues that he raises.

One of my predecessors in Redcar was the political giant Dr Marjorie Mowlam, most notable for her work in securing the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. Can the Minister confirm that any arrangement we reach with the EU in relation to the protocol will take account of and address the issues that are disrupting the delicate balance of that agreement?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is important that we respect the balance in that agreement. It is important because it has given us peace for 24 years, and that is where our focus is.

I have to remind the Secretary of State that it was this Government who signed up to the trade and co-operation agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol as it currently stands. It might not be necessary to try to renegotiate had more time been given over to this Chamber to allow Members to scrutinise it before it entered into law. Does the Secretary of State regret the decision taken by the Government to curtail the amount of parliamentary time available to Members to scrutinise that before Brexit was done?

I think the hon. Gentleman is arguing to go back in time and take even longer to get Brexit done. I am not sure the British public or anybody would thank him for that, but of course the business of the House is generally agreed through the usual channels; that is always the case.

Cost of Living

5. What steps the Government is taking to help reduce the cost of living in Northern Ireland. (900563)

The challenges faced by the public across the United Kingdom in terms of the cost of living are the dominant issue facing British politics. The Government are acting decisively to ensure that we provide support to the most vulnerable households. The biggest thing we could do in Northern Ireland would be to restore devolved Government, so that we have a Government who can act for the people of Northern Ireland, as the Government of the United Kingdom are acting in England, Scotland and Wales.

The Minister will be well aware that the energy price cap does not exist in Northern Ireland, leaving households vulnerable to the price hikes of up to 33% we have seen in recent months. The Treasury said in May that it was urgently working to step in to provide direct support due to the lack of an Executive. Can the Government now lay out how the £400 energy discount will be delivered in Northern Ireland?

We are very clear on this. The way that it should be delivered is through restored devolved Government in Northern Ireland, and the impediment to that, as the hon. Lady will know, is the interpretation and application of the Northern Ireland protocol. As I have said clearly to Members from the Democratic Unionist party, that is a matter for the United Kingdom to negotiate with the European Union, or we can take legislative measures in this House, as we are doing. They should be back in Government delivering for the people of Northern Ireland on the mandate delivered in May.

An Ulster Bank report last week contained the worrying result that Northern Irish firms are the least optimistic of any firms in a UK nation or region about activity in 12 months’ time. What further support can the Government offer to businesses in Northern Ireland that are struggling with this Tory cost of living crisis?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, this is an international challenge that has been exacerbated by the situation in Ukraine and Russia, and the Government are delivering decisive action and interventions to help people through this incredibly challenging situation—probably the most challenging situation that we have faced for a generation. In Northern Ireland, we have New Decade, New Approach funding, city and growth deals, the levelling-up agenda and the community shared ownership funding. We are making a plethora of interventions in Northern Ireland to make life for ordinary people better than it is already.

I have listened to one of the most able members of the Government and his thoughtful response. If the problem really is the Northern Ireland protocol, how on earth are we going to get the EU to see sense?

My hon. Friend asks some of the most devastating supplementary questions. We are very straightforward on this: we are simply saying to the European Union—I have been explaining this on behalf of the Prime Minister in the United States—that goods that are moving within the United Kingdom’s internal market and destined for sale and consumption in Northern Ireland, and that will never see dawn or dusk in the Irish Republic, pose absolutely no risk whatsoever to the integrity of the European single market. I spent time two weeks ago with Tony Blair, who has produced an amazing report that says that the European Union needs to find the room to move. Vice-President Šefčovič needs to be given a broader mandate. I say to my hon. Friend that it absolutely remains the determination of the Government to reach a conclusion on the protocol in negotiation, friendship and partnership with the European Union.

Because of the Barnett formula—something that the SNP would do away with for Scotland—our whole United Kingdom, including Scotland and Northern Ireland, will benefit from the £81 billion household support fund, including £14 million for Northern Ireland. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this will help the most vulnerable households in Northern Ireland?

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Last week, I met Jonny Petrie, chief executive of Ulster Rugby, about the club’s plans to apply for levelling-up funding to improve sporting facilities, including for community clubs across Northern Ireland, that would support the health and wellbeing of local people. Will the Government commit to considering funding development of these facilities so that Northern Ireland can attract major sporting and cultural events that would deliver much-needed tourism, jobs and money to the people of Northern Ireland?

I am delighted—[Interruption.] Thank you for that thunderous welcome back to the Dispatch Box. I am happy to say to the shadow Minister that we will absolutely do that. Only yesterday I was in Carrickfergus with the son-in-law of an hon. Gentleman on the Benches opposite seeing a new 5G pitch. We are absolutely committed to levelling up. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made clear, levelling up is the mission of this Government. It is not about north-south; it is about improving life opportunities in communities across the whole of the United Kingdom, especially in Northern Ireland.

That must be the loudest cheer any Minister has had—well done, Minister!

Before we come to Prime Minister’s questions, I would like to point out that British Sign Language interpretation of proceedings is available to watch on

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


To mark Windrush Day, today sees the unveiling of a national monument at Waterloo station that acknowledges the Windrush generation’s outstanding contribution to British society and will also be a permanent place of reflection.

As part of Armed Forces Week, I was delighted to host a reception yesterday in Downing Street. Members across the House are immensely proud of our armed forces and we thank them and their families for their service to our country.

I know the House will welcome the deal that we have signed with Moderna, which will see it build new facilities in the UK, including around £1 billion of new investment in research and development.

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 will be travelling thereafter to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Rwanda, and I will then be attending the G7 leaders summit and the NATO summit, Mr Speaker, so a full budget of news for you there.

May I associate myself with the Prime Minister’s comments in relation to the armed forces and other comments?

Has the Prime Minister ever considered the appointment of his current spouse to a Government post or to any organisation in one of the royal households? Be honest, Prime Minister—yes or no?

I know why Labour Members want to talk about non-existent jobs in the media—because they do not want to talk about what is going on in the real world. I am proud to say that we now have 620,000 more people in payroll employment than before the pandemic began, which would never have been possible if we had listened to the Leader of the Opposition.

Q2.   The UK is the global leader in social outcomes contracts, which can deliver public services in an array of areas, from healthcare to mental healthcare, employment, education and development aid. According to Big Society Capital, every £1 the Government have spent in this way has delivered £10 in further economic, social and fiscal value, including £3 in direct savings to Government. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the time is right for the Government to redouble their focus on this outcomes-led commissioning? (900645)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to champion this type of approach, which makes a real difference to people’s lives and people suffering from mental health issues, helping them to find a route back into work. That is why we are commissioning more initiatives through funds such as the life chances fund, helping those people in society who face the biggest barriers to have happy and productive lives.

Can I join the Prime Minister in his comments about Windrush, and pay tribute to everyone who is serving and has served in our armed forces? Can I also pay tribute to everyone standing for election tomorrow and in particular the plucky Conservative candidate for Wakefield? He is standing, even though his own colleagues think he is so useless that they held a vote of no confidence in him. Does the Prime Minister hold any personal interest in seeing if the public will vote for a Tory who even his own side do not think is up to it?

I have absolutely no doubt that the people of this country, and the people of Wakefield and of Tiverton and Honiton, would much rather vote for a solid Conservative Government than a Labour party and its enablers and acolytes in the Liberal Democrats—the karma chameleons of British politics—when the leader of the Labour party has not even got the gumption to speak out against the rail strikes that have caused so much damage to the people in the north of this country and up and down the country. There is unbelievable silence from the leader of the Labour party.

The Prime Minister has obviously not been to Wakefield recently. He has crashed the economy and he has put everybody’s tax up. The last Tory he sent up to Wakefield was convicted of a sexual assault. That is not much of a pitch, Prime Minister. Talking of people not up to the job, while the Transport Secretary spends his time working on his spreadsheet tracking the Prime Minister’s unpopularity, thousands of families have had their holiday flights cancelled, it takes forever to renew a driving licence or passport and now we have the biggest rail strike in 30 years. If the Prime Minister is genuine—[Interruption.]

Order. Both sides, let us calm down. We have only just started. The problem is, it will go on forever, and nobody wants that, I assure you, whoever is speaking or asking questions.

If the Prime Minister is genuine about preventing strikes, will he tell this House how many meetings he or his Transport Secretary have had with rail workers this week to actually stop the strikes?

This is the Government who love the railways and who invest in the railways. We are putting £96 billion into the integrated railway plan. I am proud to have built Crossrail, by the way, and we are going to build Northern Powerhouse Rail, but we have got to modernise our railways. It is a disgrace, when we are planning to make sure that we do not have ticket offices that sell fewer than one ticket every hour, that yesterday the right hon. and learned Gentleman had 25 Labour MPs out on the picket line, defying instructions—[Interruption.]

Order. I want to hear the Prime Minister’s answer, even if some Members do not. I think they ought to show some respect to the Prime Minister.

There were 25 Labour MPs and the shadow deputy leader out on the picket line, backing the strikers, while we back the strivers.

I am surprised the Prime Minister is giving me advice about my team. If I do need advice, let us say, about a £100,000 job at the Foreign Office, I will ask him for a recommendation.

There you have it, Mr Speaker. The Prime Minister of this country and his Transport Secretary have not attended a single meeting, held a conversation or lifted a finger to stop these strikes. But I did note that on Monday they found time to go to a lavish ball, where the Prime Minister sold a meeting with himself for £120,000 to a donor. If there is money coming his way, he is there. When it comes to the country, he is nowhere to be seen. Rather than blame everyone else, why does he not do his job, get round the table and get the trains running?

We are making sure that we do everything we can to prevent these strikes. As the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows, it is up to the railway companies to negotiate—that is their job. We spent £16 billion looking after the railways throughout the pandemic. That has cost every household £600. We know why he takes the line he does; we know why he will not condemn the strikes; and we know why, even now, he does not have the gumption to call out his MPs who are going out to support the pickets. The reason his authority is on the line in this matter is that the Opposition take £10 million from the unions. That is the fee that he is receiving for the case he is failing to make.

The Prime Minister cannot help himself. There is a huge problem facing the country, and all he is interested in doing is blaming everyone else. Can he not hear the country screaming at him, “Get on with your job!”? While he blames everyone and anyone, working people are paying the price. This week, his Chief Secretary to the Treasury said that there is a “society-wide responsibility” for people to take a pay cut. At the same time, his chief of staff, the right hon. Member for North East Cambridgeshire (Steve Barclay), is trying to change the law to get bankers’ bonuses increased. So come one, only one of them can be right: is it his Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who says that every worker needs a pay cut, or is it his chief of staff, who says that every banker needs a pay rise?

Actually, under this Government, 5 million public sector workers are getting a pay rise. We have increased the living wage by £1,000 and we have increased universal credit so that people get £1,000 more. Thanks to the fiscal firepower that we have, we are putting £1,200 more into every one of the 8 million most vulnerable households in the country. That is what we can do because of the tough decisions that we have taken. But meantime, what we are also trying to do is cut the cost of transport, which is a big part of people’s weekly outgoings, by reforming our railways. That is what we are trying to do, but the right hon. and learned Gentleman is standing with the strikers and lifting the cost of transport for everybody. That is the reality.

The Prime Minister’s chief of staff says that removing the cap on bankers’ bonuses is

“reflective of the new approach”.

Pay rises for city bankers, pay cuts for district nurses—that is the new approach. I did not see that on any leaflets in Wakefield. But this has not come from nowhere, because according to the Financial Times, on 7 June last year, the Prime Minister was directly lobbied for the cap to be lifted. Rather than help working people, he has rolled over on bankers’ bonuses, has he not?

What we are actually doing, thanks to the decisions we have taken, is putting more money into the pockets of people up and down the country—£1,200 more for the 8 million most vulnerable households. The reason we can do that is because we took the tough decisions necessary to come out of the pandemic faster than any other European country. That is why we have unemployment at or near record lows. None of that would have been possible if we had listened to the right hon. and learned Gentleman. We have more people now in payrolled employment than we had before the pandemic began. That is what the British people know, and that is what this Government will continue to deliver.

Fifteen tax rises, high tax, low wages, low growth—that sums the Prime Minister’s Government up. Working people are paying more tax under this Government, and now they are told to take a pay cut. He is having meetings about increasing bankers’ bonuses, but he cannot find time for a single meeting to end the strikes crippling the country.

It is Armed Forces Week. Under this Prime Minister, those serving our country are facing a real-terms pay cut. Why are his Government more focused on increasing bankers’—[Interruption.]

Order. Mr MacNeil, your voice is not quiet—it is like mine; it carries. The best thing to do, if you want it to carry, is to try standing on the Terrace for a while.

It is Armed Forces Week. Under this Prime Minister, those serving our country are facing a real-terms pay cut. Why are his Government more focused on increasing bankers’ pay than the pay of those who are running the country?

How absolutely satirical that the right hon. and learned Gentleman should talk about our support for the armed forces when we have increased our funding for our armed forces by a record sum since the end of the cold war, and when eight of the shadow Front Bench team—eight of the shadow Front Bench—actually want to get rid of our nuclear deterrent, including the shadow Foreign Secretary. [Interruption.] Yes, it is true. We are helping people up and down the country: £1,200 will be coming into the bank accounts of the 8 million most vulnerable households. The cut in national insurance will be coming into their bank accounts as a result of the steps my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has taken. But what we are also doing is reforming our systems so that we cut costs for people up and down the country; reforming our energy markets, building a new nuclear reactor every year rather than one every 10 years; getting people off welfare into work—half a million people off welfare into work—because we have cut the time people are waiting on benefits; and cutting the costs of transport for working people by delivering reforms. We are doing that while they are out on the picket line, literally holding hands with Arthur Scargill. That’s them: it is worse than under Jeremy Corbyn. This is a Government who are taking this country forward; they would take it back to the 1970s.

Q4.   For years in Harrogate and Knaresborough, we had the Labour no-growth Northern rail franchise. We now have new rolling stock, and more and better services. We have, though, seen some lost as the industry has had to suspend some services while it catches up on driver training lost during the pandemic. Strikes just take us back to the 1970s, so will the Prime Minister’s focus on the future ensure that we have apprenticeship schemes focusing on engineering and driver training to ensure that we recover the services lost, and that we have an industry that is focused on efficiency and embraces technology for the future? (900648)

My hon. Friend knows exactly of what he speaks, and we are doing just that. We are reforming train driver training to make entry into the sector simpler, while continuing, of course, to make sure that we meet vital safety requirements.

May I associate myself with the remarks of the Prime Minister and the leader of the Labour party as we mark Armed Services Week? We thank all our service personnel for the services that they give.

On Windrush Day, we celebrate all those who have made Scotland and the UK their home. My party backs calls for a major commemoration for the 75th anniversary next year so we can properly mark the valued contribution that those who came here have made.

This morning, it was revealed that UK inflation is now at a 40-year high. Families right across these islands are seeing their incomes squeezed as prices rise, bills soar, and Tory cuts and tax hikes hammer home. After 12 years in government, the Tories have left the UK economy in the doldrums and pushed millions of people into poverty, so can I ask the Prime Minister: does he think his Government bear any blame for the fact that the United Kingdom is doing so much worse than our European neighbours?

Actually, as I think the whole House knows and the whole country knows, we have a global inflationary problem, but this Government have the fiscal firepower to deal with it. That is, I think, of benefit to the whole of the United Kingdom, including Scotland, as we have seen throughout the pandemic, and I think it is a matter of fact that taxes are actually highest of all in Scotland.

Well, actually, that is not true. Of course, the Prime Minister can make all the excuses he likes, but the fact is that the UK economy is lagging behind on his watch. If he looks at France, inflation is less than 6% there. This morning’s report from the Resolution Foundation and the London School of Economics is the latest in a string of devastating reports on the outlook for the UK economy. The report could not be clearer. The Tory Government’s disastrous Brexit is driving wages down, pushing inflation up and will make us poorer over the next decade, but instead of reversing course, the Prime Minister is recklessly threatening a trade war at the worst possible time. Will he finally come to his senses and negotiate an economic agreement with the EU, or is he going to wilfully—wilfully—push the UK into recession?

Nobody wants a trade war, nor is there any need for one. I am afraid the right hon. Gentleman is underestimating what this country is currently achieving—not just the Moderna investment, but record venture capital investment in this country, which has now overtaken China as a venue for venture capital investment, to say nothing of what we are getting in tech, and of course the benefits of that are being felt throughout the whole of the United Kingdom.

Q5. I very much support the Government’s work to level up all parts of the United Kingdom, including Scotland and my constituency in the Scottish Borders. For the Scottish Borders, improved transport connectivity is the key to levelling up, so will the Prime Minister reconfirm his Government’s support for improvements to the cross-border A1 road and the feasibility study to extend the Borders railway to Hawick and Newcastleton and on to Carlisle? (900649)

I thank my hon. Friend for an excellent piece of lobbying. Certainly, the Department for Transport is working with Transport Scotland on the possible extension of the Borders railway to Carlisle. On the A1, a decision is to be made later this year.

It has emerged that there is a backlog of 23,000 applications under the Afghan relocations and assistance policy, with just two of 3,000 applications for refuge by Afghans who worked for Britain having been processed since April. At the same time, since December, staff working on the ARAP scheme have been slashed by a quarter. This is an incredible betrayal of the Afghan people who put their lives on the line to work for our country. I still have casework, including many people from the Chevening Alumni, for example, who have been promised support since September, so can I send those cases to the Prime Minister? Will he put more resources into the scheme? Will he lift the cap on the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme so that we can finally do our best for the people of Afghanistan?

I am afraid that the hon. Member is underestimating what the country is already doing for the people of Afghanistan. On Armed Forces Day, we should celebrate Op Pitting, which brought 15,000 out. Of course, I am happy to look at the cases that she wants to raise, and we will do our best for them and for their families, but the House should be in no doubt of the generous welcome that we continue to give to people from Syria, Afghanistan, Ukraine and Hong Kong. We have a record to be very proud of.

Q6. My constituents in Chapelford, Penketh, Great Sankey and Appleton all tell me that they want to see more police officers tackling issues such as antisocial behaviour, domestic abuse and burglary. Thanks to the initiatives of John Dwyer, the excellent police and crime commissioner in Cheshire, and sustained recruitment by the new chief constable, the hard work of our police officers is paying off, with an almost 50% increase in arrests for domestic abuse in Cheshire in the last 12 months. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on how many more officers have been recruited in both Cheshire and across the UK since he became Prime Minister? Will he join me in recognising— (900650)

Order. Can I just say that other Members do want to get in and, the longer the question, the fewer of them will get in? Your friendships will dwindle if you carry on like that.

I can tell my hon. Friend very briefly that it is 13,576 more police officers, with 200 more in Cheshire. They are also cutting neighbourhood crime—already by 31%—and our streets are getting safer as a result.

Q3. A clear majority of Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly reject the Government’s protocol Bill and the Prime Minister’s rationale for it. Businesses fear its consequences. The Prime Minister has made clear, on multiple occasions, his so-called commitment to all aspects of the Good Friday agreement, and that includes the European convention on human rights being part of domestic law, so how can he stand over that commitment when the Justice Secretary is about to publish a Bill that unpicks and disapplies the Human Rights Act in our domestic law? He cannot have it both ways. (900646)

If the hon. Gentleman will just wait for the Justice Secretary’s statement, which follows shortly, I think he will find that he is in error in what he said.

Q7. High wage, high skilled jobs are at the heart of my campaign to level up Rother Valley and tackle the cost of living crisis. I have personally hosted two jobs fairs, and thanks to an £11 million investment from the Government levelling-up fund, Rother Valley will benefit from a cutting-edge skills and employment village and a leading incubator space for training apprenticeships and start-ups, hosted at the old Maltby Grammar School, in areas neglected under Labour. In light of this, will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister pledge his support for high wage, high skilled Rother Valley, level up our high streets, and also visit Rother Valley to see levelling up in action? (900651)

My hon. Friend is probably the best Member for Rother Valley we have ever had. I thank him very much and we are going to continue our agenda of levelling up across the whole country, through all the difficulties this country has faced, which will get young people across the country, including in Rother Valley, into good jobs for generations to come. That is our ambition.

Q8.   Tens of thousands of people were marching through London last weekend protesting against this out-of-touch Government, rail workers are on strike, and Royal Mail workers, NHS workers, teachers and even barristers are on the verge of taking industrial action. All workers are struggling to cope with the worst cost of living crisis in history. Ministers are planning to boost City bosses’ pay while demanding wage restraint for everyone else, so can the Prime Minister tell me when he is going to stop giving meaningless soundbites and instead start supporting working people across our country? (900652)

If the hon. Lady wants to support the working people of this country, I suggest she gets off the picket line, has a word with her party leader and supports the travelling public of this country, who want to see a reduction in their transport costs, which this Government are delivering.

Q10.   For much of Britain levelling up means the revitalisation of British industry and the jobs that go with it. Many countries around the world, including Germany and China, get a competitive advantage by burning lignite, the dirtiest form of fossil fuel. Does my right hon. Friend share my concerns about the ethics of holding back British industry and exporting—and magnifying—our carbon emissions overseas, all in the name of net zero? (900654)

We can all be proud of the way we have reduced CO2 emissions in this country, but plainly it makes no sense to be importing coal, particularly for metallurgical purposes, when we have our own domestic resources.

Q9.   The Prime Minister knows that we in Coventry and Warwickshire are proudly the UK’s leading centre for vehicle battery innovation; he knows because he visited the UK Battery Industrialisation Centre just last year. If this Government want this vital sector to survive for the future, the Prime Minister needs to confirm his support: will he give a concrete guarantee for the resources needed for the west midlands gigafactory project to go ahead, so we can deliver much-needed skilled jobs in Coventry for 2025? (900653)

That is probably the first sensible question from the Opposition Benches, and I can tell the hon. Lady that we do actively support gigafactories because I believe they can be a huge advantage for the UK economy. That is why I am proud to see one now in Blyth, and we are working with the authorities in the west midlands, in Coventry, to make sure we also get a successful result there.

Q11.   Hereford Sixth Form College has over 600 students who rely on the trains to get them to their exams this week. What can my right hon. Friend do to ensure that these young people doing their GCSEs and A-levels are not punished by the train strikers? (900655)

I know how much my hon. Friend cares for the students in his constituency and I can tell him that no exams have been cancelled as a result of the strikes so far. We expect schools and colleges to have contingency arrangements in place to manage disruption. If students arrive late, schools should allow them to take the paper, and exam boards will determine if that paper can be marked based on how late the student has arrived. I am also told that if a student misses an exam completely, the school can apply for their grades to be calculated from the other assessments they have completed in that subject. I hope that is helpful to my hon. Friend.

The Prime Minister will be aware of the problems that arose in Paris at the European cup final. Does he agree that both the French and UEFA authorities’ attempts to blame Liverpool fans for the failure to keep order at the stadium has been comprehensively disproved, and will he ensure that the French failure to police the event is roundly condemned?

I think the whole House will have seen how those initial accounts of what took place were completely debunked and proved to be incorrect in respect of the Liverpool fans, and I think it was right that the French authorities and, I think, UEFA issued a full apology for what had happened.

I think my right hon. Friend should wait for my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister to say a little about that in just a moment, but I can tell him that when it comes to the Rwanda policy that we are pursuing, that policy has not been ruled unlawful by any UK court or, so far, by any international court, and we will continue with that policy.

The father-in-law of my constituent Ibrahim is a former Supreme Court judge in Afghanistan. He successfully prosecuted and put behind bars hundreds of terrorists associated with the Taliban, al-Qaeda and ISIS. Seven months after he submitted his ARAP application, there has still been no progress, and he is living in hiding. His only option is a perilous journey to Pakistan, where, if his visa is refused, he will be deported back into the hands of the Taliban. Will the Prime Minister meet me and the former judge’s family to see how we can save the life of a man who I have no doubt has helped to save hundreds of British lives?

I thank the hon. Lady for raising that case. It does sound extremely meritorious. I will make sure that she has a meeting with the Ministry of Defence, which runs ARAP, and that we do our best to expedite that application as fast as we can.

Q13. I am proud to represent more than 1,000 park home residents. When will the Government address the injustice of pitch fees determined by the retail prices index, and how will they ensure that all those residents can benefit from the energy grant? (900658)

As soon as parliamentary time allows, we will introduce legislation to change the inflationary index used in the calculation of the annual pitch fees to the consumer prices index. I am told that the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities has undertaken research on the impacts on residents and site owners of a change in the 10% commission that is currently paid on the sale of a park home.

I am sure the Prime Minister is as thrilled as I am that you, Mr Speaker, signed the Wellbeing of Women menopause workplace pledge last week to show support for women in this place. Will the Prime Minister follow that example and ensure that women in England have better access to treatment by introducing a single annual payment for hormone replacement therapy now, rather than making them wait until April 2023, a full 18 months after the payment was first promised?

I thank the hon. Lady very much for raising a very important issue that is understood keenly in all parts of the House. I know that my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary is accelerating the work of the HRT taskforce to give people up and down the country the reassurance and the treatment that they need.

I was incredibly grateful to the Prime Minister for coming to Watford to launch my initiative to train 1,000 mental health first aiders in awareness more than a year and a half ago. Since then, it has been delivered successfully by Watford and West Herts chamber of commerce and many amazing volunteers. I know that the Prime Minister understands the importance of mental health and wellbeing, but, sadly, bullying can have a long-lasting effect on it. Today, the Diana Award is raising awareness of bullying in schools and online with its “Don’t Face It Alone” campaign. Will the Prime Minister please join me in encouraging any young person experiencing bullying to speak up and speak out?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his own campaign on this issue. I think everyone understands that bullying is an appalling experience, and something that we should not tolerate in our society. I am delighted to see so many colleagues—so many hon. Members—wearing their blue ribbons today. We should all speak out against bullying, but we should also make sure that we give everyone the courage to speak out against it.