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Volume 722: debated on Wednesday 16 November 2022

I have been asked to respond on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who is attending the G20 leaders’ summit in Bali.

After the missile strike in Poland yesterday, we reaffirm our solidarity with Poland, we express our condolences to the victims and we are working with our allies to determine precisely what happened. The Foreign Secretary will be making a statement shortly.

I begin by associating myself with the Deputy Prime Minister’s comments. I am sure the whole House will want to reaffirm our complete support for Ukraine and for Poland in the face of Russian aggression.

When he got the job, on his first day, the Prime Minister promised “integrity, professionalism and accountability”. I assume that the Deputy Prime Minister agrees with that promise and would expect all Ministers to follow such principles. Therefore, does he also agree that the Prime Minister should ensure, in line with his promise, that no Minister who has a complaint of bullying upheld against them should continue to serve in his Government?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his shared solidarity on the issue in Poland. He is right to quote what the Prime Minister said, and I take it as an article of personal faith that we behave with absolute integrity and accountability. I am confident that I have behaved professionally throughout, but immediately on hearing that two complaints had been made—I believe they were made yesterday; I was notified this morning—I asked the Prime Minister to set up an independent investigation, and of course I will comply with it fully.

Q2. Last week, many of my constituents were celebrating the Gurpurab of Guru Nanak Dev Ji, who travelled the world with an important message about equality and Seva—selfless service. We see that running through many of the actions carried out by Sikhs and others in my constituency, through organisations such as the Midland Langar Seva Society and the Guru Har Rai Gurdwara. Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking the community for their ongoing Seva and extend his best wishes for Gurpurab? (902230)

I thank my hon. Friend. At this important time of year for the Sikh community and the Sikh faith, I join her in what she has said. The Sikh community make an outstanding contribution in her constituency, with the Midland Langar Seva Society and the Guru Har Rai Gurdwara, but they also make an amazing contribution to the whole country, and we are grateful for it.

I join the Deputy Prime Minister in his remarks regarding the Sikh community and, most importantly, the incident in Poland last night. I know that the whole House stands united in our support for the Ukrainian people and sends condolences for the tragic loss of life. Britain has an unshakeable commitment to NATO and our allies, including Poland. The Government have rightly requested that we establish the facts and avoid unhelpful speculation, so I understand that the Deputy Prime Minister might not be able to go further today, but does he agree that, last night’s events aside, the fact that Russia is launching missile attacks on Ukrainian civilian infrastructure while world leaders meet shows the utter contempt that Putin has for international order?

I thank the right hon. Lady. I entirely agree with what she said. President Putin started this war, and whatever determination is made in relation to the events yesterday, they result whether directly or indirectly from the unlawful aggression perpetrated by the Russian Government. That is why the Prime Minister is out at the G20 rallying support, making sure that we wean ourselves off energy dependence on Russia, and making sure that our energy supply is from other parts of the world. I agree 100% with what the right hon. Lady said.

It is right that we condemn Putin in the strongest terms. The G20 is also an opportunity to work together to tackle the economic challenges that we all face, yet, as our international allies race to crack down on multinationals using tax havens to stash profits abroad, this Government are dragging their feet to protect their profits. We have a Budget tomorrow, and it has been briefed that tough choices will be impacting families across Britain. Does the Deputy Prime Minister accept that every pound hidden in tax havens is a pound lost from the pockets of working families?

We want people to come to this country to create the jobs and to generate the tax revenue—whether that is through non-dom status, which, given the changes that we have made, is stricter under this Government than under the last Labour Government; or whether it is the Prime Minister’s approach to big-tech companies, where he has led the charge with the G7 presidency in making sure that there is an international approach, delivering global minimum corporate tax rules. We have lowered the tax gap—the difference between the tax owed and the tax raised—to its lowest level, certainly lower than under the last Labour Government, and we will continue to do so.

I notice that non-dom status has not been abolished, Mr Speaker. The Conservatives would have us all believe that the economic problems are out of their hands, when the truth is that it is working people paying the price for their choices. They have chosen to protect corporate profits and not household incomes. There are 38 countries in the OECD’s two-year growth league table. Where does the UK rank in that table?

The right hon. Lady will know that, on the latest data, unemployment remains at a 50-year low. [Interruption.] The shadow Chancellor says that it has gone up. It is half the level left by the last Labour Government. When it comes to GDP, she will know that the IMF has said that we will have the strongest growth in the G7.

I think the economic situation that families face speaks for itself. I will answer the question for the Deputy Prime Minister. The answer is 38th out of 38 on growth. If there were a World cup for growth, we would not even qualify. Working people are paying the price for 12 years of Tory failure—the wrong choices by the wrong people.

After days of dodging and denial, this morning, the Deputy Prime Minister finally acknowledged formal complaints about his misconduct, but his letter contains no hint of admission or apology. This is Anti-Bullying Week. Will he apologise?

On the economic challenges, which are global and caused by covid and the war in Ukraine, we have got a plan to grip inflation, balance the books and drive economic growth. If we listened to the right hon. Lady, debt would go up, unemployment would go up and working Britons would pay the price.

The right hon. Lady asked about the complaints. I received notification this morning and I immediately asked the Prime Minister to set up an independent inquiry into them. I am confident that I behaved professionally throughout, but of course I will engage thoroughly, and I look forward, may I say, to transparently addressing any claims that have been made.

Let me get this straight: the Deputy Prime Minister has had to demand an investigation into himself because the Prime Minister is too weak to get a grip. We have a Prime Minister, who has been in office less than a month, with a disgraced Cabinet Minister who resigned with his good wishes; the Home Secretary, who breached the ministerial code and risked national security, still clings on; and now the Prime Minister defends his deputy, whose behaviour has been described as “abrasive”, “controlling” and “demeaning”, with junior staff too scared to even enter his office. And that is without mentioning the flying tomatoes. The Deputy Prime Minister knows that his behaviour was unacceptable, so what is he still doing here?

I am here, and happy to address any specific points the right hon. Lady wishes to make. [Hon. Members: “Flying tomatoes?”] That never happened. I will thoroughly rebut and refute any of the claims that have been made. She has not, in fact, put a specific point to me. If she wishes to do so—and this is her opportunity—I would be very glad to address it. [Interruption.]

Maybe the Deputy Prime Minister just does not think there is a problem, or maybe he is suggesting that civil servants are liars. Now he is reportedly banned from meeting junior staff without supervision, while we await an inquiry that the Prime Minister has not even instigated from a watchdog that he has not even appointed. In the Prime Minister’s letter, he did not say how and when this will be investigated, or by who—no ethics, no integrity and no mandate. And still no ethics adviser. When will the Government appoint an independent ethics adviser and drain the swamp?

The recruitment of the new ethics adviser is already under way and taking place at pace.

There is a reason that the right hon. Lady has come to the Dispatch Box with her usual mix of bluster and mud-slinging: it is because Labour does not have a plan. We are helping people into work; she is in hock to the unions. We are protecting our borders; she voted against every single measure to control illegal immigration to this country. We are delivering cleaner growth and energy security; she wants to send billions in reparation payments abroad. The British people want a Government who can deal with the real challenges, and Labour Members are not up to it.

Q3. Hope House Children’s Hospice provides dedicated end-of-life care to children from Telford and across Shropshire. This Sunday, Hope House is holding an online fundraiser called the Big Night In; it aims to beat last year’s target of half a million pounds. Among the fabulous prizes are premium tickets to the Telford steam railway polar express. The lucky winners will enjoy a Christmas adventure to the north pole, complete with hot chocolate, cookies, golden tickets, and the first gift of Christmas from Santa, which is the reindeer’s silver bell. Please will the Deputy Prime Minister log on to Hope House Children’s Hospice’s Big Night In this Sunday? If he is lucky enough to win a pair of tickets to the Telford polar express, I shall be delighted to go to the north pole with him. (902231)

I thank my hon. Friend, and congratulate her and Hope House Children’s Hospice on the amazing work they do. I have been working very closely with Shooting Star Children’s Hospices, a similar organisation in my constituency. If my hon. Friend ever gets bored of the trains, I should say that I jumped out of an aeroplane at 15,000 feet to raise money for Shooting Star, and she would find it a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

I associate myself and my colleagues with the remarks made about the immense contribution of our Sikh communities.

SNP Members extend our full support and condolences this morning to Poland, following the death of two civilians last night. While a full investigation is ongoing, we reiterate our calls for Russia to end its brutal war of aggression against Ukraine.

Yesterday, the Prime Minister was asked six different times to apologise for the disaster of the Tory mini-Budget and the financial crisis it caused, and all six times, he refused to say sorry. This morning, people are waking up to the news that this Christmas, they will be hit with the worst inflation in 41 years, so will the Deputy Prime Minister stand up today and do what his boss would not? Will he say sorry?

May I thank the hon. Lady for what she said about both Poland and the importance of our solidarity with the international community against the appalling illegal invasion by Russia of Ukraine?

Inflation is clearly a problem. As Chancellor and now as Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend has for months been making clear that it is the No. 1 economic challenge we face. We have a plan to grip inflation, to balance the books and to drive economic growth. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor will make the autumn statement tomorrow, setting out our plan to take the Scottish people, and everyone across the United Kingdom, through these challenges.

If the Government cannot even say sorry for the mess that they have made, what hope do we have of them fixing it? Let us be clear: tomorrow’s Budget is imposing austerity 2.0 on all our constituents. That is the political choice that the Tories are making. But there are always different and better choices. Only this week, the Scottish child payment rose to £25 a week—a 150% increase in eight months—and it will help 400,000 children. If the Tories will not say sorry for the mess that they have made, will they at least make the right choice for once? Will the right hon. Gentleman’s Government join the fight against child poverty tomorrow, follow the lead of the Scottish Government and match the Scottish child payment?

The hon. Lady will know that we are facing challenges that are faced all around the world, because of covid and the war in Ukraine. We have seen rising inflation in Germany, the eurozone and the US. The reality is that this Prime Minister and this Chancellor have a plan—more detail will be set out in the autumn statement—but of course, the UK Government will continue to work collaboratively with the Scottish Government to safeguard and protect the most vulnerable right across the United Kingdom. I think that is what the Scottish people expect.

Q4. Belper Mills in my Mid Derbyshire constituency are in a state of disrepair. The community is hugely worried about their future. It matters not just for my constituents but for the whole country, because the mills are part of a UNESCO world heritage site. If appropriate redevelopment is not agreed soon, the site risks losing its world heritage status. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government will pay close attention to this case to ensure that we do not lose our world heritage status? Will he come with me to visit the mills and discuss potential solutions with local people? (902232)

I thank my hon. Friend for her campaigning on this. Yes, we will of course continue to monitor the condition of Belper Mills and the planning applications. The best I can say is that we strongly encourage all the local bodies—whether it is the council or the applicant—to continue to work together because, above all, her constituents will want to continue to celebrate the proud and rich tradition represented by Belper.

I am sure that the Deputy Prime Minister will join me in welcoming the comments made yesterday by the Foreign Secretary to the European Scrutiny Committee—that securing Northern Ireland’s place within the Union will be the priority of the Government in the negotiations with the European Union on the Northern Ireland Protocol. One of the benefits of the Union is the support that the Government of the United Kingdom are providing to households and businesses across the entire country to tackle the cost of living crisis. Will the Deputy Prime Minister assure me that the £400 energy support payment that is due to be made to households in Northern Ireland will be announced as soon as possible?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman. What he said about securing Northern Ireland’s place within the constitutional and economic integrity of the UK is absolutely vital. The Prime Minister has been very clear on that, as has the Foreign Secretary. Of course, the Chancellor will say more tomorrow on the economic measures and, in particular, on the fiscal measures that the right hon. Gentleman referred to.

Q10. Even if an illegal migrant is stopped on a French beach, he will simply come back the next day as no one is ever arrested. Will the Deputy Prime Minister ensure that we remove all pull factors for illegal migration by using his new Bill of Rights so that we have the legal power to arrest, detain and deport illegal migrants, and, for instance, have a review about a national identity card so that people do not just vanish and never get deported? (902238)

I totally agree that we need to strain every sinew to stop this appalling trade in misery. There is no silver bullet, although I think the agreement the Home Secretary made with her French opposite number will help, and we are embedding UK officials with their French counterparts for the first time. My right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) is right to say that the Bill of Rights can also help, not least in preventing interim orders from the Strasbourg Court from being recognised in UK courts. On ID cards, we already have e-visas for people coming to visit and live in the UK, and they act as digital evidence of a person’s immigration status. What is clear, however, is that we will have to do all these things in the teeth of opposition from Labour Front Benchers.

Q5. Our small rural schools in Wyre face particular difficulties. The headteacher at Scorton and Calder Vale St John Church of England Primary Schools told me that:“Budgets in schools like ours are stretched as we have to pay for lots of additional services which larger schools can provide in-house.”She has to hire the village hall for PE because the schools have no hall, and she has to hire taxis to bring in school meals because they have no kitchens. Given the school budget cuts, what does the Deputy Prime Minister advise this headteacher to cut from our local children? (902233)

We are very sympathetic to the challenges that all our schools face. More will be said about specific measures tomorrow, but the hon. Lady should stand assured that we are the top spenders as a percentage of GDP on primary and secondary education in the G7, and that standards, which matter to pupils and parents the most, have increased, with the proportion of schools rated good or outstanding up from 68% in 2010 to 87% today.

Q11. The Deputy Prime Minister will be aware of the opportunities but also the challenges that face Torbay’s tourism and hospitality sector, including increased energy costs and the impact of business rates. What consideration is he giving to the situation of Torbay’s iconic industry and further measures to support it? (902239)

My hon. Friend is a fantastic champion for Torbay. The Chancellor will make a statement tomorrow and I cannot speculate on the spending decisions, but my hon. Friend will have noticed already the tourism recovery plan, which will help recovery from the pandemic and is also part of the wider levelling-up agenda.

Q6. Private rents in my constituency are completely out of control, and since the Government broke the economy and broke the mortgage market, the hope of earning a home is quickly receding. With the cost of living skyrocketing, Tory tax rises through the roof, and an extra 1 million people in the private rented sector since 2010, will the Government get a grip and tackle housing in my constituency and across the country? (902234)

As a former Housing Minister, I know how important these issues are. I can tell the hon. Lady that the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities is looking very carefully at the situation of renters and landlords, and legislation is to be brought forward shortly.

My constituent Mikey Akers, who has verbal dyspraxia, said a few weeks ago:

“I am not ashamed of my disability, I am ashamed of the people who judge me without knowledge or understanding”.

According to the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists and the Dyspraxia Foundation, 5% of children are affected by speech and communication needs and more needs to be done to raise awareness in society. Will my right hon. Friend agree to convene a meeting with the Prime Minister to raise awareness about verbal dyspraxia, so that inspirational people like Mikey are never again left without a voice?

I thank my hon. Friend for being a doughty champion and highlighting Mikey’s campaign. All children and young people should receive the support they need to make the very best of all their talents and potential. He will know that in March we published a Green Paper covering a range of these issues, and I will certainly make sure that he gets a meeting with the relevant Minister.

Q7. Can the Deputy Prime Minister tell the House if he has ever entered into a non-disclosure agreement connected to a complaint against him? (902235)

The hon. Gentleman is referring to an employment dispute that was settled before I entered the House. It was not an NDA but it did involve a confidentiality clause, which was standard at the time.

All our constituents want to see an end to the dangerous and illegal channel crossings. One of the best ways to do that is to make sure that services are delivered in the first safe place to which refugees flee. In that context, will the Deputy Prime Minister, as a former Foreign Secretary and Development Minister, commit to backing the work of Education Cannot Wait, which delivers education in refugee camps?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the brilliant work that Education Cannot Wait does. She will know the importance of the campaign for girls’ education under both the previous Prime Minister and the current Prime Minister. We will certainly look at what more we can do to support that brilliant work, particularly for children growing up in refugee camps.

Q8. Does the Deputy Prime Minister’s comeback, on which I congratulate him, and the new direction of tomorrow, signal that the ban on no-fault evictions from the Conservative manifesto is back on after there was zilch from the previous Prime Minister? If so, will he get it on the statute book, using emergency powers if necessary, so that no family gets left, on a whim, out in the cold this winter? (902236)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities is looking at all such matters. He will have heard what the hon. Lady has said and, although I will not prejudice what further measures he is going to bring forward, I will ask him to write to her to address her specific proposals.

I wonder whether my right hon. Friend has noticed that the people who are currently criticising him—[Hon. Members: “Give him a job.”] No, thank you. The people who are currently criticising him have a record of bullying that is second to none. A Labour Member of Parliament left Parliament because of antisemitic bullying; a distinguished BBC journalist needed bodyguards at Labour party conferences; and a current right hon. Labour Member was suspended from the service of this House for bullying. Does my right hon. Friend think, as I do, that this is at the very least hypercritical, and may be a stronger word that is not necessarily parliamentary?

My right hon. Friend makes his point in his usual inimitable way. All I will say is that I think it is important that we all take responsibility for our actions, and that is precisely what I have done today.

Q9. A 1958 instruction from Whitehall ordered medics to take blood samples regularly from exposed veterans during nuclear weapons tests. I have been made aware that many veterans and their families have been reported being unable to obtain the test results, so are denied the ability to make any sense of what they, and in some cases their families, suffered. Will the Deputy Prime Minister investigate and inform me of the legal rights of these men to obtain their medical records? Will he undertake to ask the Prime Minister to order that the medical files be opened to veterans and the UK Health Security Agency immediately? (902237)

I thank the hon. Lady, who has been a consistent champion on this issue, for which I recognise and pay tribute to her. My understanding is that the information is available to veterans and their families, who may request details of their service and medical records, but if the hon. Lady would like to write to me, I will make sure that she gets an adequate answer on her more specific point.

I rise not to perpetuate partisanship nor parrot party lines, but merely to amplify the sentiments of the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey). The nuclear test veterans—those brave servicemen who did so much so long ago to ensure our safety—were recognised by former Prime Minister David Cameron and, in a meeting with the hon. Lady and me, by the former Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson). Will the Deputy Prime Minister and our new Prime Minister recognise them too, not only by doing what the hon. Lady has asked for but by giving them the service medal that they so richly deserve and that we owe them?

My right hon. friend is absolutely right. We should forever be grateful to all those service personnel who participated in the British nuclear testing programme. I can reassure him that we have asked officials to look again at recognition with medals. Any recommendations will be announced in the usual way.

Q12. Seven years ago, in my first PMQs, a Conservative Prime Minister told me to stop “griping” and “get behind” his rail investment plans. A few weeks ago, the new Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said that there “wasn’t really much point” in going ahead with Northern Powerhouse Rail. Time and again, Tory Prime Ministers have promised NPR only to break their promises. Will the Deputy Prime Minister now put on the record whether he supports Transport for the North’s preferred option for NPR, with a stop in Bradford? (902240)

I can tell the hon. Lady that our £96 billion integrated rail plan will make Northern Powerhouse Rail a reality. We are committed to the project; the precise details will be set out in due course.

If migrants who crossed the channel from France illegally were immediately returned to France, it would stop illegal migration to this country, break the economic model of the people smugglers and, perhaps more importantly, stop thousands of people descending on northern French cities, which would benefit the French. When the Prime Minister spoke to the French President, was a returns policy discussed? If so, what was the President’s response?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this issue. I cannot tell him the precise read-out from the meeting—I have not seen it yet—but I can tell him that the Home Secretary’s deal and agreement with her French opposite number means a 40% increase in officers patrolling beaches in northern France; UK officers embedded with their French counterparts for the first time; investment in port security infrastructure; more technology; and more wider European co-operation. We have taken all those measures in the teeth of the opposition from the Labour Front Bench, who have opposed every single measure that we have taken to stop illegal immigration, including things where I would have thought there would be cross-party consensus, such as life sentences for traffickers who play on human misery.

Q13. It is not trade unions that have run public services to the ground—it is the Tories. It is not asylum seekers fleeing war and famine who are inflaming tensions—it is the Tories. It is not those in low-paid jobs who are trashing the economy—again, it is the Tories. Can the Deputy Prime Minister inform the House when the Tory Government will finally accept responsibility for their economic, social and political mismanagement, rather than blaming everyone else? (902241)

It is not a matter of blaming anyone; it is a matter of a team effort and shared endeavour, working with the Scottish Government, to make sure that we get a grip on inflation, which is the No. 1 priority. It has to be said that if the hon. Lady takes the position that we agree with inflation-busting pay rises—as difficult as these decisions are—we will only see inflation stay for longer. That will hurt the most vulnerable in our communities, whether in Scotland or across the rest of the UK.

Now then. We have a brilliant Home Secretary but the Deputy Prime Minister will be aware of the wicked and vicious bullying campaign led by the Opposition over the last four weeks or so to get her sacked. Can he reassure me and the people of Ashfield that the Home Secretary will be given all the tools that she needs to solve the migrant crisis and keep the bully boys out of No. 10?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We fully support the Home Secretary and the important measures she has taken, whether on the Rwanda scheme, implementing the Nationality and Borders Act 2022, or the new deal with France to make sure that we collaborate with our international partners on a shared issue. He can also rest assured that that will be opposed tooth and nail by the Labour party.

Q14. In 1936, people from my constituency marched to Parliament demanding jobs. They were living in poverty and were hungry. Some 86 years later, 39% of kids in Jarrow are still hungry. Will the Deputy Prime Minister and the Government end that scandal and commit to providing free school meals to all 800,000 children—40,000 of whom are in the north-east—from households in receipt of universal credit? (902242)

I thank the hon. Lady. She will know that we have extended the eligibility of free school meals to 1.9 million pupils. On top of that, there is the £200 million holiday activities and food programme and the £1,200 of direct payments to the most vulnerable. I gently say to her that we also need to keep an eye on the macroeconomic picture. The No. 1 priority is to get inflation down, and we will not be able to do that if we follow the Opposition’s plans.

Given that we have the highest burden of taxation in living memory, it is clear that the Government’s financial difficulties are caused by overspending, not due to under-taxing. Does the Deputy Prime Minister therefore agree that if the Government have enough money to proceed with HS2 at any cost, then they have sufficient money not to increase taxes; but if they have so little money that they have to increase taxes—the last thing for a Conservative Government to do—then they do not have sufficient money for HS2? So can I gently urge the Deputy Prime Minister not to ask Conservative MPs to support any tax rises unless and until this unnecessary vanity project is scrapped, because I for one will not support them?

I thank my right hon. Friend. I think I followed the various steps of logic in that question. I understand her opposition to HS2. I think we have some very difficult decisions to make. They will inevitably involve a balanced approach. I will leave it to the Chancellor to set them out in the autumn statement tomorrow.

Q15. In my Caerphilly constituency, we have five food banks. One of those food banks is run by the Trussell Trust, and it has issued over 2,000 food parcels during the last six months. There is a question from the users of that food bank, which is: will the Government give a firm commitment to ensuring that benefits will always be enough to purchase essentials? (902243)

The hon. Member raises a really important point, and we are doing everything we can to support those who may be reliant on food banks or otherwise struggling to make ends meet. He can see that with the £1,200 cost of living support that is going to the 8 million most vulnerable households, the energy price guarantee and further measures for pensioners. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor will set out further measures tomorrow. Of course, as I have said before, the No. 1 priority is getting inflation down. We will not be able to do that if we follow the spending plans of the Labour party.

My right hon. Friend is also the Justice Secretary, and everybody in this House, irrespective of party, will know that for the reputation of this House standards are important. He has said that from the Dispatch Box this afternoon. However, in response to some of the points raised by Opposition Members, am I naive to still believe in that good British tradition that one is innocent until proven guilty?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I have said I will co-operate fully with the independent investigation. In fact, I welcome the opportunity to address these complaints. I think, though, that it is important that we have zero tolerance for any bullying and hold the highest standards in public life, and it is important for all of us to adhere to those standards.