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Volume 726: debated on Wednesday 25 January 2023

Can I start by wishing everyone a happy Burns night, especially those celebrating in Scotland?

As we prepare to mark Holocaust Memorial Day, I am sure the whole House will join me in paying tribute to the extraordinary courage of Britain’s holocaust survivors, including 94-year-old Arek Hersh, who is here with us today. This Government will legislate to build a holocaust memorial and learning centre next to Parliament so that the testimonies of survivors such as Arek will be heard at the heart of our democracy by every generation to come.

This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.

Shockingly, one in six women in the UK has experienced economic abuse. This is not just about money, but about restricting access to other resources such as food, housing or work. It is a lesser known aspect of coercive control that affects my constituents, the Prime Minister’s constituents and those of every Member across the House. What plans does the Prime Minister have to review in detail the way that Government Departments and policies can be exploited by abusers, and to ensure that those loopholes can be closed?

The hon. Lady raises an important point. Let me assure her that the Government are committed to tackling violence against women and girls. That is why we passed the landmark Domestic Abuse Act 2021, introducing new offences such as coercion and coercive control, stalking and others. We will continue to do everything we can to ensure women and girls feel as safe as they deserve and rightly should be.

Q2.   Although I was disappointed that Dudley did not make the final cut in the latest levelling-up funding round, I am of course pleased that we received the £25 million towns deal, the brand new Duncan Edwards leisure facility, and a transport interchange project that has been secured since my election in 2019. But our high street is on its knees, so will the Prime Minister meet me and Dudley Metropolitan Borough Council to discuss our levelling-up bid and how we can ensure success in the next round? (903271)

My hon. Friend is a great advocate for his constituents. I am delighted that, thanks to his efforts, Dudley has received £25 million from the towns fund. I know that there will be disappointment about the levelling-up fund, but all bids, including that made by Dudley Council, can receive feedback to be strengthened for future funding rounds. I would be very happy to meet him to discuss it further.

This week, we will remember the 6 million Jews murdered in the holocaust and all those scarred by genocide since as we mark Holocaust Memorial Day. We must all commit, across this House, to defeat prejudice and hatred wherever we may find it. To work for a better future, we must find light in the darkness.

May I also join the Prime Minister in wishing everyone a happy Burns night?

Zara Aleena was walking home from a night out with her friends when she was savagely attacked, assaulted and beaten to death. Zara was a brilliant young woman; a trainee lawyer with a bright future. Her killer is a violent, racist, woman-hating thug, not fit to walk the same streets. But that is precisely the problem: he was free to walk the same streets. The inspectorate report into her case says that opportunities were missed by the probation service that could have prevented this attack and saved her life. Does the Prime Minister accept those findings?

This was a truly terrible crime. As the chief inspector has found, the failings in this case and others were serious and unacceptable. In both of the cases that are in the public domain, these failures can be traced to failings in the initial risk assessment, and that is why immediate steps are being taken to address the serious issues raised.

I am glad the Prime Minister accepts those findings. The report also says that staffing vacancies and excessive workloads contributed to those fatal failures. It makes it absolutely clear this was not a one-off. As the report says, these are “systemic issues” in the probation service. They are clearly ministerial responsibilities. Does the Prime Minister accept those findings as well?

Let me outline for the right hon. and learned Gentleman exactly what steps we are taking, and that is to ensure that mandatory training to improve risk assessments is being put in place. We are mandating checks with the police and children’s services before a probation officer can recommend to the court that a convicted offender be given an electronically monitored sentence, and we are implementing new processes to guarantee the swift recall of offenders. The action we are taking is already making a difference, as we see, for example, in the reduction of the number of electronically monitored curfews being given by the courts.

It was Barking, Dagenham and Havering that tragically and fatally let Zara down, but across the country, probation services are failing after a botched then reversed privatisation and after a decade of under-investment. It is yet another vital public service on its knees after 13 years of Tory Government. I spoke to Zara’s family this morning. It is hard to convey to this House the agony that they have been through. They say that the Government have blood on their hands over these failings. The Prime Minister has accepted the findings of the report. Does he also accept what Zara’s family say?

My heart of course goes out to Zara’s family. The right hon. and learned Gentleman mentioned accountability. The probation service has taken action where failings have been found and where that has been appropriate. With regard to the overall service, there is now £155 million a year of extra investment that we are putting in to the probation service so that we can deliver better supervision of offenders. There has also been an increase in the number of senior probation officers, but one of the other things we must remember, if we do want to increase the safety of women and girls on our streets, is that we need tough sentencing, and that is why this Government passed the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, which he and his party opposed.

In the light of the case of Zara, I really do not think the Prime Minister should be boasting about the protection he is putting in place for women. I am not going to take lectures from him about that.

Does the Prime Minister agree that any politician who seeks to avoid the taxes they owe in this country is not fit to be in charge of taxpayer money?

I am pleased to make my position on this matter completely clear to the House. The issues in question occurred before I was Prime Minister. With regard to the appointment of the Minister without Portfolio, the usual appointments process was followed. No issues were raised with me when he was appointed to his current role. Since I commented on this matter last week, more information has come forward, which is why I have asked the independent adviser to look into the matter. I obviously cannot prejudge the outcome of that, but it is right that we fully investigate this matter and establish all the facts.

The Prime Minister avoided the question. Anybody watching would think it is fairly obvious that someone who seeks to avoid tax cannot also be in charge of tax, yet for some reason, the Prime Minister cannot bring himself to say that or even acknowledge the question. Last week, the Prime Minister told the House that the chair of the Tory party had addressed his tax affairs “in full” and there was “nothing” to add. This week, after days of public pressure, he now says there are serious questions to answer. What changed?

I know the right hon. and learned Gentleman reads from prepared sheets, but he should listen to what I actually say. Since I commented on this matter last week, more information, including a statement by the Minister without Portfolio, has entered the public domain, which is why it is right that we do establish the facts. Let me take a step back. Of course, the politically expedient thing to do would have been for me to say that this matter must be resolved by Wednesday at noon, but I believe in proper due process. That is why I appointed an independent adviser and that is why the independent adviser is doing his job. The Opposition cannot have it both ways. The Leader of the Opposition and his party chair, the hon. Member for Oxford East (Anneliese Dodds), both urged me and the Government to appoint an independent adviser, and now he objects to that independent adviser doing their job. It is simple political opportunism and everyone can see through it.

We all know why the Prime Minister was reluctant to ask his party chair questions about family finances and tax avoidance, but his failure to sack him, when the whole country can see what is going on, shows how hopelessly weak he is—a Prime Minister overseeing chaos, overwhelmed at every turn. He cannot say when ambulances will get to heart attack victims again. He cannot say when the prison system will keep streets safe again. He cannot even deal with tax avoiders in his own Cabinet. Is he starting to wonder if this job is just too big for him?

The difference between the right hon. and learned Gentleman and me is that I stand by my values and my principles, even when it is difficult. When I disagreed fundamentally with the previous Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), I resigned from the Government, but for four long years, he sat next to the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) when antisemitism ran rife and his predecessor sided with our opponents. That is what is weak: he has no principles, just petty politics.

Q4. For our most vulnerable children, school is often their principal place of safety as well as education, but as reported in my review of school exclusions for the Government in 2019, the unacceptable and illegal use of off-rolling is still shutting a worrying number of children out of the classroom, out of learning and out of the protection they need from gangs, violence and domestic abuse. The Department for Education has done some impressive and excellent work to address this terrible practice, but what more can my right hon. Friend do to ensure that we permanently exclude off-rolling from our schools? (903273)

My hon. and learned Friend raises an important issue. The Government are clear that off-rolling is unlawful and unacceptable in any form, and the Department for Education continues to work with Ofsted to tackle it. Where Ofsted finds it, it will always be addressed in the inspection report and it could also lead to a school’s leadership being judged inadequate.

Let me start by echoing the sentiments of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in relation to Holocaust Memorial Day—truly horrific crimes that we must never forget and endeavour to ensure are never repeated.

May I send my heartfelt thoughts, and indeed I hope those of all across the Chamber, to the firefighter who is in a serious condition following the blaze in Edinburgh just a few days ago?

May I ask the Prime what advice he would have for individuals seeking to protect their personal finances? Should they seek out a future chair of the BBC to help secure an £800,000 loan, should they set up a trust in Gibraltar and hope that HMRC simply does not notice, or should they do as others have done and simply apply for non-dom status?

Let me share in the hon. Gentleman’s expressions of sympathy to the families concerned and to the firefighter who is currently in hospital. I am sorry to hear that, and I wish him a speedy recovery.

I am proud of this Government’s record of supporting the most vulnerable in our society: this winter, helping all families—£900—with their energy bills; raising the national living wage to record levels; and ensuring that our pensioners get the support they need. That is what this Government are doing to ensure financial security in this country.

I am not sure what question the Prime Minister thought I asked, but that certainly was not it. Let us be clear about this: this is now a matter of the Prime Minister’s own integrity and accountability. After all, when there were questions about the Home Secretary and concerns about her role in relation to national security, he chose to back her. Now, he is choosing to back the chair of the Tory party, despite a £5 million penalty from HMRC, and of course he is seeking to protect the former Prime Minister despite his cosy financial relationship with the chair of the BBC. Is it little wonder that people in Scotland may well consider the Tory party to be a parcel of rogues?

What I am standing up for is proper due process. That is why we have an independent adviser. It is right that the independent adviser conducts his investigation. That is how we will ensure accountability, and that is what I will deliver.

Q9. Despite having less than 5% of England’s population, Wales has almost 40 times more people waiting more than two years for NHS treatment—a sad case of “devolve and forget”, unfortunately, which does a disservice to my constituents in Delyn. Will the Prime Minister confirm that the UK Government remain concerned about the healthcare of the people in Wales, and with north Wales health board having been in “special measures” for eight years, can he come up with a way of putting the Welsh Labour Government in it too? (903278)

As the hon. Gentleman highlights, the NHS right across our Union is facing pressure because of some of the challenges of flu and covid in particular causing high bed occupancy this winter. We are focused on delivering on the people’s priorities and bringing down the backlog. We have currently already eliminated waits of over two years and, as the hon. Gentleman says, there is more to go. That is why our investment this week into mental health treatment will ensure that we can ease the pressure further in A&E, and I continue to deliver that across the country.

I echo the comments of the Prime Minister in relation to Holocaust Memorial Day, and as we think of the situation in Ukraine, we also extend our best wishes to President Zelensky on his birthday.

Freedom of religion or belief is important in this country. Isabel Vaughan-Spruce was praying silently outside an abortion clinic in Birmingham when she was arrested and questioned by the police, not about her written or spoken words, but about her thoughts. We value freedom of religion or belief in this country. Will the Prime Minister commit himself to examining the laws of the United Kingdom to ensure that this country remains a beacon for freedom of religion or belief across the world?

Of course we believe in freedom of religious expression and belief in this country, but we are also balancing that with the rights of women to seek legal and safe abortions. That is currently being discussed in this Parliament. These are always matters of a free vote, and I know that Members will treat them with the sensitivity they deserve.

Q11.   Innocent civilians are being murdered in Ukraine on Putin’s orders as we speak, and as we sit in a warmed House of Commons, families are freezing because their electricity has been cut off by Russian forces. Putin believes that Ukraine is more important to him than to the free world, and is moving to a full war footing. Ukrainians must make gains on the battlefield, and the next six months are crucial. They need a full range of weapons—air defence, artillery, longer-range missiles, and tanks—and enough to make a real difference. The UK has shown great leadership on this issue, so may I ask my right hon. Friend to use every means at his disposal, domestic and international, to honour the courage of the people of Ukraine, and to defend the whole world order, because ultimately that is what we are talking about? (903280)

I have made it clear that the UK and our allies must accelerate our efforts to ensure that Ukraine wins this war and secures a lasting peace. Last year the United Kingdom provided £2.3 billion in military aid to Ukraine, the largest package of support of any European nation, and we will at least match that again this year. As my right hon. Friend knows, last week I announced that we would gift many battle tanks as part of the next major package of UK support to Ukraine, and I am pleased that our friends and allies are preparing to follow our lead.

Q3. Mr Speaker, London has it all: prime property, shopping, schools, and even the perfect time zone for money laundering. While there has been movement with Russian oligarchs, it is not just them, and we know that there are relatives of regimes that Members across the House condemn that are running bogus Islamic centres as fronts to stash their dirty cash, among other things. When will the National Crime Agency be adequately financed, so that we can be a world leader in anti-corruption, as we promised in 2016? Or is there a lack of political will to upset the apple cart? (903272)

The hon. Lady should know that we are currently in the process of legislating the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill, which puts in place many more measures to allow us to tackle some of the issues she raises. It also introduces the economic crime levy, which will provide considerably more funding to tackle economic crime in the UK.

Q12. The trans-Pennine rail upgrade is under way, which is good news, with stations in Slaithwaite and Marsden getting improvements. Not such good news are the dozens of daily rail service cancellations by TransPennine Express, which are causing absolute misery for my constituents who are trying to get to work, to college, or to visit family and friends. The franchise is up in May. Does the Prime Minister agree that enough is enough, and that if TransPennine Express does not get to grips with this we need to strip it of the franchise and get in somebody who will deliver reliable rail services for my constituents? (903281)

We have been clear that the current service is simply not acceptable. Rail North Partnership is working with the company on a service improvement plan, and my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department for Transport, (Huw Merriman) is having weekly meetings with them. As my hon. Friend points out, the TransPennine Express contract expires in May, and while there are currently discussions about that new contract, if Ministers conclude that the operator cannot be turned around, other decisions may be made.

Q5. Refugees and campaigners are gathered today outside Parliament to highlight the impact of the hostile environment—from Rwanda, to deaths in the channel and the latest scandal of missing children—on people in the migration and asylum system. Rather than cruel gimmicks such as Rwanda, is not the best way of deterring child crossings, saving lives and breaking the business model of criminal gangs the introduction of safe and legal routes to claim asylum? (903274)

This is about fairness. It is about fairness for those who seek to come here legally, and it is about fairness for those who are here and our ability to integrate and support those we want to. What we will do is break the cycle of criminal gangs who are causing untold misery and leading to deaths in the channel. That is why we will introduce legislation that makes it clear that if you come here illegally, we will be able to detain you and swiftly remove you to a safe third country. That is a reasonable and common-sense approach that the vast majority of the British public support.

Q13. The Prime Minister will be aware of my concern that mental health patients should not be forced into accident and emergency departments when what they really need is specialist care. Will he say more about the extra money that is being made available for urgent mental health care facilities and what impact he thinks that will have on the treatment of mental health patients and the general situation in A&E departments? (903282)

My right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right. People in mental health crisis deserve compassionate care in a safe and appropriate setting. Too often, they end up in A&E when they should be receiving specialist treatment elsewhere. This week’s announcement on mental health ambulances, crisis cafés, crisis houses and mental health urgent treatment centres will ensure that patients get the vital help that they need while easing pressures on emergency departments and freeing up staff time. He is absolutely right to highlight the issue. Our announcement will make a major difference.

Q6. This week, as a trustee of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, I was honoured to hear from Lia Lesser, a holocaust survivor who came to this country by herself at the age of eight because her parents believed tat the UK was a safe haven for vulnerable children. I also read the Government’s own statistics that say 200 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children were missing from hotels in the UK. Ministers have admitted that they have no idea about the whereabouts of those children. Does the Prime Minister think that the UK is still a safe haven for vulnerable children? (903275)

Over the last few years, the United Kingdom has opened up its hearts and homes to hundreds of thousands of people from Syria, Afghanistan, Ukraine and Hong Kong and provided refuge and sanctuary to many children in that process, but the reports that we have read about are concerning. Local authorities have a statutory duty to protect all children regardless of where they go missing from, and in that situation they work closely with local agencies, including the police, to establish their whereabouts. That is why it is so important that we end the use of hotels for unaccompanied asylum seekers and reduce pressure on the overall system. That is what our plans will do.

Constituents in Southend and Rochford very much welcome the energy bills support scheme, which has helped 99% of households around the United Kingdom with rising fuel prices despite Putin’s barbaric war in Ukraine. Will the Prime Minister assure my constituents and the House that he is committed to continuing to help with the cost of living not only this winter but next winter?

My hon. Friend is right about the Government’s commitment to support all families with the cost of living: this winter, about £900 of support. Next year, as the energy price guarantee evolves, it will still be there with about £500 of support for families. That comes on top of record increases in the national living wage, worth about £1,600, and supporting our pensioners and the most vulnerable by inflating their benefits and pensions with inflation.

Q7. In 2021, the Government enabled Yevgeny Prigozhin, the former chef to Putin and founder of the Wagner Group, to dodge UK sanctions to pursue a case in London against British journalist Eliot Higgins, who had exposed his link to the Wagner Group. Prigozhin believed that silencing Higgins would get his sanctions lifted. The overriding of UK sanctions was approved by the Treasury when the Prime Minister was Chancellor. Prigozhin’s English lawyers wrote that serving notice on Higgins “will require Treasury approval”. What values did the Prime Minister apply when he allowed a Putin warlord to use our courts to try to silence a British journalist and undermine UK sanctions? (903276)

I am proud of our record in leading when it comes to sanctioning those people connected with the Putin regime. I think, at last count, we have sanctioned over 1,000 people and frozen tens of billions of pounds of assets. I am aware of the case the hon. Gentleman has raised, and we are looking at it. There is, as he knows, the Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation, which deals with the licensing situations in these matters, but I am happy to get back to him on the specific case that he raised.

May I echo my right hon. Friend’s comments on the importance of Holocaust Memorial Day and welcome his renewed commitment today regarding the holocaust memorial and learning centre? Will he join me in encouraging Members from across the House to sign the Holocaust Educational Trust’s book of commitment, which will be in Parliament today and tomorrow, and pledge to remember the holocaust, fight antisemitism and support the important work of the Holocaust Educational Trust?

I thank my hon. Friend. As I said earlier, we will legislate to help build the holocaust memorial and learning centre next to Parliament to serve as a powerful reminder of the holocaust, its victims and where prejudice can lead if unchallenged. I also join her in thanking the Holocaust Educational Trust for its fantastic work and in encouraging all Members to sign the book of commitment, as I will be doing later today.

Q8. A week ago my constituent Alireza Akbari was executed by order of the regime in Iran. In the three years preceding and the days following his murder, the UK Government made little effort to protect the life or protest the death of a British national. Tomorrow Mr Akbari’s family and I meet the Foreign Office Minister, Lord Ahmad. They want to hear what help the Government can offer them at the time of their greatest suffering. Today this House wants to hear from the Prime Minister what sanction he will impose on the regime beyond the trifling steps taken so far. First and foremost, will he show some courage, follow the lead of the United States and the European Parliament and proscribe the entire revolutionary guard corps as a terrorist organisation? (903277)

The regime is prolonging the suffering of the family, and it is sadly typical of its disregard for basic human dignity. I spoke about my views on Iran when I was before the Liaison Committee, and Iran must now provide answers about the circumstances of Alireza Akbari’s death and burial. We have actually pressed the Iranian regime formally through their chargé d’affaires in London and the Foreign Ministry in Tehran, and we will continue to do so until the family get the answers they deserve. We have also sanctioned several people connected with the case.

I thank the Prime Minister and the Chancellor for visiting Hyndburn and Haslingden last week to hear about the transformative difference that the levelling-up funding will make. This is a historic investment, with over £40 million secured. Does he agree that we are delivering on exactly what was promised in 2019 to the areas that were most forgotten, such as Hyndburn and Haslingden? Will he visit once works are completed to see the difference himself?

My hon. Friend is a fantastic champion for her local community, and the results showed when the Chancellor and I were lucky enough to visit her last week. As she and many of the people we spoke to pointed out, this was an area that had been forgotten and neglected for decades, but it is this Government who are putting in the investment, spreading opportunity, making jobs and making sure that people can feel enormously proud of the place they call home.

Q10. Does the Prime Minister realise that most people in my constituency think it is his role to keep our country safe? Is he aware that in all the years I have been in Parliament, I have never heard of a situation where our Army and armed forces are so run down that the Chairman of the Defence Committee and the Secretary of State for Defence both say that our armed forces have been hollowed out and are unfit to put a division into active service? What is he going to do about that? (903279)

The hon. Gentleman seems to forget the fact that we have invested an extra £24 billion in our armed services. That is a record uplift in defence spending and ensures that we are one of the leading spenders on defence in NATO. We will continue to ensure we have one of the best-equipped fighting forces anywhere in the world. As we can see from the recent announcement on tanks, we continue to lead the world when it comes to standing up for not just our safety, but the safety of our allies around the world.

As a former firefighter, I am sure the whole House will pray for the firefighter in Scotland who is today fighting for his life. Our emergency services go one way, into the danger, while we go the other way. Our thoughts and prayers should be with them.

Dacorum Borough Council, the Conservative-led council in my constituency, has done a fantastic job of building new houses, including social housing and council houses. Can the Prime Minister assure me that we will not be pushed into the green belt any more than we already have been and that we can protect the Chilterns in my constituency?

I join my right hon. Friend in praising his local council for ensuring we build homes in the right places so that our young people can fulfil the dream of home ownership. He is also right to say that this Government will always protect our precious green spaces. The recent changes in our planning reforms will ensure that we can protect the green belt everywhere. His local community and others will benefit from those protections as we keep our local areas beautiful.

Q14. UK in a Changing Europe reports that, at the end of 2022, 60% of voters said their cost of living had increased and 38% said that their personal finances had been negatively affected by our not being a member of the European Union. The Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts a 4% reduction in GDP, only two fifths of which has already happened, so surely the Prime Minister will agree with me, the electorate and the experts that Brexit has served only to exacerbate the cost of living and economic challenges facing these islands? (903283)

Russia’s illegal war in Ukraine and the impact it has had on energy supplies has nothing to do with Brexit. What we are doing is ensuring that we can support families with those cost of living pressures. That is why we provided £900 of support this winter for energy bills, and that is why we are increasing the national living wage to record levels. We will continue to stand behind Britain’s families until we can bring inflation back down to where it belongs.

I know the Prime Minister will share my concern at the news this morning that 730 people may lose their jobs at the 2 Sisters chicken factory in Llangefni, one of the largest employers on Ynys Môn. What support can the Government offer both to my constituents who are affected by this devastating news and to the wider the community at this difficult time?

I am very sorry to hear about the job losses my hon. Friend raises. My thoughts are with those affected and their families. I know how distressing that will be for them. I am pleased to say that the Department for Work and Pensions has procedures in place to support communities when situations like this arise. We will work very closely with her to do what we are doing everywhere across the country, which is providing good well-paid jobs for everyone, because that is the best way to build a happy and secure life.

Q15. Exercise is essential for both physical and mental wellbeing, but with spiralling energy costs many venues, such as the Freedom Leisure centres in my constituency, are struggling to cope. While some sectors will receive extra support, the sport and leisure industry will not. If the Prime Minister agrees with me that the sector is vital to the long-term health of our communities, why are his Government not providing it with the financial support it needs to thrive? (903284)

Of course I agree with the hon. Lady that exercise and leisure centres are important. That is why we provided significant support to them during covid and beyond. With regard to energy prices now, the Chancellor set out the new relief scheme that will run after the current one expires. It provides considerable support to all sorts of organisations up and down the country. I am sure it will benefit many businesses and organisations in her constituency.

Order. I understand that the case referred to by the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) is currently before the courts. It is therefore covered by the House’s sub judice resolution and should not be referred to in this House. It is, of course, open to any Member to ask that I waive the resolution in a particular case, but that has not happened in this case and therefore it should not be discussed at all. I will leave it at that.

Yes, Mr Speaker. My apologies: I forgot to refer the House to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests on the support that I receive from RAMP—the Refugee, Asylum and Migration Policy project—and my co-chairship of the all-party parliamentary group on migration.