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Volume 727: debated on Wednesday 1 February 2023

I know the whole House will want to join me in sending condolences to the First Minister of Wales on the death of his wife, Clare. From the warmth of the tributes, I know how much she will be missed.

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

As the Prime Minister reaches 100 days in office this week, having pledged a Government marked by integrity, what are his thoughts on the UK being one of only five countries, along with Oman, Azerbaijan, Myanmar and Qatar, to have seen a decrease in Transparency International’s corruption index score since last year?

In fact, there is widespread recognition and support for the UK’s approach to transparency and tackling corruption. Indeed, the most recent report from the Financial Action Task Force commended the UK for the steps it had taken.

Q3. I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Arts Council England was established to increase access to great art for the population. There is real concern and anger that its current funding decisions do the exact reverse of that, on the basis of inadequate evidence and a lack of transparency in the process. Will my right hon. Friend meet me and other concerned Members to discuss the situation whereby centres of national excellence, such as the English National Opera, are at risk of closure, and how we can reform the operation of the Arts Council, which many people feel is no longer fit for purpose? (903450)

I know my hon. Friend cares deeply about this issue. He will know that decisions made by the Arts Council are taken at arm’s length from Government. Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Ministers have been assured that that process was robust, but I will ensure that he gets a meeting with the relevant Minister to discuss this important matter further.

May I join the Prime Minister in his words about the First Minister of Wales and the sad loss of his wife? Everybody knows just how close they were, and I know he is absolutely devastated by her loss.

When the Prime Minister briefly emerged from his hibernation at the weekend, he raised more questions than he answered, so in the interests of integrity and accountability, can he set the record straight? Did his now former chair, the right hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), tell Government officials that he was under investigation by the taxman before or after the Prime Minister appointed him?

I appointed the independent adviser to investigate this matter fully. He set out his findings in detail over the weekend and, on receipt of those findings, I took action. I refer the right hon. and learned Gentleman to the independent adviser’s report.

Oh, come on! Anybody picking up a newspaper in July last year would have known that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the National Crime Agency were investigating months before the Prime Minister appointed the right hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon. The Independent said on 6 July:

“New chancellor’s finances secretly investigated by National Crime Agency.”

The Observer said three days later, on 9 July:

“Revealed: officials raised ‘flag’ over…tax affairs before he was appointed chancellor”.

The Financial Times the next day, 10 July, said:

“Pressure builds…to explain his finances.”

Is the Prime Minister saying that his officials hid this information from him, or was he just too incurious to ask any questions?

As I have said before at the Dispatch Box, the usual appointments process was followed with respect to the Minister without Portfolio. No issues were raised with me at the time of his appointment, but as the independent adviser’s report makes clear, there was a serious breach of the ministerial code. That is why I took decisive action on receipt of that report.

So, in relation to his former chair, the Prime Minister’s defence is, “Nobody told me. I didn’t know. I didn’t ask any questions.” Will he now also claim—[Interruption.]

Order. Mr Gullis, we heard enough last week. I might not be able to hear what you are saying but I can certainly see your mouth moving. It will be moving outside if it continues.

Is the Prime Minister now going to claim that he is the only person who was completely unaware of serious allegations of bullying against the Deputy Prime Minister before he appointed him?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman asks what was known. I followed due process. I appointed an independent adviser as soon as I was made aware of new information. The independent adviser has conducted his process. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman is so concerned about what people are saying and about behaviour in public life, recently, one of his own MPs was forced to speak out because being in his party had reminded her of being in an abusive relationship. Then, his own office was caught undermining her. He ought to be supporting her and her colleagues, but if he cannot be trusted to stand up for the women in his party, he cannot be trusted to stand up for Britain.

At the last count, the Deputy Prime Minister was facing 24 separate allegations of bullying. According to recent reports, some of the complainants were physically sick. One says that they were left suicidal. How would the Prime Minister feel if one of his friends or relatives was forced to work for a bully simply because the man at the top was too weak to do anything about it?

I notice that the right hon. and learned Gentleman did not say anything about how one of his own MPs describes being in his party. When I was made aware of formal complaints, I instructed a leading independent King’s counsel to conduct an investigation, because I take action when these things happen.

What did the right hon. and learned Gentleman say at the weekend? He said that hate had been allowed to “spread unchallenged” in the Labour party under his predecessor. He was speaking as if he was not even there, but he was sitting right next to the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), supporting him for four long years and not challenging. That is typical of the right hon. and learned Gentleman—declining to lead, sitting on the fence, carping from the sidelines and never standing up for a principle that matters. [Interruption.]

Order. I want to hear both sides. I will not be interrupted by either side. I am particularly looking for people who continue, because we will sort it out today.

The Prime Minister is just like one of his predecessors who treated questions about conduct as something to brush off, and thought that ducking responsibility was a perfectly reasonable response from a Prime Minister. In fairness, at least his predecessor did not go around pretending he was a paragon of integrity and accountability. On that subject, was it a coincidence that the two people who arranged an £800,000 line of credit for the former Prime Minister were shortlisted for plum jobs at the BBC and the British Council?

As I said when we addressed this previously, the appointments process for the BBC chairman is rigorous, transparent and set out in a public code of conduct. Indeed, it was fully supported not just by expert panel members but by the cross-party Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, which included Labour Members who described the appointment as impressive.

Back to this week and what is happening to the people of this country, the right hon. and learned Gentleman voted with the unions to oppose minimum safety levels. He voted with Just Stop Oil to water down the Public Order Bill. What do the unions and Just Stop Oil have in common? They bankroll him and his party. While he sides with extremist protesters and union bosses, we stand up for hard-working Britons and schoolchildren.

After 13 years in power, trying to blame the Labour party for the Prime Minister’s failure to sort out the strikes is rank pathetic. The Tory party’s addiction to sleaze and scandal has done huge damage to this country, and the cost to the public keeps adding up. We have a justice system letting murderers walk the streets, heart attack victims waiting hours for an ambulance, and an economy that is shrinking quicker than the his leadership. Even I could not quite believe it when I saw that his Government are expecting taxpayers to pay the legal fees for the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) to defend himself over his lockdown rule breaking—a quarter of a million pounds! Surely even this Prime Minister can put his foot down, stand up to his old boss and tell him: he made the mess, he can pick up the bill.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman cannot stand up to his union bosses, he cannot stand up for Britain’s schoolchildren today and he cannot stand up for the women in his party. We are getting on: we are halving inflation, we are growing the economy, we are reducing debt, we are cutting waiting lists and we are stopping the boats. While he cannot even figure out what he believes in, we will keep delivering for Britain.

Q4. Does my right hon. Friend agree that integrated care boards must prioritise more access to new GP services, especially in places such as South Derbyshire, where new housing estates are being built at the fastest rate in England, and in particular on the new brownfield development of Drakelow? (903451)

The Government are committed to increasing the number of doctors in general practice, and last year saw the highest ever number of doctors accepting a GP training place. The British Medical Association is consulting each year on the funding of GP services. My hon. Friend will know that the NHS has a statutory duty to ensure sufficient medical services, including general practice, in each local area.

I would like to pass on my condolences and those of my party to the First Minister of Wales, and also to the family, friends and colleagues of firefighter Barry Martin, who so sadly lost his life following the blaze in Edinburgh last week.

We have just marked the three-year anniversary of Brexit. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] Government Members will not be cheering in a moment, because we have learned three things: the UK’s trade deficit has grown, the economy is being hit to the tune of £100 billion each year and, of course, the UK is expected to have the worst-performing economy of all advanced nations. Does the Prime Minister still believe that the UK can afford not to be in the European Union?

If the hon. Member actually looks at it, since Brexit the UK has grown exactly the same as Germany. Not only that, but we are taking advantage of Brexit to deliver for people across the UK, whether that is in the fishing and farming communities of Scotland or through the two new freeports that we have just announced. The difference between his party and ours is that we respect referendums.

Let us be clear: taken together, 2022 and 2023 are expected to be the worst years for living standards since the 1930s, and the economy is expected to perform worse than sanction-hit Russia’s. As the Brexit ship sinks with the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition at the helm, can the Prime Minister blame those Scots who want to jump aboard the independence lifeboat?

The No. 1 factor that is impacting people’s living standards is inflation caused by high energy prices as a result of a war in Ukraine; it has nothing to do with Brexit. That is why the Government are taking significant action, supporting every family with £900 this winter. What I would say to the hon. Gentleman is that rather than obsessing about constitutional arrangements, he should focus on delivering for the people of Scotland. That is what we will do.

Q5. The baby daughter of my constituents Gary and Sarah Andrews, Wynter died just 23 minutes after she was born. When they asked questions about that, the parents were told that these things happened and that if hospitals had to listen to the concerns of every mother they would be overrun. Thanks to dogged campaigning by Gary and Sarah and other parents whose babies had died avoidably, Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust was found to have systemic failures, and last week was given the highest fine that has ever been given for failings in maternity care. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this case—this situation—has to serve as a watershed moment, and that we should not just have the highest standards of maternity care, but when things go wrong in an NHS trust or another body, those organisations have to be open, honest and transparent about their failings so that people can get the truth, and not have it hidden from them? (903452)

I am very sorry to hear about the tragic case that my hon. Friend raises, and the whole House will join me in sending our thoughts to Gary and Sarah. We want to make sure that the NHS is the best and safest place in the world to give birth. The NHS has taken steps to improve, but cases such as the one that he raises highlight the fact that more must be done. Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust is receiving support from expert maternity improvement advisers and, nationally, the royal college is implementing recommendations from the independent Ockenden report, together with £127 million of extra investment. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: when situations like this arise, transparency is paramount so that we can seek answers and make improvements.

It is nearly 10 years since the tragic death of nine-year-old Ella Roberta, the first person ever to have air pollution listed on their death certificate. Yesterday, the environmental improvement plan pledged to improve air quality, but the Government’s target of 2040 is a whole generation away. I do not think that that is fast enough, and neither does Ella’s mum, Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah. So I ask on her mum’s behalf: will the Prime Minister agree to meet us both to discuss the lifesaving measures in a proposed new Bill called Ella’s law?

It is very sad to hear the case of Ella, and our thoughts and hearts go out to her family. Regarding the legislation, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will make a statement later today. We are confident that the measures we are putting in place are not only legally binding but world leading in tackling air quality. The record over the past 10 years is one in which every single air particulate has been reduced, with binding targets to continue reducing them in future. Indeed, the Environment Act 2021 makes sure that we have the capability, accountability and ambition that we need to make all the effective interventions to drive down air pollution.

Q7.   Compared to what some people seem to believe, 82% of the jobs in our economy are in the private sector and 18% are in the public sector. Most of those private sector jobs are in the small businesses on which we will depend for wealth creation and prosperity in future. Will my right hon. Friend consider introducing a small business test across Government, so that every regulation we produce, every bit of legislation we produce, helps not hinders small businesses? Does he share my ambition that every white-van man and woman and every white-coat tech worker in this country will regard the Conservative party as their natural champion? (903454)

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. This Government are proud to join him in supporting small businesses. I am pleased to tell him that we do have a small business test to consider whether the impacts of regulatory changes will disproportionately affect small and micro-businesses. I will make sure that we apply that test rigorously, and he will be pleased to know that many small businesses will benefit from billions of pounds in business-rate reductions this coming financial year, as well as from our annual investment allowance which, at £1 million, is the most generous tax incentive for investment for small businesses anywhere in the world.

Q2. This morning, just two hours ago, I launched the all-party parliamentary group on prepayment meters. I did so because most people on those meters are on very low incomes, yet they pay more per unit of energy than the Prime Minister, they pay higher daily standing charges than the Prime Minister, and they are automatically disconnected from their energy supply the second they run out of money. Perversely, right now, record numbers of people are being forced to use them by the energy companies. Can the Prime Minister even begin to imagine how terrifying that moment is, when the lights go out and everything shuts down? Does he agree with me—rather than reading out what is written in front of him—that what I have just described is completely unfair? (903449)

The Government do recognise the challenges facing those on prepayment meters, and that is why the Government are taking action. The Secretary of State has set out five very specific points on prepayment meters. Energy suppliers are being spoken to to make sure that they treat customers with the respect and flexibility that they deserve. Finally, Ofgem has announced that it is launching a review into supplier practices in relation to prepayment meters. All of this comes on top of the considerable financial support that this Government have provided to help people with their energy bills, with more of that support being targeted at the most vulnerable families in our society.

Q8. After 8,000 residents of Redditch signed my petition to bring back chemotherapy to the Alex, the trust reversed its decision to leave it at Kidderminster permanently—a fantastic win for our town. I am grateful to the local acute trust for listening so carefully and changing its mind. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is right that the acute trust can change its mind on provision of maternity and paediatric services, so that women can give birth in our wonderful town of Redditch? (903456)

My hon. Friend has clearly been a fantastic advocate for the Alex and for her constituents. We have awarded £10.5 million to the local trust, and I understand that some of that funding is being used to improve maternity and paediatric services at the nearby Worcestershire Royal. She will know that these operational decisions are being made by integrated care boards, and I know that she will continue to make her views known.

Q6.   If I had £1 for every time I had heard the Prime Minister’s weak excuses, I would be able to pay the former Chancellor’s tax Bill. It was last July that it was reported that the National Crime Agency had investigated the right hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi). The then Prime Minister knew. The media knew. We all knew. It is inconceivable that the current Prime Minister did not know, so why did he choose to ignore it? (903453)

I appointed an independent adviser to fully examine the matter, establish facts and report back. That is the process that the Labour party called for, and that is the process that we followed.

Q10. Two years ago, the Prime Minister commissioned me to propose 30 ways to boost growth and make Britain the most competitive country in the world. So far, we are under way with about half of them, but some of the most valuable, such as reforming ponderous and expensive utilities regulators or building on our international lead in open banking, have not moved at all. Will he meet me to discuss how to channel our inner Nigel Lawsons and unblock the arteries of our economy with low-cost, pro-competition supply-side reforms? (903458)

My hon. Friend has a long track record of advocating for and implementing policies that increase our competitiveness and reform the supply side of our economy. His report was fantastic, and I look forward to meeting him to discuss those things further and help drive growth in this country.

Q9. Ambulance waiting times are out of control. My constituent contacted me regarding her 93-year-old mother, who lay collapsed on the ground at home for 17 hours and then queued for 13 hours to get into the hospital. And yet on Monday the Prime Minister said he had his “fingers crossed” that ambulance waiting times would be reduced. Does he really think that is enough? (903457)

If the hon. Lady actually looks, she will see that we published on Monday a comprehensive plan to reduce wait times in A&E and for ambulances, backed with more funding, reform of the system, more beds, more ambulances and more staff. It was a plan that was warmly welcomed by all working in emergency care and the ambulance services. They recognise that this plan will deliver reduced waiting times and improve care across the country, including in Labour-run Wales, where there are some things they can benefit from.

Q12.   If someone who grows up in Norfolk wants to become a dentist, the nearest place they can train is Birmingham or London. It is not really surprising, therefore, that in Norfolk we have a dearth of dentists, whether NHS or private. We also know that where there is a dental training school, more dentists end up working locally. Will my right hon. Friend agree to look again at the benefits of establishing a dental training school alongside the excellent medical school at the University of East Anglia? (903460)

My hon. Friend will know that there are around 400 dentists with NHS activity in Norfolk and Waveney, but he is right that centres of dental development build on existing local infrastructure to help to retain and recruit dentists, and I advise him to encourage his local integrated care board to look at proposals for one of those centres in his area.

Q11. The Prime Minister once said that he did not have any working-class friends, so he may not be aware that today half a million hard-working people are on strike, including in his constituency. Tory Britain is not working. Will the Prime Minister get a grip and negotiate with working people, or does he intend to be remembered as the Prime Minister who silenced and sacked hard-working nurses, paramedics, teachers, rail workers and firefighters in a cost of living crisis? (903459)

When it comes to teachers, we have actually given them the highest pay rise in 30 years. That includes a 9% pay rise for newly qualified teachers and record investment in their training and development. I am clear that our children’s education is precious, and they deserve to be in school today being taught. The Labour party would do well to say that the strikes are wrong and that we should be backing our schoolchildren.

Q14. Sadly, suicide is the biggest killer of young people under 35 in the UK. Andy Airey, my constituent, Tim Owen and Mike Palmer are the Three Dads Walking. Andy, Tim and Mike all tragically lost their precious daughters, Sophie, Emily and Beth, to suicide, and have campaigned tirelessly through charity walks for suicide awareness and prevention to be included in the school curriculum. I have been humbled to support them, by joining them on their UK walk as they came through Penrith; with their petition, which is due for parliamentary debate on 13 March; and with my early-day motion, which has had support from across the House. Will the Prime Minister join me in paying tribute to the three dads and will he meet me and them to discuss suicide prevention and how we can save young lives in the future? (903462)

Of course I pay tribute to Andy, Tim and Mike, especially for channelling their personal tragedies into such positive action to prevent it from happening to other families. That is inspiring and they deserve enormous credit. The Government are taking action to improve the provision of mental health services for young people in schools and colleges, but I will be delighted to meet him and Andy, Mike and Tim to discuss what more we can do.

Q13. I thank hon. Members for that welcome. Ordinary people did not need to hear an IMF forecast to understand that the UK economy is the worst performer among the leading nations in the world. They live with it every day. People know that energy bills are through the roof and that 750,000 households face defaulting on their mortgages while house prices fall. They know that food prices are rising at a record rate of 16.7% as of today. The Prime Minister has had 100 days in office and his party 13 years in power. In all that time, does he ever reflect that the only thing that the Tory party has been good at is pushing people into poverty? (903461)

Aah, it is wonderful to hear from the right hon. Gentleman and lovely to see him in his place. We are continuing to deliver for people across the UK, including in Scotland. He mentioned poverty, which is lower today than when the Conservatives first came into office; inequality is lower than when the Conservatives first came into office; and the number of people on low pay is the lowest on record.

Today in my constituency, there is a great sense of shock and disbelief following last night’s horrific dog attack that killed a four-year-old girl. The police investigation is still going on, and it would not be appropriate to speculate on the circumstances, but it would mean a great deal if, on behalf of the House, the Prime Minister could send our condolences to the family and the community, and thank the emergency services for dealing with the situation with their customary compassion and professionalism.

I thank my hon. Friend and send my condolences, and I am sure the whole House’s condolences, to the girl’s family and the community after this horrific incident. I join him in thanking the emergency services. They have responded rapidly and professionally, and I know that my hon. Friend himself will be supporting them and his constituents during this difficult time.

Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker. [Interruption.] Can I blame the painkillers? Apologies, Mr Speaker.

This past weekend, I visited a charity that was hosting an exhibition in my constituency about metastatic breast cancer, which claims 31 lives each day in the United Kingdom. The women there asked me to convey to the Government the need for more awareness, more support, more research and more drug availability. Will the Prime Minister help to bring about that support? I have also written to the Scottish Government, asking for their support. In his next meeting with the First Minister, will he mention it to her?

I pay tribute to the charity that the hon. Lady mentioned for the work it does. She is absolutely right: awareness is key in tackling and identifying breast cancer symptoms early. That is one of the reasons why we are investing more in diagnostic screening tools to make sure that we can detect more cancers earlier, treat them and, ultimately, save people’s lives. I would be happy to pick up this particular topic with the First Minister when I next speak to her and ensure that we are working together to improve cancer services for everyone, regardless of where they live in the UK.

Will the Prime Minister kindly confirm to the House that, in the United Kingdom Government’s negotiations with the EU regarding the Northern Ireland protocol, the sovereignty of the United Kingdom and its four nations will not be compromised?

I can give my right hon. Friend that assurance. I know this is something that he cares passionately about. The implementation of the protocol is having an impact for communities in Northern Ireland. That is why it needs to be addressed, which is what we are attempting to do through constructive dialogue, but the goal in that must be to ensure Northern Ireland’s place in our precious Union.

Since the election of the fascist Israeli Government in December last year, there has been an increase in human rights violations against Palestinian civilians, including children. Can the Prime Minister tell us how he is challenging what Amnesty and other human rights organisations are referring to as an apartheid state?

The hon. Lady failed to mention the horrific attacks on civilians inside Israel as well. It is important in this matter to remain calm and urge all sides to strive for peace, and that is very much what I will do as Prime Minister and have done in the conversations that I have had with the Israeli Prime Minister.

In 2016, the British people had the wisdom and foresight to take back control from foreign lawmakers. When they did so, they believed we were taking back control of our borders, yet since that time we have faced wave after wave of illegal migration. Will my right hon. Friend, without further delay, bring forward the necessary legislation to turn back the tide and fulfil the promise that was made to the British people?

My right hon. Friend makes an excellent point. That is why one of this Government’s five priorities and promises to the British people is indeed to stop the boats. We will introduce new legislation that makes it unequivocally clear that if you arrive in this country illegally, you will not be to stay, and we will swiftly detain you and remove you to your own country or a safe third alternative. That is the right and responsible way to tackle this problem.