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Commons Chamber

Volume 727: debated on Wednesday 1 February 2023

House of Commons

Wednesday 1 February 2023

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Attorney General

The Attorney General was asked—

Violence against Women and Girls: Prosecution Rates

1. What steps she is taking to increase the proportion of cases relating to violence against women and girls that are prosecuted. (903433)

Tackling violence against women and girls remains one of the Government’s top priorities, and we are doing all we can to make streets and homes safer. We are prioritising prevention, supporting survivors and strengthening our pursuit of aggressors.

It is a well-known national scandal that only 3% of rape cases have led to charges against the perpetrator. Locally, Avon and Somerset police are making big strides towards change. They have tripled charge rates, are bringing more cases to the Crown Prosecution Service and have changed their investigative focus from the victim to the perpetrator. I am immensely proud of this progress, and I hope that my local area could become part of the ongoing pilot for specialist rape courts. Can the Attorney General confirm when a decision on the further roll-out of specialist rape courts will be made? Will my local Crown court be considered to be part of the next stages?

Evidence is being gathered from our three specialist courts, but I should emphasise that every Crown court tries rape cases and will benefit from the learning. The south-west, as the hon. Lady has outlined, is showing the way by demonstrating new ways of working with the police, providing specialist training to all first responders. They are also, I hear, planning a community event later this month.

Prosecution rates for the appalling crime of rape against women and girls have been too low across the country. What impact does my right hon. and learned Friend believe that Operation Soteria will have on prosecuting cases of rape?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. She is always a great advocate for vulnerable people. Operation Soteria is focused on delivering cultural transformation in the investigation of rape offences. It looks to ensure that the victim is well supported and the case thoroughly investigated. I was glad to see joint working between the police and CPS when I visited Leeds last Friday. They are working closely together and, crucially, with support services such as independent sexual violence advisers to make sure we really deliver for victims.

A recent revelation in Northern Ireland is that a man was punished with 140 hours of community service after domestically assaulting his wife on two different occasions. What steps will the Attorney General take to ensure that harsher sentences are given to those guilty of inflicting violence on women? We need harsher sentences.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that important case. Sentencing is, of course, a matter for the independent judiciary, the Ministry of Justice and the Sentencing Council. I know that he shares the Government’s desire to do all we can to make sure that the victims of violence against women and girls get justice.

Does the Attorney General agree that the Crown Prosecution Service is very dependent on the quality of the investigation from the outset? I therefore welcome this joint working, which is something that had been hoped for over many years and seems to be delivering results. I do not know whether she has anything she can say about its roll-out to the country as a whole.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his question. I know that this is something he has personally been working on for many years. It is true to say that joint working is the answer, and in Leeds on Friday I was able to see a police gatekeeper—that is what he is called, but I think a better word would be “interpreter”—who was able to work between the lawyers and the victim and witnesses and ensure that the case was investigated properly right from the beginning and that disclosure was managed in a sensible way.

Access to Justice

2. What recent assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the Crown Prosecution Service in ensuring access to justice for victims of crime. (903434)

All victims of crime deserve the right support, and the CPS has published the findings of independent research and is implementing changes based on that to deliver what victims need. There is new and innovative victim communication for half of CPS areas.

Justice delayed is justice denied, but as of September 2022 more than 17,300 Crown court cases had been outstanding for a year or more, and nearly 5,000 had been outstanding for more than two years. What does the Attorney General have to say to the victims of those crimes, whose lives have been put on hold for years while waiting for their cases to be brought to justice, and to those who cannot cope with any more delay, even if that means allowing their cases to collapse?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, and the Attorney General and I are working closely with the Ministry of Justice. There has been good progress in terms of the CPS and the time it takes for cases to be heard. The most recent figures for the CPS show that it is 171 days on average, and I am determined to see that improve and decrease.

Victims of crime have already been through distressing circumstances, so can my hon. and learned Friend tell me what the CPS is doing to inform and support people to navigate the criminal justice system?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her interest in this important area. The CPS has launched a new online guide for victims, ensuring that they have access to the necessary information. She is right that accessible information is the key to supporting victims and ensuring that they can navigate the criminal justice system.

The Solicitor General will be aware that victims of crime are being badly let down, waiting months and years for their cases to come to court. That problem is being exacerbated by the fact that there is now a disparity between criminal defence barristers’ pay and that of prosecution barristers. What does he intend to do to right that wrong and put victims first?

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we should be putting victims first, and indeed we are doing so. On his specific question, the Treasury has agreed to consider the CPS funding position following publication of the criminal legal aid independent review—a report that he will know about. Discussions regarding fees and funding are ongoing, but I fully support him in putting victims first and ensuring that those cases are brought on as quickly as possible.

I put on record my thanks to the Solicitor General for his compassion and care when dealing with the very tragic case of Sharlotte-Sky, who lost her life on Endon Road in Norton Green. He will know that Claire, Sharlotte’s mother, has felt that she has been failed, because ultimately it took over a year to get simple answers from a blood test as to whether in this case someone had been drinking and on drugs. What engagement has the Solicitor General had with the Department for Transport about its review, in order to speed up answers for our police officers and, most importantly, for victims of this horrific crime?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who has diligently and vigorously pursued his constituent’s case—I well remember the Adjournment debate that he brought to this House and the important points that he raised concerning the unduly lenient sentence scheme. I am determined to work closely across Government, and I know that my hon. Friend will continue his campaign to pursue this.

Roles of Lord Chancellor and Law Officers

3. What assessment she has made of the implications for her policies of the ninth report of the House of Lords Constitution Committee, “The roles of the Lord Chancellor and the Law Officers”, HL 118, published on 18 January 2023. (903435)

I thank the House of Lords Constitution Committee for its thoughtful and detailed report, which highlights the complexity of this historic office. It is an honour to serve—to make law and politics work together at the heart of Government.

The Constitution Committee rightly says that we need Law Officers

“with the independence of mind, autonomy and strength of character to deliver impartial legal advice to the Government, even where it is unwelcome.”

I am sure that the Attorney General agrees, but can she give a single example of where her predecessor met that standard in the advice that she gave to the Government?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, but as he knows—as we all know, I think—the Attorney General’s convention means that I do not comment specifically on the advice that has been given by any holder of this office, or even whether or not advice was given.

Seriously—this is a serious matter—the report highlights some very important points about how the Law Officers work in combination, as politicians and as lawyers. That is something that I take extremely seriously myself. I know that I have duties to the court, as well as to my constituents and to the Government, and it is very important that we treat this matter with the seriousness it deserves.

I think the Attorney General has just demonstrated that she and the Solicitor General are well up to the task of internal inquiries. In welcoming the report, will she recognise that, given the Attorney General’s important role of speaking truth to power—to Government—it is also important that the Law Officers should be consulted in a timely fashion, and appropriately and fully, on any controversial matters that may have a legal aspect, and that fellow Ministers should then listen and act accordingly, consistently?

I thank my hon. Friend—he is a very learned Gentleman, on whose Committee I was extremely proud to sit for many years—for his question, which I think was more of a statement. It is important to note that the Government’s commitment to the rule of law is absolute, and I will do my very best to uphold that.

May I join the Attorney General in thanking the House of Lords Constitution Committee for this excellent report? I have to say, it is a damning indictment of the former Attorney General, but also a helpful warning for current and future holders of the post. I want to ask the Attorney General about one specific point in relation to the report. Does she agree that it would be helpful to provide greater clarity within the ministerial code on the duties of Law Officers, particularly on upholding the rule of law within Government and providing impartial legal advice regardless of political considerations—both areas that the former Attorney General fell so drastically short on?

I have looked often at the ministerial code, and I think the section that deals with legal advice is sufficient. To go back to the previous question, I note that it is suggested that the advice sought should be timely, but, as all lawyers present in the Chamber know, that is not always the way with clients, and we do our best to accommodate them. On some things, however, we can clearly be less accommodating. The rule of law is absolutely a thread that runs through the legal advice provided by the holders of this office.

May I ask about one specific area of the ministerial code that might benefit from particular clarity? Section 7 requires Ministers to inform Law Officers if they risk becoming

“involved in legal proceedings in a personal capacity,”

including when they are potential defendants or in relation to potential defamation cases, and preferably before they have instructed their own solicitors. On that basis, I ask the Attorney General to clarify two points of fact: are Ministers currently obliged to inform Law Officers if either their solicitors are sending letters to journalists threatening to sue them for libel, or they are under investigation by His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs over the non-payment of taxes?

I am not going to comment on specific cases—the right hon. Lady will understand why that is the case. I think the ministerial code allows for a certain level of wiggle room on that particular area. It is clear that when proceedings have already commenced, it is essential to ask the Law Officers’ opinion on those proceedings. However, I think she and I both know that it is not always clear at the beginning of a series of letters, which may or may not lead to proceedings, when that moment should be. I would always caution—as I am sure she would—that it would be good to involve the Law Officers at an early stage of proceedings, but I cannot comment on specific cases and whether or not that was done.

Support for Ukraine’s Judiciary

4. What steps she has taken to support Ukraine’s judiciary in their conduct of war crimes trials. (903436)

I thank my constituency neighbour for his question. This Government firmly believe in international accountability. Ukraine’s judiciary should be congratulated on prosecuting war crimes right now, in real time, during a brutal conflict. On Monday I met a delegation of Ukrainian judges in this building and heard how they are approaching this monumental task. They are grateful for our practical support, including an extensive training programme led by Sir Howard Morrison.

What assessment has the Attorney General made of the international community’s progress in bringing Russian leadership to trial for the crime of aggression in Ukraine?

The crime of aggression is one of the most significant in international criminal law. At Ukraine’s invitation, we have joined a core group of states to discuss the establishment of a bespoke tribunal. We are absolutely determined to play a leading role in ensuring international accountability for Russia’s actions.

At the moment, the international community is rightly focused on prosecuting war crimes. That is the right focus, as we hope that in so doing we will have a good effect on the behaviour of those fighting this conflict at the moment. We are undoubtedly starting to turn our minds to reparations, and there is a great deal of work going on within Government on how best to support the Ukrainians to do that. I know that the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is very involved in that.

Three weeks ago, the Secretary of State for Justice told me from the Dispatch Box that Russian war crimes would be pursued via Ukrainian domestic courts and the International Criminal Court, even though that denied the possibility of prosecuting Putin and his inner circle for the crime of aggression. At the time, the Attorney General appeared to share his view. Last week the Foreign Office welcomed the special tribunal necessary to try Putin, saying it would “complement established mechanisms”. That is welcome, and I think it is what the Attorney General has said today, but can she—because we know her to be a candid and thoughtful person—explain and confirm what by any definition is a screeching U-turn in Government policy?

I am afraid I really would not describe this as a screeching U-turn—[Interruption.] No, not at all. This is a development in a very difficult area of international law. [Interruption.] I would just listen to this for a moment. It is a very delicate area of international law. This is a live and brutal conflict—we are all agreed on that—and it is right that most of the prosecutions take place in Ukraine, with real-time evidence and with witnesses present. Those prosecutions are going well, and I think we all support the Ukrainian judiciary in that. I hope very much that there will be an international moment of accountability following this war. I suspect that many courts will need to be involved, including both the ICC and any special tribunal.

It is almost one year to the day since the beginning of Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, and an estimated 7,000 civilian lives have been lost during this time, in one of the most barbaric atrocities against civilians recorded since the second world war. Given that the UK will host a major international meeting on war crimes in March, what further support will the Attorney General give on information sharing and testimonial gathering, and on ensuring that legal expertise will be fully utilised to hold Russian war criminals to account?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. It is fortuitous that the Lord Chancellor has just entered the Chamber, because in March he is hosting an important conference, with the Dutch, to discuss how further we can help and support the work of the ICC. Further, we have the work of the special tribunal that I mentioned, and we are providing a great deal of practical help on the ground in training Ukrainian judges and providing funding to help them to find evidence and to prosecute these crimes effectively.

Criminal Justice System: Backlog

5. What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the Crown Prosecution Service in tackling the backlog of cases in the criminal justice system. (903437)

6. What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the Crown Prosecution Service in tackling the backlog of cases in the criminal justice system. (903438)

First, I would like to pay tribute to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Edward Timpson) for his work as Solicitor General. From that work, he will know the significant amount of funding in the criminal justice system to help improve waiting times for victims. Both the Attorney General and I have seen that at first hand in our visits to regional Crown Prosecution Service areas.

I thank the Solicitor General for his answer. Further to the point raised by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner), in the first three quarters of 2022 there have been 235 ineffective Crown court trials caused by prosecution absence—the highest annual total since 2014—compared with just 19 in 2019. The recent uplift to defence fees has meant there is now more money in defending than in prosecuting, and consequently the CPS is struggling to find enough prosecutors for trials. What timescales is my hon. and learned Friend working to in order to address this situation?

I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for raising this point. Of course, I recognise the importance of ensuring that all those who work in the criminal justice system—both defence and prosecution—are paid and rewarded appropriately. He will have heard my answer earlier, and it is right that the Treasury has agreed to consider the CPS funding position. Discussions are ongoing, and I know that he will keep pressing.

The police are doing an excellent job in Broadland. They have just opened a new response centre at Postwick, improving response times and housing some of the many additional officers that this Government have provided. The CPS is the next line in the criminal justice journey. The CPS inspectorate undertook a report on local provision in March 2022. Can my hon. and learned Friend provide an update to the House on the performance since that date?

I recognise my hon. Friend’s expertise and interest in this matter. The inspection report for the east of England praised the quality of the work in the area, and the latest data suggests that performance continues to be strong. The area is now making all crime charging decisions more quickly than it did previously. My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that, in the face of the backlog, the conviction rate for the CPS in his region remains reassuringly high at 85%.

Domestic Abuse: Prosecution Rates

We are committed to increasing the volume of prosecutions and supporting more victims. We enacted new provisions to increase the time that victims have to report domestic abuse offences to ensure that we bring more offenders to justice.

Despite Carshalton and Wallington being a relatively safe part of London, domestic violence rates there are higher than the London average. Local charities such as Sutton Women’s Centre do a great job in training people to spot the signs, but what assurance can the Attorney General give me that CPS staff have access to that same training to bring that level of crime down?

I thank Sutton Women’s Centre for its fantastic work in training the community to spot the signs of domestic abuse. All prosecutors in London are now domestic abuse trained. Close working with the police should continue to increase the rate of prosecutions.

Serious Fraud Office: Prosecutions for Fraud and Bribery

8. What steps she is taking to help the Serious Fraud Office investigate and prosecute fraud and bribery. (903440)

Mr Speaker, you may remember that the SFO successfully prosecuted Glencore Energy UK Ltd and that the total amount the company will pay—£280 million—is the highest ever ordered in a corporate criminal conviction in the United Kingdom. We continue to work closely with the SFO to identify any policy changes that could support its ambitions.

My constituents want to see the Government crack down on corporate criminality. What measures are the Government considering in the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill to address corporate crime?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his interest. The Government recognise that the current law does not go far enough. That is why we have committed to addressing the need for a new “failure to prevent” offence in the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill. In addition, we are introducing a provision to extend the SFO’s pre-investigation powers.

Legislative Competence of the Scottish Parliament

9. What discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on the potential implications of an order under section 35 of the Scotland Act 1998 for the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament. (903442)

As I said earlier, by convention, information on whether the Law Officers have been asked to provide advice and the content of such advice are not disclosed outside Government. That convention enables candid legal advice to be given.

Why was the prospect of a section 35 order not raised at any time before the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill was overwhelmingly passed by the Scottish Parliament? What alternatives did the Attorney General look at? When will she set out the changes to the Bill that she wants to see before the Government would revoke the section 35 order? Those are simple questions. If she cannot answer them, all we can conclude is that the Government have lost their last shred of respect for the Scottish Parliament.

That would be absolutely the wrong conclusion to draw. The Attorney General’s convention is clear: the UK Government respect the Scottish Parliament’s ability to legislate within its competence on devolved areas. The Government are committed to working with the devolved Administrations and strengthening the Union of the UK.

Prosecution of Hate Crime

We are committed to delivering justice for victims of hate crime. All CPS prosecutors are trained about hate crime, and its specialist prosecutors help to lead that work. The latest figures show that the CPS has prosecuted nearly 13,000 hate crime offences, with a charge rate of 86% and, importantly, a conviction rate of 84%.

As we mark the start of LGBTQ History Month, it was shocking to see in the year-end figures for hate crime a 41% increase in offences targeting people’s sexuality and a 56% increase in offences targeting people’s transgender identity. What are the Government doing to stop prejudice and fear, which led to that rise in crime, being stoked against the LGBTQ community?

In the hon. Lady’s area of the north-east, the CPS is particularly successful in getting uplifts to sentences in relation to hate crime. In the last rolling year to date, it has been successful in obtaining uplifts in 90% of cases. The question she raises is important and the CPS is working incredibly hard in that area.

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

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


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.

Hillsborough Families Report: National Police Response

Before we come to the urgent question, I wish to state that although I encourage Members not to refer to any ongoing legal proceedings, I am prepared to allow a full discussion of the matter, given the importance of the issue.

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if she will make a statement on the national police response to the Hillsborough families report.

I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. I know this is a subject with profound personal resonance for him. I pay tribute to him and many others for the work they have done and continue to do in memory of the victims of this awful tragedy and to ensure that the lessons are learnt.

The Hillsborough disaster was an awful, devastating tragedy. Its impact continues to be felt to this day, especially by the families and friends of the victims. I am sure the thoughts of the whole House are with them. It is imperative that lessons are learned from the experiences the Hillsborough families have gone through, so I am very grateful to Bishop James Jones for the report he produced, which highlighted a number of points of learning for the Government, the police and other agencies.

As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said during yesterday’s debate, the Government are fully committed to engaging with the Hillsborough families prior to the publication of the Government’s formal response. Since arriving in the Home Office two or three months ago, I have asked for this work to be sped up, and we are expecting it to come out in the course of this spring. The National Police Chiefs’ Council and the College of Policing published their response earlier this week. I welcome their commitment to avoid repeating the mistakes that were made, and I welcome the apology that they gave. They made it clear that strong ethical values and the need for humanity and humility in the police response to public tragedies are critical. One of the commitments they rightly made earlier this week was to substantially strengthen and update their own code of ethics in relation to these issues.

Some important steps have been made by the Government in the past few years, which have addressed a number, but not all, of the points that Bishop James Jones published. For example, in 2020 a suite of police integrity reforms was introduced, on a statutory basis, via the professional standards for policing, which included, crucially, a duty to co-operate with inquiries. Other initiatives have already been taken forward to support bereaved families, including the removal of means-testing for exceptional case funding to cover legal support for families at an inquest, which broadens the scope and access for families; and the refreshing of our “Guide to Coroner Services for Bereaved People” so that it is more tailored to their needs and provides improved guidance for others involved in the inquest process. The Inquiries Act 2005 also provides a statutory process for funding legal representation requests. Last year, the Home Office also established an independent pathology review, and additional consultation with the families is now taking place. A consultation has also taken place on retaining police documents, which was the subject of a recommendation made by the bishop, and the Ministry of Justice has also consulted on establishing an independent public advocate.

Those steps are important. They go a long way to improving the situation, but they do not cover everything that the bishop recommended, which is why we will be responding in full. We intend to do so in the spring, but after, of course, full and deep engagement with the families concerned.

The Government are committed to making sure that these lessons are learned following this awful tragedy and I, as the newly appointed Police Minister, will do everything that I can to work with Members across the House, particularly those representing the affected communities, to make sure that this does now happen quickly.

Since that awful day on 15 April 1989, 97 people have died directly from the actions of South Yorkshire police and other agencies, including the emergency services, the Football Association and Sheffield Wednesday Football Club, with families destroyed and survivors traumatised—so traumatised that many have since taken their own lives.

The lies and smears from the cover-up by the establishment, which acted with impunity and arrogance because it could, meant that justice was never delivered for all those who have died and suffered since. In 2017, Bishop Jones delivered the report “The patronising disposition of unaccountable power: A report to ensure the pain and suffering of the Hillsborough families is not repeated.” Shamefully, we have not yet had a Government response to his recommendations in the report commissioned by the then Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May).

Yesterday, Bishop Jones said that the delay was intolerable. His recommendations are, in essence, the Hillsborough law, which so many in this place and outside have since campaigned for. We must always remember that these recommendations are to ensure that no other community goes through the suffering that we have endured since 1989. They will hopefully futureproof the ability to gain justice.

Yesterday, we finally had the response to the report from the College of Policing and the National Police Chiefs’ Council. This was the first apology from the police force for its actions since the disaster 33 years ago. For so many, including myself, it is far too little and far too late.

Yesterday’s recommendations from the police did not go anywhere near far enough to change the culture that we came up against in our quest for justice. I ask the Minister whether this Government will do the right thing for future generations in our nation and implement a Hillsborough law containing Bishop Jones’s recommendations with immediate effect. The families and survivors of so many disasters and consequent state cover-ups deserve nothing less, and these injustices must never again be allowed. If a Hillsborough law had existed in 1989, we would have had a chance of justice for the 97; without it we had none.

I fully understand and respect the sentiments that the hon. Member so powerfully expressed in his remarks. On the timing and the years that have passed since the bishop’s report, for much of that time there were ongoing legal proceedings and, of course, no one wanted to prejudice those for obvious reasons. That accounted for about four years—from 2017 to about May 2021—but about 21 months have passed since then and I agree that the Government response does need to come out quickly. Indeed, since my appointment a couple of months ago I have asked for it to be sped up, and I want to make sure that that happens this spring, following, of course, consultation with the families, which is extremely important. That will include responses to the points that the hon. Member made.

I reiterate that the statutory changes made to the professional standards for policing in 2020 include a duty of co-operation on police officers in relation to inquiries, which, as he has said, is very important. He is right: we do need to get on and respond comprehensively to the bishop’s recommendations, which is what I am working on.

The apology from the police is, of course, welcome, but it would have been far better for them to have done their job properly on that fateful April day, 34 years ago. If they had done so, families of the 97—and, indeed, the whole Liverpool community—would not have gone through the suffering and anguish that they have had to bear over the past 34 years.

Let me say first to my right hon. Friend that I do not think saying vaguely that the Government’s response will be available this spring is good enough: five years on, they must now publish it. Secondly, does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the elements that can be put in place to help families if, sadly, such an event—a tragedy of this sort— happens in the future is the introduction of an independent public advocate, which was promised in the Conservative party manifesto in 2017? Will he give a commitment now that the Home Office will not put any barriers in the way of the work of the Ministry of Justice in introducing such a body?

As I mentioned, for approximately four years following the publication of the report there were ongoing criminal legal proceedings which nobody wanted to prejudice, but, as I have said in the House and as the Home Secretary said yesterday, we do now want to get on and respond quickly and comprehensively to the bishop’s report. As for the introduction of an independent public advocate—a measure being worked on by the Ministry of Justice, as the right hon. Lady said—a public consultation has taken place. The response is being worked on in the usual way, but it is happening at pace.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne), and all the other Merseyside MPs, for pursuing this matter, and I thank my hon. Friend for securing this urgent question.

Ninety-seven people lost their lives as a result of what happened at Hillsborough on that terrible day 34 years ago. We remember the football fans who never came home, and we must also never forget the shameful cover-up that followed. The Hillsborough families have fought for decades against obfuscation and lies to get to the truth. Everyone hoped that the report from the Right Rev. James Jones would be a turning point, and I welcome the work that the former Home Secretary did in commissioning that report, but it is five years on. The police have rightly said:

“Police failures were the main cause of the tragedy and have continued to blight the lives of family members ever since.”

Nevertheless, five years is too long, and what makes this even more shameful is the fact that there is still no Government response to what has happened. The Home Secretary said yesterday that it was because of active criminal proceedings, but those finished 18 months ago, and the work could have taken place even while those proceedings were ongoing.

In September 2021 the Government announced that the response would be published by the end of the year, and we are still waiting. The Home Secretary also said yesterday that the Government were engaging with families, but what engagement has taken place? Has the Home Secretary met the families? Has she met the bishop? And I have to ask, where is she today? Previous Home Secretaries have shown respect to the families and acknowledgement of the appalling ways in which they have been wronged by being here to respond, and it is a devastating failure of responsibility and respect to them for her not to be here to respond.

The key measures on which we need a Government response are well known: the duty of candour, the public advocate and the elements of the Hillsborough law. The Labour party stands ready to support that law and get it into statute. Will the Government now commit themselves to supporting it, and recognise what the bishop has said about its being “intolerable”, given the pain of those families, not to have a response? The report is entitled “The patronising disposition of unaccountable power”. Does the Minister accept that that is exactly what this continued delay will feel like to so many families and survivors now?

I entirely agree with the shadow Home Secretary’s opening comments—and, indeed, with what has been said by other Members—about the appalling impact that this has had on the families of those who so tragically lost their lives. When I took my own son to a Crystal Palace football game a few weeks ago, I thought about how awful it must have been to be trapped in those circumstances, which is a terrible thing to contemplate.

As the shadow Home Secretary said, the police have apologised for the terrible failings that took place on the day and in the years subsequently. It is right that they have apologised to the families, and to the country as well. In relation to the timing, I have already said that there were legal proceedings ongoing. It has been 18 to 21 months since those concluded, which is why since I was appointed I have asked for the work to be sped up, and it will be concluded rapidly and it will respond to all the points in full.

I repeat the point I made earlier that a number of things have happened already. The right hon. Lady mentioned the independent public advocate. As she will know from her own time in government, where a public consultation has taken place, it is generally speaking a prelude to action. On the question of co-operating with inquiries, the 2020 statutory professional standards for policing did introduce that requirement, but the response needs to cover all the points, and that will happen soon.

I listened with great care to my right hon. Friend’s response to the urgent question, but I have to press him on the independent public advocate point. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) said, the Ministry of Justice, which I had the honour of leading—I worked with her and the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle)—is in a position to go ahead with this policy. The consultation was five years ago. What is stopping the Government from doing this?

As I have said before to others, including the former Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), the consultation has, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland) said, taken place. The usual processes in government are going on to respond to that consultation. As soon as the Ministry of Justice can make an announcement on this, it will most certainly be doing so.

May I also start by commending the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) and his colleagues not just on securing the urgent question, but on all their campaigning work on behalf of survivors and families affected by Hillsborough? The persistence, bravery and decency of the people of Liverpool over these 34 years has been utterly extraordinary in the face of cover-up and smear, but they need more than warm words—they need a comprehensive response. The long overdue police report, while a start, does not provide a complete response. That needs the Government, and we should have had a Government response before now.

As Bishop Jones has said, the wait has been “intolerable”, and the families are speaking about the bishop’s report gathering dust. I appreciate that questions are being raised that will not be answered today, in the light of the announcement of a spring publication, but can the Minister at least assure us that when that long overdue response from the Government is published, we can have a full debate on the Floor of the House on its findings?

Secondly, the Minister referred to engagement with the families. There has been some good engagement, but there have been some ropy times as well, so can he say a little more about what form that engagement will take going forward?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and for the sentiments he expressed, which I completely understand. In relation to a full debate, scheduling business in the House is not my responsibility, but it would seem to me like a reasonable request to make, and I will certainly pass it on to my colleagues who are responsible for scheduling parliamentary business. Families have been fully engaged. One reason why the independent pathology review, which had been commenced, has been temporarily paused is to allow for more engagement to take place, because families rightly felt that they wanted to be more involved. That engagement is continuing. Critically, before the Government response is published, there will be more such engagement, for the obvious reasons that the hon. Gentleman rightly points to.

The Hillsborough disaster and the following cover-up by South Yorkshire police was a devastating tragedy that undermined the faith of my communities in Rother Valley and South Yorkshire in the police. The police apology yesterday was the bare minimum that could be done. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that, as part of this process, the Government will thoroughly engage not only with the families of the 97, but with the wider communities in Liverpool, Leeds and Sheffield, to make sure that lessons can be learned so that such an awful tragedy does not happen again and that there will be no more police cover-ups of such awful disasters?

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. I agree with the points he has made. I can confirm that the engagement he rightly requests will happen.

It was a great pleasure to meet Bishop James Jones recently. As an aside, I pay tribute to his work in securing the infected blood inquiry, which is another example of the patronising disposition of unaccountable power, where cover-ups and secrecy become a further scandal on top of the original events. Given that the Home Secretary is not here, may I ask the Minister whether she has met Bishop James Jones to discuss his report on Hillsborough and the Government response?

I am afraid that I do not have visibility of the Home Secretary’s diary, so I cannot give a direct answer, but I can certainly ask the Home Secretary to write to the Chair of the Select Committee in response to that question. I add my thanks to hers to the bishop for the work he has done in both of the areas to which she referred. In the coming months, there will be very full engagement with all the interested parties, including Members of Parliament who represent the relevant communities, for the reasons that she mentioned.

I was at university in Sheffield at the time of the Hillsborough disaster. A friend of mine died in that tragedy; another was seriously injured. I pay tribute to the residents of Sheffield, who are very rarely mentioned but who showed compassion and gave real practical support on that day to people they did not know. They raced to the stadium, they offered free taxi journeys to help people to get where they needed to go, and they looked after people in their homes and provided them with hot meals. It was an incredibly moving thing to witness.

It has taken too long to learn the lessons of Hillsborough. Will my right hon. Friend confirm, irrespective of the timing of the publication of a Government response, that he will emphasise to all police forces around the country that if such an appalling tragedy ever happens again, their officers must behave openly and sympathetically, even if it means showing their own shortcomings?

Yes, I can do that. I thank my hon. Friend for his question, particularly in the light of how he has been personally affected by the tragedy. I can give him that assurance. Some steps have already been taken, partly through the changes made in 2020 to the statutory professional standards for policing. That will be further reinforced by the updated code of ethics, which will be published by the College of Policing, following its announcement yesterday, with the exact purpose that my hon. Friend has just set out in mind.

It is unconscionable that 18 months after the collapse of the criminal trials, there has still been no Government response to the bishop’s report. The fact that we will have to wait until spring, whenever that is, shows that the work is not finished, more than five years after that report was written and published. It is outrageous that the Government have done nothing to sort this out in that time.

The Minister keeps referring to the consultation on the independent public advocate. That happened in 2018. The Government have not yet responded to their own consultation on the independent public advocate. But I can get the Minister off the hook. My Public Advocate (No. 2) Bill will be considered again in the Chamber this Friday. If the Minister were to stop his Whip objecting to it for the 12th time in this Session, we could get it into Committee and start this legislation rolling. It is a key part of the Hillsborough law, along with the duty of candour and the equality of arms at inquests. With the support of Labour Front Benchers, the Minister could do himself and his Government a favour by getting that legislation through.

As I have said, we are working quickly on the comprehensive response. The hon. Lady says that nothing has happened since 2018, but with great respect I do not think that is entirely accurate. I have referenced the professional standards for policing introduced in 2020, which introduced a duty to co-operate. I have mentioned the pathology review that has happened. I have mentioned the consultation on the independent public advocate, and I can tell her that that is being very actively worked on by the Ministry of Justice as we speak. We have had changes made to the exceptional case funding at inquest, so the means testing has been removed. A lot has been done. But I do accept that a comprehensive Government response is required. Since arriving at the Home Office, I have asked for that to be done as quickly as possible, and it will be.

Anyone who knows the story of Coventry City’s 1987 cup run will know that there was a match at Hillsborough where a near crush took place, making what then happened two years later tragically predictable. The Hillsborough disaster was a tragedy; the lies, smears and cover-ups that followed were an absolute disgrace, worrying echoes of which we saw after the Champions League final last year, so the extended delay in getting this response out just makes it even worse. Will the Minister at least commit today to the principle of the independent public advocate, to ensure that in future, families would be on a level playing field?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and agree with his point about the policing failures at the time. It is right that the police comprehensively apologised yesterday for the police’s behaviour, both at the time and in the years subsequently. As I say, the consultation on the independent public advocate did happen, and it is under active consideration at the moment. I do not want to pre-empt the Ministry of Justice’s work on that, because it is for the Ministry of Justice to publicly respond, but I can tell my hon. Friend and others that they are actively working on it at the moment.

It is an absolute disgrace that the Home Secretary was sat on the Government Benches just before this debate started, but has left—a debate about a disaster that has no parallel, in terms of what happened and the injustice that took place. I am quite sure that the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) would never have left the Front Bench in these circumstances.

Mr Deputy Speaker, as you may be aware, I have a number of constituents who lost loved ones at Hillsborough, and I myself was present that day at the disaster. As I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) will agree, my hon. Friend and I are so proud to have been privy to the work of the Hillsborough families over the years in fighting for justice. Part of the injustice that has existed over the years—apart from the general injustice—was the continued delays, the time it took to try to get to justice and get to the bottom of what went wrong, even though we all knew, and to get the report out. It took a long, long time, and this is adding to the torture of the families and those people who were affected by Hillsborough, so the Minister saying that he hopes to have a response by the spring is just not good enough. I ask him to come back to the House before the recess in February with an actual date for when that response will be given to the House.

I thank the hon. Member for his question, particularly given that he has such direct personal experience of the tragedy that unfolded—that he was there himself, all those years ago. I agree that speed of resolution is now important after all this time: too much time has passed, and I can give the hon. Member my assurance that I want this done as soon as possible. It is something I have personally pressed for since arriving, and I will be doing everything I can to expedite this process and get the comprehensive response published as quickly as possible.

For football fans everywhere, 15 April 1989 is seared on the memory, and my sympathy is with the families of the victims who tragically lost their lives. One of the problems here is that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) alluded to, this could have happened in 1987—it could have happened in 1981. I was present for the semi-final held at Hillsborough when crushing took place, but the difference then was that there were no cages. In 1989, the Liverpool fans who lost their lives were caged in and could not escape.

The key problem is that, in the same way, following the policing in 1981, 1987 and 1989, the lessons were not learned. I personally gave evidence to the inquiry about what happened in 1981, yet nothing seems to have happened about those aspects of policing. Will my hon. Friend the Minister ensure that there will be a duty of candour and the other legislative measures that we need to ensure that the police own up to their mistakes, rather than cover them up for 34 years? They may apologise now, but it is far too late for the victims.

My hon. Friend is right to point to the police failings at the time, and the fact that they essentially created the tragic situation that unfolded. The apology they gave yesterday was important: it was comprehensive, I think it was heartfelt, and it is good that they have done that. It is also important that they change the way that they respond in those circumstances, as my hon. Friend has said. That is why the changes to the code of ethics that the College of Policing will be bringing forward are important, and it is why the duty of candour I have referred to previously, enshrined in the statutory professional standards, is important as well. But I do agree with the points that my hon. Friend has made.

Former Bishop of Liverpool James Jones’s report laid bare the sheer scale of the failure of the police at Hillsborough and the lies, smears and state cover-up that followed. It is disappointing, to say the least, that it has taken this long for an apology to come from the National Police Chiefs’ Council and the College of Policing, and it does nothing to undo the horrific abuse of power that has been seen. What is worse—what is more shameful—is that five years on, we are still waiting for the Government’s response to the report.

The appalling treatment of the Hillsborough families did not happen in isolation. As we have heard, from the contaminated blood scandal to Grenfell, it is part of a problem of failure and cover-up. When will the Government finally listen to calls for the Hillsborough law? Will the Minister back the Public Advocate (No. 2) Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) so that the scales of justice can be levelled in favour of the bereaved families?

We will be bringing forward the full response as quickly as possible. That is important, as Members on both sides of the House have pointed out. In relation to the Hillsborough law, that will be included in the response. However, via the professional standards of policing in 2020, which are statutory and were introduced by regulations, we have already introduced the duty of co-operation in relation to inquiries, which is one of the most important elements of that. Our response on the independent public advocate, which is also important, will happen as quickly as possible. The Ministry of Justice is working on it actively right now.

It is not good enough. First of all, the Minister criticises his immediate predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Tom Pursglove), who, as I understand it, really was trying to get to grips with this issue. Secondly, he fails to explain why the Government are blocking this legislative vehicle for establishing the independent public advocate. What is going to happen is that the Government will report at the end of the spring, and then they will say it will take a long time to get through any legislation. We have a legislative opportunity before us. The debate began last July! Why will the Government not allow that Bill to have its Second Reading this Friday?

First of all, to be clear, I am in no way criticising my immediate predecessor, who was only in post for a matter of two or three months. For the record, I am most certainly not criticising him, and I frankly resent the insinuation that I was. The Government are not blocking progress on the issue of the independent public advocate, but there is a process to go through to get cross-Government agreement. The Ministry of Justice is working on it, and we will respond as quickly as possible.

I would like to place on the record my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) for securing this debate, and to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) and the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) for their work. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope)—something I never thought I would say in this Chamber.

After 34 long years, the police finally acknowledged what every decent Scouser and every decent person in this country knew: a failure in policing was the main cause of the tragedy that saw the death of 97 innocent men, women and children. Our city has never given up the fight for truth, justice and accountability. I have heard nothing from the Minister at the Dispatch Box today to say why the Government have not responded to the report for five long years. This Friday, the Minister has the ideal opportunity to back the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood and the duty of candour. We do not want to hear the reasons why it cannot be done or that something will be brought forward in the spring. The Government have an ideal opportunity to back this Bill on Friday. The first question is, will they do that? If not, why not?

Secondly, the Secretary of State for Education—herself a Scouser—did the media round today. On BBC Radio 4, she said that there had been no Government response to Bishop James Jones’s Hillsborough report because of ongoing criminal trials. The last trial finished in May 2021, and the police conduct investigation is ongoing. Does the Minister agree, after all the smears and all the lies, and after 34 years, that Ministers have a responsibility to ensure that what they say in the media round is truthful?

As I said earlier, several things have been done in the last few years to address the issues that have been raised—not comprehensively and not everything—but they include the professional standards for duty of co-operation; the pathology review; consulting on retaining documents, which is another recommendation; the consultation on the independent public advocate, and the removal of means-testing for exceptional case funding for bereaved families and inquests. All those things have been done.

The IPA is a Ministry of Justice lead. I cannot speak for that Department, but I can say that it is working actively on it.

The position on the delay is as I explained earlier. Between 2017 and May 2021, there were ongoing legal proceedings, as the hon. Lady just said. For the past 18 to 21 months, that has not been the case, and we need to get on quickly and bring forward the full Government response. I will make sure that that happens.

Order. Because of the nature of the urgent question, I am giving a bit more latitude on the length of questions, but please help me by trying to focus as quickly as possible on the question in hand.

My constituents have waited long enough. That was true last month when the Secretary of State for Justice gave me the same pathetic response. I am afraid that I have concluded that the Minister does not know very much about the issue. It affects not just Merseyside, but the whole country. As others have said, it is not just about football or Hillsborough. It affects people who have suffered because of Grenfell, contaminated blood and a host of matters where the state has tried to protect itself instead of putting the interests of the citizen first.

I want a straightforward yes or no answer. When the Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) comes before the House on Friday, will the Government block it—yes or no?

I have already explained several things that the Government have done in the past few years to address the issues that the bishop’s inquiry raised—[Hon. Members: “Answer the question!”] I am going to. They include the duty of candour on police in relation to inquiries. That was done in 2020. I have been asked about the independent public advocate several times and I have given the same answer. It is a Ministry of Justice, not a Home Office lead. I cannot speak for another Minister’s area of responsibility. It is with the Ministry of Justice, which is actively considering it and will respond shortly.

I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) for securing the urgent question.

More than 30 years after the Hillsborough disaster, and more than five years after the publication of Bishop Jones’s report, the National Police Chiefs’ Council and the College of Policing have finally apologised for what they described as decades of “deflection and denial”. However, for many of my constituents, who are still haunted by that terrible day, that is too little, too late.

Does the Minister agree that while plans to revise the police code of ethics are welcome, a new duty of candour on public authorities must have a statutory footing, so that no family ever again has to struggle for truth and justice, which the Hillsborough families sought for decades?

A duty of co-operation on police in relation to inquiries was set out in the professional standards for policing in 2020. We will respond to the wider duty of candour, to which point of learning 14 in the bishop’s report referred, along with everything else, shortly.

The Minister speaks from the Dispatch Box for not only his Department, but the entire Government. I would have expected him to know what the approach of the Ministry of Justice to the Bill promoted by my hon. Friend and sister the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) on Friday would be before he came here. Will he at least say from the Dispatch Box that when he leaves the Chamber, he will go to the Ministry of Justice and get permission from them to ensure that on Friday, my hon. Friend and sister’s Bill, which provides for an independent public advocate, will be let into Committee and not be blocked, so that the clauses that the Ministry of Justice is currently drafting can be incorporated into the Bill in Committee? We have a legislative vehicle, we could do it now, and he could enhance his reputation. We have a legislative vehicle, we could do it now, and he could enhance his reputation.

I would be very happy to convey the hon. Lady’s request to my Ministry of Justice colleagues.

I send my support and respect to all the families and friends who have fought for justice for the victims of Hillsborough. The Government have said that they will respond in due course, and today we have heard that might be in the spring but it could be any time soon. The Labour party has pledged to create a new Hillsborough law. Can the Minister, without looking at his notes, commit to supporting the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle), and to supporting an independent public advocate?

I have just responded on the public advocate point. On the Hillsborough law point, which is different, we will respond to that and the recommendation in point of learning 14 with the rest of it. But as I have said quite a few times, we have already, on a statutory basis, changed and updated the professional standards for policing to include a duty to co-operate with inquiries imposed on the police.

I pay tribute to everybody who has campaigned for justice for the 97. I was a young school teacher in Liverpool when Hillsborough happened, and I remember how traumatised the children were on the following Monday and in subsequent weeks and months. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) for securing the urgent question.

I hear what the Minister is saying about a Hillsborough law, but can he tell us whether, in principle, he agrees that we should have a Hillsborough law that would place a new legal duty of candour on public authorities and officials—not just the police, but all public authorities and officials—and would ensure that victims of disasters or state-related deaths are entitled to parity of legal representation during inquests and inquiries?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question, particularly given that she and many other Members have been affected personally by the tragedy. It has touched an extraordinary number of lives in many different ways, including hers. We will respond fully when we reply to the bishop’s report, and I want to make sure that happens as quickly as possible. It is very important that public bodies respond quickly, openly and honestly, and with integrity, and that they do not try to cover things up, as obviously happened in this terrible case. We all have a shared interest in making sure that it never happens again.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) for securing this urgent question, but the truth is that he should not have had to do so. As soon as the police made the apology, there should have been a Government statement, and it should have been the Home Secretary giving that statement. I am afraid this gives the impression that this issue is not a priority, which, given the history, is completely unforgiveable. Following the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), I suggest to the Minister that he should go back to the Home Secretary this afternoon and express in the strongest terms that it would be sensible for her to come back at the next opportunity with a concrete date by which the Government will respond to the bishop’s report.

The Home Secretary did of course reference this issue during her speech in yesterday’s debate—I think it was in response to an intervention. To be fair to the Home Secretary, she addressed the issue in the House as recently as yesterday, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that it is already the subject of urgent discussions. I want to see action on this as quickly as he and others do, and I am committed to making sure that happens.

As someone who was present at Hillsborough on that terrible day and who was the leader of the council, I echo comments made by Conservative Members—first, about the incredibly generosity and warmth of Sheffield residents around the ground, who welcomed very distraught people into their homes and gave them whatever help they could.

Secondly, the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) is right; the South Yorkshire police are accountable for what they have done. They probably have not been accountable enough, given their enormous failings. But there was also a failing to recognise that circumstances had changed, with cages being put around grounds. As Lord Justice Taylor recommended in his report, those cages had to be taken down because they were making so many grounds in this country unsafe. Essentially, they were put there to treat every football fan as a hooligan, without any thought for spectator safety, and we ought to learn some lessons from that as well.

When the Government eventually produce their report, rather than merely giving us warm words and commitments, will they say how they will ensure that every single police force in the country abides by the recommendations in the report and implements them in full?

First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. Like so many in the Chamber today and across the country, he was personally affected—indeed, he was actually present. I completely agree with his point about caging; as a football fan myself—I take my son to Crystal Palace—the idea of people being caged is completely wrong. In answer to his direct question: yes, when there is a response to the report, which will be soon, it is important to make sure that it has teeth and is not just warm words; that it has biting and binding effect. I am confident it will, in the way that he asked.

I thank my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) for securing this urgent question. Like many others, I have never forgotten that day. I lived just around the corner from the football ground and remember seeing young people queueing outside phone boxes—probably 50 of them—with not one word being spoken, because they were so traumatised. I have never seen anything like it. There were young people trembling around the streets in my area. Yes, lots of us went out to support them, because that is what we do in Sheffield. None of us has ever forgotten that tragic day, let alone the travesty of justice that has followed.

The Hillsborough disaster will live long in the memory of my constituents, but it is completely unacceptable that, more than 30 years on, 97 families are still waiting for justice and assurances that this can never happen again. It would show those families the respect they deserve if the Government were to do exactly what my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Dame Angela Eagle) has asked for, by supporting the Bill that will be debated in the Chamber on Friday. Let us show the families the respect that they deserve and have not received until now.

A lot has been done already to address many of the issues that the bishop raised in his report. I have gone through them previously, but they include, critically: those professional standards for policing, the removal of the means test on exceptional case funding, and many other things that I have set out and will not repeat. We want to honour the families by responding in full. We want to make sure that this will never happen again. I have already committed to raising the IPA point with Ministry of Justice colleagues, which I will do straightaway. I hope that, through the actions taken already and the response we will bring forward as quickly as possible, we will show the families of those who suffered this appalling tragedy that the Government and the whole House are with them. I want to make sure that no one has to go through what they went through.

I do not think that the Government’s response is acceptable, and neither is the Minister’s; he can read out the same thing again and again, but he is simply not answering the question. Why will the Government not back the Bill on Friday? I would like to press him further on the Hillsborough law. The Government have access to a blank cheque for legal representation, yet victims have to navigate an often alien and complex system to access limited legal aid. Does he agree that victims should have access to public money on the same terms as the state for legal representation during inquests and inquiries?

That is an important issue. It was one of the points that the bishop raised in his report, which we will respond to. We have already taken action in this area already by removing the means test for exceptional case funding at inquest for the reason the hon. Lady set out.

The fact that the Home Secretary did not think that it was a priority to be here to answer this urgent question is a complete disgrace, and yet another snub to the families of the Hillsborough 97. We know what will happen on Friday. The Bill being promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) is No. 10 on the Order Paper. The Whips will sit on the Government Benches and anonymously shout “Object” when the Bill is read out, unless the Government change their position. We need no further debate on this issue. We can get the Bill into Committee, debate it line by line and get the legislation through. There is a vehicle for doing it right here, right now in this House. It will be forever to the condemnation of this Government if they do not take that opportunity.

As I have said, the Home Secretary spoke about the issue when she was asked about it in this House yesterday. The private Member’s Bill of the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) is due for consideration on Friday; I have already committed to communicating with my Ministry of Justice colleagues on the topic, and I will do so.

Any indication of obfuscation is dangerous for the Government. We must have a Hillsborough law. We must have a report in full, as soon as possible. A functioning democracy depends on public trust in the police forces; without that trust, democracy itself is undermined. I would like to hear a word of recognition from the Minister that this is a dangerous situation that we have to put right. We have to make sure that the general public—our voters, the people of the United Kingdom—have proper faith in their police forces. Right now, that faith has been damaged by all that we have seen.

The hon. Gentleman raises a valid point. Policing takes place by consent, and it is important that the public have confidence in the police force. That is why the apology yesterday from the police and the acknowledgment of the terrible, terrible mistakes and wrongdoing—not just all those years ago, but in the years that followed—was right. That is important. The police have committed to change their own code of ethics to build trust in policing, which reflects the hon. Gentleman’s point.

Action is also being taken on the vetting issues that we have debated in this House over the past two or three months. We are looking to review the way in which dismissals from the police happen, so we can allow chief constables more readily to remove officers who are guilty of misconduct or of poor performance more generally. I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s point; action is under way.

Let me end my answer by saying that, despite the points that the hon. Gentleman has raised and other points that we have debated in this House over the past few months, the vast majority of police officers are dedicated, hard-working, decent people who put themselves in danger for our safety. But where there are terrible failings, as there have been in this case and others that we have debated recently, it is critical that robust action is taken, because without public confidence we cannot have an effective police force.

We absolutely need a Hillsborough law. We hear that all police forces in England and Wales have signed the charter for families bereaved through public tragedy, but the Minister should not be surprised if that has been met with some cynicism. To prevent the charter from being just empty words, what steps is the Minister taking to ensure that all forces are fully trained in and regularly updated on its requirements, and that they implement it in full when they deal with any future tragedy?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question, which is a good one. Charters, codes and so on, in this context or any other, are only as good as their implementation. The College of Policing—particularly Chief Constable Andy Marsh, who leads it—has made it clear that implementation of the charter will be a topic in training across all 43 police forces. Moreover, I expect His Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services to ensure it looks at that when it conducts its regular PEEL—police effectiveness, efficiency and legitimacy—inspections. I would be happy to raise the matter next time I see Andy Cooke, the chief inspector, to make sure that he is keeping an eye on the issue. The hon. Lady raises a very good point, and I will take it away.

I thank the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne), as always, and others in this Chamber who have consistently brought this matter to the fore. No words and no amount of money can bring back a loved one or soothe the grief of loss, but the Minister will know that full accountability and openness can help some people to move on. Does he really believe that is being achieved? Will he consider implementing and legislating on the proposals in the 2017 Jones report as a signal that changes will be made to prevent this from ever happening again?

Closure for victims’ families through openness is critical. The bishop’s report was an important part of that, as were the various inquiries that happened in the aftermath; we will respond in full. There were, I think, 25 points of learning, some of which address the issues that the hon. Gentleman has quite rightly spoken about. When we respond in full to the bishop’s report, those issues will be addressed.

In closing, I repeat that I want to see this happen as quickly as possible. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have made very clear the House’s expectation that it will happen as quickly as possible. I will make sure that it is my duty to ensure that it does.

I thank Ian Byrne for his urgent question, all those who have taken part and the Minister for responding for over 50 minutes.

Environmental Improvement Plan 2023

I would like to update the House on the next steps that the Government are taking to help nature recover through our new environmental improvement plan. It is a delivery plan setting out how we will achieve our ambitious, stretching environmental targets, the most critical of which is to halt the decline of nature by the end of this decade. We can and must achieve that, both here in the UK and globally.

We are already under way. In this Government’s first 100 days, we have already delivered with legally binding targets to halt nature’s decline, clean up our air and rivers and support a circular economy; playing an instrumental role in a new global agreement for nature at the UN nature summit COP15; enacting the legal duty on Government, national and local, on considering biodiversity; publishing our environment principles policy statement; setting out in detail our transformational farming schemes with the full range of actions we will pay farmers and land managers to do to restore nature; announcing we will ban the most commonly littered single-use plastic items from October 2023; agreeing to enact mandatory sustainable urban drainage systems for new development, which will reduce the risk of surface water flooding and pollution; putting in place the plant biosecurity strategy for Great Britain, a five-year vision for plant health to protect native species, with plants providing an annual value of £15.7 billion to the UK; and agreeing with the devolved Administrations our approach to managing fisheries. There is much more I could add.

Nature is a crucial part of our islands’ story and our shared future. We know what is special with our rare habitats and our iconic species, and we also know the pressures it is under. We rely on our natural capital for a secure supply of food, for clean air, and for clean water, as well as for leisure and genuine joy. However, nature has been taken for granted for too long and used freely as a resource with little thought for the consequences. We have to reverse that and respect nature.

Seventy years ago, people were waking up to the devastation of the great flood of 1953, in which more than 300 people died, reminding us that the full force of nature can bring us challenges. We took action then and it is why we have continued to invest billions of pounds in protecting people’s homes and in better protecting more than 100,000 local businesses to safeguard around 100,000 jobs. However, nature can also help us to tackle some of our great challenges, so we need to help protect nature too. Undoubtedly and understandably, the pandemic set us back in some areas, as we responded to the emergency at hand. A silver lining to that experience, if any is to be had, was the opportunity for us to reconnect with nature, and I am particularly pleased by our pledge in this plan to bring access to a green or blue space within a 15-minute walk of everyone’s homes, be that parks, canals, rivers, countryside or coast. 

Our focus is on picking up the pace and scaling up at home, and around the world, and that is why we are putting nature top of the international agenda as well. We brought nature into the heart of our collective response to climate change under our presidency of COP26 in Glasgow. At COP27 the Prime Minister said that

“there is no solution to climate change without protecting and restoring nature”.

The House may have heard me before extol the marvel of mangroves as the ultimate example of how investing in nature is an essential, effective and cost-effective way to take on a multitude of challenges. The key achievement of 2022 was the agreement reached at the UN nature summit, the Convention on Biological Diversity COP15 in Montreal.

To level with the House, there is much, much more to do to restore the natural world. Some of the challenges are not always so easy or so quick to fix as we might all hope, yet I assure hon. Members that with our new legal duty to consider biodiversity, guided by our environmental principles policy, we are embedding nature in the heart of every decision that Government will take for the long haul. We have a plan for the whole of Government to support this national endeavour and we have already started the journey with a great many improvements.

We are replacing the EU’s bureaucratic common agricultural policy, which did so little for farmers or nature, and rewarding our farmers for taking action to help nature retain and regain good health, reduce emissions and produce food sustainably. Those things are absolutely symbiotic and we are leading the way in making this essential transition. We have cleaner air, with major decreases in all five major pollutants. Emissions of fine particulate matter, PM2.5, the most damaging pollutant to human health, decreased by 18% between 2010 and 2020. I want our air to be even cleaner. That is why we are working with farmers to tackle ammonia emissions.

Councils ask for a lot of powers, but I need them to use the powers they already have, including on tackling litter and fly-tipping, rather than just asking for more. I will be publishing what they are doing and seeking to share best practice across the country.

We are accelerating the rate of tree planting. The Forestry Commission will start growing its estate and increase planting, fulfilling its original statutory obligation to help to rejuvenate the forestry and timber industry. We have strengthened the financial support through our environmental land management schemes and we will continue to promote urban tree planting so children everywhere can enjoy their local woods.

On the chemical status of our water bodies, the science and modelling are clear that it will take decades to recover and heal completely, but we are keeping a spotlight on water quality and getting industry to clean up its act. We are restoring 400 miles of river through the first round of landscape recovery projects and establishing 3,000 hectares of new woodlands along England’s rivers, as well as doubling funding available for the catchment-sensitive farming programme to £30 million in each of the next three years, to cover all farmland in England. We have already seen a huge improvement in our bathing waters. Last year, nearly three in four beaches were deemed excellent—only about half of them were back in 2010—but I share people’s concern about sewage in our waters. That is why we, a Conservative Government, turned on the monitoring, and why we are holding industry to account on fixing this issue. Through our storm overflows discharge reduction plan, we are requiring water companies to deliver their largest ever environmental infrastructure investment, an estimated £56 billion of capital investment over 25 years. We have set clear expectations on improvements on which we will track performance. The next formal review will be in 2027, so if we can go further and faster, that is exactly what we will do.

This issue remains an international endeavour as well. We have a globally recognised track record of action, helping communities protect and restore their national treasures. Reinforced by our science expertise and financial support, we are helping nature around the world. That is the right thing to do and it is absolutely in our interests as well. Having committed to doubling UK international climate finance to £11.6 billion, and to spending at least £3 billion of that on nature, we are building on decades of action, backing efforts to take on the whole host of threats that now face the world’s flora and fauna well beyond climate change alone. We are doing that through the blue belt programme, protecting an area of ocean larger than India around our biodiverse overseas territories, through our world-renowned £39 million Darwin initiative, and through the illegal wildlife trade challenge fund. We are ploughing all that expertise and experience into our newly established £500 million blue planet fund, and our £100 million biodiverse landscapes fund, to help some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable communities restore, protect and connect globally important but fragile habitats.

I am so proud that the UK is leading, co-leading and actively supporting the global coalitions that are committed to securing the maximum possible ambition and achieving the greatest possible impact on everything from taking on the scourge of illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing, to persuading countries to agree a new, legally-binding global treaty to end plastic pollution by 2040, to supporting efforts to establish a global gold standard for taking nature into account across our economies.

I could spend hours talking about nature, about our mission, about what we have already achieved. As the Member of Parliament for Suffolk Coastal, I am blessed to represent a very special part of our country, with many precious habitats and protected sites, on land and offshore. I always said it felt like I had had six years of a perfect apprenticeship before I became the Environment Minister in 2016. There are many more parts to the plan that we published yesterday. I recognise that we have work to do, and our aim is to catalyse action across Government, across the economy and across the country, with the whole Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs family, our agencies, including Natural England, the Environment Agency and the Animal and Plant Health Agency, our delivery partners and regulators, the whole of Government, and individuals, communities and businesses, from farms to finance, all working together to bring this to life.

Nature needs us to accelerate and scale up our help if we want to enjoy nature and have its help for generations to come. Together, we can achieve it. Whether someone lives in a city or town, in the countryside or on the coast, we all have a part to play in the truly national endeavour and the decade of global action that we need now to see this through. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of her statement. I am pleased that on this occasion we are actually getting an oral statement, rather than a DEFRA Minister having to be dragged to the House for an urgent question or sneaking something important out as a written statement. However, even on this occasion, she made a speech announcing this plan outside this House yesterday. Unfortunately, my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon), the shadow Secretary of State, is unable to be here, as he has a pre-arranged medical appointment. I am glad the Secretary of State is here to be held accountable, but it must be difficult for her to continue to try to defend her Department’s record.

The Conservative Government are big on promises but little on delivery. The proof is in the pudding, and the Secretary of State’s own appalling environmental track record speaks volumes. As water Minister, she presided over a new sewage spill every four minutes—321 years’ worth of sewage was spilt in just three years; and she cut the resources of regulators that are there to protect the environment by a third. Her three months as Environment Secretary have not been any better. First, she broke her own statutory deadline for publishing environmental targets. Then she told Parliament that meeting polluting water bosses is not a priority, before announcing measures that inflict more sewage dumping and toxic air on our country. [Interruption.] She can correct the record when she responds. Even her Department’s own regulator, the Office for Environmental Protection, gave the Government “nul points” on their 25 year environmental goals. On chemicals, the Government are missing in action. Their UK REACH system is evidently not working properly. Never mind Dr Dolittle, it is Dr Damage—a lot.

Let us look at this latest plan, as I have questions. Why will our sites of special scientific interest, which have been so neglected, not be assessed for five years, until 2028? Why is there no mention of reintroducing species to help nature recovery, aid flood management and increase pollination? Does the Secretary of State agree that she is betting the house on environmental land management schemes—ELMs—by relying totally on take-up and farmer co-operation? She had the opportunity to come to Parliament to say, or to outline at the National Farmers Union conference in Oxford, that she is on the side of farming communities, but she failed to do so. Where is she on the Dartmoor issue, and the increasing threat to access to nature? How does she plan to deal with the 1,781 retained EU environmental regulations we are going to have to deal with this year?

Trust is an important word in politics, and it is clear that there is very little trust in this Government to get anything done. Actions speak louder than words. The environmental improvement plan is full of praise for the action the Government have taken since 2018 to deliver improvements in our air quality, but light on detail on the actions they will take over the next five years to deliver change. That is why when Labour plans to introduce a stand-alone, ambitious, effective and comprehensive clean air Act, it will do what the Minister will not: save lives, save money and clean our air. Labour will expand meaningful access to nature and clean up the Tory sewage scandal. We will hold water bosses to account, not just pay lip service, and ensure that regulators can properly enforce the rules.

This environmental improvement plan, which was so long in gestation, still has glaring omissions, and there is no evidence on how it will be delivered. Tony Juniper, the chair of Natural England, said at the plan’s launch yesterday:

“It’s now all about delivery”.

Yet, DEFRA has continually failed to deliver. How can we trust this failed Government to deliver for our natural environment? Only Labour will deliver a fairer, greener future.

Well, what can I say? I am not sure how much that deserves a response, but out of respect for the House I will say that it is important to make sure that these long-term environmental plans are in place. We brought in legislation saying that we would refresh them every five years, and that is exactly what we have done.

If we are talking about track records, of course the Labour Government never did anything about sewage. They did not know anything about it. [Interruption.] They did nothing—nothing. I am used to the usual spew coming out of those on the Labour Front Bench and, frankly, it is not good enough.

Let us go through some of the questions on which the hon. Member wanted some updates. On chemicals, we still have the system in place, and as is set out in the environment improvement plan, we will be publishing a chemicals strategy this year.

On SSSIs, I am very conscious of the risks that exist. There are variations in what is going on around the country, which is why I have asked for an individual plan to be put in place for every single SSSI. Natural England will be going through and making the assessments of what is there and what needs to be done, and we will get on with it.

I think environmental land management schemes have been transformational. This is a journey for those in the farming industry, who are the original friends of the earth—the people who want a very special countryside—and that is why we have brought forward measures, as my right hon. Friend the Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries laid out to the House when he came here to talk about this transition last week. We will be working with farmers, and indeed I will be at the NFU conference next month. There has not been any NFU conference since I have been in the Government, but we make sure that we continue to speak to farmers and others.

On retained EU laws, I have already told Parliament the approach we have set out. Where there is legislation that is superfluous, we will get rid of it. We will be looking carefully at all the regulations that are in place, and that is what we are going through. It seems to have escaped Opposition Front Benchers’ attention that we have of course already repealed 146 regulations. They did not even notice, so there we go.

In the meantime, we want to make sure that we are holding different people to account, but there is an individual endeavour, a local endeavour and a national endeavour. That is why provisions such as those on biodiversity net gain, which will be coming into effect later this year, will start to help local nature recovery strategies. It is why we have announced extra funding for more projects, with second rounds of things such as the landscape recovery scheme. There are also species reintroductions happening in different parts of the country.

I am very pleased we have published our environmental improvement plan. I think it shows a clear path for how we will get nature recovery, recognising that this has been going on for centuries. Finally, I am delighted to say that we in the UK Government should be proud of getting nature very much at the forefront of international thinking. We are leading the way on that, and we are doing our bit around the world. I trust that we will continue to be the Conservative party because we believe in the conservation of our precious land.

Goal 5 of the plan aims at eliminating waste, and while we have made great progress—for example, in phasing out single-use plastics and substituting more sustainable materials for plastic in packaging for foods—the sad fact remains that our local authorities are very good at collecting waste, but the majority of our plastic waste is exported overseas.

Will the Secretary of State look at two things she could do to improve that situation? First, will she look at the operation of extended producer responsibility, and maybe look at what is being done in Belgium to make sure there is work with industry to incentivise investment in our plastic waste recycling here? Secondly, will she look at setting a date, as my Committee has suggested, for the phasing out and elimination of plastic waste exports to countries such as Turkey, where standards are not as good as ours?

On exports of plastics, we have recognised this issue and want to make sure that we are not exporting to non-OECD countries, but that does not mean that we give a blank cheque when there are exports to member countries of the OECD. That is why we have a rigorous process in place, but we will continue to investigate, through the Environment Agency, where issues arise and get them fixed.

On our thinking more broadly, one of our sadnesses during covid was of course the explosion in single-use plastics and the throwaway elements that were necessary for public health. We also had a reduction in our recycling rates. We do want to turn that around, and that is why we will continue to work on the important EPR reforms to which my right hon. Friend referred.

At yesterday’s launch of the plan, the Secretary of State claimed that

“we are embedding nature in the heart of every decision that government will take”.

That is a very worthy aim, but how on earth does it square with the action we see from her Department? Just last week, the Department gave the green light to an authorisation of the pesticide neonicotinoid, which we know kills bees. I hope she will not tell us that this was just an emergency authorisation; this is the third year in a row that the Department has ignored its own expert committee on this issue, so this is now becoming routine. How can she reassure us that when she says words such as, “We are going to put nature at the heart of all our environment policy making”, she means it? Where is the consistency?

I thank the hon. Lady for that question. We commenced the legal duty on public authorities, at national and local government level, to consider biodiversity from 1 January, so that is already in place. The environmental principles policy statement was published yesterday. It will take some time for the Government to bring that in, and it will come into effect formally from 1 November this year.

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries went into considerable detail in the consideration of the decision about neonicotinoids. Every year, if an application is made, it has to be considered separately. From discussion with our chief scientific adviser, my understanding about what happened in that process—[Interruption.] That is not true. We increased the threshold for usage and we set a bar, to be decided by Rothamsted Research, for how much of the crop has to be at risk. Only when those thresholds are reached can the neonicotinoid be applied to the seed. That is further strengthened by a prohibition on the planting of flowering crops for, I think, 36 months—it may be 32 months, but certainly between two and three years—after the use of the pesticide. Very careful consideration has been given to the matter, and we continue to consider these applications with a great deal of care. I am conscious that with the sustainable farming initiative, for example, we have brought forward eligibility for integrated pest management grants so that we can continue to try to accelerate away from using pesticides routinely.

I warmly welcome the incredible amount of work that the Secretary of State and her team, fresh into post, have put into the five-year environmental improvement plan. This is a holistic, comprehensive update of the 25-year environment plan, and it introduces for the first time a whole slew of targets and interim targets on the journey to where we wish to get to in the next 20 years.

Looking at goal 3 on clean and plentiful water, a topic that has been of great interest to Members across this House, I ask the Secretary of State to take this opportunity to help Opposition Members who seem to have deliberately confused what we voted for in this House in trying to introduce targets, particularly in connection with persistent chemicals. They are substances such as flame retardants that are banned from use, but that exist in sediment on our riverbeds and other places and are being released through the natural process of decay. This is not something that this House has voted to continue for 40 years, as some Opposition Members have tendentiously claimed.