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Volume 728: debated on Wednesday 1 March 2023

May I wish everyone, but in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Craig Williams), a very happy St David’s Day?

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

The Prime Minister understands the importance of NHS staff, because he was out there every Thursday night clapping for them during the pandemic. He must therefore also surely know that he has not got a hope of dealing with the NHS crisis if he does not invest in its workforce. We have a plan to double medical school places and end the scandal of straight-A students being denied the chance to become a doctor. Patients support our plan, the NHS supports our plan, and even his Chancellor supports our plan. Why doesn’t he?

The hon. Gentleman needs to keep up—we are doing a workforce plan for the NHS. There are tens of thousands more doctors, more nurses in the NHS, a record number of GPs and record investment in the NHS. That is what we get with a Conservative Government delivering.

Q3.   Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating the staff at Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust, who, faced with a challenging winter with 300 covid and flu patients, as well as thousands of appointments affected by industrial action, have succeeded in reducing the backlog of those waiting more than 18 months for surgery by a quarter in just a month? Will he further reaffirm the Government’s commitment to the redevelopment of the Queen’s Medical Centre and Nottingham City Hospital, the second biggest hospital investment programme in the country? (903855)

I join my hon. Friend in thanking everyone at Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust for their fantastic work, and I can confirm that we are committed to a new hospital scheme at the Queen’s Medical Centre and City Hospital as part of our new hospital programme. I know that progress is being made, and I look forward to seeing the project come to completion.

Can I join the Prime Minister in wishing everybody a happy St David’s Day?

After 13 years of Tory failure, the average family in Britain will be poorer than the average family in Poland by 2030. That is a shocking state of affairs. If the Tories limp on in government, we are going to see a generation of young people learning to say “auf Wiedersehen, pet” in Polish, aren’t we?

It is clear to everyone that the biggest impact on household living standards is the energy prices we are suffering as a result of an illegal war in Ukraine, and I would just remind the right hon. and learned Gentleman what we are doing to ease people through that. Because of our energy price guarantee, the Government are paying more than half of a typical household energy bill, saving households right now £1,000. It is one of the most generous support schemes globally. He knows that future decisions to support the cost of living are for the Budget, but if he is concerned about the cost of living, what he should do is stop making inflationary, unfunded spending commitments and back our plan to halve inflation.

The dictionary definition of unfunded commitments is last year’s kamikaze Budget. We are the only country in the G7 that is still poorer than it was before the pandemic, and the Prime Minister stands there pretending that it is all fine—total denial about the damage and decline that he is presiding over. Delivering growth and tackling the cost of living crisis will mean standing up to vested interests. Energy bills will go up by £900 in April. He knows he will have to act, but who is going to pay? Hard-working families through higher taxes and more borrowing, or the oil and gas giants celebrating record profits?

I know the right hon. and learned Gentleman recently made a rare trip out of north London to visit Davos. Perhaps while he was there, he missed the survey of 4,000 global CEOs from 100 different countries who ranked the United Kingdom as their No. 1 European investment destination. If he is serious about getting the economy growing, he should stand up to the vested interests in the unions and back our minimum service levels.

Here is the thing: all CEOs of businesses are saying there is only one party with a plan for growth, and it is this party here. There is one party that broke the economy, and its Members are sitting on the Government Benches. On energy bills, it is not as complicated as the Prime Minister pretends. Oil and gas companies are making vast, unexpected profits while working people face the misery of higher bills. He can boast all he likes, but companies like Shell did not pay a penny in windfall tax last year, and they are still not paying their fair share now. Why does he not admit his mistake, get rid of the loopholes in his botched windfall tax and finally choose family finances over oil profits?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman seems to forget that, as Chancellor, I introduced a new tax on energy companies. Energy companies will pay a 75% tax rate on extraordinary profits comparable to—indeed, higher than—other North sea nations. That is what his shadow Levelling Up Secretary recently called for, but I have good news for them: we did it a year ago. They have to keep up. I know they claim to support levelling up, but they really need to keep up.

The Prime Minister introduced a tax on Shell and it has not paid a penny—fantastic work! If he were serious about investing in the future of the country, he would start with housing. A few months ago, his Back Benchers forced him to scrap house building targets. At the time, he stood there and said it would mean the Government would build more homes. Well, would you believe it? A few months later, the Home Builders Federation say house building will fall to its lowest level in 75 years. He can change course on this. He can bring back targets and planning reforms, or he can duck that fight and let a generation down. Which is it?

Actually, we have had record high numbers on house building and, indeed, the highest number of first-time buyers in around 20 years under this Government. The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about investing for the long term of our country, and that is important when it comes to energy security, but Labour’s policy is to oppose any new oil and gas licences in the North sea. It is an absurd policy that would see us paying billions to countries abroad for our energy, while shipping it here with twice the carbon emissions. It is typical political posturing. It is bad for the economy; it is bad for our security—just like the Labour party.

Order. Because of the noise, I do not think the Prime Minister is hearing the questions because I do think that one was on house building.

House building is at the lowest level for 75 years. A whole generation of people are desperate to get on the housing ladder. Thirteen years in power, and all the Prime Minister has to say to them is, “It’s somebody else’s fault—let me deflect.” No wonder they are furious with his Government.

It is not just bills or housing. Families are paying over £1,000 a month just to send their child to nursery. If the Prime Minister scrapped his non-dom status, he could start to fund better childcare, put money back into people’s pockets and get parents back to work. It seems a pretty simple choice to me. Which is he going to choose: wealthy tax avoiders or hard-working parents?

If we want to see what happens with house building under a Labour Government, we just need to look at what is going on in London—and when it comes to the facts, they do not suit the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s argument. Let us just go over them: the wealthiest pay more tax and the poorest pay less tax than under any year of the last Labour Government. As for his plans, he has already spent the money he claims he would raise from his policy on five different things. It is the same old Labour party: always running out of other people’s money.

The Prime Minister is never happier than when he is pretending that everything is fine or blaming someone else—and didn’t we just see it there? He is choosing tax avoiders over hard-working parents.

I do not want to finish this session without asking about the covid disclosures in today’s Daily Telegraph. We do not know the truth of what happened yet—there are too many messages and too many unknowns—but families across the country will look at this, and the sight of politicians writing books portraying themselves as heroes or selectively leaking messages will be an insulting and ghoulish spectacle for them. At the heart of this is every family who made enormous sacrifices for the good of the country or who tragically lost loved ones.

The country deserves better. The covid inquiry has already cost the taxpayer £85 million and has not heard from a single Government Minister yet. Can the Prime Minister assure the House that there will be no more delays and that the inquiry will have whatever support it needs to report by the end of this year?

The past couple of years were an incredibly difficult time for everyone involved in the health service. I pay tribute to all their hard work, and I know that the House will join me in that regard.

Rather than comment on piecemeal bits of information, I am sure the right hon. and learned Gentleman will agree that the right way for these things to be looked at is through the covid inquiry; that is why we have established the covid inquiry. He will know—he has mentioned once or twice before that he was a lawyer in a previous life—that there is a proper process for these things. It is an independent inquiry. It has the resources it needs, it has the powers it needs, and what we should all do in this House is let it get on and do its job.

Q5.   I warmly welcome the Prime Minister’s work to resolve the Rubik’s cube of the Northern Ireland protocol, opening up the prospect of resuming more positive relations with our nearest neighbours. Last week, Imperial College generously hosted an event to celebrate 25 years of the Environment Audit Committee’s scrutiny work. Academics from Imperial and the other world-class universities that support our work have been clamouring to re-engage with their research partners through Horizon and other programmes. Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that he has commenced negotiations to resume an association for the UK with Horizon Europe? (903857)

I thank my right hon. Friend for his support for the Windsor framework. He is right about the benefits that it can bring. I also join him in paying tribute to our incredible research community, who do a fantastic job. I can assure him that we will continue to work with the EU in a range of areas—not just research collaboration, but strengthening our sanctions against Russia, energy security and, crucially, illegal migration. I look forward to those discussions and hope we can conclude them productively on a range of different areas.

Yesterday, the Prime Minister said that EU single market access was “special”, “exciting” and “attractive”. If that is the case, why is he denying it to the rest of us?

It is disappointing that the hon. Gentleman is seeking to play politics with the situation in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland, as he well knows, has a unique place in the United Kingdom. What we are trying to do is restore the balance inherent in the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, and he would do well to acknowledge that.

Let us be clear: what the Prime Minister said yesterday was that EU single market access will be a good thing for business. Of course, that is in contrast to the leader of the Labour party, who said in December that EU single market access would not boost economic growth. Does it hurt the Prime Minister to know that the Labour party believes in Brexit more than he does?

With regard to Northern Ireland, the important thing is to avoid a land border on the island of Ireland between north and south. That is what it is crucial to achieve in getting the right framework for the arrangements in Northern Ireland, and the businesses there that trade across that border on a daily basis, with complex supply chains need, and value that access. That is something that the Windsor framework has sought to achieve and, I believe, delivers. It is not about the macro issue of membership of the European Union; it is about getting the right mechanisms in place to support businesses and communities in Northern Ireland. I would say to the hon. Gentleman that he knows better than that: he knows that this is about Northern Ireland, and I hope that he can support what we have agreed.

Q9. I am sure the Prime Minister, like me, was excited to see the first new nuclear reactor for a UK power station in more than three decades arrive at Hinkley C this week. Will the Prime Minister make it his personal mission to deliver vital new nuclear power at Wylfa in my constituency of Ynys Môn, one of the best nuclear sites in the UK? (903861)

When it comes to our energy policy, the important thing is to focus on our long-term energy security. That means more renewables, more offshore wind, hydrogen, carbon capture and storage and, indeed, more nuclear. Wylfa remains one of the best nuclear sites in the UK, and the strong support from the local community, and indeed my hon. Friend, makes it an attractive site for the UK’s nuclear revival. I know that Great British Nuclear, when that body is up and running, will be taking a very close look at it.

Well, I have to say it is great to hear of the conversion that the Prime Minister has had on the benefits of the single market. Given Northern Ireland’s access to the dual market—both markets—and the benefits that that brings, will his Government commit to investing in infrastructure and higher education provision to maximise that benefit?

I thank my hon. Friend for his engagement and support in developing the Windsor framework. I think it delivers on what he wanted, which was to ensure that we protect Northern Ireland’s businesses and the supply chains that they have, and I can give him that commitment. He and I both want to see more investment in Northern Ireland not just from the Government, but from the private sector. This agreement will unlock that investment, but, critically, a step on that journey is to have a reformed Executive, something I know everyone in this House would like to see.

Q10. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, in these difficult times, the free world must stand together? With that in mind, would he also agree that strengthening our friendships and support with other countries in Europe is important? Will he welcome the delegation here today from Lithuania, and does he agree with me that the decision to hold the Heads of State of NATO meeting in Lithuania—in Vilnius—in July shows what a strong ally it is and also how important we think it is to strengthen the eastern flank? (903862)

I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend. I am delighted that Lithuania and the city of Vilnius will host the NATO leaders summit in July, and the UK does have a strong and growing relationship with Lithuania. It was just yesterday that its Defence Minister was here supporting our efforts, together with Lithuania, to train Ukrainian soldiers. At the summit, we will work together to ensure we can deter and defend against Russian aggression by making sure that we implement the next phase of the most radical military transformation since the 1960s.

Q2. To date, 79 people have been killed on smart motorways. Last January, the Government said they would pause their roll-out. The Prime Minister said:“Smart motorways are unpopular because they are unsafe. We need to listen to drivers and stop with the pursuit of policies that go against common sense.”Since then, three new schemes have gone live, with three more expected shortly. Prime Minister, especially during a cost of living crisis, how do you justify pushing ahead with these deathtrap roads? (903854)

Safety on our roads is our absolute priority, and we will do everything we can to make sure drivers do feel safe. Last year, we in fact paused the roll-out of smart motorways not already in construction while we consider the data and next steps. In the meantime, we have committed almost £900 million for safety improvements across the entire network.

Q11.   On Monday evening, Zero Carbon Guildford received national recognition here in Parliament, winning the Climate Coalition’s Innovative UK Community Project award. It has taken what is often an overwhelming subject and turned it into tangible solutions to local issues to give people agency. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating all the volunteers, including Ben, Izzy and Mark, on their award? Does he agree that grassroots organisations such as Zero Carbon Guildford are key stakeholders in our national journey to achieving net zero? (903863)

I join my hon. Friend in congratulating Zero Carbon Guildford on receiving the Climate Coalition’s Innovative UK Community Project award. She is absolutely right that community empower-ment, engagement and action can play a role in supporting the UK’s transition to net zero, enabling communities to access the benefits that it brings, from greener jobs to improved health.

Q4.   Last week I met nurses from the Royal College of Nursing. One of the biggest challenges that they face is the crumbling buildings of Royal Lancaster Infirmary. Hospital bosses were promised capital funding as one of the so-called 40 new hospitals back in January, but it is March and they have not seen a penny. How many broken hospitals and broken promises will it take for the Prime Minister to finally fix something? (903856)

We are investing record sums in the hospital capital upgrade programme across the country. I am very happy to make sure that we are making progress on the scheme that she mentioned and that she gets the detail of that. It is not just the 40 hospitals but the 90 upgrades around the country, and up to 300 community diagnostic centres and elective surgical hubs. This is a Government who are backing the NHS with the resources it needs.

Q14. The tragic death of more than 50 people over the weekend when their small boat broke up off the coast of Italy is a sad reminder of the total disregard for life of the illegal traffickers who facilitate these crossings to make their money. Will the Prime Minister set out what steps he is taking to bring an end to this barbaric trade, and will he reassure my constituents that stopping illegal immigration remains a key priority for this Government? (903867)

My hon. Friend is right that the tragic incident near Italy at the weekend demonstrates only too well how illegal crossings put lives at risk. That is why last year the Home Secretary and I last year announced five new measures to tackle the problem of small boat crossings, including the largest ever boats deal with France and a landmark deal with Albania. But we must do more, and as soon as the legislation is ready it will be brought to this House to ensure that if you arrive in this country illegally, you will not be able to stay. You will be swiftly detained and removed to your own country or a safe third-country alternative. That is the right and responsible way to tackle this problem.

Q6.   The Prime Minister and I have one thing in common: we have both had to step in and sort out legal and constitutional messes created by his predecessor but one, the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson). The Prime Minister has boasted that his new Brexit deal puts Northern Ireland in an “unbelievably special position” because it will have access to both the UK and EU markets. He said that that makes it “the world’s most exciting economic zone.” My question to the Prime Minister is, if there can be a very special status for the province of Northern Ireland, why can there not be a very special status for the nation of Scotland? (903858)

The Prime Minister will know that Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board has yet again been put in special measures. The chairman and the whole board resigned en masse, as they no longer have faith in the Welsh Labour Government. Yet on a call earlier this week, the Welsh Health Minister told me that it was not the Welsh Labour Government’s fault that healthcare has collapsed in north Wales. Given that Labour runs the NHS in north Wales, can my right hon. Friend suggest to the people of north Wales whose fault it is and who should put it right?

I share my hon. Friend’s concern. The House will know that health is a devolved matter for the Labour-run Government in Wales, where one in five people in the entire country are now on a waiting list. The Government there should focus on the people’s priorities and start cutting waiting lists, as we are doing here in England.

Q7. A heartbreaking 80% of those who responded to a survey that I carried out recently in my constituency said that the high cost of energy meant they would have to ration it—and I do not represent a deprived area. Nearly a quarter of Scottish households now live in fuel poverty, not helped, of course, by the total absence of a Scottish Government insulation programme. Will the Prime Minister now accept that allowing the price cap to rise will only make things worse for millions of families, and given the significant reduction in the cost of wholesale energy, will he also accept that it is time to listen to the Liberal Democrats and cut bills to the levels of last April? (903859)

The Liberal Democrats’ shadow Energy Secretary said that there was no role for nuclear power in our future energy industry, which is not something that we need to listen to. As for helping people with their energy bills, as I said earlier, because of the energy price guarantee we are paying, typically, about half a family’s energy bill at the moment, which is worth £1,000. However, the support does not end there: over the next year there will be about £1,000 of direct support for the most vulnerable families in the nation.

I agree with the hon. Lady about energy efficiency. It is important, which is why the Government have allocated more than £6 billion over the current Parliament, and the new schemes that we have just introduced will help hundreds of thousands of households across the country, saving them about £300 on their bills through improvements in their energy efficiency—and the hon. Lady is right: it should be available everywhere, including Scotland.

As chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for Greece, may I put on record how sad we all are about the tragic train accident and loss of life there?

The double child rapist and killer Colin Pitchfork is once again up for parole next month. I know that the Prime Minister has no part in any decision-making process in terms of the independent Parole Board, but can he organise an urgent meeting with the Secretary of State for Justice, so that I can refer my constituents’ views about this dangerous man and he can take them into account in his submissions to the board?

Pitchfork’s crimes were heinous, and our thoughts remain with Lynda and Dawn’s friends and families. My hon. Friend knows that it is for the Parole Board to make these decisions, but my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister will be submitting his views on the Pitchford case to the board before the oral hearing and will be happy to meet my hon. Friend again. We recently published a root-and-branch review of the Parole Board system that outlined our plans to introduce greater ministerial oversight, and I look forward to my hon. Friend’s contributions and thoughts on that.

Q8. Yesterday, new figures showed that there had been a 26% increase in the number of people sleeping rough. Meanwhile, a Conservative party donor has spent £25,000 on a crystal-encrusted portrait of the Prime Minister, and another has paid £40,000 for a shooting trip. Does this not demonstrate just how out of touch the Conservative party is with the cost of living crisis? (903860)

Rough sleeping levels have been 35% lower this year than the peak, partly as a result of our £2 billion of extra investment over the last three years to tackle rough sleeping. We still have one of the lowest rates in the world, according to when it was last measured, but we will continue to do more. We do not want anyone to have to sleep rough. Because of the innovations that we have made we are taking more and more people off the streets, and we will keep delivering more.

Last month The Pines Primary School in my constituency achieved a “good” rating in its Ofsted inspection. That in itself is laudable, but what is particularly significant is that The Pines is now the 40th of 40 eligible schools in Bracknell to be rated “good” or “outstanding”. This clean sweep is itself an outstanding achievement, and I am very proud of everyone locally. Will the Prime Minister please join me in congratulating our fantastic teachers, staff, governors and pupils, as well as Councillor Gareth Barnard and the entire education team in Conservative-run Bracknell Forest Council?

Education is the closest thing we have to a silver bullet for transforming people’s lives, so I am delighted to join my hon. Friend in praising everyone involved, from the councillor to the teachers to the staff to the governors, for delivering such fantastic results. They are in the business of providing tremendous opportunities for the children in their care, and we all owe them an enormous debt of gratitude.

Q12.   Citizens Advice estimates that the number of households unable to afford their energy bills will double from one in 10 to one in five from April. Labour has a plan to help struggling families right across the country now. Why can the Prime Minister not see the need to take action on energy bills now, avoid the cliff edge—[Interruption.] Conservative Members can shout all they like. Why can he not see the need to take action now, avoid the cliff edge and stop plunging more people into poverty from April? (903864)

We are helping people now. We are helping people with the energy price guarantee, which is ensuring they have a £1,000 saving on their energy bills right now, and we are providing further support over the coming year for the most vulnerable with direct cost of living support of up to £1,000. There is also a record increase in pensions, a record increase in benefits and a record increase in the national living wage, because that is what Conservative Governments do.

Some 97% of ceramics businesses are small and medium-sized enterprises, which means that they have not received the level of support that many other energy-intensive sectors have, so will my right hon. Friend look at what more support, particularly financial support, can be offered to help this sector to decarbonise and invest in energy efficiency measures?

My hon. Friend is a powerful advocate for his ceramics industry, and rightly so. It has been a pleasure to meet him and his businesses in the past. He will know that our energy bills discount scheme will support businesses with their energy bills through to March next year, and we have a range of other funds to support energy-intensive industries. There is the scheme that he mentioned, and also the industrial energy transformation fund, which provides capital grants to businesses such as his to help them decarbonise. I look forward to discussing this with him and his businesses in the near future.

Q13.   It has been announced that on 7 May, a coronation choir will perform at Windsor castle, comprised of some of the UK’s keenest community choirs and amateur singers, including refugee choirs, NHS choirs, LGBTQ+ singing groups and deaf signing choirs. If it turns out that any of the refugees taking part in that choir have arrived here on small boats or from a safe third country, should they be deported to Rwanda before or after they sing for the King? (903866)

It is amazing, when we have had a question about the awful tragedy of illegal migration that happened recently, that the hon. Gentleman cannot accept that there is absolutely nothing compassionate about tolerating illegal migration when people are dying. That is why the Government will bring forward legislation to improve the system here. It is absolutely right that if people come here illegally, they should be sent to a safe alternative, because that is the only way we will break the cycle of these criminal gangs and stop people dying needlessly.

A school in my constituency was complaining that it could not afford to turn the heating on, yet that school and others are spending money on PSHE materials from organisations such as Stonewall and Jigsaw that are educating our boys and girls that they may not have been born in the right body or that they may have an inner gender identity. Will the PM meet me to see how we can stop this unscientific, ideological education being taught in our schools and get our children learning where they should be learning—in a warm, safe place?

We have boosted school funding by around £2 billion in each of the next two years, which will help schools to manage their energy costs, but we do expect schools to take responsible and sensible decisions on their RHSE materials and make sure that those materials are age-appropriate, suitable, politically impartial and value for money. I look forward to discussing this matter with my hon. Friend, and I will make sure that he gets a meeting with the relevant Minister.

The Prime Minister may be aware of Sky News’s investigation and report today on the over-the-counter sale of nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, to children and young teenagers. One alarming aspect is the change in the size of canisters from 8 grams to 620 grams, and ambulance call-outs related to overuse have tripled. Instead of criminalising the young people who buy nitrous oxide, is it not time to take urgent action against those knowingly selling this harmful and potentially life-changing substance to children under age?

I share the hon. Lady’s concern and that of Members across the House about nitrous oxide’s detrimental impact on communities and its contribution to antisocial behaviour. Indeed, I mentioned it specifically in a speech I made at the beginning of this year. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs is conducting a review of nitrous oxide and looking at this question in particular. The Home Secretary has asked it to expedite that review and we will consider its advice carefully when it is received.