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Volume 729: debated on Wednesday 15 March 2023

Since I was at this Dispatch Box a week ago, the Government have been delivering for the British people. At the UK-France summit, we signed a new illegal immigration deal to protect our borders. Over the weekend, we facilitated the sale of Silicon Valley Bank at no cost to the taxpayer. We have launched a submarine partnership with Australia and the US, launched our integrated review and boosted our defence budget.

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

I have worked for years with women brought here illegally as sex slaves and raped by 30 men a day. Last week, the Prime Minister tweeted that these victims would be denied access to support from our modern slavery system—a tweet that traffickers will hold up to these women and say, “See, no one will help you.” Before the Prime Minister parrots his prepared answer about increases in the number of people accessing our modern slavery system, let me educate him and everyone else in the House: the biggest increase in the last 10 years has been from the huge increase in British adults and children trafficked for sex and crime within Britain. That is not a number they should be proud of. How exactly will I help to prevent the next woman I meet who has been brought here illegally from being repeatedly raped, if she is, as the Prime Minister tweeted, denied access to our modern slavery system?

Just to correct the hon. Lady, it is now a minority of people in our modern slavery referral system that are from the UK. That was not the intention of the legislation when it was introduced. We have a proud record of supporting victims of modern slavery. Thousands of victims are supported every year here in the UK and that will not change as we grip illegal immigration.

Q6. On Monday, the Home Secretary said that in recent decades immigration to this country has been too high, and all those on the Opposition Benches howled their disapproval. They want higher immigration, not lower. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, rather than importing cheap foreign labour, we need to invest in the skills of our own young people and encourage businesses to do likewise? (904089)

My hon. Friend is right to say that we need to encourage long-term investment in the domestic workforce. We will hear more on that from the Chancellor later this afternoon, but the Department for Work and Pensions is directing support at sectors with labour shortages, such as construction and social care, and our new skills bootcamps are part of a dramatic rebooting of our skills system to support workers to get the skills that they need.

Last summer, the Prime Minister claimed that he wanted to protect free speech and put a stop to no-platforming, so how concerned was he by last week’s campaign by Tory MPs to cancel a broadcaster?

As I said at the time, the issues between Gary Lineker and the BBC were for them to resolve. I am very glad they did so and that we can look forward to watching “Match of the Day” on our screens again.

The sight of them howling with rage over a tweet and signing green-ink letters in their dozens, desperately trying to cancel a football highlights show, should have been laughable. Instead, it led to a farcical weekend, with the national broadcaster being accused of dancing to the Government’s tune by its own employees. Rather than blame everyone else, why doesn’t the Prime Minister take some responsibility and stand up to his snowflake MPs who are waging war on free speech?

It is just the usual political opportunism from the leader of the Labour party. I do not know if he noticed, but first the shadow Attorney General and then the shadow Home Secretary actually criticised the language used in the tweet. But what a surprise: he saw the chance to jump on a political bandwagon and changed his mind. [Hon. Members: “More!”]

Order. I am not being funny, but I think our constituents want us to get to the Budget. The more you shout, the more you delay questions. Please, my constituents are interested even if yours are not.

Conservative Members are calling for more from a Prime Minister who does not understand that we can disagree with what someone says while still defending their right to say it. If he does not understand that, we have a real problem. Does he accept that people’s concerns about the BBC have been made worse because the Government chose to put a Tory donor with no broadcasting experience in charge of the BBC?

Order. The same applies to the Opposition. The Budget matters to the people of this country. They want to hear it. Do not keep questions going longer than need be.

There was a rigorous, independent and long-established process. The appointment was supported by expert panel members, as well as by the cross-party Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee. That process is being independently reviewed by the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments, and we should allow the review to conclude.

The problem is that the chair of the BBC is not just any old Tory donor. He is so close to the Prime Minister—[Interruption.]

Order. Mr Fabricant, I want you to be here for the Budget. We do not want cups of tea to come that early.

The chair of the BBC is no ordinary Tory donor. He is so close to the Prime Minister that he has been described as the Prime Minister’s mentor. He helped to arrange an £800,000 credit line for the former Prime Minister—a minor detail he forgot to tell the Select Committee that scrutinised his appointment. Does the Prime Minister think his friend’s position is still tenable?

As I just said, the independent Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments is reviewing what was a rigorous, independent process to appoint the chairman. Instead of prejudging and pre-empting that review, we should let it conclude and wait for the outcome. That is the right way to do things, and that is what the Government will do.

When people with links to the Tory party somehow find themselves in senior positions at the BBC, it is important that their impartiality is seen to be beyond reproach, so has the Prime Minister received assurances that no one with links to the Tory party was lobbied by Tory MPs or involved in the decision that saw “Match of the Day” effectively cancelled?

As I said, these are matters for the BBC to resolve, and it is right that the BBC, as an important institution, takes its obligations on impartiality seriously. I care about the integrity and impartiality of our institutions—the BBC, but also the civil service—and it is right that those processes carry on properly. What I would say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman is that there is an independent review, and it is right that the process concludes and that he, I hope, respects the process.

The Prime Minister comes here today with these mealy-mouthed platitudes, pretending that the actions of his party are nothing to do with him, but the whole country saw how he kept quiet and hid behind the playground bullies while they tried to drive someone out simply for disagreeing with them. An impartial public broadcaster, free of Government interference, is a crucial pillar in our country, but is that not put at risk by the cancel culture addicts on his Benches, a BBC leadership that caves into their demands and a Prime Minister too weak to do anything about them?

We are not going to take any lectures on cancel culture from the Labour party. We know what this is about, although the right hon. and learned Gentleman has avoided it in six questions: the substance of the issue that lay behind the tweet. What has he done in the past week? The only thing he and his party have done is voted against our Bill to stop the boats—siding with people smugglers over the British people. That is the substance of what has happened. Instead, what have we done? We have concluded a new migration deal with France; we have managed to sign a new defence partnership with our allies, the United States and Australia; we have protected British start-ups; and we have boosted defence spending. That is what delivering for Britain looks like. [Interruption.]

Order. I just say that this is the biggest day in the House—[Interruption.] Do you want to carry on cheering? As I have mentioned, there is plenty of room in the Tea Room for those on both sides. Angela Richardson wants to get on with the questions.

Q7.   Thank you, Mr Speaker. For decades, Surrey Research Park in Guildford has been home to our pioneering space sector, with Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd and now Surrey Space Centre’s spacecraft project, which recently received £300,000 to train and recruit dedicated space engineers and create facilities to trial space-related technology. Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming that investment? When his diary allows, will he visit Guildford to celebrate successful local innovation and job creation? (904090)

I reassure my hon. Friend that we are continuing to invest in the UK’s thriving space sector, including in her constituency. We have a new £6.5 million scheme to support high-impact projects and, as she knows, Space South Central is already the leading regional space cluster in the UK. There is more investment coming, and I look forward to visiting—or the Minister of State, Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman) will do so—to make sure that her companies get the recognition they deserve.

On Monday, as households in Scotland were awakening to freezing temperatures, they were met with the news that the electricity grid had been upgraded in order to meet the power demands of the Prime Minister’s new swimming pool. So may I ask him: was it while he was taking a leisurely dip that he decided to leave households drowning in their energy bills?

Thanks to the actions of this Government, we have provided more than £1,300 to help families with their energy bills over the last year. I do not want to pre-empt what the Chancellor is going to say later, but let me say that this is a Government who are committed to continuing to help people with the cost of living, and that is what people will hear later on.

You have got to wonder what planet the Prime Minister is on, because for households in Scotland energy prices have not been frozen at two and a half grand—indeed, the average bill in Scotland has been closer to £3,500, with a near tripling in just under two years. Worse than that, the Chancellor is about to get to his feet and announce that the £400 energy rebate is about to be scrapped for everyone, not just in Scotland but right across these isles. Is it not the case that the Tories are not freezing energy bills; they are looking to freeze households?

The Government are delivering for people across the United Kingdom. Energy bills have been our priority, which is why over £1,000 of support is benefiting households in every part of our country. The hon. Gentleman talks about delivery. We now know that because of the SNP, the trains do not run on time, the police are at breaking point and the NHS in Scotland has experienced its longest ever waiting lists. That is not even my assessment—it is what we learned in the SNP’s leadership debate last week.

Q10. Independent retailers are the lifeblood of our high streets and critical to the regeneration of our town centres, so we should cherish and celebrate the entrepreneurs who set them up and run them. With that in mind, will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating the winners of my recent competition to find Newcastle’s best loved independent shops and market stalls: namely, Tony Price Quality Butchers, Mejoolies, Cheeky Cheesecakes and the overall winner, Anasma Greek Bakery, which only opened in July 2021 and is already expanding to a second site? (904093)

I agree with my hon. Friend about the incredible benefit that small businesses and independent retailers bring to our high streets and economy. I congratulate the team at Anasma Greek Bakery on winning the competition. I know that they will feel reassured by their Government’s investment in my hon. Friend’s constituency through the town deal and, of course, funding from the future high streets fund.

Just ahead of St Patrick’s day, may I thank the Prime Minister for his recent deep engagement with Northern Ireland, and in particular the conclusion of the Windsor framework? I hope we will see the Executive restored shortly. However, that Executive are facing a spiral of budget cuts, which will prevent them from transforming public services on an invest-to-save basis and from investing in a prosperity agenda. Will the Prime Minister and the Chancellor therefore work with the Northern Ireland parties on a financial package to transform Northern Ireland, accepting the need for strict conditions and a real focus on key areas such as health, education, skills and infrastructure?

I thank the hon. Gentleman, his colleagues and his party for their engagement in the run-up to the Windsor framework; it was helpful and I appreciated his constructive involvement. My right hon. Friend the Northern Ireland Secretary has been working closely, and will work closely, with all Northern Irish parties, leading discussions on a wide range of issues, including the public finances, because I believe what the hon. Gentleman believes: that the people of Northern Ireland need and deserve effective, accountable and devolved government up and running as quickly as possible. I hope those talks can be constructive in leading to that aim.

Q13. In 2016, the current Mayor of London promised zero strikes on the London underground. Today is the 135th day of strikes since then. Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning those strikes, which have brought misery to the travelling public in London, and condemn the Mayor of London for his failure to address this issue? (904096)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the misery being inflicted on Londoners by the incompetent running of TfL. It is worth bearing in mind that not only does the Labour party vote against our minimum service levels, which will provide respite for the hard-working British public, but since the pandemic the Mayor of London has received £6 billion of additional funding for transport services—so for us to be in the situation that we find ourselves in today is simply unacceptable.

Q2.   An investigation reported in The Guardian and by the BBC revealed that on more than 450 instances in the last year sewage was leaking into cancer wards, maternity units and A&E departments. Without urgent action, the legacy of this Conservative Government on the NHS will be an image of a nurse cleaning up sewage around a patient in a crumbling hospital. Will the Prime Minister commit to that pledge of building 40 hospitals by 2030, including in West Hertfordshire, and will he establish a fund to repair those hospitals that are in a dire state of disrepair? (904085)

We are investing record sums in NHS capital to upgrade dozens of hospitals across the country, but in particular to build 40 new hospitals. We are committed to a new hospital scheme at West Hertfordshire Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust as part of that programme. The programme is working closely with the trust on its plans, in line with the approach we have taken nationally.

Does the Prime Minister agree that agritech—in particular, the excellent work of the Crop and Environment Research Centre at Harper Adams University in Shropshire—is a vital part of the UK economy? I know that he has a busy schedule, but will he dispatch the Secretary of State to come and look at that research centre, and in particular to see the women at Harper Adams leading science and maths—and, indeed, leading the world?

I agree with my right hon. Friend. Harper Adams is a fantastic example of the type of innovation and skills provision that we need in our agritech sector. That is why I am pleased that, post Brexit, we can introduce the gene editing Bill, which will help to drive productivity and efficiency in our agricultural sector even further.

Q3. The Government promised the 40 new hospitals three years ago and the Prime Minister has just expressed again his intention to proceed. Two years ago in St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, which serves my constituency, a ward ceiling fell in during floods, the eye hospital was closed by a fire, and the birth centre and maternity wards were threatened by structural problems. This week, trust managers said that“the infrastructure is having an increasing impact on staff and patients…we just can’t afford to continue to waste money on failing buildings.” However, the hospital is waiting for the commitment from the Government for the funding under the new hospitals programme. Will today be the day that the Prime Minister commits to that specifically? (904086)

As I said in a previous answer, the Government are committed to the new hospitals programme; we have committed record sums to NHS capital, not just for that programme, but for smaller-scale upgrades across the country. The conversations with her trust and others are happening in the same way across the country and I look forward to those conversations continuing.

Government at all levels, national and local, should always strive to deliver value for money for the taxpayer, particularly in a cost of living crisis. Therefore, does the Prime Minister share my astonishment that my local Labour-led Westminster Council voted last week to raise council tax by 2% and council housing tenants’ rent by 7%, and increase allowances for its senior councillors by up to a staggering 45%? [Interruption.]

Prime Minister, you have got to answer. I do not know who is giving you advice, but take it from the Chair: please answer.

That is disappointing to see. I think it has been just under a year that the now Labour-run Westminster Council has put its own councillors’ pay ahead of everything else. I cannot quite believe the figures we heard from my hon. Friend—a staggering, eye-watering 45% pay increase when people across our country and abroad are suffering cost of living pressures. It is clear that it is only Conservative-run councils that deliver for their residents.

Q4. Every child in the UK is entitled to free NHS dental treatment, but with 80% of practices not accepting children as new patients, is the Prime Minister proud of his record on our children’s dental health? (904087)

We are investing £3 billion in NHS dentistry. Because of the reforms to the contract, there will be about 10% more activity this year above contracted levels. There are 500 more dentists in the NHS today and, I think, almost a 45% increase in the amount of dental care being provided to children.

Five years ago, £40 million of public funds were set aside for brain tumour research, but recent Government figures suggest that as little as a quarter of that money has been deployed to researchers. The mechanism to distribute research funding effectively is broken. As a result, the brain tumour community has not seen the breakthroughs in treatment and survival rates that many of us believe they should have. Does my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister agree that a unique and complex disease needs a unique response, and, in Brain Tumour Awareness Month, will he make brain cancer a critical research priority across all cancers?

I thank my hon. Friend for his thoughtful and powerful question. He is absolutely right about the importance of expediting medical research so that we can deliver better care for the people affected. I will make sure that he gets a meeting with the relevant Minister so we can ensure that that funding gets out to the people who need it and we can bring relief to them as quickly as we can.

Q5.   With the encouragement of the British Government, female prosecutors and female judges in Afghanistan stood up for the rule of law and for a more inclusive and equal nation. Those left behind are in mortal danger. Last year I met senior officials at the Foreign Office, who were open to making a specific case for at least some of those women to be relocated to the United Kingdom, but nothing has happened since then. This dire situation requires a prime ministerial intervention, so I am not asking to meet the Prime Minister’s officials or his Ministers; I am asking him directly whether he will meet me to see what we can do for these women. (904088)

I am very happy to meet the hon. and learned Lady. She will know that we take our obligations to those who helped and served in Afghanistan extremely seriously, through both the Afghan relocations and assistance policy and the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme. We have already brought 20,000 refugees from Afghanistan to the UK and worked closely with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and others on those legal routes, but I would be happy to meet her to ensure that we are targeting our compassion and generosity on the people who most need it and not those who are coming here illegally.

At the height of the pandemic, centre-assessed grades allowed our young people to move forward with their lives. Lara, my very brave young constituent, is now battling cancer and will not sit the GCSE exams that she has worked so hard for, and could be left with only a certificate of recognition. In exceptional circumstances such as these, why can the same principle not apply? Would my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister look compassionately at this situation?

May I start by sending my best wishes to Lara and thanking my hon. Friend for raising her case in Parliament? Of course, it is incredibly upsetting and challenging for children and young people to be diagnosed with a serious illness, especially so close to their exams. There are allowances that are made, and in the first instance students will speak to their school or college to make those reasonable adjustments, but I will be happy to ensure that we work with my hon. Friend to find a resolution in Lara’s case.

Q8. I welcome the Prime Minister’s numeracy drive, but did he know that some 7.1 million adults in England are functionally illiterate? It is often diagnosed late in life—as with TV’s Jay Blades—if at all. Will the Prime Minister thank the entirely voluntary Read Easy, which is turning that around at a cost of just £250 per new reader, and will he commit to a national strategy for eradicating the problem, which is costing our economy £25 billion a year in lost competitiveness? (904091)

I agree with the hon. Lady: literacy and numeracy are critical for adults to be able to participate in society and the economy. I am happy to praise Read Easy for the work that it does, and I look forward to learning more about it. The best way to solve this problem is to ensure that our young children get the reading skills, training and education that they need. I am so pleased that, because of the reforms introduced by previous Conservative Governments, particularly on phonics, we have now marched up the international league table and have some of the best results for reading that we have seen in a very long time.

More than a quarter of the economic output of this country is in sectors overseen by some of our major regulators, such as Ofwat and Ofgem, but historically there has been little in the way of oversight to say whether they are doing a good or bad job, or whether they are achieving international best practice. Can the Prime Minister look at what he can do to address that historical oversight and enable regulators to play their part in ensuring economic growth?

As always, my hon. Friend makes a very thoughtful point. He is absolutely right about the importance of our regulators in driving growth and competitive investment in our economy. I know that the Chancellor will have something to say about this later, but my hon. Friend should rest assured that we will keep at it to ensure that there is accountability and oversight of our regulators. We all want to see more growth in our economy, and they need to play their part in delivering it.

Q9. Twenty years after defeat in the second world war, the first Japanese bullet train travelled the 300 miles from Tokyo to Osaka at 200 mph. Is it not a measure of the Government’s incompetence and lack of commitment to the regions and to infrastructure that 24 years after a Conservative Transport Secretary announced that High Speed 2 would happen, it is now expected that Birmingham, Manchester and London will not be linked by that time? (904092)

We are actually delivering the biggest rail investment since the Victorian era. I would just gently point out to the hon. Gentleman that, compared with when Labour was last in office, the investment going into the north is 30% higher every single year under this Conservative Government. We are delivering for communities across the north, with more trains, buses, stations and roads, because a Conservative Government do not just talk about it; they get on and deliver it.

I hope very much that, later today, we will hear news of help for motorists and small businesses, but motorists and small businesses in Bromley and the rest of outer London are going to be hard hit later this year by the Mayor of London’s stealth tax in the form of an ultra-low emission charge that will cost money and jobs. Is it not time to revisit the Local Government Act and revise it so that such charges can only be imposed on London boroughs with the consent of the boroughs themselves?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. He is right that the Mayor of London should listen to the voices of commuters, families and small businesses as he inflicts his damaging tax on them. This Government will always be on the side of those people and this Budget will deliver for them too.