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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 729: debated on Wednesday 15 March 2023

Science, Innovation and Technology

The Secretary of State was asked—

Domestic Space Industry

It is a great privilege to open the batting for the new Department for Science, Innovation and Technology. Not since the white heat of technology under Harold Wilson have a Government put more money into research. I know the Opposition will welcome this Department.

No sector embodies the opportunity more than space. That is why, in the past 10 years, we are proud to have doubled the size of the sector to £16 billion. We set out a £10 billion plan for the next decade. Through regulatory leadership, insurance and finance in the City, £400 million in earth observation and our cluster programme, we intend to grow this economy all around the country.

As a science geek, I love this new Department. The Chelmsford-based company Teledyne e2v is the world leader in space imaging. When the earthquake hit Turkey and Syria, its technology from way up there in space pinpointed the exact location of collapsed businesses, sent rescuers to the spot and saved lives. It also provides crucial monitoring of our planet’s air, oceans and volcanos via the Copernicus programme. The European Space Agency wants to continue to use e2v tech for the next generation of Copernicus satellites, so will the UK continue to participate in Copernicus post-2024 so that companies like e2v can continue to sell to—

Order. The right hon. Lady, as much as she might be a science geek, ought to know that questions need to be shorter to give somebody else a chance. Put in for an urgent question. Come on in, Minister.

I pay tribute to Teledyne, which is a great company. That is why we have put £1.8 billion through the European Space Agency, so that little companies like that here in the UK can benefit. On Friday, I visited Space East. We support the cluster it is a part of. Following the Northern Ireland protocol agreement, the Windsor framework, we are actively discussing with the EU the membership of Horizon, Copernicus and Euratom, and funding earth observation programmes in any case.

I welcome anything that focuses on science and technology. It has to be good for our country. On the domestic space industry, I very much welcome what the Minister has just said. However, if we are to grow the sector, we need the next generation of mathematicians, scientists, engineers and computer programmers. What is he doing to ensure that the education and training system brings forward the workforce for tomorrow?

That is an excellent question because skills are key. All around the country we are growing space clusters. Just yesterday we launched Leicester Space East, which is part of the national network. We prioritised skills in the science and technology framework, published last Monday. The UK Space Agency has an active skills programme and we are working with UKspace to set out a map of the jobs that are being created—380,000 in this economy over the next 10 years. We intend to ensure that our higher education and further education sector is supplying them.

The Westcott Space Cluster in my constituency is a tour de force of innovative excellence, with a particular focus on ensuring small and medium-sized enterprises can use open access testing facilities, such as through the satellite applications catapult DISC. Does my hon. Friend agree that that open access support is essential? Will he visit Westcott to see it for himself?

Next month, I will be joining the team from HyImpulse at the SaxaFord spaceport in Shetland to see the hot fire test of its new HyPLOX75 motor. Like many companies in the sector, it is very keen to know when we will get an announcement regarding the space flight phase 2 programme. When will we get that announcement? If we are not going to go ahead with that programme, what will the Government be doing to encourage companies like HyImpulse to do their business in Scotland?

I was in Scotland just a few weeks ago meeting the team behind the Shetland and Sutherland launch. We are committed to launch in both Cornwall and Scotland. We are providing funding to support those two spaceports. I will happily come and visit when I am next up. In Scotland, Buckinghamshire and all around the country, we are growing space clusters to give jobs and opportunities to a new generation.

Commercialisation of Science and Technology Research: North-east England

2. What steps she is taking to support the commercialisation of science and technology research in North East England. (904135)

We should all be incredibly proud that nowhere is driving the science and technology revolution more than the north-east economy. It was a powerhouse of the previous industrial revolution and is that again now. I was recently in Newcastle visiting the University of Newcastle and Northumbria University. Spinouts from Newcastle raised £47 million, which is a record. The NETPark North East Technology Park, home to 65 growing companies, has just announced its third phase. It is home to Kromek, one of our top sensor companies. We put £5 million into the Northern Accelerator, a collaboration between six universities, and we have nine catapult centres in the north-east. We are driving the north-east economic renaissance.

The north-east is a centre of science excellence in offshore wind, life sciences, batteries and much more. We are home to 3,500 tech firms, which bring £2 billion to our local economy. European structural funds provide support to small and medium-sized enterprises to start up, innovate and grow, but all that stops at the end of this month. What will the Minister do to ensure that that support for development continues?

That is an excellent question. We have set out the shared prosperity fund, which is now fully deployed around the country. We have made the commitment to increase domestic research and development outside the greater south-east by 40% between now and 2030, and 50% of Government R&D in the old Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy was outside the greater south-east. I do not want to pre-empt the Chancellor, but this afternoon there will be announcements about how we support regional science and technology growth.

Nissan in Sunderland is one of the most productive plants in the whole Nissan network. What meetings has the Minister had with Nissan about its work?

Since arriving in this new portfolio I have not had any meetings with Nissan, but as a Department we are actively picking up the clean tech piece and the future energy technologies piece, and we are working with a range of companies, as well as with the Department for Business and Trade and the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero.

Across the country, our regions are home to thousands of brilliant science start-ups and spin-outs, but they are being hit by a Tory quadruple whammy: slashing R&D tax credits, leaving with them an average of £100,000 less to spend on research a year; a £120-million cliff-edge loss of European regional development funding; lack of access to capital—the UK has the lowest business investment in the G7; and continuing uncertainty over association with the £95-billion Horizon Europe, the biggest science fund in the world. Which of those barriers to growth for our innovative businesses will the Minister sort out today?

It is a great shame that the shadow spokeswoman is so determined to talk the UK down. The truth is that in the last 10 years, the life sciences sector has grown 1,000%. The north-east, where she is from, is driving that. I do not recognise that the UK sector is being held back in the way that she says, but the Chancellor will say more this afternoon about the tax and business environment. The reason that R&D tax credits are up so much is that our innovation economy has gone from 1.7% of GDP to 2.8%. That is a huge success over the last 10 years, and we are responsible for it.

Internet Access: Low-income Families

3. What steps she is taking with Cabinet colleagues to help low-income households access the internet. (904136)

We want fantastic connectivity in every part of the UK. We have worked to ensure that a range of low-cost social tariffs are available in 99% of the UK for as little as £10 a month, which is highlighted in our Help for Households campaign and in our work with the Department for Work and Pensions, to make them easier for low-income households to access. We are also working on digital skills with the Department for Education.

While we continue to make progress on this front, could the Minister remind utility companies, particularly British Gas, that not everybody has access to a computer and the internet? It would be helpful if its services reflected that.

I thank my hon. Friend for raising his concerns about British Gas. As the digital infrastructure Minister, I want to ensure that everyone has great access to the internet, but he might be interested to know that suppliers with more than 50,000 customers must allow people to pay energy bills in cash or on prepayment, and talk to them over the phone.

I confess that cryptocurrency is not in my portfolio, but I am happy to refer the hon. Lady to a Minister who may be able to answer that.

Research and Development Sector

Backed by our commitment to increasing public expenditure on research and development to £20 billion by 2024-25, we have launched our plan to cement the UK’s place as a science and technology superpower by 2030, fostering the right conditions for industry, innovation and world-leading research.

The threat posed by the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank posed a huge challenge to science and tech businesses in Oxfordshire. Can the Minister update the House on what she has been doing to help those companies, so that they no longer have to look into the abyss?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the futures of so many companies, and thousands of UK jobs, were at stake. My Department worked tirelessly with the Treasury to facilitate a solution. In doing so, we have protected our life sciences and tech sectors, which not only drive economic growth across the country but deliver life-saving products.

Research and development is particularly resource intensive and in need of raising capital, so what are the Government doing to help tech and life science companies raise money on the London markets, which has been few and far between recently?

We are committed to making the UK the most attractive place for innovation and businesses to start and grow. The Treasury has made significant reforms to improve London as a listing destination, and we continue to engage with sectors to secure the most innovative companies in the UK stock exchange.

Weston Park Cancer Centre is one of only four specialist cancer facilities in the country and is at the forefront of groundbreaking research. Investment is critical to its ongoing success in cancer research. I recently met a Health Minister to discuss opportunities to invest in Weston Park. Will the Secretary of State look at what can be done to invest in that incredibly important technological facility?

The Government are putting their money where their mouth is. We are determined to ensure that we are a science and tech superpower by 2030. I would be delighted to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss his own constituency in detail.

The Secretary of State is aware of the global centre of rail excellence being developed in my Neath constituency, which will become the UK’s first net zero rail testing facility, a shared campus for rail innovation, research and development, testing and verification for mainline passenger and freight railways, developing next-generation solutions for the rail sector. The UK Government have pledged £30 million for the GCRE, of which £20 million has been received for the construction phase. Will the Secretary of State reconfirm her Government’s commitment to deliver the remaining £10 million for research and development?

I am unsure as to that exact question, but this Government are investing a great deal—£20 billion by 2024-25. We are determined to ensure that we become a science and tech superpower. This Department has already hit the ground running, produced a science and tech framework, and announced £370 million of additional funding. I am happy to meet the hon. Member to discuss in detail exactly the point that she was trying to raise.

Last week, Stephen Phipson, head of Make UK, said that Horizon had

“always been one of those areas of the EU budget where the UK gets more out than it puts in”.

While the Secretary of State dithers about whether association is value for money, researchers are leaving the UK for better opportunities abroad, where they can develop rich collaborations and enjoy freedom of movement. The issue needs urgent action, so when will we have a decision on whether the UK will associate to Horizon?

We have not changed our position regarding Horizon and association was in the UK-EU trade and co-operation agreement. We welcome the EU’s recent openness to the discussion, after two years of delay, and I discussed the matter directly with the EU ambassador yesterday.

Leaving the EU: Employment Levels in the Science and Technology Sector

5. What assessment she has made of the impact of the UK’s departure from the EU on levels of employment in the science, innovation and technology sector. (904138)

My Department’s work will ensure that we are breaking down barriers and levelling the playing field, so that more women can enter STEM jobs in research and innovation. This includes UK Research and Innovation funded STEM ambassadors in schools and, just last week, the Government announced £150,000 funding to support women who are taking career breaks and need skills to get back into STEM careers.

Thanks to Brexit, universities in the UK have lost almost £1 billion in EU funds, with 115 cancelled grants last year alone. Unfortunately, many EU-based workers, such as researchers, now feel unwelcome because of the United Kingdom’s hostility and have followed the funding out of the UK. My constituent Ms McCallum’s long-term partner is French. He is unable to secure a visa to work in our STEM sector. The complexities of the system, and the attached costs, are making it impossible for him to choose to reside in Scotland. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to reduce visa costs for skilled workers, incentivising them to come to the UK and set up home here?

We do not for one moment underestimate just how important it is to attract the best and the brightest to the UK, to work in science and technology and to study here. Just last week, we announced the global talent network for AI. Since 2020, this Government have created the global talent visa. We have created new routes such as the high-potential individual route, and we have the scale-up route. It is this Government who are delivering.

Since our departure from the UK—[Laughter.] Not yet! Since our departure from the EU, the UK needs to forge our own regulatory path to provide certainty to businesses investing in the UK, as well as providing confidence to consumers. However, UK law has failed to tackle the harms, including fake reviews and subscription traps, that we all now encounter online. The Government claim that they are taking action, yet we still have no legislation. Another delay, another broken promise—can the Secretary of State tell us when we can expect to see the digital markets, competition and consumer Bill finally laid before Parliament?

We have committed to delivering it in this Session. Further details will be announced by the Leader of the House in due course.

Will the Secretary of State pay tribute to the quality of the workforce we have in the UK for science and technology? In north Hertfordshire, companies such as Johnson Matthey are doing fantastic work in the environmental field, and neighbouring Stevenage has Airbus and other wonderful businesses. Will the Secretary of State do all she can to get us back into the EU programmes?

It is absolutely because we have the best and the brightest in this country that we can lead the way. I pay tribute to the people who work in my right hon. and learned Friend’s constituency; I look forward to visiting them as soon as I can. As I have said, our position on Horizon has not changed.

STEM Jobs: Women

6. What steps she is taking to increase the number of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics jobs. (904139)

Since 2016, Innovate UK’s women in innovation in programme has been empowering women in innovation. Since the launch of the campaign, the number of women leading applications for grants to Innovate UK has risen by 70%.

Today, women make up less than 30% of the STEM workforce, and the Government’s own findings reveal vast inequalities for women in the R&D sector. The creation of this Department presents a key opportunity to tackle the issue head on, so will the Secretary of State commit to bold action to finally reach a 50:50 STEM workforce?

We made this a key part of our science and technology framework because it is absolutely essential that we are empowering and enabling individuals and creating those skills from the off. UKRI has already funded STEM inspiration programmes such as the STEM ambassadors. There are a lot of initiatives that I could take the hon. Lady through, but obviously we are short on time. We are trying our very best to encourage women and to level the playing field.

The Secretary of State for Business and Trade welcomed a trade delegation of more than 40 women who run technology and science businesses in Canada at a business event at Lancaster House yesterday. Does my right hon. Friend agree that support for women in tech across the globe should be an important part of all our international trade work?

I absolutely agree, and I believe that the event yesterday went very well. It is also important that we look at our global role models who are British, such as Professor Dame Angela McLean, who will become the first female Government chief scientific adviser, Dr Nicola Fox and Rosemary Coogan. All those people are flying the flag for women in STEM.

Topical Questions

DSIT was created with a single mission: to drive innovation that will deliver improved public services and new, better-paid jobs and grow the economy. Our Department will do things differently and will be a model for how modern Government Departments should run.

We have hit the ground running. Within just a few weeks of setting up, we have set out a comprehensive framework for science and technology, announced £370 million in new spending and introduced the Data Protection and Digital Information (No. 2) Bill. We have worked with the Chancellor to take decisive action to facilitate a deal to save the UK arm of Silicon Valley Bank, protecting hundreds of jobs. That is an extraordinary amount for any Department to achieve, let alone in just five weeks, and it is just the start of a constant drumbeat.

I was thrilled that my verification campaign to tackle anonymous abuse was successful with the Government, but I have always been clear that whether someone is verified needs to be made obvious on social media. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is important to social media users? How is the Online Safety Bill progressing through the Lords?

The Bill will soon be in Committee in the House of Lords, and we are committed to ensuring that it is passed before the end of the current Session. I pay tribute to the excellent work that my hon. Friend has done in this regard. As she knows, we are committed to dealing with abuse, and the Bill places a duty on the largest online services to give adult users the option of verifying themselves.

Three weeks ago, the Secretary of State said that the use of TikTok on Government devices was “a personal choice”. At the weekend, it was reported that there was to be a review of TikTok, and this week the Prime Minister said that he was considering a ban. Can the Secretary of State tell us whether this is indeed a personal choice, or whether TikTok on officials’ devices poses a security risk?

The security of UK data is a priority, and our experts continue to monitor the threats that are posed to that data. The Government’s security group, led by the Cabinet Office, is reviewing the evidence base for action on Government devices. Let me add that what I actually said was that, in terms of the general public, it is absolutely a personal choice, but because we have the strongest data protection laws in the world, we are confident that the public can continue to use it. That is very different from what the hon. Member reported.

T3. In communities such as Cheriton and Bramdean in my constituency, there are people who have not been able to take part in the broadband voucher scheme because they are connected to a different cabinet from their neighbours, which in some cases is only a few metres from their door. Can my hon. Friend assure me that those communities will be able to benefit from the new procurement as soon as possible? (904151)

I am pleased to say that premises in Meon Valley are included in our live gigabit procurement for Hampshire, and we expect to award the contract in June this year. We have paused the applications for vouchers to avoid doubling up on public subsidy, but we are happy to look into any specific cases that my hon. Friend wishes to raise via Building Digital UK.

T2. During the last Horizon Europe funding round, researchers, scientists and universities in London received nearly £2 billion, but the Tories have overseen two years of uncertainty, delay and broken promises, harming researchers and businesses in my constituency and across the capital. When will the Secretary of State do what Labour would do, and secure association to the world’s biggest science funding programme? (904150)

Over the last two years, not only have we continued to negotiate in good faith to see through the agreement that we made to join Horizon, Copernicus and Euratom, but we have continued to fund the sector—with just over £1.2 billion, including £370 million this week and £480 million before Christmas—and we look forward to discussing the European associations shortly.

T5. The Government have announced that they are to create a wonderful new nuclear fusion centre at West Burton. This is the technology of the future, and West Burton is not five miles from the town of Gainsborough, so will the Government rename the research centre West Burton Gainsborough to celebrate our wonderful town? (904153)

My right hon. Friend has made an excellent point. It is a very exciting facility, which will see this country lead in the industrial deployment of fusion connectivity to the grid.

T7.   Will the Secretary of State meet Councillor Abi Brown and me to see the power of Silicon Stoke that is ready to be unleashed, alongside our fantastic gigabit broadband roll-out, our world-class university, Staffordshire University, and, of course, the digital T-levels that we already have on display, so that we can truly create those fantastic new jobs of the future? (904156)

I would be delighted to do so. My hon. Friend is a great ambassador for his constituency, always pushing and promoting the great work that is being done.

According to Tech Nation, Slough, which is the silicon valley of the UK, has experienced a 536% increase in the formation of digital start-ups in the last decade. Given that artificial intelligence is of strategic importance to the UK, why have the Government cut research and development tax credits for small and medium-sized enterprises?

The hon. Gentleman will know that a review of R&D tax credits is being conducted. The Chancellor will be speaking later, but because of Tech Nation and the work that has been done over the last decade, we have a great tech ecosystem to build on.

A year ago, the Department announced that Penistone had been chosen for the UK’s first trial to deliver high-speed broadband through water pipes. The fibre in the water project, which is happening in partnership with Yorkshire Water, is of huge interest to my constituents as it promises the opportunity for rural areas to access high-speed broadband without the cost and inconvenience of major infrastructure works. Will the Minister update me on the progress of the project and tell me how quickly my constituents might see the benefits?

Fibre in the water has been a fantastic and innovative project. We expect to complete the research in May, and I hope to be able to update my hon. Friend, who has been doing fantastic work on this.

Before we come to Prime Minister’s questions, I point out that live subtitles and the British Sign Language interpretation of proceedings are available to watch on parliamentlive.tv.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

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.