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Volume 730: debated on Wednesday 22 March 2023

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.

Tomorrow is the National Day of Reflection, a Marie Curie-led initiative bringing together communities across the UK to remember family, friends, neighbours and colleagues we have lost. Will the Prime Minister join me in thanking Stoke-on-Trent City Council for supporting my call for a post box to heaven in Carmountside cemetery?

On the second anniversary of the tragic death of my constituent, two-year-old Harper-Lee Fanthorpe, who swallowed a button battery, will the Prime Minister thank her courageous mother, Stacy, for leading the campaign to raise awareness of the dangers of button batteries, and will he back my call for legislation to ensure greater product safety?

Of course I join my hon. Friend in thanking Stoke-on-Trent City Council. I am very sorry to hear of Harper-Lee’s tragic case, and my thoughts are with her friends and family, particularly her mother, Stacy. We are aware of the concerns about button batteries. The law is very clear that products available in the UK must be safe. The Office for Product and Safety Standards has published guidance for manufacturers on exactly that, and it is working with the Child Accident Prevention Trust to educate parents and childcare professionals on button battery safety.

Today we remember the innocent lives lost six years ago in the terror attack on Westminster bridge. Among those tragically killed was PC Keith Palmer, who sacrificed his life to protect others. Police officers up and down the country work tirelessly every day to keep us safe, and we thank them for that. But as we saw this week, those brave officers are being let down. Dame Louise Casey found institutional homophobia, misogyny and racism in the Metropolitan police. I accept those findings in full. Does the Prime Minister?

I join the right hon. and learned Gentleman in paying tribute to PC Palmer and, indeed, to all the other police officers who have lost their lives serving and those who do so much to keep us safe.

I was appalled to read the descriptions of the abhorrent cases of officers who have betrayed the public’s trust and abused their powers. Let me be clear: that is and was unacceptable and should never have happened. We have taken a series of steps already, and the Government will also now work with the Mayor and the Metropolitan Police Commissioner to ensure that culture, standards and behaviour all improve. At the heart of this matter are the people whose lives have been ruined by what has happened, and I know that the whole House will agree with me that it is imperative that the Met works hard to regain the trust of the people it is privileged to serve.

I take it from that answer that the Prime Minister does accept the Casey findings in full, including the institutional failures. Nobody reading the Casey report can be left in any doubt about how serious this is, or doubt for a second that it is restricted to the Met. The report lays bare how those unfit to join the police are aided by patchwork vetting systems that leave the door open. If the Government backed Labour’s plan for proper mandatory national vetting, we could end the farce that sees different police recruitment standards in different forces. Will he back that plan so that we can make speedy progress?

There is no need to back that plan, because we are already taking action to tackle the issues raised in the Casey report. Two months ago, I met Dame Louise Casey and the Metropolitan Police Commissioner and we introduced a series of measures. For example, the College of Policing is currently updating the statutory code of practice for police officer vetting that all forces legally have to follow; all police forces are in the process of checking their officers against the police national database; and in weeks His Majesty’s independent inspectorate will report back on its reinspection of all forces’ vetting procedures. These steps will of course not undo the terrible damage done previously, but we owe this action and more to the victims and survivors to ensure that such tragedies never happen again.

The problem with the Prime Minister’s answer is that what he refers to is not mandatory. How can it possibly be right to have different standards for recruitment in different police forces? No wonder the Casey report criticised what Dame Louise calls the Government’s “hands-off” attitude to policing over the last 13 years, but let us call it what it really is: sheer negligence. The report also exposes chronic failures by the police to deal with rape cases, with officers using “overstuffed…or broken fridges” to store rape kits from victims. On his watch, the rape charge rate is 1.6%, yet the Government still have not backed Labour’s plan to have proper, high-quality rape and serious sexual offences units in every police force. Why not?

What Louise Casey also says is that primary public accountability of the Met sits with the Mayor of London. She described that relationship between the Mayor and the Met as “dysfunctional”. I hope that when the right hon. and learned Gentleman next stands up, he will confirm to the House that he will also take up these matters with the Labour Mayor of London so that he plays his part.

The way rape victims were treated by the criminal justice system was not good enough. That is why the Government published an ambitious rape review action plan. It is right that we have extended Operation Soteria across all police forces in the country. We have also tripled the number of independent sexual violence advisers, improved the processes of collecting phone evidence and cross-examination, and, since 2010, quadrupled funding for victim support services. That is a Conservative Government doing everything we can to support victims and tackle predators.

People are fed up to the back teeth with a Government who never take responsibility and just try to blame everyone else—[Interruption.] If Government Members are proud of the fact that over 98% of rapists are never put before a court, let them shout about it. They should be ashamed of themselves.

The truth is simple: after 13 years of Tory Government, crime is out of control and people are paying the price. Before Christmas, the BBC reported the shocking case of a woman in Armthorpe, who had been beaten with a baseball bat by burglars three years ago. No one had been charged with that burglary, and she could not sleep at night. Under this Government’s watch, tragically, that is not an unusual case. Can the Prime Minister tell us what is the charge rate for theft and burglary across the country?

Actually, since 2019, neighbourhood crime is down by 25%. The Leader of the Opposition rightly asked about what is happening with rape cases, so let me tell him that we are on track to meet our target of doubling the number of rape cases that are reaching our courts. Since the rape review action plan was published, we have seen police referrals double and charges double, and last year there was a 65% increase in rape convictions. Importantly, we also changed the law to ensure that rapists spend more time in prison. But what did Labour’s shadow Policing Minister say? “Prison doesn’t prevent crime.” That tells you everything you need to know about the Labour party. You cannot trust them to keep Britain safe.

The Prime Minister stands there and pretends that everything is fine. He is so totally out of touch. He needs to get out of Westminster, get out of Kensington—[Interruption.]

Order. Today is a big day in the House, and a very important day. We do want to make progress. Holding us up is not advantageous to any of us.

Mr Speaker, he needs to get out of Westminster, get out of Kensington—and I do not mean to Malibu, but to the streets of Britain. He needs to go there, tell people it is all fine and see what reaction he gets. The answer that he did not want to give, although he knows it, is 4%. So 96% of theft and burglary cases are not even going before the courts. Burglars are twice as likely to get away with it now as they were a decade ago. The Government should be ashamed of that record. That cul-de-sac in Armthorpe has apparently seen 10 burglaries in 18 months, but only one of them has resulted in a prosecution. So rather than boasting and blaming others, why does the Prime Minister not tell the country when he is going to get the theft and burglary charge rate back to where it was before they wrecked policing?

First of all, let me say that North Yorkshire is a lot further away than north London. [Interruption.]

Order. I like the lines as well, but I would prefer to hear them rather than the jeering. [Interruption.] Now, we are going to make progress. Mr Shelbrooke will be buying the teas in the Tea Room if he is not careful.

And they will be Yorkshire teas, Mr Speaker.

Since the Conservatives came to power, crime is down 50%, violent crime is down 40%, and burglary—the right hon. and learned Gentleman mentioned burglary—is down 56%. Why? Because we have recruited 20,000 more police officers, we have given them the powers to tackle crime, and we have kept serious offenders in prison for longer. All that the Opposition have done is vote against greater protections for emergency workers, oppose tougher sentences for violent criminals, and they are failing to give the police the powers they need. It is the same old Labour: soft on crime, soft on criminals.

The only criminal investigation that the Prime Minister has ever been involved in is the one that found him guilty of breaking the law. I have prosecuted countless rapists—[Interruption.]

Order. I am determined to hear these exchanges, whether from the Leader of the Opposition or the Prime Minister. [Interruption.] Sorry? I think you might be the first customer for tea, Mr Cairns. We keep having this little problem; we will have no more. Please, let us get through this and just show some respect to both people at the Dispatch Boxes.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I have prosecuted countless rapists and I support tougher sentences, but you have to catch the criminals first, and when 98% of rapists are not even being put before the court, that is a massive failure of the Government. If the Prime Minister wants to go to Armthorpe, which is in Yorkshire, why does he not go to that cul-de-sac, when he gets out and about in Yorkshire, and ask about those 10 burglaries that have not been prosecuted? The reality is that after 13 years of Tory government, they have done nothing on standards; neighbourhood policing has been shattered; and burglars and rapists walk the streets with impunity. It is the same every week from the Prime Minister: whether it is the cost of living crisis, crime running out of control or the state of the NHS, why is his answer always to tell the British people they have never had it so good?

Let me just address the issue that the right hon. and learned Gentleman raised, because I said at the time that I respected the decision that the police reached, and I offered an unreserved apology. For the avoidance of doubt, at the moment that that happened, there was a full investigation by a very senior civil servant, the findings of which confirmed that I had no advance knowledge about what had been planned, having arrived early for a meeting. But he does not need me to tell him that; he has probably spoken to the report’s author much more frequently than I have. [Interruption.]

Order. Look, the Prime Minister needs to answer the question. [Interruption.] I do not think we need any more. Let us keep it that way.

We are getting on. We are halving inflation by paying 50% of people’s energy bills and freezing fuel duty. We are cutting—[Interruption.]

Order. The same goes for those on the Opposition Benches. Mr Gwynne, I do not need any more from the Back Benchers here either. Let us calm—[Interruption.] Mr Fabricant, not again. Seriously, today is a very big day. Some important decisions are going to be taken, so please, I want to get this House moving on.

We are also cutting NHS waiting lists by resolving pay disputes and by getting doctors back to work, and we are stopping the boats with a new Bill to tackle illegal migration. That is a Conservative Government delivering on the people’s priorities.

Q2. I thank my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister for the efforts he has made to support the UK’s steel industry. We remain very concerned about job losses at British Steel in Scunthorpe, so will he today reassure my constituents in north Lincolnshire that we will never see the end of UK steelmaking under his watch? (904268)

The UK steel industry can have no greater champion than my hon. Friend. I know this must be a concerning time for British Steel employees, and we stand ready to work with her to support them. She is right that industrial sectors, including steel, have been able to bid into competitive Government funds worth £1 billion to help support them to cut emissions and become more energy efficient, and the Government’s recently announced British industry supercharger fund can help boost competitiveness in the UK’s key energy-intensive industries. I look forward to working with her to ensure a thriving steel industry in our United Kingdom.

I would like to begin by paying tribute to PC Palmer, who so tragically lost his life in defence of this Parliament and, indeed, what we all stand for—democracy. What worries the Prime Minister most about Brexit right now: is it the likely 4% hit to UK productivity, or is it three former Tory leaders planning to vote down his deal this afternoon?

The Windsor framework represents a good deal for the people, families and businesses of Northern Ireland. It restores the balance of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and ensures Northern Ireland’s place in our precious Union. What I would say to the hon. Gentleman is that I was more intrigued to see the words of his own party’s president, who just this past week described his party as being in “a tremendous mess”.

The reality is that while Westminster is once again consumed by the damage being caused by Brexit, the public at home are facing the biggest fall in living standards ever, the highest tax burden since the end of the second world war and inflation at 10.4%. When are the Conservative party and, indeed, the Labour party going to realise that Brexit cannot work?

The actions that this Government are taking are ensuring that fully half of most families’ energy bills are being supported by this Government. We are also making sure that we are delivering for people by cutting NHS waiting lists. That is something we are happy to work with the Scottish Government to learn and share best practice with them on. But we are also delivering on the people’s No. 1 priority, which is to stop the boats and end illegal migration.

Q4. Gedling’s unemployment claimant rate has declined significantly over the last decade, but there are still vacancies to fill and specific groups to help. On Monday, the Employment Minister and I visited Arnold jobcentre, where Kelsie and her team are welcoming local employers to speak directly to jobseekers and a dedicated 50-plus work coach is getting more people from that bracket into work. Would my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the staff at Arnold and other jobcentres across the country on the proactive work that they are doing and, when time allows, would he come to visit Arnold jobcentre in person to see the great work it is doing? (904272)

I thank my hon. Friend and join him in thanking all the staff at Arnold jobcentre for their hard work. I shall keep his kind invitation to visit in mind. He mentioned the over-50s, who my right hon. Friend the Chancellor described as more experienced workers. He was right to focus on them because, together with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, we are putting in place a range of measures to help support them to return to and stay in the labour market. That will not only help us continue to bring inflation down, but support those people to have healthy, productive, fulfilling lives.

The UK Government recently confirmed that Scotland generated and sent south 35 billion kWh of energy in 2021. That number will rise to 124 billion kWh in less than eight years’ time. For this multibillion-pound bounty, Scotland will see no revenue and no manufacturing or supply chain jobs. In our land of energy plenty, why should our people be cold and hungry and businesses failing as a result of his Government’s robbery? What has the Prime Minister to say in defence of this naked exploitation of Scotland’s people and resources?

Actually, this Government are a strong supporter of Scotland’s North sea oil and gas industry. It is the economically illiterate policy of, I think, almost all Opposition parties to prohibit any new exploration of fossil fuels in the North sea, which would have us pay billions of pounds to foreign energy companies and then ship that energy here, with twice the carbon emissions. It is a completely absurd policy that is bad for our security and bad for our economy, and that is why we are better off with the Conservatives in charge.

Q7. The Island has been getting a better deal in recent years. I thank the Prime Minister for that, because before he was the Prime Minister, he worked with me in different roles when he was in government to make that happen, and I am grateful. However, the Island remains the only sizeable island in the UK without a fixed link and separated from the mainland by sea that does not receive a funding uplift to support local government services. This injustice has been ongoing now for 50 years. All the evidence shows that it costs more to provide local services on an island than on the mainland. Will the Prime Minister work with me and his Ministers to overcome this injustice this year? (904275)

I thank my hon. Friend for his continued campaigning on behalf of his constituents. It was a pleasure to spend many happy childhood holidays on the Island, and I enjoyed visiting him more recently there as well. Isle of Wight Council will benefit from a 10% increase in its funding in cash terms for the next financial year and has been awarded an additional £1 million in recognition of the unique circumstances of the Island, as my hon. Friend points out, but I will ensure that he gets a meeting with the Minister for local government—the Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Lee Rowley)—to carry on the good work that he and I started, and to make sure that his local constituents get the support that they need.

Q3. We now know from The Daily Telegraph’s lockdown files that, during covid, at the very heart of Government science was not being followed and rational discourse had been abandoned. This had dire consequences for children’s education, mortality rates among the elderly, the economy and access to the health service. Lessons must be learned, but we cannot wait 10 years for the independent inquiry to tell us what we should do next time when the inevitable epidemic arrives. Will the Prime Minister agree to a short-term, focused inquiry that can give us recommendations, so that we do better next time? (904271)

As with any public inquiry, the process and timing of the inquiry stages are for the independent chair to decide. As Baroness Hallett has set out, she intends to gather written evidence throughout this year, with public hearings also starting this year. The inquiry held a preliminary hearing in February that covered pandemic preparedness and resilience, and it has set out dates for preliminary hearings into core political and administrative decision making across the UK throughout this month. Most importantly, as the hon. Gentleman will recognise, it is an independent inquiry, and it is for the independent chair to set the terms.

Q8. More than 1.5 million people living outside London stand to be impacted by the Mayor’s new London-wide ultra low emission zone. Labour and the Liberal Democrats are all for the ULEZ charge; they do not care about the cost of living crisis. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the best way to protect commuters and small businesses from the spread of this unfair, £12.50-a-day tax is to vote Conservative on 4 May? (904276)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He failed to mention that just this week, Labour in Wales has introduced plans for further road charging as well, increasing cost pressures for the public and businesses. I urge Opposition parties to listen and to stand up for the public and small businesses, just as the Conservatives do.

Q5. When my wee brother was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis eight years ago, it is fair to say that it turned our lives upside down. I am incredibly proud of the man he is and all that he has achieved while living with that life-limiting condition. My Livingston constituent, Steven Sharp, manages local football team the Fulshie in Stoneyburn. He has Crohn’s disease and he lives with a stoma. He is like many of our constituents up and down the UK who are living with a life-limiting condition and trying to provide for their families, while holding down a job, with a condition and disease that wreaks havoc on their body. Given that one in four people wait more than a year for diagnosis, will the Prime Minister and the House support the campaign to Cut the Crap and get people diagnosed early for Crohn’s and colitis? Will he meet me and my constituent Steven, to consider what more can be done for awareness, research and funding? (904273)

I thank the hon. Lady for her question, and pay tribute to her brother and to Steven for everything they are doing to raise awareness of this issue. I would be happy to meet her and Steven. This is something I am familiar with. It is a very difficult condition for people to live with, and it is right that they get the support and attention they deserve. I look forward to that discussion with her.

Q9. My constituent, Jamie Scott, spent four weeks in a coma, and remains seriously disabled as a result of a covid vaccination. He and his family continue to believe that mass vaccination is the right policy, but it must surely also be right to ensure that the tiny minority who are seriously injured as a result are properly compensated. In the absence of court cases, it is in no one’s interest to litigate. The current limit on compensation is £120,000, even for very serious and lifelong injury, and anyone who is disabled by less than 60% gets nothing at all. That cannot be right. Will my right hon. Friend look urgently at changing that? (904277)

It is important to start by recognising the importance of vaccines in protecting us all, not least the fantastic roll-out of the covid vaccines across the UK. I am very sorry to hear about the case my right hon. and learned Friend raises. In the extremely rare case of a potential injury from a vaccine covered by the scheme, a one-off payment can be awarded. That is not designed to be a compensation scheme, and it does not prevent the injured person from pursuing a legal compensation claim with the vaccine manufacturer. We are taking steps to reform vaccine damage payment schemes, by modernising the operations and providing more timely outcomes, but of course I would be happy to talk to my right hon. and learned Friend further about that.

Q6. New inflation stats this morning show that food inflation is at 18%—the highest in 45 years. Millions are living in food and fuel poverty because of this Government’s failures and political decisions to enable grotesque profiteering at the expense of our communities. How on earth can the Prime Minister claim that his plan is working, or is it, in his eyes, a success that so many people are struggling with their weekly food shop? (904274)

Figures recently published show that since 2010, there are 2 million fewer people living in poverty thanks to the actions of this and previous Conservative Governments. Of course, no one wants to see people struggling with week-to-week bills, which is why it is so imperative we stick to our economic plan. As the Office for Budget Responsibility said, we are on track to halve inflation by the end of this year. That is the most important thing we can do to ease the burden on people. In the meantime we have a range of programmes, whether free school meals or the holiday activities and food programme, to provide support to the most vulnerable families who need our help.

Q11. With £60 million to improve transport links from Wednesbury to the rest of the Black Country, £4 million for Wednesbury high street, and last week, in the most important part of the Budget, the £22.5 million to level up Tipton town centre, the Government have put a vote of confidence in my communities, one they have not had for nearly 50 years. Delivery will be absolutely key on those projects. Will my right hon. Friend ensure, using his good offices, that we deliver them on time and realise the potential of my communities in Tipton and Wednesbury? (904279)

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his tireless campaigning on behalf of his local communities. I am delighted that we are investing across the west midlands, particularly in places like Wednesbury and Tipton. We will work with him to ensure those investments are indeed delivered, working with local councils, Transport for West Midlands and the West Midlands Combined Authority. The investments will transform people’s lives and spread opportunity in his area. He deserves enormous credit for making that happen.

Q10. Households in Gateshead have seen their energy bills triple over the last two years. They have not just endured the energy unit price increase; daily electricity standing charges have gone up from an average of 22p in 2019 to 58p from next month, an increase of 155% in standing charges—over £200 a year. To many of my constituents, particularly those in low-income households, that seems like a company tax just for having the temerity to be connected to the network. These schemes will continue long after energy support schemes have ended. Will the Prime Minister commit to ending the regressive increases in standing charges and instruct Ofgem to return them to 2019 levels, or even end them completely? (904278)

Thanks to the Chancellor, the Government are providing support to a typical household of around half its energy bill over the winter. That support was extended in the Budget and will be worth £1,500 to a typical family, but we went further for the most vulnerable families. The Chancellor announced that we will end the discrepancy in unit charges for those on prepayment meters, something many in this House have called for, and provide generous cost of living payments worth £900 to the most vulnerable families.

Two of my constituents, Adrian and Carol Ellis, are my guests in the Gallery today. Sadly, in 2021, their son died by suicide. George was a member of the Yorkshire Regiment. He had become depressed following one of his comrades taking his own life. In memory of George, Adrian and Carol set up a support group, which marries up one veteran with another to enable them to talk and, hopefully, help them. The support group is called Getting Emotions Out, after George. Will the Prime Minister join me in offering condolences to Adrian and Carol, and support for the work they are now doing?

I join my hon. Friend in sending my condolences, and those of the whole House, to George’s friends and family. I thank his parents for the brave work they are doing to raise awareness of veterans’ mental health. Support is available for anyone experiencing suicidal thoughts, including from the Samaritans helpline. Thanks to the excellent work of the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, my right hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer), we are working specifically to support veterans’ mental health through Op Courage. That is a bespoke mental health and wellbeing service for veterans in the NHS, backed by considerable funding which was increased in the recent Budget. That fully integrated service will be launched next month. Again, I pay tribute to George’s parents for all the incredible work they are doing.

Q12. My constituent Maryam Amiri came to the UK from Afghanistan on a spousal visa back in 2016. The Home Office has just refused her renewal and advised that she should return to Afghanistan. Maryam is an educator who is due to start a university course in September. She is a valued community activist and a vocal opponent of the Taliban. She is married to a man who worked for British forces and her family is currently being persecuted in Afghanistan. She has been trying to get them here since Afghanistan fell. Can the Prime Minister think of any barriers or hardships Maryam might face in returning to a country where there is not even any means of applying for a visa? Will he personally intervene, as the Minister for Immigration, the right hon. Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick) is yet to reply, despite my raising this matter three weeks ago? (904280)

Obviously, it would not be appropriate for me to comment on an individual’s visa case, but I will ensure that the hon. Lady gets a response from the Home Office on that particular case.

Will the Prime Minister pay tribute to and congratulate my constituent Max Woosey, best known as the boy in the tent, whose three-year adventure camping outside is drawing to a close? To date, he has raised more than £750,000 for the excellent North Devon Hospice. Will my right hon. Friend wish everyone taking part in his final adventure, a camping festival at Broomhill Estate, great success?

I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to Max and everyone else taking part in this fantastic initiative. I congratulate them on raising such a considerable sum of money for a very worthy local cause, and I look forward to hearing how the rest of it goes. Very well done.

Q13. The Treasury receives an additional £65 billion in revenue from Scotland’s oil and gas, but it has allocated only £20 billion to carbon capture and there is nothing for Scotland. It has cut the renewable energy budget by a third. It has allocated only £10 million to Scotland’s world-leading tidal stream, and has failed to back pumped storage hydro, yet it wants us to contribute our share towards the £35 billion Sizewell C nuclear power station. Is it not the case that within the Union, Scotland is the energy but Westminster takes the powers? (904281)

We are not only supporting Scotland’s North sea oil and gas industry but providing £20 billion of funding for further carbon capture and storage. We want to work with and provide clarity for Acorn on its future path. The hon. Gentleman raised tidal power; I am pleased to tell him that it is now included in the contracts for difference allocations. There has been 40 MW of new tidal stream power from four projects across Scotland and Wales in the last year. That is this Government delivering energy security across the United Kingdom.