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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 730: debated on Wednesday 22 March 2023

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Belfast Agreement Anniversary

Mr Speaker, may I associate myself and everyone in the House with your comments about PC Keith Palmer on this anniversary? May I also remind the House that yesterday marked 30 years since the IRA’s Warrington bomb? My thoughts are with those who were affected by this atrocity, which caused the death of two young children, Tim Parry and Johnathan Ball, and injured 54 others. It is a reminder of the terrible cost of the troubles and of the vital importance of maintaining peace and improving political stability in Northern Ireland, and I am grateful to all those who continue to promote peace and reconciliation in our society.

Last week, I visited the United States for the St Patrick’s day celebrations, and I am keenly aware that that the eyes of the world will be on Northern Ireland in the month ahead as we prepare to mark the Belfast/Good Friday agreement’s 25th anniversary. A host of events, big and small, civic, private and public, are being organised, many by Queen’s University Belfast, to mark this important anniversary.

The 25th anniversary of the signing of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement is significant, not just in the history of Northern Ireland but for the whole of the United Kingdom. How will my right hon. Friend’s Department ensure that this historic moment is recognised appropriately in every part of the country?

I agree with my hon. Friend that this historic moment is an achievement not just for Northern Ireland but for the entire United Kingdom. We have an educational initiative that is going to offer young people across the United Kingdom an opportunity to engage with the anniversary by learning about the journey to the agreement and its crucial role in providing peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland. Obviously, 25 years on, we are no less committed to achieving that aim.

The Good Friday agreement is undoubtedly one of the proudest moments of the last Labour Government, and the Labour party is proud of its part in it and of the work of Tony Blair, Mo Mowlam and many others. Strand 2, on the North South Ministerial Council, is often overlooked, so can I ask the Minister whether, as we move forward with the Windsor framework, the bodies involved will have an important role to play in improving prosperity in Northern Ireland, and how he sees that developing?

All three strands of the agreement are vital, and all need to be working, but the hon. Gentleman is completely right to say that strand 2 and the council are very important as we move forward from this point. Twenty-five years of peace and stability have flowed from the signing of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, and I would like to think, as we look forward, that we will have not just peace and stability but prosperity for the next 25 years.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, and may I associate myself with your important words about PC Keith Palmer?

It has been reported that the Police Service of Northern Ireland has requested 330 officers from other UK forces for support during the forthcoming presidential visit by President Biden next month. Can the Secretary of State confirm that his Department will continue to work closely with the PSNI during this challenging period and anticipate any assistance that it might need?

We have a number of big visitors coming to Northern Ireland to mark this important anniversary, and I know that the PSNI is remarkably well organised in preparing for this. Of course the Government will happily support the PSNI in its endeavours.

I am grateful for the Secretary of State’s words. The PSNI will also need support after Air Force One departs. Due to a funding shortfall, officer numbers will soon fall to a record low. In fact, there will be 800 fewer officers than agreed in New Decade, New Approach. Does he think this is fair for a force that faces unique challenges on a daily basis?

First, I pay tribute to all the officers in the Police Service of Northern Ireland for all the work they do across communities, and to the Chief Constable. He has brought in community policing, of which most of us will be cognisant in our own areas but which is almost new in Northern Ireland. As the hon. Gentleman knows, policing is devolved to the Executive. I am well aware of the Chief Constable’s asks in this area, and I am talking to him about them.

Stormont Brake

I encourage my hon. Friend to attend today’s debate, in this Chamber, on the regulations implementing this powerful democratic mechanism. In short, 30 Members of the Legislative Assembly from two political parties may use the brake if there is anything significantly different about a new rule, whether in its content or scope, and if its application will have a significant impact on everyday life that is liable to persist in Northern Ireland.

Even if a significant number of MLAs object to a proposal from the EU, the decision to veto it will still rest with the UK Government, and there will no doubt be an institutional reluctance to use the veto, as it would be met with retaliatory action from the EU. Given the likely impact on UK-EU relations and wider trade, it is surely very unlikely that the Stormont brake will ever be used, even if MLAs want it to be triggered.

With respect, my hon. Friend underestimates the power of this mechanism. The Government will be under a legal obligation to trigger the brake where the conditions under the Windsor framework are met. Compared with the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, this is a significant advancement because the remedial measures he talks about, should the EU choose to take them, would be proportionate and would have to relate to NI-to-EU trade, whereas under the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill it would have been across the piece.

Nobody wants to use this mechanism for trivial reasons but, once it is triggered, the regulations set out that the Government must not agree a rule at the Joint Committee if there is not cross-community support for it in the Assembly or if it creates regulatory borders within the United Kingdom, unless there are exceptional circumstances such as Stormont not sitting or a foot and mouth disease outbreak, or something of that nature.

Does the Secretary of State agree that, rather than an emergency brake, this is more like a handbrake? A handbrake will stop, rather than slow, a moving car. The only brake on acceleration can come from the EU, which retains complete control over Northern Ireland and, by extension, over the will of this House, which it should not. That is both a tragedy and a travesty.

Essentially, if the Assembly says no to something, the presumption is that the Government would veto it. Without this measure, Northern Ireland would continue to have full and automatic dynamic alignment with EU goods rules, with the Northern Ireland Assembly having no say and no veto on the amendment or replacement of measures. The Stormont brake is a very good thing.

Northern Ireland Businesses: Access to UK Market

3. What steps the Government is taking to ensure that businesses in Northern Ireland have full access to the UK internal market. (904194)

The Windsor framework restores the free flow of trade from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. The agreement guarantees unfettered access for Northern Ireland’s businesses to the UK market on a permanent basis, and we have secured alternative arrangements that remove any proposed requirement to provide export declarations or equivalent information for goods moving from Northern Ireland to Great Britain.

Rother Valley has many amazing businesses, especially butchers such as G. Lomas in South Anston, Grays of Thurcroft, Stuart Saunders in Maltby and Lawns Farm in Morthen. I want everyone to try their products. What assurances can the Minister give me that everyone, no matter where they are in the United Kingdom, can taste Rother Valley sausage?

I am delighted to confirm to my hon. Friend that residents of Northern Ireland will be able to enjoy the sausages produced by the great businesses in his constituency. The framework ends the ban on chilled meats, such as sausages and seasoned lamb joints, meaning that supermarket shelves in Northern Ireland will be able to stock the products that customers want and have bought for years.

But the reality for my constituents, and businesses such as McCartney’s delicatessen in Moira, is that although they can bring in sausages from Yorkshire or any other part of the UK that are made to British standards, the sausages they make in Northern Ireland, part of the UK, have to be made to EU standards, because EU law applies to all manufactured goods in Northern Ireland. So why is it right to bring sausages from Great Britain to Northern Ireland and sell them in Northern Ireland, but it is not right to sell British sausages made in Northern Ireland in Northern Ireland?

I understand the force and passion with which the right hon. Gentleman makes this point, but he knows that what we have done is reduce the extent of EU law in Northern Ireland to the absolute minimum consistent with keeping open an infrastructure-free border with the Republic of Ireland. I appreciate that this is a compromise that for many people will go too far, but I believe it is the right decision in these circumstances.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. The reality is that Northern Ireland’s place within the UK internal market has not been fully restored by the Windsor framework, because EU law applies to all manufactured goods in Northern Ireland, despite the fact that of £77 billion-worth of goods manufactured in Northern Ireland £65 billion are sold in the UK. All of those goods must comply with EU law, regardless of where they are sold. Can we not get back to the proposals in the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which mean that UK law applies unless a business wants to trade with the EU, in which case it must follow EU law?

On the proposal for dual regulation, that was not what constituent businesses in Northern Ireland wanted. At some point, even unrelenting figures such as myself do need to compromise and give the voters what they want. I recognise that compromise is extremely difficult. We are in a position where we have an opportunity to move forward together. The right hon. Gentleman knows, as I do, that the manufacturing of most of the kinds of goods to which he is referring is done to international standards. So given all the circumstances, this is a reasonable compromise for Northern Ireland.

Investment in Northern Ireland

The Northern Ireland economy has the ingredients required for economic success: exceptional talent, creativity, innovation and a healthy spirit of private sector entrepreneurship. Last week, the Secretary of State was delighted to visit the United States, and next week I will be visiting the USA and Canada to promote the excellent investment opportunities in Northern Ireland. We are, of course, also planning an investment summit.

One way to attract foreign direct investment is by creating the right regulatory climate. The Minister has been a strong advocate for post-Brexit regulatory reform to make our rules more competitive, targeted, agile and modern. So when does he think we will get to the position where we can do that in Northern Ireland, in the same way that Brexit allows us to do it in Great Britain?

My right hon. Friend and I have walked a long way in these various battles together and she knows very well what she asks me. On goods, we have to make sure that we can keep open an infrastructure-free north-south border, but the unique position of Northern Ireland is that on services regulation it will be subject to UK law and UK trade agreements. So where we have comparative advantage, particularly in Northern Ireland on issues such as fintech, we will be subject to UK law and UK regulation and have access to global markets through the kind of trade agreements and services that it is in all of our interests to strike, in order to serve the comparative advantage of the whole UK. This is the unique opportunity now facing Northern Ireland, and I want us all to seize it in every way we can.

Northern Ireland now has the highest percentage accessibility of gigabit-capable broadband in the UK, with a figure twice that of the Republic of Ireland and one of the highest in the world. Will the Minister ensure that the energy infrastructure is such to complement that, thereby offering one of the best inward investment and indigenous business opportunities anywhere in the world?

The hon. Gentleman will know that energy is devolved. I hope that he will join me in doing everything possible to ensure that the maximum investment can be made in Northern Ireland. He knows exactly what he and his colleagues need to do to help me to serve him and serve Northern Ireland: restore the devolved institutions.

Does my hon. Friend agree that in restoring the balance of the Belfast agreement the best approach is to pass the Windsor framework today in this place, and that we have to be pragmatic and open our eyes to the many opportunities, courtesy of inward investment, that will then follow for the benefit of all communities in the Province?

I agree strongly with my hon. Friend. The reality is that the Windsor framework is a dramatic improvement on the protocol. I do not think that anyone can reasonably argue otherwise. Of course, it includes compromises. Neither I, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State nor the Prime Minister is suggesting that it does not. The question that everyone needs to answer is whether this is a step forward for Northern Ireland. I am absolutely sure that it is, and I agree with my hon. Friend.

Tourism spending is also very important. The Minister will be aware that the Northern Ireland Tourism Alliance is very concerned about the application of the forthcoming electronic travel authorisation to the sector in Northern Ireland, given our unique marketing and unique offer. Will the Minister work with the Home Office to try to find a practical solution to that problem?

I am well aware of the case the hon. Gentleman makes. Of course, we are in conversation with Home Office colleagues. The Government’s position is that we are determined to make sure that tourists understand that they will need to comply with UK immigration requirements to visit the UK, and that means that they will need that travel authorisation to go to Northern Ireland. I am aware of the concerns of tourism authorities north and south, and indeed the concerns of the Irish Government. We continue to take those seriously as we talk with the Home Office.

Jonathan Haskel, an external member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee, has estimated that Brexit has resulted in the loss of approximately £29 billion of business investment to the UK as a whole. Does the Minister believe that the Windsor framework will undo the proportion of the damage that has been done to the Northern Irish economy? If so, why does he consider the market access that that framework underpins to be good enough for one part of the United Kingdom but not good enough for the rest of us?

I am honoured that the hon. Gentleman should think that, on the fly, I would be able to do my own economic modelling on that subject. It is undoubtedly the case that the political turmoil of the last several years has been unhelpful. I say to the hon. Gentleman—and this should be a salutary lesson to everybody on his party’s Benches—that it is extremely important that when the public vote for a thing, they get the thing they voted for. The public voted for the whole UK to stay together in a once-in-a-generation referendum on Scottish independence, and then the UK as a whole voted to leave the European Union—and that is what we will deliver.

Troubles-related Crime

The Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill, which continues its passage through Parliament, will establish an independent body to conduct reviews of troubles-related deaths and serious injury, with the primary objective of providing information to families, victims and survivors. The Bill seeks to ensure that the process for dealing with the past focuses on measures that can deliver positive outcomes for as many people affected by the troubles as possible.

Legacy is an extremely complex and sensitive issue. In setting up an effective information recovery process, we must ensure that power is in the hands of victims and their families rather than the perpetrators. What consultations have the Department had with victims and their families, to ensure that the right balance is achieved?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that legacy remains a highly complex and difficult issue. The Government are absolutely determined to deliver mechanisms that deliver better outcomes for those most affected by the troubles, including victims and their families. I know that no solution we will ever find will be perfect or easy, but we are working tirelessly to find a practical way forward via the legacy Bill. As for engagement, I and my ministerial colleagues have had over 60, nearly 70, engagements with groups and individuals, and we continue to meet people on a regular basis.

The Government have made some changes to the legacy Bill during its passage through this House. If the changes are not enough and all Northern Ireland parties vote against it again on its return to the House, will the Secretary of State commit to a different approach, as reconciliation cannot be imposed on Northern Ireland?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his place and hope that all is well with the shadow Minister he is replacing, the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi). The hon. Gentleman has big shoes to fill, but that is a good start. I thank him for noticing what is going on in the other place, where we have already tabled amendments that seek to address a number of key issues raised by the stakeholders we have been meeting, including compliance with the European convention on human rights, strengthening the commission’s independence, sanctions for individuals found guilty of lying to the commission, and stronger incentives for individuals to engage with the commission. We will table more such amendments on Report, when I hope we can get everybody on board, or at least to acknowledge that we are doing a decent job.

Belfast Agreement: Human Rights

6. What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on human rights commitments in the Belfast agreement. (904197)

The UK Government are steadfastly committed to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and the institutions and rights established by it. We recognise the importance of the right safeguards and equality of opportunity provisions within the agreement to the people of Northern Ireland, and the Secretary of State discusses the subject regularly with Cabinet colleagues.

The Good Friday agreement led to peace in Northern Ireland and enshrined human rights in Northern Irish law, yet the Tories’ Bill of Rights is nothing but a rights removal Bill. Does the Minister recognise that the proposed Bill would therefore be a breach of an international agreement, the Good Friday agreement?

No, not at all. I confess that I thought the hon. Lady was going to ask me about the Bill of Rights provisions in the agreement itself, but she ought to know that the parties have been working together towards that Bill of Rights and it will need consensus to deliver a framework in Northern Ireland. Of course the UK continues to be committed to the ECHR.

Windsor Framework: Economic Competitiveness

7. Whether he has made a comparative assessment with Cabinet colleagues of the potential impact of the Windsor framework on economic competitiveness in (a) Northern Ireland and (b) the rest of the UK. (904198)

10. Whether he has made a comparative assessment with Cabinet colleagues of the potential impact of the Windsor framework on economic competitiveness in (a) Northern Ireland and (b) the rest of the UK. (904201)

13. Whether he has made a comparative assessment with Cabinet colleagues of the potential impact of the Windsor framework on economic competitiveness in (a) Northern Ireland and (b) the rest of the UK. (904204)

The Windsor framework restores the free flow of trade from Great Britain to Northern Ireland through a green lane, guarantees Northern Ireland businesses unfettered access to the UK market on a permanent basis, and offers a whole host of other benefits.

The Prime Minister described Northern Ireland as

“the world’s most exciting economic zone”,

being in the UK market and having access to the European market. Does the Secretary of State agree with that assessment? If he does, does that not mean that the rest of the UK’s nations are at a disadvantage, being less exciting for only being part of the UK market?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for acknowledging what a good deal the Windsor framework is. As the Prime Minister has said, Northern Ireland will now be in the unique position of not only being part of the UK internal market—the fifth biggest market in the world—but enjoying the EU single market. As part of the UK, Northern Ireland’s businesses and consumers are able to benefit from the new trade agreements that we are able to negotiate and the new UK regulatory regime for trade and services that we can have outside the European Union.

By the Secretary of State’s and the Prime Minister’s own admission, Northern Ireland is in a better economic position than the rest of the UK because of its place in the European single market. The Prime Minister also said that would lead to more companies investing in Northern Ireland, but that will not be new money. If companies are investing more in Northern Ireland, that means they will be investing less in the rest of the UK. Would the Secretary of State see that as a win-win?

I think the hon. Lady has completely missed the point. There is a huge amount of inward investment that wants to flow into Northern Ireland from outside these isles—and, yes, we should be welcoming inward investment into Northern Ireland, because prosperity builds on the peace and stability that the Belfast/Good Friday agreement has brought for the last 25 years. That is why we should all welcome the Windsor framework.

Scotland, like Northern Ireland, rejected Brexit. Both were dragged out of the EU despite voting to remain. Yet Northern Ireland has retained access to the EU single market and the economic benefits it brings. Does the Minister agree that Scotland should have a similar deal in order to be as economically competitive as Northern Ireland?

With the greatest respect, the positions of Northern Ireland and the other nations of the UK are, as I have said before, not completely comparable. Northern Ireland is undoubtedly a wonderful place, but it has a complex and troubled history—we have talked about the wonders of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, which is marking its 25th anniversary. It also has a land border, the only one between the UK and the EU. That has brought added complications, so the Windsor framework is in place to safeguard the achievements of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and the hard-won gains of the peace process. It recognises those unique circumstances, including the all-Ireland dimensions of economic life between Northern Ireland and Ireland and the need to avoid a hard border.

I strongly support the Windsor framework and welcome the veterinary and sanitary and phytosanitary measures. Can my right hon. Friend update the House on progress towards securing the long-term supply of veterinary medicines in Northern Ireland, and smoothing the safe movement of animals between GB and Northern Ireland to include not only pets but farm animals and horses?

My hon. Friend knows a great deal about this subject. As he knows, a grace period on veterinary medicines is in place until the end of December 2025. I would like to think that the new atmosphere that has been created between the United Kingdom and the European Union as we move forward has demonstrated that we can talk and negotiate about these things. We fully expect to be in a position to address all his concerns in good time.

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

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


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.