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Volume 731: debated on Wednesday 19 April 2023

Later today, I will return to Belfast to mark the 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. It is an opportunity to thank some of the leading architects of peace for their courage and the pivotal role they played to set the groundwork for a better future for the people of Northern Ireland. We will also commemorate those who are no longer with us.

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.

We are in the middle of a housing crisis, with mortgages soaring, rents rising and house building set to reach a new low. Just last week, in an interview with ConservativeHome, the Prime Minister admitted his disastrous decision to drop housing targets to appease Tory party members. Will the Prime Minister please explain to the House why the views of 1,000 party members are more important than those of families aspiring to be homeowners across the country?

On the Government side of the House we believe in empowering local communities to make the decisions that are right for them and to protect their green spaces. The place where there is most acute need, where house building is not keeping up with need, is in Labour-controlled London.

Q3. It has been reported that the Welsh Labour Government are going to incentivise people smugglers by offering £1,600 of taxpayers’ money every month to asylum seekers. May I ask my right hon. Friend for an assurance that he will never contemplate such a daft idea in our small boats Bill? (904432)

I know my noble Friend Lord Bellamy and the Secretary of State for Wales, my right hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), wrote to the Welsh Government yesterday confirming that we would not be undertaking their request. I note that the Labour leader has said that the Welsh Labour Government are his “blueprint”. Unbelievably, as my hon. Friend said, Labour in Wales is trying to pay illegal migrants £1,600. We are stopping the boats; Labour is paying for them.

The Tory party chair says that public services are in pretty good shape. Has the Prime Minister met a single member of the public who agrees with him?

Because of the record investment that we are putting into public services like the NHS, we are now getting waiting lists down. Because of the reforms that we have made to our education system, more children are studying in good and outstanding schools. Because that is what you get with a Conservative Government—more funding, more reform and better outcomes for Britain.

He is living in another world to the rest of us. People waiting more than two days for an ambulance because they broke the NHS. Only one in 100 rapists going to court because they broke the criminal justice system. A record number of small boats crossing the channel because they broke the asylum system. People can’t afford their bills, can’t get the police to investigate crimes, can’t get a doctor’s appointment. Does that really sound like pretty good shape to him?

What is the record since 2010? Since 2010, crime is down by 50% under the Conservative Government. There are 20,000 more police officers, we have given them more powers, and we have toughened up sentencing—all opposed by Sir Softie over there.[Official Report, 24 April 2023, Vol. 731, c. 4MC.]

Order. Our constituents want to hear the questions and the answers. You will progress questions beyond—[Interruption.] The Prime Minister wants to leave early, along with the Leader of the Opposition. Help me to help them!

Either the Prime Minister does not use the same public services as the rest of us or he simply cannot see the damage that the Government have done to our country. In 2019, Arie Ali, a convicted people smuggler, threw boiling water over a prison officer, leaving him with first degree burns. The prison officer said that it felt like acid and his face was on fire. His attacker was found guilty and received a prison sentence, quite rightly in my view. Does the Prime Minister agree?

Our record is clear on sentencing. It was this party and this Government who passed the sentencing Act last year. It toughened up sentences, and the average custodial sentence since 2010 has now increased by almost two thirds. For child sex abusers, it is up by 15 months; for rapists, it is up by two years. When our sentencing Act ended the automatic early release of offenders who pose a danger to the public, it was the Labour party that voted against it.

The problem is, Prime Minister, that Arie Ali’s sentence ended up being suspended. Anyone watching this would wonder why someone who violently attacks a key worker is not behind bars. Well, the Court judgment spelled it out: it is because it took 16 months for the attacker to be charged. That is ridiculous. It took another two years before he was sentenced—completely unacceptable. Cannot the Prime Minister see that because the Government have lost control of the courts service, because they have created the largest court backlog on record, he is letting violent criminals go free?

Here is the record: we are cracking down on grooming gangs, and the Leader of the Opposition is uncomfortable addressing them. We toughened the law on sex offenders so they spend longer in prison; he voted against it. We have increased rape convictions by over 60%; meanwhile, he attended 21 Sentencing Council meetings that watered down punishments. That is why they call him Sir Softie: soft on crime, soft on criminals.

I have prosecuted thousands upon thousands of sex offenders. The Prime Minister has just shown that he does not understand how the criminal justice system works. No wonder he cannot fix it. He thinks that cracking down on crime is suspending a sentence where someone should be in prison. That shows the problem.

Another reason cited by the Court for suspending the sentence in Arie Ali’s case was a letter from the Justice Secretary in February about prison overcrowding. As a result of that letter, courts have been told to have awareness of the impact of current prison population levels when passing sentences. In simple terms, the wrecking ball that the Tories have taken to criminal justice means that thousands of people who should be in prison are not.

The Justice Secretary shakes his head. He should read the judgment.

The Court also said that it is

“for government to communicate to the courts when prison conditions have returned to a more normal state.”

I know that the Justice Secretary has been busy trying to save his own job rather than actually doing it, but has the Prime Minister asked him when he is going to get a grip on the prison system and withdraw that letter, which is allowing criminals to walk free?

We are in the process of building 20,000 more prison places. That is what this Government are delivering. We are toughening up sentencing and putting more people behind bars, and making sure that our most serious offenders spend longer there.

I love it when the right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about his record as a lefty lawyer. I have been looking at this, and I have read that people were “really disappointed” that his organisation had been “letting down…victims.” That was not even my assessment; it was that of his shadow Attorney General.

Order. I want to us get through these questions, and so do my constituents. To any Member present who is not interested in his or her constituents, I say, “Please leave the Chamber.”

When I was in office as Director of Public Prosecutions, those on the Benches opposite were my greatest supporters. In 2013, the Home Affairs Committee said:

“ We would…like to commend the work of the Director for Public Prosecution, Keir Starmer… Mr Starmer has striven to improve the treatment of…sexual assault”.

The Committee goes on to say—[Interruption.]

Order. Prime Minister’s Questions matter to our constituents. [Interruption.] I wouldn’t if I were you; it is not the day for it. I want to get through these questions, because I am trying to help the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. You are not being helpful, but we will hear this question, no matter how long it takes.

Order. Ms Stevenson, I have heard you for a few weeks, and this will be the last week. I suggest that you keep quiet, otherwise it is better that you leave.

In 2013, the Home Affairs Committee went on to say that the work I did

“should provide a model to…other agencies”,

and that

“when he leaves the Crown Prosecution Service…he will be missed.”

That report was presented to Parliament by the then Home Secretary and future Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), and the Government—those on the opposite Benches—noted and supported it. It is obviously always a good look to have your work recognised, although they did lay it on a bit thick.

Perhaps the Prime Minister should spend less time trying to rewrite history and more time sorting out the mess that he has made of criminal justice; but the crisis in criminal justice is just a snapshot of public services collapsing on his watch. People can see it wherever they look. Our roads, our trains, the NHS, the asylum system, policing, mental health provision—the Tories have broken them all, and all that they have left are excuses and blame. I know that the Prime Minister would rather talk about a maths lesson than about the state of the country, but perhaps he could solve this equation: why, after 13 years of a Tory Government, are patients waiting longer than ever, criminals walking free and growth non-existent, and why, everywhere we look, does nothing seem to work at all?

I cannot quite remember, but I think the right hon. and learned Gentleman started by talking about the time when he was Director of Public Prosecutions, in 2013. I am actually glad he brought that up, because something else happened when he was DPP in 2013: he got his own special law, and I have it right here. It is called The Pensions Increase—[Interruption.]

It is called The Pensions Increase (Pension Scheme for Keir Starmer QC) Regulations 2013.

We are introducing a transformative policy to help doctors to cut the waiting lists faster. The right hon. and learned Gentleman wants to raise taxes on public sector workers. It is, literally, one law for him and tax rises for everyone else. [Interruption.]

Q6. Recently, I presented a Prime Minister’s Points of Light award to Joan Willett, who is nearly 107, for her fundraising for the British Heart Foundation, and two other Hastings and Rye residents, Anthony Kimber and Alastair Fairley, were celebrated as community champions at No. 10. Will the Prime Minister join me in thanking all our fantastic volunteers and community champions, not only in Hastings and Rye but throughout the United Kingdom, and will he continue to bring them together in celebration? (904435)

I thank my hon. Friend and I am absolutely delighted that Joan received her Points of Light award. Volunteers and community champions such as Joan, Anthony and Alastair all make important contributions to their local community and we are all grateful to them. Every month, millions do the same thing and they deserve our praise. Their generosity is integral to what makes our country and our communities special, and it is right that we do everything we can to celebrate them.

I am delighted to hear that Members had an equally peaceful and relaxing Easter break, as I did.

Prime Minister, was it their refusal to stand alongside striking workers on the picket line, their acceptance of the economic damage being caused by Brexit, or perhaps their support for denying the people of Scotland the right to choose their own future that led to the leader of the Scottish Conservative party urging voters to back Labour?

What we are doing is not getting distracted by the things that are going on elsewhere; we are focused on delivering for the people of Scotland. We are making sure that we fund public services well, with £1.5 billion extra in Barnett consequentials. We are making sure that we provide support with the cost of living. I know that, at the moment, the hon. Gentleman and his party are focused on other matters. We are just going to motor on with the job.

Let me be clear: we will take no lectures from a party that has not had a mandate to govern in Scotland since 1955, that went through three Prime Ministers in the course of just a matter of months, that crashed the economy, that sent mortgage rates soaring and that has taken energy support away from families most in need. The Prime Minister has been fined by the polis not once but twice, they take donations from Russian-backed donors and they have stuffed the House of Lords with people like Baroness Mone. But let us be clear: what we are talking about is the fact that the leader of the Scottish Conservatives believes that the people of Scotland should return Labour party Members of Parliament to this House rather than Scottish National party Members. So is not the message for the people of Scotland quite clear? Don’t give the Tories what they want.

Actually, the Scottish Conservatives deserve enormous praise for forcing the SNP into abandoning its completely unworkable, fundamentally flawed deposit return scheme. So it is good that the SNP U-turned and listened to the voices of the Scottish Conservatives and to business, and we look forward to working with them on delivering something that actually works to deliver for the people of Scotland. And that is just it, because if the SNP cannot fix the mess that Nicola Sturgeon left the party in, how can it possibly fix the mess that she left Scotland in?

Q8. It seems clear that the junior doctors’ strike is causing a serious risk of loss of life, and certainly causing harm and pain to thousands of our constituents. The first line of the Hippocratic oath is “First, do no harm”. When does the Prime Minister think the British Medical Association abandoned this central tenet of its profession? (904437)

We value the work of junior doctors and are keen to find a fair and reasonable settlement that recognises their role and the wider economic context facing the UK. My right hon. Friend is right to highlight the impact on patient safety, and that is why this Government have brought forward minimum safety legislation to ensure that patients can rely on a core level of emergency service to protect vital patient care. That is something that we on this side of the House support, but I know it is not something that is supported by the party opposite.

Tooth decay is the No. 1 reason that children over the age of four end up in hospital. Regular dental check-ups could prevent it, but too many parents cannot get one for their child. In the East Riding of Yorkshire, there are now almost 3,000 people per NHS dentist. In places such as Herefordshire and Norfolk, fewer than two in five children have been seen by a dentist in the past year. This is a scandal, so will the Prime Minister take up the Liberal Democrat plan to end this crisis and make sure people can get an NHS dentist when they need one?

The NHS recently reformed dentistry contracts, which will improve access for patients. Dentistry receives about £3 billion a year, and there were around 500 more dentists delivering care in the NHS last year than in the previous year. I am pleased to say that almost 45% more children saw an NHS dentist last year compared with the year before.

Q9. At Prime Minister’s Question Time on 4 February 2015, David Cameron said he was determined to do whatever it took to fix the Dawlish railway line—the only route to the south-west. Phase 4 risks losing part of its agreed funding, while phase 5 has fallen foul of a 10-year moratorium on new funding. The line is only as resilient as its weakest link. Will the Prime Minister commit to getting this resilience programme back on track and fully funded? (904438)

We are committed to improving the resilience of this iconic stretch of railway, which provides a vital link for people in the south-west. That is why, to date, we have invested more than £165 million in delivering solutions to protect the line. Network Rail continues to develop the case for further investment, and my hon. Friend will be keen to feed into that.

Q2.   This week, not only has my city of Dundee announced that its flights will connect with Heathrow but the Scottish Government have committed to Dundee being at the forefront of making Scotland a major world economy, bringing investment, jobs and opportunity. However, the UK Government seem to have a problem with this. Scotland’s international engagement is to be reduced. Despite being paid for through Scotland’s wealth and taxes, UK ambassadors and diplomats have been instructed to obstruct the Scottish Government’s international engagement, with every foreign nation told not to deal with the Scottish Government directly. This has already been described as“smacking of a parent trying, and failing, to control a teenager.”Will the Prime Minister assure me and the businesses, the wealth creators and, most importantly, my constituents who want to see Dundee and Scotland prosper that, during this short time that Scotland remains in this unequal Union, Scotland will neither be put back in a box nor bend a knee? (904431)

I am pleased to say that we are supporting the communities of Dundee, which received £14 million from the levelling-up fund to support a green transport hub in the city centre. This demonstrates that the UK Government want to invest in the communities of Scotland and to deliver for Scottish people.

Q10. On Saturday, I joined my 17-year-old constituent Alfie Ford in walking to raise funds for the National Autistic Society. Alfie’s mission is to walk 15,000 steps every day in the month of April to raise awareness of autism and to show that every autistic person deserves the best chance in life. This Saturday, he is walking from Birmingham City football club to Edgbaston stadium and back again. Will the Prime Minister join me in wishing Alfie the very best for his walk, and for his noble mission to change for good how people think about autism? (904439)

I praise Alfie for his fantastic efforts. He is an inspiration not just for his community but for many others, and I wish him the best of luck for Saturday. Our autism strategy sets out our ambition to ensure that autistic people across all parts of the country get the support they need to live fulfilling and happy lives, and I look forward to seeing Alfie’s progress on the rest of his journey.

Q4. My constituent Lisa and her civil service colleagues have worked tirelessly and with distinction during some of the most challenging times, but she is fed up with Ministers patting them on the back while imposing derisory 2% and, now, 4.5% pay rises, despite years of pay restraint and, now, double-digit inflation. She asks simply:“Why should I keep working for a UK government that treats its workers with such contempt?”Will the Prime Minister stop with the myths and excuses, and start negotiating a fair deal with the unions? (904433)

I pay tribute to all our hard-working public sector workers for the job they do. We have a well-established independent pay review body process for making sure that we can have pay settlements that are fair and affordable. I am very pleased that we have reached agreement with many unions on those pay settlements and I hope that those members vote in support of them.

Q11. Does my right hon. Friend agree that those who seek to criticise the Conservative record on law and order should look in the mirror and ask, “Who was Director of Public Prosecutions for some of those years?” (904440)

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Our record is clear. We have halved crime since 2010; neighbourhood crime has fallen by 25% just in the last few years; criminals are spending longer in prison; and, crucially, we, unlike the Labour party, are giving the police the powers they need to tackle violent protests.

Q5. My elderly constituent Anne has been in Turkey for five weeks now after her husband suffered a devastating brain bleed—he is now in intensive care. Their holiday insurance company, Staysure, has refused to pay medical bills and has so far refused to engage with me. This has resulted in Anne being stuck with extortionate medical bills and surgery costs, which she has covered by using their life savings. With finances now running out, they are both stranded and have been advised that they will need to find at least £50,000 to pay for an air ambulance to bring them home. Will the Prime Minister meet me to consider all possible options to support constituents such as Anne and her husband in difficult situations such as that, especially where insurance companies abdicate all responsibility? (904434)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I am very sorry to hear about the case that he raises. My thoughts are with Anne and her husband, as I am sure everyone’s will be, at this difficult time. I will ensure that the hon. Gentleman gets a meeting as soon as possible with the relevant Minister to discuss and progress this case further.

Q12.   Can I tell a tale of two councils? My constituents who live in Conservative-controlled Wychavon District Council have enjoyed six years of council tax freezes and excellent public services, while my constituents who live in the Malvern Hills District Council area, which is run by a rag-tag-bag of so-called independents and Greens, pay nearly 50% more in council tax for a band D property. Does the Prime Minister agree that the best thing my constituents can do on the cost of living is to vote Conservative on 4 May? (904441)

My hon. Friend is of course right. Right across the country, those who live in Conservative council areas pay lower council tax than those in Labour council areas. The choice at this election is clear: it is the Conservatives who deliver for you and it is Labour that costs you.

Q7.   This week, the Women’s Rights Network published a report by criminologist Professor Jo Phoenix called “When we are at our most vulnerable”. It revealed that, between January 2019 and October 2022, which includes the pandemic lockdown, of course, there were a staggering 6,539 reported rapes and sexual assaults in UK hospital settings. That is an average of 33 incidents every single week. As eight police forces did not provide any data, the real figures are bound to be significantly higher. What can the Prime Minister and his Government do to ensure that all women, staff and patients are safe in Britain’s hospitals? (904436)

First, may I say that I was deeply shocked and appalled, like the hon. Lady, to hear about the cases of sexual assault and abuse in the NHS. I pay tribute to her for her long-standing campaign on these issues. NHS organisations are responsible for protecting their staff and patients from sexual harassment and conduct. They have recently established a domestic abuse and sexual violence programme to build more robust safeguarding processes for protecting patients, and we will work very closely with them to ensure that that is implemented. I know that she will hold us to account for doing that.

Q13. On 2 June, Corwen station on the Llangollen steam railway will be officially reopened, having been closed 60 years ago under the Beeching axe. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating the volunteers, the local community and the funders who have made that possible, and take his own share of the credit for granting the levelling-up fund to Clwyd South when he was Chancellor, which has paid for the magnificent new roof on Corwen station? (904442)

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for all his campaigning on this. I am delighted that the levelling-up fund has delivered for Corwen station. It is a huge boost to local ambitions to see trains returning there. I know that a small team of the project’s volunteers have built the majority of the station, and they deserve credit, and that a local company in Wrexham has supplied the new steelwork for the canopy roof, providing a welcome boost to the local economy. I look forward to seeing the station open this summer.

Over recess, I was invited to visit one of the major supermarkets in my constituency to discuss food waste. What struck me most was the experience of shop workers on the frontline. They told me that they expect to suffer a violent assault every single day that they go to work. Although more maths might always be helpful, what is this out-of-touch Prime Minister doing to make sure that people can be safe in their workplace?

Everyone deserves to be safe in their workplace, which is why we are making sure that, through our sentencing Act, we have appropriate sentencing in place and, more generally, that we have police officers and community support officers across the country to help combat crime. We will happily look at future sentencing when we look at reviews of that case.

Q14.   Leadership and teamwork delivered Bolton Wanderers a superb 4-0 victory in the Papa John’s trophy match at Wembley. It is delivering the Bolton College of Medical Sciences and delivered Ayyub Patel’s superb Rumworth by-election victory. What message does my right hon. Friend have for Councillor Patel and all the campaigners, candidates and activists, as we run into this festival of democracy, our local elections? (904443)

I share in my hon. Friend’s congratulations for all those in Bolton, but also offer my commiserations to those in Plymouth, especially to our party chairman who is an avid supporter of the green army. Most importantly, I welcome the election of Councillor Patel and look forward to his joining our other councillors in delivering for their local areas, with less crime, lower council tax and, importantly, filling more potholes.

Last week, the Home Office announced that it would not be setting up a bespoke visa scheme for the fishing industry of the sort that is already available for people working in fish farms and in offshore wind farms. It also told skippers that crew previously employed by them under a temporary scheme had to stop working immediately. As a consequence of that announcement, in fishing ports around the coast today, many fishing boats are tied up unable to go to sea. It is the only time that this Home Secretary has been successful in our stated ambition of stopping the boats. The Prime Minister and his party promised our fishermen a sea of opportunity if they would support them, but what is the point of a sea of opportunity if they cannot get crew to fish in it?

I am not sure that I recognise the right hon. Gentleman’s characterisation. We are proud champions of the UK’s fishing industry, not least with our £100 million investment in fishing communities. We are always looking to engage with those communities to make sure that they get the support that they need. Crucially, all the opportunities that are there for them because of Brexit, we are keen to make sure that we deliver.

Q15. Will the Prime Minister join me in thanking Lorna and Shirley of the Marios Tinenti Centre and the local churches in Loughborough for all their hard work in establishing a community allotment? Local people use the facility as a great place to get outdoors as well as to relax. (904444)

I pay tribute to Lorna and Shirley for all their fantastic work. Allotments can do wonders not just for, as my hon. Friend said, providing food, but for wellbeing and providing a place of sanctuary for people around the country, and they deserve enormous praise for creating one for the benefit of their community.