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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 732: debated on Wednesday 3 May 2023

Science, Innovation and Technology

The Secretary of State was asked—

Horizon Europe

I am thrilled to answer today for the new Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, stepping in while my right hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan) begins her maternity leave. May I also take a moment to wish my colleague, the Minister for Data and Digital Infrastructure, my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Julia Lopez) well? As a Department, we are keen to make maternity leave normal and successful, and it is vital that this House gives support to that.

Outstanding science and research is vital to me, to my right hon. Friend who has started her maternity leave and to the Prime Minister, so we are working hard on the UK’s involvement in Horizon Europe. We hope negotiations will be successful and that it is our preference. However, our participation must be on the basis of a good deal for UK researchers, businesses and taxpayers. If we are not able to associate on the right terms, we will implement our bold, ambitious alternative to Horizon—Pioneer.

I welcome the right hon. Lady to her place. Having the University of Hull in my patch, I know very well how important Horizon grants have been to the funding of research and scientific excellence. The Conservative party made a manifesto promise to secure association to Horizon Europe, which is the world’s biggest science funding and collaboration programme. How can universities and scientists plan for the future if that has not been sorted out yet?

The right hon. Lady’s question reflects exactly why we are working so hard to achieve that association. However, we need to accommodate the lasting impact of two years of European Union delays to the United Kingdom’s association. Senior scientists, such as Professor Boyle, the chair of the Universities UK relevant network, for example, acknowledge that our approach demonstrates how seriously this issue is being taken by all sides. They also agree that it is entirely appropriate that we have the alternative plan and that the sector can work together with the Government to achieve that.

I welcome the Secretary of State to her place.

We have the best scientists, universities and institutions in the world here in the UK. The best science comes from research collaboration. Our UK scientists want to collaborate, and the world wants to collaborate with us. With that in mind, will my right hon. Friend reaffirm the Government’s commitment to rejoining Horizon and similar programmes?

As I have already said at this Dispatch Box, I can confirm that association is our preference. However, that must be on the basis of the right deal and a fair set of terms for UK taxpayers, researchers and all others involved. I also gladly confirm that in this Government we see a golden thread that goes from outstanding basic science through research to innovations that change people’s lives, sustain economic growth and create solutions to the challenges of the age.

Commercialisation of Research

Better commercialising our UK research is completely key to our global science superpower and domestic innovation nation missions, and a key component of our science and technology framework and this Department’s work. I am delighted to report that spin-outs from universities have gone up sixfold in the past nine years, to £2.5 billion last year, and in the life sciences sector that has gone up 1000% since we took office. We are creating jobs and opportunities for innovation clusters all around the UK, including in west London.

We have just heard about uncertainty about Horizon. In addition, there are no more European structural funds and under-investment in R&D. We are hurtling down the global rankings for clinical research trials. The Minister just mentioned life sciences, but last week Novartis, the Swiss pharma giant, pulled out of a major trial for cardiovascular drugs in this country for those very reasons. When will the Government admit that, rather than an example of confidence in the world-beating, post-Brexit life sciences sector that the ex-Health Secretary who went to the jungle claimed at the time it would be, that decision shows what an unmitigated disaster Brexit has been? When will they fix this mess?

Here we go—Labour talking Britain down again. The truth is that I am not at all complacent about the clinical trials numbers. At the Life Sciences Council, in the next few weeks, we will be setting out a very clear plan to reverse the decline since the pandemic in the NHS.

The hon. Lady might have mentioned the major investment coming into west London—her part of the world—including the MedTech SuperConnector, the spin-outs there and SynbiCITE, the synthetic biology hub. She might at least acknowledge the major investment —billions of pounds—from Moderna and BioNTech into this country, laying the foundation for a next phase of science innovation. With the life sciences sector, we are in a global race, but we are still leading in the technologies of tomorrow.

Can my hon. Friend comment on the Department’s 10-point science and technology framework, which will help provide the long-term funding needed to turn the start-ups he has mentioned into sustainable, successful, globally leading businesses?

I thank my hon. Friend, who has been a strong champion of that agenda. In the new Department’s science and technology framework we have set out a long-term, 10-year view of the serious reforms that we need to make to procurement, regulation and skills across the whole of Government if we are to drive our science superpower agenda. A fundamental part of that is converting the health of our start-up ecosystem into scale-ups. That is why the Treasury is leading on the re-regulation of pension funds—so that we can unlock some of our pension trillions and put it into supporting our companies to grow here rather than go to NASDAQ.

Life Sciences: Private Investment

The UK’s life sciences sector is key to creating highly skilled jobs across the UK and cementing the UK’s role as a science superpower, as my hon. Friend the Minister for Science, Research and Innovation, a doughty champion of life sciences, has just set out. We have a life sciences vision, which sets out our ambition to develop a globally competitive investment ecosystem in the UK, and we will bring forward further measures to support the sector in the coming weeks. A great example is the life sciences investment programme, a £200 million initiative that is expected to attract at least double that in private investment.

Post pandemic, there has been a significant advance in attracting new pharma to the United Kingdom. Will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming the hugely significant partnership with Moderna as a sign of confidence in the United Kingdom? It will bring much-needed jobs and investment to the whole of the UK, and hopefully to Birmingham in particular.

Yes, I do of course join my hon. Friend in welcoming that investment. As he sets out, our goal is to ensure that the UK is the most attractive environment possible for life sciences investment, and we are doing a range of things to help achieve that. We can see exciting innovations coming into the UK as a result, including one I am very excited about that is due this year: greater personalisation in cancer drugs.

It is a delight to see the right hon. Lady in her new position. As a previous member of the Select Committee on Science and Technology, at least she will know something about science.

I would like to believe the story that is being told about this country being a life sciences superpower, but I am sure the right hon. Lady will have noted the comments in January of Kate Bingham, the chair of the vaccine taskforce. She said that the lessons from that taskforce had not been learned, and that this country was falling behind. She gave evidence of AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline investing outside this country because civil servants had not learned those lessons and had created a hostile environment for such companies.

I can understand that point, and I take this opportunity to pay tribute to Kate Bingham for her past work on the vaccine taskforce. We have created the new Department for Science, Innovation and Technology so that we can drive forward science, and life sciences as part of that, as a force for good. More on this agenda will be set out in the coming weeks, because we have the opportunity to continue to ensure the UK’s leadership on it. That is my priority and that of all of my team.

Commercialisation of Research: North-east England

4. What steps she is taking to support the commercialisation of science and technology research in the north-east. (904749)

Having worked on coalfield regeneration in the north-east, I am delighted to report that it is becoming a science and technology powerhouse economy in the UK. I have been up three times since taking on this role, particularly to see NETPark, the extraordinary north-east technology park, whose third phase of expansion has now been announced. We put £5 million into helping it grow, and world-class companies such as Kromek are now there. We have also put £5 million into the Northern Accelerator in collaboration with six north-east universities, and we have nine Catapult hubs in the north-east. Let us say it loud and clear: the north-east is building the new economy of tomorrow.

Led by Durham University, the Northern Accelerator has invested more than £100 million in partner university spin-outs in the past five years, bringing skilled jobs and opportunities to my constituents and across the region, but if the Minister is really serious about levelling up Durham, can he explain why the north-east receives just 4% of Research England’s budget and six times less money than London?

I pay tribute to the hon. Lady’s leadership on this issue, because it is really important. Traditionally, our research funding follows excellence, and that is why, say, Northumbria University has shot up the league tables in the last few years from 42nd to 16th—it is knocking on the door of the Russell Group—and the northern universities are delivering increasingly excellent science. But there is something else. Last year there was £50 billion-worth of private investment in research and development, which is matching the public investment, and as we go to £20 billion of public R&D, a wave of private money will start to come into the north-east. The answer to her question is that this is about building the applied science into the industries of tomorrow, which the north-east is doing.

Does the Minister agree that the Catapult centres in the north-east, as well as the manufacturing technology centre in my constituency, are the way forward in commercialising some of the great ideas that are coming from the academic world?

Yes, I absolutely agree. That is why we have put £1.9 billion into the Catapult network—our network for deep industrial collaboration with our universities. In the north-east, we have the offshore renewables Catapult in Blyth, the digital Catapult in Sunderland and the satellite applications Catapult in Durham. This is a deep investment in the north-east economy of tomorrow.

One of the companies based in NETPark is Pragmatic Semiconductor, which is innovating chip production. It has indicated that it would consider moving its operations overseas if the UK fails to produce a semiconductor strategy that funds and supports chip production. We have been asking for this strategy for years now, so can the Minister assure the House not only that the strategy is imminent and will be published very shortly, but that it will properly fund and support companies such as Pragmatic?

Yes. The Under-Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), has already met the company concerned, and in a matter of days we will be setting out the semiconductor strategy, which will answer exactly the question that the hon. Lady has raised.

Artificial Intelligence Technologies: Regulation

Artificial intelligence plays a vital role in our economy and society, from helping doctors to identify cancers faster to powering smart devices and driverless cars. We recognise the need to act not only to unlock the opportunities but to address the potential risks of this technology. Our White Paper articulates what the responsible development and use of AI should look like, supporting innovation while protecting people so that businesses, consumers and the wider economy can all benefit.

When advances in medical technology—around genetic engineering, for example—raise sensitive issues, we have debates on medical ethics, we adapt legislation and we put in place robust regulation and oversight. The explosion in AI potentially poses the same level of moral dilemma and is open to criminal use for fraud or impersonation and by malign players such as the Chinese Government, for example. As leaders in AI, what should the UK be doing to balance safety with opportunity and innovation?

I recognise the profound experience from which my hon. Friend speaks. We also recognise that many technologies can pose a risk when in the wrong hands. The UK is a global leader in AI, with a strategic advantage that places us at the forefront of these developments. Through UK leadership—at the OECD, the G7, the Council of Europe and more—we are promoting our vision for a global ecosystem that balances innovation and the use of AI, underpinned by our shared values of freedom, fairness and democracy. Our approach will be proportionate, pro-innovative and adaptable. Meanwhile, the integrated review refresh recognises the challenges that are posed by China.

With elections under way and a general election due next year, people are rightly concerned about the fake videos, images and audio being created by artificial intelligence. Can the Secretary of State confirm to the House what actions her Department is taking to protect the integrity of our democratic processes in that context?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s involvement, and I look forward to debating these issues with him and others across the House. I can understand his concerns and the anxiety that sits behind his question. We have a fully developed regime of electoral law that already accounts for election offences such as false statements by candidates, but in addition to the existing regulations we are setting out an approach on AI that will look to regulators in different sectors to apply the correct guidance. We will also add a central co-ordinating function that will be able to seek out risks and deal with them flexibly, appropriately and proportionately.

I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend to the Dispatch Box. We can get a lot done in 10 weeks, in my experience, and I am sure she will do so.

At its best, Britain has been highly influential in setting international standards that combine confidence with security. Does my right hon. Friend agree with me and the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones), the Chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, that the UK should now seize the initiative and set out an international approach to standards in AI, so we can gain all the benefits that come from AI while making sure we do not suffer the harms attendant on it?

The short answer is yes. I welcome my right hon. Friend’s expertise, experience and encouragement as I begin my role. He is right that the UK has a global leadership position, and we rank in the global top three in many aspects of this question and others throughout science and technology. We will therefore seek a leadership role so any regulation of AI that may be needed reflects our values and strikes the correct balance.

One area in which our global leadership is a reality, not just rhetoric, is the creative industries. What assurance can the Government give to our music makers, writers and others that AI will be properly regulated to make sure their creative content is protected, and so we can maintain our global leadership?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, which comes from his deep expertise in music and the creative industries more generally. I look forward to my conversations with the industry on this very subject this afternoon. The UK has world-leading copyright and intellectual property protections, and we know how important they are for the continued success of the creative industries. We want to maintain them, and they will therefore be a focus as we take this work forward.

Science and Technology Sector: International Competitiveness

6. What steps her Department is taking to support the international competitiveness of the science and technology sector. (904751)

10. What steps her Department is taking to support the international competitiveness of the science and technology sector. (904756)

The Government published the science and technology framework in March 2023, setting out our approach to making the UK a science and technology superpower by 2030. This will increase the UK’s strategic advantage in relation to other nations. As part of that, we have a 10-point plan, having identified five critical technologies, including AI, semiconductors and quantum, which we will prioritise to deliver the framework’s ambition.

The Minister will know that I have written to the Department about the future of Syngenta in Bracknell. Berkshire is the Silicon Valley of the Thames valley, and it is important that we do everything possible to maximise investment and job creation. Will the Minister please agree to visit Syngenta with me, and to do what is necessary to ensure that this is not another GSK moment?

I acknowledge my hon. Friend’s work to encourage innovation, including at Syngenta. My colleague, the Minister for Science, Research and Innovation, has already met Syngenta, and one of us will follow up with my hon. Friend to see what more we can do to support innovation in the Bracknell area.

We have a truly world-class nuclear skillset in Fylde, with Springfields being home to the country’s only nuclear fuel-manufacturing facility and the National Nuclear Laboratory, which last year made a significant breakthrough in developing lead-212, a cancer-fighting medical isotope. There are real opportunities not only to preserve but to build on that success. What conversations has my hon. Friend had with the Prime Minister and other Ministers about ensuring our domestic nuclear capability is the go-to choice for use in the UK and about maximising opportunities abroad?

My hon. Friend always champions industry and innovation in his area. We recognise the UK’s significant capabilities in the nuclear fuel cycle and the benefit this provides to our energy security and to realising export opportunities. Through the nuclear fuel fund, the Government are investing in Springfields and other parts of the supply chain to further expand essential capabilities so we can realise benefits for the UK and abroad. The £6 million medical radionuclide innovation programme will also develop capability in the production of radionuclides for medicine.

The life sciences sector is very exercised by the unintended but very high levy being paid to the Government for branded medicines in the NHS. The risk is that investment and jobs will go elsewhere, so what is the Secretary of State doing to make sure that that does not happen?

We are negotiating hard on this. Obviously, the negotiations are sensitive at this time, but we are aware of the fact that we are ahead and we want to stay ahead in life sciences, which are part of our key technologies.

Biomedical sciences have been a success in my constituency, at Ulster University in Coleraine. Will the Minister undertake to ensure that that success is replicated and the United Kingdom becomes genuinely a world leader in biomedical sciences?

Absolutely. We know we have a strong cluster there, and universities such as Ulster University are at the heart of that innovation. We will do exactly as the hon. Member said and make sure we can replicate as much of that clustering around the UK.

Broadband access is essential to UK competitiveness, yet Ofcom has revealed that just 220,000 of the 8 million households struggling to pay their internet bill have signed up to a discounted broadband package. When will the Government match Labour’s commitment to ensure that there is an industry-wide, mandatory and well-advertised social tariff for low-income families?

There has been a fourfold increase in people taking up social tariffs, but we know we have to do more to help people with the cost of living. That is why we lent in to the carriers in the first place and encouraged the introduction of social tariffs, but we will do more. We will work with the carriers to make sure that those tariffs get advertised well, so we can get better take-up.

Topical Questions

For its first three months, the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology has been harnessing the power of transformative science to grow a more innovative economy, with stronger businesses, better jobs and better lives for the British people. We have touched on AI and Pioneer. I can add that our £2.5 billion strategy for quantum tech will unlock its vast potential to the benefit of the British people.

As chair of the all-party group on crypto and digital assets, I have been hearing about the potential of blockchain technology for jobs of the future. It is important that these jobs are inclusive, so how will the Secretary of State ensure that people with disabilities, veterans and women have opportunities such as those to achieve their full potential?

I am delighted that the hon. Lady asked that question because, as she knows, I share her deep interest in the labour market and accessibility. I thank her for the work that her all-party group has done on the issue. This Government’s digital inclusion strategy has four principles: access; skills; motivation; and trust. They hold firm for blockchain and other technologies to ensure that no one is left behind.

Last year, during the Eurovision song contest, Russian agents attempted to interfere with the voting for Ukraine. This year, we are hosting the Eurovision song contest. What is the Department doing to ensure that the integrity of the voting will be maintained?

The Government are always aware that there are a number of possible threats to our systems and events. I am not able to discuss the details, but those at the National Cyber Security Centre are world experts at understanding attacks and providing an incident response for the most serious. We want to make sure that all organisations are aware, so we can keep that resilience in our voting process.

I welcome the Secretary of State to her position and wish the right hon. Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan) well in her maternity leave.

Three years on, the Tories have failed in their manifesto promise to associate to Horizon Europe, and Britain has paid the price in lost jobs and scientific research. Their plan B short-changes British scientists and they are fudging the figures in other ways. Will the Secretary of State confirm that, whereas Horizon funding was counted as international science spend, she is planning to count the same money as British science spend to meet her commitment to double the British science budget? [Interruption.]

I think I had better keep this brief. The answer, as the hon. Lady very well knows, is that we are hard at work negotiating our potential accession to Horizon. That is our preference, as I have made clear this morning. However, she is out of step with key voices in the sector. For example, the Russell Group says that our negotiations are a serious step forward and that the ambition of the proposals for Pioneer is welcome. More details will become clear as negotiations progress, but I cannot give a running commentary.

It seems that the Tory science superpower is actually just cooking the books. Ministers promised to increase science spend outside London and the south-east by a third while doubling it overall, so our regions continue to miss out. Now they are refusing to replace European regional development science funding, slashing £600 million from what should be our regional powerhouses. That is not levelling up—it is holding us back. The country knows it. Does the Secretary of State?

The hon. Lady is mischaracterising this very badly and in a way that does not help to command confidence in our shared mission to make science, innovation and technology the success that it needs to be for this country. She will have seen the presentation of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor at the Budget, which made it clear just how seriously we take science in this country, and that level of ambition will continue.

Last month, Sir Patrick Vallance stepped down as the Government’s chief scientific adviser after five years in the role, in which Government investment in science has doubled. Most of all, he became a household name through his handling of covid and the leadership that he showed then. Will the Secretary of State join me in thanking Sir Patrick for all his service to the country and in welcoming his successor, Dame Angela McLean, and wishing her all the best in the role?

May I, as Science Minister on behalf of the Government, pay tribute to Sir Patrick and thank Dame Angela for taking on the role? Sir Patrick has been a stalwart servant for science and for this country during difficult times.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


I know that the House will join the nation and the Commonwealth in sending our very best wishes to Their Majesties, the King and Queen, ahead of the coronation. This will be a moment of extraordinary national pride, a demonstration of our country’s character and an opportunity to look to the future in the spirit of service, unity and hope.

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.

At Question Time last week, in column 725, the Prime Minister referred to

“record numbers of people in work”.—[Official Report, 26 April 2023; Vol. 731, c. 725.]

In fact, as he knows, the number of people in work at the moment is still less than it was just before the pandemic—122,792 less, according to the latest official figures. Will he reassure the House that he is not slipping into the bad ways of his predecessor but one, and will he properly correct the incorrect statement that he made last week?

That clarification has already been made in Hansard, but there are near record numbers of people in work and in payroll. That is thanks to the actions of this Government—a record of which we are very proud.

Q4. Non-compliant hand car washes seem like a cheap and quick way to have our cars washed but, unfortunately, behind this £1.8 billion industry is hidden money laundering, fraud, drug dealing, prostitution, labour abuse, modern-day slavery, tax avoidance and many other sinister crimes. An estimated half a billion pounds is lost in tax revenue. It is a pull factor for illegal migration and the pollutants often used damage the environment. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is time to step away from the voluntary scheme and have a mandatory scheme to protect people? (904764)

We expect all businesses to follow the law, including providing fair pay and working conditions for their employees. We are tackling exploitation in the labour market, especially by increasing funding for enforcement bodies to more than £35 million a year, and we will continue to keep the position of hand car washes under close review.

I join the Prime Minister in his comments about the coronation. Across the House, we are all looking forward to the celebrations this weekend.

Does the Prime Minister know how many mortgage payers are paying higher rates since the Tory party crashed the economy last autumn?

Our record on home ownership is crystal clear. Because of our tax cuts, 90% of first-time buyers now do not pay any stamp duty at all. Last year, we saw the largest number of people buying their first home in 20 years. That is a Conservative Government delivering on people’s aspirations to own their own home.

The question was how many people are paying more on their mortgages each month, and the answer that the Prime Minister avoided giving is 850,000. Nearly 1 million people are paying more on their mortgage each month because his party used their money as a casino chip. That is why George Osborne called them economic “vandals” who created a “self-inflicted financial crisis”—not for the Prime Minister and his “non-dom thing”, not for the super-wealthy that the Conservatives gave tax cuts to, but for mortgage holders all across the country. Does the Prime Minister know how many more people will be joining them on higher mortgage rates by the end of this year?

Thanks to the actions we are taking, the Bank of England is showing that public expectations of inflation have now eased to a 15-month low. Consumer confidence is at the highest level since Russia invaded Ukraine and, because of our stewardship of the public finances, we can see a clear way to reduce debt and bring interest rates down. The right hon. and learned Gentleman keeps up his habit of quoting former Chancellors. We know that our plans will deliver lower inflation and lower interest rates, but we know that his plans just mean more debt, “year after year after year”. Those are not my words, but the assessment of the former Labour shadow Chancellor.

The question was how many more people this year will be paying more on their mortgages. The answer, which the Prime Minister again avoided giving—he knows these answers; he has the stats there in front of him—is 930,000 people. I know they do not want to talk about it—that is why he will not answer the questions—but by the end of this year, nearly 2 million homeowners will be counting the cost of the Tories’ economic vandalism with every mortgage payment they make.

It is not just those who already own their home who are counting the cost of Tory recklessness. The average deposit for a first-time buyer is going up to £9,000. Does the Prime Minister even know how long it will take an average saver to put that sort of money aside?

That is why we have introduced a 95% mortgage guarantee scheme. It is why we are helping people in social housing to own their own home through our first homes and shared ownership schemes. Those things are working. As I said, last year we had a record number of first-time buyers, the highest number in 20 years. That was twice the number of first-time buyers that Labour ever managed. While Labour failed homeowners, the Conservatives are delivering for them.

Every week, whatever the topic, the Prime Minister stands there and pretends everything is fine across the country, and every week that he does so, he reinforces just how out of touch he is, because £9,000—[Laughter.] It is not “Ha, ha!”—would take four years. The Conservatives think it is funny that it would take four years for the average saver to save £9,000. To put it a different way, in terms the Prime Minister will understand, it is roughly the annual bill to heat his swimming pool. But for most people, four more years of scrimping is a hammer-blow to their ambitions. Now he is kicking them when they are down, because his decision to scrap housing targets is killing the dream of home ownership for a generation. Why does he not admit he got it wrong and reverse it?

I promised to put local people in control of new housing, and I am proud that that is what I delivered within six weeks of becoming Prime Minister. The right hon. and learned Gentleman wants to impose top-down housing targets, concrete over the green belt and ride roughshod over local communities. Previously, he is on record as saying that local people and communities should have more power and more control. Now he has U-turned—just another in a long list of broken promises.

The only power the Prime Minister has given to local communities is not to build houses. We know why he will not change course; he admitted it last month: his councillors simply do not want to build the houses that local people need, so he has given them a way out. Picture the scene as he explains this to a family: mum and dad paying four grand extra on the mortgage because the Tories tanked the economy; their eldest paying hundreds more in rent; their youngest still stuck in the spare room because they need an extra £9,000 for a deposit. Then along comes the Prime Minister, who merrily tells them, “Sorry for crashing the economy—but we don’t want to talk about that. Sorry I can’t help you through house building, but my councillors do not like it. Oh, and before I go, here is a massive council tax increase for your troubles.” Why does he not stop the excuses, stop blaming everyone else, and just build some houses instead?

Our memories are not that short. We all know what happened when Labour was last in power: there was “no money left” for the country. Let us talk about the Labour record on house building. In London, the former Conservative Mayor built 60,000 affordable homes in his first five years in office. How many has the current Labour Mayor managed? Half of that. In Wales, we need 12,000 new homes a year. How many has Labour built in the last year? Half of that. As ever, Labour talks and the Conservatives deliver.

With debt doubled since 2010, growth down, tax up, the economy crashed, the Government are going to need a bigger note.

It is right that, week after week, we debate the issues in this place, but looking beyond the elections tomorrow, we also have a hugely significant weekend coming up, with the King’s coronation. For most, it will be the first time that they have seen a monarch crowned. I hope, as will Members across the House, that people across the country enjoy the ceremony, the street parties and, of course, the extra day off. Some 300 million people will tune in. The world will see our country at its best, celebrating the beginning of a new chapter in our history. But it will also be a reminder of the loss of our late Queen, Elizabeth II, and another chance to remember all that she gave our country through her dedicated service. Will the Prime Minister join me in honouring our late Queen and wishing the new King a long and happy reign?

As I said at the outset, we are all very much looking forward to the coronation. It will be a very special moment in the history of our country, and I know that we will join the country in celebrating it. But before we get to the coronation weekend, we have an important day tomorrow. The choice before the country is clear: when they go to the ballot box, they can see a party that stands for higher council tax, higher crime and a litany of broken promises; meanwhile, we are getting on with delivering on what we say, with lower council tax, lower crime and fewer potholes. The choice is clear: vote Conservative.

Q5.   Labour-run Kirklees Council has, as you know, Mr Speaker, reneged on a deal to house the national rugby league museum at the George hotel. It has also declared a climate emergency, but has one of the worst recycling rates in the country. It is building on green fields and now on green belt. It is demolishing Holmfirth indoor market. We are blighted by litter and fly-tipping. Now it is proposing to chop down mature trees in urban areas— (904765)

Order. Sit down a moment, Mr McCartney. I presume you are going to ask a question. You have made a great statement; now ask a quick question.

Does the Prime Minister agree that local people can have their say on Kirklees Council’s appalling record by voting Conservative this week?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is typical Labour: saying one thing and doing the other. It is only the Conservatives who will protect the green belt; the Labour party will concrete over it. That is why, in Kirklees and elsewhere, people should vote Conservative tomorrow.

In 2010, David Cameron convinced Nick Clegg to adopt his pledge on university tuition fees. Does the Prime Minister intend to take the credit for convincing the leader of the Labour party to do likewise?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the question. It is hard to keep up with the list of broken promises, but on tuition fees I will say that under this Government, a record number of people from disadvantaged backgrounds are going to university. That is because of the efforts we have made to put more money into supporting those people and communities to fulfil their aspirations, alongside fantastic new apprenticeships in every part of our country.

For the avoidance of any doubt, the Liberal Democrats do not believe in abolishing tuition fees, the Conservatives do not believe in abolishing tuition fees, and of course the Labour party, now having its own Nick Clegg moment, does not believe in abolishing tuition fees either. Is it not the case that the main Westminster parties do not offer young people any hope at all?

I gently point out to the hon. Gentleman that, actually, somebody from a disadvantaged background is far more likely to go to university in England than they are in Scotland.

Q8.   The Conservative police and crime commissioner in Dorset has delivered 174 new police officers, quadrupled the rural crime team and made Dorset the sixth safest county. Given that recorded crime is 34% higher under Labour police and crime commissioners, does the Prime Minister agree that only Conservatives can be trusted to keep local communities safe and to make sure that offenders face the justice they deserve? (904768)

My hon. Friend is right. It is a simple statement of fact: crime is lower in areas that have Conservative police and crime commissioners. I am delighted that Dorset has been selected as one of the areas to pilot our new immediate justice scheme, which will deliver swift and visible punishment, so that victims of antisocial behaviour know it will be treated seriously and with all urgency.

This Government’s vile and immoral refugee ban Bill and the toxic language coming from the Home Office are not even dog-whistle politics; they are a giant hard-right foghorn, blasting out a poisonous “them and us” narrative. The Government plumbed new depths last week when the Minister for Immigration claimed that people trying to come to the UK

“tend to have completely different…values to those in the UK”.

Can the Prime Minister explain what he thinks is so different about the values held by the people of war-torn Sudan, and what values are preventing him from creating a Sudanese family visa scheme, like he did for the people of Ukraine?

This country has a proud history of welcoming almost half a million refugees over the past several years, and we will always continue to do so, but our ability to do that is absolutely hampered when we have tens of thousands of people illegally crossing the channel every year. It is precisely because we want to help the most vulnerable people, whether they be in Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan or elsewhere, that we must get a grip of the problem, break the cycle of the criminal gangs, and target our resources and compassion on those who most need them.

Q9. Thanks to this Conservative Government and £1.8 million from the brownfield land release fund, Conservative-led Solihull council is getting on with regenerating Kingshurst village centre, creating space for new businesses and new homes. When it comes to economic regeneration, none of the Opposition parties has a viable plan—not the Greens, not the Liberal Democrats and not the Labour party—and a Labour candidate has gone so far as to scare local people into thinking that the development will not go ahead, despite the spades in the ground. Does the Prime Minister agree that while the Opposition talk down opportunity and job creation, when it comes to investing in our community, it is only Conservative-led Solihull council that delivers for our people? (904769)

I agree with my hon. Friend and I am so glad to see the local Conservatives delivering for the people of Solihull, with dozens of new family homes, new flexible commercial space and a new integrated health, social care and community hub. As he says, it is clear that for his local area, only the Conservatives can deliver.

Q2. Mr Speaker, imagine seeing the car in front of you swerving erratically or braking suddenly for no reason, risking your car slamming into the back of it and endangering those daft enough not to wear seatbelts. These are not the actions of a drunk or reckless driver, but my constituent’s experience of using a Tesla in autopilot mode—software that is still in beta phase, but is deemed suitable for cars on our public roads. Will the Prime Minister meet me to discuss the issues with Tesla’s autopilot, and will he instigate an urgent critical safety review of its suitability for operation and the licensing of it? (904762)

I am sorry to hear about what happened to the hon. Member’s constituent. I will ensure that he gets a meeting with the Transport Secretary to discuss the safe regulation of autonomous and self-driving vehicles.

Q11. Labour-run City of Lincoln Council has destroyed the 40-year reputation of our city’s Christmas market and the Christmas cheer that Lincoln benefits from annually. The dereliction of its role, in choosing to take the easiest option by cancelling the market behind closed doors and in secret, shows Labour’s neglect and disregard for small local businesses, charities and entrepreneurs, and for voters. Labour councillors in Lincoln should be ashamed of their actions, and have rightfully been likened to the Grinch. (904772)

Order. Mr Brennan, I do not need you shouting from the back row. I have always offered a cup of tea to Government Members, but there is equally an opportunity for you to take one.

Tomorrow, the people of Lincoln will have the chance to remove from office the anti-business socialist Scrooges and elect local Conservatives. Does my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister agree that for better-run local services—

Order. In fairness to the Prime Minister, I think the text went out, and I think he has got the answer. Come on, Prime Minister.

I share my hon. Friend’s disappointment that after a decision taken by the Labour-run council behind closed doors, there will no longer be a Christmas market in Lincoln, ending its 40 years of history. Lincoln deserves better, and I urge the people of the city to vote Conservative.

Q3. Ahead of tomorrow’s local elections, I have been campaigning in Medway and Swindon. The word on the doorstep is that people are ready for a change, and will be switching their votes from the Conservatives to Labour. However, I am concerned that only 4% of those without valid ID have applied online for a voter authority certificate. Will the Prime Minister commit to a post-election review of how many people have effectively been disenfranchised by his Government’s response to the virtually non-existent problem of voter fraud? (904763)

Mr Speaker, 98% of people already possess a suitable form of voter ID, and the Government made available free alternative ID for those who do not have it. The pilots have demonstrated that it has not significantly impacted turnout, and indeed, this was a policy that was introduced by the Labour party in Northern Ireland all those years ago. It is common in European countries, it is common in Canada, and it is absolutely right that we introduce it here too.

Q14.   Ever since being elected in 2019, I have been inundated with correspondence from my constituents in South West Hertfordshire, rightly complaining about huge speculative developments on our beautiful green-belt land. Lib Dem-controlled Three Rivers District Council continues to dither and to delay its local plan. Does the Prime Minister agree that the choice tomorrow is simple: vote Conservative to protect our green belt, or vote Lib Dem for massive developments on unspoilt land? (904775)

My hon. Friend raises an important point. It is always the same with Liberal Democrats, saying one thing and doing the other—we have all seen it. It is the Conservatives that are the party of local decisions taken by local people, and it is only the Conservatives that will protect the green belt.

Q6. Unable to secure an NHS dental appointment, my constituent Ray was forced to go private. It was then discovered that he had a large, aggressive tumour in his face and jaw, and 16 hours of gruelling surgery was required to remove it. If he had not been able to afford it, Ray might not be with us now. This is yet another chapter in the horror story that is the decay of dentistry on this Government’s watch, so does the Prime Minister accept that NHS dentistry is in crisis, and will he meet me and the British Dental Association to ensure that no one loses their life because they could not get a dental appointment—yes or no? (904766)

I am sorry to hear what happened to the hon. Lady’s constituent. That is why the NHS has recently reformed dental contracts to improve access. We now invest more than £3 billion a year, and there are more than 500 more dentists working in the NHS this year than last year. Discussions are ongoing between the Department of Health and Social Care and the NHS around dentistry, and DHSC is planning to outline further reform measures in the near future.

Every single young person who gets on the housing ladder under a Conservative Government makes our communities more sustainable. Does my right hon. Friend agree that in order to build the right type of housing and speed it up, we need to fund planning authorities properly through innovative funding?

My hon. Friend, as ever, makes an excellent point. That is why the reforms that we introduce will provide incremental resources to planning authorities to make sure that planning decisions can be taken quicker. Also, we have strengthened the ability of local communities to put in place local plans. That is the best way for our towns, cities and villages to have control over development in their area and to make sure that it happens in the way they are comfortable with, and I know he is supportive of that too.

Q7.   The recent ITV documentary, “Life and Debt: Stories from the Edge”, followed Halifax mum Izzy. Her prepayment energy bills have tripled, and she relies on a local primary school, Ash Green, which is providing free breakfasts, budget cooking classes and a hardship fund for its families. When headteacher Mungo Sheppard is asked whether he worries about the children at his school when he goes home at night, he says:“All the time. It never leaves you”. Does the Prime Minister think it is right that things are so bad that schools are having to become the fourth emergency service for the families they support? (904767)

Because of the actions we have taken, a typical family, including those like Izzy’s, will be seeing half of their energy bills paid for by the Government. That support is worth £1,500, and it was extended in the most recent Budget. For the most vulnerable in our society, there is additional support, with £900 for those on welfare. Through the holiday activities and food programme, there is support for families with costs and food during the holidays. What I would say to Izzy and others who are in particular need is that they should talk to their council, because the Chancellor has provided more than £1 billion of funding to the household support fund. It is there to help families like that who need a little bit of extra assistance during this time.

As my right hon. Friend will be aware, today is World Press Freedom Day. At a time when the need for professional and factual journalism has never been greater, will he reaffirm the Government’s commitment to defending media freedom worldwide? Will he redouble the efforts of the Government to obtain the release of Evan Gershkovich and Vladimir Kara-Murza in Russia, and of Jimmy Lai in Hong Kong?

The Government are committed to defending media freedom worldwide, because thriving independent journalism is one of the cornerstones of democracy. We absolutely condemn the politically motivated sentencing of journalists across the world, and our embassies and missions work every day to protect media freedom where they are based. I know that my right hon. Friend has been a right champion of that throughout his career, and I look forward to his continuing to champion it from a different perch, as I take rather fewer questions from him over the next few months from this position.

Q10.   I want to thank our police forces, who I know will be working hard across the country this weekend to support the coronation events, but police numbers in the north-east are down 8% since 2010. I know that the Prime Minister is keen on his maths, so here is a sum: if Northumbria police has lost 1,000 police officers since 2010, but gained the funding to put back 615, by how much have the Conservatives short-changed the north-east? (904770)

As we saw last week, there is now a record number of police officers across the country thanks to the actions of this Government, and crime is 50% lower than it was when we took office. The hon. Lady talks about investing in the north-east. When we invested £20 million of the levelling-up fund in her constituency, she said it was “transformational”. She said it would play

“an important role in rejuvenating”

her local area. That is this Conservative Government delivering not just for the north- east, but for her constituents too.

I was pleased to welcome the Secretary of State for Transport to Newsham recently to see the progress on the Northumberland line. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this Conservative Government—this Conservative Government only—are committed to the development of that line, keeping levelling up on track?

My hon. Friend has been a fantastic champion for the restoration of the line. Indeed, it was one of the first deliveries from the restoring your railways fund. It will be fantastic for his local communities because that connectivity will provide jobs, opportunity and employment, particularly for young people in his local area. After years, if not decades, of neglect, it is this Conservative Government who are delivering for the people in his local area.

Q12. Over 3.6 million women born in the 1950s had their pension age increased without their knowledge. Many, like my constituent, unknowingly gave up work at 60, only to realise they had no income, they could not pay their bills and some have even lost their homes. My constituent asks the Prime Minster: will he commit to the fair and fast payment of any compensation that is recommended by the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman to 1950s women for the injustice they have suffered due to maladministration by the Department for Work and Pensions? (904773)

This issue has been long discussed in this place. Obviously, the hon. Lady knows that there is an ongoing process, which I cannot comment on, but rest assured that of course we will respond appropriately to any recommendations that come our way.

As asbestos awareness month comes to a close, I draw the attention of the Prime Minister to the dangers of asbestos in workplace buildings. Please will he back the “Don’t Let the Dust Settle” campaign from the Mesothelioma UK charity in my constituency by setting up a register of all workplaces in the country that contain asbestos and determine a timetable for the eradication of this terrible substance?

May I thank my hon. Friend for raising this important issue? The law does require duty holders to assess whether asbestos is present, what condition it is in and whether it gives rise to a risk of exposure, and they must draw up a plan to manage that risk, which must include removal if it cannot be safely managed where it is located, but I commend her for her continued campaigning on this important issue.

Q13. Nick swims regularly in the Thames at Shepperton, but after a recent dip, he found himself hospitalised with cellulitis for 13 days. His doctors think this was caused by polluted water. What caused that polluted water? Well, Thames Water dumped filthy sewage nearby just days earlier. Will the Prime Minister tell Nick and everybody else: why does he think that it is okay for water companies to keep polluting our rivers for another 25 years? (904774)

It was just last week that it was clear that only one party will protect the environment, and that is the Conservative party. That is why we have given the Environment Agency more powers of enforcement, that is why we are moving to unlimited fines, and that is why we have a clear plan to increase investment and increase monitoring of sewage overflows. It was the rank cynicism and hypocrisy of the Liberal Democrats that they could not even show up to support those plans.

Newton Abbot constituents face hosepipe bans after torrential spring storms, and they are asking me why water catchment plans have not prevented this. Reservoirs, desalination plants and other natural catchment structures require siting where geography and geology allow. Is there a national strategy and implementation plan to increase water catchment and enable cross-water company water transfer to match regional demand to supply?

Water companies publish water resources management plans, which show how they will continue to provide a secure supply of water for customers. I understand that they have been consulting on their latest drafts of those plans. In my hon. Friend’s area of Devon and Cornwall, where temporary use bans are in place, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the water regulators are working closely with South West Water to ensure that the company is taking all appropriate precautionary action to ensure that water supplies remain resilient this year.