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Volume 732: debated on Wednesday 17 May 2023

I have been asked to reply on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. He is currently travelling to Japan to attend the G7 summit.

I am sure that colleagues from across the House will join me in congratulating Liverpool on its wonderful staging of the Eurovision song contest on behalf of Ukraine.

This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others, and in addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.

The Royal Lancaster Infirmary is a 130-year-old crumbling hospital. It was meant to be one of the Government’s 40 new hospitals. However, the funding announcement has been delayed four times already. Can the Deputy Prime Minister reassure my constituents that this is not going to be another broken Tory promise?

I can absolutely assure the hon. Lady that we remain fully committed to those 40 hospitals from our manifesto. Indeed, we have already provided £3.9 billion-worth of initial capital.

Q2. I have a serious matter affecting every constituency to bring to my right hon. Friend’s attention. Amazon has been facilitating the sale of counterfeit postage stamps from China, which are virtually perfect except for the barcode. I have contacted the National Crime Agency and National Trading Standards, and I am afraid that I have received woeful responses. I have now sent my concerns to the Serious Fraud Office and the City of London police’s economic crime unit. Amazon is patently facilitating remittances of illegally gotten cash, and I believe this is in contravention of the Forgery and Counterfeiting Act 1981. Will he assist me in taking this further? (904970)

May I pay tribute to my hon. Friend? I know how hard he has been campaigning on this important issue. The Home Secretary will have heard his remarks. The Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill will put duties on those platforms. Ultimately, if fraud is being perpetrated, the police should take action.

It is a pleasure to welcome yet another Deputy Prime Minister to the Dispatch Box—the third deputy I have faced in three years. You know what they say: the third time’s a charm. I am also pleased to note that the Prime Minister has a working-class friend—finally.

I seem to remember that, after the loss of 300 Conservative seats at last year’s local elections, the right hon. Gentleman resigned, saying “someone must take responsibility”. After 1,000 more Conservative councillors have been given the boot by voters, who does he think is responsible now?

In the spirit of the right hon. Lady’s opening remarks, can I just say it really is a pleasure to see her here today? I was, though, expecting to face the Labour leader’s choice for the next Deputy Prime Minister if they win the election, so I am surprised that the Liberal Democrat leader is not taking questions today.

Mr Speaker, you will forgive me if I take the right hon. Lady’s predictions with a pinch of salt. After all, she confidently predicted that the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) would one day be Prime Minister. Remember, this is a man who wanted to abolish the Army, scrap Trident, withdraw from NATO and abandon Ukraine. What did she say to that? She could not wait for him to be Prime Minister.

It is absolutely amazing that while the Labour party is preparing to govern with a Labour majority, the right hon. Gentleman’s party is starting to prepare for Opposition. This week, at the National Conservative conference, the hon. Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger) blamed the country’s problems on a “new religion”. He even hit out at the “dystopian fantasy of John Lennon”. The hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) identified falling birthing rates as the “overarching threat” to the UK. She criticised “woke” teaching for “destroying…children’s souls”, causing self-harm and suicide among young people. And the right hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) really let the cat out of the bag when he said:

“Parties that try and gerrymander end up finding their clever schemes come back to bite them, as dare I say we found when insisting on voter ID”.

The Deputy Prime Minister, while working in No.10, said he had to listen to the radio every morning to find out what was really going on in the country. Apparently, he was “surprised” on a daily basis by what he learned and most of his time was spent on “day-to-day crisis management”. Eleven years on, nothing has changed.

I am not quite sure what the question was there. If the right hon. Lady wants to talk about that sort of thing, we all know what is going on with her and her leader. It is all lovey-dovey on the surface. They turn it on for the cameras, but as soon as they are off it is a different story—they are at each other’s throats. They are the Phil and Holly of British politics.

The reality is that after 13 years of Tory rule, they are still lurching from crisis to crisis and wallowing in their own mess. They cannot solve the crisis, because they are the crisis. The right hon. Member should take more note of what is happening at his conferences in his party before trying to make up what is happening in mine.

The Prime Minister pledged that by March NHS waiting lists would fall. It is now May. Can the Deputy Prime Minister tell us whether, since the Prime Minister made that pledge, the number of people on waiting lists is higher or lower?

We are making good progress, for example with two-year waiting lists, but the right hon. Lady seems to forget a crucial fact. The United Kingdom experienced an unprecedented pandemic. Right before covid, GP satisfaction was high, delayed discharges were halved and ambulance targets were being met. She knows that right now in Labour-run Wales exactly the same challenges are being faced. The difference between us is that on the Government side of the House we have a plan to fix it, while she is too busy playing petty politics.

Even before the pandemic waiting lists were going up, so it does not wash that this Government, after 13 years in power, are blaming everybody but themselves for what people are having to put up with. The right hon. Gentleman appears to be claiming that 11,000 patients waiting more than 18 months is an achievement. The last Labour Government reduced waiting times from 18 months to 18 weeks. He can come back to me when he has achieved that. The fact is that waiting lists are longer than when the Prime Minister made his pledge five months ago. The number of people in England waiting to start hospital treatment is the highest since records began—7.3 million patients left waiting.

I know the Prime Minister has his own private GP, so maybe he does not appreciate the urgency, but he has left people like my constituent Carol waiting over a year for an urgent appointment, moved from waiting list to waiting list, with appointments cancelled again and again. If not now, when will waiting lists—

Order. We will continue until I hear the end of this question. If I get any more interruptions, it will take longer.

They do not want to hear the question because they know the answer is that they have failed the British people. [Interruption.] When will waiting lists fall?

I gently say to the right hon. Lady, if she cares that much about access to our healthcare, why does she oppose our minimum service levels? They will provide emergency services with vital cover during healthcare strikes. Does she not think that vulnerable patients deserve that level of care, or is she too weak to stand up to her union paymasters?

We all want minimum service levels; it is this Government who have failed to provide them for all our trains and public services because they have run them down and mismanaged them for the last 13 years. It is not just waiting times; 13 years after the landmark Marmot review into child poverty, Sir Michael says that this Government are

“on track to make child poverty worse”,

with more than a quarter of our children living in poverty last year. When I was a young mum, I remember the sick feeling in my stomach not knowing if my wages would cover the bills, yet the right hon. Member’s Government have taken a wrecking ball to measures by the last Labour Government to eradicate child poverty, even abolishing the child poverty unit. They tried to justify that by saying that they no longer needed a child poverty unit because they have abolished the child poverty target. Can he tell us what level of poverty he considers a success?

I say to the right hon. Lady that this comprehensive school boy will not take any lectures from the Opposition party about the lives of working people.

We have introduced record increases in the national living wage—something that this party introduced and the Opposition party failed to. We have taken 1 million working-age people out of poverty altogether. That is the record of my party, and one of which I am very proud.

The last Labour Government made it their mission to reduce the number of children in poverty by a million. We achieved that. Under the Tories, child poverty is nearly back to the level it was at when Labour last inherited the Tory mess. After 13 years, the Tories are stuck in a conveyer belt of crises. While the right hon. Member’s party is preparing for Opposition with their Trump tribute act conference over the road, Labour has focused on fixing the real problems facing British people. They Tories have picked their side. They are for the vested interests, the oil companies and the bankers—for those who are profiting from the crisis, not those suffering from it. Whether it is failing the millions of people anxiously waiting for treatment or overseeing a rise in child poverty, while his colleagues spout nonsense at their carnival of conspiracy, I want to know, when will his party stop blaming everybody else and realise that the problem is them?

I will proudly defend our record in office: crime down 50%; near record levels of employment; and a record minimum wage. What is the Labour party’s record? Four general election defeats; 30 promises already broken; and one leader who let antisemitism run wild. That is why the British people will never trust the Labour party.

Q3. Will my right hon. Friend please send his condolences to the family of Hilton ward Councillor Gillian Lemmon, who at the young age of 52 tragically died part way through the election count on Friday? That means that the whole election for all three councillors has had to be voided, even though the returning officer was ready to declare three Conservative councillors for the Hilton ward. Following that dreadful experience, will my right hon. Friend confirm that the best way to thank Councillor Gillian Lemmon for her service is for the good people of Hilton ward in South Derbyshire to vote again three times for the three Conservative candidates on Thursday 15 June? (904971)

May I extend my deepest sympathies on behalf of the Government Benches and the Conservative party to Councillor Gillian Lemmon’s family? We all know how incredibly hard local councillors work and she was a strong representative of South Derbyshire. Like my hon. Friend, I hope that the people of Hilton ward will reflect on this by voting for Conservative candidates at the forthcoming election.

In 2016, the Deputy Prime Minister told his constituents in a blog that it was his duty to furnish them

“with all the facts that are available”

with regards to Brexit. Today, Brexit Britain faces higher food prices, a lack of workers, a shrinking economy and a decline in living standards. Why is he happy to ignore those facts?

We have one of the fastest growth rates in the whole of the G7. In fairness, we all know the policy of the SNP: this weekend, an SNP spokesperson said that we need “to undo Brexit”. If I were them, I would start by undoing the mess they have left Scotland in and start working with the United Kingdom Government, and focus on the priorities of the Scottish people, not the priorities of their party.

The only thing more deluded than that defence of Brexit is the Labour party’s supporting of it. Just today, the world’s fourth largest car manufacturer said that Brexit was a

“threat to our export business and the sustainability of our UK manufacturing operations”.

Even Nigel Farage can admit that Brexit has failed, so why can’t the Deputy Prime Minister?

One of the best ways to get behind industry in this country is to get behind the trade deals that we are striking with many countries around the world, which the SNP has singularly failed to oppose. I see that last week the SNP promised to build a new Scotland. I do not know if the hon. Lady is aware, but the SNP has been in power for 13 years, so perhaps it should stop its focus on independence and focus on the priorities of the Scottish people.

My constituency has a problem with Travellers pitching on private land and common land and causing a nuisance, currently on Parkgate Industrial Estate in Knutsford. Either the police do not have sufficient powers to deal with this issue, or they do have sufficient powers but they are not using them. Will the Deputy Prime Minister get the Government to speak with Cheshire police to ensure that they have the powers to deal with this blight on our local community and that they use them?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the misery caused by unauthorised encampments. I have seen this in my own constituency as well. I understand that Home Office officials regularly liaise with the National Police Chiefs’ Council on this, but my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will have heard my right hon. Friend’s representations and I trust she will act on those.

The Deputy Prime Minister will be aware of the ongoing concerns of Unionists in Northern Ireland about our ability to trade freely within the United Kingdom and its internal market, given the continued application of EU law on the manufacture of all goods in Northern Ireland. We now have proposals for a future border operating model that could potentially create further barriers to trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Will the Deputy Prime Minister give me an assurance that the Government will in law protect Northern Ireland’s ability to trade freely within and with the rest of the United Kingdom?

We have already shown a willingness to legislate to protect Northern Ireland’s place within the Union, and we are committed to providing exactly the protections to which the right hon. Gentleman has referred in respect of its unfettered access to the whole United Kingdom market. I can give those assurances, and of course we stand ready to work with the right hon. Gentleman and representatives across Unionism to reflect the further steps that are required to strengthen our precious Union.

Q10.   Throughout the early hours of Saturday morning I was out with Kathy, Peter, Jo and Tim, who volunteer as Guildford Street Angels. I pay tribute to them, and to all the volunteers who are out every weekend and in all weathers. However, it is an absolute disgrace that the Liberal Democrat-run council has shut the public loos. At night there are no single-sex spaces for our young women, and they are seeking out dark, secluded areas when they are caught short, which is dangerous because they are at increased risk of sexual assault. Will my right hon. Friend join me in calling for the immediate reopening of the town centre loos in Guildford? (904979)

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that important issue. I am afraid that, sadly, this is what one might expect from a Liberal Democrat-run council. I join my hon. Friend in thanking the Guildford Street Angels for all their efforts, and I am sure that they, and she, will continue to make those views known to Guildford Borough Council.

Q4. Many of my constituents are struggling to pay the bills and put food on the table. Food prices have risen by more than 19% in the last year, while the cheapest infant formula is up by 45%, gas prices are up by 129%, and electricity prices are up by 67%. Many people report borrowing more money than they did this time last year. Car manufacturers are threatening to move production, the Office for Budget Responsibility says that £100 billion has been lost from the economy forever, and wages are falling further and further behind basic living expenses. Does the Deputy Prime Minister really still believe that his Government’s kamikaze Brexit is delivering for the people of these isles? (904972)

I certainly do believe that. Let me say to those on the SNP Benches that it is only because of the strength of our United Kingdom that we are able to afford interventions to deal with, for instance, the cost of living, providing more than £3,300 for every single family in our United Kingdom which was paid for by a 75% windfall tax on oil and gas companies. That is a United Kingdom delivering on the cost of living.

Q12.   In 2016 we secured more than £300 million for the modernisation of accident and emergency services in Shropshire, but six years on, the money has still not been spent and construction has not started. The fact that this decision has not been taken leads me to feel real concern about the quality of managers in our local NHS trust. What can my right hon. Friend do to help us in Shropshire to ensure that, finally, this £312 million is spent and A&E services are modernised? There is nothing more important than the safety of constituents who go into A&E units. (904981)

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for raising this issue. I know that his constituents are anxious for the building work to get under way as soon as possible, but I also know that the Department of Health and Social Care is working closely with NHS England and the trust to support the development of the scheme. The trust is due to submit plans to the Department in the coming months, and the Department will work apace to review those plans.

Q5.   Leaseholders in Battersea are trapped in an outdated and unfair leasehold system. The Secretary of State has said that the Government will “absolutely” maintain a commitment to abolish the leasehold system and will “bring forward legislation shortly”, but we now know this is no longer the case. Why have the Government done yet another U-turn and broken yet another promise to leaseholders by scrapping their plans to end the outdated leasehold system? (904973)

I assure the hon. Lady and the House that the Government are committed to reforming the leasehold system to give homeowners more control and cheaper access to leasehold renewal, including a 990-year extension with zero ground rent. We will set out plans for further reforms later in the Parliament.

Q14. What would be a reason for extending the general election franchise to settled EU citizens, a population of voters equal to the number in Wales? (904983)

I think that my right hon. Friend is referring to the plans from the Labour party. It is quite interesting that this week, while we are pushing ahead with legislation to break the smuggling gangs, Labour’s big idea is to give foreign nationals a say in our elections. So there we have it. While the Conservatives will stop the boats, Labour will rig the votes.

Q7. I was concerned to read last week that the Prime Minister had to be airlifted to a pharmacy in Southampton after suffering electoral dysfunction. Several weeks earlier he flew all the way from Lancashire to Yorkshire by private jet. Meanwhile, angry rail commuters face the reality of cancellations and longer journey times and are unable to get to work on time as operators shed services. The public think that the Prime Minister has his head in the clouds. They are right, aren’t they? (904975)

It is quite extraordinary to take lectures from the Labour party about the railways when the head of the train drivers’ union sits on its national executive committee and was described by the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) as “one of us”. No wonder Labour will not stand up to the militant rail unions; it literally lets them drive its policies.

Incredible regeneration work is taking place on Teesside, led by our Mayor, Ben Houchen. Sadly, we have seen a shameful attempt, led by the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald), to whom I have given advance notice of this question, to smear the amazing Teesworks project. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that it was always an integral part of the business case that the private sector should co-invest alongside Government and that the Teesworks arrangements have been checked and approved by the Government? Will he reconfirm his full support for the Teesworks project, reassure investors and join me in calling for the Labour party to apologise for talking down Teesside?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely correct to raise this issue. This is the UK’s first freeport and it continues to attract billions of pounds of private sector investment, creating jobs and supporting the local economy. I think the whole House will see through the inexcusable attempts by the Labour party to talk down those successes on Teesside, where local leaders are working tirelessly to improve that region for the first time in a generation.

Q8. In 2011, the first year that the Tories came into government, 61,000 people received emergency food parcels from food banks. In 2022-23, that figure had gone up to nearly 3 million—1 million of them children. It has gone up every year that the Conservatives have been in power, bar one. Is that a record that the Deputy Prime Minister proudly defends? (904976)

I am very proud of the fact that this Government have given record numbers of people the opportunity to have jobs and employment, which is the surest route out of poverty. I believe that up to 3.6 million new jobs have been created under this Government.

It is truly excellent news to see England rising up the international league tables for reading to become the highest performing country in the western world. That is testament to the hard work of our teachers and the dedication of the Minister for Schools, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Nick Gibb), to following evidence-based policy, but this progress will only be sustained if children are in school regularly and able to learn. Can I strongly commend to the Deputy Prime Minister and the Government the ten-minute rule Bill presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond)? It has cross-party support and delivers on key recommendations of the Education Committee and the Children’s Commissioner. The Government should adopt it as soon as possible.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight those brilliant figures, which show that we have now jumped to fourth best in the world for reading. I certainly see this in schools; it is much more demanding than it was in my day, and that is a tribute to the ministerial team who have done a fabulous job. I will of course examine the details of the ten-minute rule Bill to which he refers.

Q9. It is an open secret that many in the Conservative party would wish to roll back the democratic gains of devolution, either in part or completely. The noble Lord Frost, a former Minister and the architect of the disastrous Brexit agreement—I believe he is now seeking a safe Tory seat in this Chamber—recently let the cat out of the bag when he said that the Government should“review and roll back some currently devolved powers.”Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree with him? (904977)

The only thing that will destroy devolution is a vote for independence in Scotland, as advocated by those on the SNP Benches.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on a brilliant first performance at Prime Minister’s questions. Will he keep the Government laser-focused on the issues that matter to people, such as the cost of living and the NHS, and on the issues of the future, such as artificial intelligence, which needs regulatory attention? And will he ignore the reactionary voices, no matter where they come from?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight this. I am incredibly optimistic about the future of this country in industries across the piece, including digital and, indeed, film and television in my constituency. We are genuinely world leading, creating the high-quality jobs that we want for our children and grandchildren.

Q11.   Half the children in Newcastle upon Tyne Central are growing up in poverty. Over the last five years, the delivery of food parcels to north-east children has risen by 250%. The number of north-east children who are homeless rose by 50% last year, and on average their parents’ wages have fallen by £1,000. If any of this affects a child’s mental health, they face a five-month wait for treatment. Why are his Government making it so hard for our kids? (904980)

I really think this House needs a correction on the facts, given what we have heard from the Labour party. Because of our national living wage, which is defined as being at least two thirds of the median income, poverty is at its lowest point for years. We have lifted 1.7 million people out of absolute poverty altogether. That is the track record of this Government.

The people of Longport and Burslem, as well as the people of Porthill in the neighbouring constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell), are suffering because of cowboy waste disposal companies such as Staffordshire Waste, which has again been done for having waste on site after being given a notice by the Environment Agency. What support can I get to hold these people to account and to make sure their retrospective planning application for a site they are already using is rejected by Stoke-on-Trent City Council?

My hon. Friend is right to raise this issue. Such people are often associated with fly-tipping, which is a blight on our landscape. I will ensure that I raise all the issues he has raised with me with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, who has ministerial responsibility.

Q13. Crisis mental health services are in crisis, and patients and families are being gaslit and put at risk. This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, but there is no Government awareness to ensure that my constituents are safe, and that funding and workforce needs are met. Why are the right hon. Gentleman’s Government sitting on their hands? A devastating report is sitting on the Health Secretary’s desk while patients in York and across the NHS are being failed. Can the trust and I have an urgent meeting? (904982)

I am sure that a ministerial colleague in the Department of Health and Social Care will be happy to have that meeting. I would just say that this Government have put more money into mental health services, and we are funding 150 wider capital schemes. This Government have made mental health services a priority.

This week is Wales Tourism Week, an opportunity to celebrate one of Wales’s most important sectors, which represents 10% of all jobs, supports Welsh farmers and food producers, and generates £6 billion of economic activity each year. Will the Deputy Prime Minister join me in thanking all those who work in the Welsh tourism sector? Does he agree that the UK Government’s Employment (Allocation of Tips) Act 2023 demonstrates their commitment to supporting the tourism sector, unlike Labour’s proposed tourism tax in Cardiff, which will undermine visits and jobs?

Of course, I am most happy to give my hon. Friend that commitment. I have spent many happy family holidays in Wales and plan to do so again next year.