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Volume 733: debated on Wednesday 24 May 2023

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

Does the Prime Minister agree with his friend the Tees Valley Mayor that the National Audit Office must investigate the Teesworks affair? Will the Prime Minister share details of all conversations he has had on the subject with his former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the right hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Mr Clarke), and the current Levelling Up Minister, given that they have all received donations from Ian Waller, one of the project backers?

My right hon. Friend the Levelling Up Secretary has already announced an investigation into this matter. This is just the same old, same old—[Interruption.] It is the same old bunk from Labour. That is all we get. After years of neglect, it is the Conservatives who are delivering for Teesside.

Q2. Every- one here has NHS trusts in their constituencies that are grappling with backlogs, so can I highlight the commitment and hard work of the Gloucestershire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust in bringing down the waiting lists over 18 months ahead of the Government deadline and vastly reducing the over-65s waiting list? Does my right hon. Friend agree that those who imagine that the Opposition have a magic wand up their sleeve to solve these problems need look no further than the woes of the Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board in north Wales, which has been under Labour political control for a generation? (905143)

As my hon. Friend says, Gloucestershire in particular has seen a significant reduction in A&E waiting times since December. We recognise that there is more to be done, and that is why we are delivering on our plan to recover urgent and emergency care to ensure that people get the care they need, easier, faster and closer to home.

The new statistics, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows, will be out later this week. The most recent statistics we have, as the Office for National Statistics said at the time, contained a set of unique circumstances including welcoming many people here for humanitarian reasons.

The figures are out. A quarter of a million work visas were issued last year. The right hon. Gentleman knows that answer; he just does not want to give it. The new numbers tomorrow are expected to be even higher. The Prime Minister has stood on three Tory manifestos, and each one promised to reduce immigration. Each promise broken—[Interruption.] Conservative Members all stood on those manifestos as well. Why does he think his Home Secretary—[Interruption.]

Order. I am going to hear this question. For those who do not want to hear it, we know the answer to that.

Conservative Members all stood on those manifestos, so why does the Prime Minister think his Home Secretary seems to have such a problem coping with points-based systems?

Just this week we announced the biggest ever single measure to tackle legal migration, removing the right for international students to bring dependants, toughening the rules on post-study work and reviewing maintenance requirements. But what is the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s contribution? There are absolutely no ideas. There are absolutely no ideas, and absolutely no semblance that there would be any control. Why? Because he believes in an open-door migration policy.

If anyone wants to see what uncontrolled immigration looks like, all they have to do is wake up tomorrow morning, listen to the headlines and see what this Government—[Interruption.]

Order. Mr Bristow, I think you are going to be leaving. I am asking you to leave now; otherwise, I will name you. I am not having it, and I have warned you before. It is the same people—[Interruption.] And the same will happen on the other side of the House.

The reason they are issuing so many visas is because of labour and skills shortages, and the reason for the shortages is the low-wage Tory economy. Under the Prime Minister’s Government’s rules, businesses in IT, engineering, healthcare, architecture and welding can pay foreign workers 20% less than British workers for years and years on end. Does he think his policy is encouraging businesses to train people here or hire from abroad?

The Leader of the Opposition talks about immigration, but we know his position, because it turns out that Labour would like to see even more people coming to the UK—increasing the numbers. That is not just my view; his own Front Bencher, the hon. Member for Oxford East (Anneliese Dodds), says having a target is “not sensible,” and that the numbers might have to go up. It is clear: while we are getting on with clamping down on illegal migration, listening to the British public, the Leader of the Opposition is perfectly comfortable saying that he wants to bring back free movement.

They have lost control of the economy, they have lost control of public services and now they have lost control of immigration. If the Prime Minister was serious about weaning his Government off the immigration lever, he would get serious about wages in Britain and get serious about skills and training. The apprenticeship levy is not working. It is hard to find a single business that thinks it is, and the proof is that almost half the levy is not being spent, which means fewer young people getting the opportunities they need to fulfil their potential. Businesses are crying out for more flexibility in the levy, so they can train up their staff. Labour would give them that, why won’t he?

It is right that we are talking about education and skills. What the Leader of the Opposition fails to mention is that, in the past week, we have discovered that, thanks to the reforms of this Conservative Government, our young people are now the best readers in the western world—reforms that were opposed by Labour. He also talks about our record on the economy, and I am very surprised, because I have stood here, week after week, when he has been so keen to quote the International Monetary Fund. He seems to have missed its press conference yesterday, at which it raised our growth forecast by one of the highest amounts ever, saying that we had acted decisively to make sure the economy is growing, and crediting this Government with having a very positive effect on future growth.

Is the Prime Minister seriously suggesting that breaking the economy, breaking public services and losing control of immigration is some sort of carefully crafted plan? His policies are holding working people back, and all he offers is more of the same. But fear not, because speeding into the void left by the Prime Minister comes the Home Secretary, and not with a plan for skills, growth or wages. No, her big idea is for British workers to become fruit pickers, just in case—I can hardly believe she said this—they

“forget how to do things”.

Does the Prime Minister support this “Let them pick fruit” ambition for Britain, or does he wish he had the strength to give her a career change of her own?

The Leader of the Opposition talks about public services and the economy. Again, he has failed to notice what is going on. The IMF, which he was very keen to quote just a few months ago, is now forecasting that we will have stronger growth than Germany, France and Italy. What does the IMF say? It says that we are prioritising what is right for the British people. He talks about public service, and as I said, we have the best reading results in the western world. When it comes to the NHS, what did we discover just last week? The fastest ambulance response times in two years. That is a Conservative Government delivering for the British people.

The Home Secretary may need a speed awareness course, but the Prime Minister needs a reality check. This mess on immigration reveals a Tory party with no ambition for working people and no ambition for Britain, just the same old failed ideas, low wages and high tax. Labour would fix the apprenticeship levy, fill the skills gap and stop businesses recruiting from abroad if they do not pay properly. That is because we are the party of working people. What does it say about him and his party that they will not do the same?

I think the right hon. and learned Gentleman has said this six times, but I do not think we actually know how he is going to do any of these things. That is the difference between us: every week, we hear a lot of empty rhetoric from him, but in the past week we can measure ourselves by actions. What have the Government done? We have introduced new powers to curb disruptive protest; we have protected public services against disruptive strike action; and we have new laws to stop the boats. What has he done? He has voted against every single one of those. That is the difference between us: while he is working on the politics, we are working for the British people.

Q3. We have all witnessed how Putin is carrying out his savage war against Ukraine. He commenced it, he is the aggressor and he cannot be allowed to win. That war is now at a pivotal point, so will the Prime Minister use his friendship with President Zelensky to ensure that whatever military equipment Ukraine needs, it will get, be it missiles, drones or jets? (905144)

It was an honour to welcome my friend President Zelensky to the UK last week. Everyone will be collectively proud of the UK’s leading role at the forefront of supporting Ukraine: we were the first country to provide support for Ukrainian troops; the first country in Europe to provide lethal weapons; the first to commit main battle tanks; and, most recently, the first to provide long-range weapons. My hon. Friend will have seen the powerful scenes coming out of the G7 summit in Hiroshima last week, and I have always been clear that we will stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes.

We learned today that the price of milk, cheese and eggs is up by 29%, the price of pasta is up by 27% and the price of a loaf of bread is up by 18%. Does the Prime Minister agree that this is no longer just a cost of living crisis—this is a cost of greed crisis?

It was welcome that inflation has fallen today, but, as the Chancellor said, we should not be complacent because there is more work to do. The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the impact of food inflation, which is too high, in common with levels we have seen in other European countries, such as Sweden and Germany. We are providing significant support to help people with the cost of living, and the Chancellor has met companies in the supermarket and food supply chain to make sure that they are doing everything they can to bring prices down.

Let’s get real, because food inflation remains at a near 45-year high. Yesterday, the Treasury indicated that the Chancellor “stands ready” to act, but his actions seems to be predicated on the outcome of a review by the Competition and Markets Authority. So will the Prime Minister enlighten us: when does he expect that review to conclude? Working families cannot afford to wait much longer.

The hon. Gentleman will know that the CMA is independent of Government, but the Chancellor did meet it recently to discuss the situation in the grocery industry. It will be for the CMA to make decisions on that, but we are doing everything we can to help consumers manage the challenges on the cost of living. If the SNP wanted to do its bit, perhaps it could reconsider its deposit return scheme, as it is very clear what people have said. As they have said, it will reduce choice and increase prices for consumers.

Q5. The primary care access plan, published this month, is a welcome and substantive one, and my constituents want to see rapid delivery of it. So how quickly will the Government start providing the £645 million to pharmacists and how quickly will the SAS—specialty and specialist—doctors come to GP surgeries to make prompt access to primary care a reality for my constituents? (905146)

I thank my hon. Friend for his contributions to our primary care plan. He and I know that pharmacies already work to help many people with their health needs, and to help deliver on our priority to cut NHS waiting lists they will be put at the front and centre of our primary care recovery, with £645 million of additional funding. That will be released later this year, as pharmacies start to provide more oral contraception and more blood pressure checks. Crucially, for seven common ailments, such as ear infections and throat infections, pharmacists will now be able to provide people with the medicines they need.

One quarter of the population of Northern Ireland is on a health waiting list, our workers are on strike for fair pay, and our public finances are in a mess. Will the Prime Minister give a commitment that the Treasury will begin work immediately on a public sector rescue package so we can transform the health service and ensure that our public sector workers are given a decent wage—and will he join the people of Northern Ireland in telling the DUP to get back to work now?

As I have been clear, I firmly believe that Northern Ireland is governed best when governed locally. I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Gentleman that the major challenges he raises can only be properly addressed by the restoration of the institutions, but I also understand the immediate and pressing concerns he raises. That is why we have prioritised health in the Northern Ireland budget for this year, with £20 million more funding. I know that he will be an important contributor to the conversations that the Secretary of State is having, to embark on public service reform and restore the Executive.

Q6. Two weeks ago, I raised with the Prime Minister the issue of artificial intelligence. Just since then, we have had announcements from firms such as BT that tens of thousands of jobs are likely to be lost to this new technology, but many will be created, too. Does he agree that we need to map the jobs and the regions that will be most affected by AI so that we can target the skills to best prepare Britons for the jobs of the future? (905147)

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Like him, I believe that AI has the potential to transform our economy and society, but of course it has to be introduced safely and securely. We are investing more in AI skills, not only in top-tier talent but in enabling those from non-science, technology, engineering and maths backgrounds to access the opportunities of AI. I look forward to more recommendations from him for how we can strengthen our investment in skills to make sure that everyone can realise the benefits that AI may bring.

Q4.   While the Prime Minister upgrades his local energy grid to heat his 40-foot swimming pool and hands oil and gas companies—the likes of BP and Shell—£11.4 billion in tax breaks, he scraps the energy price guarantee scheme, plunging record numbers of people into poverty. Is it just a coincidence that those same energy giants funded the Prime Minister’s leadership campaign, or is he simply out of touch? (905145)

What we are doing is taxing the windfall profits of energy companies and using that money to help pay around half of a typical household’s energy bill. That support is worth £1,500—it was extended in the Budget by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor—and we all look forward to energy bills coming down, which hopefully will happen very soon.

Q8.   The Prime Minister will recall the commitment he gave back in January to the building a brighter future plan for major investment at Torbay Hospital. Does that commitment remain unchanged? (905149)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his continued campaign to improve Torbay Hospital. I am delighted to reconfirm the Government’s commitment to major new facilities there as part of our new hospitals programme, and I look forward to further work progressing in the months ahead.

Q7. Under the Conservatives, so much of the UK’s potential is going untapped, with anaemic growth, falling living standards and declining international competitiveness. Just this morning, a solar power company developing an innovation from Oxford University said that the UK is the “least attractive” market in which to base its business due to a lack of incentives. That is a home-grown company that could have provided well-paid green jobs—lost to this country thanks to the Government’s lack of an industrial strategy. Why does the Prime Minister think that each week more and more promising businesses choose to leave the UK? (905148)

The hon. Lady obviously missed the comments by the International Monetary Fund yesterday upgrading our growth performance, she obviously missed the survey of thousands of global chief executives just recently placing the UK as their No. 1 European investment destination, and it sounds like she also missed my trip to Japan last week, when we announced £18 billion of new investment in the UK economy.

Q12. Liberal Democrat-run South Cambridgeshire District Council is the first in the country to put its staff on a four-day week without any reduction in pay, which has led to a reduction in services and an increase in costs. Yet last week the Liberal Democrats decided to extend the trial to a year. Why? Because the staff were happier. Now unions are pushing to spread the four-day working week across the public sector, something that the TaxPayers’ Alliance estimates will cost £30 billion. Does my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister agree that the public sector is here to serve the public and that the Liberal Democrats are not working? (905153)

Public servants should rightly focus on delivering for the public and taxpayers. It is disappointing to hear from my hon. Friend that his local Liberal Democrat council is not doing that—instead reducing, as I have heard, staff contact hours and costing residents more. I urge the council to reconsider its decision, because his residents and constituents under South Cambridgeshire District Council clearly deserve better.

Q9. In Lewisham we are gearing up to mark the 75th anniversary of HMT Empire Windrush arriving in the UK. Our deputy mayor Brenda Dacres is co-ordinating our local events and is herself a daughter of Windrush generation parents. Sadly, at the same time, she is organising advice surgeries for families who have been denied their rights and are still waiting for support from the Windrush compensation scheme, four years after it opened. With that landmark anniversary coming next month, will the Prime Minister commit to ensuring that everyone finally gets the compensation they deserve? (905150)

I pay tribute to the hon. Lady’s constituents for all the work they are doing locally. The Home Office and the Government are delivering on the vast majority of the recommendations from Wendy Williams’s report into the situation. We have already paid out or offered more than £70 million in compensation, I believe, and there are hundreds of engagement events happening to ensure that people are aware of what they are able to access. We will continue that engagement, as we promised.

Q13. Bassetlaw has benefited from the multi-billion-pound spherical tokamak for energy production fusion project and £20 million in levelling-up money for Worksop town centre, and it will now be among the 20 areas selected as part of a new £400 million levelling-up partnership. However, my constituents in Retford feel neglected by the Labour district council, which is yet to apply for any funds for the town and is more concerned with trying to play the two towns off against each other. Can the Prime Minister confirm that there is no reason whatsoever why Retford cannot benefit from that latest investment, and will he accept an invitation to visit Bassetlaw to see the great impact that Government investment is already having in the area? (905155)

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind invitation to visit and I shall certainly ask my office to keep it in mind. As he says, levelling-up partnerships are a commitment to work hand in hand with 20 different places in England most in need of levelling up, to make sure that they can realise their potential and ambitions. They are backed by £400 million-worth of investment so that they can be supported to thrive. I know my right hon. Friend the Levelling Up Secretary is looking forward to working with colleagues in Bassetlaw to identify the best place to focus their work—which could, of course, include Retford.

Q10. In 2016, the Prime Minister told people to vote for Brexit because it would stop “unelected officials in Brussels” having more of a say than his constituents. In 2023, he is asking his MPs to block amendment 42 to the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill and give unelected officials in Downing Street more say over laws than this Chamber. Given the worries and the warnings from his colleagues, why is he going to let “the blob” have more say over things such as holiday entitlements than the people who were elected to do that? (905151)

That is just simply not the case. It is the elected Government who will be making decisions about what the right regulations are for our country, and it is absolutely right that as a result of Brexit we can now do that. That is why we are repealing and reforming more than 2,000 pieces of retained EU law, making sure that our statute book reflects the type of rules and regulations that are right for the British economy and will deliver growth and cut costs for consumers. That is what our reforms do.

Q14.   A key issue that has haunted Keighley for many decades is child sexual exploitation and grooming gangs. I want to see a full Rotherham-style review of child exploitation across my area, but Bradford Council’s leader and our West Yorkshire Mayor both refuse to back one, because political correctness is getting in the way, simply sweeping the issue under the carpet. Will the Prime Minister, for the sake of victims, work with me to ensure that our local leaders do the morally right thing and instigate a full Rotherham-style inquiry across the Bradford district? (905156)

May I thank my hon. Friend for campaigning on this? As I have said before, we should not let political correctness stand in the way of keeping vulnerable girls safe or of holding people to account. As he knows, it is for authorities in the local area to commission local inquiries, and I have no doubt that he will continue to encourage them to do so. For the Government’s part, we have commissioned the relevant inspectorate to examine current policing practice in response to group-based sexual exploitation of children, and the Home Office will not hesitate to act on its recommendations when they are published this summer.

Q11.   Before I was elected, I worked for a number of years in learning and development in both the police and the private sector. I am sure we can all agree that training is absolutely vital for encouraging innovation and creativity, as well as for compliance. Given that that seems to be a particular issue for the Prime Minister’s Cabinet, will he support my Ministerial Conduct (Training) Bill, which I will present later today? (905152)

As the hon. Lady knows, there are processes and procedures in place for ensuring professional standards across Government. With regards to training, I am pleased that we are rolling out the lifelong learning entitlement to ensure that people can, at any stage in their career, get access to years of Government-subsidised financing. That will ensure that we have a workforce who are fit for the future, and that everyone can realise the opportunities that are there.

Owen Carey died just across the river from here, underneath the London Eye, after suffering a severe allergic reaction while out celebrating his 18th birthday. He had simply eaten a chicken burger at a restaurant. Unbeknown to him, and despite his asking, it had been marinated in buttermilk. Owen’s sister, Emma, who is my constituent, was in Parliament last week with her dad and brother for a debate on food labelling and support for those with allergies. They are fighting for Owen’s law, which is, among other things, a campaign to change the food information regulations on allergy labelling in restaurants. It has attracted huge support. Will the Prime Minister meet me and Owen’s family to see how we can ensure that something positive comes of that tragic loss of a young life?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising Owen’s case, and I know that the whole House will join me in expressing our condolences to Emma and all of Owen’s family for what happened. I will absolutely ensure that my hon. Friend gets a meeting with the relevant Minister to discuss appropriate food labelling so that we can ensure that such things do not happen.

Will the Prime Minister instruct his officials to publish the list of 1,700 veterinary medicines that will no longer be made available to Northern Ireland vets and the agrifood sector after the grace period has ended? Will he explain to the Ulster Farmers Union why that list has not been given to them? Will he meet me and the Ulster Farmers Union, go through that list, and show us how that has removed the border in the Irish sea?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, when we concluded the Windsor framework, we made sure that there was an extension in the grace period for veterinary medicines to give us the time to find a long-run solution to that particular issue. He should take heart, because on human medicines, which I know are important to him and everyone else in Northern Ireland, we achieved complete and full dual regulation of medicines, as well as a dialogue with the EU to resolve the issues in veterinary medicines. I know that he will want to ensure that we engage closely with him and the UFU, which we have been doing, to find a resolution in the time we have. I know that he will also join me in being very happy that we have protected access to human medicines in Northern Ireland, which was a priority for him and his party.

I really look forward to welcoming the Prime Minister to Portman Road for Ipswich Town against Southampton next season. Of course, in addition to Ipswich Town, Ipswich Wanderers have also been promoted, which is great news for the town.

Yesterday, despite the Public Order Act 2023, we saw images of Metropolitan police standing around doing nothing while eco-protesters were wreaking havoc in our capital. Does the Prime Minister agree that the moment those activists stand on the road, they should be immediately turfed off the road, as they would be in many other countries?

On my hon. Friend’s first observation, all I can say is “Ouch!” But thank you: I look forward to the game.

On the second, more substantive matter, this Government have passed the serious disruption order, which will ensure that the police have the powers they need to tackle slow-moving protests. It is a power that the police specifically asked the Government for. We have delivered it and put it in legislation, and my hon. Friend knows what I know, which is that the Labour party tried to block that from happening.

We have 4 million children living in poverty in this country, yet we are the fifth richest economy in the world, so why does the Prime Minister not support universal free school meals for all children, to help end child poverty?

The numbers are actually as follows. Since 2010, there are 1.7 million fewer people living in poverty as a result of the actions of this Government, and that includes hundreds of thousands fewer children living in poverty. Most importantly, like the hon. Lady, I want to ensure that children do not grow up in poverty, and we know that the best way to do that is to ensure that they do not grow up in a workless household. That is why we have reduced the number of children growing up in a workless household by several thousand, and that is the most powerful thing we can do in the long run to give those children the best possible start in life.

Nancy Spencer from Darlington has raised over £35,000 for St Teresa’s Hospice in the last 25 years. Nancy’s next adventure was to do a sky dive, but her doctor refused to sign it off because she has had a pacemaker fitted. However, undeterred, my 80-year-old constituent managed to secure sign-off for a wing walk. Will my right hon. Friend join me in wishing Nancy well as she takes to the skies this Saturday?

May I join my hon. Friend in thanking Nancy for all her fantastic fundraising work, and of course I wish her the best of luck for Saturday? I wonder if my hon. Friend will be joining her. Many of my own constituents have used St Teresa’s Hospice over the years, so I know what fabulous work it does. More generally, the hospice sector supports more than 300,000 people with life-limiting conditions in the UK every year. I pay tribute to all the staff and volunteers working in palliative and end-of-life care for the incredible work that they do.

Does the Prime Minister agree that it is completely inappropriate for schools to encourage young people under the age of 18 to socially transition, for example by changing their names and pronouns? All this is going on without parental consent or even knowledge, in breach of parents’ human rights. Will the Prime Minister instruct the Department for Education to order schools to stop indoctrinating our children and to concentrate on their duty of care to protect them?

I have been very clear that when it comes to matters of sex and education, and of personal, social, health and economic education, it is absolutely right that schools are sensitive in how they teach those matters and that they should be done in an age-appropriate fashion. The Department for Education is currently reviewing the statutory guidance and curriculum that go to schools, so that we can tackle this particular issue. Cases have been raised with the Government and others, and I do not think that that is acceptable. We must protect our children, and that is what our new guidance will do.

Last year the independent members of the Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board in north Wales became so concerned about the board’s finances that they arranged for Ernst and Young to produce a forensic accountancy report, which revealed serious misconduct on the part of several senior board executives, including a conspiracy to falsify accounts. Astonishingly, the response of the Labour Welsh Minister to the scandal was to demand the resignation of those independent board members, while almost all the senior executives in question have been allowed to remain in post, many of them drawing six-figure salaries. Does the Prime Minister agree that this disgraceful state of affairs should be investigated by the police, and does he further agree that it demonstrates why Labour is unfit to run important public services in any part of our country?

As my right hon. Friend knows, I am deeply worried about the Betsi Cadwaladr hospital trust in Labour-run north Wales. It has been in special measures for six of the last eight years and, as he remarked, the official audit said that there was worrying dysfunctionality. I hope that this issue is investigated properly, and I believe that my right hon. Friend is in contact with the Secretary of State for Wales to take it further.

Working people are barred from receiving legal aid if they earn £12,750 a year, so why is the Prime Minister forcing the British public to foot the bill—which I think is currently £250,000-plus—for the inquiry into the alleged lying of the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson)? Why can the Prime Minister not stand up for the British people? Is it because he is too weak?

It is actually a long-established process across multiple Administrations that former Ministers are supported with legal representation after they have left office to deal with matters that relate to their time in office. That has been the practice for many years, as I say, across multiple political Administrations, both Labour and Conservative.

I welcome the Government’s ongoing engagement to ensure that mental health is treated equally with physical health. In my constituency, Watford General Hospital recently received about £350,000 for improvements to mental health facilities, which will help massively. Given the importance of the issue, will the Prime Minister join me in encouraging colleagues from across the House to attend an event I will be hosting for the Baton of Hope on the Terrace Pavilion after Prime Minister’s questions today, to raise awareness around mental health and suicide prevention?

My hon. Friend is a fantastic campaigner on mental health, and I am pleased to learn about all the work he is doing with the Baton of Hope. I am also pleased that we are putting more Government money into mental health services and taking more action on this issue than any previous Government, investing an extra £2.3 billion a year. I encourage all colleagues to join my hon. Friend in attending the reception on the Terrace Pavilion.