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Prime Minister

Volume 733: debated on Wednesday 7 June 2023

The Prime Minister was asked—


I have been asked to reply. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is in Washington at the invitation of President Biden. They will be discussing co-operation on a range of issues, including artificial intelligence and global trade, and of course continuing our leadership in galvanising international support for the people of Ukraine. This week is Carers Week, and I know colleagues across the House will wish to join me in paying tribute to the huge contribution that unpaid carers make to our society. 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 the election, the Labour party committed to abolishing standard assessment tests, academy schools and Ofsted—three policies given to it by an education union that also opposed this Government’s use of phonics. Yet, thanks to this Government’s focus on phonics, English primary school children have just been ranked the best readers in Europe. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is another example of how, on the Conservative side, we have policy to meet the needs of children, rather than the demands of trade unionists?

It will not surprise my hon. Friend to hear that I absolutely agree with him. Driving up literacy rates is central to our plan to grow the economy, so I am delighted at those latest figures showing that children in England are the best readers in the western world. Why is that? Because, since 2010, we have raised the number of schools rated good or outstanding by nearly 30%. The verdict is clear: only the Conservatives can be trusted with our children’s future.

Speaking of the last election, the Tory manifesto promised to end the abuse of the judicial review. How is it going?

I welcome the much shorter question from the right hon. Lady. Let me remind her of a few facts about the covid inquiry. We set it up, we have provided it with more than 55,000 documents so far, and we have given it all the financial resources it needs so that we can learn the lessons from the pandemic. However, in Wales they also had a pandemic, and what have the Labour-run Wales authorities done there? No independent inquiry in Wales. As ever, it is one rule for Labour and another for everyone else.

The Deputy Prime Minister pretends that it is complicated, but it is simple: the Government set up the inquiry to get to the truth, then blocked that inquiry from getting the information that it asked for, and now they are taking it to court. I know that he considers himself a man of the people, so using his vast knowledge of working-class Britain, does he think that working people will thank him for spending hundreds of thousands of pounds of their money on loophole lawyers so that the Government can obstruct the covid inquiry?

We will provide the inquiry with each and every document related to covid, including all internal discussions in any form, as requested, while, crucially, protecting what is wholly and unambiguously irrelevant. Essentially, the right hon. Lady is calling for years’ worth of documents and messages between named individuals to be in scope. That could cover anything from civil servants’ medical conditions to intimate details about their families.

I find it extraordinary that the right hon. Lady should lecture us on value for money for the taxpayer, when I understand that she has now purchased two pairs of noise-cancelling headphones on expenses. I will be fair to her: if I had to attend shadow Cabinet meetings, I think I would want to tune them out, too.

The Deputy Prime Minister was very good in saying that he welcomed short questions. I would also welcome shorter answers.

All we are asking for is what the covid inquiry has asked for. Across the world, covid inquiries are well under way, while this Government hide information and shell out public money on legal bills for the Uxbridge One—the former Prime Minister is now demanding another £1 million to pay for his new lawyers. I know that the Deputy Prime Minister and his former boss have fallen out, and maybe he wants to patch things up, but can he seriously say that that is a good use of taxpayers’ money?

If we want to talk about relationships between different people, I do not think that we need to search the right hon. Lady’s WhatsApp messages to know that there is no communication between her and the leader of her party. I will happily stand up for our record on covid. When she and her party were carping from the sidelines, calling for longer lockdowns, I was working as Culture Secretary to keep our football clubs running, protect our theatres and museums, and deliver the largest cultural recovery package in the western world. That is the difference between her and me: while she was collecting titles, I was getting on with the job.

I know that for the last couple of years the Deputy Prime Minister has been trying to prep Prime Ministers for PMQs, but these punchlines are dire—he really needs to go back to school himself. Speaking of school, thousands of children are missing from school; absence has nearly doubled since before the pandemic. The Prime Minister says that he has maxed out on his support for school pupils, but why did the Government abandon their plans for a register of missing children?

On the specifics of the right hon. Lady’s question, that is not the case: we continue to keep the policy under review. I am very proud of this Government’s record on funding and support for schools: £4 billion more this year, £4 billion next year, and the result of all that investment is that we have the highest standards of reading in the entire western world. What a contrast from when the Labour party was in power.[Official Report, 10 July 2023, Vol. 736, c. 5MC.]

There we have it: thousands of children missing; policy “under review” still. Let me ask the Deputy Prime Minister about something else that has gone missing. The Public Accounts Committee this week revealed that Government fraud has increased fourfold, with Ministers overseeing the loss of £21 billion of taxpayers’ money in the last two years. Can he tell us how much of our money they expect to recover?

We are working tirelessly to recover those funds, and we have made huge progress already. The Labour party talks about good use of taxpayers’ money, but what do we have from it? Plans for an unfunded, £28 billion spending spree. What would that do? Drive up borrowing and push up interest rates, adding £1,000 to everyone’s mortgage. I know that the Opposition are out of touch, but even the right hon. Lady must realise that Britain cannot afford Labour.

Britain cannot afford any more of the Conservatives. The right hon. Gentleman seems to have lost count: the answer is that only a quarter of the billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money lost to fraud is expected to be clawed back. If the Government cannot get that public money back, they cannot be trusted with anything else. It has become a pattern of behaviour from the Conservatives—an inquiry missing evidence, schools missing pupils, taxpayers missing money and Ministers missing in action. All the while, working people pay the price for their mistakes. This week, the Public Accounts Committee also warned that this epic fraud and waste could happen all over again because Ministers are living in denial of the facts. If the Government cannot admit the truth, how on earth can they learn the lessons?

We are actually putting more resources in throughout this year to tackle fraud and error, and we continue to make real progress with it. This is quite extraordinary from the Labour party: while we work to drive down inflation and energy bills, the right hon. Lady is receiving £10,000 from Just Stop Oil backers, adopting their policies, backing protesters, blocking new production and forcing us to import more foreign oil and gas. For once, I find myself in agreement with the GMB union, which said that that is “naive”, has a “lack of intellectual rigour” and could decimate communities. Just like Labour.

Q4. The latest route update for East West Rail has recently been published and unfortunately the link to Aylesbury is still just a dotted line on the map. I have raised the need for this vital link on several occasions in the House, because it would cut congestion on our roads, stimulate the economy and reduce air pollution. Each time, I have been asked to work with stakeholders to reduce the cost, and I am pleased to say that we have managed to do that. A much cheaper proposal is now on the table, so can my right hon. Friend change that dotted line into a solid line and give my constituents the railway they want? (905195)

I know that my hon. Friend is a tireless campaigner for this project, and I can assure him that the Department for Transport is working with Network Rail and East West Rail to consider the feasibility of lower-cost railway links on the Aylesbury spur. I know that he will continue to make that case vigorously.

When the Prime Minister took office, he said that he would put economic stability and confidence at the heart of the Government. Today, UK interest rates are among the highest in the G20, and mortgage rates are rising back to nearly where they were after the former Prime Minister crashed the economy. Is it not the case that the Government’s biggest achievement is that they are trashing the economy just a wee bit slower than their predecessor?

I do not know whether the hon. Lady has been following the news today, but the OECD has again upgraded our growth forecasts. A month ago, the whole nation came together to celebrate a wonderful moment of pomp, pageantry and pride in our nation. How did the hon. Lady describe it? She called it “a pantomime”. The real pantomime is the SNP in Scotland.

I do not know what question the Deputy Prime Minister was answering, but let me try another one. This Government plan to cut taxes for the richest and spend £6 billion imprisoning people fleeing war and persecution, and have lost £21 billion to Government fraud throughout this pandemic. Is the view from the Prime Minister’s luxury helicopter so skewed that during a cost of living crisis, he thinks that is what people’s priorities are?

I am going to take no lectures on profligacy from the SNP. Actually, what is it that this Government have done? We have provided record increases to the personal allowance, meaning that a person working full time on the minimum wage has seen a £1,000 reduction in their tax.

Q5.   Fylde has many vibrant small shops at the beating heart of the economy, but although St Annes town centre has fantastic potential, its layout, quite frankly, is becoming tired. Investment is needed to reinvigorate the town centre, better connecting it to the seafront and reinvigorating the town. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to continue this Government’s levelling-up mission to deliver for towns such as St Annes? (905196)

That is precisely why we have created the levelling-up fund. There is £3.6 billion within that in the towns fund to be invested in high streets up and down the country. We will be outlining the third round of submissions to that fund, and I am quite sure that my hon. Friend will make a very vigorous case for funding for his constituency during that round.

Yesterday, I met Karen. Karen is a carer for her husband Alan, who has Parkinson’s and Lewy body dementia. She told me how hard it is to get people with power just to listen to her. Like so many carers, Karen feels her caring work just is not valued; at times, she has wanted to give up, but knows she must carry on because of her husband. Remarkable carers such as Karen save the Government more than the entire NHS budget, so will the Government finally recognise the value of Britain’s family carers and not just pay tribute to them, but give them the financial and practical support they deserve?

Of course, I would like to join the right hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to Karen and to hard-working unpaid carers up and down the country. I know he speaks from personal experience about this issue as well. We have provided £2.3 billion of support for social care, with an additional £25 million committed to putting people at the heart of care in the “People at the Heart of Care” White Paper, and £327 million is also committed to the better care fund.

Q6. Many of my constituents are deeply concerned about the proposals for the 440-acre Hinckley national rail freight interchange, and the impact that this proposed site will have on the environment and, for example, on infrastructure such as Narborough railway station. I know the Deputy Prime Minister cannot talk about an individual planning application—that decision is for central Government to make—but can he give an assurance to my South Leicestershire constituents and Blaby district councillors such as Ben Taylor, Maggie Wright, Terry Richardson, Mike Shirley and others that the voice of my constituents will be heard in that planning application? (905197)

I know from the vigorous campaigning of my hon. Friend that his constituents’ voice has been, and will be, heard. As he knows, I cannot comment on individual cases. What I can say is that I have experience of this in my own constituency, and I know what a blight can be created by those rail freight projects, so I do have every sympathy for the case that my hon. Friend is making.

Q2.   This week, we heard plans for two universal basic income pilots in England. Similar schemes have been planned for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. With the progress of the gig economy and the acceleration of artificial intelligence, it is clear that the working environment will need to be drastically overhauled. Will this Government waken up to the reality of the situation and instruct both the Department for Work and Pensions and His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to engage with those pilots, so that we can constructively assess their pros and cons and work to safeguard a less precarious future for the next generation? (905193)

The Government and I have never been convinced by the case for a universal basic income. We are not alone in that; it is also the position of Paul Johnson at the Institute for Fiscal Studies. I think a much better solution is to create more jobs, which this Government have done, and to cut taxes on working people, which is what this Government have done. That is the route to prosperity for people up and down the country.

Q7. Revitalising Oldway, regenerating our town centres and helping Torbay’s high-tech sector to grow will deliver levelling up for Torbay. What expectations does the Deputy Prime Minister have of the new levelling-up partnership in focusing Government effort and resources on doing that? (905198)

As I am sure my hon. Friend knows, levelling-up partnerships are committed to work hand in hand with 20 places across England in most need of that levelling up. They are backed by £400 million of investment, and I know that he will make the case most robustly for funding for his constituency.

Q3. After 13 years, the Government have repeatedly broken their promise to repair social care. Post-pandemic, I have been visiting sheltered housing schemes in Hornsey and Wood Green, and time after time, basic services, such as dentistry, podiatry and befriending, are all missing. Will the Government take urgent action and repair that mess, or will it be down to Labour again to pick up the pieces? (905194)

For the NHS as a whole, the Government have provided record additional funding. Indeed, since we came to power in 2010, funding is up £70 billion. In addition, in respect of social care, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has provided a further £2.3 billion of support to that vital sector.

Q8. I congratulate the Government on their determination to bring forward the roll-out of electronic patient records for everyone in England. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that that gives us a brilliant opportunity to roll out the digital version of the red book that is so transformational for every family in giving their baby the best start in life? (905199)

I totally agree with my right hon. Friend, and I know what a tireless campaigner she has been on this issue, both in and out of government. I am happy to confirm that the so-called digital red book will be rolled out, and we expect it to be delivered over the course of the next two years.

Q12. The Deputy Prime Minister likes to call himself Mr Normal—he went to a normal school, and he understands normal people. We know that normal people are struggling in this Tory cost of living crisis, including nurses, for example, who he said had unreasonable wage demands. This is the same person who, on top of this £154,000 salary, charged two businesses more than £13,000 for just 20 hours’ work. That is £670 an hour. Does Mr Normal really think he is worth 65 times a band 2 nurse? (905203)

I am not quite sure what the question was aiming at, but I can say to the hon. Gentleman that this Government have provided more than £3,000 of support to help people with the cost of living. Why have we been able to do that? It is thanks to the strength of our economy and the strength of our Union. What is happening in Scotland? The SNP Government are putting taxes up on ordinary, hard- working people.

Q9. We are all concerned about the 81,000 children who are not on the school register, but are under the term “home-educated”. No one—neither local authorities, nor schools—can honestly answer the question of how many children are not in school. Therefore, how can we know that every child is safe and suitably educated? These children are out of sight and out of mind. The Secretary of State for Education has said that this is one of her priorities, as has the Education Committee. Can I ask my right hon. Friend to expedite my ten-minute rule Bill to place a duty on local authorities to maintain a register of children who are not in school, so that we can ensure that every child is visible, safe, suitably educated and receiving the support to enable them to thrive? (905200)

We want to ensure that all children are safe and have access to an excellent education. Of course, local authorities must seek to identify children missing in their area and ensure that they are safe. The Department for Education continues to undertake work to support swifter identification and greater support of children missing in education.

In spite of Government spin to the contrary, the backlog of undetermined initial asylum claims has risen even since December from 160,000 to 170,000-plus. Caseworker numbers are down, and returns are still down. So will the Deputy Prime Minister agree to meet me to hear my constituents’ concerns about the Home Secretary’s plans to commandeer yet another hotel, the Stradey Park in the village of Furnace, and explain what more he will do to speed up clearing the backlog so as to return people to safe countries, settle genuine refugees and avoid the need to use the Stradey Park hotel?

This Government will take whatever action is necessary both to clear the backlog and to stop the boats. Actually, as the hon. Member may have heard from my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, small boat arrivals to the UK are down 20% this year, our French deal has prevented 33,000 illegal crossings this year, Albanian arrivals are down 90%, we have removed 1,800 Albanians, we have increased the number of illegal working raids and the legacy asylum backlog is now down 20%.[Official Report, 10 July 2023, Vol. 736, c. 6MC.]

Q10. Semina Halliwell, a 12-year-old girl from my constituency, suffered an horrific ordeal, and she tragically then went on to take her own life. She was let down by the system. This week is the two-year anniversary of her death. Labour-controlled Sefton Council still has an inadequate rating from Ofsted for children’s social care. So will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss what further measures can be taken to better protect children in Southport and the wider council area? (905201)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising what I am sure Members on both sides of this House will agree is a heartbreaking case, and I know that all our thoughts will be with Semina’s family and her friends. All children of course have the right to be safe and protected. I understand that the Department for Education will shortly begin consulting on strengthening statutory guidance to ensure that health agencies, police forces and councils work together more collaboratively and end decisions that prevent putting children’s needs at the heart of their work. Of course, I am very happy to meet my hon. Friend and for Health Department Ministers to meet him also.

Huntington’s disease eventually robs sufferers of their ability to walk, talk, eat, care for themselves and make decisions. It changes the person they were, and it has a 50% chance of being inherited by their children. Will the Government back the Huntington’s disease community’s call for better access to mental health services, a care co-ordinator in every area and specific National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guidance so that everyone affected by this devastating condition can get the help they need?

I completely agree with the right hon. Gentleman about the devastating impact of this terrible disease. We have significantly increased investment in mental health. I am, of course, happy to arrange for Department of Health Ministers to meet him to discuss this further.

Q11.   Wales is the land of song, and there is no better example of this than Johns’ Boys Male Chorus from Rhos in Clwyd South, who have performed magnificently in the recent series of “Britain’s Got Talent”, moving Bruno Tonioli and the other judges to tears. Would the Deputy Prime Minister join me in congratulating the choir, and also the many other community choirs in Clwyd South and across the UK who bring such pleasure to the singers and audiences alike? (905202)

I would actually argue that choral music is possibly one of our greatest contributions to global culture. I really do join my hon. Friend in congratulating Johns’ Boys Male Chorus on their fantastic achievement in reaching the semi-final of “Britain’s Got Talent”, and I am sure that they will continue to entertain and engage communities for many years to come.

The Government post of anti-corruption champion has been vacant for over a year. Does the Deputy Prime Minister think that the vacancy increases or decreases the risk of corruption in Government?

In my Department, the Cabinet Office, I am working very closely with my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General. We are taking extensive steps to ensure that we crack down on fraud and waste and that procurement is transparent. Of course, we will be filling that vacancy very shortly.

Q13.   The Government do not have any money of their own—every penny that they spend is taxpayers’ money, including money spent supporting the economy during the pandemic. In that light, does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be disgraceful for a political party to accept huge donations from a company that was simultaneously claiming hundreds of thousands of pounds of public support during furlough? (905204)

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. The furlough scheme helped to protect about 14.6 million jobs during that terrible covid crisis. But what do we discover? Labour is taking £1.5 million from Just Stop Oil backers and adopting their policy to block new oil and gas. It is job-destroying recklessness, and unfortunately it is hard-working people who will be left paying the price.

In West Lancashire, my constituents are concerned about their children’s education and specifically the ongoing long-term impact of covid-19 restrictions on their educational development. A Public Accounts Committee report out today finds that the Department for Education is failing to take fast and effective recovery action to close the attainment gap in schools, and the Department has admitted that it will take a decade—10 years—just to get the education attainment gap back to pre-pandemic levels. So when will the Government stop blaming everyone else and take responsibility for failing a generation of lost learners?

Actually, before covid struck, the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers had narrowed in both primary and secondary schools under the Government. Since covid struck, we have provided almost £5 billion for education recovery. If the hon. Lady is that concerned about children’s education, she should be calling on the education unions to call off their damaging strikes.

Q14. Maltby Town Council and Maltby Main FC, who play at the Maltby Miners recreation ground, are fighting to ensure that the ground is financially sustainable and can stay open, but the Coal Industry Social Welfare Organisation, which runs the ground and has a history of selling off unprofitable areas to developers, will not allow a full bar to be opened, which would provide much-needed capital and has the support of the council’s residents. Spaces like recreation grounds are important parts of our mining heritage. Can my right hon. Friend step in to help Maltby Main get the bar that it needs and to help secure the ground’s financial future so that it does not face the same grim fate as the Dinnington Miners Welfare recreation ground? (905205)

I offer my strongest support to my hon. Friend’s campaign; he is absolutely right to raise it. I question the extent of my powers to intervene on a bar closure in his constituency, but I will certainly examine what we can do further.

The East West Rail announcement proposes a six-track route that will impact at least 66 properties in Bedford, including the demolition of 37 homes. Will the Deputy Prime Minister tell me why residents’ concerns have been ignored? Will he give me a commitment today that, if the majority of residents are against the plan in the statutory consultation, his Government will not approve the proposal?

Of course, we will engage with local communities, but I find it rather odd that the Labour party has been saying for the past few months that it wants to build more housing and more infrastructure and, as soon as there is a proposal to do so, which will enormously enrich the area, it is being opposed.

Q15. The Deputy Prime Minister will know that the calling of an early election in Spain has caused some concern about delay to achieving a treaty between the United Kingdom and the European Union in relation to Gibraltar. Will he confirm that it remains the policy of His Majesty’s Government to prioritise achieving such a treaty once the election’s outcome is known, and that the Government will do all that is necessary to secure that treaty for the benefit of Gibraltar and its Spanish neighbours, and give all the necessary support to Gibraltar and its British people for their future security and prosperity? (905206)

I assure my hon. Friend that the United Kingdom and His Majesty’s Government remain steadfast in their support for Gibraltar. We are working side by side with the Government of Gibraltar and we remain committed to concluding that UK-EU treaty as soon as possible.

Today, the OECD said that the UK is on course to have a higher rate of inflation than almost all other G20 countries. It is families in Putney and up and down the country who will be suffering because of that. Will the Deputy Prime Minister finally commit to introducing a proper windfall tax on the enormous profits of the oil and gas giants and take pressure off struggling households?

We actually introduced a bigger windfall tax than the Labour party was proposing. Thanks to that 75% windfall tax, last winter, we paid half of people’s energy bills. The hon. Lady talked about the OECD. What she failed to mention is that the OECD today gave the highest upgrade of growth to the United Kingdom compared with any other country.

Bill Presented

Food Poverty Strategy Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Chris Stephens presented a Bill to require the Secretary of State to publish a strategy for ending the need for food banks by 2030; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time Friday 24 November, and to be printed (Bill 320).