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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 734: debated on Wednesday 14 June 2023

Science, Innovation and Technology

The Secretary of State was asked—

Technology Sector: Skills Shortages

1. What steps she is taking with Cabinet colleagues to help tackle skills shortages in the technology sector. (905382)

We know that digital skills are a vital building block for developing the workforce of the future, so we are working across Government with educators and employers to grow the pipeline of individuals entering the digital sector. Steps that we have taken include the launch of the Government and industry Digital Skills Council, the introduction of artificial intelligence and data science conversion courses with the Department for Education and the creation of new visa routes with the Home Office to attract international tech talent. We worked with the Department for Education on the launch of skills bootcamps in England and the Government will be investing up to £150 million in the programme, with free, flexible courses lasting up to 16 weeks in subjects such as software engineering, with a guaranteed job interview at the end.

In contrast to what the Minister says, more than £600 million of apprenticeship levy funding has been returned to the Treasury in the last year alone, enough to have funded more than 60,000 new apprenticeships. Labour will reform the system to create a growth and skills levy that can be used on a much wider range of training that businesses say they need. Will the Government address the chronic shortage of skills, match Labour’s ambition and give tech businesses what they need to thrive?

I gave a long answer the first time, so I can give a shorter one this time. We are already acting in that space. On the apprenticeship levy, we always work with employers and supply chains throughout this country to ensure it works as effectively as possible for what businesses need.

The submarine programme in Barrow will deliver thousands of jobs and generations of work, but we are struggling to grow our own. We have Furness STEM and UlverSTEM, which do good work, but this is an international endeavour with AUKUS and a national endeavour with Dreadnought. What discussions has the Minister had across Government about how we lean in to that skills challenge?

My hon. Friend is right to champion Barrow’s industry. We talk regularly with the Department for Education, colleagues from the Department for Work and Pensions, tech sectors and academia to ensure we get it right. We must remember that domestic and international talent are so important in this space.

Regional Innovation

To support innovation across the whole of the UK, a central pillar of our innovation nation mission, the UK Government are investing £52 billion in public research and development over these next three years. We have made a groundbreaking commitment in the levelling up White Paper to increase the percentage of Government R&D outside of the greater south-east, which is, of course, home to some of our historic research institutes, by 40%. We have an active programme—through the Catapults, the innovation accelerators and cluster support—all around the UK to that end.

Innovation is in the DNA of the businesses in my constituency, including Surespan, a leading manufacturer of roof access hatches, and Phoenix Tooling and Development—after all, our region was the birthplace of the industrial revolution. I support the Government’s levelling-up mission, but will the Minister bring forward individual regional targets for rebalancing research and development funding, as recommended by a House of Lords Committee report?

Let me first pay tribute to Surespan and Phoenix. Two weeks ago, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I were in Coventry in the west midlands with the Chancellor, and I have been working closely with Mayor Andy Street on his excellent programmes. We have an advanced manufacturing Catapult in the west midlands. Coventry and Warwick are rapidly becoming world-recognised centres in a whole raft of materials and in robotics. We are working on the Birmingham innovation district, and we have put one of our three innovation accelerators—£30 million—into the west midlands. My right hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) makes an important point, though, about regional R&D clusters; that is public and private sector money. We will set out this autumn our digital cluster map showing all the private and public funding, and how we intend to increase it by region.

The Government recently launched a call for space infrastructure projects, and West Lindsey District Council has proposed plans to work with the Satellite Applications Catapult, which the Minister mentioned, at RAF Scampton, as part of a £300 million levelling-up deal. What is the logic of one part of Government talking about levelling up and innovation and another part talking about putting a migrant camp in the middle of it, preventing all that infrastructure?

My right hon. Friend will appreciate that, as the Minister for Science, Research and Innovation, I cannot comment on Home Office plans to deal with refugees, but I can pay tribute to the work of Scampton Holdings Ltd and the very innovative proposal for the regeneration of that site with a whole raft of facilities, including in innovation support. I very much look forward to coming up in due course, once the refugee issue is sorted, to support him in taking that forward.

Metro Mayors have an important role to play in driving innovation in the regions. Can the Minister give an assurance that he will work closely with them?

Yes, I am absolutely delighted to do so. The Metro Mayors are key parts of our innovation ecosystem, and the three innovation accelerators that have we put in place are fundamentally co-created and led from the bottom up in Glasgow, Manchester and the west midlands. I am actively reaching out to work with the Metro Mayors, as well as with devolved Science Ministers, on extending our science investment to unify all regions of this country and strengthen those urban economies.

But the problem is that in my constituency in the Yorkshire coalfield, there are 20 times fewer people employed in science and technology innovation than in Cambridge. We can be proud of what Cambridge has achieved, but why should areas such as mine be so left behind? There is no economic reason why the golden triangle between Greater London, Cambridge and Oxford should be preferred over the rest of the country, so is it pure politics?

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman could not be more wrong; it is quite the opposite. The truth is that the Oxford-Cambridge-London triangle is golden for a reason: it is home to two of the world’s top three universities and five of top 15. Our central mission is to ensure that we grow an R&D economy all around the country that nurtures and invests in research, including a fantastic cluster in Yorkshire: the Yorkshire bioeconomy, advanced manufacturing in Sheffield, and Doncaster. We are investing in all that, but one does not create the Oxford-Cambridge triangle overnight; it requires us to invest with local leaders, as they are doing across the north-east in County Durham and Northumbria, in the innovative companies of tomorrow. This is a historic moment for the former coalfields.

I declare an interest as the chair of the all-party group on photonics and quantum. The Fraunhofer Centre for Applied Photonics at the University of Strathclyde has played a leading role in the industrial strategy challenge fund, collaborating with more companies and projects than any other organisation, and it has been praised as a key strength in the national quantum strategy. The centre is supported by the Scottish Government and Scottish Enterprise, but despite its being established at the UK Government’s invitation, the UK Government have provided no core funding. What discussion has the Minister had with Treasury colleagues on providing that core funding to a vital part of the quantum technology landscape?

I have to say, that is a bit rich given that the incredible strength of Scottish science and research is built largely on long-term UK block funding across life sciences and other areas. As I said, I have just been in Glasgow, where we put one of our three innovation accelerators. That has been transformational, particularly in quantum, where we have set out our plans for the £2.5 billion quantum strategy. It is just not fair or true to say that the UK Government are not investing in the Glasgow cluster; we are, and it is transformational.

Broadband: Social Tariffs

The Government recognise that this is a difficult time for families across the country who may be struggling with their bills. Social tariffs are already offered by 21 broadband providers, covering 99% of the UK. We continue to urge the providers that do not yet do so to bring forward offers to support low-income households.

My North Shropshire constituents eagerly anticipate the roll-out of Project Gigabit, for which a contract has been awarded, but obviously not everybody in a rural area is well off, and broadband is an essential part of daily life. Will the Minister explain what steps he will take to ensure that that provider will offer social tariffs to my constituents?

As I say, the vast majority of providers offer social tariffs already. I am not sure what the broadband provider the hon. Lady refers to will be, but we will certainly look at that. We will also do our best to encourage take-up, because while that has increased fourfold since January 2022, we recognise that a lot of people who are eligible have not yet taken advantage of these schemes.

Oh, thank you, Mr Speaker.

But this is not just about social tariffs, is it? It is also about when the whole broadband system goes down. Recently there was a break in the broadband circuits in Lichfield and no offer was made to any subscribers for any form of compensation. What is my right hon. Friend’s view on that?

There are schemes that will ensure that if there is a lengthy take-out of provision, compensation will be available. I am very happy to look at the specific example of what happened in my hon. Friend’s constituency and to advise customers there what is available to them.

Artificial Intelligence Regulation

Our White Paper was clear that we will regulate AI through a flexible framework underpinned by five important principles. That proportionate and adaptable approach has been welcomed by British business and will include new risk monitoring functions to ensure that the UK leads the world in AI safety, as well as anticipating the introduction of a statutory duty on regulators in time. We would welcome hon. Members’ views on that consultation.

In terms of risk, I am sure that the Minister will be concerned that Snapchat’s My AI chatbot recently encouraged a journalist who was posing as a 13-year-old girl to meet up with a 35-year-old man, suggesting ways to hide the meeting from parents, gave tips on hiding bruises from social workers and gave sex tips to a supposedly 13-year-old boy who was proposing to meet an older woman. What specifically are the Government doing to beef up online safety regulation to protect children from the emerging risk of AI?

I am concerned to hear the examples that the hon. Member gives. That is exactly why this House and the other place have spent considerable time going over the provisions in the Online Safety Bill, which goes to the heart of the issues that he raises and includes AI in its scope.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that when it comes to AI regulation, two things are important? The first is that there is a significant international dimension, and I congratulate her and the Prime Minister on what they have already achieved in setting out this country’s stall to be a global leader in AI regulation. Secondly, does she agree that the lesson to be learned from the Online Safety Bill, which she mentioned, is that we must regulate swiftly, rather than waiting for the technology to develop and attempting to retrofit the regulation on to the technology?

I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend’s contribution—he knows a great deal about these matters. First, I acknowledge his welcome for the approach we will be taking internationally. It is exactly right that the UK can and should lead in this space, as the Prime Minister has set out, and that is what we will do with our global summit on AI safety. Secondly, on his point about the Online Safety Bill, I can understand his argument, but in this context I would draw the House’s attention to the distinction between regulation and legislation. We intend to use our existing and established regulators to make sure that we have a flexible and adaptable approach to AI.

The rapid growth of AI has the potential to revolutionise the economy and our public services, but with no industrial strategy to speak of and their White Paper already out of date, this Government are behind the curve and risk leaving our workforces behind as AI becomes more prevalent. Exactly what is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that nobody is left behind, and that workers are trained in the digital skills needed to gain high-quality jobs that harness AI’s potential and opportunities?

I think the hon. Lady is on the wrong track here. I must say that I have not seen any substance to Labour’s approach in this field either, which perhaps will not come as a surprise—no doubt it will be covered more in 10 minutes’ time. What I would say is that we are taking the approach of ensuring that we do have the skills of the future: for example, we are investing £30 million in conversion courses to enable people from disadvantaged backgrounds to come into AI, so that they can be part of the technologies of the future, and there is a great deal more besides.

Brexit: Science and Technology Sector

5. What assessment she has made of the potential impact of the UK's departure from the EU on the science and technology sector. (905386)

Over the past six or seven years since 2016, this country has seen extraordinary growth in investment in our science and technology sector. Members do not need to take it from me: they can take it from those who track the investment. The UK has nearly 20 times more venture capital than its level of funding in 2011, and I am delighted to say that a majority of that—the fastest growth—is around the country. The east midlands and Northern Ireland have seen the sharpest increases in investment in the past four years, with growth in the east midlands topping at 300%. Something extraordinary is going on in this economy, and far from using Brexit as an opportunity to talk the country down, we intend to use it as an opportunity to lead in the smart regulation of the economies and sectors of tomorrow.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but the UK Government are pushing for a discount on membership in the Horizon programme, arguing that UK researchers have been disadvantaged by two years outside that programme. Does that not amount to the Conservative party openly admitting that cutting the UK off from Europe was damaging, and that we must return as a matter of urgency to European projects such as Horizon?

To be very clear, we negotiated membership of Horizon, Copernicus and Euratom specifically in our Brexit deal—it was the EU that held us out. Secondly, while we have been waiting, we have deployed over £1 billion of extra funding here in the UK to support our sector, and now that the Prime Minister has secured the Windsor framework, the negotiations are actively going on. I know that the Secretary of State will want to say something about that later. We intend to collaborate deeply with Europe and use our regulatory freedoms in the new sectors of tomorrow.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is as important to the EU as it is to the UK to have good science co-operation, and that the benefits of our wonderful companies such as Johnson Matthey in Royston and the big companies we have in Stevenage demonstrate the importance of international co-operation in business? That should happen in universities as well. It is for the EU as well as us.

My right hon. and learned Friend makes an important point. One of the attractions of Horizon is that we get back most of what we put in, and it funds research collaborations across our system, but the negotiations are important. We have been out of the system for two years; we need to get a fair deal, as the Prime Minister has made clear, and to make sure that the UK is not paying for stuff that it has not been able to access over the past two and a half years. I am sure that His Majesty’s Treasury is well equipped to have that negotiation on our behalf.

It is now 127 weeks of uncertainty, delay and broken promises since the Conservatives took us out of the world’s biggest and most prestigious science fund, Horizon Europe. Our scientists, universities and businesses have paid the price in lost jobs and investment, so will the Minister confirm or deny the reports that negotiations to rejoin Horizon have stalled because his Government are pushing for a reduced fee to reflect what they believe is a lasting reduction in grants won by UK scientists? If they have permanently damaged our success rate, should the Minister not be trying to fix that, rather than claim a discount?

I refer the hon. Member to the answer I gave a few moments ago. We have negotiated access to Horizon—it was the EU that kept us out. The Prime Minister has unblocked that through the Windsor framework. We have invested substantially through the funding guarantee for all Horizon programmes and through £850 million-odd of additional UK expenditure. We have also increased UK research and development to record levels. We will be at £52 billion by the end of this three years. There is no cutting of UK R&D as a result of this issue. We are actively negotiating to make sure that we get a good deal.

Topical Questions

I have been playing an active part in London Tech Week talking to Britain’s boldest businesses. We have launched our £1 billion strategy to support our semiconductor sector. We have launched our cutting-edge life sciences sector package. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (Simon Fell) who we recently appointed as our rural connectivity champion. May I also update the House in relation to our international leadership that I have been chairing the global forum on technology at the OECD?

Copyright protections are fundamental to the success of the UK’s world-leading creative industries. However, creatives are routinely seeing their content being used to train artificial intelligence platforms without giving their permission and without receiving payment. Does the Secretary of State believe that AI developers’ ingestion of creative content that is protected by copyright without obtaining a licence is infringement under UK law?

The hon. Lady raises an important matter, on which my Department and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport are working closely together. Can I draw her attention to information that I know my right hon. and learned Friend the Culture Secretary will be bringing forward shortly? I reassure the hon. Lady that intellectual property is at the heart of our approach to support the creative industries in this country.

T7. The data Bill’s smart data clauses give us a chance to duplicate Britain’s global lead in open banking in other sectors of the economy, too, but developers cannot start work until they know which sectors will be enabled and in what order. Will my right hon. Friend release an implementation timetable immediately, showing which industries will introduce what and when, to unlock the tidal wave of investment that is waiting to get started and so that we do not get leapfrogged by international rivals? (905403)

First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work he has done to promote the use of smart data across the economy. The Minister for Enterprise, Markets and Small Business, my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) is working with Departments, regulators and industry to agree common principles for future smart data schemes in different sectors. Individual Departments will set out when and how they will use the powers, following appropriate consultation and impact assessments.

Does the Secretary of State agree with the Prime Minister that her AI White Paper is now defunct? Also, the data Bill does not even mention AI. The Online Safety Bill is hardly an advert for speedy action and the semiconductor strategy was slammed by an expert as “quite frankly flaccid”. Does she accept that to show international leadership, the Government need to get their act together at home?

As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister set out this week at London Tech Week, we will be leading at home and overseas and leading change in our public services. That is the right approach. It is pro-innovation. We will capture those benefits for British businesses and British citizens, and I think that the Opposition could do an awful lot better than what they have just presented.

On 30 December 2020, during the pandemic, the then Prime Minister met the vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford and promised £150 million in funding for the university’s pandemic sciences institute. In evidence to the Science, Innovation and Technology Committee this morning, the institute’s director Sir Peter Horby said that not a penny of that money has been received. Will the Secretary of State meet me to see how we can unblock that so that this vital work continues?

T3. This London Tech Week, I pay tribute to King’s Maths School in my constituency, which provides tutoring for 16 to 19-year-olds. The Government promised £300 million for mathematical research in 2020, but now, despite that, they are abandoning the commitment. When does the Minister expect Britain to stay competitive and when can the Government guarantee that funding? (905399)

As the Prime Minister has made clear, we are putting maths at the heart of our curriculum. I am ensuring that maths is properly funded to our research ecosystem. I will happily meet the hon. Member and talk to her about it.

Britain is rightly regarded as a technological and science superpower, but the foundations of our science and technology are technicians and their work and contribution. What more can my hon. Friend do to give them more recognition, more status and, even, more funding to carry on the work they do?

My hon. Friend has a formidable reputation himself in championing, and from having worked in, that area. We are increasing investment in further education and skills by £3.8 billion over the course of this Parliament, because we need technicians to access high-quality training.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


I know the whole House will want to thank the emergency services for their ongoing response to the shocking incident in Nottingham yesterday. Our thoughts are with those injured and with the families of those who lost their lives. Today is also the sixth anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire. We remember the 72 people who lost their lives, and remain as committed as ever to ensuring that such a tragedy can never happen again.

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.

May I associate myself with the words of the Prime Minister? Our hearts are with the city of Nottingham. We also remember the 72 people killed at Grenfell and support those still fighting for justice and safe homes.

According to the Office for National Statistics, in January food prices were rising at 16.8% a year. The most recent figures show food prices rising by a whopping 19.1%, making a mockery of the Prime Minister’s pledge to halve inflation. Does he honestly think that people will not notice?

Of course, I acknowledge that the cost of living is rising for families, and that is why my first priority at the beginning of the year is to halve inflation. I am pleased to say that inflation is now falling, and in the latest estimates we remain on track. With regard to food prices, we are not alone in experiencing high food price inflation, like many other countries in Europe. That is why the Chancellor has already spoken to the Competition and Markets Authority, which is looking at the grocery industry. We continue to support families with the cost of living, notably by paying half their energy bills.

Q4. It is a fact that Labour has never left government with unemployment lower than when it came in. Figures released yesterday show that there are now 4 million more people in work than when Labour was last in power. Does the Prime Minister agree that the security of a good job will always be better than Labour’s dependency culture? (905408)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out Labour’s poor record on jobs. Yesterday’s figures showed that the UK economy is resilient, with the number of people in employment now at a record level. We are by no means complacent, but the inactivity rate continues to fall and the unemployment rate remains at historically low levels. That is a Conservative Government delivering for our country.

I join with the Prime Minister in his comments about the terrible attack in Nottingham yesterday, and in tribute to the work of our emergency services. The thoughts of the whole House are with the victims and the people of that great city. I also join him in remembering the 72 people who lost their lives in the Grenfell Tower fire. The victims and their families are always in our hearts, but six years on, the justice they are fighting for is long overdue.

All across the country, people are worried about their bills, the price of the weekly shop and the spiralling mortgage rates, so why has the Tory party spent this last week arguing over which of them gets a peerage?

My points on this are very clear. In line with a long-established convention of previous Prime Ministers having the ability to submit honours, I followed a process to the letter, in convention with long-standing process. It is, by the way, a long-standing convention that Prime Ministers on both sides of this House have followed in the same way that I did.

The truth is that for all his tough talk after the event, the Prime Minister did sign off the honours list. That means that those who threw a Downing Street party the night before the late Queen sat alone at her husband’s funeral will now receive awards from the King. If the Prime Minister is so tough, why didn’t he block it?

As I said, I and the Government followed due process and convention. Prime Ministers of both parties have always upheld the convention of non-interference on political honours. My predecessors may not have agreed with Labour’s choices of Tom Watson or Shami Chakrabarti, but the same precedent stood then as it does now. I would expect a knight like the right hon. and learned Gentleman to understand that.

Order. I think we will have more if we carry on—it will be outside rather than in here. I call Keir Starmer.

Honours should be for public service, not Tory cronies. Is it not the case that the Prime Minister was too weak to block Johnson’s list? That also means that those who spent their time helping to cover up Johnson’s lawbreaking are rewarded by becoming lawmakers for the rest of their lives. Is his message to the British public, “If you don’t like it, tough”?

It is right that we use the honours system to recognise people—almost 2,000 a year—from members of the England Lionesses to the first Asian police officer in Greater Manchester. The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about putting people in the House of Lords, so perhaps he could explain why he put forward for a peerage the former Labour MP Tom Watson, who spread vicious conspiracy theories that were totally and utterly untrue, damaged public discourse, and inflicted misery on innocent people.

Order. The Prime Minister should not criticise other Members, and he is not responsible for the other parties. The Prime Minister is answering, not asking, the questions—[Interruption.] Order. Does somebody want to challenge my decision?

I call Keir Starmer.

The truth is that the country is paying the price of this endless cycle of chaos and distraction. The Tory economic crash means that millions of mortgage holders will pay thousands of pounds more next year, and the blame lies squarely at the door of a Government who are more focused on the internal wars of the Tory party than the needs of the country. Does the Prime Minister not think that those responsible should hang their heads in shame?

As I said right at the beginning of the session, our No.1 economic priority is to reduce inflation so that we can restrain the increase in interest rates. One thing we know we need to do is to reduce our borrowing and debt. That is how we will bring interest and mortgage rates down. Last week what did we see? Labour confusion. The shadow Chancellor attempted to water down Labour’s plans to borrow £28 billion more a year, and she was promptly overruled by the shadow Energy Secretary, the former Leader of the Labour party, who said that Labour was “100% not abandoning” its pledge. It really looks like Labour’s offer never changes. It is uncontrolled borrowing and more “Chaos with Ed Miliband.”

There is only one party that broke the economy: they are sitting opposite. They cannot fix the problems facing the country because they never take responsibility for the damage they have done. It is not just Johnson but the Prime Minister’s immediate predecessor who hopes to reward those who made her reign such a rip-roaring success. On her honours list are the masterminds of that kamikaze Budget and the economic extremists of the Institute of Economic Affairs—those whose disastrous ideas crashed the economy and left the country to pick up the pieces. Will the Prime Minister block that honours list, or will he buckle to her as well?

If you want disastrous economic ideas, all you have to do is Labour’s economic policy on energy. It is an energy policy that seeks to ban all new British oil and gas drilling, jeopardising 200,000 jobs and our energy security at a time of international conflict. Despots like Putin are the only people who will welcome such a policy. The Leader of the Opposition’s predecessor once said that he wanted British jobs for British workers—his policy is British jobs for Russian workers.

If the Prime Minister spent as much time focused on the economy, the NHS and the asylum system as he does haggling with his predecessors about who gets honours, the country would be in a far better state, but once again he has lost control, and once again it is working people paying the price. If he disagrees with that, why not put it to the test: end the boasting, the excuses and Tory chaos and see if he can finally find somebody—anybody, anywhere—to vote for him, and call a general election now?

The Leader of the Opposition talked about asylum. Just this week, it was the Labour party that voted against plans to tackle illegal migration. Just this week, it was the Labour party that voted against plans to tackle disruptive protests by its eco-zealot funders. We are getting on and delivering for the country. We are delivering record employment and the fastest wage growth in years. It is clear that only the Conservatives are going to deliver for the people of Britain.

Q5.   Crime is down significantly and falling, and police officer numbers are at an all-time high, but the police funding formula remains elderly and out of date. It penalises counties such as mine, Hampshire, to the tune of many millions of pounds. Previous Administrations made the commitment that a new police funding formula would have been in place by the general election. May I invite the Prime Minister to make the same commitment, please? (905409)

We recognise that the current police funding formula no longer accurately reflects demands on policing. That is why a review is carefully considering local factors for each police force. Our priority is to deliver a robust, future-proofed funding formula, but it is important that we take the time to get that right. I know that the Home Office will continue to keep the House updated on our progress.

I echo the sentiments of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in relation to the terrible incident in Nottingham. Our thoughts are also with all those still reeling from the tragedy at Grenfell all these years later.

During the Prime Minister’s ill-fated leadership bid late last summer, he warned of the perils of mortgage rate rises. He stated:

“It’s going to tip millions of people into misery and it’s going to mean we have absolutely no chance of winning the next election”.

Given that mortgage rates continue to rise, does he still agree with his own electoral analysis?

Which is absolutely why our economic policy sets reducing inflation as our No. 1 priority. By the way, interest rates have also risen in pretty much every developed economy around the world; more so in places like America and New Zealand and similarly in other countries like Australia. But in order to reduce inflation, it is important to have control over borrowing, which is why, unlike the SNP, we are disciplined with regard to the public finances.

Those are the issues that we should be focused on. I saw that yesterday the SNP had a meeting to discuss its future, but the only thing it managed to decide was that it should send Nicola Sturgeon some flowers. Will the hon. Gentleman tell us: did he sign the card?

Respectfully, I think the Prime Minister needs to grow up.

There is an elephant in this here Chamber when it comes to the dire economic circumstances facing the UK, and that is Brexit. Those on the Tory Benches do not want to accept it, and the Labour party does not want to talk about it, but whether it is on food prices, energy prices or indeed mortgage prices, households in Scotland are being shafted by Brexit. Will the Prime Minister apologise for the cycle of misery that Westminster has caused?

While the hon. Gentleman’s party leader calls Nicola Sturgeon the most impressive politician in Europe, we are getting on with delivering for the people of Scotland: paying half of their energy bills, making sure pensions rise, making sure there is direct support with the cost of living for those who need it, and, crucially, ensuring that we secure over 200,000 jobs by supporting Scotland’s North sea oil and gas industry—something opposed by his party.

Q7. Lincoln will soon benefit from £20 million of levelling-up funding to deliver a traffic bridge over the railway to stop the city being permanently gridlocked by the Labour city council’s huge western growth corridor housing development. This is truly levelling up for areas of the north in action. Will my right hon. Friend affirm his commitment, for my Lincoln constituents and businesses, that he and his Government will continue to help level up Lincoln and other areas in the north of our great country? (905411)

My hon. Friend is a fantastic advocate for his constituents. I am glad that he and City of Lincoln Council were successful in their £20 million levelling-up fund bid. The scheme will see two new bridges built across the railway line, improving access and reducing congestion. I very much look forward to seeing the plans progress. He and I share an ambition to make sure we level up not just in Lincoln but across the country.

The Leader of the Opposition recently ventured out of London, visiting my constituency to deliver a one nation British Labour vision of Scotland. However, he neglected to mention that he intends to continue London’s plunder of Scotland’s vast energy wealth, just like the Tories; continue the economic vandalism of Brexit, just like the Tories; and deny Scotland’s right to self-determination, just like the Tories. Perhaps the Prime Minister can tell me which London party leader is the greatest threat to Scottish democracy: the Tory to my right or the Tory to my left.

Mr Speaker, I apologise, because I did not hear fully the hon. Gentleman’s question, but from what I could gather, I think he probably agrees with me that the Leader of the Opposition is not the right person to lead our country.

Q9. At a time when so many people are really worried about the cost of living, does the Prime Minister agree that it is completely wrong for Labour to be introducing new ultra low emission zone charges on driving in the London suburbs? (905413)

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this important issue. While we are getting on providing significant support to families with the cost of living, the Labour Mayor of London, to whom transport is devolved, is busily putting it up, imposing the ULEZ charge against the overwhelming views of residents and businesses. It is disappointing that he is not listening to the British public and the public in outer London, but what is more, his plan to raise costs on working families is totally backed by the Leader of the Opposition.

Q2. Prime Minister, new data from the End Child Poverty coalition and Loughborough University shows that your Government’s austerity measures have plunged 4.2 million children into poverty, 70% of them in working households. In Liverpool, Riverside, 42% are living in poverty—that is up 7% since 2015. Will the Prime Minister commit to scrapping the cruel and ineffectual two-child limit, lift 250,000 children out of poverty and meet anti-poverty organisations? (905406)

I gently point out to the hon. Lady that there are, in fact, 400,000 fewer children in absolute poverty than in 2010. We know that work is the best route out of poverty for families, so with employment at record levels, as we saw yesterday, I am pleased that there are now over 600,000 fewer children in workless households than in 2010. The specific policy she raises actually ensures fairness by asking families on benefits to make the same financial decisions as families supporting themselves solely through work.

Q12. Earlier this week, the all-party parliamentary group on coalfield communities published its report, “Next Steps in Levelling Up the Former Coalfields”, which I know the Prime Minister has received a copy of in his inbox. As a proud MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme, I am delighted with the funding we have had from the Government through the future high streets fund and the town deal, but there is always more to do. Will he commit to reading our report, carefully considering our recommendations and working out what more we can do to level up coalfield communities across the whole United Kingdom? (905416)

I very much welcome the work of the APPG on coalfield communities and, indeed, the breadth and ambition of its policy contributions. We are committed to levelling up the UK by spreading opportunity more equally across the country and by investing in and empowering places that need it the most, including coalfield communities. I look forward to discussing this with my hon. Friend and to hearing from him further.

Q3. A vulnerable constituent of mine whose finances are held in trust was wrongly billed £4,000 by two energy companies that now no longer exist as a result of the energy market crisis. Energy is one of the most basic services, but there is no charter of rights for consumers. This has still not been resolved. Does the Prime Minister agree that we need such a charter? (905407)

I will happily ensure that the appropriate Minister writes to the hon. Lady with a specific response on her constituent, so that we can try to resolve that issue.

Q15. Recently, the independent regulator of social housing issued a notice against Birmingham City Council for the state of its social housing, with 23,000 homes not meeting the decent homes standard, more than 17,000 not receiving asbestos checks, more than 15,000 not having electrical safety checks and more than 1,000 not having fire risk assessments. Refreshingly, honestly and astonishingly, a leaked Labour memo put the blame at the heart of the Labour group in Birmingham. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is time for serious intervention in Birmingham to ensure that people have decent homes to live in? (905419)

The failings identified in Birmingham are wholly unacceptable. The regulator of social housing has made it clear that Birmingham must take immediate action to address those issues, and it will be monitoring the council’s progress closely. I understand that the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities has requested a meeting with Birmingham City Council and will be holding it to account.

Q6. Ilke Homes built thousands of modular houses every year in its factory near Leeds. Many of them are completely carbon zero, meaning no bills at all for residents. However, today it is facing the prospect of collapse, putting 4,200 future homes and 1,500 current jobs at risk. Given that the Home Builders Federation says that new housing units could drop to just 120,000 next year, does the Prime Minister now accept that his Government’s scrapping of housing targets was the wrong decision? (905410)

It would not be right for me to comment on the circumstances of any individual company, but I make absolutely no apology for respecting what local communities want in their local areas. While the Labour party may want to ride roughshod over the views of local communities, impose top-down housing targets and carpet over the green belt, that is not something that this Government will do.

As we speak, the Royal Air Force is operating the Hercules farewell flypast over all parts of the UK. For more than 107 years, my constituents at 47 Squadron have defended our country, including by operating the legendary Hercules for more than 50 years. As this amazing squadron stands down, will my right hon. Friend join the whole House in paying tribute to its remarkable record of service? They are all men and women who have made their country proud.

I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to 47 Squadron. Its association with the Hercules now stretches to 45 years. Although its vital work at the heart of defence has often been unheralded, this squadron has served with professionalism and distinction throughout. I think that the whole House will join me in saying that the personnel and crews can be rightly proud, and they have our full thanks.

Q8.   My constituent Sarah has been let down by this Government. Her elderly father, a veteran living with cancer, has developed a serious heart problem and his next appointment was scheduled for November. In a cost of living crisis, my constituent paid for private care, as he cannot wait five months for an appointment. He has now been diagnosed with heart failure.This is the reality of Tory Britain: elderly and sick patients neglected and turned away. The Conservatives have broken the NHS and they have broken Britain. The British public deserve so much better. Only the Labour party can deliver that, so when will the Prime Minister call a general election? (905412)

I am very sorry to hear about Sarah’s father, and I hope that he speedily gets all the treatment he needs.

We are investing record sums in the NHS, and there are also more doctors, more nurses, more diagnostic scans to identify cancers earlier and elective surgical hubs to get the wait lists down. We are starting to see progress, having practically eliminated 18-month waits, but there is more work to do. I am pleased that the NHS is fully supporting our plan and getting on with delivering it for people.

I thank the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care for the recent announcement that Epsom and St Helier University Hospitals NHS Trust can proceed with plans to improve and upgrade St Helier and build a brand-new hospital in Sutton. The NHS trust is further along than other trusts in the cohort, so can the Prime Minister assure me that when the trust is ready to go, the Treasury and the Government will be ready to give it the green light?

I thank my hon. Friend for all his campaigning and focus on this issue for his constituents. We remain committed to the new hospital scheme for Epsom and St Helier University Hospitals NHS Trust. It will deliver brand-new, state-of-the-art facilities as part of our hospital programme. I know that the Department is working closely with the trust to make sure that we can progress work as soon as possible, and we expect the new hospital to be delivered by 2030.

Q10.   Throughout the war in Ukraine, the largest mobile operator, Kyivstar, has kept its services operating at 93% and it is investing millions in Ukraine’s recovery. Will the Prime Minister use next week’s Ukraine recovery conference to bring together Governments and businesses to invest in Ukraine’s telecoms recovery, and ensure that the people of Ukraine are kept connected with their loved ones throughout the war? (905414)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his thoughtful and powerful question. He is right about the aim of next week’s Ukraine recovery conference summit, which we are proud to be hosting. Indeed, the theme of that summit is how to bring in private capital to help rebuild Ukraine after the devasting war. I join him in paying tribute to all those companies who are providing essential services to the people of Ukraine, in the face of the onslaught they are seeing. They deserve our absolute admiration and support.

Last week, we acknowledged and celebrated carers, of which there are thousands across beautiful Hastings and Rye. Will the Prime Minister join me in thanking them all for their priceless value, and congratulate Hastings Voluntary Action and the Isabel Blackman Centre on receiving carers awards for their support for unpaid carers in our community, and the outstanding Care Quality Commission-rated Radfield Home Care in Hastings on winning a national award?

I join my hon. Friend in congratulating carers in her constituency on all their awards. I am incredibly proud of our health and care staff across the country, and recognise their extraordinary commitment. I pay tribute to unpaid carers and young carers for all they are doing in Hastings and across our nation.

Q11. Funding to bring desperately needed in-patient mental health services to Bedford is sitting in the bank account of our local mental health trust, not to be touched because of the Government’s ridiculous capital spending limits. Will the Prime Minister meet with East London NHS Foundation Trust, apply some common sense and find a way to release the cash to get this mental health unit fixed, so that my constituents do not have to travel miles to access services? (905415)

We are investing record sums in NHS capital; I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we are putting more money into mental health services and taking more action than any previous Government. At the heart of the NHS long-term plan is the largest expansion of mental health services in a generation. I will ensure that the appropriate Minister writes to him with an update on the conversations with his trust about its local capital plan.

What assessment has the Prime Minister made of the eurozone being in recession and the UK economy experiencing growth?

As we have seen recently, it is not just the Office for Budget Responsibility but the OECD, the Bank of England and the International Monetary Fund that have all upgraded the growth forecasts for the UK economy. While the Opposition may want to talk that down, it is the Conservatives that are delivering.

Q13.   Some 39 women have died violently in Northern Ireland since 2017. The police are called to a domestic violence incident every 16 minutes and ours is now one of the most dangerous regions in Europe to be a woman. Stormont officials have consulted on a strategy to tackle violence against women, but there are no Ministers to take it forward. The outstanding Women’s Aid Federation learned last month that its core funding is being taken away. In the demoralising absence of a Government, will the Prime Minister work with me and others to ensure that strategy is enacted and funded, so that we can tackle the cultures and behaviours that are having such a devastating impact on women in Northern Ireland? (905417)

I join the hon. Lady in saying that it is absolutely right that we do everything possible to stamp out violence against women and girls. That is why the Government passed the landmark Domestic Abuse Act 2021, set up a 24/7 victims line and quadrupled funding for victim support. She is also right to highlight that the people of Northern Ireland are not getting the local government that they need and deserve. I want to see that as much as she does, and I will continue to work hard to bring it about.

One of the socialist landmines that the Prime Minister has inherited from the former Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip— I am sure the Prime Minister remembers him: he is the one who said that we should be more Conservative; if only he had had a majority of 80 and been Prime Minister, he might have been able to do something about it—is the banning of “buy one, get one free” and other special offers on products that the Department of Health and Social Care thought were unhealthy. At the best of times that is an idiotic triumph of the nanny state, but during a cost of living crisis it is utterly bonkers. Will the Prime Minister intervene, pursue a more Conservative agenda—as the former Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip would want him to—and scrap this ridiculous policy?

I thank my hon. Friend, who has long highlighted this policy. As he knows, after I took office, given the concerns that he and others had raised about the impact on the cost of living of this policy, we postponed its introduction. No final decisions have been made, but I will continue to take what he says very seriously in all our deliberations.

Q14.   Those at Citizens Advice Cymru have told me of the soaring numbers of people coming to see them who are struggling to afford housing. Last year, the monthly cost of a new mortgage on an average semi-detached house rose by 61%, and most fixed-rate mortgages that are ending in the current 12-month period were set at interest rates below 2%, so the crisis will worsen for both homeowners and renters. What advice does the Prime Minister have for my constituents who are suffering the consequences of Tory economic chaos? Should they cut back on food, switch off the gas and electricity, or get further into Tory-fuelled, expensive debt? (905418)

Our No. 1 priority is to halve inflation so that we can reduce the upward pressure on interest rates. The hon. Gentleman’s constituents should know that what would make that task absolutely worse is his party’s plans for tens of billions of pounds of unfunded borrowing, which would just exacerbate the situation. What I will say, however, is that homeowners who are worried can ask for help through the support for mortgage interest scheme, which has recently been adjusted. That support is available to them. And my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has spoken to the Financial Conduct Authority to ensure that banks treat all those in difficulty with the fairness and compassion that they need.

Last week I was pleased to deliver my report on the opportunities provided by deep geothermal energy, and I look forward to my visit next week to the opening of the Eden project’s deep geothermal plant, championed by my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double). Will the Prime Minister join me in meeting Members who want to emulate my hon. Friend by enjoying the benefits of a deep geothermal plant in their own constituencies?

I thank my hon. Friend for his work on that report: I know that he is rightly passionate about this area. The Government support the development of geothermal projects in the UK, provided that it can be done at an acceptable cost to consumers and in an environmentally friendly manner, and I will ensure that he gets a meeting with the relevant Minister to discuss his report and ideas further.

Nottingham is devastated by the senseless attacks that took place on our streets yesterday. The thoughts and prayers of the whole city are with the family and friends of those who were killed, and with those who were injured. It is absolutely heartbreaking to see the pictures of Barnaby and Grace, the University of Nottingham students whose young lives, so full of potential, have been tragically cut short. As ever, we thank the emergency services, who acted quickly and courageously to save lives. Will the Prime Minister ensure that his Government provide the police, the universities and others in our city with everything they need to support our constituents following these horrendous events?

Like the rest of the country, I have been moved by the heartbreaking tributes from their loved ones. This is an extraordinarily difficult time and every parent’s worst nightmare. The hearts of the whole country are with the families and all those who have lost their lives. The hon. Lady will, I am sure, understand that I cannot comment further at this stage, given that there is an ongoing situation, but the Home Secretary will be making a statement after Prime Minister’s questions.

My constituents in Ickenham and South Harefield benefit enormously from the work of the police based in the nearby Uxbridge police station, which remains open only because of the campaign by the Conservative-led council to stop the Mayor of London closing it down. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, as we invest in more police, those police need good local police stations to work from?

My hon. Friend puts the point very well. Whether it is campaigning to keep open their local police station or opposing the ULEZ charge that would put up costs for hard-working families, it is the Conservatives in Uxbridge who are delivering for their community.