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Volume 734: debated on Wednesday 21 June 2023

This morning I opened the Ukraine recovery conference alongside President Zelensky. The aim of the conference is to secure a resilient economic future for Ukraine.

As we mark the 75th anniversary of the arrival of HMT Empire Windrush tomorrow, I am sure the whole House will celebrate the contribution of the Windrush generation, who have done so much to build the Britain that we cherish today. In this Armed Forces Week, we also thank our armed forces for all that they do to keep our country safe.

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

Given that inflation continues to outstrip pay awards, and given that we expect to see the 13th consecutive rise in interest rates tomorrow, will the Prime Minister tell us by how much living standards have fallen during his eight months in office?

I have always been clear about the fact that inflation is putting pressure on family budgets. The UK Government have taken decisive action to support families through this difficult time, including households in Scotland, who are receiving considerable support—not just help with energy bills, but help for the most vulnerable as well.

Q2. On this side of the House we have a proud record of supporting the nuclear industry, which plays an essential part in the achievement of secure, low-carbon energy. I am delighted that my right hon. Friend has given his backing to the next generation of nuclear reactors, including small modular reactors and larger projects. Will he now commit himself to ensuring that the fuel for these projects is manufactured in the UK, which will secure long-term, high-skilled employment at key sites in the north-west such as Springfields Fuels in my constituency, and a supply chain across the UK? (905567)

We are preserving and strengthening the UK’s nuclear fuel production capacity through our £75 million nuclear fuel fund, and I know that Springfields Fuels has benefited from £30 million of funding. My hon. Friend is right to say that our domestic nuclear fuel sector has a critical role to play in supporting the UK’s energy security and independence, and I know that he will continue to be a champion for the industry in the House.

I echo the Prime Minister’s comments about the Windrush generation, who have contributed so much to our country, and join him in paying tribute to the armed forces, in this week and all weeks.

Let me also say that Glenda Jackson’s passing leaves a space in our cultural and political life that can never be filled. She played many roles, with great distinction, passion and commitment: Academy award-winning actor, campaigning Labour MP, and an effective Government Minister. We will never see talent like hers again.

One of the Prime Minister’s own MPs says that Britain is facing a “mortgage catastrophe”. Does he agree with her?

Let me start by joining the right hon. and learned Gentleman in his tribute to Glenda Jackson.

It is right that we support those with mortgages, which is why halving inflation is absolutely the right economic priority. Inflation is what is driving interest rates up, and inflation is what erodes savings, pushes up prices, and ultimately makes people poorer. That is why, a long time before I had this job, I highlighted the importance of tackling inflation, and it is why I said that it was never easy to root out inflation but we would take the difficult and responsible decisions to do so. It is an approach that the International Monetary Fund has strongly endorsed, in its words, describing our actions as “decisive and responsible”.

I realise that the Prime Minister has spent all week saying that he does not want to influence anyone or anything, but he was certainly keeping to that in his answer. He knows very well the cause of the “mortgage catastrophe”: 13 years of economic failure, and a Tory kamikaze Budget which crashed the economy and put mortgages through the roof. Will the Prime Minister tell us how much the Tory mortgage penalty will cost the average homeowner?

As ever, the right hon. and learned Gentleman is not aware of the global macroeconomic situation. Let me tell him and the House what we are doing to support those with mortgages. We have deliberately and proactively increased the generosity of our support for the mortgage interest scheme. We have also established a new Financial Conduct Authority consumer duty, which will protect people with mortgages—for example, moving them on to interest-only mortgages or lengthening mortgage terms. And we have spent tens of billions of pounds supporting people with the cost of living, particularly the most vulnerable. That is the difference between us: while he is always focused on the politics, we are getting on and doing the job.

Let’s test that. The question that the Prime Minister refuses to answer—he knows the answer: £2,900 extra—is the cost to the average family of the Tory mortgage penalty. He was warned by experts about this as long ago as autumn last year, but he either did not get it, did not believe it or did not care, because he certainly did not do anything. When I raised this a couple of months ago, he had the gall to stand at that Dispatch Box and say he was delivering for homeowners. How is an extra £2,900 a year on repayment delivering for homeowners?

Let’s just look at the facts. The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about interest rates. Perhaps he could explain why interest rates are at similar levels in the United States, in Canada, in Australia and in New Zealand and why they are at the highest level in Europe that they have been for two decades. That is why it is important that we have a plan to reduce inflation. In contrast, what do we hear from the right hon. and learned Gentleman? He wants to borrow an extra £28 billion a year. That would make the situation worse. He wants to ban new supplies of energy from the North sea. That would make the situation worse. And he wants to give in to unions’ unaffordable pay demands. That would make the situation worse. He does not have many policies, but the few that he does have all have the same thing in common: they are dangerous, inflationary and working people would pay the price. [Interruption.]

I appreciate that the Prime Minister has a keen interest in the mortgage market in California, but I am talking about mortgage holders here. Whilst his Government are consumed in lawbreaking, chaos and division, working people are paying the price. This morning, I spoke to James in Selby. He is a police officer, working hard to keep people safe every day. The Tory mortgage penalty is going to cost him and his family £400 more each and every month. That is nearly £5,000. He told me this morning—Conservative Members may not want to hear this—that they have decided to sell their house and to downsize, and he has just told his children they are going to have to start sharing bedrooms. Why should James and his family pay the cost of the Prime Minister’s failure?

I hope, when the right hon. and learned Gentleman was talking to James, he explained that his economic policies would make James’s situation worse. It is not just me saying that. The independent Institute for Fiscal Studies says that his policy of never-ending debt and borrowing would damage James because it would “increase inflation” and drive up interest rates, leaving James and everybody else in this country poorer. The International Monetary Fund has said that our plan prioritises not what is politically easy, but what is right for the British people. That is what responsible economic leadership looks like.

James and his family will have been listening to that, Prime Minister, and their plight should keep Conservative Members awake at night because, over the next few years, 7.5 million people are going to be in the same boat, all paying the Tory mortgage penalty month after month after month. The situation is so dire that repossessions are already up 50%—a total betrayal of the idea that if you work hard, you will get on. What is the Prime Minister going to do to make sure that more families do not lose their homes?

I know the right hon. and learned Gentleman is reading from his prepared script, but he failed to listen to the answer I gave. I spelled out in detail what we are doing. We have increased the generosity of support for the mortgage interest scheme, and we did that proactively in advance. We have also established a new Financial Conduct Authority consumer duty that will protect borrowers by, for example, allowing them to extend their mortgage term or switch to interest-only mortgages, and we have spent tens of billions of pounds supporting households with living costs. Those are the practical steps that we are taking to help James and other families who are facing these situations.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman mentioned mortgage arrears and repossessions, and I am pleased to say that today they are running at a level below when we entered the pandemic because of the actions we are taking. More importantly perhaps, they are also running three times lower than the level we inherited from the last Labour Government.

I am sure that, from the vantage point of his helicopter, everything might look fine, but that is not the lived experience of those on the ground. After 13 years of economic failure, people across the country are paying the price of uncosted, reckless, damaging decisions by the Tory party. Even now, as mortgages go through the roof, the Prime Minister is planning to wave through honours and peerages for those who caused misery for millions. What does it say about this Government that, while working people are worrying about mortgage rates, paying the bills and even repossessions, the Tory party is rewarding those who are guilty of economic vandalism?

No amount of personal attacks and petty point-scoring can disguise the fact that the right hon. and learned Gentleman does not have a plan for this country. He comes here every week to make the same petty points. We are getting on and delivering for this country. Yes, inflation is a challenge, which is why we are on track to keep reducing it. We are reducing waiting lists and stopping the boats, all while he is focused on the past and focused on the politics. It is all talk. Whereas this Government and this Prime Minister deliver for the country. [Interruption.]

Q5. Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.My constituents continue to be concerned about energy prices and energy security. Can the Prime Minister assure me that he will not cave in to the extremist bullies from Just Stop Oil and their patsies in the Labour leadership and will instead commit to developing new oil and gas production in the United Kingdom, which would be good for jobs, good for the economy and make us less dependent on foreign countries for our energy supply? (905570)

As ever, my hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Putin’s weaponisation of energy has amplified the need for greater energy security, which is why we deliberately launched a new licensing round for the North sea. Official forecasts suggest that a block on North sea oil and gas investment would mean that the UK’s dependence on imports rises substantially. The Labour party’s decision is one that puts ideology ahead of jobs, investment and Britain’s energy security.

In February, the Prime Minister told this House that

“borrowing costs are…back to where they should be”.—[Official Report, 8 February 2023; Vol. 727, c. 904.]

In March, he boasted

“we are on track to halve inflation by the end of this year.”—[Official Report, 22 March 2023; Vol. 730, c. 330.]

In May, he said that “economic optimism is increasing.” Given the dire economic reality of today, is it not now clear that he has taken his honesty lessons from Boris Johnson?

The hon. Gentleman also fails to mention that it is not just the Bank of England, not just the Office for Budget Responsibility and not just the OECD but the IMF that have all upgraded their growth outlook for the United Kingdom economy this year. While he and others were predicting that this country would enter a recession, the actions of this Government have meant that we have, so far, averted that. We continue to be on track to keep reducing inflation, because that is the right economic priority.

I want Members to be a little more cautious in what they say. These are questions to the present, serving Prime Minister. There is a danger that the way the question was put could mislead.

From listening to the Prime Minister’s answer, I do not think he quite grasps the reality of the economic situation facing households across these isles—how could he? But it does not need to be like this and it did not need to be like this. Because mortgage deals in Ireland are not sitting in excess of 6%—they are at about 4.5%. Inflation in the euro area is not sitting at 8.7%—it is sitting at closer to 6%. Britain is broke. Seven years after the Conservatives’ EU referendum, will he finally admit that it was Brexit that broke it?

Again, I do not think that the hon. Gentleman was paying attention earlier; interest rates in this country are at similar levels to those in America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The rise in inflation and interest rates is a global phenomenon. But that is why, early, I set out that bringing inflation down was the right economic priority to have. That is what this Government will do, but that requires difficult and responsible decisions. That is what leadership looks like—I do not think the SNP will ever do the same thing.

Q7. Wylfa, in my constituency, is recognised as the best site for small modular reactors and large-scale new nuclear in the UK. Given the UK Government’s commitment to nuclear and Wylfa, when can my constituents expect to hear the result of Great British Nuclear’s small modular reactor competition? Diolch yn fawr. (905572)

There will be no greater champion for this technology and her community than my hon. Friend. My understanding is that the first stage of market engagement is already under way. The expectation is that the down-selection process will be launched this summer, with an ambition to assess and decide on the leading technologies this autumn. The competition will be open, judicious, fair and robust, and I express all my confidence that we will select the best technology for the United Kingdom.

Four months after the welcome Windsor framework, there is still no restored Northern Ireland Executive or Assembly, and we are facing an unprecedented budget crisis. This situation is untenable, and it is getting worse every day. The Government’s approach seems to be to wait to see whether something happens, rather than to lead from the front. So will the Prime Minister confirm that he is willing to work with the Northern Ireland parties on a financial package for a restored Executive? Will he work more closely with the Irish Government to try to drive a process, including putting reform of the institutions on the agenda, so that those who want to govern Northern Ireland can do so?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his engagement with me and the Government during this process. I share his frustration, and our focus remains on delivering for the people of Northern Ireland, who expect and deserve their locally elected decision makers to address the issues that matter to them most. I thank him for his kind words about the Windsor framework and how it allows us to move forward. For many years, we have recognised the particular challenges facing Northern Ireland, which is why we have provided more than £7 billion of funding, on top of the Barnett block grant, since 2014. I assure him that my right hon. Friend the Northern Ireland Secretary remains in close contact with all the parties in Northern Ireland to clarify what more is needed, so that we can restore the conditions for Executive formation.

Q9.   Since 2016, cumulative growth has been 4% in Italy and 5.5% in Germany, whereas in the UK it has been 6.8%. In July last year, British exports to the European Union were the highest not just since Brexit, but since records began. The UK had the highest growth of any G7 country in both 2021 and 2022. The eurozone is currently in recession, but we are not. Is it not time that we heard more good news and talked Britain up? (905574)

My right hon. Friend is quite right to highlight the improvement in our economic outlook and the good, positive news showing the strength in the underlying economy. I know that he joins me in saying that our economic priority right now must be to continue to bear down on inflation, but while we do that, we are putting in place the conditions to grow the economy. As he said, unlike the Labour party, we will not talk Britain down; we will grow the country’s jobs.

Q3. Last night was another fantastic night at Hampden—it was a real tonic during tough times for the tartan army and Scotland more widely. However, whereas English and Welsh fans could watch their national teams for free on Channel 4 and S4C, only a small fraction of Scots could watch their match, with many unable to afford the subscription to Viaplay, particularly during this cost of living crisis. Does the Prime Minister agree that that is inherently unfair, and will he ask the Department for Culture, Media and Sport Secretary to meet me to discuss how to fix this situation? (905568)

I join the hon. Gentleman in his comments about the match. I know the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Lucy Frazer), is engaging with him and others on this particular topic, and I will make sure that she gets back to him.

Q10. In December last year, LINK conducted research about the acceptance of cash. It found that nearly half—45%—of people have been somewhere where cash has not been accepted or has been discouraged, and 49% of people said being unable or being discouraged to pay in cash was inconvenient. Will the Prime Minister look again at the Financial Services and Markets Bill, when it comes back from the other place, and ensure that any entity providing a public service directly to the public, involving payments or a charge, must accept cash? (905575)

We know that cash continues to be used by millions of people, particularly those in vulnerable groups. That is why the Financial Services and Markets Bill will, for the first ever time, protect people’s access to cash in UK law. The Bill also supports businesses that continue to accept cash by ensuring reasonable access to deposit facilities, but as technology and consumer behaviour changes, it is right that organisations themselves should be able to choose the forms of payment that they will accept.

As we discussed last week, Mr Speaker, there is a well-established process of vetting for all peerages and I, in keeping with the convention followed by Prime Ministers of both parties, have followed the same process.

Q11. Wiltshire leads the world in agritech—the farming processes that increase productivity and will feed the world’s growing population, without wrecking the environment. I welcome what the Government have done in this space, particularly in gene editing, which is only possible because of Brexit. Will my right hon. Friend acknowledge the work of Wiltshire farmers and tech entrepreneurs, particularly James Dyson, although there are many more? Does he agree with me that this is one of the key opportunities for our country to become a high-wage, high-skill, high-tech economy? (905576)

When it comes to agritech, we are among the best in the world, with fantastic research bodies, businesses and pioneering farmers and growers. I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to all of them. They are getting our support through the £270 million farming innovation programme and, as he rightly mentioned, we are seizing the opportunities from our exit from the EU, including through our plans to develop gene-edited crops that are resistant to drought and flooding more quickly. That will drive up growth and productivity, and create jobs.

Q6. Just to recap, during this Parliament we have had one Tory Prime Minister who turned out to be a proven liar, and a second Tory Prime Minister who was outlasted by a lettuce. After this week’s pathetic no-show by the Prime Minister, what one word would he use to describe himself? Might it be “weak”? (905571)

What is weak is those in the party opposite being unable to stand up to the people who fund them and stand behind hard-working families in this country.

Q14. I welcome the steps the Prime Minister is taking to stop illegal, dangerous and unnecessary small boast crossings, which are overwhelming our asylum system, but I have to raise significant concerns about a recent decision to stand up a third hotel in Burton, as well as increase capacity at another hotel by 64%. That will have a serious knock-on effect on our response to homelessness and rough sleeping, as well as causing challenges for wider public services in east Staffordshire. What further support can the Prime Minister provide local authorities in east Staffordshire to deal with these urgent concerns? (905579)

That is why we need to stop the boats so that we can relieve the unsustainable pressure on our asylum system and accommodation, which is costing British taxpayers over £3 billion a year. Our new Bill will ensure that anyone arriving illegally will be detained and swiftly removed, but in the meantime we will take action to address the unacceptable cost of housing migrants in hotels. We recognise the pressure this places on local areas. That is why the Government are providing further dispersal financial support, but I will ensure that my hon. Friend gets a meeting with the Immigration Minister to discuss her specific local concerns.

Q8.   Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust described the Government’s recent decision to delay the rebuilding of Charing Cross, Hammersmith and St Mary’s Hospitals as “hugely damaging for the health and healthcare of hundreds of thousands of people.” Will the Prime Minister keep the promise made to me by his predecessor one year ago from that Dispatch Box and guarantee completion of new hospitals on those sites by 2030? (905573)

The Government remain committed to two new hospital schemes for Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust at Hammersmith Hospital and Charing Cross Hospital, and for St Mary’s Hospital as part of the new hospital programme. We have expanded the programme, as the hon. Gentleman knows, to include buildings with reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete and we need to address those as a priority for the safety of staff and patients. However, we still expect the majority of schemes in cohort 4 to be in construction before 2030. I know that the Department will continue to keep him updated on progress.

Q15. The United Kingdom sanctioned Iran for promoting terrorism, destabilising the middle east, supplying weapons to our enemies and, of course, the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Within the past few weeks, the journalist, David Rose, has reported in the Jewish Chronicle that British universities have been undertaking research in collaboration with Iranian researchers and universities into areas of potential military applications, including drone technology, fighter jets, battlefield armour and laser communication. Will the Prime Minister initiate an investigation into this and take action to stop the failure of our sanctions regime before it does any more harm to the national interest of the United Kingdom and our allies? (905580)

I thank my right hon. Friend for raising this important topic. We take all allegations of breaches of export control seriously. My understanding is that officials in the Department for Business and Trade are currently investigating the allegations made in the recent press article cited. We will not accept collaborations that compromise our national security. That is why we have made our systems more robust, including expanding the scope of the Academic Technology Approval Scheme to protect UK research from ever-changing global threats, but my right hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight that and he has my assurance that we will keep on it.

Q12. Could any of the material that the Prime Minister’s Government are trying to avoid giving to the covid inquiry cover his tenure as Chancellor and his eat out to help out policy? (905577)

As I have said previously, it is right that we learn the lessons from covid so that we can be better prepared for the future. That is why the Government have co-operated with the inquiry in a spirit of transparency and candour, handing over more than 55,000 documents so far. There is a very specific point of disagreement, as the hon. Gentleman well knows, and it is the subject now of legal proceedings, so I am not able to comment further.

Despite being world leaders in motorsport, the UK has not hosted a round of the World Rally Championship since 2019. We now have an opportunity to host a round in Northern Ireland next year to bring in in excess of £100 million to the economy, but to make that happen the promoters need Government underwriting of approximately £1 million. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this event simply must go ahead and will he instruct the relevant Departments to work with the motorsport all-party parliamentary group, Motorsport UK and the promoters to make it happen?

Northern Ireland is a fantastic place to host international events. I am delighted that my hon. Friend shares my enthusiasm for driving forward prosperity in Northern Ireland. However, with tourism being devolved in Northern Ireland, I suggest that he engages with Tourism NI on this potential event, and I look forward to hearing how he gets on.

Q13. The UK Government and His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition refuse to face up to the bleak reality that Brexit is causing weaker growth and soaring inflation, according to the former Governor of the Bank of England. The LSE says that EU trade barriers have added, on average, £250 to household food bills, and Scots fishing chiefs are saying that they were sold down the river and scoff at the talk of treaty renegotiation as just spin. With such colossal failures stacking up and the former PM, who played a leading role in the leave campaign, finally exposed as a serial liar, will the current PM apologise to my constituents in Edinburgh North and Leith? (905578)

I just point out to the hon. Lady, as she is going on about the EU and us leaving it, that we have actually grown faster than France and Italy since we left the single market, our exports have grown by 25% just since covid and, as we heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) earlier, every single international organisation has upgraded its forecast for UK economic growth. That is because we have the right priorities to drive growth, create jobs and spread opportunity in every part of our United Kingdom.

Hospices across the UK provide not only quality, but compassionate care to people at the end of their lives, including Mountbatten hospice in my constituency, which looked after my office manager Sue Hall when she passed away in March. That is why I and her son-in-law, Miles Rogers, will be skydiving to raise money on Saturday. We have raised £6,000 so far. The Prime Minister should feel free to donate to the campaign, but will he send his best wishes to all hospice workers across the United Kingdom?

I join my hon. Friend in wishing Miles good luck this weekend as he raises money, and in paying tribute to all our incredible hospice volunteers and workers across the country. They do a fantastic job in all our constituencies at a very difficult time in families’ lives, and we all owe them an enormous amount of thanks.

Half of us, sadly, will get cancer at some point during our lives and half of those with cancer will need radiotherapy treatment, yet 3.5 million people in this country live in radiotherapy deserts where they do not have close access to that treatment. That includes my constituency, where my constituents living in Westmorland have to take three-hour round trips every day to get lifesaving treatment. Will the Prime Minister back our proposal for a satellite radiotherapy unit at Westmorland General Hospital in Kendal, and support all the other Members living in radiotherapy deserts to bring radiotherapy close to their communities, too?

Like the hon. Gentleman, I know that access to healthcare in rural areas is particularly important, given the distances that our rural constituents have to drive. That is why we remain committed to expanding the range of diagnostic services that are available through our proposal to roll out community diagnostic centres. The record-breaking capital budget that we have in the NHS is delivering that. I look forward to the Department’s engaging with him on his plans for his local area.

The Bank of England is raising interest rates to try to stem spending and therefore preventing inflation from being baked into the economy. The same cannot be said for those with savings accounts. Would it not be good for people to be encouraged and incentivised to save more? Will my right hon. Friend and the Chancellor talk to the industry and encourage them or impel them to give a good deal to savers too?

My hon. Friend raises an excellent point. It is vital that savers are treated fairly and that markets function as competitively as we would expect them to. I am pleased to tell her that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor is meeting the industry and the banks this Friday to discuss the matter she has raised, and will make sure that she and everyone else gets an update after that.