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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 737: debated on Wednesday 6 September 2023

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Police Funding

1. What recent discussions he has held with the Police Service of Northern Ireland on the potential impact of changes in the level of funding for policing in Northern Ireland on crime. (906178)

Today is my first anniversary in this amazing role—one of the very best jobs in Government. Some things, alas, have not changed in that time. Obviously, Stormont is not sitting. Some important anniversaries have been marked, including the 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, and some things have really moved on and changed, including the Windsor framework resolving many of the issues with the Northern Ireland protocol, and indeed my former shadow, the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle). I warmly welcome his replacement, the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), to his place, and indeed his deputy, the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson). May I place on the record my thanks to the hon. Member for Hove and his deputy for all the work they did with me in the course of the last year?

Policing in Northern Ireland is a devolved matter, as is the funding for it, and it is the responsibility of Northern Ireland Departments to allocate resources as they see fit.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on his anniversary. In July, the former chief constable warned that the force was at risk of being left unrecognisable due to budgetary pressures that could see the loss of more than 1,000 officers by 2025. With the force already at lower-than-ideal numbers and the recent data leak likely to have an impact, what discussions is the Secretary of State having with the Department of Justice in Northern Ireland and with the PSNI about how those pressures can be eased during this difficult time for the force?

I had a number of conversations with the former chief constable about this issue. The budget for 2023-24 gives the Department of Justice a total allocation of £1.2 billion. Obviously, recognising the unique security situation in Northern Ireland, the UK Government make additional contributions to the PSNI’s counter-terrorism work through the additional security funding. The UK contribution for 2022-23 is £32 million. I am fully aware of the obvious issues that we talked about in the recent urgent question, and I am sure that we will get on to those a bit later in questions.

I wish my right hon. Friend a happy anniversary. I also thank, as he did, the outgoing shadow team and welcome the new. He is right to reference the recent data breach, which will have very much changed the backdrop of the morale of the police in Northern Ireland—and not just officers, but those in support services. Budgets are under pressure, as we know, but the security and safety of serving officers and those who work for the PSNI is always important, particularly post the data breach, given the potential risks from dissidents that that creates. Can he assure me that he will do all he can to deliver safety equipment, protection and security for those who are feeling most vulnerable at this time?

Yes, I absolutely can. I look forward to continuing to work closely with the PSNI’s senior leadership team, who have a wealth of experience and are dedicated to keeping the people of Northern Ireland safe. I know that they are continuing to work closely to ensure the very best possible response to this breach. Just to give a tiny bit of detail, very briefly, the PSNI and security partners will continue to take proportionate action to protect their officers, staff and families and they have full Government support in responding to the data breach. At the moment, our focus remains on providing specialist support and expertise to the PSNI from across Government.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on his first anniversary and welcome the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) to his new role as shadow Secretary of State. We look forward to working with him.

This Secretary of State has rightly said that many aspects of policing in Northern Ireland are devolved, but the data breach is a matter of national security because it includes officers who work with the Security Service in a very specialist role involving counter-terrorism and intelligence in Northern Ireland. Will he assure the House that whatever resources are required by the PSNI, not only to fulfil that function but to protect its own officers and staff, will be made available?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for congratulating me on my anniversary. I was hoping that he might give me a different anniversary present, by heading back to Stormont, but perhaps we can have that conversation later.

I have to ask, haven’t I?

The right hon. Gentleman asks a very sensible and serious question, for which I thank him. I obviously cannot answer some elements of his question in public, but any additional funding required by the PSNI would be submitted through an established process. We are currently at the very beginning of that established process, so it would not be right to pre-empt that. The Government are clear that security is paramount, and our focus remains on the items I set out. It will move on, but it is currently specialist support and expertise in response to the latest assessments.

I thank the Secretary of State for that response. In his earlier answer he referred to the PSNI’s senior leadership team. For the record, my party fully supports the PSNI in its impartial implementation of policing across all communities in Northern Ireland, but we are in a crisis situation, not only with the data breach but with the loss of confidence internally within the PSNI. Although it is the responsibility of the Policing Board to make appointments, does he agree that perhaps what we need now, in the absence of a chief constable, is for someone to be brought in who has the experience and leadership credentials that are needed in the interim period, pending the appointment of a new chief constable, to take control of this situation?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that question, the way he poses it and the point behind it. The senior management team is a strong and effective unit, and the Policing Board has a lot on its plate at this point in time. I believe it has even launched a review into how the Policing Board itself operates. I am quite sure that questions are being asked about what can be done in this space but, as of now, I can update the House only on what I have done.

Cost of Living

2. What assessment he has made of the potential impact of the increased cost of living on people in Northern Ireland. (906179)

7. What assessment he has made of the potential impact of the increased cost of living on people in Northern Ireland. (906185)

The UK Government are acutely aware of the cost of living pressures experienced in all parts of the UK since the onset of war in Ukraine. We provided an estimated £2 billion of financial support to Northern Ireland, including more than £1 billion in the form of the energy price guarantee and the additional £600 payment to help households with the rising cost of energy. Tackling inflation continues to be a top priority for this Government.

Every country in the world is having to deal with the impact of the war in Ukraine and the impact of the pandemic, but only one country is having to deal with the impact of Brexit, which is what is driving up prices and the cost of living for people in Northern Ireland and across the UK, isn’t it?

I am inclined just to say no. The reality is that this conversation will keep going to and fro. We have left the European Union and we are staying out of the European Union. Our task is to make sure that we flourish as a nation outside the EU, and I wish the hon. Gentleman would just get behind it and move on.

In June this year, according to research by the Trussell Trust, one in six people across Northern Ireland faced hunger, with nearly half of those referred to Trussell Trust food banks being children under the age of 16. In Scotland, primary school children get a £120 uniform grant and secondary school pupils get a £150 uniform grant, but the amount in Wales in Northern Ireland is almost a quarter of that. Given that parents are choosing between spending money on back-to-school supplies or on food, what steps is the Minister taking to ease the cost of living pressures on families in Northern Ireland?

As I said, we provided a large sum of money to ease cost of living pressures in Northern Ireland. The hon. Gentleman mentions food banks, which are very much on my mind, given the scale of the food bank in Wycombe. I am very well aware of the cost of living pressures in Northern Ireland. We continue to put large sums of money into Northern Ireland, but it would be much better to deal with all these issues in the presence of a restored Executive.

May I join in the congratulations to my right hon. Friend on his first anniversary? I also thank the new shadow Secretary of State for the huge contribution he has made as vice-chairman of the UK-EU Parliamentary Partnership Assembly. In welcoming the money that has been provided to Northern Ireland to help with the cost of living pressures, does the Minister agree that it would be even better, and more efficiently spent, if the Executive were back up and running?

Yes, I absolutely do; my right hon. and learned Friend is right on that. Time and again we are asked to intervene, and every time we are asked to intervene that is a call for direct rule. We do not intend to get into direct rule. It would be far better if local decisions were taken by a locally accountable Executive.

The Government have shown their commitment to supporting the people of Northern Ireland through the recent increase in the cost of living. In the absence of an Executive—we all accept that one is absolutely necessary—will my hon. Friend assure me that the Government will continue to intervene where necessary for the people of Northern Ireland?

We will continue to work for the people of Northern Ireland, respecting the devolution settlement. For example, in recognition of the cost of living pressures faced by workers across the UK, the Government increased the national minimum wage rate by 9.7%, to £10.42 per hour for workers aged 23 and over, at the spring Budget. We will continue to be seized of the need to help those least well off.

The cost of living crisis is clearly continuing to bite hard in Northern Ireland, with footfall at stores across Northern Ireland falling by 5% throughout August. What steps is the Department taking to enable people to take full advantage of the highly privileged economic status and market access that Northern Ireland now has, which this Government have deprived to the rest of the UK?

I disagree with the hon. Gentleman’s use of the term “deprived”, but I am happy to tell him that next week we have the Northern Ireland investment summit. We are determined to attract private sector investment into Northern Ireland and to promote inclusion in that growth. Northern Ireland has a fantastically vibrant economy, and I very much hope that the least well-off will have opportunities through our investment in skills to develop themselves and to secure more better paying jobs in Northern Ireland, so that they can move on.

Economic Trends

3. What recent assessment he has made of trends in the Northern Ireland economy; and if he will make a statement. (906180)

We routinely monitor trends in the Northern Ireland economy. It has the ingredients required for economic success: exceptional talent, creativity and innovation. Although challenges persist, recent indicators suggest resilience and the potential for growth. This Government remain committed to fostering a productive environment for economic development and prosperity in Northern Ireland. I look forward to our investment summit between 12 and 13 September—next week—which is a fantastic opportunity to showcase Northern Ireland’s economic potential to the world.

I thank the Minister for that encouraging response. He will be aware that Northern Ireland’s largest trading partner by a very long way is Great Britain. It is therefore important that there is frictionless trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, so will he update the House on what discussions he has had on the future operation of the green channel?

One of our priorities now is the successful implementation of the Windsor framework and that green channel. We will continue to have conversations with colleagues in the Cabinet Office who lead the Windsor framework taskforce. I assure my hon. Friend that we are determined to ensure that that system works as seamlessly for everyone.

Will the Minister confirm that at next week’s investment conference the Government will proactively market Northern Ireland’s dual market access under the Windsor framework?

Yes, I can confirm that. I am absolutely determined that we shall do so. Indeed, next week I shall chair a session on that issue. This is not just about access as of right to the UK market and as a privilege to the EU market; it is also about being under our services regulation, which is an advantage, in combination with access to our free trade agreements, such as the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership. This is a unique opportunity in all of the world, including right across the EU, and I am convinced that he and I, and we all, should make the most of it.

Restoration of Power Sharing

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and it is good to see him in his place. Our focus remains on delivering for the people of Northern Ireland, who expect and deserve locally elected decision makers to address the issues that matter to them. I continue to engage regularly with all party leaders and speak to them very regularly indeed.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer, but the lack of a functioning devolved Government in Northern Ireland means that there are direct consequences for its people, as is evidenced by the highest waiting lists in the UK, which would not be tolerated elsewhere. In the absence of a restoration of power sharing, there needs to be a plan B—what is it?

Obviously, all my energies are spent on trying to resolve the issues in order to allow the DUP to come back to Stormont and get the Executive up and running. There are myriad options available if we were to go down different routes, but I am afraid none of them is as ideal as Stormont functioning and the institutions of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement all being stood up.

There is a big opportunity over the coming weeks to restore the Northern Ireland Executive. Does the Secretary of State agree with me that key to that is the UK, Dublin and the EU listening harder to the concerns of the DUP about implementation of the Windsor agreement?

I thank the former Secretary of State for that question; he is absolutely right. We have been listening in great detail to the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson), the DUP leader, and his team of negotiators over the course of the summer. We have had very detailed negotiations and I believe we are homing in on what is actually required. That might well mean we need conversations elsewhere, but let us see where we get to in the course of the next couple of days.

The Windsor framework, which was agreed seven months ago, was a great achievement, but it was also intended to enable the restoration of power sharing in Northern Ireland. That has not happened. What is the Government’s plan? The Secretary of State refers to the conversations he is having, but what is the plan to get Stormont back up and running?

I sincerely welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his place and thank him for his question. Currently, there are issues with one particular political party. We are talking to that party on a very regular basis at this point in time. Those talks have moved forward substantially, but he would have to check in with the DUP leadership to see if I am correct. Just because the right hon. Gentleman cannot see that does not mean that it is not happening. One thing I have learned, as I have said many times from this Dispatch Box, is that just because talks are being held in a confidential manner does not mean that they are not taking place and moving forward.

The Secretary of State knows that there are concerns in the Unionist community about unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses trading with Great Britain. The Government said last month in the border target operating model that they are committed to that access, as we all are, and that:

“These arrangements will be enshrined and further strengthened in domestic legislation”.

Can he tell the House when that legislation will be introduced?

Hopefully in very short order, dependent on making sure we have got it exactly right, so it answers the questions and allows Stormont and the Executive to re-form.

Postal Communications: Customs

5. What steps he is taking to help ensure that postal communications between Britain and Northern Ireland are delivered without customs declarations. (906182)

Under the Windsor framework, sending parcels to friends and family in Northern Ireland will be as smooth and easy as it is today, removing any burdensome paperwork, costs or delays. Northern Ireland consumers will be able to order from businesses in the rest of the UK and receive goods in the post as they do now, without customs processes or burdensome costs. This will maintain consumer choice for British goods in Northern Ireland. Businesses sending goods to other businesses will use our new green lane.

A number of constituents and consumers have contacted me to highlight that many eBay or Amazon providers will no longer ship to Northern Ireland as they state that they cannot afford the enhanced fees, demonstrating that Northern Ireland continues to be treated differently. It is costing small businesses and individuals the ability to shop around. What steps can the Minister take to revisit the framework with our EU counterparts, to ensure free and fair trade throughout the United Kingdom that is clear and easy to follow for all businesses?

Under the protocol as it was, all parcels would have needed to complete full international customs processes. I believe that the suppliers to whom the hon. Gentleman refers will be making their plans under the protocol as it was. Under the Windsor framework, parcels to consumers will not be subject to those burdensome processes. He reminds us all that we need to redouble our efforts to communicate to suppliers the message that they will be able to take advantage of a new green lane and supply to consumers in Northern Ireland. It is a subject close to my heart, and I can see that it is extremely close to his too.

Public Finances

6. What steps his Department is taking to ensure the sustainability of Northern Ireland’s public finances. (906184)

The Northern Ireland Budget (No. 2) Bill 2023-24 is progressing through Parliament and is due to be debated in the other House next week. The Secretary of State has used his powers to request information and advice from the Northern Ireland civil service on measures that could generate revenue and improve the sustainability of public finances.

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. I congratulate him and the Secretary of State on their anniversaries and pay tribute to them for all they have done in the past year.

Some have suggested that we could reform the Barnett formula to address the sustainability of public finances in Northern Ireland, but does my hon. Friend agree that that is not a silver bullet, and that trade-offs will need to be made to fund public services?

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. This is a very important point. Although we will remain open to discussing proposals put to us by the Northern Ireland parties, it would not be a silver bullet to reform the Barnett formula. An Executive will still need to make trade-offs when they decide to spend scarce resources. Negotiations between the Welsh Government and the Treasury on a fiscal framework, which included an adjustment to the Barnett formula, took place over seven years, so, with the best will in the world, it is not an issue that can be solved overnight. What we need is a functioning Executive and we stand ready to work with that Executive. In the meantime, we will continue to engage with the Northern Ireland civil service on a range of measures that could improve fiscal sustainability.

Early years services are vital for children to reach their potential, but they are underfunded and at risk in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK without a childcare strategy. According to the Department for Education, it was delayed again because early years faces potential significant budget reductions. When can hard-pressed families in Northern Ireland expect the childcare strategy? Will the Minister commit to early years services receiving the increased multi-year funding that is needed to invest in children?

I am glad to welcome the hon. Lady to her place. As she knows, education is devolved in Northern Ireland and it is a matter for the Education Department there to take these decisions, but her point is well made, and I am confident that, when she makes her first visit to Northern Ireland, like me she will be engaging with all parties on just such issues.

Electricity Generation

8. What recent discussions he has held with the Department for the Economy officials on electricity generation and supply after 30 September 2023. (906186)

My officials and the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero are engaging with the Northern Ireland Department for the Economy to understand the facts and to assess any extra requirements. Energy is a devolved matter.

I thank the Secretary of State for that response, but can he indicate to people who are concerned about recent newspaper speculation on the future of generation and supply in October and beyond that it is secure and that there will be no hiccup or hiatus between now and Christmas?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his supplementary question. Northern Ireland benefits from being part of the United Kingdom with access to electricity from Great Britain through the interconnector, and it also benefits from being part of the single electricity market on the island of Ireland. I and the Minister of State worked hard to ensure that that was preserved during the UK’s exit from the European Union. We are working very closely with all officials across Government here and in the Northern Ireland civil service to ensure that the right preparations are in place for the winter.

Veterinary Products and Horticultural Stock

9. What recent assessment he has made of the availability of (a) veterinary products and (b) horticultural stock in Northern Ireland. (906187)

The cliff edge on veterinary medicines has been removed, protecting the supply of those medicines in Northern Ireland through to 2025, while we work through sustainable, long-term solutions. We are much more optimistic about reaching those solutions in the context of the Windsor framework. There will no longer be any need for costly phytosanitary certificates for each movement of plants staying in the UK. We have paved the way for 11 banned plant species to move again by the time of the next planting season. These were priority cases identified by the industry itself, and we have progressed further cases since announcing the Windsor framework. We are working closely with a wide range of stakeholders to ensure that gardeners, farmers and growers can access plants and seeds from a wide variety of sources.

With regards to veterinary medicines, I fear the Minister’s sunny optimism may be somewhat misplaced. After all, his preferred stakeholder—Mr Bernard Van Goethem, the deputy director general for food sustainability—has made it abundantly clear to DEFRA and the UK Government that the negotiations on this matter are “over”. The deal is done. There will be no change to veterinary medicines. This means that insulin will no longer be available in Northern Ireland for animals. Veterinary medicines for botulism—144,000 were issued last year—will no longer be available. What will the Secretary of State and the Minister do about this?

The hon. Gentleman has presented me with information about which I was not aware beforehand. I am certainly happy to look at what has been said, but what I would say to him is that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister did the deal that no one said could be done. That has transformed the relationship with the European Union, and I am therefore confident that we will be able to deliver a deal on veterinary medicines. As we sometimes say, I do not recognise the information that the hon. Gentleman has presented. It is new to me, and I shall be glad to look at it, but we will certainly have to deliver a deal.

The Ulster Farmers Union estimates that 1,700 veterinary medicines could be withdrawn from the market in Northern Ireland unless the Windsor framework is fixed. I urge the Minister to do that.

Certainly. My right hon. Friend makes her point with great clarity. Of course, having made it on an occasion such as this, it has been heard by a wide range of Ministers, and I am confident that we will be able to redouble our efforts to deliver what we need on veterinary medicines.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


I would like to start by congratulating Sarina Wiegman and the Lionesses on their fantastic performance at the World cup. We are all incredibly proud of them. I also know that the whole House will join me in sending condolences to the family, friends and colleagues of Sergeant Graham Saville. It is testament to his bravery that he died in the line of duty, and a terrible reminder of the work that the police do every day to keep us safe.

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.

The Labour party used to claim that it represents working-class people, but Labour’s ultra low emission zone expansion to Greater London will now hammer millions of working people with bills of £12.50 per day, or £4,500 per year. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is unacceptable that Londoners and those in surrounding counties face this regressive and unacceptable tax, and will he do everything that he can to help working people?

I agree with my hon. Friend. It is disappointing that last week the Labour leader allowed the Labour Mayor to introduce ULEZ, charging hard-working people £12.50 every time they start their car, adding to the burden of the cost of living. All I can say is that while we focus on helping hard-working families, all the Labour leader does is punish them.

I join the Prime Minister in congratulating the Lionesses, and also in his comments about Sergeant Saville; I think we speak for the whole House when we speak on that subject.

I also extend the warmest welcome to my hon. Friend the new Labour Member for Selby and Ainsty (Keir Mather). He has already made history for the Labour party by overturning the largest Tory majority ever in a by-election. I also welcome the hon. Members for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Steve Tuckwell) and for Somerton and Frome (Sarah Dyke).

The roof of Singlewell Primary School in Gravesend collapsed in May 2018. Thankfully, it happened at the weekend and no children were injured. The concrete ceiling was deemed dangerous and liable to collapse, and everyone knew that the problem existed in other schools, yet the Prime Minister decided to halve the budget for school maintenance just a couple of years later. Does he agree with his Education Secretary that he should be thanked for doing a “good job”?

I know how concerned parents, children and teachers are, and I want to start by assuring them that the Government are doing everything that we can to fix this quickly, and minimise the disruption to children’s education. We make no apology for acting decisively in the face of new information.

Let me provide the House with an update on where we are. Of the 22,000 schools in England, the vast majority will not be affected. In fact, in two thirds of inspections of suspected schools, RAAC—reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete—is not actually present. To tackle the 1% of schools that have been affected so far, we are assigning each school a dedicated caseworker and providing extra funding to fix the problem. In the majority of cases, children will attend school as normal, and the mitigations take typically just days or weeks to complete. We will do everything we can to help parents, support teachers and get children back to normal school life as quickly as possible.

Wood Green Academy in Sandwell was on Labour’s building list in 2010. The Conservatives scrapped it, and now children there are in a crumbling school. The head of the National Audit Office accuses the Prime Minister of taking a “sticking plaster approach”. The NAO report says he cut £869 million. The person who ran the Department for Education says the Prime Minister is personally responsible. On Monday, he leapt to his own defence, saying it is “utterly wrong” to blame him—so why does literally everyone else say it is his fault?

The professional advice from the technical experts on RAAC has evolved over time. Indeed, it is something that successive Governments have dealt with, dating back to 1994. As new advice has come forward, the Government have rightly, decisively and swiftly acted in the face of that advice.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman talked about school budgets and what I had done, but let me just walk him through the facts of what that spending review actually did, because he brought it up—[Interruption.] No, he brought it up, so presumably he would like to hear the facts. Funding for school maintenance and rebuilding will average £2.6 billion a year over this Parliament as a result of that spending review, representing a 20% increase on the years before. Indeed, far from cutting budgets as he alleges, the amount spent last year was the highest in a decade. That spending review maintained the school rebuilding programme, delivering 500 schools over a decade, a pace completely consistent with what had happened previously. It is worth pointing out that, during the parliamentary debates on that spending review, the Labour party, and he, did not raise the issue of RAAC one single time. Before he jumps on the next political bandwagon, he should get his facts straight.

Carmel College in Darlington was on Labour’s building list in 2010. The Conservatives scrapped it, and now children there are in a crumbling school. On the one hand, we have the Prime Minister saying it is nothing to do with him, and on the other hand we have the facts. There is a simple way to clear this up. Why does he not commit to publishing the requests from the Department for Education for the school rebuilding programme and what risks he was warned of before he turned them down?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman has now brought up twice the Labour school rebuilding programme, so let us just look at the facts surrounding it, because we do know the truth about that programme. The NAO, which he has called on, reviewed that programme later on, and what did it find? It found that Labour’s school rebuilding programme excluded 80% of schools. Next, what did it find? It found that it was one third more expensive than it needed to be, needlessly wasting resources that have gone to schools. The worst bit—because now he is talking about the physical condition of schools—is that that programme allocated funds solely on the basis of ideology, with no regard whatsoever to the physical condition of schools. That is why the independent James review described the programme as “time consuming” and “expensive”—just like the Labour party.

Order. We do not want to start off with somebody leaving early, because that is what will happen.

Well, Mr Speaker, Conservative Members want more, so let me continue. Ferryhill School in County Durham was on Labour’s building list in 2010. The Government scrapped that, and now children there are in a crumbling school. The truth is that this crisis is the inevitable result of 13 years of cutting corners, botched jobs and sticking plaster politics. It is the sort of thing you expect from cowboy builders: saying that everyone else is wrong and everyone else is to blame, and protesting that they have done an effing good job even as the ceiling falls in. The difference is that in this case, the cowboys are running the country. Is the Prime Minister not ashamed that, after 13 years of Tory Government, children are cowering under steel supports stopping their classroom roof from falling in? [Interruption.]

Order. Seriously, calm down. I understand that this is the first session and people are excited to be back at school, but we expect better behaviour.

This is exactly the kind of political opportunism that we have come to expect from Captain Hindsight here. Before today, he has never once raised this issue with me across the Dispatch Box. It was not even worthy of a single—[Interruption.]

Order. The same applies to those on the Labour Benches. We will have a calmer Question Time going forward, because I want to hear the questions and the answers, just like your constituents.

Before today, the right hon. and learned Gentleman never once raised this issue with me in Parliament. It was not even worthy of a single mention in his so-called landmark speech on education this summer. If we had listened to him, our kids would have been off school and locked down for longer—it is as simple as that. He talks about 13 years; well, let us see what has happened. When we came into office, two thirds of schools were rated “good” and “outstanding”; now, it is 90%. We introduced the pupil premium to get more funding to the most disadvantaged pupils. Today, they are 75% more likely to go to university. And, as a result of our reforms, we now have the best readers in the western world. That is what 13 years of education reform gets you, all of which was opposed by the Labour party.

The Prime Minister claims to be a man of detail, but there have been 100 parliamentary questions from the Opposition on this issue, and an Opposition day motion. Let us continue: Holy Family Catholic School in Bradford was on the Labour building list in 2010. The Government scrapped that, and now children there too are in a crumbling school—[Interruption.]

Order. Mr Holden, I have heard enough. This is the last time; make up your mind. Either you go now or you are quiet for the remainder.

If you can believe it, Mr Speaker, in April this year, the Education Secretary signed a contract for refurbishment of her offices. It has her personal stamp of approval on it. It cost—I cannot quite believe this—£34 million. Can the Prime Minister explain to parents whose children are not at school this week why he thinks that a blank cheque for a Tory Minister’s office is better use of taxpayer’s money than stopping schools from collapsing?

What I say to parents is that, on the receipt of new information, we have acted decisively to ensure the safety of children and minimise disruption to education, as we have laid out and communicated extensively. That is the right thing to do. I also gently point out to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that, while the Department for Education started this process 18 months ago in spring of last year, as far as I can tell, Labour-run Wales still does not know which schools are affected.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman brought up funding, so again, let us look back to what happened in that spending review. In that spending review, I increased the Department for Education’s capital budget by 25% to a record £7 billion; it tripled the amount that we spend on children with special educational needs and disabilities; it improved the condition of the overlooked further education estate; and it set the course for per-pupil funding to be the highest ever. Crucially, it also invested £5 billion to help our pupils recover the lost learning from covid. He might remember that, because we wanted pupils learning; he wanted longer lockdowns.

I just do not think the Prime Minister gets how, “It’s all fine out there” is at odds with the lived experience of millions of working people across this country.

Let us go on—this is a long list. In 2010, at least six schools in Essex were on Labour’s building list; the Government scrapped them and now children there are in crumbling schools. The Prime Minister will not admit that the reason he cut budgets and ignored the warnings is quite simple: just as he thought his tax rises were for other families to pay, he thinks his school cuts are for other families to endure. Does that not tell us everything we need to know? He is happy to spend millions of taxpayers’ money sprucing up Tory offices, and billions to ensure that there is no VAT on Tory school fees, but he will not lift a finger when it comes to protecting other people’s schools, other people’s safety and other people’s children.

I know that the right hon. and learned Gentleman comes here with prepared scripts, but he has not listened to a single fact, over six questions, about the record amounts of funding going into schools, or the incredible reforms to education impacting the most disadvantaged children in our society—a record that we are rightly proud of. Yes, we can name the schools: that is because we are reacting to information and publishing it so that we know where the issues are—something that we are still waiting for from the Welsh Government.

Of course the right hon. and learned Gentleman wants to score political points from something that we are dealing with in the right and responsible way, but I note that he has not mentioned a single other thing that has happened since we last met at the Dispatch Box. He talked about hard-working families across Britain, but what has happened to energy bills? Down. What has happened to inflation? Down. What has happened to small boat crossings? Down. And what has happened to economic growth? It has gone up. The right hon. and learned Gentleman tried time and again to talk down the British economy, but thankfully, people were not listening. His entire economic narrative has been demolished, and the Conservatives are getting on delivering for Britain. [Hon. Members: “More!”]

Q2. Against a backdrop of improving economic news, inflation falling, energy bills coming down and growth up, people in the west midlands are disappointed to see that Labour-run Birmingham City Council has gone bankrupt. As a Sandwell resident and a West Bromwich MP, I am no stranger to Labour incompetence. Does the Prime Minister agree that Labour have demonstrated yet again that they always run out of other people’s money? (906229)

My hon. Friend is exactly right. We started by hearing how Labour in London are charging hard-working people with ULEZ, and now we are hearing about how Labour in Birmingham are failing hard-working people, losing control of taxpayers’ money and driving their finances into the ground. They have bankrupted Birmingham; we cannot let them bankrupt Britain.

The public need no reminding that today marks a year since the Prime Minister’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), took office. Upon her speedy departure, they will have thought that things were going to get better, but unemployment figures are higher, food prices are higher, mortgage rates are higher, and economic growth is stagnant. When is the Prime Minister going to get off his backside and do something about it?

What the hon. Gentleman failed to point out is the amount of times I have sat across the Dispatch Box from him and his colleagues and heard how somehow, we were a laggard when it came to growth. He did not take the opportunity to correct the record now that figures have been published, which demonstrate that in fact, we had the fastest recovery of any European economy after covid.

Mr Speaker, you would be forgiven for thinking that the Prime Minister thinks everything is all right, but let us look at his proposals for a winter cost of living package. On energy bills, his plan is to do nothing; on mortgage bills, his plan is to do nothing; and on food bills, his plan is to do nothing. When the Secretary of State for Education said earlier this week that everyone was doing nothing, she was referring to the Prime Minister, wasn’t she?

I think the hon. Gentleman is a little out of practice, because we have paid around half a typical family’s energy bills over the past year. That is support worth £1,500, benefiting families in Scotland. On mortgages, the Chancellor’s mortgage charter covers 90% of the mortgage market, and ensures that a typical mortgage holder can save hundreds of pounds a month on mortgage refinancing. On energy, thanks to the actions of this Government, we are supporting the hundreds of thousands of jobs in the Scottish oil and gas industry, securing this country’s energy supply, which he opposes. I will always do what is right for the people of Scotland, and it is time the SNP did the same.

Q6.   I was delighted when the Prime Minister said last year that, on his watch, we would “not lose swathes” of farmland to solar applications, instead rightly arguing for solar to be installed on rooftops, yet my constituency sees a constant flow of planning applications for solar farms and battery storage plants on food-producing land. Can I ask my right hon. Friend: when will his pledge become a reality? (906233)

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Solar is one of the cheapest forms of electricity generation, so it is right that we try and see more of it across the country, but we do need to protect our most valuable agricultural land so that it can produce food for the nation and increase our food security. That is why, thanks to our changes, the planning system now sets this out explicitly with a clear preference for brownfield sites. Of course, we want to do more to encourage barn-top solar, and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will be updating the House with further information on that policy in due course.

Last week, the Prime Minister stated that he was “proud” of his furlough scheme. I wonder if he is equally proud of the £400 billion he put on the national debt and the inflation it has caused. Is he proud of the jobs lost, businesses closed and lives crushed due to the lockdowns? Is he proud of the increased NHS waiting lists, premature deaths and the 1 million young people now needing mental health support? Finally, is he proud of the excess deaths affecting every one of our constituencies that nobody wants to talk about, and will he give an undertaking to the British public—a solemn under-taking—that they will never be inflicted upon them again?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, there is a formal inquiry regarding covid, which will examine all the decisions that were made, including lockdown, and the impacts of them. But with regard to the furlough scheme, I am proud that, at a time of extreme anxiety in the country, facing an unprecedented situation, this Government put their arms around the British public to ensure that we protected 10 million jobs. As the report from the Office for National Statistics showed last week, those actions, combined with all the other things we did to support the economy, ensured that we had the fastest recovery through the pandemic of any European nation.

Q7. As we are a nation of animal lovers, the Conservative Government’s record on animal welfare is a source of great pride, but, sadly, too many abuses remain—from pet theft, the smuggling of puppies and heavily pregnant dogs and dogs with their ears horrifically cropped to the illegal export of horses to Europe for slaughter. These issues are personal to me as a veterinary surgeon and to my constituents, especially animal theft and livestock worrying. Can the Prime Minister reassure the House that animal welfare is a key Government priority, and that he will bring forward the necessary legislation to tackle these issues as soon as possible? (906234)

May I thank my hon. Friend for both raising this issue and also his work and expertise in the area? I am proud that, thanks to the actions that previous Governments have taken on things like cat microchipping, the ivory ban and raising the maximum sentence for animal cruelty to five years, we are now the highest ranked G7 nation on World Animal Protection’s animal protection index, but we are determined to go even further and deliver on our manifesto commitments individually during the remainder of this Parliament.

Q3.   The Prime Minister has said he will lead a Government of honesty, accountability and integrity, so can he explain how he was found to have breached the code of conduct, this time for failing to declare his wife’s shares in a childcare agency that received a monetary boost from measures in his Budget? (906230)

If the hon. Lady reads the full transcript and the full findings, she will see a detailed explanation of what happened, which the commissioner described as a “minor and inadvertent” breach, given that at the time I was not aware of the policy that was being discussed with me, and corrected it later on and could have corrected it with slightly different language. She will also know that I am not the only person across these Dispatch Boxes that has had the same thing happen to them.

Q9. May I interest the Prime Minister in proposals from the commission for carbon competitiveness, which I chair, that would deliver net zero cheaply and without deindustrialising our economy? It would help British manufacturers facing imports from countries with lower energy costs, make our exports more competitive everywhere, and cut fuel duty at home. We have strong backing from Britain’s heavy industries, and cross-party support from the excellent hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock), whose name is also on the Order Paper. Would the Prime Minister consider adding his name to our list of supporters as well? (906236)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and the commission for carbon competitiveness for the report that he has worked on and highlighted, and the Government are absolutely committed to putting in place the necessary policies for UK industry to decarbonise successfully. As he will be aware, the Government recently consulted on addressing carbon leakage in particular, with a range of potential options. We are in the process of considering those responses, and will issue a formal response in due course.

Q4. Every year, billions of wet wipes go out into our rivers and oceans, and clog up our sewers. I have been campaigning for years to ban plastic in wet wipes. The Government have finally promised to ban plastic in wet wipes, but that was five months ago and there has been nothing since then. Will the Prime Minister today finally give a date for when that ban will come into force and make a difference to our environment, or is this another broken promise from his zombie Government? (906231)

In the comprehensive “Plan for Water” that was published by the Environment Secretary in April, we confirmed our intention to ban wet wipes containing plastic, subject, as is legally proper, to a public consultation. That consultation will be launched in the coming months, in autumn this year, and I know Ministers will keep the House updated on progress.

Q12. I would like to offer some assistance on the small boats issue. Has my right hon. Friend considered the incongruity of the fact that a UK dinghy manufacturer trying to sell into the EU market would have to apply the CE marking, customs codes and could be stopped and checked, and a similar situation applies, perversely, with a simple thing like Great Britain to Northern Ireland trade? But none of that applies, seemingly, when huge, supersize, dangerous cut-and-shut dinghies are taken from Turkey, across the EU border into Bulgaria and Greece. Is my right hon. Friend as confused as I am by the EU’s double standards on that matter? (906239)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we must do all we can to stop the boats and tackle illegal migration. We know that the export of small boats across parts of the European continent is a vital element of the smuggling gangs’ tactics. That is why, specifically, we are stepping up joint operations with Turkey—I raised this with the President when we spoke—so that we can tackle organised immigration crime, and specifically disrupt the supply chain of boat parts that are used for these dangerous crossings. I will continue to keep him updated on our progress.

Q5.   Two years ago in Plymouth, we lost five people in the worst mass shooting the country has seen for a decade. The Government have finally consulted on firearms reform, but after pressure from shooting groups, even those sensible measures look like they could be watered down. Will the Prime Minister bow down to lobbyists from the shooting industry, or will he stand with the grieving families, and with those in Plymouth who want to see no tragedy like this ever happen again, with stronger gun laws? (906232)

I know how important this issue is to the hon. Gentleman, following the horrific shooting in his constituency, and my thoughts are with the family of all those who were killed. He will know that firearms are subject to stringent controls, and rightly so, but those controls are kept under constant review. For example, we have taken action to improve information sharing between GPs and the police, to ensure that people are not given access to firearms without their medical conditions being checked. There is statutory guidance that the chief officers of police have been improving, so that how people apply for firearms is assessed properly, including checks on social media. On the matter that the hon. Gentleman specifically raises, the Home Office is in the process of considering responses to that consultation, and will respond in due course.

Q13.   Later today, I am bringing forward a ten-minute rule Bill, to include the provision of automated external defibrillators in all new housing developments of 10 dwellings or more. Will my right hon. Friend support that provision, and ask his relevant Cabinet colleagues to engage with me to ensure that these life-saving pieces of equipment can become commonplace where they can have the most impact, close to people’s homes? (906240)

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the importance of these lifesaving devices. That is why the national planning policy framework already expects planning policies and decisions to promote public safety, but it is also why recently the Government launched a million-pound fund that will place around 1,000 new defibrillators in communities across England to help improve equality of access to these lifesaving devices.

Q8. In 2019, the Outwood Academy Riverside free school application in Middlesbrough was approved, with its first year 7 intake arriving the following year. There have been further intakes every year since, but there is still no new building. I have had no response to my request for a meeting with the Secretary of State, but that original intake are destined to spend their entire secondary education in various temporary adapted premises. With pupils being shunted around old buildings, talk of levelling up and addressing the GCSE attainment gap rings hollow. Will the Prime Minister and his Education Secretary get off their derrières and sort this out? (906235)

I am happy to ensure that the hon. Gentleman gets an answer to his specific question on that school, but more generally I am proud of what the Government are doing in Teesside and Tees Valley to support education, not only with the recent announcement of new sixth forms, but also it is an education investment area receiving extra funding and resources. That is why we have seen standards in reading and maths increase considerably, and we are determined to keep going.

The Prime Minister is aware of how the RAAC issue has affected schools in Essex. We have a high number of schools that have been impacted. He has rightly said today that the Government are doing everything they can to get children back to school. I know there is a debate on this later today, but will he commit to fully funding both the capital and revenue costs associated with getting children back into school?

I hope he will commit to meeting the leader of Essex County Council, because it is pioneering some great reforms right now, where it is looking to support maintained schools as well as academy trusts. I think the Government could get some good insights into how we can get children back to school fast and look at the funding model.

First, I thank my right hon. Friend for her constructive engagement with the Department. I pay tribute to her school leaders and local authority for everything they are doing. I am happy to give her the reassurance, as the Chancellor has already said, that new funding will be provided to schools to deal with this issue. To ensure that we can get through this as quickly as possible for my right hon. Friend’s constituents and parents—and, indeed, everyone else’s—the Department for Education is in the process of increasing the number of dedicated caseworkers from 50 to 80. We have 35 project directors regionally on the ground to support, and we have more than doubled the number of survey firms, so that we can rapidly over the next few weeks fully assess all the relevant schools and have a mitigation plan in place.

Q10. Steel- workers in my constituency have watched in frustration as other Governments have pumped investment into decarbonisation while successive Tory Governments have sat on their hands. When will the Prime Minister finally conclude the talks with Tata Steel? Can he guarantee that level of investment will match what other European Governments are doing on decarbonisation? And will he guarantee that the conclusion will be based on serious engagement, comprehensively with the steel unions? (906237)

Steel is absolutely vital to the UK. This matter is of course of interest to the hon. Gentleman, but I have also discussed it extensively with my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Holly Mumby-Croft), and that is because the industry supports local jobs and economic growth. Conversations with specific companies, such as Tata, are ongoing, but they are understandably commercially sensitive. We share the ambition of securing a decarbonised, sustainable and competitive future for the industry in this country. In the meantime, we are supporting the sector with our energy-intensive industries exemption, which provides discounted energy bills. We also have the industrial energy transformation fund, which supports steel companies with their energy bills and the transition through capital to a greener future.

Two weeks ago the Government announced that the Bolsover School’s bid for a sixth form in my constituency has been successful. Across the country, some 52% of school leavers at 16 years old go on to a sixth form, but in Bolsover it is 23%, in Clowne it is 22%, and in Shirebrook it is 7%. Will the Prime Minister join me in thanking the Redhill Academy Trust, Matthew Hall, the headteacher of Bolsover School, and all those who have helped to bring a sixth form to Bolsover?

I congratulate Redhill and everyone involved with the successful bid for the new sixth form in Bolsover. I am delighted that the bid was successful. I know that my hon. Friend shares my desire to ensure a world-class education for every single one of our young people across the country, because that is the best way to provide them with the opportunity for a better life. The new programme of sixth forms will deliver that in his constituency and many others across the nation.

Q11. The north- east has been underfunded in terms of transport investment for decades. HS2, which was meant to be an economic development and connectivity lifeline, is now not coming anywhere near, the A1 Northumberland dualling decision has been delayed yet again, and our regional rail services are still running on outdated infrastructure and rolling stock.With all that in mind, will the Prime Minister commit the funding to reopen the Leamside line from Gateshead to County Durham to take pressure off the east coast main line and aid economic wellbeing and the movement of passengers and freight services in the north-east of England? Or is levelling-up just rhetoric? (906238)

Obviously, it would not be right for me to comment on specific projects, but to give the hon. Gentleman a sense of our commitment, what I can tell him is that in real terms since 2010 we have spent over a third more in central capital investment in northern transport every single year compared with Labour’s last six years in government. That is what we are doing for northern transportation. Specifically, when it comes to reopening and restoring railway lines, where was the first one that we did? From Ashington to Blyth.

I have a cheerful question that I know my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will find impossible to resist. He will be aware of the work that I have been doing with No. 10’s UK Ambassador for mental health, Dr Alex George, to establish early intervention mental health hubs across the country. We have got the pilot, which seems to be lost somewhere between the Treasury and the Department of Health—I know he will sort that problem out—but will he meet Dr Alex George and me to discuss it further? These hubs will make a massive difference in constituencies across the country. We all know the problems with child and adolescent mental health services and the perverse situation where children and young people have to get progressively worse before they get the treatment they need. I know that the Prime Minister will be very supportive of this one, Mr Speaker.

I know that my hon. Friend is rightly a passionate advocate for improving mental health support for young people, which is something I know we are doing, and I am proud of our record, particularly in increasing the number of mental health support teams who work with schools and expanding community services. I know that the Department of Health and Social Care is looking at the role that early support hubs might play in this plan, but I am happy to meet my hon. Friend personally to discuss how we can push this through.

Q14. We have heard far too much lately about ministerial posteriors and little about prosperity for the country. Even in these dying days of a lame-duck Government, will the Prime Minister stop prevaricating and subscribe to the Horizon programme for the sake of vital British science, innovation and cancer research? (906241)

This Government are investing record sums in British science and research and development, because we believe that is critical to a brighter economic future and spreading opportunity. Our priority and preference is to associate to Horizon, but we want to make sure that that is on terms that are right both for the British taxpayer and for British science and research. I can commit to the hon. Lady that we have been extensively involved in discussions. I hope to be able to conclude those successfully and, when we do, I hope she will be the first to stand up and congratulate the Government.

September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, but it also marks two years since the death of my constituent Sophie Fairall. She was only 10 years old. Every day in the UK, 10 young people will be diagnosed with cancer, and two of those will not survive. Those who do face a lifetime of side effects from treatments that are just not designed for small bodies. When will the Prime Minister publish a childhood cancer action plan?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue. I extend my sympathies to her constituent’s family, as she raised. She is right to continue campaigning in this important area. I hope she will understand that I cannot pre-empt the specific contents of the strategy, but I can tell her that it will draw on previous work, including submissions from childhood cancer charities and stakeholders to our recent calls for evidence. Of course, we want to hear from them to highlight and get a sense of the issues that she specifically raised, but I will ensure that we write to her to give her a sense of the timing.

Q15. Every year the SNP Scottish Government mitigate against the cruellest of Westminster policies by spending £84 million on supporting hard-working families against the brutal bedroom tax and over £6.2 million on covering the two-child benefit cap. Astonishingly, we have learned over the summer that the Leader of the Opposition is an enthusiastic supporter of these Tory cruel welfare policies, with U-turn after U-turn from the Labour party. Given that the Tories and Labour are two cheeks of the same arse—[Hon. Members: “Oh!]—offering no change, no vision and no hope, does the Prime Minister agree that the only way Scottish voters can rid themselves— (906242)

Order. I am not going to have us both stand up; one of us is going to give way, and it will not be me. Let us think about language. Let us be more temperate and make sure that the pride of this Parliament shines through—that certainly will not be by using such language.

I am happy to change the offending word to “bottom”. Given that the Tories and Labour are two cheeks of the same bottom, offering no change, no vision and no hope, does the Prime Minister agree that the only way for Scottish voters to rid themselves of these heinous policies is to vote for the SNP to leave Westminster forever?

Obviously not. I think the thrust of that question was directed at the Leader of the Opposition rather than me, and I would not want to get in the middle of that. What I can say is that we want to ensure a welfare system that is compassionate and looks after the most vulnerable in our society, while supporting into work those who can do so, because that is also fair for everyone else and British taxpayers. I believe that is a system that we are achieving. Right now, we are providing people in Scotland with thousands of pounds of support to help with energy bills and everything else, and we will continue to do so.