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Commons Chamber

Volume 737: debated on Wednesday 13 September 2023

House of Commons

Wednesday 13 September 2023

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership

1. What assessment he has made with Cabinet colleagues of the potential impact of the UK’s accession to the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership on the Scottish economy. (906278)

I think that we should draw a veil over last night’s football, but I look forward to Scotland qualifying next month for Euro 2024.

Today is the National Farmers Union’s Back British Farming Day, and I am sure that the whole House will join me in marking the important contribution that we farmers and growers make to our everyday lives and to our economy.

The comprehensive and progressive agreement for the trans-Pacific partnership trade bloc is projected to make up the majority of global growth in the future. As a result of joining the CPTPP, a deal that we could not strike while in the EU, Scottish businesses are now in a prime position in the global economy to seize opportunities for new jobs, growth and innovation.

The CPTPP is the most exciting and dynamic trading bloc, and a significant Brexit dividend. Scotland, like Wales, has great products to export. My right hon. Friend mentioned farming. Welsh lamb and maybe Scotch whisky have some great opportunities to take advantage of within the CPTPP. Will he encourage the devolved Administrations to work with the UK Government to ensure that we exploit those benefits and this Brexit opportunity for people in Scotland, Wales and elsewhere?

Absolutely. My right hon. Friend is right: the CPTPP is the fastest-growing trade zone in the world, and with the UK included it is worth circa £12 trillion. To that end, we are working with the devolved Administrations. We have also put in a huge network of support centres across the UK, not least in Queen Elizabeth House in Edinburgh.

I am sure that the Secretary of State will be assisted in determining Scotland’s place in international arrangements by the Scottish Affairs Committee’s report, “Promoting Scotland Internationally”, which was released today. In it, he will find that the working arrangements between personnel in both Governments are consensual and productive. Does he not therefore feel slightly embarrassed by the ridiculous diktat from the Foreign Secretary, intended to put the Scottish Government back in their place? The Scottish Secretary told our Committee that it was necessary because, among other insignificant things, Scottish Government Ministers had the temerity to say that Brexit is a bad thing for Scotland. Does he not think that nearly all of Scotland thinks that Brexit is a bad thing for Scotland?

Sheep and Cattle Exports: Quarantine

3. What assessment he has made with Cabinet colleagues of the adequacy of the quarantine period for (a) sheep and (b) cattle to be exported from Scotland to Northern Ireland. (906280)

Livestock can move from Northern Ireland to Great Britain, and then return to Northern Ireland, as long as they are hosted at an Animal and Plant Health Agency approved assembly centre and return within 15 days.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Does he agree that the Windsor framework has created unnecessary bureaucracy around livestock movements from Northern Ireland to GB mainland, particularly into Scottish markets, and has in fact decimated our pedigree cattle trade? What can he do to help me?

The hon. Gentleman is a doughty champion for rural communities in Northern Ireland, and he raises an important point. I will endeavour to arrange a meeting for him with colleagues in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs as soon as possible.

Poverty and Inequality

4. What discussions he has held with Cabinet colleagues and the Scottish Government on the effectiveness of the steps being taken to reduce rates of (a) poverty and (b) inequality in Scotland. (906281)

The United Kingdom Government are committed to a sustainable approach to tackling poverty and supporting people on lower incomes. We have made substantial investment to help to mitigate the worst of the cost of living impacts, including welfare spending of around £276 billion. The best route out of poverty, of course, is through work. Therefore, our focus remains firmly on supporting people to move into and progress in work.

Scotland has the lowest rates of child poverty in the UK, with the game-changing Scottish child payment helping more than 300,000, and lifting 50,000 of them out of poverty. Why do the UK Government continue to refuse to follow such a successful example?

The UK Government have ensured that the cost of living challenges have been tackled by working in tandem with the Scottish Government and using reserved and devolved levers to get the best outcomes for everybody across Scotland. The benefit cap levels have been increased by 10.1% from 1 April. The national living wage has increased by 9.7% to £10.42 an hour for workers aged 23 years and over. Overall, this Government are working to deliver for the most vulnerable in society, and will do so in conjunction with our partners in the Scottish Government.

After 16 years of SNP Government and 13 years of the Tories, one in four children in Scotland lives in poverty. There are 40,000 more children in poverty compared with a decade ago, and this week it was revealed that three members of the Scottish Government’s own Poverty and Inequality Commission had resigned. Does the Minister agree that both the Scottish and the UK Governments should be working more urgently and more effectively to tackle child poverty?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new position. The UK Government are committed to protecting the most vulnerable in our society and we have taken decisive steps to do that, including UK-wide additional spending of £137.5 billion in benefits for pensioners, £67.9 billion in benefits to support disabled people and people with health conditions and £114.3 billion in working-age benefits and child welfare. We have also uprated benefits and pension credit in line with inflation and have raised the national living wage to help to protect the most vulnerable. We will continue to keep the situation under review, but this Government have continually demonstrated our commitment to the most vulnerable across Scotland.

Carbon Capture, Utilisation and Storage

5. What recent discussions he has held with Cabinet colleagues on supporting the development of carbon capture, utilisation and storage in Scotland. (906282)

Carbon capture, utilisation and storage will be essential to meeting the UK’s 2050 net zero target, playing a vital role in levelling up the economy, supporting the low-carbon economic transformation of our industrial regions and creating new high-value jobs across the United Kingdom. In Scotland, the Acorn cluster has been allocated more than £40 million in development funding by the Government and has been selected, subject to final due diligence, for track 2 CCUS cluster sequencing.

According to Office for Budget Responsibility and UK Government projections, the UK will see between £50 billion and £80 billion in revenue from North sea oil and gas over the next five years. While it is welcome that the Acorn project can now bid for funding, it is important to know that not a penny has been committed. Can the Minister tell me what discussions the Secretary of State has had with Government colleagues to secure at minimum a share of those revenues—say £1 billion over five years—to rapidly accelerate Scotland’s carbon capture industry? If not, does that mean he is content to see Scotland’s people stripped of their vast natural resources without a single penny of that £80 billion being invested in Scotland’s carbon capture ambitions?

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman actually listened to my first answer, but more than £40 million has been allocated by the United Kingdom Government to the development of this technology. The Government will commence engagement and assessment of delivery plans and due diligence on the Acorn and Viking transportation and storage systems and will engage with them directly in respect of the next steps to develop those. We will set out the process by which capture products in track 2 will be selected to meet the stated ambitions in due course.

Scottish Economy

When it comes to growth, the hon. Lady will have noted that the economic data shows that we have recovered better from the pandemic than France, Italy or Germany. Supporting economic growth in Scotland remains a core priority of the Scotland Office, exemplified through our work in investing in the city and regional growth deals and in delivering freeports and investment zones in Scotland, which has brought tens of millions of pounds in investment and has created highly paid jobs.

There is huge potential for offshore wind in Scotland and it is an important part of the transition to a green economy there. What conversations will the Minister be having with the offshore wind sector following the absolutely disastrous contracts for difference round last week?

I personally engage with all sectors of the energy market, including the offshore wind sector. We are very pleased with the announcements that have been made following the announcements last week and will continue to engage with the sector to see it develop across Scotland and other parts of the United Kingdom.

I join the Secretary of State in saying how gutted we are about the football result last night—but mark my words, we will be seeking revenge in Germany at the European championships next year.

I take this opportunity to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist), who was in the shadow Scotland team but has moved on to do new things after the reshuffle, and to welcome to the Scotland team my hon. Friend the Member for Keir Hardie’s old seat, Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones). He is very welcome.

Last week, it was revealed that the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), had secured a book deal. Her book is titled “Ten Years to Save the West”, but it might have been better focusing on the 44 days it took her and her Government, with the support of the Scottish Secretary, to crush the economy. Does the Minister accept that Scots will be paying the price for years to come for the Tories’ kamikaze handling of the economy?

As the hon. Gentleman well knows, the economic challenges we face here in the United Kingdom are no different from those faced by other economies around the world. They have been entirely caused by the illegal war in Ukraine and the covid pandemic. Thankfully, due to the decisive action of this Conservative Government and Prime Minister, the evidence suggests that the UK is recovering from the economic shock far better than France, Italy and Germany.

Ukraine and covid did not crash the economy; this Government did. The truth is that, after 13 years, we have a low-wage, low-growth economy. Let me take the example of residents in a random Scottish constituency, Rutherglen and Hamilton West. Behind every door we knock on, the story is the same: the cost of living. Those voters are paying the price for two bad Governments: the UK Government, who crashed the economy and are asking working people to pay for it, and the Scottish Government, who mismanaged the economy and are also asking working people to pay for it. There is a Tory premium on everyone’s mortgages and rents, alongside the highest tax burden on working people in 80 years, and the SNP wants to increase income taxes further and is proposing eye-watering council tax rates for those residents. Do the people of Rutherglen and Hamilton West not deserve a fresh start with Scottish Labour’s Michael Shanks?

It was not so long ago that Scottish Labour was calling for even higher taxes on the people of Scotland. When Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar stood for the leadership, he said:

“I actually think our tax policies will be even more progressive and radical than even John McDonnell’s or Jeremy Corbyn’s tax policies or manifesto”.

Mr Sarwar has now U-turned, of course, but maybe the hon. Gentleman can explain how much Scottish Labour secretly wants to put up taxes in Scotland.

UK Departure from EU

7. What assessment he has made of the potential impact of the UK’s departure from the EU on Scotland. (906285)

The UK Government are focused on opening new international export markets for Scottish businesses. We have trade agreements with 71 non-EU countries and the EU, and those agreements will support growth, jobs and higher wages. The hon. Gentleman will have noted the recently revised numbers, which show that we have recovered better from the pandemic than France, Italy or Germany. Since 2010, the United Kingdom has achieved the third highest rate of growth in the G7—faster than Italy, France, Japan and Germany.

We had a really good trading relationship with the European Union—it was called membership—and 78% of people in Glasgow North, and 62% of people across Scotland, voted to retain it. If Brexit is really delivering the successes that the Secretary of State says it is, why does he think the polls show that those figures would be even higher if the people of Scotland had the choice again?

The recent trading numbers show that we are now doing more trade with the EU in goods and services than we did when we were members.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that we are developing a much better relationship with our former colleagues in the EU, including through agreements such as the Windsor framework, and our accession to the North sea group of countries that co-operate on energy and, more recently, to Horizon and other European programmes? That shows that we are on the right footing to have a good future relationship post Brexit.

Yes. On Horizon, we were patient and did the right deal. It showed the future for British scientists, as well as how important British scientists were to Horizon and how much the EU wanted them to be part of it. My right hon. and learned Friend is right: we have a better relationship, and one that does not cost £22 billion a year.

NHS England-NHS Scotland Co-operation

8. Whether he has held recent discussions with Cabinet colleagues and the Scottish Government on increasing co-operation between NHS England and NHS Scotland. (906286)

The United Kingdom Government support collaboration between all our nations to share best practice, improve transparency and provide better accountability for patients. Ministerial colleagues at the Department of Health and Social Care have written to the Scottish Government inviting them for talks on how we can work together to tackle long-term waiting lists in all parts of the United Kingdom.

If someone is sick and their life is in danger, is it not the case that the border between Scotland and England should not get in the way of the best possible health outcome?

The hon. Member makes an extremely important point—that is something about which I am acutely aware as a Borders MP. Indeed, I have a constituent who lives in Foulden who has been told that they will need to wait over three years to have their cataracts seen to in Scotland. Meanwhile, their neighbours, who are registered with a GP in England, are being treated by NHS England within six months. My constituent simply does not understand that discrepancy. The SNP Government in Edinburgh should be doing much more to drive down NHS waiting lists and engage with colleagues in Westminster to ensure that all people across these islands get the best possible NHS services.

Government Spending: Public Services

9. What recent assessment his Department has made of the adequacy of the levels of Government spending in Scotland to deliver public services. (906287)

The United Kingdom Government are providing a record settlement of £41 billion per year—the largest since devolution. In fact, the UK Government are providing the Scottish Government with over 20% more funding per person than the equivalent UK Government spending in England. With the generous fiscal framework agreement, the Scottish Government have the certainty and flexibility to manage their budget and deliver high-quality public services across Scotland.

The recent programme for government launched by the Scottish First Minister only revealed a tired Government too distracted by internal squabbling to achieve anything for the people of Scotland. Does the Minister agree that the Scottish people deserve a change of Government in Scotland and Westminster, with a Labour Government focused on tackling the cost of living and improving living standards for the whole of the UK?

The SNP’s programme for government was a complete and utter missed opportunity: rather than focusing on Scotland’s NHS and schools, and our economy and transport links, the SNP is too busy planning independence rallies. Scotland does need change, and I am confident that, in the next general election, we will see that change in the election of even more Scottish Conservative and Unionist MPs.

Seafood Sector

10. What recent discussions he has held with Cabinet colleagues on supporting the seafood sector in Scotland. (906288)

The Government are committed to supporting our seafood sector, which is the lifeblood of some of the most remote and fragile communities in Scotland. This past Monday, I met with ministerial colleagues in the Home Office to discuss in more detail the comprehensive package of support measures this Government have offered to the sector to ease access to labour challenges.

I thank my hon. Friend for that response. What discussions has he had with the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero—I see the Minister, our hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie), sitting next to him on the Front Bench—and the Scottish Government to ensure that the impacts of offshore wind on the fishing industry and coastal communities will be adequately addressed, along with the impacts of marine protection areas?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his continued, energetic and relentless campaigning for his constituency and the fishing sector. This Government are committed to working with other Government Departments and the Scottish Government on our shared ambition to protect the marine environment and ensure that the increasing spatial squeeze on our sea is managed effectively. However, we also note the legitimate concerns of the fishing industry and continue to engage with stakeholders, other UK Government Departments and the Scottish Government through the Scottish Seafood Industry Action Group. I understand that the Energy Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie), is due to meet my hon. Friend shortly.

Fishermen from Portavogie, Ardglass and Kilkeel work hand in hand with fishermen from Scotland, so whatever benefits the Minister can bring to Scottish fishermen will benefit the fishermen and fisherwomen of Northern Ireland. Have any discussions taken place of how Scotland and Northern Ireland can work better together, including here at Westminster?

I am happy to work with all colleagues across the United Kingdom to advance the fishing industry, and I am happy to meet the hon. Member to discuss how we do that together.

Devolution of Drugs Policy

11. What discussions he has held with Cabinet colleagues and the Scottish Government on the devolution of drugs policy to Scotland. (906289)

12. What discussions he has held with Cabinet colleagues and the Scottish Government on the devolution of drugs policy to Scotland. (906290)

Illicit drugs destroy lives and devastate communities. The United Kingdom Government’s 10-year drug strategy sets out ambitious plans, backed by a record £3 billion over three years, to tackle the supply of illicit drugs and build a world-class system of treatment and recovery. This is a UK-wide strategy, and there are no plans to devolve drugs policy to the Scottish Government.

The Lord Advocate has announced that she is not going to prosecute drug users for simple possession offences committed within a pilot safer drugs consumption facility. Both the Home Affairs Committee of this House and the Scottish Affairs Committee have recommended that the UK Government support such a pilot in Glasgow by creating a legislative pathway under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 that would enable such a facility to operate, or by devolving the power to the Scottish Government. Both cross-party Committees of this House are very clear that the evidence shows that those measures could be lifesaving, so when will the Secretary of State act to save lives in Scotland by persuading his Government to drop their intransigence on this issue?

It was disappointing that the Scottish Government were not prepared to work with the UK Government on Project ADDER. That offer was made with supporting funding. The E in ADDER is for “enforcement”. I believe the police and the Procurator Fiscal Service should be enforcing the laws in Scotland, not decriminalising drugs, because enforcement helps to drive people to health solutions.

The Minister did not answer the question, so I will try again. Scotland needs a caring, compassionate, human rights-informed drugs policy with public health and the reduction of harm as its principles, and the Scottish Government are ready and willing to work with the UK Government to put that progressive policy into practice. Scottish Tory MSP Miles Briggs said on “Good Morning Scotland” yesterday that he hoped the UK Government would not move to block this lifesaving measure. Despite the Minister’s Cabinet colleagues continuing to denounce its effectiveness, what recent discussions has he had with the Scottish Government on advancing this pilot scheme?

Drug consumption rooms are not the easy solution hon. Members may think they are. There is no safe way to take illegal drugs. Drugs devastate lives, ruin families and damage communities. The UK Government believe that the police and the Procurator Fiscal Service should fully enforce the law. However, I say to the hon. Lady that if the Scottish Government and the Lord Advocate decide to proceed with a pilot on DCRs, the UK Government will not intervene.

The Secretary of state will fully realise the challenge it would present for Border Force if we had differing rules on what drugs were lawful and not lawful across the United Kingdom. Therefore, will he assure me that he will not look to devolve drugs policy, and will instead get the Scottish Government to focus on their own responsibilities?

Labour Members always seem to cheer me at this moment in Scottish questions. They are very generous.

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Drug deaths in Scotland are three times higher than the UK average, despite the laws being the same across the UK. I do not believe drug consumption rooms are the panacea to those problems, but we absolutely must have drugs laws that work across the whole United Kingdom because it is a UK-wide problem.

I think we should be clear: the Lord Advocate’s statement on Monday is a game changer. It removes one of the major obstacles to a pilot drug consumption facility, which is designed to prevent overdoses. The Secretary of State has been equivocal in his responses so far, so let me give him another chance to get on the right side of history. Will he actually say that he will support and work with the Scottish Government to see this pilot project through?

I think I have been clear. I have been clear that the UK Government’s policy is not to proceed with drug consumption rooms. We believe, as I have said, that drugs devastate families and destroy communities. I was very clear about those things, but I am also very clear that the Lord Advocate and the Scottish Government appear to have achieved a workaround that allows them to have a pilot drug consumption room, probably in Glasgow, and the United Kingdom Government will not intervene in that, so the SNP now has no more excuses.

Can I press the Secretary of State on this point, because of course he has form on intervening in decisions of the Scottish Government? He says he will not intervene. Can we therefore be clear that he will say, on behalf of the UK Government, that he will not use any administrative or legislative means to frustrate or block this pilot policy by the Scottish Government?

I am very popular today. I will be with SNP Members in particular when I say that the answer is yes.

Cost of Living Increases

13. What recent discussions he has held with the Scottish Government on the impact of increases in the cost of living on people in (a) the UK and (b) Scotland. (906291)

Our Government have taken assertive action on the cost of living. UK-wide support for households to help with higher energy bills is worth £94 billion, or £3,300 per household on average. The United Kingdom Government’s focus has been on supporting everyone with the cost of living with specific targeted support and tailored interventions for the most vulnerable.

I thank the Minister for his answer. He will know that, like his constituents, my constituents in Edinburgh West still face the impact of food inflation, higher energy bills and unfair standing charges for electricity. However, we also now face the potential bombshell of a council tax hike by the Scottish Government, which will affect 14,500 households in Edinburgh West that will have to pay more than £2,000 a year. Will the UK Government be speaking to the Scottish Government—[Interruption.] If SNP Members do not mind! Will the UK Government be speaking to the Scottish Government to try to mitigate this, and what steps do they have in mind to do so?

I share the hon. Lady’s concerns about the SNP-Green Government’s bombshell tax plans to hike up the tax burden for many households, with people already facing pressures on their household budgets. As she will know, along with the record block grant, the spring Budget provided the Scottish Government with an extra £320 million over the next two years, on top of the £1.5 billion of additional funding that we provided in the autumn statement of 2022. Our economic priorities of halving inflation and growing the economy are the most effective way of supporting her constituents.

Strength of the Union

I believe that support for the Union is strong. The United Kingdom is one of the most successful political and economic unions in the world, and the foundation on which all our businesses and citizens are able to thrive. When we work collaboratively, we are safer, stronger and more prosperous.

While the SNP’s First Minister whips up grievance politics at independence rallies, Scotland’s NHS goes backwards, Scotland’s ferries do not work and Scotland’s economy stagnates. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is about time that the SNP stopped obsessing about another independence referendum, and started delivering for the people of Scotland?

Is the truth of the Union not that while we see independent Norway and independent Ireland in budget surplus—independent Ireland with a surplus this year of €10 billion, rising to €23 billion in the next three years—the Scottish Government cannot build small hospitals on small Scottish islands? Is the answer not for Scotland to remove the Westminster handcuffs and to get the independence and budget surpluses of Norway and Ireland, so that we can move forward and move away from the Brexit of the Tories and the Labour party?

They always say independence will sort the problems. Scotland is not building hospitals on the islands because the Scottish Government are squandering the most generous settlement they have had since devolution began.

Before we come to Prime Minister’s questions, I wish to welcome a special guest who is observing our proceedings today—the Speaker of the Jordanian House of Representatives. Mr Speaker, you are most welcome.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


I start by paying tribute to the Clerk of the House, Sir John Benger, and thank him for his many years of distinguished service. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]

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

The wealth of billionaires has skyrocketed over the past decade, while average working households in the UK have the lowest living standards since the 1950s. While hard-working families are struggling to make ends meet, the wealthy are playing by a different set of rules, with reports that even Members of the House of Lords are trying to exploit the non-dom status loophole to avoid paying their fair share. Does the Prime Minister agree that whether it is the wife of the most powerful man in the country or the host of “The Apprentice”, no billionaire should qualify for special tax treatment while my constituents face soaring levels of inequality and poverty?

The facts tell a very different story from what the hon. Gentleman said. He mentioned inequality; inequality today is lower than it was in 2010. He mentioned the number of people in poverty. Again, I am pleased to say that 1.7 million fewer people are in poverty today than in 2010, including many in Scotland. Of course we understand that things are challenging right now with the cost of living. That is why we have put in place record support to help families, particularly with their energy bills and particularly for the most vulnerable in our society, with record amounts of cost of living payments going to millions across the country, including in Scotland, showing the power of the United Kingdom Government.

Q2.   Thanks to this Conservative Government, we have the opportunity to be the first country in the world to end new cases of HIV by 2030. That is partially down to our world-leading opt-out HIV testing programme that has been rolled out in very high prevalence areas. To reach this goal and to make this progress, we must roll out opt-out testing to other high prevalence areas, such as the west midlands, including my constituency of West Bromwich East. Will the Prime Minister commit to meeting me and the incredible Terrence Higgins Trust to hear more about the merits of opt-out testing? (906399)

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this important issue and thank her for her work in this area. We remain absolutely committed to ending new HIV transmissions within England by 2030, and I am pleased that she highlighted that the provisional data from NHS England indicates that the opt-out testing programme has been highly successful. The Department of Health and Social Care is currently evaluating the impact of the programme with a view to deciding whether it should be expanded to additional areas, and I know Ministers will keep her and the House updated.

I join the Prime Minister in his words about the Clerk of the House.

I pay tribute to the police who tracked down the escaped terror suspect from Wandsworth prison last week. Despite being charged with terrorism, and despite being a flight risk, he was not held in a category A prison. Why not?

I thank the police and their partners for their efforts to find and arrest Daniel Khalife. There is now an ongoing legal process that must be allowed to take its course, but I would like to reassure the public that while these cases are extremely rare, the Justice Secretary has launched an internal investigation about how this could happen, as well as an independent investigation of the incident so that we can learn the lessons from this case and ensure that it never happens again.

The truth is, the Government are presiding over mayhem in the criminal justice system. Only a few short months ago, Zara Aleena’s family said that Ministers had—these are their words—“blood on their hands” after probation failures that led to her murder, so it beggars belief that we are back here once again. The chief inspector of prisons said that conditions in Wandsworth were so bad that it should be shut down. The Chancellor is telling anyone who will listen that he raised concerns months ago. Probation, school buildings, and now prisons—why does the Prime Minister keep ignoring the warnings until it is too late?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman, with his background, should know better. Because of the wide variety and considerable difference in severity of people charged under that Act, it is not, and has never been, the policy that they are all held in category A prisons. It should not need me to point that out to him, given his experience.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about resourcing. I am happy to tell him that, over the last few years, we have delivered an extra 4,000 new prison officers. Staffing levels at Wandsworth in particular are up by 25% in the past six years and, because we are boosting prison pay, we are also improving retention. At the same time, we are investing £100 million to improve prison security with new measures such as X-ray body scanners. If he wanted to have a truly honest debate about this, perhaps he would acknowledge that prison escapes were almost 10 times higher under the Labour Government than under the Conservatives. [Interruption.]

Order. I did say this last week, and it will continue this week: anyone who wants to start the session by leaving, please do so. I am happy to help you on your way.

Every week, whatever the topic, the Prime Minister paints this picture as if everything is great and fine out there. It is so at odds with the lived experience in the real world.

Let me turn to another serious security concern. Some in this House face sanction, intimidation and threats from the Chinese state. When I asked the Prime Minister on Monday whether the Foreign Secretary raised the specific issue of the alleged spy arrested in March when he visited China a few weeks ago, he would only say that he raised that “type of activity”, but avoided specifics. I ask the Prime Minister again: did the Foreign Secretary raise this specific case when he visited China—yes or no?

I refer the right hon. and learned Gentleman to my previous answer, where I said clearly that the Foreign Secretary raised these issues with the Chinese Foreign Minister, whom he met, as did I when I had my meeting with Premier Li over the weekend. When it comes to China, the Government have put in place the most robust policy that has ever existed in our country’s foreign policy. It is to protect our country and the values and interests we stand up for; it is to align our approach with our closest allies, including those in the G7 and Five Eyes; and it is to engage—where it makes sense—either to advance our interests or, as I did at the weekend, to raise our very significant concerns. That is the right approach to China. It is one that is welcomed by each and every one of our allies. I would be interested to know what he thinks he would do differently.

That certainly was not a yes. What the Prime Minister says now is totally at odds with the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament report of July. That set out that the Government have no clear strategy when it comes to China, have failed to support the intelligence agencies, and are leaving the UK “severely handicapped” in managing our future security. This has been raised time and again but, yet again, the Prime Minister fails to heed the warnings and is now desperately playing catch-up. Will he finally commit to the full audit of UK-China relations that so many in this House have so long demanded?

As always, the Leader of the Opposition is just playing catch-up, but he has not caught up with the reality of what is actually happening. He talks about the ISC report. If he actually went through it, he would realise that it related to a period of investigations in 2019 and 2020. Since then, we have launched a whole new integrated review refresh of our China strategy, which is published. We have put in place a range of new measures, including the National Security Protective Authority, which is staffed out of MI5 and supports businesses and organisations to be alert to the risks from cyber and from China.

If the right hon. and learned Gentleman wants to talk about foreign policy, he should perhaps reflect on his own record. This is the man who said he was 100% behind the former Labour leader—a person who wanted to abolish the Army, scrap Trident and withdraw from NATO. It is clear what he did: he put his own political interests ahead of Britain’s.

Probation, prisons, schools, China—yet again, inaction man fails to heed the warnings and then blames everyone else for the consequences. On Sunday, the Home Secretary celebrated her first anniversary in post—that is, if we overlook the six days she missed when she was deemed a national security risk. In that year, 40,000 people have crossed the channel on a small boat, and the taxpayer is now spending £6 million a day on hotel bills. The Prime Minister is failing to stop terrorists strolling out of prison, failing to guard Britain against hostile actors, and he is completely failing to stop the boats. How can anyone trust him to protect the country?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about trust and about action, but just today, this Government are taking action to reform defective EU laws to unlock over 100,000 homes, boosting our economy, supporting jobs and ensuring that we can realise the aspirations of homeowners. He talks about trust; he tried in this House to talk the talk on house building, but at the first sign of a cheap political hit, what did he do? He caved in. Rather than make the right long-term decisions for the country, he has taken the easy way out. It is typical of the principle-free, conviction-free type of leadership that he offers, flip-flopping from being a builder to a blocker. The British public cannot trust a word he says.

Every week the Prime Minister comes here, protesting that nothing is his fault and trying to convince anyone who is still listening that everything is great. The truth is that the floor fell in for millions of families because of the Government’s economic mayhem; the classroom ceilings collapsed because he cut vital school budgets; and now the walls of our national security have been breached because they have ignored repeated warnings. No one voted for this shambles. No one voted for him. How much more damage do the British public have to put up with before he finally finds the stomach to give them a say?

We are getting on for the British public. Just in the last week we have announced a new landmark deal for British scientists and attracted £600 million of new investment for our world-leading auto industry, and wages are now rising at the fastest rate on record. And where has the right hon. and learned Gentleman been this week? Locked away with Labour’s union paymasters, promising to give them more power and to scrap the laws that protect British families and their access to public services. It is clear that it is only the Conservatives who are on the side of the hard-working British public.

Q4.   Last week, with Yorkshire colleagues, I met our local integrated care board to discuss plans for improving dentistry provision. When surgeries suddenly close to NHS patients without notice, as one in Harrogate did very recently, an immediate strain is put on local provision. Will the Prime Minister look at what can be done in those circumstances to ensure no one is left without access to an NHS dentist? (906401)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that, and we will look into the issue. He will be reassured to know that we are investing £3 billion a year in dentistry. There is no geographical restriction on which dental practice a patient may attend and practices should keep all their records up to date, including whether they are accepting new patients. Typically, where a practice ends a contract, NHS England and ICBs should work together to ensure that funding is reallocated and patients continue to have access to NHS dental care.

As someone who spends more money heating their swimming pool than the total value of the UK state pension, the Prime Minister—I think it is safe to say—might not be as invested in this topic as some others, but let us afford him the opportunity to clear up any confusion. Will he commit his party, the Conservative party, to maintaining the state pension triple lock beyond the next general election—yes or no?

This is the party that introduced the triple lock. This is the party that has delivered a £3,000 increase in the state pension since 2010. It is also the party that has ensured that there are 200,000 fewer pensioners living in poverty today and that this winter pensioners will get an extra £300 alongside their winter fuel payment to support them through the challenging times with inflation. Our track record is clear. There is one party in this House that has always stood up for our pensioners and that is the Conservative party.

I do not think we heard a yes there, Mr Speaker. You will imagine my shock—my utter surprise—that we appear to have consensus once again between the Conservative party and the Labour party on this most important of issues, despite the promises that were made to the people of Scotland in 2014 and despite clear statements from the likes of Gordon Brown that the only way to protect pensions was to remain within the UK. How hollow those words are now. Who does the Prime Minister think will scrap the state pension triple lock first, his Government or the Labour party’s Government?

Thanks to the actions of this Government, pensioners in Scotland are receiving record increases in their state pension—£870 this year—and extra support with the cost of living this winter. This is the Government who introduced and remain committed to the triple lock, but the hon. Gentleman raises a good point. Pensioners in Scotland should know that the reason they can rely on the state pension, not just today but for years to come, is the strength of our Union and the strength of our United Kingdom Government.

Q5.   Beautiful Eastbourne is perhaps best known as a top visitor destination, but there is important work being done to put us on the digital map. DigiFest, the first local event of its kind, is coming to the Welcome Building next week. It will showcase some pretty stellar local tech talent and open doors of opportunity, with an ambition to create 10,000 local jobs in this sector. Will the Prime Minister applaud event organisers Chalk Eastbourne and Switchplane, and lay out what the Government are doing to ensure Great Britain—and Eastbourne—is one of the best places in the world to be involved in this continually groundbreaking sector? (906402)

The Government have a mission to make the UK the most innovative economy in the world and the growth of our tech industry is one of the key ways we will achieve that. I am delighted to join my hon. Friend in thanking and paying tribute to Chalk Eastbourne for its terrific organisation of DigiFest. This is a great example of how, in local areas, we can bring together people to create jobs and opportunity, and ultimately drive the growth that our country wants to see.

Last year, after being referred by their GP, 22,000 people waited more than four months to start urgent treatment for cancer—a terrible wait that is twice as long as the Government’s maximum 62-day pledge; a cancer target they have not met once since 2015. We all have loved ones whose lives have been turned upside down by cancer and we all know that every day counts. Waiting reduces the chances of survival. Will the Prime Minister tell people waiting anxiously to start their cancer treatment when this cancer target will be met?

It is absolutely right that we do everything we can to speed up cancer diagnosis. The pandemic has had a significant impact on cancer recovery: as the right hon. Gentleman will know, before the pandemic there were about 200,000 cancer referrals a month, but during the pandemic the figure dropped to about 80,000, and now, as those referrals come through, that is having an impact. However, we are ensuring that there are hundreds more oncologists and radiologists working this year than last year, and rolling out more than 160 community diagnostic centres. As the right hon. Gentleman says, early diagnosis is key, which is why, although there is work to do, cancer treatment today is at record levels. We are making progress, and the 62-day backlog is now falling. Recently the NHS wrote to all trusts, streamlining our targets, clinically advised, and now all the focus is on meeting them as quickly as possible.

Q6. In 2017, the Bolton police station custody suite was closed by the police and crime commissioner and the then chief constable, because they had given up on arresting criminals. The new chief constable is delivering on the people’s priorities, so that emergency calls are answered promptly, crimes are investigated and arrests are made, which means that the newly reopened custody suite is always full. Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking Greater Manchester police? Does he think that that approach ought to catch on throughout the country? (906403)

I am delighted with the improvements that have been made by Greater Manchester police; the Home Secretary met the chief constable recently. They have made significant improvements in, for example, answering 999 calls, and have seen almost a 50% year on year increase in the number of charges recorded. I very much welcome the force’s focus on getting the basics on crime and antisocial behaviour right. It is a model for police forces across the country.

Q3. I thank the Prime Minister for his response to the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Stephen Flynn), but I am still confused on this matter. Just yesterday, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions said that the pensions triple lock was not sustainable, and the Chancellor’s economic advisers have suggested that it is time to review the policy, but those at No. 10, when questioned, have said that they are committed to it. Which is it? (906400)

This Government are committed to the triple lock; it was this Government who introduced the triple lock. The hon. Lady might want to have a word with her own deputy leader, who did not provide much clarity on the matter. What we all remember, when it came to pensions, is Gordon Brown’s 75p a week increase.

Q7.   Week in week out, as I meet businesses in my constituency, I hear about how artificial intelligence is transforming the way we work in sectors such as life sciences, automotives and financial services. Does my right hon. Friend agree that artificial intelligence will transform the way in which humanity will live in the 21st century? Through his upcoming global AI summit, will he ensure that appropriate guardrails are put in place to protect society as we become world leaders in this technology? (906404)

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the incredible power of AI to transform not just businesses and our productivity, but public services such as health and education. However, we do need guardrails to allow us to make the most of the opportunities of AI, and to address risks. We have a responsible, proportionate regulatory approach that balances risk with innovation, and I look forward to working with international partners at our upcoming AI safety summit on how we do that at a global level.

Q10. Luton airport is trying to expand its capacity massively, from 18 million passengers per year to a whopping 32 million. That will blight the lives of thousands of residents across Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire—especially those in north St Albans, who live under the flightpaths—but it will also fly in the face of advice from the Government’s own climate advisers. It has been reported that the Prime Minister is getting ready to ignore his climate advisers. Is that true? (906407)

No; but I would say that my approach to reaching net zero is not one that requires people to give up doing the things that they want to do and enjoy, such as flying. The right thing to be doing is as we are doing: investing in and funding new technologies, such as sustainable aviation fuel, because that is how we will decarbonise aviation during the transition to net zero, rather than forcing people to give everything up.

Q8. When the Prime Minster was Chancellor of the Exchequer, he put the full might of the Treasury behind the 10-year drug strategy, which, with its Adder Project, is now turning lives around across England and Wales. A key part of that strategy was developing a new approach to possession. He will know from his own constituency that in towns such as Andover in mine, possession is a huge concern, particularly to the parents of young people who spend time in the town centre. The Home Office issued a White Paper on this over a year ago, and the consultation closed in October last year. Will the Prime Minister commit in the forthcoming King’s Speech to legislation that will deal finally with this pernicious problem? (906405)

I thank my right hon. Friend for all of his work and attention in this area; it was good to work with him on Project Adder in particular. He is right to highlight the fact that drugs destroy lives and families, hitting the most vulnerable in our society the hardest. The 10-year drug strategy, which he helped put in place, is ambitious and backed with a record £3 billion of funding. As he highlighted, we have consulted on a new drug possession offences framework, and I assure him that Ministers will keep him and this House updated on future plans.

In the last few hours I have been contacted by the headteacher of St James’s Church of England Primary School in Blackburn, who is desperately seeking help after a reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete survey conducted on 7 September was inconclusive. The urgent intrusive inspection that was supposed to follow has not been arranged by the Department for Education. The potentially affected part of the building has been closed off, with children crammed into the dining room and learning at the tables. Staff are unable to access facilities and the whole school is hugely inconvenienced. The headteacher has been unable to meet the Department for Education, so can I implore the Prime Minister to get the Secretary of State for Education to investigate this urgently?

Of course I am sorry for the disruption at schools as we work hard to identify those affected, but the DFE is fully funding the inspection process, ensuring that we are now rapidly inspecting and surveying all potentially affected schools and paying for that work. Also, with the increase of up to 80 dedicated caseworkers, St James’s Primary School, like others, should have a dedicated point of contact to work through those issues. I will ensure that the Secretary of State and the Department are in touch with the school and the hon. Member for an update.

Q9.   Personally, I know the stark impact of dementia and the effect that it has on the families of our 1 million citizens who live with it. It was my honour last week to sponsor Alzheimer’s Research UK to highlight the recent progress on a new diagnostic test and new drugs that could be available as early as next January. I welcome the inclusion of dementia in the Government’s major conditions strategy, but will my right hon. Friend ask his Secretary of State to convene a dementia medicines taskforce so that we can take advantage of this progress in research? Will he consider Alzheimer’s Research UK’s request for a dementia champion? (906406)

I start by thanking my hon. Friend for his work in this important area. Regulators are working closely with industry to evaluate new dementia medicines, because of course we want patients to benefit from rapid access to safe and effective treatments. We are also strongly committed to funding dementia research, including doubling the amount allocated to £160 million a year by next year, and last year we launched the Dame Barbara Windsor dementia mission, backed up with new funding, which will work with industry to develop biomarkers and data and digital science innovations and to strengthen our trials in dementia. I look forward to hearing more suggestions from my hon. Friend on that.

In the 1990s, under the Conservative Government, people were dying because of the length of time they were on NHS waiting lists. In 2023, we are seeing an increasing number of people dying while they are on NHS waiting lists before getting treatment. Is the Prime Minister ashamed that people are dying needlessly on his watch?

Of course, the number on waiting lists has been impacted significantly by the pandemic, but that is why we have put record funding in place to help to address that, including innovations such as surgical hubs, same-day emergency care, virtual wards and such like. I would gently point out to the hon. Gentleman that, in England, part of the reason that waiting lists are not coming down as fast we would like is the strike action by doctors—something that is supported by him and his colleagues, who have stood on the picket lines ensuring that patients cannot get access to care. It is also him and his party who are saying that they will repeal the laws we have put in place that will guarantee patients safe access to medical treatment in the event of industrial action. If he wants to make this issue emotional, he should tell people why he believes that patients should be deprived of access to lifesaving care because of industrial action.

West Midlands: Economic Outlook

We regularly engage with local partners across the west midlands to gather insight and intelligence on the economy. Earlier this year we initiated the trailblazer devolution deal, which includes measures to help businesses thrive. I see that, just the other week, the Mayor launched Business Growth West Midlands, backed with £100 million in funding for business support.

I thank the Prime Minister for that answer, and I am glad to hear about the continuing growth in the west midlands. However, in Lichfield we have a problem with road and footpath closures, and we do not know for how long they will go on. HS2 is behind these closures, and one hand does not know what the other is doing—HS2 is the most dysfunctional organisation I have ever had to deal with. Will the Prime Minister, in the short term, try to restructure HS2 so that it works as a company should? In the longer term, can he save other constituencies by stopping HS2 at the end of phase 1?

I know the frustration that this is causing to my hon. Friend’s constituents. I am told that HS2 Ltd is prioritising the completion of works that are under way, including roadworks in Lichfield, to keep disruption to a minimum. I know that the Transport Secretary will continue to hold it to account and that the company will keep local communities informed about future works.


UK billpayers are facing having to pay an extra £1 billion because of the Government’s failure to agree new offshore wind. With Russia using energy as a weapon, when will the Prime Minister take energy security seriously and protect us from the whims of fossil fuel autocrats?

We do take energy security seriously. Indeed, we created a brand-new Department to focus on energy security, so it is a bit rich coming from a Labour party, which wants to cut off our access to home-grown British oil and gas, which would increase our reliance on foreign oil and gas, increase our reliance on dictators and increase our exposure to those markets. As independent reports have said, it would also be bad for the climate, as imported fossil fuels come with something like two or three times the emissions. Labour’s policy is not just bad for the environment; it is bad for our energy security and bad for British jobs.

Q12. The collapse of a potential rescue deal for Wilko this week brings added urgency to the regeneration of our town centres. Will the Prime Minister agree to meet me and the leader of Torbay Council to identify ways that, with Government support and planning reform, this can be accelerated? (906409)

Investment through both arms of our towns fund is part of how we will regenerate and unleash the potential of our town centres. I am delighted to hear that that investment includes Torbay’s £21.9 million town deal and, indeed, £13.5 million for Paignton via the future high streets fund. My hon. Friend is right about ensuring that our planning system is friendly for small businesses, and that is what we are doing: making it much easier to convert unused shops into cafés, restaurants or, indeed, new homes. That is an example of how we are helping our high streets to adapt and thrive.

The new Defence Secretary has been quoted as saying that RAAC could be present in military buildings. Can the Prime Minister today guarantee the safety of our military personnel and equipment? Or is this yet another ticking time bomb that the Government have failed to see coming?

Across the public sector, Departments are making sure they follow the technical guidance to identify and mitigate RAAC, as required. As the hon. Lady has seen in the NHS, we have moved the affected hospitals into the new hospitals programme. More generally, this Government have invested record sums in defence—the £24 billion at the last spending review is the single biggest uplift in defence spending since the end of the cold war.

Q13. It is vital that we retain, recruit and protect our prison officers, so will the Prime Minister agree to prevent any prisoner who assaults a prison officer from being released early from jail? This simple measure would be very popular with prisoner officers and the public, and—you never know, Mr Speaker—it might even find favour with the parties opposite, which normally think that the only people who should be in prison are those who misgender people. (906410)

My hon. Friend is right to say that prisoners who are violent towards people working and living in prisons will and should face the full consequences of their actions. I am pleased that the recent Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 increased the maximum penalty, to up to two years’ imprisonment, for those who assault emergency workers—that includes prison officers. The Ministry of Justice will continue to press for charges for more serious offences, such as ABH—assault occasioning actual bodily harm—where appropriate.

At the weekend, seven global economic powers came together to agree a monumental trade agreement. They included India, the United States and the European Union, but not the UK. Did the Prime Minister choose not to sign up because, presumably, he thought it was a bad deal, or was the UK left out altogether because he has as weak a reputation on the world stage as he does at home?

I am not sure whether the hon. Lady was here for the statement on Monday, but I rather assume she was not. What she describes was not a trade deal so, first, she should get her facts right. As I explained on Monday, there are lots of different ways in which countries will participate in solving international issues. At the same summit she mentions, we announced a record investment in the green climate fund—the single biggest investment by this country to help with international climate finance. That was warmly welcomed by countries at the summit, which can see that the UK is taking a leadership role and helping countries to adapt to and mitigate the impacts of climate change.

Q14. This week, we were hit by the devastating news that all Wilko stores would be closing, meaning the loss of 12,500 jobs. Bassetlaw and Worksop are the home of Wilko’s headquarters and a distribution centre, where 1,500 jobs are set to go. Wilko has been mismanaged for years. In the past decade, more than £77 million has been paid out to shareholders, and recently the HQ was sold for £48 million before being leased back. Will the Prime Minister reassure my constituents, and all those nationally who are affected by the demise of Wilko, that he and the Government will do everything in their power to help support people into jobs and make sure that their redundancy packages and pensions are protected, and that we will take whatever action is available to us to hold the ownership to account? (906411)

As my hon. Friend knows, some of the topics he raises will be commercial matters for the company, but I do know that this is a concerning time for workers at Wilko. My right hon. Friend the Business Secretary is keeping close to developments and we have already started supporting those who have been made redundant, and we stand ready to support others to the fullest of our abilities.

The head of the Army, General Sir Patrick Sanders, has said that the UK must

“forge an Army capable of fighting alongside our allies and defeating Russia in battle”.

So why are the Government still pushing ahead with further cuts, of 10,000 troops, to the British Army?

Again, this is the Government who have put a record amount into our armed forces: £24 billion. We remain the second largest investor in our defence in NATO. As we saw at the NATO summit, other countries look to us for leadership. How the armed forces allocate that record funding is a matter for the chiefs, to make sure that we have the capabilities we need to meet the threats of today. That is a decision that they will make and we will back them, but no one can doubt our commitment to funding properly the armed forces and ensuring that we keep this country safe.

Q15. The Prime Minister has rightly said that democracies such as the UK, not authoritarian regimes, should lead the fight on global challenges such as development and climate change. Given that the links between failed regimes, climate change and the number of asylum seekers are growing, will my right hon. Friend ensure that doing development democratically is a key theme in the White Paper on international development? Will he also visit the Westminster Foundation for Democracy’s Garden of Democracy exhibition here in Parliament, which highlights our promotion of democratic values abroad? (906412)

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the exhibition in Portcullis House. Members will have heard his invitation. We are consulting widely on the detail of the White Paper on international development and what it should say, and specifically on the role of democracy in development. I encourage all interested organisations and individuals to share their ideas through the public consultation.

May I just say thank you to Sir John Benger, in his final Prime Minister’s questions, for his loyal service to the House? We do appreciate it. Thank you, Sir John.

Combined Sewer Overflows

With the usual courtesies, I welcome the hon. Member for Croydon North (Steve Reed) to his place.

I restate that I have always been clear that the current volume of sewage discharged by water companies is totally unacceptable, and they must act urgently to improve their performance so that they meet Government and public expectations. I confirm that the Department, the Environment Agency and Ofwat have received the information notices and will, of course, comply with their requests. We do not agree with the Office for Environmental Protection’s assessment of our compliance with the law, and the House should note that the OEP itself has said:

“We recognise that a great deal is already being done to tackle the issue of untreated sewage discharges, and we welcome the intent of Government measures such as the Plan for Water and storm overflow targets, as well as commitments to increase investment.”

The public are rightly disgusted by sewage discharges from storm overflows, and so are the Government, which is why we have taken more action than any other Government on the issue. I remind hon. Members that the European Commission took the Labour Government to court in 2009 for breaches of the law. Subsequently, we have started the construction of the Thames tideway tunnel, which is due to be completed next year. It is taking a decade to construct.

However, a decade ago, the Conservative-led Government took action and started requiring the monitoring of storm overflows. That work will be completed by the end of this year. It is owing to that that the scale of the problem has been unveiled. I note that in Wales, which is run by a Labour Government, discharge occurrences are much higher—38 times a year for outflows versus 23 in England.

The Environment Act 2021 included new powers and responsibilities, which increased understanding. Last year, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs published the storm overflows discharge reduction plan. That led to some of the action that we are taking.

We have been repeatedly clear that water companies’ reliance on overflows is unacceptable. They must significantly reduce how much sewage they discharge as a priority. We are holding them to account, and that is also true of our regulators. I remind the House that active investigations, including an active criminal investigation, of water companies are under way.

We welcome the opportunity to set out the scale of the action that the Government are taking. No Government in history have done more to tackle the issue. Last year, we launched the storm overflows discharge reduction plan. Our strict targets will lead to the toughest ever crackdown on sewage spills, and we require water companies to deliver the largest ever infrastructure programme in water company history.

I am therefore happy to answer today’s urgent question, but I say, yet again, that the Conservative Government are cleaning up the mess left by a Labour Government, and we will get on with the job.

Nothing more graphically illustrates 13 years of failed Tory government than the tide of raw sewage swilling down our rivers, into our lakes and washing up on our beaches. The Conservatives cut the Environment Agency’s budget in half. That led to drastic cuts in monitoring, enforcement and prosecution, which led to a drastic increase in illegal discharges, trashing nature, damaging tourism and putting kids’ health at risk.

This Government are up to their necks in a sewage crisis of their own making. And now, in an absolutely unprecedented move, the Office for Environmental Protection tells us that the Government may have broken the law themselves in allowing all of this. It identifies possible failures to comply with environmental law by the Secretary of State’s own Department, the Environment Agency and Ofwat.

This Government have broken the entire regulatory system. They enabled this scandal, but did we hear a word of apology just now? No, we did not. There was only complacency. Labour wants severe and automatic fines for every illegal discharge to pay for a tougher regulation and enforcement regime. Why will the Government not do that? We want mandatory monitoring of every outlet so that the public know where the discharges are happening. Why will the Government not agree to that?

Can the Secretary of State tell us which Ministers signed off what the OEP calls

“a misinterpretation of the law”

to allow more frequent sewage discharges without risk of sanction? That is a Government-sanctioned green light to pollute. Was it her? What action will she now take to put an end to this appalling situation, bring the water companies to heel and clean up our waterways? Will she publish the correspondence between the OEP and her Department if she has nothing to hide?

Finally, if the Secretary of State’s Department is found to have broken the law, will she do the right thing and resign? The Prime Minister would not tolerate raw sewage in his private swimming pool, so why is he happy to treat the British countryside as an open sewer?

The risk for the hon. Gentleman is that he has already soiled his own reputation by failing to acknowledge that the investigation that led to that court case, which is referred to in the information notice, took place under a Labour Government. On Sky last night, I believe it was a former Labour Minister from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs who basically said that he knew sewage discharges were happening, and what did the Labour Government do about it? They did not do anything. In 2006, they set out a consultation basically allowing self-monitoring by the water companies. Frankly, the Labour Government did sweet FA and we are cleaning it up now.

Let us have a look at the timescale that has been mentioned for the situation that led to the ruling by the Court of Justice of the European Union. Things have not been done in Wales, where there is a Labour Government, so there is no change in policy there. Meanwhile, the Conservative Government have got on with imposing unlimited penalties on water companies. That is why so many powers were put into the Environment Act 2023, and regulators are now using them. There was hardly any monitoring in 2010, thanks to Labour—the Scottish National party does not have a leg to stand on either—and it was the Conservatives who got the monitoring going. Where Labour has weakened monitoring, we have increased it.

On the assertions that the hon. Gentleman made about budgets, he should be aware that the purpose of the permits, and of the fees that go with the permits, is to pay for those regular inspections. Government funding, which we increased last year, is used when enforcement action needs to be taken, and that includes taking companies to court. That is why there is an active criminal investigation under way now.

Frankly, it was the Conservatives who got the monitoring going and unveiled the scale of this, while the Labour Government looked the other way. I have no confidence in the plans that Labour has put forward. We are already getting on with many of the actions that it talks about, and that is why we will sort out the mess that the Labour Government left behind.

Can we be more moderate in the language that we use? I do not think that it has been appropriate, and hopefully we will hear no more of it.

I call the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee.

We all understand the long-term challenge of storm water overflows where heavy rainfall is inundating the system. Over time, we will see more storm water tanks, such as the 4 million litre tank that Yorkshire Water installed in Scarborough, but there can be no excuse for discharges when the weather is dry. Some are down to human error or to mechanical failure, but many are down just to under-capacity in the system. As we address the problem, can we focus on the dry discharges and ensure that investment goes where it will have the most effect: where the most concentrated sewage goes into waterways?

My right hon. Friend is right to point out some of the investment that is under way, but the storm overflows discharge reduction plan, which I anticipate will receive nearly £60 billion of investment from the water companies, will prioritise where the biggest issues are. I think that is the right thing to do. I am also mindful of other potential environmental responsibilities, particularly in areas of conservation. We will continue to ensure that, as part of the plan, we get on and get into the detail. We are already doing quite a lot of work with the water companies, holding them to account and ensuring that they get on and spend the money.

Along with the water companies, one of the main sources of water pollution in the south-west is the minority of livestock farmers who put silage, run-off from silage and slurry into local waterways, yet the Government have radically cut the number of inspections and there have been hardly any prosecutions. Why?

The right hon. Gentleman is a former Minister in DEFRA. I am not aware of what inspections were done when he was in office. What I do know is that we increased funding for farm inspections; my understanding is that there were about 4,000 last year. The approach is targeted. Sometimes farmers are not doing it intentionally. We are helping in different ways, including by increasing the funding for slurry infrastructure. Through the environmental land management schemes we are increasing incentives to help with things such as barrier strips and buffer strips so that stock is kept further away. We are actively working with farmers. We want them to be able to do the right thing. Enforcement is undertaken—he will be aware of a recent case in Herefordshire—and we will continue to allow our regulators to make decisions on criminal investigations independently, rather than the Government dictating them.

I welcome the work of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in this area. Despite what has been said today, we have to recognise that this is the first Government to take the bull by the horns and actually do something about illegally discharged sewage, which has been happening for decades. I have witnessed it myself. I have recently been speaking to Southern Water about a river that my constituency happens to be near. Although I recognise that Southern Water is doing its very best to do small trials around land drainage, frankly it is not doing enough quickly enough. Will the Secretary of State outline the powers of the Environment Agency that she is strengthening in order to fine companies such as Southern Water, which, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Sir Robert Goodwill) said, are using opportunities in dry weather to dump sewage where that really should not be happening?

My right hon. Friend is right to point out that we have taken action and given powers to the regulator. A very successful prosecution happened; I believe Southern Water was fined £90 million in a recent case. We need to continue to work to get effective action. I have complete confidence in the Environment Agency in getting on with the detailed work that we need to do to ensure that the water companies stick to the law, and we continue to strengthen the law, including through the unlimited penalties that this House voted for. Actually, I think it was only Government Members who went through the Division Lobby to pass those penalties.

The Secretary of State will know of the concerns from her own mailbag, as I certainly do from mine. My constituents are in touch with me week in, week out with concerns about the River Lune or the beach at Fleetwood. My constituents and I would like to know what steps the Secretary of State will take to ensure that when water companies break the law they will be punished and brought to justice, and will not do it again?

I am conscious of the breakdown near Fleetwood earlier this year. To give some credit to United Utilities, it worked at pace to try to fix the mechanical failure that had happened. We now have legislation that allows the Environment Agency to apply unlimited penalties. She will be aware that a live criminal investigation by the Environment Agency is under way against water companies. It will then be for the courts to decide the scale of the fines. We will continue to ensure that penalties are applied and clearer instructions are given. We have had discussions with the Environment Agency. We need to get the problem fixed, but water companies should not try to do this on the cheap, and think that it is cheaper just to pay a penalty than actually sort out the problem.

I sat on the Bill Committee for the Environment Act 2021, which created the OEP. I also sit on the Environmental Audit Committee, which interviewed the now chair of the OEP. It was Government Members who introduced the OEP, enabling her to do this work to find out the scale of the problem. When the report refers to the Government, it is not being party political; it is referring to all Governments for the past 20 years or more. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need to keep looking at these reports, ripping off the plaster that we have started to rip off, and holding to the fire the feet of all the polluters that caused these problems in the first place?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When we left the European Union, we recognised the need to have suitable scrutiny, which is what is in place. Clearly the OEP has not come to a conclusion about breaking the law. That is why it has asked for more information. That is its right and entitlement. That is what we legislated to allow it to do, and we will continue to comply with that. Meanwhile, it will not distract us from getting on with our plan for water and holding water companies to account.

Water companies have dumped sewage more than 1 million times over the past three years. Now we find out that instead of standing up to the water companies, the Government seem to have been complicit in letting them break the law. Beyond the Government’s own failures, has this sewage crisis not been driven by under-investment, while £72 billion was handed out to shareholders since privatisation? Is it not time to put an end to this racket and restore water as a proper public service?

I understand that the hon. Member comes from the very left wing of the Labour party, and that that will continue to be his mantra. I understand, however, that it is not the position of his party to nationalise water, because it recognises that about £190 billion-worth of investment has gone into water infrastructure since privatisation.

Clearly the scale of what needs to be done in the next few years is considerably greater than we have seen before. At the same time, back in 2006 we had one of the biggest dividends going, and the gearing of Thames Water was changed. Frankly, the Labour Government then did not do anything about it. That is key to one of the situations that we face at the moment, but meanwhile we will continue to get on. I am confident that with the Thames tideway tunnel opening next year we will have good sewage channelling and will be able to deal with that in London. The work continues, including things such as nature-based management practices, in order to help in Yorkshire as well. I know that his water company is looking into that too.

19 July last year was the hottest day on record in the UK. Temperatures exceeded 40°C in some places during a dry spell, yet water companies that responded to a BBC investigation admitted to so-called “dry spills” of sewage that day. The Environment Secretary was reported as saying that it “does seem extraordinary”, but that the Environment Agency “is the regulator”. Given that it was the hottest day, when people were inadvertently bathing in sewage, why does the Environment Secretary wash her hands of it?

I am conscious of the investigation that the BBC undertook. The Environment Agency and the Department do not agree with its assessment of the data. That does not mean, of course, that there have not been sewage spills on dry days. That is why it is part of the investigation. It is part of fixing the problem, and we will continue to do that.

The Secretary of State knows Gill Rider from history—the chair of Pennon Group, which owns South West Water. I have heard what the Secretary of State has said, but surely the time has come to get these companies and their leadership under control. South West Water is a disgrace. It is leaking. It is treating its customers with utter contempt. Secretary of State, please sit on these companies and make them do the job that they are meant to, which is to stop this now.

Unlimited penalties are available to the Environment Agency and there is already a criminal investigation under way. I know my hon. Friend has secured a Westminster Hall debate next week to discuss it in further detail, and my hon. Friend the water Minister will reply substantially to the many detailed points that I am sure he will raise.

It was my constituent Mr Latimer who was responsible for the law change stating that sewage should only be discharged during exceptional circumstances. He knows, as we all know, that it is this Government who are actively enabling the water companies and regulators to get away with dumping sewage into our rivers and our oceans. Why will the Secretary of State not admit that under this Government, sewage dumping is no longer the exception but the rule?

Rather than just scaremongering, which is what we are hearing again from the Opposition, could we have a focus please on the quality of our waters? In Leigh-on-Sea and Southend West, the quality of our water has gone up from 76% in 2010 to 93% and the vast majority of our beaches are rated good or excellent. Will my right hon. Friend applaud the work of local group the Bluetits Chill Swimmers, run by Daniella Bee, and Philip Miller of Adventure Island, who are assisting me in having regular sewage summits with Anglian Water? We have extracted a promise from Anglian Water to eliminate 75% of use of our combined storm overflows five years ahead of the Government’s target. Is this local action not the sort of thing we should be doing—not just scaremongering?

My hon. Friend is right to praise the activity happening in her constituency, and the people of Southend should be congratulated on electing her to this House, because she is an avid campaigner for them. She recommends her part of the world for swimming due to the designated beaches, and I could do the same in my own constituency. I remind the House that when the Conservatives came in to power in 2010, only half our swimming beaches and designated bathing waters were deemed excellent, thanks to whatever happened under Labour. Now it is more than three in four, which shows the progress we have made right around the country.

I ask the Secretary of State this pertinent question: what does she say to the senior executive at Yorkshire Water, who, when I complained about the quality of the water in some of the rivers in Yorkshire, said, “Mr Sheerman, don’t you realise that there is no river in our country that is fit to swim in?” Is it not the truth that the Secretary of State’s pathetic performance today, and her use of the most vulgar language I have heard in this Chamber in all my years in this House, show that she is out of her depth, that she is incompetent and that she should resign immediately?

I look forward to the election in Huddersfield—the hon. Gentleman should look at some of his own speeches. I do not know on what basis he has made that assertion, quoting the chief executive of Yorkshire Water, but that is not the case—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman can always contact me directly to give me the quotation and the source of the quotation. I look forward to receiving it, and I will take the water company’s chief executive to task if that is truly what she said.

Despite all we have heard from Labour, is it not the reality that in Government Labour did absolutely nothing on this issue, with no monitoring in place, and that it is this Government, as the OEP recognises, who are sorting the problem through the plan for water, through record investment, and through monitoring, improving waters in North West Norfolk and across the country?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right; he has a coastal constituency as well and will know the continuing work to improve the quality of our designated bathing waters and our waters more broadly. There have been more stringent standards applied over the last decade. We continue to work to try to improve that and we will continue to get on with the job.

The Secretary of State seems to have a weird amnesia about the past decade or so, so that there is a big leap from Labour being in government to her suddenly being in front of us today. I hope she does remember the many times, whether in the Environmental Audit Committee, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee or the Environment Bill Committee, that I asked her about making sure the Office for Environmental Protection really had teeth, was independent and was respected by Government. I am concerned that there are already signs that the Government are trying to undermine the work of the OEP. Will she assure us that she will respect the conclusions that it comes to and act accordingly?

I will say that we set up the OEP, we will comply with the information notice it has requested and then we will see where its decision goes from that. It is important that that institution continues to have the freedom we gave it; we will continue to respect that and to comply with its notices, as set out under the statute.

The water Minister and I regularly visit a beach that has been subject to several environmental spills this August. When I checked at the site, it was a storm overflow and not a combined sewage outlet. Given that there was not enough rainfall to constitute an exceptional amount, can the Secretary of State advise me why the Environment Agency has not taken enforcement action against South West Water and all the other water companies that are spilling sewage when there are no exceptional circumstances?

I understand from my hon. Friend the water Minister that the Environment Agency is currently investigating the source of the pollution to help with its investigation.

The right hon. Lady’s Department issued a statement saying that it does not

“agree with the OEP’s initial interpretations,”

but will

“continue to work constructively with the OEP on this issue.”

That seems like a contradiction to me. How does the Secretary of State plan to work constructively with the OEP when her Department’s statement demonstrates a complete disregard for environmental law?

The hon. Lady is incorrect. We absolutely respect the law—we introduced the Environment Act. We can disagree with initial assertions, but we will continue to ensure that we provide the information the OEP has requested.

I thank the Secretary of State for the renewed determination to bring about improvement—it is clear that we need it. When we voted on this issue in the House, we were given assurances that these incidents would not take place. It is clear that, while officials may not agree with this investigation, there is still a real cause for concern. How does the Secretary of State intend to alleviate those concerns and, more importantly, ensure that sewage releases are regulated and safe? I make this suggestion very respectfully: stopping the dividends to the chief executives and directors would be a method to encourage improvements by the water companies, who seem reluctant to make them.

I am conscious that the hon. Gentleman is a Member for a Northern Ireland constituency. The OEP’s remit extends to Northern Ireland, although not to the Welsh Labour Government or the Scottish SNP Government. Investigations can be undertaken—that is what we legislate for in this House—and unlimited penalties can be applied. That is true in England. We will continue to make sure that we do what we can not only to reduce these challenges, but to fix the long-term issues. We know that in London, for example, the Thames tideway tunnel has taken a decade—that is the scale of the issue. The fact that we know about the scale of the issue right now is due to the Conservative Government having taken action, while the Labour Government looked the other way.

The last time I asked about the dumping of sewage in our rivers in this Chamber, the Prime Minister agreed with me that it is absolutely unacceptable. However, the OEP’s investigation is a scandalous revelation that shows the entire water and regulatory system is broken. What does the Secretary of State think should happen to companies, regulatory bodies and Government Departments that knowingly break the law?

We set up the OEP and it has the powers, thanks to this Conservative Government, to get on with the role as it sees fit. It is doing so—it has started the investigation and asked for more information, and we will comply with that. I say to the hon. Lady, as I said at the start of my response to the urgent question, that this is completely unacceptable by the water companies. That is why we are taking action and getting on with the job. We do not need lessons from Labour, who looked away and did nothing. They are the people who were taken to court by the European Commission for failure, failure, failure—thanks to Labour.

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I know that the Secretary of State is under great pressure today—she seems to be out of her depth in quite shallow water—but she misquoted me. In a question I asked a few moments ago, I said a “senior executive of Yorkshire Water”; I did not say “the chief executive of Yorkshire Water”. That is on the record and Hansard will show it. I want an apology from the Secretary of State.

Further to that point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I thought that the hon. Gentleman said “the chief executive”. I hear now that he said a “senior executive”. But the point still stands: provide the quotation, provide the source, and I will take it up with that executive and the chief executive of Yorkshire Water, because, frankly, that is not acceptable.

Thank you very much, Secretary of State, for responding to the urgent question. We will now move on.

Asbestos (National Register)

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for a national register of asbestos present in non-domestic premises and of the condition of that asbestos; and for connected purposes.

May I begin by thanking Mesothelioma UK for all the fantastic work it does to support those living with the asbestos-related cancer? As well as providing access to mesothelioma clinical nurse specialists across the UK, that charity offers a range of support services and dedicated research to help patients live better and longer lives. I found its work invaluable a few years ago in this place, when my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) and I were trying to get the Government into the sensible and correct place on the issue of compensation.

I represent an area with many former steelworkers, power station workers, dockers and a few miners, so respiratory industrial disease is an issue that I know well, including from my close family. Increasingly, the disease is not restricted to roles that involved directly installing material with asbestos; it also affects those who work in buildings with asbestos, such as teachers. Indeed, teachers are more likely to die from mesothelioma than the general public—sadly, I have heard examples of that from my constituents. A 2019 Government survey found that 80.9% of participating schools had asbestos on their estate, and although most had a plan for dealing with it, that figure speaks for itself.

I thank in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Jane Hunt), who, apart from being an excellent champion for her constituents, has done incredible work leading up to this 10-minute rule motion, including her recent Westminster Hall debate on asbestos in the workplace.

As most people will be aware, asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that was used extensively in buildings in the UK and around the world between the 1950s and 1980s. It can be found in ceiling tiles, pipe insulation, flooring, textured paint and boilers, and it is often mixed with other materials, which makes determining its presence even more complex. In fact, asbestos is one of three materials considered so hazardous that they require their own regulations, the others being radiation and lead. Lead and radiation are tightly controlled, and although there has been a lot of work over the years to tighten regulations on asbestos—and, indeed, to ban it—many would say that it remains the poor relation of the three materials in public policy terms.

The scale of the problem cannot be underestimated. The Health and Safety Executive has said that between 210,000 and 400,000 buildings in the UK contain asbestos. Other estimates suggest 6 million tonnes of asbestos are spread across 1.5 million buildings in this country. Asbestos is, of course, the single greatest cause of work-related deaths in the UK. HSE estimates that more than 5,000 people die from asbestos-related cancers each year, of whom half die from mesothelioma.

Governments of both sides have sought to address that issue. We have had bans on import, use, manufacture and supply. The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 provide a framework for working with asbestos in non-domestic premises. The regulations are welcome, as they place a requirement on a duty holder to assess the presence, condition and exposure risk of asbestos in non-domestic premises. The duty holder is required to maintain an up-to-date register and share it with anyone who may be at risk of exposure or of disturbing asbestos-containing materials.

However, as welcome as those regulations and other interventions may be, there remain too many new mesothelioma cases in the UK, and there is a clear trend of rising cases among those who have worked in buildings with asbestos, rather than among those who worked directly with asbestos products and materials. A report by Alpha Tracker on the condition of asbestos in schools, hospitals and homes found that more than half of 1.3 million samples found to contain the material were already damaged; that 20% of asbestos-containing materials in hospitals and healthcare settings had high damage; and that 55% of asbestos in schools was in poor condition. We must therefore ask if the current approach is working and sufficient.

The UK National Asbestos Register, a new social enterprise established to help management and duty holders to manage the material, has identified five common failings in the current system. First, there are communication failures. Contractors rarely see an asbestos register, or records are mislaid or difficult to access. A contractor undertaking what seem like minor works, for example, may be unaware there are ACMs in that building and that they might disturb them.

Secondly, information is provided in a format that is difficult to understand, poorly arranged or too lengthy, meaning that documents are often incomprehensible. Thirdly, registers are not updated as work is undertaken, meaning that information is out of date, or the information is held on different databases. As contractors change, information can be lost.

Fourthly, the current system often results in there being no evidence of compliance or confirmation that any register has been accessed and read by a contractor or anybody undertaking works. Fifthly, although asbestos registers contain the same basic data, they are arranged in different formats, which makes them more difficult to understand. Andrew Paten, one of the founders of the UK National Asbestos Register, says:

“A standard, common format would allow everyone to become familiar with them and competent in their use, regardless of the property.”

As highlighted in the Work and Pensions Committee’s “The Health and Safety Executive’s approach to asbestos management” report, and in Mesothelioma UK’s “Don’t Let the Dust Settle” campaign, the introduction of a national asbestos register would go a long way towards solving those issues, and is necessary if the management-in-situ approach of recent decades, which makes good sense in many ways, as opposed to blanket removal, is to be maintained. I believe that a national register of the type proposed is absolutely crucial.

I recognise that questions and concerns will be raised about how such a national register would operate. It would bring together all the existing information on buildings with ACMs into one coherent database—as I have said, it is currently piecemeal and fragmented—not only making it easier for duty holders to record and maintain information about asbestos in their buildings, but making the information more easily accessible for those who require it.

There would be wider benefits to a national register. It would help to support a longer-term strategic approach to managing asbestos. If we have learned one thing in recent weeks in respect of concrete, it is that access to information and clear data is absolutely necessary when managing any risk in a building accessed by the public.

Furthermore, a national register would increase public awareness of the harmful effects of asbestosis, something that Mesothelioma UK believes is crucial to protecting future generations and for better treatment and care for those who suffer from asbestos-related conditions. Such a register would also ensure that the Health and Safety Executive could use that database to better target and improve its own enforcement efforts in this area. As I have said, recent issues with school building conditions in relation to concrete have shown us that we need to be proactive, rather than reactive, when it comes to managing risks of this kind.

At the moment, there is no simple and cost-effective way to reverse our legacy of using these materials in non-residential buildings, but we cannot ignore the fact that we have a growing number of mesothelioma cases among those who have worked not just with, but within, buildings that contain those materials. That is why better asbestos management is needed, and a national register is key to providing that.

Question put and agreed to.


That Andrew Percy, Jane Hunt, Tracey Crouch, Sir Stephen Timms, Martin Docherty-Hughes, Ian Lavery, Holly Mumby-Croft and Ben Lake present the Bill.

Andrew Percy accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 24 November, and to be printed (Bill 354).


Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),

That the following provisions shall apply to the Procurement Bill [Lords] for the purpose of supplementing the Order of 9 January 2023 (Procurement Bill [Lords] (Programme)).

Consideration of Lords Message

(1) Proceedings on the Lords Message shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion two hours after their commencement.

Subsequent stages

(2) Any further Message from the Lords may be considered forthwith without any Question being put.

(3) The proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.—(Steve Double.)

Question agreed to.

Procurement Bill [Lords]

Consideration of Lords message

Schedule 7

Discretionary exclusion grounds

I beg to move, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 102B.

It is an honour once again to open the debate on this important Bill, which I am delighted to say is now so close to receiving Royal Assent. The Bill is a key Brexit benefit, delivering a simpler, more transparent procurement framework that will benefit small businesses and meet the needs of UK suppliers and contracting authorities.

Colleagues in the Chamber will also, I hope, remember that, when the Bill was last debated in this House, we offered significant new measures to protect the UK’s public procurement supply chain from threats to national security. Those included new grounds to add suppliers to the debarment list for particular types of contracts that will allow us to ban risky suppliers from bidding for those contracts; the creation of a new national security unit for procurement that will provide dedicated resources in the Cabinet Office to scrutinise national security risks in procurement; and a commitment to publish a timetable for removal of surveillance equipment supplied by companies subject to the national intelligence law of China from Government Department sensitive sites. Earlier this week in the other place, we went further: my noble friend Baroness Neville-Rolfe provided an official clarification of the definition of sensitive sites and committed to an annual written report detailing progress. I am sure this House will welcome our additional agreements and agree that they demonstrate the Government’s unwavering dedication to tackle these issues seriously.

I will deal today with one amendment that the other place sent back to this House, on the subject of organ harvesting. Let me begin by saying that I think all sides of this House are in complete agreement that organ harvesting is a dreadful practice that has no place in our supply chains. The question before us today is whether Lords amendment 102B is the right or necessary one to make, given other provisions in the Bill. In Committee in this House, the Government removed a discretionary exclusion ground for suppliers engaged in forced organ harvesting. The other place has subsequently proposed an amendment in lieu, with some modifications of the original amendment. This new version of the Lords amendment does not cover unethical activities relating to human tissue; it does, however, still cover forced organ harvesting and dealing in devices, equipment or services relating to forced organ harvesting.

I urge this House to reject this amendment for a number of reasons. First, as I have said previously, I do not believe that the amendment is necessary as, crucially, organ harvesting is already dealt with under existing provisions in the Procurement Bill. Under the Bill, any suppliers failing to adhere to existing ethical or professional standards that apply in their industry, including those relating to the removal, storage and use of human tissue, could be excluded on the grounds of professional misconduct. It is worth adding at this point that, as far as His Majesty’s Government are aware, no supplier in the UK public sector has been involved in forced organ harvesting. This means that it is very unlikely that any of our public money is being spent on that terrible practice. As noted above, however, if such a situation did arise, the exclusion for professional misconduct would apply.

Secondly, the amendment has significant consequences for contracting authorities. It extends to suppliers

“dealing in any device or equipment or services relating to forced organ harvesting.”

That is an incredibly broad provision that would be extremely difficult for contracting authorities and suppliers to verify in respect of all supply chains and customer bases. If there were any doubt about whether that discretionary ground applied, local authorities or NHS trusts would need to undertake significant due diligence to satisfy themselves that the entire supply chain and the end user of all goods provided by suppliers—potentially including oxygen masks, IT equipment and so on—were not used in these terrible practices. It would mean that a small business tendering for Government contracts would need to understand where their customers might be using or selling their products, to enable them to genuinely and legitimately confirm that they were not subject to this ground.

More generally, the amendment would create excessive bureaucracy, requiring each and every supplier bidding across the thousands of contracts awarded by contracting authorities each year to declare that they are not guilty of forced organ harvesting, when we know that there is no evidence of that horrific practice occurring in UK public sector supply chains. We believe that such a burden would be unjustified when the Bill already covers this issue.

Thirdly, the Government are already taking steps to tackle the issue of organ harvesting. We have been explicit that the overseas organ trade, or complicity with it, will not be tolerated. For example, by virtue of the Health and Care Act 2022, it is already an offence to travel outside of the UK to purchase an organ. In addition, the Government continue to monitor and review evidence relating to reports of forced organ harvesting in China, and maintain a dialogue with leading non-governmental organisations and international partners on this very important issue. This Bill creates new rules for suppliers and contracting authorities that will hopefully stay on the statute book for many decades to come.

I apologise for being slightly delayed, Mr Deputy Speaker: I did not see this debate pop up on the annunciator. I rushed to ask a question about this topic. Forgive me.

On the issue of organ harvesting, I understand the difficulties with this particular amendment, so while I am instinctively supportive of what the Lords are trying to do, I understand the Government’s arguments. However, there is a way to tighten this up. Organ harvesting is taking place in China—it is a regular occurrence—but I would not rely too much on declarations from supply chains. We have already unearthed the problem that supply chains are under no obligation to do the due diligence that would enable them to know whether companies, or the people they are trading with, have any involvement with organ harvesting. Tightening that up would be great.

On that basis, does my hon. Friend accept that we now have to make sure that China is on the enhanced tier of the foreign agents registration scheme? That would really put power in the Government’s hands to make sure that supply chains were properly checked. Will he say to our right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and to all those concerned that it is time we did so? China is a genuine threat to us, industrially as well as politically.

My right hon. Friend is an expert on these matters. I thank him for his intervention—I have to say that I was quite surprised that he was not sitting behind me when I stood up in the first place, but I am delighted to see him in the Chamber now. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will have heard his remarks and will consider them carefully. This is obviously a procurement Bill, and we are doing our best to create the post-Brexit framework that will give us an enhanced ability to improve all aspects of procurement in our society.

In Committee and on Report in this House, we thought it was necessary to tighten up national security considerations to make sure that foreign hostile actors could not get involved in public procurement. We have—as my right hon. Friend knows, because he gave us good advice—taken steps to make sure that we remove technologies that come from those hostile actors from sensitive sites. On the broader point he made at the end of his comments, that is beyond my pay grade, but I have no doubt that those above my pay grade have heard what he has said.

This is an excellent Bill. It is a tribute to the officials who have worked on it and to my predecessors who worked on it in the Cabinet Office. I therefore urge the House to reject the amendment made by the other House and support the Government’s motion.

Coming in as I do at the tail end of the passage of this Bill, I would like to take this opportunity to thank my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi), for all her work on the Bill, and to say that I look forward to working constructively with the Minister.

Turning to the Government motion to disagree with Lords amendment 102B, we can all agree that forced organ harvesting—a practice involving the removal of organs from a living prisoner that results in their death or near death—is abhorrent. The debate on this Government motion is about whether there should be a specific clause in the Bill to make it clear that we do not want to see a single penny of taxpayers’ money go to any company linked to this practice, or whether that is adequately covered by the concept of professional misconduct that can be used against serious unethical behaviour.

We heard powerful speeches in the other place from Lord Alton of Liverpool and Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, who made compelling arguments for the inclusion in the Bill of the measure against forced organ harvesting and provided evidence of the practice taking place in China. I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Vauxhall and for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer) for all they have done to highlight the issue.

Furthermore, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has stated that serious human rights violations have been committed in the Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region:

“Allegations of…torture…including forced medical treatment…are credible”.

This is a very current issue, and we would like to see specific mention of it in the Bill.

First, including a specific reference to forced organ harvesting in the Bill will highlight the issue and send a message to potential supply companies to make specific checks that they are not inadvertently in any way associated with the abhorrent business of forced organ harvesting. Secondly, although the Minister has said that forced organ harvesting is already covered by the ground of professional misconduct, which includes serious unethical behaviour, specific mention of it in the Bill will highlight to those undertaking procurement to be particularly vigilant in respect of any potential association of supply companies with this appalling practice. Thirdly, making specific mention of forced organ harvesting helps to send a clear message to China and anywhere else it may occur that the practice will not be tolerated and that there will be economic consequences.

The Minister has objected to having specific mention of forced organ harvesting because it means additional paperwork, and we all want to cut down the amount of paperwork that companies have to deal with. However, I would suggest in this case that a small amount of additional work is well worth it if it sends a strong message of condemnation, strengthens awareness of the issue and hastens the end of this abhorrent practice. The Opposition support the position taken by the other place of including the measure on forced organ harvesting in the Bill, and will therefore vote against the Government’s motion to disagree with the Lords amendment.

It is a pleasure to be here talking about Lords amendments for the second day in a row. I am glad to see the Procurement Bill making progress and getting towards becoming legislation. As the Minister has commented on a number of occasions, we have not got to the place that he wanted in relation to his conversations with the Scottish Government about the Bill. To be fair, we have also not got to the place we wanted for the Bill. Neither of us is entirely happy with the position that has been reached, but I do appreciate the work that has been done to communicate between the Governments on this. Both tried to find a compromise solution, but it was just impossible on this occasion to come to one that we were both happy with.

Specifically on the Government motion to disagree with Lords amendment 102B on forced organ harvesting, the hon. Member for Llanelli (Dame Nia Griffith) has laid out a number of very important points and I do not want to go over those. The Minister has said there is an absence of evidence that there is any forced organ harvesting in any of the supply chains involved in UK procurement, and I do appreciate that that is case. However, if the Government are able to find out that there is an absence of evidence on this, surely it should not be beyond the means of those procuring or of companies supplying or buying things that are bidding for Government procurement contracts to find out that their supply chains are not involved. If the Government are able to find out these things, surely those companies should.

The point made by the hon. Member for Llanelli about raising awareness is incredibly important. We have worked very hard with companies through the changes in various Acts, including improving companies’ corporate social responsibility and requiring them to make modern slavery statements. We have worked hard to ensure that companies are taking their social responsibilities seriously, and I therefore do not think that this measure is unreasonable. It would not apply to all companies; it applies only to companies bidding for Government contracts. Surely we want companies bidding for Government contracts to ensure that they are as within the law as possible, upholding human rights and demonstrating corporate social responsibility. I do not think it is unreasonable for us to ask those companies to look into their supply chains and consider whether they are financially supporting organisations or companies that are involved in forced organ harvesting. I think it is reasonable for us to ask them to spend a little bit of time doing this if they expect to take on Government contracts.

Actually, it is simpler even than that. In America, first, it is an offence for a company to have falsified, knowingly or unknowingly, its declarations on supply chains. Secondly, the US Government use companies such as Oritain that use criminal science to test where products were made and whether declarations were correct, and they are therefore able to enforce them. What is happening is that those supply chains are now being rigorously declared by American companies that do not wish to lose Government business. It would not be too much to ask the Government to do spot checks, using such companies that are available to them, and I have recommended it to the Foreign Office, not that that really matters.

I think the right hon. Member makes a reasonable and proportionate suggestion. Although we disagree on lots of things, I am very surprised to find myself agreeing with him for the second time this week on this. I do appreciate his suggestion, and I hope those on his Front Bench are listening to the advice he has given.

I am not going to test the House’s patience by dragging this out. We will be voting with the Labour party against the Government’s motion to disagree, because we believe that the more stringent controls are something it is absolutely reasonable for us to ask of companies. This is not for all companies, as I have said, but just for those that hope to get Government contracts.

In this week of all weeks, the House needs to show that our democracy is strong and that we are not intimidated by other nations. The Chinese Communist party has shown that it holds our democracy in contempt. Today we have an opportunity to put tough talk into action.

Forced organ harvesting is a systemic trade that is taking place on an industrial scale in China. Up to 100,000 of its citizens are butchered each year for their organs. This is a state-sponsored crime against humanity. The two or three organs harvested from a healthy young adult are worth over £500,000. Evidence of this crime has been extensively investigated by the China and Uyghur tribunals chaired by Sir Geoffrey Nice KC, the former lead prosecutor at The Hague. At the tribunals, evidence was heard of systematic medical testing of thousands of prisoners of conscience, allowing the oppressive regime to create an organ bank.

I have spoken extensively on the horrors that have occurred due to forced organ harvesting in previous stages of the Bill, so now I will address some of the concerns that the Government expressed in the other place when opposing the amendment. The Government claim that forced organ harvesting will be covered by existing provisions of the Bill. Certain conduct will absolutely not be covered by the existing provisions on professional misconduct. Supply chains can be complex, and improper conduct may often be one step too far removed from the crime for professional misconduct elements to be made out. Trying to cover all the different ethical and professional misconduct regulations across a multitude of industries is not practical. Only by having a specific provision for forced organ harvesting will we ensure that British taxpayers’ money is not funding this horrific trade. Otherwise, it will be all too easy for companies to hide behind complex supply chains.

The second issue that the Government raised in the other place was that there was no evidence of UK organisations facilitating forced organ harvesting, yet there are companies with substantial operations in the UK providing immunosuppressive drugs for transplants in China. There is evidence of companies dramatically raising their stake in the Chinese market over the past few years. Sources on the ground claim that CellCept, an immunosuppressive drug, has been used on Chinese prisoners for transplants. There is no evidence that those individuals consented.

That is why a clear and direct provision relating to forced organ harvesting is necessary. UK taxpayers’ money should not inadvertently be supporting this inhumane trade perpetrated by the Chinese Communist party. There must be the ability or at least the option to stop it. The amendment is not asking for draconian action. It simply gives discretionary powers to exclude a supplier from a procurement contract if there is a connection to forced organ harvesting. That would give the Government the ability to act to prevent the complicity of UK taxpayers in forced organ harvesting.

The amendment must be seen in the context of our country’s wider relationship with China. The Government have extensively talked tough about standing up for our values against China. China is a trading partner that we cannot ignore or close ourselves off to, but that does not mean that we should not take such opportunities as this amendment to do right by our values and by humanity. Only a couple of days ago, the Prime Minister told the Chinese Prime Minister that attempts to undermine British democracy are completely unacceptable and that we will defend our democracy and our security. The amendment gives us the opportunity to use our democracy—the democracy that they seem to hold in contempt—to stand up for our values against China.

I urge colleagues across the House to take this opportunity to send a clear message to the Chinese Communist party, in this week of all weeks, that this House will stand up for our values by keeping Lords amendment 102B in the Bill.

With the leave of the House, I thank all Members who have made points in this important debate. Let me remind colleagues that the exclusion grounds in the Bill have been selected in the areas of greatest risk to public procurement. I return to the point I made at the start: there is fortunately no single known instance of such practice in the UK public procurement chain. We do not see it as a great risk to public procurement. I welcome the hon. Member for Llanelli (Dame Nia Griffith) to her place and her new role, and I look forward to debating with her and working with her in the weeks and months ahead.

The hon. Lady mentioned the World Health Organisation. The Government regularly discuss allegations of organ harvesting with the WHO, and also with other international partners and human rights NGOs. Ministers in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office wrote to the WHO in Geneva to encourage it to give careful consideration to the findings of the China tribunal on organ harvesting in March 2020. I very much do not want the House to get the impression that we do not take this seriously. It is a feature of our diplomacy and our work, where we are co-operating with like-minded nations that abhor this practice.

A number of Members raised points about professional misconduct. The existing provisions relating to professional misconduct apply where suppliers fail to adhere to ethical or professional standards that apply in their industry or where the supplier is engaged in professional misconduct that brings into question their integrity. I assure the House that practices involving the removal, storage and use of human tissue that are either illegal or contrary to ethical professional standards will be covered. It is therefore unnecessary to single out that particular practice in the Bill.

The hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) spoke on a number of issues. It remains a sadness for the Government that the Scottish Government chose not to be part of this Bill, leaving Scotland out of this new procurement regime and depriving small and medium-sized enterprises in Scotland of the advantages that will come. They will also sit outside the new security measures that we have introduced, but that is a matter for the Scottish Government, and I hope that Scottish voters are listening and that as this Bill goes through they realise the opportunities that their Government have chosen to deprive them of.

The hon. Lady raised an issue about the scope of Government contracts. We are dealing with many contracts from many different layers throughout public procurement, which could be such things as grass-cutting services in a local authority. With the amendment, we would be asking small and medium-sized enterprises to conduct a level of diligence that goes way beyond their needs and expertise. That is a disproportionate burden to place on them. If we put too many burdens on small and medium-sized enterprises, we may discourage those businesses from applying for public contracts, which is one of the precise and specific aims of the Bill. We have £300 billion-worth of public procurement every year. I want to see small and medium-sized enterprises in England, Wales and Northern Ireland getting a bigger bite of that pie, as I am sure do you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I understand that SNP Members will vote against this Bill that they are not part of, which I am afraid speaks to their peculiar constitutional mindset.

To the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith), I remind him that if anybody falsifies their procurement declaration, that would be grounds for exclusion under the Bill. We therefore believe that that point is covered off.

I commend the hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer) again on everything she has done to shine a light on these terrible crimes. She is always at the forefront of these debates and ensures that the plight of people in China is heard in the House. To her points, I say again that if we were to specify this one crime, of which we have found no evidence in UK supply chains, we would also be inviting a long list covering every conceivable misconduct in a vain attempt to provide certainty on specific issues. That would create a large bureaucratic burden, which is precisely what we are trying to get away from in the Bill. However, I reassure her again that having looked at this over and over again, we believe that the existing professional misconduct exclusion grounds will cover that and help contracting authorities to do their bit to ensure that we do not have suppliers in our supply chains who are involved in those abhorrent practices.

I hope that we can move this vital Bill a step closer to Royal Assent. The House has made its view clear once before, and I ask that it makes its view clear a second time.

Question put, That the House disagrees with Lords amendment 102B.

The House proceeded to a Division.

Order. A deferred Division was going on in the No Lobby. That will be paused while this Division takes place and will resume after it is over, with injury time of about 10 minutes so that those who have not voted in the deferred Division will get an opportunity to do so.

Lords amendment 102B disagreed to.

Ordered, That a Committee be appointed to draw up Reasons to be assigned to the Lords for disagreeing with their amendment 102B;

That Alex Burghart, Julie Marson, James Daly, Peter Gibson, Nia Griffith, Chris Elmore and Kirsty Blackman be members of the Committee;

That Alex Burghart be the Chair of the Committee;

That three be the quorum of the Committee.

That the Committee do withdraw immediately.—(Scott Mann.)

Committee to withdraw immediately; reasons to be reported and communicated to the Lords.

Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill

Consideration of Lords message

I must draw the House’s attention to the fact that financial privilege is engaged by Lords amendment 161B. If that Lords amendment is agreed to, I will cause the customary entry waiving Commons financial privilege to be entered in the Journal. Dame Margaret Hodge has tabled two manuscript amendments to Lords amendment 161B, which have been selected by Mr Speaker. Papers will be distributed as soon as possible.

The deferred Division has now resumed in the No Lobby and injury time has been added, but Members do not have long.

After Clause 46

Register of members: information to be included and powers to obtain it