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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 740: debated on Wednesday 15 November 2023

Science, Innovation and Technology

The Secretary of State was asked—

Online Fraud

Tackling fraud is a priority for this Government. The Online Safety Act 2023 requires regulated companies to mitigate the risk posed by fraud and scams on their services. In addition, Ofcom will publish codes of practice recommending steps for companies to take.

All companies in scope of the Act will need to take action to tackle fraud where it is facilitated through user-generated content or via search results. They must take measures to prevent fraudulent content from appearing on their platforms, and swiftly remove it if it does so. Additionally, there will be a duty on the largest social media platforms and search engines that will require them to tackle fraudulent adverts on their services.

I thank the Minister for that response. I have heard from numerous constituents who have been victims of online scams where perpetrators ask for bank details over the phone. What steps can the Minister take to make people, especially elderly people—they are the ones who come to me—more aware of what to look out for in terms of online scams, to ensure that the money that they have earned over their lifetime is not stolen?

As I said, there will be a duty on the largest social media platforms that will require them to tackle fraudulent adverts. That will have a significant impact in preventing a range of online frauds, including romance scams and scam ads. I will also talk to the Economic Secretary to the Treasury on the hon. Member’s behalf, because the Government have a fraud strategy.

Telecoms Network Replacement

2. What recent discussions she has had with (a) Ofcom and (b) telecommunications providers on the planned replacement of the copper wire network. (900098)

We have regular meetings with Ofcom and telecommunications providers to discuss the migration from analogue to digital, and in due course the retirement of the copper network. Ofcom has set out high-level conditions for the gradual deregulation of BT Group’s copper-based network in the future, but it is too early to determine the process that will trigger the complete deregulation. Ofcom will consider that in the next regulatory review period.

Last year, some of my constituents in Shetland were without electricity for six days. Moving to voice over internet, they will have a resilience of one hour. What assurance can the Minister give me that my constituents will not be left cut off without communications after the copper network is withdrawn?

The decision to migrate from the public switched telephone network to voice over internet is one for the industry, but nevertheless we are following this very carefully. Ofcom has regular discussions, and I, too, have been meeting Ofcom. The right hon. Gentleman is right that we need to make it certain that vulnerable consumers are protected. Ofcom will ensure that providers give them back-up in the event of a power outage, and it will be their duty to ensure that that is sufficient.

I am all in favour of new infrastructure being rolled out, and the replacement of old technologies with new ones. What discussions has the Minister had with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities on how we can ensure that telecoms providers use any existing ducting, rather than putting up telegraph poles unnecessarily?

I have a great deal of sympathy with my right hon. Friend’s question, as I know that this matter is causing concern for a number of Members. We are very keen that unnecessary infrastructure should not be built where existing ducts can be used. We have set out regulations on that, and Ofcom oversees it. Local authorities will be able to make reports to Ofcom if existing ducts are not being sufficiently used and it is felt that the infrastructure is not necessary.

AI-generated Content: Social Media

The Online Safety Act 2023, which recently received Royal Assent, has been designed to keep pace with emerging technologies. The Act will regulate AI-generated content in much the same way that it does content created by humans. It covers AI-generated content shared by users with other users, search results generated by AI and AI-generated pornography. In addition, the Act will criminalise the sharing of deepfake intimate image abuse, including when that is AI-generated.

May I take this opportunity to welcome the Minister to the Dispatch Box? I will not embarrass him by calling him a friend, but I wish him the best of luck.

As the world transitions into the new age of AI, the Tories are leaving the people of Scotland at risk from harmful AI-generated content and social media. Will the Minister outline why the Scottish Government was blocked from participating in one of the first major AI safety summits?

I thank the hon. Member—I will embarrass her and say that we are friends. However, I respectfully disagree, because the Scottish people were represented by the UK Government.

Meta, having recognised the threat that unrestricted use of AI could represent in elections and democracy, has banned the use of generative AI in its political adverts. Why does a private company seem to be doing more to curb the spread of electoral misinformation than this Government?

The Government take the integrity and security of our democratic processes very seriously. We will continue to safeguard against future risks, strengthen our resilience and ensure that the regulatory framework is as effective as possible. DSIT supports wider cross-Government efforts to protect UK democratic processes, including through the defending democracy taskforce and election cell, and will be working closely with social media platforms to ensure that the right systems are in place to identify and remove harmful material, including deepfakes, where it breaches platform terms of service.

I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend on his appointment and welcome him to the Dispatch Box.

GCHQ this week says that it expects hostile disruption of the next election through deepfakes using AI. Is my hon. Friend absolutely confident that the Electoral Commission has all the powers it needs to prevent that, and why are the Government not implementing their suggestion in the White Paper to introduce the legislation to empower regulators?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his kind remarks. As I said, the Government will take this issue incredibly seriously, and I am confident that, through the defending democracy taskforce and election cell, we will be able to do the utmost to protect ourselves from election interference. I offer to meet him to discuss this further and see what else can be done.

I too welcome my hon. Friend to his role. What discussions has he or his Department had about raising public awareness of the impact that AI will have on society, and increasing understanding that not all content, harmful or otherwise, might be what it seems?

I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks. We have just had a global, leading AI safety summit, which had immense coverage on that and also focused on frontier risks. We have always been clear that we will take a pragmatic, proportionate and contextual approach. With the 28 countries plus the European Union who have agreed to the Bletchley declaration, there is a great opportunity to use AI for our benefit, but we should also be wary of the risks involved.

AI Regulation

The AI regulation White Paper set out how we will regulate AI through a flexible framework. We have taken steps to implement our approach, including establishing a central AI risk function and the AI Safety Institute. We are engaging closely with regulators and their sponsoring Government Departments to understand their readiness to regulate AI effectively.

This weekend I was disturbed by news of a deepfake audio of Sadiq Khan circulating online, clearly manufactured to whip up hate and disinformation. That is cause for grave concern for elected representatives. As the National Cyber Security Centre warned yesterday, advances in artificial intelligence will be exploited by “malicious actors” seeking to spread disinformation and undermine our democracy, and the technology is already falling into the wrong hands. With elections next year, does the Minister recognise the urgent need for binding, not voluntary, regulation of frontier AI?

I share those concerns and have been following the news. It is not just the video at the weekend; there has been another one, which is about the Leader of the Opposition—that is incredibly concerning. We are working with media organisations and online platforms, and looking at this closely with the defending democracy taskforce.

This week, the Science and Technology Committee has been in Brussels listening to how the EU is progressing with its regulation of AI. Despite the commitment to introducing legislation in the White Paper, it was not included in the King’s Speech. Why not?

The Government have been clear that we will take a contextual and proportionate response. The key is to understand the risks involved. The Government are not saying that there will not be any legislation in the future; we are saying that we need first to understand the risks and then to adapt accordingly. The Secretary of State is in the United States at the moment. What is clear from the Bletchley declaration, and from the conversation that I had with her yesterday, is that we are seen as a global leader in this field, and other countries are looking to us to lead the way.

I welcome the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Andrew Griffith), to his role, and I congratulate the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Meriden (Saqib Bhatti), on his appointment and on the birth of his child. I hope that he is getting some sleep in these busy days.

AI has potential benefits across the public sector—I have seen that in hospitals, where it is already delivering huge benefits to patients—but the new safety institute, which will gather together world-class talent, is not being tasked with finding new uses to improve our public services. Why not?

I thank the hon. Member for his question and his kind remarks—I can assure him that I am getting some sleep.

The AI Safety Institute will look at the risks involved. We will be working with the private sector, and we have always been clear that AI brings many benefits and we will ensure that we have a regulatory framework that encourages innovation and growth in the private and public sectors.

Rural Connectivity

We have already announced 12 Project Gigabit contracts to extend gigabit-capable networks in rural and hard-to-reach areas of the UK. More contracts are set to be announced shortly, from the extensive pipeline of procurements. Through the shared rural network programme, we are also jointly investing over £1 billion with the industry to encourage 4G mobile coverage to 95% of the UK landmass by the end of 2025.

My Sedgefield constituency has faced many trials and tribulations in trying to get rural broadband, particularly in Killerby, Summerhouse and Mordon. When I last met the leader of Building Digital UK, I was encouraged about progress. Can the Minister reassure me that he also believes that progress is being made?

My hon. Friend has been a fantastic champion in campaigning for improved connectivity for his constituents. In the north-east as a whole, we have seen faster growth of gigabit broadband coverage than in any other region of the UK. None the less, I am encouraged to hear of his discussions with BDUK. I hope that a contract will be signed shortly to improve coverage still further, including in the towns that he mentions. I am happy to keep him updated as soon as we are in a position to make further announcements.

Northleigh is like many other villages in rural Devon in that it has been waiting eight years for superfast broadband. There are 51 houses in Northleigh that are still waiting to be connected. Residents and small businesses are subject to constant emails saying, “Use your vouchers,” but they cannot because contractors are unaccountable. Does the Minister agree with my constituents that the voucher scheme is ineffective and should be scrapped?

I do not agree with that. The voucher scheme has delivered gigabit broadband to thousands of constituents up and down the country. At the same time, we are rolling out the procurement contract. I know that there are particular challenges in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, but we have already extended gigabit coverage to 78% of the United Kingdom. I am happy to ask BDUK to discuss with him any specific challenges in his constituency.

Net Zero Technologies: University Research

6. What steps she is taking with Cabinet colleagues to help support universities with research and development on net zero technologies. (900103)

I thank my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman), for the outstanding contribution he has made to British science and technology.

The Government are investing around £4.2 billion in net zero research and innovation over the current spending review period, including through UK Research and Innovation and other Government Departments.

I thank the Minister for that answer. I am incredibly proud of the leading role that Cranfield University in my constituency is playing, not just in pioneering research around net zero but in commercialisation of that technology. Can the Minister outline what further support we can offer companies such as Cranfield Aerospace Solutions in my constituency, to make sure we capture that economic benefit locally in the future?

I share the hon. Member’s pride in the wonderful work done by Cranfield University and Cranfield Aerospace Solutions. We are providing £1.6 billion of funding for the UK’s nine Catapults, including the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, some of which will go to the Cranfield Digital Aviation Research and Technology Centre. I hope to join the hon. Member in visiting that wonderful institution.

The Minister is new to his task, and a very wide portfolio it is. In the wall-to-wall briefings he is currently getting, will he particularly ask for briefings on British science in the Arctic and the Antarctic? We have 78 universities that are leading in that field—we are the fourth largest polar scientific research nation. We are a leader in that area, and the Minister needs to know all about it.

I know that my hon. Friend does fantastic work highlighting polar research through the all-party parliamentary group for the polar regions. I will be happy to champion that work, and to meet him regarding that important domain for science.

I welcome the Minister to his role. I hope he will share his predecessor’s enthusiasm for, and commitment to, science.

Climate change presents huge challenges and huge opportunities. Labour would champion university clusters and spin-outs as engines of sustainable regional growth, but right now great green job-creating businesses such as Low Carbon Materials, a Durham University spin-out, and Airex, an award-winning retrofit start-up, are bogged down by Tory red tape, with some new products subject to 11 different regulators. Will the Minister adopt Labour’s proposal for a regulatory innovation office to unblock the system, end damaging uncertainty and drive much-needed growth?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question, and look forward to working collaboratively with her. I absolutely share my predecessor’s determination to drive forward British science, including the all-important work on net zero.

Topical Questions

This week, the Secretary of State is building on the momentum from the artificial intelligence summit by meeting with key partners and policymakers in the United States, championing Britain’s leading global role in AI, space, tech, online safety, quantum and other areas. It is only two weeks ago that Britain convened 28 countries and the European Union at Bletchley Park to sign the world’s first agreement on tackling the risks of frontier AI. This followed the historic passage of the Online Safety Act 2023, which has been viewed across the world as the gold standard of online child safety legislation. The Secretary of State will be consolidating and accelerating Britain’s global advantage in these priority areas, ensuring that the special relationship grows even stronger when it comes to science and technology, and that the collaboration between our two countries—

My right hon. Friend will know that the planned retirement of the public switched telephone network in 2025 will bring very significant concerns across rural communities, particularly in Essex—he will be familiar with that. Can he provide some assurance about the work that is under way between the Government and telecommunications providers to help improve services in Essex, particularly where we have poor broadband connectivity?

As I suggested earlier, the retirement of the PSTN land network is a decision for the industry, but the Government have a key role to play in ensuring vulnerable consumers are protected through the transition. I have regular meetings with communications providers and Ofcom to discuss progress on that.

With regard to Essex, I share my right hon. Friend’s concern—my constituency is the neighbouring constituency to hers—about the need to ensure that vulnerable constituents are protected. I can assure her that I will continue—

Order. We have only about seven minutes, so the Minister really has to be a bit more cautious in how much time he is using.

I call the shadow Minister.

The Prime Minister has said that terrorist groups could use artificial intelligence to build chemical or biological weapons, but he has still failed to act decisively to regulate AI, even though the US and the EU are both taking action. Will the Minister tell the House whether the Secretary of State is using her current trip to the US to learn from the Biden Administration, or will our country have to put up with yet more dither and delay?

The Government have always been clear that we will have a contextual and proportionate response to AI. I spoke to the Secretary of State yesterday, and it is very clear that the US sees us as global leaders and will be working with us.

T3. Teesside was built on steel and now, thanks to Ben Houchen, British Steel is bringing steelmaking back to Teesside. Green steel will be forged thanks to a new £1.25 billion arc furnace, leading the way in decarbonising our industries and bringing highly skilled jobs. Does my hon. Friend agree that any business looking to invest in green tech and energy in the UK should look to Teesside first? (900114)

Teesside is a wonderful net zero powerhouse, and I commend the green steel project. That is one reason why Teesside was chosen to pilot the Innovate UK programme of launchpads, each of which will receive up to £7.5 million.

I welcome the new Front-Bench team to their positions. Since November 2020, £1.1 billion of taxpayers’ money has been invested in the Rosalind Franklin Institute as a mega-lab to defend Britain against future pandemics. Can one of the new team explain why the mega-lab has been put up for sale?

The Government are investing record amounts in innovation and research in technology, including across the life sciences sector. I will happily meet the hon. Lady to discuss this matter in more detail.

T5. What impact does the Minister think the passage of the Online Safety Act 2023 into law will have on children and families in Warrington South and across the country? (900116)

As a father, this issue concerns me greatly. The Online Safety Act is the most powerful child protection law in a generation. All in-scope companies will need to take robust steps to protect children from illegal content and activity on their services. Those safety measures will need to protect children from harmful and age-inappropriate content and activity, such as bullying and content that promotes eating disorders and self-harm.

T2. Will the Minister help to co-ordinate a comprehensive analysis of the most successful enterprise zones across the UK and the ways in which zones that have not been as successful can maximise the opportunities such zones provide, such as in Coleraine in my constituency? (900113)

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to flag up the value that successful enterprise zones can bring to local communities. I want to see DSIT sectors benefiting as well, and I am happy to co-ordinate further with colleagues in other Departments to explore those opportunities.

T8. Given the revolution in AI, what steps is my hon. Friend taking to ensure that young people in Carshalton and Wallington have access to the skills they need for the future? (900119)

The Government are committed to ensuring that the UK has talent that supports research and innovation and drives growth. That is why we are investing millions in the brightest researchers through scholarships, PhD placements and fellowships in technologies such as artificial intelligence and quantum.

T4. What are Ministers doing to ensure that Members of this House are not included in disinformation reports compiled by the counter-disinformation unit in their Department simply for being critical of the Government? Their own Back Benchers are particularly interested to know. (900115)

I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that the counter-disinformation unit is there to flag up to platforms potentially misleading information, but it has no power to have it removed. I can give him an assurance that it does not identify any Members of this House or professional journalists.

Research and development tax credits have been remarkably successful in promoting investment by small and medium-sized enterprises. However, the Suffolk chamber of commerce has highlighted that the system has ground to a halt due to the sledgehammer approach of His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to tackling fraud. Will my hon. Friend liaise with HMRC and the Treasury to ensure that a more pragmatic approach is adopted?

My hon. Friend is a champion of his constituency, and I am happy to speak to the Financial Secretary to the Treasury on that important matter on his behalf.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


At the start of the year, I made halving inflation my No.1 priority. Today, we have delivered on that commitment. There remains more to do, but this is a strong step forward.

Also this morning, the Supreme Court gave a judgment on the Rwanda plan. It confirmed that the principle of removing asylum seekers to a safe third country is lawful. There are further elements that it wants additional certainty on, and it noted that changes can be delivered in the future to address those issues. The Government have been working already on a new treaty with Rwanda, and we will finalise that in the light of today’s judgment. Furthermore, if necessary I am prepared to revisit our domestic legal frameworks. Let me assure the House that my commitment to stopping the boats is unwavering and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will be making an oral statement shortly to the House.

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

When the Prime Minister took office, he promised to lead a Government marked by

“integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level.”

What is it about the judgment of David Cameron and his relationship with Lex Greensill, or his lobbying for Chinese state interests, that made the Prime Minister consider him a suitable candidate to be Foreign Secretary?

I am delighted that the former Prime Minister has rejoined the Government as Foreign Secretary. He brings unrivalled experience and relationships across the world, and will do a fantastic job championing British interests everywhere he goes.

Q3.   Tackling illegal immigration is a crucial issue for my constituents, many of whom will be extremely disappointed by this morning’s judgment from the Supreme Court. Is the Prime Minister able to update the House on what that decision means for the Government’s plan to tackle illegal immigration? (900072)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I know he has championed this issue, and that it matters to his constituents. As I said, the judgment confirms that the principle of removing asylum seekers to a safe third country is lawful. The Government have already been working in advance on a new treaty with Rwanda, which we will finalise in the light of today’s judgment to address the challenges that were raised. I say again that if it becomes clear that our domestic legal frameworks or international conventions are still frustrating plans at that point, I am prepared to change our laws and revisit those international relationships. The British people expect us to do whatever it takes to stop the boats, and that is precisely what this Government will deliver.

The Prime Minister obviously thinks so little of his own MPs that he has had to peel David Cameron away from his seven-year exile in a shepherd’s hut and make him Foreign Secretary. A few months ago, the Intelligence and Security Committee said that the now Foreign Secretary’s role in a Chinese investment fund may have been—these are its words—

“engineered by the Chinese state”.

I hardly need to remind the Prime Minister of the threat posed by the Chinese Communist party or the intimidation of Members of this House. When will he instruct the Foreign Secretary to give full public disclosure of his work for Chinese interests?

As I said, I am delighted that the former Prime Minister has rejoined the Government as Foreign Secretary. As an individual with unrivalled experience, he will help Britain to navigate an uncertain world in challenging times. Of course, like every other Minister, he will go through the normal process with the independent adviser. The Government’s position on China is clear: China represents an epoch-defining challenge. That is why we have taken strong and robust steps to protect ourselves against the risk that it poses. We will take no lessons from the Labour party on protecting our national security. It has taken almost £700,000 from an alleged Chinese agent. [Interruption.]

For someone who has spent the last few weeks complaining about recycling bins, it is ironic that the Prime Minister’s latest reset involves recycling the architects of 13 years of Tory failure. This is the Prime Minister who reanimated the career of the right hon. and learned Member for Fareham (Suella Braverman) in order to resuscitate his own, just days after she was sacked for a national security breach. Is he ashamed that he was so desperate to become Tory leader and so scared to face a vote that he put someone so totally unfit for office in charge of Britain’s national security?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman mentions 13 years, but we should remember what happened at the beginning of those 13 years. It is this party that restored the country’s financial security after the Labour party left no money behind. It is a bit rich to take lectures on security from a man who wanted to make the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) Prime Minister of our country.

The right hon. Member for Islington North is not even a Labour MP any more. It is a changed party with strong leadership. [Interruption.]

Order. We have a lot of very important business today with some important votes. I want to get through this speedily.

For 13 years, our security has been undermined by this Tory Government, and now we have the most ridiculous, pathetic spectacle of all: the Prime Minister’s Rwanda scheme, cooked up with his national security threat former Home Secretary, has blown up. He was told over and over again that this would happen, that it would not work and that it was just the latest Tory gimmick, but he bet everything on it and now he is totally exposed. The central pillar of his Government has crumbled beneath him. Does he want to apologise to the country for wasting £140 million of taxpayers’ cash and wasting his entire time in office?

Obviously the right hon. and learned Gentleman did not hear what I said about our approach to Rwanda. When it comes to stopping the boats, Rwanda is one part of our plan, which has already delivered a reduction in the number of small boats this year by a third. He talks about apologising and he talks about the right hon. Member for Islington North not being a Labour MP now. Yes, he was not a Labour MP when he declined 15 different times to say that Hamas are a terrorist organisation this week, which is shameful, but he was a Labour MP—indeed, the right hon. and learned Gentleman served with him. He told the country that the right hon. Member for Islington North would make “a great Prime Minister”. At that point, the right hon. Member for Islington North described Hamas as friends. Does he want to apologise for that now? [Interruption.]

Order. Are we serious? [Hon. Members: “Yes.”] Oh, I would not challenge. I have to say that our constituents are watching this. They are very concerned about the affairs of today and the votes later. A lot of Members wish to speak. Those who do not want that to happen, please, go outside and have a conversation there. If you want to bawl and shout, do it elsewhere, but it will not be happening in here today.

I am so glad that the Prime Minister agrees that this is a changed Labour party. While he was wasting his time on this gimmick, the asylum backlog has swollen to 175,000 people. Taxpayers are paying £8 million a day on hotel bills, and 615 people arrived by small boat last Sunday alone. Plan A has failed. After this session, whether he likes it or not, he will have to go back to his office, back to the drawing board and start from scratch. Can he assure the British public that he will drop what his former Home Secretary calls his “magical thinking” and start treating small boat crossings with the seriousness they deserve?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about a changed Labour party—perhaps we will see that this evening. He cannot even make his party do the right thing when it comes to standing by Israel in the vote later today. He talks about taking small boat crossings seriously. He has opposed every single measure that we have taken. Let me update him on what we have done this year. The number of illegal Albanian arrivals is down by 90%. Some 20,000 people have been returned this year. The number of crossings is down by a third. He mentioned hotels. We are closing 50 of them, with money being saved for taxpayers. All those measures, by the way, were opposed by the Opposition. What is his plan? Ah, yes, there we have it: a cosy deal with the European Union that would see the UK accept 100,000 illegal migrants. He does not want to stop the boats; he wants to welcome more of them.

It is very straightforward: the Prime Minister promised that he would stop the boats this year. Today is 15 November. He has wasted all his time on a gimmick, and now he is absolutely nowhere. Will he level with the British public and finally admit that he has failed to deliver on his promise?

This Government have done more to tackle illegal migration than any in the past. Let us review: the right hon. and learned Gentleman has been on the wrong side of this issue his entire career. This is a man who described all immigration law as racist. He said it was a mistake to control immigration, and he has never once in this place voted for stricter asylum rules. It is clear that while he might want to listen to the open-border activists, I am siding with the British people.

If the Prime Minister was confident about his promise, he would have given an answer saying that he stands by it and will deliver it by the end of the year. The absence of that answer is absolutely amazing in the circumstances. He has had three reshuffles, a forgotten conference speech, an empty King’s Speech—he even found time to fanboy Elon Musk—but not one of them has made the slightest difference to the lives of working people. If we had a pound for every time he had a reset, the cost of living crisis would have been over long ago.

The Prime Minister likes to think of himself as the man from silicon valley, the tech-savvy Californian, the country’s first AI PM, and yet his big idea is to keep turning his Government on and off at the wall and hope that we see signs of life. Is he starting to feel that, as somebody once said, he was the future once?

I slightly missed the end of that. I was glad to hear the right hon. and learned Gentleman finally bring up the cost of living—on that, he is right, as it is the No. 1 challenge facing families up and down the country—and he talked about delivering on promises, but he failed to recognise that today was the day we delivered on the most important pledge I made: to halve inflation. We are delivering on that commitment and easing the burden for families up and down the country. Everything we would see from the Labour party would jeopardise that progress—borrowing £28 billion a year, undermining our energy security and giving in to his union backers with inflation-busting pay rises. That is not a sensible plan; it would push up mortgage rates, push up inflation and harm working families. All the while, we are going to continue delivering for the country.

West Midlands: Economic Growth

I am sure that my hon. Friend will be delighted that the west midlands now tops regional rankings for foreign direct investment. The Government are investing significantly in the region, including through hundreds of millions of pounds of levelling-up fund and towns fund investments, and introducing a new pilot scheme to help businesses in the region become more energy efficient.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that encouraging answer. On behalf of my constituents in Lichfield, may I thank him for having the guts to stop HS2? May I ask that, for the area in the north of my constituency where construction is still going on, that happens swiftly, and that in areas that will not have HS2, compensation is given swiftly to those people who are expecting it?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and for his consistent campaigning on this issue. I recall his last question at Prime Minister’s questions on this very topic. I reassure him that we are committed to fair treatment for people affected by the changes, while protecting taxpayers appropriately. Wherever property has been acquired for HS2, property owners have been fully compensated, and any outstanding cases will be settled. We are developing a programme to sell the surplus land on HS2 phase 2, ensuring that it delivers value for money and does not disrupt local property markets. I will ensure that the Rail Minister meets him swiftly so that he can speak on behalf of his constituents.

In 2010, the then Prime Minister and now Foreign Secretary, David Cameron, said:

“People in Gaza are living under constant attacks and pressure in an open-air prison.”

Does the current Prime Minister not agree that if there is not an immediate ceasefire, we all in this Chamber will be watching on as that open-air prison is turned into a graveyard?

No one can deny the suffering that the people in Gaza are undergoing at the moment. I spoke about this on Monday, and I spoke about it consistently with Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority. We are doing everything we can to get aid into the region and we have repeatedly and consistently called for humanitarian pauses, to get aid in and get hostages and foreign nationals out as quickly as possible. We will continue, as will the Foreign Secretary, to make sure that happens.

How much worse does it need to get? In Gaza, 4,609 children are already dead. Babies in the neonatal intensive care unit are dying because they do not have access to oxygen. For Members across the House, this is a question of values and of conscience. Does the Prime Minister not agree that should there be a vote on an immediate ceasefire, Members across the House should be afforded a free vote?

Our position as a Government is clear: it is right that Israel is able to defend itself. That is a principle that we support. It has suffered an appalling terrorist attack—Hamas is a terrorist organisation—and it is not just Israel’s right but its duty to protect its citizens. At the same time, at the United Nations and bilaterally with all our partners we have consistently called for humanitarian pauses to ensure that more aid can get in, and hostages and foreign nationals can get out. That is the right thing to do. We will continue to do everything we can to alleviate the suffering of the Palestinian people. I am confident that our efforts are already making a big difference on the ground.


Q5. Kirklees Council has closed Dewsbury sports centre; delivered just 14% of education, health and care plans within the 20-week target; and is unable to deliver a five-year land supply. Those are just three of its many failings. Now it wants to introduce extortionate car parking charges, punishing hard-working families and destroying the high street in our towns and villages. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Labour-run Kirklees Council is no longer fit for purpose? (900074)

I share my hon. Friend’s disappointment with the Labour-run council in Kirklees. Just this week we saw a Labour councillor suspended for antisemitism. As he said, it has also closed Dewsbury sports centre and is proposing to increase car parking charges, punishing local businesses and shoppers in the run-up to Christmas. Clearly, the council is no longer fit for purpose. Local residents deserve better.

Last week, Members from across the House heard testimony from a young Israeli man who lost both his peace-campaigning parents in the 7 October attack. This morning, we heard from Palestinians who have lost generations of families in the south of Gaza because of the military attacks there. This is a question of humanity and morality. The Prime Minister has an opportunity to lead the calls for peace, or to endorse death, violence and destruction. Which will he choose?

I think that is an extremely naive and simplistic way of looking at the problem. The hon. Member failed to mention the fact that a proscribed terrorist organisation perpetrated an awful attack on over 1,000 individuals. Israel has every right to defend itself in those circumstances. People in that country would expect nothing less than for it to provide security for its citizens. Of course, alongside that, it must abide by international law. We will do everything we can, as I have said, to ensure that aid flows in and alleviates the suffering of the people in Gaza.

Q11. Proposals for a new rail station at Edginswell have been looked forward to for a decade, but a final funding gap exists. Will some of the funds released by the decision to scrap further phases of HS2 be used to resolve that? (900081)

I can assure my hon. Friend that our decision on HS2 means that every region of the country will now receive more transport investment than it would have done before, including the south-west. I am pleased that there is funding to protect the vital rail link between Exeter and Plymouth, that there will be a £2.8 billion road resurfacing fund, and that his constituents in the south-west will continue to benefit from the £2 bus fare until the end of next year. We have previously provided almost £8 million to progress the station that he mentions. I can reassure him that the Rail Minister will have heard his representations and will continue to update him on the progress being made.

Q2. David Cameron was the well-paid public face of Lex Greensill. Greensill’s companies are facing criminal investigations in Switzerland, Germany and here in the UK. David Cameron messaged Ministers and officials 62 times over Greensill’s covid loan guarantees. The Treasury Committee called that“a significant lack of judgement”.What does his appointment say about the Prime Minister’s own judgment? (900071)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Government commissioned Nigel Boardman to review all those issues and strengthen the system following those recommendations. I am very confident that this nation will be well represented abroad by the former Prime Minister. He is a Prime Minister with unrivalled experience of foreign affairs and will help Britain to navigate an uncertain world in challenging times. In contrast, the Labour party would offer to the country a shadow Foreign Secretary who backed the Leader of the Opposition’s predecessor to be leader, was paid to appear on Russian television and even voted against Trident. Does that sound like a man who should represent Britain?

Q12.   The inflation numbers published this morning were very welcome, but the tax burden continues to bite. Will the Prime Minister agree in principle that the concept of higher rate tax was never meant to drag in police sergeants, band 8 nurses, teachers with additional responsibilities and others, and that a priority for his Treasury Ministers should be to return fairness to the tax thresholds? (900082)

I agree with my hon. Friend and am pleased that the vast majority of people will continue not to pay the higher rate. I share his ambition to cut taxes for working people. Right now, inflation is falling and we are sticking to our plan, which is delivering a halving of it this year. That is the most effective tax cut we could have delivered for the British people this year, rather than making it worse, as the Labour party would do, by borrowing money irresponsibly and in a way that would just drive up inflation and interest rates. But I want to reassure him that I absolutely share his ambition to cut taxes for working people. As we stabilise the economy, that is something both the Chancellor and I are keen to deliver.

Q6.   My son loves football, and I understand that the Prime Minister is a big Southampton supporter. After his latest Cabinet reshuffle, I wonder whether he can answer me this: since 2010, have we seen more Southampton managers sacked or have we seen more Housing Ministers come and go? The answer might help to explain why the Government are failing so miserably on new home ownership. (900076)

I am pleased that the last figures show that actually we had a record number of first-time buyers. We are delivering 1 million homes over this Parliament, while at the same time the Labour party blocked our plans to unlock 100,000 homes. When it comes to Southampton, I am also pleased that we are on, I think, a seven or eight-game unbeaten run.

Q13. If a two-state solution is to have a chance, Hamas must be defeated, but there will also first have to be a more enlightened policy of administration in the occupied west bank, mustn’t there? (900083)

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. The UK’s long-standing position on the middle east peace process is very clear: we support a negotiated settlement, leading to a safe and secure Israel alongside a viable and sovereign Palestinian state in Gaza and the west bank. I spoke about this on Monday. Both Israelis and Palestinians have a right to live in peace and security. The longer-term governance of Gaza and security needs to be looked at in the round. It is something that I have discussed repeatedly with President Abbas. We agree with the United States that Gaza should ultimately be under the control of the Palestinian Authority. We will continue to support President Abbas and his people to get to that outcome.

Q7. A new generation of drugs, Orkambi, Symkevi and Kaftrio, is transforming the lives of patients with cystic fibrosis. People who would otherwise be waiting for double lung transplants are now living happy, healthy lives. However, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence is now saying that we cannot afford those drugs. Will the Prime Minister and his new Health Secretary get around the table with NICE and the drugs company to ensure that the children who are being born with cystic fibrosis today are given those life-saving drugs in the same way as the children who are currently living with cystic fibrosis? (900077)

I thank the hon. Lady for raising an important issue, and I will of course ask the Health Secretary to look into it. As she will understand, NICE operates independently of Government, but if there is a conversation that can be had, I will ensure that it takes place.

In view of the events of the last six weeks, can the Prime Minister tell the House why the Government have not proscribed the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps?

This Government continue to take strong action against Iran while people in the UK and around the world are under threat from the regime. We have sanctioned more than 350 Iranian individuals and entities, including the IRGC in its entirety. The National Security Act 2023 implements new measures to protect the British public, including new offences for espionage and foreign interference. While the Government keep the list of proscribed organisations under review, it is, as Members will be aware, a long-standing convention that we do not comment on whether a specific organisation is being considered for proscription.

Q8. The Prime Minister has just said that David Cameron had unprecedented experience, so what would he say was his finest foreign policy achievement? [Laughter.] (900078)

There are many, many to pick from, but what I would say is that under his leadership this country hosted what was widely considered to be one of the most successful G8 summits of recent times.

It was great to welcome the Prime Minister to Chelmsford earlier this year, when he launched his antisocial behaviour strategy. He will be pleased to know that the local police have been consistently stepping up their activities. Last week they arrested 24 people for many crimes, and last night they took out a major county lines gang. Will the Prime Minister please join me in congratulating all those in our local police force, and would he like to come back to Chelmsford and go out on patrol, because he would be very welcome?

It was great to visit my right hon. Friend and to launch the Government’s antisocial behaviour plan. I thank her for raising awareness about the important work that her local policing team are doing, and I am pleased that they have been empowered by our strategy. Antisocial behaviour makes life miserable for many, which is why the delivery of our plan is so important, and it is making a difference across the country, including in her part of the world. I was also pleased to see that under this Government, by the most recent year for which we have data, crime had decreased by 56% since 2010.

Q9. It is insulting that in the week that marks 20 years since the abolition of section 28, the Prime Minister has appointed a Minister without Portfolio who frequently attacks the LGBTQ+ community and who, with their so-called war on woke, seeks a return to those awful days, denying our human rights and attacking our very existence. Does the Prime Minister agree that he has manifestly and repeatedly failed? It is time for him to resign and to call a general election. (900079)

Actually, this Government and previous Governments have a proud record in championing LGBT rights. It was this Government who introduced same-sex marriage. We will continue to ensure that everyone in our society can live with tolerance and compassion, and have every opportunity available to them. That is what we have delivered, and that is what we will continue to deliver.

Last year, through the Homes for Ukraine scheme, my family and I welcomed a refugee family to our home. I am proud that this country has always offered refuge to those who need it. However, it is essential that we in this country decide who comes here. The Prime Minister has rightly said that he will do whatever it takes to stop the small boats and the evil trade around them, but is it not apparent after this morning’s ruling that what it will take is a new law to override the Human Rights Act and cut through the thicket of case law built up by judicial activism, so that we can bring back control of our borders and stop the small boats?

It is right that we go through the judgment carefully and properly. As I have said, the Government have already been working in advance on a new treaty with Rwanda to address the concerns that were raised previously and were raised by the Supreme Court, which also acknowledged that changes can be delivered to address those issues. Let me repeat, however, that if it becomes clear that our domestic legal frameworks, or indeed international conventions, are still frustrating plans after that point, I am prepared to change our laws and revisit those international relationships, because we are absolutely committed to stopping the boats.

Q10. I thank the Prime Minister for meeting my constituent Noam. It has been 40 days since his mum, Ada Sagi, was kidnapped by Hamas on 7 October. We all condemn Hamas’s actions and fight for the return of all hostages. Noam wants the language of love to be louder than the language of hate. Some 11,000 Palestinians have been killed, more than 4,000 of them children. International law is important. Does the Prime Minister agree that we can support Israel but also call out breaches of international law? (900080)

I have been consistent from the start that while Israel has a right to defend itself, it is important that it complies with international law. It is a point I have made in every meeting or phone conversation I have had with Prime Minister Netanyahu. It was a privilege to meet the hon. Lady’s constituents and to hear of the pain they are going through, which I have enormous sympathy for. That is why we are doing everything we can to bring hostages home. We are engaged intensively in diplomatic activity in the region and working to get foreign nationals and British nationals home, and I am pleased to say that well over 200 have now left Gaza. We will continue to do everything we can to ensure that everyone can safely leave who needs to.

The Prime Minister knows that I stand unapologetically with my steelmakers in Scunthorpe. He knows that I believe, as many across this House do, that the UK must retain a virgin steelmaking capability, for strategic reasons if nothing else. Will he reassure the House that he is personally following developments at British Steel and doing all he can to retain what is a vital sovereign capability?

My hon. Friend is a fantastic champion for her local steelworking community. I hope she is reassured by the action that this Government have already taken to support steelmaking in our country, reaching a landmark agreement with Tata Steel to safeguard thousands of jobs there, as well as during the pandemic. I agree that it is important for our industrial base, and we will continue to have constructive conversations with all those companies to ensure that we can support them in their transition to a cleaner, greener steelmaking future.

Q14.   According to the British Independent Retailers Association on a matter that affects every constituency across this kingdom, 82% of retailers do not even bother reporting physical attacks on their staff, and shopkeepers need to sell an additional 12 items to make up for each item that is stolen. Will the Prime Minister support the efforts being made by the association and by many Members across the House to ensure that retailers are protected, that theft against them is called out and that they are supported in every way possible? And today, at a meeting in Dining Room C, will he encourage its members from those shops in their efforts? (900084)

First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his work as vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on retail crime. He is absolutely right about the importance of this issue. I worked in my mum’s shop—her pharmacy—growing up, and I understand exactly what he is talking about when small businesses are the victims of crime. Our expectation and our agreement with police forces—we did this earlier this year—is that all shoplifting should be followed up where there is evidence such as CCTV footage and that any violent or abusive behaviour towards shopworkers, particularly those who provide a valuable service to the public, is never acceptable. That is why we introduced a statutory aggravating factor for assaults on workers who provide a service to the public. I commend my hon. Friend for everything he is doing on this issue.

Will my right hon. Friend give the House an assurance that he has made it clear to the new Foreign Secretary, who of course we wish well, that his policy and conduct of EU-related affairs will be consistent with the Government’s 2019 election manifesto and the referendum and that he is now fully committed to UK parliamentary sovereignty, self-government and democracy in accordance with the Government’s subsequent legislation?

I am delighted to give my hon. Friend that assurance, because this Government are seizing the opportunities of Brexit, aided by his advice and support. We passed the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Act 2023 to ensure that we can regulate our growth industries more competitively, and we have signed trade deals with the fastest growing regions across the world including, most recently, the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership. It is this Government who are delivering the benefits of Brexit to every part of our country, and long may that continue.