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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 741: debated on Wednesday 22 November 2023

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Cost of Childcare

1. What assessment he has made of the potential impact of the cost of childcare on family incomes in Northern Ireland. (900181)

Early education and childcare are devolved matters, so policy and spending decisions are for the Northern Ireland Executive. It is vital that a new Executive are formed to ensure that all available funding is used to maximum effect in Northern Ireland.

The Minister knows that free childcare is not available in Northern Ireland, but is he aware of the serious consequences that people across the north are facing, particularly women? Childcare is extremely expensive in Northern Ireland—the most expensive outside of London—so something really needs to be done. Rather than telling me that this is just a matter for the Executive, who are not even sitting, can he tell me what he is doing right now to secure free childcare for those women, and who is he speaking to about it?

I know that the hon. Lady does not mean to implore me to ride roughshod over the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, but we need to abide by the devolution settlement in that agreement. Northern Ireland has its own childcare system, and it is the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Executive and the Northern Ireland Department of Education to put in place the much-needed policies for childcare support that the hon. Lady quite rightly raises. Successive Executives have not prioritised funding for childcare provision equivalent to that in England, despite having funding to do so through Barnett consequentials, so I hope she will join with me in saying to an Executive—which, of course, we hope will be restored—that they really do need to take care of childcare.

Given that a post on the Prime Minister’s No. 10 Instagram account this week celebrated Northern Ireland’s businesses with the Irish tricolour, does the Minister think that parents would get a better child deal with the Republic?

I am confident that somewhere there is a junior communications professional lamenting the fact that they accepted the automatically generated flag on that Instagram post, and I do not wish to deepen their embarrassment by going further. The hon. Gentleman will have noticed that I was proud to put out on my own Instagram the lapel pin that I am currently wearing.

Windsor Framework

2. What recent discussions he has had with businesses in Northern Ireland on the implementation of the Windsor framework. (900182)

6. What recent discussions he has had with businesses in Northern Ireland on the implementation of the Windsor framework. (900186)

Yesterday was the 49th anniversary of the Birmingham pub bombings that killed 21 people and injured 182—the deadliest act of terrorism in England during the troubles. At this juncture, we should remember those who lost their lives, and in this 25th year of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement it is important to remind ourselves of the progress that has been made since 1998.

I recently attended a roundtable with the Northern Ireland Institute of Directors, and I meet regularly with Northern Ireland businesses to discuss a whole range of issues, including the Windsor framework. Officials across the UK Government are also in regular contact with businesses about implementation of the framework. We have continued the ongoing implementation of the Windsor framework, rolling out the first phase of the green lane on 1 October, cutting red tape and lifting bans on everyday products.

I very much welcome the Secretary of State’s commitment to businesses in Northern Ireland. Could he tell the House how many of them are now registered with the UK internal market scheme?

I am happy to confirm that more than 7,000 businesses have now registered with the UK internal market scheme, of which over 3,000 are businesses that did not benefit from the previous schemes. All of those businesses can now move their goods free from any costly issues and tariffs. In the future, businesses registered under the scheme will also be able to avoid completing customs declarations as we continue implementation of the Windsor framework.

Does the Secretary of State accept that for as long as there are customs declarations, physical searches and ID checks for businesses moving goods from Great Britain into Northern Ireland, even in the green lane, the Prime Minister’s view that there is no

“sense of border in the Irish sea”

will ring hollow?

With the greatest respect to my hon. Friend, I do not accept that. When we agreed to the Windsor framework, we committed to a certain number of EU laws being maintained in Northern Ireland, which has been of economic benefit to Northern Ireland even up to this point and will continue to be in future. Pretty much everybody involved in movements across the Irish sea—the businesses involved, including the new businesses using them—believe that they are simple and very straightforward.

Further to that excellent question from the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis), our objective is to ensure that Northern Ireland’s place in our biggest market, the United Kingdom, is restored and protected in law. Will the Secretary of State work with us to ensure that, where goods are moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, they are not subject to EU customs processes that are neither necessary nor fair and right? Save for reasons of animal health and the risk of smuggling, there should not be checks on those goods.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question, and I very much enjoy working with him on a regular basis to try to achieve the aims he has set out. We have so far gone a long way in this space with the Windsor framework, but I look forward to continued engagement with him in the next few days, because we do need to find a resolution to these issues that also means we can re-form Stormont and deal with the other domestic issues in Northern Ireland.

I thank the Secretary of State for the additional support that has been provided to businesses affected by flooding in Northern Ireland. Will he work with us to ensure that, whatever additional support is required for the recovery of towns such as Downpatrick, Newry and Portadown is delivered by Northern Ireland Departments working together with the Northern Ireland Office?

I would like to thank the local councils and the Northern Ireland civil service for the work they have done on this so far. The flooding, which I know we will talk about a bit later, was extraordinary and so many people were affected who did not expect to be. Some £15 million has been assigned for that at this point in time, but the right hon. Gentleman is quite right to say that the consequences of the floods will have ramifications for months and years to come.

University Performance

3. Whether he has had discussions with the Northern Ireland Department for the Economy on improving the performance of Northern Irish universities as measured by the Times Higher Education impact rankings. (900183)

Northern Ireland has outstanding universities and a high share of its population is educated to degree level. My ministerial colleagues and I have the pleasure of regularly engaging with Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University, and we are proud to promote these institutions in the rest of the UK and internationally. I have glanced at the rankings to which the hon. Gentleman refers, and I am looking forward to hearing his further question.

Is the Minister aware that when I was speaking on the deck of the Titanic centre only two weeks ago, I was thinking about him and the Conservative Government? Is he also aware that I was speaking to universities and local businesses that are deeply worried about the inability of universities and businesses to get answers from the Government to enable them to meet the targets of the very important impact assessment from the United Nations?

As keen as I am to keep abreast of the hon. Gentleman’s thoughts, I was not aware of his particular insights on that occasion. Of course, we continue to work with the universities and the Northern Ireland civil service, and I am keen to work with him on the success of those universities. What we need above all, of course, is for an Executive to return so that we can work through some of the issues before us.

Staff and students at Queen’s University Belfast are doing some incredibly impressive work on cyber-security. What can Ministers do to ensure that that expertise is deployed to make us a more cyber-resilient nation?

I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend. I had the pleasure of visiting the national Centre for Secure Information Technologies, and I had a particularly interesting time testing some of its systems—I do not think I should comment any further on that particular experience. We are always keen to promote its work, and I am grateful to her for giving me the opportunity to say on the record that it does a fantastic job. Together with the National Cyber Security Centre, I am sure it will continue to promote cyber-security in the UK and, indeed, abroad.

Public Services: Budgetary Constraints

4. What discussions he has had with the Administration in Northern Ireland on the potential impact of budgetary constraints on the delivery of public services in Northern Ireland. (900184)

5. What discussions he has had with the Administration in Northern Ireland on the potential impact of budgetary constraints on the delivery of public services in Northern Ireland. (900185)

9. What discussions he has had with the Administration in Northern Ireland on the potential impact of budgetary constraints on the delivery of public services in Northern Ireland. (900189)

Northern Ireland’s finances are unsustainable, I am sorry to say, and the Departments are facing difficult decisions to live within their budgets. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has directed the Departments, using powers under the Northern Ireland (Interim Arrangements) Act 2023, to launch public consultations on measures to support budget sustainability and raise more revenue.

I thank the Minister for that answer. The Prime Minister announced on Monday that one of his five new key priorities is to improve education across these islands, yet at the same time his Government are starving Northern Ireland’s Department of Education of £300 million. We all know that the Government love fantasy economics, but surely the idea that cutting £300 million from education will improve it is a flight of fantasy too far even for this Government.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was right when he said that education is the closest thing we have in public policy to a silver bullet, but I say to the hon. Gentleman that the Northern Ireland Fiscal Council has acknowledged that Northern Ireland is currently receiving the funding it needs through a combination of the Northern Ireland block grant, locally generated revenue and additional UK Government funding packages. Those additional packages amount to some £7 billion in additional funding since 2014. I am afraid that the reality for schools in Northern Ireland is that they are long overdue reform, and the cost of running a divided education system is considerable. We need to see much more integrated education and much more efficiency, to ensure that children get the education they richly deserve.

Recent analysis shows that Northern Ireland’s budget over the past three years has been cut by £2.3 billion in real terms. On top of that slow decline, the UK Government have withheld millions in funding, forcing budget cuts on Northern Ireland Departments. Why does the Minister think it is okay to punish the people of Northern Ireland for the political impasse of their representatives?

It is not our view that the people are being punished for an impasse. The reality is that the budget situation is difficult for all the devolved nations. The hon. Lady will know that in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland, difficult decisions have to be taken in order to live within our means. This Government are taking the necessary steps to assist the Executive in balancing the books.

Whoever is responsible for the current stalemate in Northern Ireland, it is not young people in the country’s schools. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) has pointed to the desperate shortfall in funding. Is the Minister aware that teachers in Northern Ireland have not had a pay increase for three years, so effectively they have taken a pay cut that is now over 20%? Can he explain how that will help to maintain the proud record of education in Northern Ireland that he spoke about a few minutes ago?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that teachers have not hesitated to impress that point on me when I have been in Northern Ireland. It is a matter that we have under active consideration, but I am unable to satisfy him today.

My right hon. Friend has mentioned additional UK Government funding, and an important element of that is levelling-up bids. We on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee note with concern that no Northern Ireland application was successful in the recent third phase. Can he assure me that a sum of funding is being set aside for Northern Ireland projects? If so, can he give us an indication of the likely amount being set aside?

My right hon. and learned Friend is right to highlight the issue. A number of things have been said about this matter that are not the case. The money will be made available in Northern Ireland, and it has been set aside. If memory serves, it is about £15 million, but I would need to double-check—if I am incorrect, I will write to him. The reality is that we need decisions to be taken by a restored Executive, and the Government are keen to work with Northern Ireland Ministers to that end. I am grateful to him for highlighting this point and giving me the opportunity to say that the money will be spent in Northern Ireland.[Official Report, 29 November 2023, Vol. 741, c. 7MC.]

Following on from that question, communities across Northern Ireland are angry about the Government’s decision to exclude them from the latest round of levelling-up funding. The Government have said that is because Stormont is not sitting, but that is a poor excuse, because round 2 funding was allocated to 10 projects in Northern Ireland in January this year, when the Executive were also not in place. Only £120 million of the pot of £5 billion has been allocated to Northern Ireland so far. There is a huge additional need in communities, but millions is being held back, as the Minister has just said. Will the Secretary of State commit to reversing this unjust decision with immediate effect?

The hon. Lady makes her point with great force but, as I just said to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland), the money will be spent in Northern Ireland. We are keen to work with Northern Ireland Ministers to that effect. When it comes to the overall level of money required, the hon. Lady will know that we have just put more than £700 million into PEACEPLUS, which will help support Northern Ireland. The reality is that we are working hard to ensure that Northern Ireland has the funding it needs, but in order to sort out the problems that Northern Ireland faces, we need a restored Executive and, I am afraid, revenue raising. We need to be working with Northern Ireland Ministers to make sure that we get the public service reform that is so urgently needed.

May I associate myself with the Secretary of State’s remarks on the anniversary of the Birmingham pub bombings? Our thoughts continue to be with all who are affected by that tragedy to this day.

The UK Government, as we have just heard, are holding back levelling-up funding for Northern Ireland, ostensibly because of the lack of a functioning Executive. However, the UK Government are seemingly content to bypass the views of the Governments in place in Edinburgh and Cardiff in allocating levelling-up funding. Is the point of consistency not about a desire to level up, but just that there is a shortage of Conservative MPs in Northern Ireland who need to shore up their re-election prospects with public cash?

It is easy to throw out a cheap political line like that, but as the hon. Member has heard me say to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland) and the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson), the reality is that that levelling up money will be spent in Northern Ireland. I can certainly assure him that none of that money has appeared in my marginal seat of Wycombe—even though the whole House will know it is undoubtedly the most deserving and most beautiful constituency in the nation.

Flood Recovery Funding

7. What assessment he has made of the adequacy of the funding for flood recovery in Northern Ireland announced on 8 November 2023. (900187)

The floods have seen devastating consequences for businesses and households, so the Government have worked hard to come forward with a substantial package that is consistent with our approach across the UK. In the absence of an Executive, we are making up to £15 million of support available through the reallocation of existing Northern Ireland funding. We have worked closely with colleagues in the Northern Ireland civil service and the Treasury to ensure that the Northern Ireland civil service and local councils can provide affected businesses with the support they need.

I thank the Minister for that response. He will know that there are real concerns about whether that funding is adequate—I think he will hear about that in a moment—but can I ask about future adaptation and prevention? Such floods are often talked about as a once-in-a-century or once-in-a-lifetime experience, but we know that is not the case from England and that the communities will need protection for future occurrences.

The hon. Member is absolutely right to raise that. She will know that such matters are mostly for the Department for Infrastructure in Northern Ireland. That is why we are so keen to get the finances on a sustainable basis and achieve the long-term change that is needed. That, of course, includes having a strategic plan for adaptation. I hope to have the opportunity in this role to work with a Northern Ireland Executive to those ends.

I join the Secretary of State in his remarks about all those who lost their lives in the terrible Birmingham pub bombings. We remember them.

Last week, in Downpatrick, Newry and Portadown, I saw the terrible effects of the flooding on businesses and households, many of whom cannot get flood insurance and therefore face huge losses. Can the Minister assure us that once the initial £7,500 has been paid out to all businesses from the money that the Secretary of State announced during his visit, the Treasury will approve proposals for the use of the rest of the money quickly so that businesses affected can receive help and get back up and running again? If more is needed, will he provide it?

The rest of the money is within the power of the Northern Ireland civil service to spend, because it is reallocated funding. Alas, the Treasury is not under my control—all I can say is that I look forward to the day.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Traders will expect to see the money spent. There will have to be a review of what happened during the floods to learn lessons for the future, including things such as the need for a warning system—there is not currently one in Northern Ireland—better flood defences, and flood protection, which will all need funding in the years ahead. In the continuing absence of the Executive, which is really needed at a time like this, does the Minister agree that there should be a review? Does the Northern Ireland civil service have the power to establish such a review? If not, will the Secretary of State do it?

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that a review is needed. I believe that it is possible for the Northern Ireland civil service to get on with that work under the powers that we have given it. If it transpires that that is not the case, I will write to him and put a copy of the letter in the Library. He is right—the insights he provides are wise and necessary—that we all want to work together to see a restored Executive, because it is for Northern Ireland Ministers to work with their Department for Infrastructure to deal with such matters.

Fiscal Floor

8. What assessment the Government have made of the potential merits of introducing a fiscal floor for Northern Ireland. (900188)

I thank the hon. Member for the proposals that he and his party have shared with me regarding these matters, as well as those of the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson). I read his article in The Irish Times earlier this morning with great interest, but he will know that such change is not exactly the silver bullet and will need some negotiation.

I appreciate that there is a need for a negotiation. A fiscal floor is vital to Northern Ireland. Can the Secretary of State ensure that any fiscal floor is driven by evidence, based on the work of the Northern Ireland Fiscal Council, draws on the work of Professor Holtham in Wales, and properly reflects the devolution of policing and justice, as happened in 2010 around need?

There is always some debate on the basis of need, and the Fiscal Council outlined what it should be in its eyes. In general principles, the answer is yes. A lot of conversations are to be had, and the Fiscal Council helpfully published a report earlier this year, but I remind the hon. Gentleman that the proposal for Wales took over seven years to negotiate.

Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery

10. What discussions he has had with the chief commissioner and the commissioner for investigations at the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery since their appointment. (900190)

To update the House, Sir Declan Morgan and Peter Sheridan have been identified as chief commissioner-designate and commissioner for investigations-designate, respectively. Sir Declan commenced work in June and Peter Sheridan is due to start in December. Formal appointments will take place only once the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery is legally established. The commissioner-designate and I have been in contact about a range of issues, mainly through correspondence, including in leading the search for the remaining commissioners.

I am sure that when those meetings finally take place, the Secretary of State will take the opportunity to raise the numerous crimes committed in the Republic of Ireland against Northern Ireland, and challenge them over state-sponsored terrorism there. In his dozens of meetings with Sinn Féin, can the Secretary of State explain if he has taken the opportunity to challenge Sinn Féin about its boycott of the institutions here? When will he ask Sinn Féin Members to come back here and do their job?

As you would expect, Mr Speaker, I meet all the political parties and their party leaders in Northern Ireland and here, where their party leaders exist. Everyone knows the views of this Government about people who do not turn up and take the oath in this place, but I have to work with all parties and will continue to do so.

Teaching Assistants: Funding

12. If he will have discussions with Cabinet colleagues on the potential merits of allocating additional funding for teaching assistants in Northern Ireland. (900192)

Pay policy in Northern Ireland is devolved, and it is not for the Government to make those decisions. I am sure the hon. Gentleman would agree that such decisions should be made by the Northern Ireland Executive, with Ministers returned there.

I know that the Minister has a deep interest in the affairs of Northern Ireland, and in the wages of classroom assistants. Only last week, thousands of non-teaching staff went on strike from Northern Ireland schools. The action was called over an escalating row over pay, where thousands of people walked out. Will the Minister commit to investigating that in terms of the Barnett consequentials? Can he ascertain what can be done to support teaching assistants in Northern Ireland?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue. We are actively considering representations made by trade unions. He raises an important point, and I know that he understands that it is a matter for the Executive. I hope that one day, he and I will be able to celebrate some progress on these issues.

Power Sharing

14. What recent discussions he has had with political parties in Northern Ireland on the restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive. (900194)

I will answer those questions from my beautifully tabulated pack. Our focus remains on delivering for the people of Northern Ireland, who expect and deserve locally elected decision makers to address the issues that matter to them. I will continue to engage regularly with the party leaders, and believe there is genuine willingness on all sides to re-establish the conditions for the devolved institutions to go back to work and to thrive.

We have heard in this House today how disappointed Northern Ireland is at no successful levelling-up bids. I visited Coleraine football club, which was disappointed to be unsuccessful in round 2. Is the Secretary of State confident that the restoration of power sharing is close? Northern Ireland simply cannot afford to lose out on even more money.

I am glad that the hon. Lady went to Coleraine football club; I went there and had a wonderful experience with a great football team. I would have loved to referee, but I was not allowed. I believe that we are moving closer to a decision. Discussions are still to be had, and they are continuing at pace and at length.

We have already heard today an example of how the people of Northern Ireland are disadvantaged by the lack of a functioning Executive. I would add to that list the deployment of the apprenticeship levy and the reform of the renewable heat incentive. Does the Secretary of State agree with me that civil servants in Northern Ireland face an almost impossible job in trying to steer the ship of state without co-ordinates set by the politicians elected there? [Interruption.]

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question and his obvious popularity in the House. I agree with him. He is completely correct that there are a whole host of issues that require elected Ministers in Northern Ireland to take their place. I would like to place on record my thanks to the Northern Ireland civil service for the work they have been doing in such circumstances with the limited guidance we have given them, because they have been doing a sterling job on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


I know the thoughts of the whole House will be with the families and friends of the four teenagers who died in a car accident in north Wales. I am sure we will touch on it later, but let me just say that we welcome the agreement reached overnight for a humanitarian pause in Gaza. This is something that we have pushed for consistently and is a crucial step towards ending the nightmare for the families of those taken hostage in Hamas’s terror attack and addressing the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

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

Today, the Prime Minister’s Government will say that disabled people have a duty to work from home or lose their benefits, as if a suitable job of this kind is something that can be conjured up at will. It should be obvious to anyone that this kind of punitive policy is not incentivising work; it is simply punishing disabled people who are already among the most marginalised in our communities. So can the Prime Minister do his duty and tell us now how many of the 137,000 jobs on the Department for Work and Pensions “Find a Job” website are roles that specify that you can work from home?

It would not be right to pre-empt the Chancellor’s autumn statement, but let me just say this: I am proud of the Government’s record in supporting those with disabilities. Not only have we closed the disability employment gap and increased the number of employers who are now disability confident, we are also making sure that we support those who are most vulnerable in our society, not least with the cost of living payments this year, which include £150 for all those on means-tested disability benefits.

Q2.   Does the Prime Minister agree that the measures taken to get us through the economic shocks caused by covid and Putin’s war were right for that time, but they are not the blueprint for the long-term successful economies of the future? It is innovation and skills, and investment in them, such as the imminent rebuild of Harrogate College or the 12,000 local apprenticeships we have seen since 2010. Those are our foundation, and not the fantasy fairytale tens of billions of borrowing from the Labour party. (900232)

My hon. Friend is right. I am proud that since 2010 we have created 5.5 million apprenticeships. That is the difference between us. We now know that the Labour party wants to halve the number of apprenticeships if it is in office. Meanwhile, we want to make an apprentice Education Secretary. My hon. Friend is right. Labour’s plans to borrow £28 billion a year would just push up inflation, interest rates and taxes, undermining all the progress we have made on the economy. It is only the Conservatives who will give people the opportunity to build wealthier, more secure lives for them and their families.

Like the Prime Minister, I know the whole House will welcome the agreement reached overnight. We repeat our calls for Hamas to release all hostages immediately. This humanitarian pause must be used to get the hostages out safely, to tackle the urgent and unacceptable humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza, and to make progress to a full cessation of hostilities. In recent years, the international community has treated the two-state solution as a slogan, rather than a serious strategy. That must now change.

Like the Prime Minister, I am also sure that I speak for everyone in the House in saying that our hearts go out to the families and friends of the four young men from Shrewsbury who tragically lost their lives this week. It is a living nightmare for any parent, and I can hardly begin to imagine their loss.

This week, the Prime Minister unveiled the latest version of his five pledges for the country. Let us hope that he has more success with these than he did with the last ones. Did he forget the NHS?

Just weeks after I became Prime Minister, we injected record funding into the NHS and social care. We also unveiled the first ever long-term workforce plan in the 75-year history of the NHS. However, I am pleased that the right hon. and learned Gentleman mentioned the five pledges, because as he knows, three of them are economic, and on a day on which we will focus on the economy, I am happy to report that we have indeed halved inflation—no thanks to the Labour party—that we have indeed grown the economy, and that we have indeed reduced debt. That is a Conservative Government delivering for this country.

The reason the Prime Minister ignored the NHS, not only in his new pledges but just now, is that 7.8 million people are currently on the waiting lists. That is half a million more than when he pledged to bring them down nearly a year ago. The Prime Minister has just claimed that this is all about economic growth, so let me ask him this: if a labourer or a care worker is forced to wait a year for an operation, how are they meant to help grow the economy?

We are doing an enormous amount to bring waiting lists down. We are expanding patient choice and rolling out new community diagnostic centres and surgical hubs, as well as putting more doctors and nurses on our wards. When the right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about targets and waiting lists, I just hope that the Welsh Labour Government are not listening, because after 25 years in power, they are missing every single one of his targets. Were they not meant to be his blueprint?

More than double the entire population of Wales are currently on a waiting list in England. The Prime Minister really needs to take some responsibility. On his watch, 2.5 million people are too sick to work, with the majority also suffering from mental health issues, and that is on top of his failures on waiting lists. Can he tell us how many people are waiting for mental health treatment?

We have injected record sums to expand the number of mental health treatments in our country. I have talked about the practical things we are doing, with community diagnostic centres and surgical hubs, but the right hon. and learned Gentleman also does not seem to realise that the union action, which he fails to condemn, and which his Members of Parliament support from the picket lines, has led to several hundred thousand cancelled appointments, all making waiting lists worse. He asked about Wales, and we can look at it. In Wales, more than 70,000 people are waiting longer than 18 months for treatment, whereas in England, thanks to our efforts, we have virtually eliminated 18-month waits. That is the difference between us: he wants to play politics, and we get things done.

So raising the waiting lists by half a million is getting things done. It is “Through the Looking-Glass”, this one. I asked the Prime Minister how many people were waiting for mental health treatment. He knows the answer; he just does not want to give it. The answer is 1.2 million, and 200,000 are children. Some are waiting nearly two years to be seen. Would the Prime Minister accept delays of that kind if it were one of his family or friends?

One of the key things that we are doing to bring down waiting lists is expand access to patient choice. It is a very straightforward idea to make sure that patients can choose where they are treated, and in that way we will bring down waiting lists for mental health and other treatments far faster. The Labour party’s policy on this is a total and utter mess. First the right hon. and learned Gentleman promised, in his words, to ban NHS use of the independent sector; then he said that he wanted more use of the independent sector, and his shadow Health Secretary agreed with that. But then the deputy Leader of the Opposition said that she would end it. As ever, you simply do not know what they stand for, and you cannot trust a word they say.

As ever, no responsibility for the shocking state of the NHS. The truth is that the Prime Minister would not accept those waits for his family, and neither should anyone else. This morning I spoke to an NHS nurse. For many months, Cam struggled to find time to see her 14-year-old son Mikey until he became seriously unwell, and now he has not been able to be in mainstream education for over a year. Mikey’s mum is having to balance nursing with caring and being a parent. This is not a one-off. There are families up and down the country in exactly the same situation: working hard and trying to get through the cost of living crisis while desperately worried about relatives who cannot get the treatment they need. How does the Prime Minister think they feel when they see him refusing to take responsibility and boasting that everything is fine?

We are doing absolutely everything we can to put money into the NHS to bring down the waiting lists, because I want families up and down the country to have access to the healthcare that they need. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is absolutely right: they do deserve it, but it is incredibly galling to hear this from someone who, when there are strikes happening in our hospitals and people are being denied access to emergency medical care, not only does not have the strength to condemn it, but refuses to back legislation that would guarantee that access to all the families that he talks about.

This is on the Prime Minister’s watch; it is his responsibility. Thirteen years in, and all he has to offer is trying to blame the Opposition for his failures over and over again. Mikey’s mum—[Interruption.] I will tell you what Mikey’s mum said to me this morning, shall I, if you so are interested to hear? She said that

“whatever spin the Government puts on it, you can’t hide the reality for ordinary working people.”

Those are her words. Worth reflecting on.

I am glad that in recent years real progress has been made in tackling the stigma surrounding mental health, but the fact remains that the suicide rate for 15 to 19-year-olds has doubled since 2010 and suicide is now the biggest killer of men under 45. These are not just statistics; every single one is a tragic loss to families and to friends. Politics has the ability to turn this around, but it means tough choices. If we were to scrap tax loopholes, we could have thousands more staff, more support in our schools, more support in our communities. That would allow us to treat patients on time, getting them back to work, back to their families and, crucially, giving them their lives back. This is about mental health. That is Labour’s plan. Will the Prime Minister back it?

It was this Government that for the first time in the NHS’s history ensured that it had a long-term workforce plan, providing it with record funding so that we could eliminate long waits but also ensuring that it has the money that it needs to train record numbers of doctors and nurses while radically reforming how they work to improve productivity. That is because, the only way we will get everyone the treatment they need is to make sure that the NHS has the fantastic staff it needs, and it is this Government that have put that in place. The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about records. This is something that no Government have done in the past, and it is something that I am proud we have done. Labour’s record on this issue is clear. It was a “disastrous failure” of workforce planning. Those were not my words. That was the verdict of the Labour-chaired Health Select Committee. It was Labour that did not train the consultants that we need now, that take 13, 14 or 15 years to train. It is this Government that are for the first time making sure that every family will finally have the doctors and nurses that they need.

Q3.   Access to housing that local people can afford is the biggest challenge we face in Cornwall. While we need to build more houses, we need to ensure that they are available and affordable to local people and meet the needs of our rural and coastal communities. Local knowledge, particularly from elected representatives, is an important part of ensuring that we achieve this, yet the Leader of the Opposition has made it clear that his intention is to ignore or override the views of local people in decisions on planning matters. Can the Prime Minister assure me and the people of Cornwall that, under his Government, the views of local communities will play a part in the planning process? (900233)

I thank my hon. Friend for his excellent campaigning on behalf of his constituents. I agree with him that housing must meet the needs of local communities. Our affordable homes programme is delivering hundreds of thousands of homes across the country. Crucially, on this side of the House we believe that local communities must be consulted, in contrast to Labour’s plan for top-down housing targets, concreting over the green belt and destroying our precious countryside.

I think all of us in the Chamber are united in our relief at reports that hostages are due to be released by Hamas in Gaza, but we cannot afford to lose sight of what will come at the other side of the temporary pause in hostilities that we are about to see. At the end of four days, will we simply see a return to the killing of children in Gaza every 10 minutes, or will we in this House choose instead to back a permanent ceasefire?

We welcome the agreement reached overnight. As I said, it is something that we have consistently pushed for and is a crucial first step as we try to resolve this situation and, indeed, the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Of course, we want to see all hostages released as quickly as possible, including British nationals, and I urge all parties involved to deliver the agreement in full. I also put on record my thanks to Qatar for its important role. We will continue to work with the United States and Israel to ensure the safe return of hostages and maximise the opportunity of this temporary pause to step up aid to suffering civilians in Gaza. It is something that we have pushed for, that we have continued to do and that the UK is playing a leading role in delivering.

Ultimately, what we need is not a pause in the killing of children, but an end to the killing of children, and I can think of no better time than now for the Prime Minister to advocate a permanent ceasefire. Given that he will not currently do that, will he instead lay the foundations for a two-state solution by finally recognising the state of Palestine?

Actually, the agreement that has been reached demonstrates that it was not right to have a unilateral ceasefire. What was right was to do as we have done and consistently push for a pause that would allow not just for aid to reach the people in Gaza who desperately need it but for hostages to be released. That is what we have pushed for, and I am glad that that is now being delivered, versus a unilateral ceasefire that would have emboldened and strengthened Hamas.

Our position on the middle east peace process more broadly is clear: we support a negotiated settlement leading to a safe and secure Israel living alongside a viable and sovereign Palestinian state. I have spoken to President Abbas and met him to discuss this issue, and we are clear about strengthening the Palestinian Authority and reinvigorating efforts to find a two-state solution. Our long-standing position is that we would recognise the state of Palestine when it best serves the interests of peace.

Q9. I welcome the Prime Minister’s Network North project, which will see the full £1.7 billion put into the midlands rail hub. That will reopen the central platforms at Kings Norton station, which have been derelict for so long. Will he bring forward the cash so that we can increase capacity on the line and improve journey times? Will he also look at my campaign to extend the new Camp Hill line to Longbridge? That would open up access to the new Longbridge business park, which he visited earlier in the year and will bring back manufacturing jobs to Longbridge for the first time since MG collapsed in 2005. (900240)

I am pleased that my hon. Friend’s constituency will benefit from the decision on High Speed 2 and benefit significantly from new Network North funding—an additional billion pounds to deliver the midlands rail hub in full. Decisions about Kings Norton are due to be made later this year, which should be good news to him. The extension of the forthcoming Camp Hill line services between Birmingham and Kings Norton and Longbridge will be assessed in due course, too. I hope that is helpful and I will ensure that the Rail Minister keeps him updated on progress.

I am sure the Prime Minister will join me and the communities I represent in sending heartfelt sympathies to the families and friends grieving at the loss of four young men in a tragic accident in Garreg Llanfrothen this week.

People in north Wales pay the highest standing charges on energy bills, at £340 a year—a third more than in London—despite having lower average incomes and living in older, poorly insulated houses. With a further increase in standing charges due next April, the Prime Minister must recognise that he cannot leave this to Ofgem. Will his Government tackle unfair standing charges before winter sets in?

We have provided an extraordinary package of support for households across the country to help with energy bills, totalling almost £100 billion over the past year or two. The Ofgem price cap has also fallen to about £1,800 currently, and our price guarantee will remain in place until the spring of next year, which will provide further protection for families. Crucially, the Chancellor announced previously that we have removed the premium paid by households using prepayment meters until the energy price guarantee ends, bringing their costs into line with those paid by comparable direct debit customers, and we continue to provide considerable support for vulnerable families throughout the winter with their energy bills.

Q10.   Setting strategic aims for the middle east requires us to be precise about the terms we use, and that includes the word “peace”. Peace is not just the absence of war or conflict, but the freedom from the fear of conflict, oppression or terror. Peace requires mutual respect, freedom from persecution and living without fear of destitution. It comes with self-determination and liberation from arbitrary justice. It needs hope and dignity, and enforceable rights. Does my right hon. Friend agree that only when all the people of the middle east can achieve all those things can any of us talk about having achieved peace? (900241)

I agree wholeheartedly with my right hon. Friend on that and thank him for what he says. I know that his advice will continue to be of value to the Government as we find a way for a peaceful, more secure future for everyone living in the region.

Q4. The Scottish surcharge on energy means, according to Ofgem, that people in Scotland pay 50% more in standing charges than Londoners do, despite exporting 3.2 million hours of electricity to England in the past two months alone. Meanwhile, Scottish green energy producers pay higher charges than English power companies to connect to the grid. Does the Prime Minister think that that is fair to Scotland’s consumers and businesses? (900234)

I refer to my previous answer about the considerable support we are providing to families across the United Kingdom with their energy bills. The hon. Lady mentions Scottish businesses, and it would be good if the Scottish National party realised that it should support the 200,000 people employed in Scotland’s North sea oil and gas industry.[Official Report, 11 December 2023, Vol. 742, c. 6MC.]

Q12. The latest film from Torquay’s Unleashed Theatre Company, “3 Steps”, outlines the impact of homelessness. What further steps do the Government plan to take to ensure that everyone has a place of their own? (900243)

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the important work of his local theatre company, Unleashed, and I wish it well in its future endeavours. We are investing an unprecedented £2 billion over the next three years to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping, including by building thousands of move-on homes and implementing our landmark Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, which has already prevented or relieved almost 600,000 households from suffering from homelessness.

It is this Government who, as a result of our actions, have ensured that across our country 1.7 million fewer people are living in poverty.

Yes, it is true. Not only that, but hundreds of thousands fewer children are living in poverty, and income inequality is at a lower level than we inherited from the Labour party. We do not want any child to grow up in poverty, and the best way to achieve that is to ensure that they do not grow up in a workless household. That is why the right strategy is to ensure that we provide as many children as possible with the opportunity to grow up with parents in work, and because of the actions of previous Governments several hundred thousand more families are in that—

Q13. I have a question about apprenticeships. It is vital that individuals of any age can train and retrain for good local jobs, further education and skills opportunities that are available. Will the Prime Minister work with me in my campaign to establish an apprenticeship hub in Broxtowe? (900244)

I thank my hon. Friend for all his campaigning on this important issue. In his constituency, we have delivered over 9,000 apprenticeships in great local businesses, including some in the hair and beauty sector that I visited as Chancellor. While we continue to invest in apprenticeships, the Opposition want to halve the number offered. That is the difference between us: we want to give people a hand up, but all Labour wants to do is to keep them in their place.

With 316 arrivals by small boat this week, last week’s Supreme Court ruling on Rwanda has left this Government’s lack of a compassionate and functioning asylum system totally exposed, with refugees suffering as a result and chaos at our borders. Does the Prime Minister now intend to disapply human rights laws in order to continue wasting time and money on this cruel and discredited gimmick—yes or no?

I am glad the hon. Gentleman mentioned the small boats arrivals because I am pleased to tell him that, thanks to the actions of this Government, the number of arrivals is down by over 33% so far this year. That is no thanks to the Labour party, which has opposed each and every measure we have taken to stop the boats.

Q14. While the Labour leadership at Kirklees Council is looking to close Colne Valley leisure centre, hiking up car parking charges and being criticised by auditors for the way it has managed resources, there has been lots of good news for my bit of Yorkshire this week, including £64 million of levelling-up cash for Huddersfield market and the Penistone rail line upgrade, and the announcement of the West Yorkshire investment zone, focusing on the national health innovation campus at the University of Huddersfield. Will the Prime Minister continue to invest in West Yorkshire and come and see some of these fantastic projects? (900245)

What great news. I was delighted to hear that the third investment zone was announced in West Yorkshire, and about the regeneration money for the Penistone rail line upgrade and Huddersfield open market. My hon. Friend is right that while Labour-run Kirklees Council is not investing, and is closing things, this Conservative Government are backing communities across the north.

On Monday, the Government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, told the covid inquiry that the now Prime Minister had not asked for advice regarding eat out to help out. However, on 9 March two years ago, he told the House,

“At all steps in this crisis, we have indeed taken the advice of our scientific advisers.”—[Official Report, 9 March 2021; Vol. 690, c. 642.]

Who is right?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, there is an ongoing statutory inquiry into covid. It is absolutely right that that process is followed. I look forward to providing my own evidence in the coming weeks and addressing all these questions. It was the case that the Government took advice from scientific advisers and that is exactly what the inquiry will go over.

Since I recently shared my experience of birth trauma in this Chamber, I have been inundated by mums writing to me from across the UK to share their stories. Last week, I received an email from a Staffordshire mother who would like me to raise her concerns about Royal Stoke University Hospital. She also experienced birth trauma and has been told that the hospital will not be able to investigate her concerns because of the time that has elapsed. It is not acceptable that my constituents are not having complaints investigated by my local hospital, so will the Prime Minister urgently meet me to discuss this and will he include birth trauma in the refreshed update to the women’s health strategy? We must do better to provide aftercare to all mothers in this country.

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this important issue and for continuing to be a fantastic campaigner on birth trauma. I am pleased that the first ever debate in Parliament on birth trauma was held recently, in October. It was powerful and moving, and it highlighted the significant impact that birth trauma can have on so many women’s lives. The Department of Health and Social Care is working with NHS England to make sure we improve maternity care and related mental healthcare. I will ensure the Health Secretary meets with my hon. Friend so that we can get this right for all the women who are depending on it.

In the last 13 years, the six oil and gas licensing rounds by the Tories have produced 16 days-worth of oil and gas for the UK. Will the Prime Minister explain how doubling the number of licensing rounds will have any impact on the insanely high energy bills my constituents are facing? If he cared about energy security, jobs or the environment, he would surely be better matching the Scottish Government’s £500 million investment in a just transition and providing a £400 rebate to bill payers.

It is not £500 million; we are investing tens of billions of pounds in energy transition, not least for things such as carbon capture and storage, in which the North sea can play a starring role. The hon. Lady is just completely wrong. In order to have energy security, it is right to exploit the resources that we have here at home. Even the independent Climate Change Committee projects that we will still need oil and gas as we make the transition and in decades’ time, so the question for the hon. Lady is: are we better off getting that here at home, supporting Scottish jobs and businesses, or are we better off putting that money in the hands of foreign dictators and shipping it here with two or three times the carbon emissions?

Today, I am hosting—here in the House of Commons—14 Ukrainian teenage children whose parents have been and are fighting the Russians in Ukraine. Six of them have been orphaned. They are up in the Public Gallery, but they will also be in the Inter-Parliamentary Union room from 1 pm till 2.30 pm this afternoon. I know that it is a busy and important day, but all colleagues are welcome to drop by if they are able to do so. Will the Prime Minister join me in paying tribute to the parents of these children and take this opportunity to reiterate our steadfast support for the people of Ukraine in their fight for their independence, their freedom and their nation’s survival?

I do join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the parents of these children and many others. I also wish to take the opportunity to say that, while events in the middle east have been dominating the headlines, I can assure my hon. Friend that we and our allies are steadfast in our resolve to support Ukraine for as long as it takes for it to achieve victory. That is why the Foreign Secretary visited both Kyiv and Odesa last week to confirm the UK’s continued unwavering support for Ukraine. Putin cannot hope to outlast the incredible resolve or spirit of the Ukrainian people, and they should continue to have our support for as long as it takes.

Q11.   A few weeks ago, the world cringed at the Prime Minister’s fawning welcome for Elon Musk. This week, advertisers are fleeing Musk’s platform after his latest vile outburst. What exactly did the Prime Minister think he might learn from an unelected, super-rich individual who had taken over a once successful organisation and plunged it into a death spiral? (900242)

It is striking that the hon. Member for Cambridge—of all places!—absolutely does not understand the importance of technology sectors and companies to the growth of our economy. It is absolutely extraordinary. It actually illustrates everything that is wrong with Labour’s approach to our economy. What the rest of the world saw was the UK playing a lead in defining the regulations and approach to a technology that will transform how we live. It was a great example of the UK leading the way and an enormous tribute to our incredible entrepreneurs and businesses, many of which are being poorly represented by him in his constituency.

Today is Red Wednesday when we remember millions of Christians and others worldwide who are persecuted for their faith—people such as Margaret Attah, a nurse and a lovely young mother of four, who is here today from Nigeria. She hid behind the altar as her church service was attacked. One hundred were injured and 41 killed that day simply for being in church. Margaret lost both legs and an eye. Thousands more suffer similarly in Nigeria each year. Does the Prime Minister agree that the best way that we can honour Red Wednesday today is to commit to quickly implementing the good words of the new International Development White Paper, which was published yesterday, to ensure that UK development policies going forward are inclusive of those marginalised for their religion or beliefs?

I thank my hon. Friend for her continuing dedication as my special envoy on this vital issue. Red Wednesday is an important moment to demonstrate our solidarity with Christians and all those persecuted around the world for their religion or belief. Marking this event annually was just one of the recommendations in the Bishop of Truro’s report. I am pleased that today we will light up Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office buildings in the UK in red in support. I am also pleased to say that we have taken forward all 22 recommendations in a way that we believe is making a real change for those persecuted for their religion or belief.