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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 742: debated on Wednesday 13 December 2023

Women and Equalities

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Kinship Care

1. If she will make an assessment with Cabinet colleagues of the potential impact of the Government’s kinship care policies on carers and children with protected characteristics. (900624)

We comply with the public sector equality duty in considering how our policy decisions impact on individuals with protected characteristics, and we have complied with that obligation in drafting and developing the kinship strategy.

The annual survey of the Kinship charity showed that the majority of kinship carers are women, typically grandmothers, many of whom are affected by the gender pay gap and a rising retirement age, yet they are often forced to give up or reduce work to take on kinship care responsibilities. What progress has the Minister made with the Department for Business and Trade in finally securing paid leave for kinship carers so that they are not forced out of the labour force?

As the hon. Lady knows, we are committed to publishing the first ever strategy for kinship carers before the end of the year. She will not have long to wait.

Disabled People: Inequality

In July 2021, the Government set out our long-term vision in the national disability strategy. Over the summer, we consulted on the disability action plan, which will set out the immediate action that the Government are taking in 2024. Together with other relevant reforms being taken forward by my Cabinet colleagues, those measures seek to tackle inequality and improve the daily lives of disabled people.

The neuro drop-in centre in Lancaster provides a unique support network for those affected by neurological conditions, but my constituent, who travels there by bus from Bowerham to Torrisholme, is a wheelchair user, and if there is already is a wheelchair user on the bus, he cannot board. Does the Minister think that that is fair?

That does not sound terribly fair at all. I am very interested in what the hon. Lady shares with the House. Of course, we have a Transport Minister answering questions today, so I am very happy for us to look at that issue for her. If she writes to me, I will see that the matter is looked at.

Sense has found that, because of the Tory cost of living crisis, a large proportion of disabled people will not be seeing family, buying presents or even celebrating Christmas this year, yet the Government are ploughing ahead with changes that will ramp up sanctions and that could remove NHS prescriptions and access to legal aid for disabled people. Why, at every single opportunity, do the Government hit people with disabilities the hardest?

I apologise, Mr Speaker, because the Transport Minister I mentioned is not coming today—they might be on the bus. I will pick up the issue raised by the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) in further responses.

The hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) will know that we are making cost of living payments once again to support people in need. In fact, that support totals over £104 billion. If she is concerned for her constituents—and rightly so—she should definitely direct them to Help for Households, the benefits calculator on, and the help to claim process. There is also the household support fund, which is about £1 billion this year. I hope she is satisfied that we are absolutely supporting the most vulnerable.

The disability pay gap has risen under the Conservatives from 11.7% in 2014 to 13.8% in 2021. Labour will act to close the gap and to support disabled people by introducing disability pay gap reporting for large employers. That is good for disabled people, good for business and good for our economy, so why will the Government not follow suit?

We are absolutely committed to supporting disabled people. Frankly, we are very proud of our record: we have supported more than 1 million disabled people into work, hitting the target five years early, and we are rewiring our benefits system to give a renewed focus on what people can do rather than what they cannot, so that there are opportunities for people to improve their lives and get the pay that they want through their employment.

Disabled people are also being hit hard by the Conservative cost of living crisis that my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) referred to. On average, the extra cost of disability is equivalent to 63% of household income before housing costs. I would ask the Minister what discussions she has had with the Minister for disabled people about this important issue, but there is no Minister for disabled people. Will she tell the House when one will be appointed?

I thank the hon. Lady for raising that point. As she has rightly said, we should all aim to reduce the disability employment gap, and that remains our goal. To answer her question, I am the lead on those matters for Equalities oral questions. I am disappointed that I am not enough for her today, but I do lead on those matters for the Department. All Department for Work and Pensions Ministers take responsibility across our portfolios for removing barriers to progress, and updates to ministerial appointments will be made under the usual process.

I reassure my hon. Friend that she is more than enough for me. There was a really worrying article in The Times a few days ago that talked about the invisibility of disabled people when making employment applications. We know that disabled people are less likely to be in work and to take up opportunities for entrepreneurship. Perhaps my hon. Friend could highlight the important work she is doing as the Minister for social mobility to make sure that across Government, there is a real drive to help disabled people get the best opportunities to work.

I thank my right hon. Friend and other hon. Members for their interest in this area. As the Minister responsible for social mobility, I am taking direct leadership on access to employment, particularly in respect of applications and recruitment that suit disabled people to get into work, because if we do not get them into work, they cannot progress. That is why we have billions of pounds in our back to work plan, and why we are supporting vulnerable people by uprating benefits by 6.7% in April equally.

Disability Action Plan

3. What discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on the effectiveness of the disability action plan. (900626)

The disability action plan’s accessible 12-week consultation closed on 6 October. Since then, officials have been carefully considering all the consultation responses and working closely with other Government Departments. We have led discussions with the cross-Government ministerial disability champions before we publish the final disability action plan.

Some 14 million people live with a disability. They are statistically less likely to have a job or any qualifications or to own their own home, and sadly, their children are twice as likely to become victims of crime. Will the Minister ensure that the disability action plan addresses all those issues?

I thank my hon. Friend for his typical care in this area. I assure him and the House that significant work is taking place across Government in those areas where disabled people have told us that their outcomes must be a priority, whether that is in education, employment or care. We are focused on that, and the disability action plan will complement that work. We are using the insight from the 12-week consultation to deliver improvements in all the areas that matter most to disabled people, in order to improve their daily lives.

Some 1.4 million people in the UK are living with a brain injury. Will the Minister make sure that the final version of the plan lays out precisely what the Government intend to do in relation to people who have had a brain injury? The good news is that with really good neurorehabilitation, people can be given back not just their life, but a real quality of life. We owe that to them, don’t we?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue. My father lived with a brain injury for over 25 years, and my annual Christmas card this year comes from Headway Sussex through its art therapy work, so I assure him that at the DWP, I think about the impacts of brain injury on a daily basis.

Gender-based Violence: Hamas

4. If she will have discussions with the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs on the Government’s response to reports of gender-based violence by Hamas since 7 October 2023. (900627)

It is crucial that the international community recognises the atrocities committed by Hamas, and that Hamas are held to account for their barbarism. That is why we are engaging with partners, including the UN, to ensure that perpetrators are held to account for their depravity.

The UK remains a global leader in eradicating sex-based violence. Our preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative has £60 million in funding to combat conflict-related sexual violence and ensure that survivors access redress and support. On 28 November, we announced a further £33 million to support grassroots women’s rights organisations tackling sex-based violence.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Hostages who have been released have reported Hamas atrocities, such as being subjected to physical and sexual violence in captivity. The Israeli health service also reports that hostages have been drugged to make them look happy on videos. Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning Hamas for doing that and in demanding that the International Committee of the Red Cross has access to every single one of the hostages immediately?

I share my hon. Friend’s horror. It is extremely distressing to hear all those reports, and I do unequivocally condemn the sexual violence that is being reported. We continue to engage regularly with partners, including the UN. I will pick up the points that he raised directly with the Foreign Office to see whether we can do what he asks. It does sound like something that needs the involvement of the Red Cross, but we will make sure that we co-ordinate across Government for a dedicated response on this issue.

Will the UK use its seat on the UN Human Rights Council to raise the use of gender-based violence on 7 October, and to secure a clear condemnation from its members of the rape, murder and torture perpetrated against women by Hamas on 7 October?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. Yes, we will. We have raised the reports of sexual violence attacks on 7 October with UN Women and with the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict. I will make sure that we continue to do this and to impress upon international organisations that the whole world needs to respond to this.

Artificial Intelligence Biases: Protected Characteristics

5. What recent discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on the potential for biases in artificial intelligence technologies in relation to people with protected characteristics. (900628)

We are having cross-governmental discussions about AI, and we are very clear that AI systems should not undermine people’s rights or discriminate unfairly. This was a key topic of discussion at the AI safety summit, and it remains a priority for the Government. Fairness is a core principle of our AI regulatory framework, and UK regulators are already taking action to address AI-related bias and discrimination.

In that case, is the Minister aware of the findings of the Institute for the Future of Work that the use of artificial intelligence

“presents risks to equality, potentially embedding bias and discrimination”,

and that auditing AI tools used in recruitment

“are often inadequate in ensuring compliance with UK Equality Law, good governance and best practice”?

What steps are being taken across the whole of Government to ensure that appropriate assessments are made of the equalities impact of the use of AI in the workplace?

That is exactly why we had the AI safety summit, at which more than 28 countries plus the EU signed up to the Bletchley declaration. In March, we published the AI regulation White Paper, which set out our first steps towards establishing a regulatory framework for AI. I repeat that AI systems should not undermine people’s rights or discriminate unfairly, and that is one of the core principles set out in the White Paper.

The risk of perpetuating inequality and the problems that arise from solely automated decision making are well accepted both in recruitment and, as we heard earlier, in the challenges for disabled people in accessing employment, but also in other contexts such as immigration and welfare benefits. However, the UK Government’s Data Protection and Digital Information Bill is liberalising the use of artificial intelligence in decision making and reducing the rights of people to appeal those decisions. Does the Minister understand that it is increasingly important to make sure that we mitigate risks such as encoded bias? What is the specific plan to do that?

I do not recognise the hon. Member’s assessment, but let me say this: context matters. The risks of bias will vary depending on the specific way in which AI is used. That is why we are letting the regulators describe and illustrate what fairness means within their sectors, because they will be able to apply greater context to their discussions. The risk of discrimination should be assessed in context, and guidance should be issued that is specific to the sector. That is why we are preparing and publishing guidance to support the regulators. We will then encourage and support them to develop joint guidance. We will be working with the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the Information Commissioner’s Office and the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate.

Socioeconomic Equality

The Government are committed to boosting economic growth across the UK and ensuring opportunity is spread as widely as possible. Education is the most significant lever to create opportunity and reduce inequality, and I am pleased that Conservative reforms have seen children in schools in England excel in the 2022 PISA—programme for international student assessment—scores. England significantly outperformed the average, rising from 27th for mathematics in 2009 to 11th this year, and from 25th for reading in 2009 to 13th this year.

When it comes to economic equality, physical mobility is critical. As the Minister may know, I am joint chair of the all-party parliamentary group for “left behind” neighbourhoods, and our recent report talked about how limited public transport connectivity frustrates access to education and employment. I have constituents in places such as Trimdon and Fishburn who cannot get to the 10,000 jobs in Aycliffe, which is only 10 miles away. Does the Minister agree it is imperative that when funding for local transport is determined, the opportunity to enhance social mobility is seen as critical?

I agree with my hon. Friend, who raises an important point about how connectivity creates access and generates social mobility. The Department for Transport is working to put the needs of current and potential users at the heart of the operation of the transport system, and Network North, our new £36 billion plan, will improve our country’s transport. Perhaps my hon. Friend will write to me about the specific issues, because some of those duties will fall to his local council and I want to know what it is doing with the money we are giving it to improve access.

This Conservative Government have done more for the people of Blyth Valley than any other Government—[Laughter.] And they have brought much needed investment in employment opportunities for my constituents—[Interruption.]

Order. Please, I cannot hear the question. Obviously there must have been something funny, but I didn’t hear it.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. This Conservative Government have done more for the people of Blyth Valley than any other Government and have brought much needed investment in employment opportunities for my constituents, following decades of Labour neglect. Will my right hon. Friend please assure me that continuing to close the gap between the north and the south remains the Government’s highest priority?

I am delighted to assure my hon. Friend of that. He is an effective advocate for his constituency, and he knows that this Government have been investing in Blyth Valley. We have given an £18 million boost to regenerate housing, £1.5 million for new high-tech training equipment, £200,000 for extended CCTV provision, and a further £20 million for our long-term plan for towns. Our investment in Blyth shows that only the Conservatives can deliver there, and levelling up and closing the gap is a priority for this Government.

Some 42% of children in Newcastle upon Tyne Central are growing up in poverty, 17% of households are in fuel poverty, and a fifth of adults are estimated to be in problematic debt. Does the Minister agree that a Government who cannot deliver economic prosperity for working people in the north-east are a Government who cannot deliver on socioeconomic equality?

This Government are delivering. Of course we recognise that there are people who are in need, and that is why we are doing everything, across all Departments, to deliver for them. For example, our supporting families programme has funded local areas to help almost 600,000 families with multiple and complex needs to make significant positive changes to their lives. The programme is working, and evaluation found that the proportion of children on the programme going into care reduced by a third and the number of adults receiving custodial sentences decreased by a quarter. There is so much we can say—I know we are running out of time, Mr Speaker, so perhaps the hon. Lady would like me to write to her.

One thing that can militate against socioeconomic equality, particularly for the elderly and most vulnerable, is access to care staff. The rate of remuneration is 61p per mile, going down to 25p per mile after the first 3,500 miles, and those figures have not been revised upwards since 2011. It means that wonderful people in my constituency are very often losing money travelling about, and that does not do much for recruitment either. Will the Minister agree to talk to the Treasury and the Scottish Government about doing something about that?

I am sure that colleagues in the appropriate Department will have heard the hon. Gentleman’s question and will be able to provide a more detailed response.

Topical Questions

In my last topical statement, I spoke about the unacceptable rise in antisemitism and hostility towards the Jewish community since 7 October, and I am updating the House on what further action I can take to promote social cohesion. The Equality Act 2010 is a shield against discrimination, and the public sector equality duty is part of that shield. It is particularly important that all public authorities take the duty seriously. To ensure that they understand how to comply with the duty, I will be publishing updated guidance shortly. I will then write to leaders of public authorities that have a key role in promoting social cohesion, to show how they can foster good relations, promote equality of opportunity and eliminate unlawful discrimination.

I thank the Minister for that answer. As the Women’s Budget Group has rightly pointed out, women are more reliant on benefits, due to care-giving roles, and they have been disproportionately impacted by regressive social security changes since 2010. What consideration has the Minister given to the abolition of the poverty-inducing benefit cap and the hated two-child limit, to prevent further poverty and destitution among women and children, and will she raise that matter with her Cabinet colleagues?

The hon. Gentleman will know that we disagree with the propositions that he has set out, and we have said so time and again at this Dispatch Box. We believe that the two-child policy is important. We know that there is a cost of living crisis caused by rising energy costs and the war in Ukraine, which was caused by Russia. The Government are doing everything we can to limit the impact on households.

T2. A Museum of London report has bizarrely concluded that black people were more likely to die from medieval plague. Will the Minister for Women and Equalities ensure that such sensationalist research findings and woke archaeology have no impact at all on current health and pandemic policy? (900640)

I do agree. I am not even sure whether we can call it just sensationalist or woke. The research apparently was based on phrenology, which is a completely discredited type of science. I agree with my hon. Friend that this type of research is damaging to trust, to social cohesion and even to trust in health services. I have written to the director of the Museum of London to express my concern.

In 2020, women’s life expectancy in the poorest parts of the UK was almost 19 years shorter than those in the most affluent. Thirteen years ago, Labour introduced a socioeconomic duty in the Equality Act 2010 to make the NHS and other public bodies tackle this gap. Why have Ministers failed to implement it?

The hon. Lady is right that the socioeconomic duty she references is not commenced in England. It is in Scotland, however, and the figures are worse there, which shows that the duty is not the solution to the problems she raises.

T8. My North Devon constituency is in the lower quartile for social mobility. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to improve social mobility outcomes for remote, rural and coastal communities? (900646)

I agree with my hon. Friend that the circumstances of a person’s birth or where they live should not be a barrier to social mobility. That is why we have established things such as the Social Mobility Pledge consortium with businesses, and 120 have signed up. There are 12 community renewal fund projects serving her constituency and the wider area, and £1.2 million from the shared prosperity fund to achieve those aims.

T3. The Etherton review was published five months ago, and we are due to have a statement later today. May I seek assurances from the Minister that the Department will work with the Ministry of Defence to ensure that its recommendations are published at pace? (900641)

I completely agree with the hon. Lady. It was a very important review, and I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made an apology at the Dispatch Box. There will be a statement later, and I suggest that she asks the Defence Minister a question at that point.

Every year, 800 women pass through immigration detention, including centres such as Yarl’s Wood in my constituency. Many of those women have been trafficked or are victims of sexual abuse. I am working with a group, Women for Refugee Women, to provide a snapshot of the backgrounds of these women. Will the Minister agree to meet us to analyse the results of their findings?

I would of course be happy to meet my hon. Friend. Women who have survived trafficking or sexual abuse are detained only when the evidence of vulnerability in their individual case is outweighed by immigration removal considerations. Victims of torture have their case considered by a single specialist team, autonomous of general caseworkers, and victims of modern slavery undergo a needs assessment to identify recovery needs.

T4. Gender bias plays a key role in the misdiagnosis and under-diagnosis of conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism in women and girls. What action are the Government taking to ensure that every girl with special educational needs receives support from their school or college, as she is entitled to by law? (900642)

We are working with more than 42 integrated care boards across the country to improve the timelines for diagnosis of autism and ADHD. Some ICBs are doing particularly well, but others need a lot more help and support.

Many people with impaired mobility conditions depend on their cars for the freedom to live the lives they want to lead. Will the Government therefore crack down on Labour’s anti-car policies in local government, such as the expansion of the ultra low emission zone and low-traffic networks and the building over of station car parks?

This Government are clear in our condemnation of Labour’s attack on motorists, whether it is in London or Wales. That is why, in the summer, the Prime Minister ordered a review of low-traffic neighbourhoods, which are making some parts of London inaccessible for disabled people, whether they are using public transport or cars.

T5.   Keep Prisons Single Sex has disclosed that police forces are still failing to adequately record the sex of offenders at birth and sometimes record self-identification. This can have a considerable effect on criminal justice data. Will the Minister take any steps to ensure that the correct data is given, so that appropriate analysis can be given and we do not have skewed information? (900643)

That is something that my Department is working on. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we need to ensure that data is accurate, that people understand what is being recorded and that this does not have an impact on how public services are delivered. If he has any further information that he would like to share, I would very much like to see if there are specific constituency circumstances we can look into.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


Mr Speaker, as this is the last Prime Minister’s questions before recess, I know that the whole House will want to join me in wishing you and all the House staff a very merry Christmas and a happy new year. I know that Members will also want to join me in sending our warmest wishes to our armed forces based at home and stationed overseas, our emergency services and all those who will be working over Christmas too. Finally, I know that everyone will want to join me in wishing Mark Drakeford all the best as he moves on from his many, many years of devoted public service.

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.

May I concur with the Prime Minister’s comments about our armed forces, Christmas and Mark Drakeford?

My constituent Fred Bates is 74, he has liver cancer and he is a victim of the contaminated blood products scandal. The Prime Minister had a chance to do right by Fred last week, but he failed to do so and lost the vote in this House. After half a century, Fred wishes to know when he and fellow survivors will be compensated and get justice.

This was an appalling tragedy, and my thoughts remain with all those concerned. I absolutely understand the strength of feeling on this. It was this Government who set up the inquiry, which I participated in, and we fully understand the need for action. The Government, crucially, have already accepted the moral case for compensation and acknowledged that justice needs to be delivered for the victims. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office will update the House on our next steps on the infected blood inquiry shortly.

Q2. The tax cuts in the autumn statement were extremely welcome, but in order to go further and get the tax burden as low as possible, accurate and robust economic modelling is required. The Office for Budget Responsibility has been habitually wrong, and we had the spectacle last week of the head of the OBR saying that his latest forecast might be £30 billion out. Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister commit to finding a better system of financial modelling, so that we can get taxes lower? (900683)

As my hon. Friend knows, the OBR has brought greater transparency and independence to the forecasting on which Government policy is based, but he is right. It is required to produce an assessment of the accuracy of its fiscal and economic forecasts at least once a year but, crucially, as he acknowledged, thanks to our management of the economy and the fact that we have halved inflation and controlled borrowing, we have now delivered the largest tax cuts in a generation, and they will benefit families up and down the country from January.

Yesterday we heard of the tragic death of a young man on the Bibby Stockholm. I know that the whole House will want to send our deepest condolences to his family and friends. We must never let this happen again.

I would also like to mark the retirement of my colleague and friend Mark Drakeford, the First Minister of Wales. Mark committed his life to public service and lives his values every day. Quietly and patiently, Mark has been a titan of Labour and Welsh politics. We thank him for his service and wish him well.

Christmas is a time of peace on earth and good will to all—has anyone told the Tory party?

Well, Christmas is also a time for families, and under the Conservatives we do have a record number of them. At the beginning of the year, I set out some priorities that this Government would deliver for the British people, and over the course of the year we have inflation halved, the economy growing, debt falling, action on the longest waiters, the boats down by a third and, crucially, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Greg Smith), tax cuts coming to help working families in the new year.

The Prime Minister can spin it all he likes, but the whole country can see that, yet again, the Tory party is in meltdown and everyone else is paying the price. He has kicked the can down the road, but in the last week his MPs have said of him that he is “not capable enough”, he is “inexperienced”, he is “arrogant”, and he is “a really bad politician”—[Interruption.] Government Members are shouting, but this is what they said. Come on: who was it who said he is “a really bad politician”? Hands up. [Interruption.] They are shouting. Well, what about “inexperienced”—who was that? Or—there have to be some hands for this—“he’s got to go”? [Interruption.] They are shy.

Apparently, the Prime Minister is holding a Christmas party next week—[Interruption.]

Order. It is Christmas—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”]—but you might not want the Christmas present that I could give you.

Apparently, the Prime Minister is holding a Christmas party next week. How is the invite list looking?

I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for all the comments, but he should hear what they have to say about him. [Interruption.]

Order. Do you want to be the first one? It is Christmas, and I am going to hear this. My constituents are going to have a Christmas like everyone else, and they want to know whether their Christmas is going to be affected, so I want less of it from all sides.

Government Members have obviously found the donkey for their nativity—the search for three wise men might take a little longer. While they fight among themselves, there is a country out here that is not being governed, where more than 100,000 people are paying hundreds more a month on their mortgages. Energy bills are going back up in January. The economy is shrinking again. NHS waiting lists are at an all-time high. Does the Prime Minister not think that the Government would be better off fixing the messes they have already made, rather than scrambling to create new ones?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about governing, but he spent his first two questions talking about political tittle-tattle. What a joke. Let us get on to the substance. He mentioned those things. What is the news we have just heard in the last week? What is the most important thing? The most important thing is education, because that is how we spread opportunity in our country. What have we learned? Where are the schools performing best in the United Kingdom? It is in England. Thanks to the reforms of this Conservative Government, they are rising up the league tables, giving our kids the start they need. Where are they plummeting? It is in Labour-run Wales.

The Prime Minister talks about children. Nearly 140,000 children are going to be homeless this Christmas—more than ever before. That is a shocking state of affairs, and it should shame the Government. Instead of more social housing, house building is set to collapse. Instead of banning no-fault evictions, thousands of families are at risk of homelessness. Rather than indulging his Back Benchers swanning around in their factions and their “star chambers” pretending to be members of the mafia, when will he get a grip and focus on the country?

Let us just look at the facts. Rough sleeping in this country is down by 35% since its peak, thanks to the efforts of this Government. There are hundreds of thousands fewer children in poverty today, thanks to this Government. And when it comes to home building, again what did we do? We have had the data just this last week: in the last year an almost record number of new homes were delivered, more than in any year under the last Labour Government.

One hundred and forty thousand children homeless this Christmas and the Prime Minister is utterly tone deaf. The rise in homelessness shows how these Tory crises merge and grow and damage the country; families like the Bradys in Wiltshire, both parents working full time with two young children forced out of their home of 15 years by a no-fault eviction, now living in their van. Or 11-year-old Liam Walker, homeless this Christmas. He wrote a letter to Santa saying, “Please can I have a forever home? I don’t want any new toys, I just want all my old toys out of storage. I just want us to be happy again.” If there is anything that could shame this Government into putting the country first, then it is surely this little boy.

If the right hon. and learned Gentleman really cared about building homes—[Interruption.] No, if he really cared about building homes—when there was an opportunity in this House to back our plans to reform defective EU laws to unlock 100,000 new homes, what did he do? He went in front of the cameras and said one thing, and then he came in here and blocked it—typical shameless opportunism.

Is that really the Prime Minister’s Christmas message to Liam? Cocooned in his party management breakfast, he just cannot see the—

Order. Mr Cleverly, please. It is Christmas. I want a little bit of silence, and I am going to get it one way or another. That applies to each side.

Cocooned in his party management breakfast, the Prime Minister just cannot see the country in front of him and what they have done.

I will finish by thanking hard-working families across Britain who kept our country going. It has been an impossibly difficult year for so many. I want to pay special tribute to our key workers, particularly those in emergency services and those serving abroad in our forces who, even at this time of year, are doing the vital work of protecting their country. I wish everyone, including Members on the Conservative Benches, a very happy and peaceful new year. Will the Prime Minister join me?

I think the right hon and learned Gentleman missed that I paid tribute to our emergency workers at the beginning of the session. But let us see, because I think it is important. He talked about working families. Of course I want to make sure that we support working families, and that is what we are actually delivering. All he has to offer them is borrowing £28 billion a year. All that will do is push up their mortgage rates and push up their taxes. Meanwhile, what have we done? We have delivered tax cuts for millions of working families, boosted the national living wage, recruited 50,000 more nurses and 20,000 more police officers, improved our schools, cut the cost of net zero for working families, cut the boat crossings by a third and halved inflation. That is the difference: we are getting on and delivering for working Britain.

Q7.   As the world struggles to agree the future of the 1.5° commitment, in Wimbledon we are keen to do our bit. To help my campaign to make electric vehicle charging access more widespread, can I ask my right hon. Friend for two early Christmas presents? Will he speak to our right hon. Friend the Chancellor to ask him to look again at the unfair differential rates of VAT on public and private charging points? Will he ask our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to look at the byelaws that stop local councils making on-street parking and charging more accessible? (900689)

I am happy to tell my hon. Friend that the Chancellor has already authorised more than £2 billion of investment to support our transition to zero-emission vehicles, and that we are well on track to reach our target of 300,000 charge points by 2030. I can also tell him that we will consult on amending the national planning policy framework to ensure that it prioritises the roll-out of charge points, on top the funding of almost £400 million to support local authorities to spread them out so that all our families have access to them when they need it.

Nobody wants to see this conflict go on for a moment longer than necessary. We urgently need more humanitarian pauses to get all the hostages out, and to get life-saving aid into Gaza to alleviate the suffering of the Palestinian people. We have been consistent in supporting a sustainable ceasefire, which means that Hamas must stop launching rockets into Israel and release all the hostages.

If the current actions of the Israeli Government continue, it is estimated that almost 1,400 more children will die between now and Christmas day. In the United Nations last night, our friends and allies in France, Ireland, Canada, Spain and Australia joined 148 other nations to vote with courage, care and compassion for a ceasefire. The UK shamefully abstained. How can the Prime Minister possibly explain why 153 nations are wrong, yet Westminster is right?

As I have said consistently, we are deeply concerned about the devastating impact of the fighting in Gaza on the civilian population. Too many people have lost their lives already. That is something that we have stressed, and something that I stressed personally to Prime Minister Netanyahu just last week. What we are doing practically is to get more aid into Gaza, and the Foreign Secretary is appointing a UK humanitarian co-ordinator. In my conversations last week with Prime Minister Netanyahu, I pressed him on opening up the Kerem Shalom crossing so that more aid can flow in, and we are actively exploring the opportunity for maritime corridors, something on which the UK is well placed to lead. I can give the hon. Gentleman my assurance that we will work night and day to get more aid to those who desperately need it.

Q9. We expect our young folk to remain in education or training until they are 18, but many lack transport to get there. Along with the amazing headteacher of Alston Moor Federation, Gill Jackson, I secured funding from the council to get her students to college, and pressed the council for a half-a-million-pound bursary scheme to extend youth travel more widely. But we should not have to do this. To secure equality of opportunity and true levelling up, will the Prime Minister look to mandate and support councils to provide post-16 transport, so that all our young people in towns, cities and rural areas can reach their next stage in life? (900691)

My hon. Friend and the headteacher of Alston Moor Federation, Gill Jackson, have done a fantastic job in securing more funding. I wish her well for what I believe is her upcoming retirement.

As my hon. Friend knows, our school travel policy ensures that no child is prevented from accessing education by a lack of transport. Not only do we have home-to-school travel policies, but the 16 to 19 bursary fund can be used to support young people with transport costs, and, more generally, we are taking action to keep bus fares capped at £2. However, I will happily ensure that my hon. Friend secures a meeting with the relevant Minister to discuss his proposals further.

The Prime Minister will be aware of Unionist concerns about the need to remove the Irish sea border created by the protocol, which disrupts the UK’s internal market. Will he bring forward legislation to amend the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, and both guarantee and future-proof Northern Ireland’s unfettered access to the UK’s internal market in all scenarios?

I thank my right hon. Friend. I recognise the need to do more in this area, and I can confirm to him that the Government do stand ready to legislate to protect Northern Ireland’s integral place in the United Kingdom and the UK internal market, alongside an agreement to restore the Executive. We can do this apace, and I know that my right hon. Friend and his colleagues are working hard to achieve that. Our NHS, our police officers and the most vulnerable in Northern Ireland need devolved government urgently, and I think it is incumbent on all of us to work to work day and night to help to achieve that.

Q10.   Mr Speaker, 121 MPs from across the House signed my open letter to supermarkets, asking to have a “Buy British” button online. I am pleased to announced that last week Morrisons was the first supermarket to implement a “Buy British” tab. This gives consumers the choice to have home-grown produce and also supports our farmers. Will the Prime Minister join my calls to other supermarkets to have the courage to make the change and follow suit? (900692)

This Government will always back our farmers, and I welcome the work of my hon. Friend and the National Farmers Union on this issue. We absolutely support calls for industry-led action on this topic, and I welcome the news of the “Buy British” button at Morrisons. We will continue to encourage all retailers to do all they can to showcase the incredible food produced right here in the United Kingdom.

Q3. The marriage plans of thousands of couples were dashed last week by the sudden announcement of a big increase in the salary requirement for a spouse visa. Can the Prime Minister give any reassurance to those with well-advanced marriage plans that now appear to have been scuppered, and to families already in the UK who need to extend their stay but who will not comply with the new rules? Can he at least offer some transitional help for families, or does his party’s support for the family now apply only to the highly paid? (900684)

We have a long-standing principle that anyone bringing dependants to the UK must be able to support them financially. We should not expect this to be done at the taxpayer’s expense. The threshold has not been raised in over a decade and it is right that we have now brought it in line with the median salary. The family immigration route does contain provision for exceptional circumstances, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, but more generally it is also right to look at transitional arrangements to ensure that they are fair, and I can tell him that the Home Office is actively looking at this and will set out further information shortly.

Q11. I make no apology for once again raising the issue of steel—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] We are now at serious risk of losing the ability to make virgin steel here in the UK. I know that the Government are working hard on this, but it is a matter of national security and we need the Prime Minister’s leadership on this issue. What is he doing to ensure that we are able to make our own virgin steel and that we do not lose it on his watch? (900693)

I praise my hon. Friend’s leadership in championing her local community and also the steel industry in the UK. She is right to do so, because it is an incredibly important part not just of our local communities but of our economy and security. She is right to put this issue on the agenda.

We are committed to working with the steel sector to secure a decarbonised future, supporting local economic growth and our levelling-up agenda. That includes our commitment to major support with energy costs and also access to hundreds of millions of pounds of grants to support energy efficiency and decarbonisation. I obviously cannot comment on conversations with individual companies, but my hon. Friend can see from our track record on working with either Celsa or Tata Steel that we have been able to support our fantastic steel industry, and we will always continue to do so.

Q4. A rogue company has walked away from 13,000 tonnes of hazardous waste in Lancaster, and it has now been on fire for 10 days. There are plumes of smoke covering our city. Lancaster City Council has been left to pick up the tab, and to date it has spent £262,000. Without Government support and intervention this fire will burn for several months, so will the Prime Minister provide my local council with swift Government support? (900686)

I thank the hon. Member for raising this incredibly important question. I know she has been working alongside my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris) on this. I also thank the emergency services in her constituency. My understanding is that Lancaster City Council, the Environment Agency, the UK Health Security Agency and the emergency services are working together to ensure that the health risks and environmental consequences are minimised, but I will ensure that the relevant Minister understands the absolute urgency of the issue the hon. Lady has raised and make sure that she meets them as soon as possible.

Q12. Some dental practices are taking advantage of post-covid demand to take their NHS practices private, earning more money but leaving behind those most in need. Training a dentist costs constituents in Broadland more than £300,000. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if a dentist accepts public funding in order to qualify, they should be asked to commit to NHS dentistry for a number of years before going private? (900694)

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. We are investing £3 billion in dentistry. The NHS dentistry contract was reformed last year to improve access for patients, and around half of all treatment was delivered to non-paying adults and children. The number of adults seen has gone up by 10% and the number of children seen has gone up by 15%, but my hon. Friend is right that more needs to be done, which is why the Government will bring forward the dentistry recovery plan in due course.

Q5. There are 12 days until Christmas, and hundreds of families in Battersea are worried, not about being able to buy gifts for their children but about whether they can afford food and heat due to the Tory cost of living crisis. This year, over 4,300 emergency food parcels have been provided in Battersea by the Wandsworth food bank, which has told me that it is bracing for the worst winter yet. What is the Prime Minister doing to ensure that families do not go cold and hungry this Christmas? (900687)

We care deeply about making sure the most vulnerable in our society get the support they need through the winter, which is why we increased welfare by record amounts earlier this year. We supplemented that with £900 in cost of living payments for the most vulnerable. It is why we have provided energy bill support for those who need our help the most. Pensioners in the hon. Lady’s constituency and elsewhere will receive up to £300 alongside their winter fuel payment. Indeed, that support will last not just through the winter but into next year, because we are deeply committed to helping those who need it. This Government have a track record of delivering that help.

Q13. The Prime Minister is rightly focused on taking long-term decisions to improve the lives of people in this country, so can I make a suggestion? Our mental health legislation is 40 years old, and we made a manifesto commitment in 2017 and 2019 to reform the Mental Health Act 1983 because people with learning disabilities and autism who are sectioned under the Act are being kept in inappropriate accommodation for long periods. People sectioned under the Act are not receiving the compassionate care they deserve and are, in a sense, criminalised. They have their mental health condition re-stigmatised by the act of sectioning.In the absence of a Bill in the King’s Speech, will the Prime Minister agree to meet me and other like-minded colleagues to discuss how we might take forward the reform of the Mental Health Act, because it simply is not fit for the 21st century? (900695)

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this important issue. He is absolutely right about the work that needs to be done, and I am grateful to the Joint Committee on the Draft Mental Health Bill. Our intention is to bring forward a Bill when parliamentary time allows.

I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend and other colleagues to discuss this. I remind everyone that we are undertaking the largest expansion of mental health services in a generation, with £2.3 billion of extra funding by March 2024. We are increasing capital investment in mental health urgent care centres and, under the long-term workforce plan, providing the largest expansion of the mental health workforce we have ever seen in this country.

Q6. Rather than the Government chaos that is dominating media headlines, much more important to the public, businesses and organisations is their deeply unsatisfactory day-to- day experience of engaging with this dysfunctional Administration. As far as they can see, Britain is not working. When is the Prime Minister going to get a grip? (900688)

The most pressing issue facing families is the cost of living. That is why this Government have delivered what we said, which was to halve inflation, and not only that; we are supplementing it with significant tax cuts, which will benefit working families from January—£450 for a typical person in work—demonstrating that we are absolutely on the side of hard-working families. This Government are cutting their taxes.

Breast cancer survival rates have improved, but we need to go further on harder-to-reach cancers. In Parliament this afternoon, there is a drop-in session on lobular breast cancer and the research we need. Could my right hon. Friend or his excellent new Secretary of State for Health and Social Care find time in their busy diaries to join us?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his work on this specific and important issue. I am happy to tell him that I believe the Health Secretary is attending this afternoon’s event to hear more about that work. I can assure him that we are focused on fighting cancer on all fronts: prevention, diagnosis, treatment, research and funding. We are making good progress, but there is always more we can do. I look forward to hearing from him after this afternoon’s event.

Q8.   While the Home Secretary was in Rwanda signing his new treaty, his Department put out a contract to manage small boat arrivals until 2030, at a cost of £700 million to the taxpayer. Does that not show that even the Home Office does not think the Minister’s plan will work? (900690)

That is a total mischaracterisation of what was put out, which was an advert, not a commitment. I am glad that the hon. Lady now cares about this issue—not something we have seen previously from Labour. Our track record is clear: we have got the numbers of small boat arrivals down this year by over a third. That is what we are doing about it. The Labour party is voting against every measure that we have taken.

I chair the caucus of 38 Conservative Members of Parliament who have Britain’s longest river flowing through their constituencies, and we have presented a business case to the Chancellor for £500 million to try to manage the river holistically. Our constituencies are now facing flooding every year, causing damage to our businesses and our communities. This evening, I have an Adjournment debate on flooding of the River Severn. Will the Prime Minister take an interest, because the business case shows a gross value added uplift for the west midlands of more than £100 billion if we can manage and tame Britain’s longest river?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that. I recall that he and I spoke about it when I was Chancellor, and I praise him for his work and leadership on this issue in his local area. I will make sure that the Chancellor does look at the business case. My hon. Friend will know that we have significantly increased funding for flood defences, to over £5 billion, protecting hundreds of thousands more homes, but if it is an interesting opportunity for the Chancellor, I am sure he will take that up.

Q14. What is worse: losing your WhatsApp messages as a tech bro, losing £11.8 billion to fraud as Chancellor, presiding over the biggest fall in living standards in our history, or desperately clinging on to power when you have become even more unpopular than Boris Johnson? (900696)

Given the appalling reports of sexual violence committed by Hamas on 7 October and the risk that hostages could have that treatment inflicted on them as well, will the Prime Minister raise this issue in international forums so that the international community demands, strongly, humanitarian access to hostages in Gaza?

The reports of sexual violence perpetrated by Hamas are deeply shocking. We have raised our concerns with the United Nations a fortnight or so ago, and we are engaging with the Israeli Government to consider what further support we can provide. More broadly, we continue to do everything we can to ensure that all hostages can return safely to their families, including the British hostages and those with links to the UK. My right hon. Friend can rest assured that the Foreign Secretary and I are working tirelessly to bring about their safe return.