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Volume 743: debated on Wednesday 10 January 2024

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.

Happy new year to you, Mr Speaker. Now then, the Horizon Post Office scandal saw hundreds of innocent people sent to prison—people like a former constituent of mine who went to jail for three years. During this scandal, the leader of the Liberal Democrats was the Minister in charge of the Post Office. This is the same Liberal Democrat leader who in the past has called for the resignation of over 30 prominent people in this country who have made mistakes in their jobs. So does the Prime Minister agree that the leader of the Lib Dems should take his own advice and start by clearing his desk, clearing his diary and clearing off?

This is one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in our nation’s history. People who worked hard to serve their communities had their lives and reputations destroyed, through absolutely no fault of their own. The victims must get justice and compensation. Sir Wyn Williams’ inquiry is undertaking crucial work to expose what went wrong, and we have paid almost £150 million in compensation, to more than 2,500 victims. But today I can announce that we will introduce new primary legislation to make sure that those convicted as a result of the Horizon scandal are swiftly exonerated and compensated. We will also introduce a new up-front payment of £75,000 for the vital GLO—group litigation order—group of postmasters. May I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) for all his hard work on this issue? He will set out more details to the House shortly. We will make sure that the truth comes to light, we right the wrongs of the past and the victims get the justice they deserve.

I heard what the Prime Minister just said about the Post Office scandal. It is a huge injustice; people lost their lives, their liberty and their livelihood, and they have been waiting far too long for the truth, for justice and for compensation. So I am glad that the Prime Minister is putting forward a proposal. We will look at the details, and it is the job of all of us to make sure that it delivers the justice that is so needed.

Back in 2022, when Boris Johnson claimed he would send asylum seekers to Rwanda, one ambitious Tory MP had reservations. He agreed with Labour that it would not work, it was a waste of money and it was the latest in a long line of gimmicks. Does the Prime Minister know what happened to that MP?

What the right hon. and learned Gentleman refers to is a document that he has not seen and I have not seen, and that has been reported second hand in a bunch of media newspapers. What I can tell him is that I am absolutely clear that we need to stop the boats—that is what this Government and that MP are going to deliver.

I notice that the Prime Minister did not deny it. I am not surprised, with £400 million of taxpayer money down the drain, no one sent to Rwanda and small boats still coming. It is hardly a surprise that he wanted to scrap the scheme when he was trying to sneak in as Tory leader, but he has been caught red-handed opposing the very thing that he has now made his flagship policy. Which Member should we listen to: the one before us today or the one who used to believe in something?

I have always been crystal clear: you do need to have an effective deterrence to finally solve this problem. In fact, the National Crime Agency agrees that you need

“an effective removals and deterrence agreement.”

That is why, after becoming Prime Minister, I negotiated a new deal with Albania, thanks to which we have seen a 93% drop in illegal arrivals from Albania. That is how Australia stopped the boats. That is why Italy, Germany and Austria are all looking at similar schemes. He is the only one who is opposed to a proper deterrent, not because it does not work but because he does not actually believe in controlling migration. Every single time, he picks the people smugglers over the British people.

We should smash the gangs, process the claims and end hotel use: that is our plan, but, unlike the Prime Minister, I believe in it. [Interruption.]

Order. I have got to hear the questions. I do not want interruptions. This is a very important topic and I take it seriously. I hope Members also wish to start taking it seriously.

Last year, the Prime Minister started the year saying he was Mr Steady. Then, at his conference, he was Mr Change. Now he has flipped back to Mr More-of-the-Same. It does not matter how many relaunches and flip-flops he does—he will always be Mr Nobody. Here is the tragedy of his leadership: he spends the whole time trying to convince people not to believe their own eyes, pretending that debt is falling, the economy is going gangbusters and the NHS is in great shape. When he finally finds something he was right about—the Rwanda gimmick—he cannot even take credit for it. When is he going to stop pretending that up is down and black is white, and admit that whether it is on the economy, immigration or the NHS, he has failed?

Well, let us just go through his checklist. He talked about the backlog: 112,000 decisions made last year, a higher number than in any year in these past two decades. He talked about hotels: the first 50 are being closed and there are more to come. He talked about the numbers: they were down by over a third last year, which is the first time that has happened. And then he talked about smashing the gangs. If he does care about smashing the gangs, why does he not own up to the fact that when it came to the Nationality and Borders Act 2022, he blocked, delayed and voted against the powers in that Act? That Act has allowed us to arrest hundreds and hundreds of people connected with that illegal trade, who have been sentenced to hundreds of years in prison. He opposed that because he chooses the criminal gangs over the British people every time. [Hon. Members: “More!]

We can all see what has happened here. Just like he knows that debt is not falling and taxes are going up, he knows the Rwanda gimmick will not work, but he cannot be honest about it because he is too scared of his own MPs. Does he not wish that he had stuck to his guns, rather than allow himself to be taken hostage by his own party?

We are debating this because we have taken a stand and we are delivering the toughest migration plan ever, to end the legal challenges and actually get flights off the ground. Let us be clear: he does not have a single practical idea about how to stop the boats, because he does not actually care about controlling migration. This is a person who described all immigration law as “racist”. He thinks limits on economic migration are “economic vandalism”. The issue did not feature once in his five missions and he did not mention it once in his conference speech. The truth is he is pro-free movement, he is anti-border control and he can never be trusted to stop the boats.

I think we should smash the gangs and I spent five years of my life doing exactly that. The Prime Minister’s party has lost control of the borders. While he is tending to the Tory party, the country is left without government—a collapse in dentistry, leaving people literally pulling out their own teeth; flood defences completely exposed; and hundreds of thousands of children still out of school. His Government appear blissfully uninterested in what is going on outside the walls of Westminster. Does he realise how ludicrous it looks when he spends his time boasting while Britain is breaking?

I am glad that the Leader of the Opposition has brought up our schools; there is nothing more important than ensuring that our children get a world-class education. That is why I am pleased that, in spite of Labour opposing every reform we have made, our children are now the best readers in the western world. But he is right that attendance is important. That is why we are investing millions of pounds more to provide support for absent pupils. We have launched a national campaign just this week. We have doubled the number of attendance hubs to support more than 1,000 at the most vulnerable schools. I am surprised to hear him raise that topic, because, from longer lockdowns to voting against our minimum service laws, his priority has always been keeping our children out of school. It is always the same with him: there is no plan. It is just peddling one thing to his union friends and another thing to the British people.

New year, new nonsense. Every week, the Prime Minister stands here and tells the country that they should be thanking him, not questioning him. If you point out that the view on the ground is very different to that from his private jet, he says that you are talking the country down. He just does not get it. He does not get what a cost of living crisis feels like. He does not know any schools where kids no longer turn up, and he does not understand what it is like to wait for a hospital appointment. Does the country not deserve so much better than a Prime Minister who simply does not get Britain?

Last week, we had yet another half-hour speech from the right hon. and learned Gentleman, and—what a surprise—it did not contain a single new idea. We have had four years of him as Labour leader and it is still all slogan and no plan. Just this weekend, we are delivering on our plan to cut people’s taxes; he does not have a plan. We have a plan to stop the boats; he does not have a plan. And we have a plan to get people off welfare and into work; he does not have a single idea. It is crystal clear: stick with us to deliver the long-term change that the country needs; do not go back to square one with him. [Hon. Members: “More!”]

Q7. They just know that it is going to be fantastic, Mr Speaker. A happy new year to you anyway. It is almost spring, when a young man’s fancy turns to tax. In Scotland, the nationalists have decided to increase taxes on hard-working people. In Wales, businesses are being clobbered by a 5% increase on rates. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is only one party in this Chamber that can be trusted to cut taxes for hard-working people across the country, and that is the Conservative party? (900836)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Just this weekend, we are cutting taxes for an average person in work by £450. In Wales, where Labour is in charge, the Welsh Government are raising them, with businesses there now seeing double the rate of business rates this year. It is the same in Scotland under the SNP. It is the new high-tax capital of the United Kingdom because of the SNP’s tax-hiking decisions. Mr Speaker, while we have a plan to cut your taxes, Labour and the SNP are going to raise them.

The Horizon system was introduced by Tony Blair, the former Labour party leader and of course now a Knight of the Garter. The Horizon system was defended by the current leader of the Liberal Democrats, himself a Knight Bachelor. The Horizon system scandal was overseen by a former Conservative Prime Minister who now hides in the House of Lords as a baron. The reality is that sub-postmasters never stood a chance against the Westminster establishment, did they?

As I have said, this is actually one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in our country’s history. All our thoughts are with those who have worked so hard for their communities and have seen their lives and reputations destroyed. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, this scandal has unfolded over decades, with multiple people clearly at fault. Since the High Court case in 2019, this Government have established a statutory inquiry led by Sir Wyn Williams to uncover what went wrong, established an independent advisory board and established three different compensation schemes paying out £150 million to more than 2,500 people, with now almost two thirds having received final compensation. But we must go further and faster, which is why we have made new announcements today.

I do not think that the Prime Minister quite gets it. This is not just a plague on all their houses; it is a plague on this House itself, because injustice goes far beyond the sub-postmasters—just ask the Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign, the victims of the Equitable Life scandal, the victims of the infected blood scandal, or the families of the victims of Grenfell or Hillsborough. The reality is that when the public come knocking on the doors of this Chamber seeking justice, the Government only ever answer when they have no options left. The Leader of the Opposition said last week that the public are right to be angry at Westminster. They are angry at Westminster because they know that this place never really changes, does it, Prime Minister?

I am sad that the hon. Gentleman is trying to politicise something that has happened over multiple decades, with multiple people at fault. The key thing is that after the 2019 High Court case the Government acted to establish an independent inquiry and independent compensation schemes, and as I said, we have paid out compensation to 2,500 people. Rather than trying to politicise it, we should be focusing on the people affected and making sure that they get the answers, justice and compensation that they deserve. That is what we are delivering.

Q8. I made a promise to a grandad in my constituency, after he told me that he had not dared to speak up when his grandson came home saying, “Today, we were learning if we were in the wrong body.” Draft schools guidance to support gender-questioning children was published just before Christmas and is out to public consultation, but given that we have all seen many individuals very publicly cancelled—losing their jobs, reputation and relationships for simply supporting biological reality or championing fairness, women’s safety or child protection—how will honest and open engagement be managed through this very important and sensitive consultation process? (900837)

I thank my hon. Friend for her important question. She is right about the safety and wellbeing of children being paramount in our thoughts. That is at the heart of the guidance that we have published for consultation. Parents fundamentally must be involved in decisions about their children’s lives, and their involvement is a key part of the guidance. She is right that there is a consultation process. That is an opportunity for everyone to engage with the guidance. I also agree that those championing safety or talking about the importance of biological sex should absolutely have the freedom to express those views. She will see those views expressed in the guidance too.

I thank the Prime Minister for the £3.3 billion financial package that is now available to any restored Northern Ireland Executive; however, we still need a discussion around the long-term financial framework before the next spending review. At present, Northern Ireland’s public services are in a huge crisis, especially health, with urgent public sector pay pressures that must be addressed. Last month, the Secretary of State said that the negotiations with the Democratic Unionist party over the Windsor framework had concluded. Does the Prime Minister recognise the real dangers of continued drift in Northern Ireland, and the urgent need for Northern Ireland to have a Government?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. Our focus has always been on delivering for the people of Northern Ireland, who rightly expect and deserve their locally elected decision-makers to address the issues that matter to them. We have held talks with the DUP and believe that significant progress has been made, and that there is now a very good basis for the Executive to be restored. I thank him for his comments about the £3 billion financial package. With that, there is a real chance to restore the Executive, resolve pay for public sector workers rapidly, and get Northern Ireland and its public services moving again.

Q9. The Atherleigh Way bypass in Leigh was first proposed over 60 years ago, but to this day remains unfinished. I recently met representatives of Wigan Council, Warrington Borough Council and St Helens Borough Council, as well as the Mayor of Greater Manchester, and I am pleased to say that an agreement in principle has been reached to bring forward proposals to complete the bypass. Will the Prime Minister also throw his support behind this vital project for my constituents in Leigh? (900838)

I commend my hon. Friend for all his work bringing local authorities and the mayor together to drive this important project forward. I know that the Rail Minister is meeting my hon. Friend to discuss this proposal and ensure that we can deliver things like this. As part of Network North, there will be significant new funding announced for local highway improvements. I would encourage my hon. Friend to work with stakeholders to progress this important scheme and ensure that they can bid for that funding when it becomes available.

Q2. Can I ask the Prime Minister very simply, for the public record, whether he personally met Mr Akhil Tripathi in April last year prior to Mr Tripathi giving him £38,000 for the hire of a private jet? (900830)

Q11.   The Prime Minister knows that I set up and chair the caucus of 35 Conservative Members of Parliament who have Britain’s longest river flowing through their constituencies—the River Severn. We have submitted a business case to the Chancellor for £500 million to finally tame the River Severn, and I know that his officials are currently looking at those proposals. To tame the River Severn would lead to a gross-value-added uplift in the west midlands of over £150 billion. The Prime Minister has seen this week the horrendous damage and misery caused in Shropshire and all the way along the River Severn by the river flooding yet again. We really need to see in the spring Budget further assistance for communities such as mine finally to deal with these annual floods. (900840)

I start by saying that my thoughts are with all those affected by the devastating impact of Storm Henk and the flooding that we have seen over the past week or two, including those in my hon. Friend’s constituency. Action is already being undertaken under our six-year, £5.2 billion investment programme to better protect land across the River Severn catchment area and elsewhere, but I know the Minister responsible for flooding met my hon. Friend, along with the Environment Agency, in his constituency just before Christmas to discuss the specific plans he mentions. I know the Chancellor has received and started reviewing them. I assure my hon. Friend that the Environment Agency is working closely with other partners to explore his plans in more detail.

Q3. Since the outbreak of war in Gaza, over 23,000 Palestinians have been killed, including 10,000 children, and forced displacement is causing a humanitarian catastrophe. There is intensifying fighting between Hezbollah and Israel, a crisis in shipping security in the Red sea, and the engulfing of neighbouring countries into a regional conflict. De-escalation will occur only when hostilities cease in Gaza. The Foreign Secretary said yesterday that he was “worried” Israel may have broken international law, and the International Court of Justice is opening hearings in The Hague this week in relation to suspected breaches of obligations under the Geneva convention. Will the Prime Minister make public the legal advice that our Government requested and received on suspected breaches of international law by Israel and the implications for UK policy, including relevant arms exports? (900831)

We continue to call for international humanitarian law to be respected and for civilians to be protected. That is what our current legal assessment says is happening: that, as the Foreign Secretary outlined yesterday, Israel plans to act within international humanitarian law and has the ability to do so. But we are deeply concerned about the impact on the civilian population in Gaza. That is why we have trebled the amount of aid that we provide to the region, and just recently we sent our first maritime shipment of aid to Egypt. A UK military ship delivered over 80 tonnes of new blankets and life-saving medical equipment for Gaza, and we are working with Jordan to find more land routes. We will continue to do everything we can to support the vulnerable people who are being impacted by what is happening on the ground.

Q13.   In my constituency, the new Hillingdon hospital has full planning permission and full funding and enabling works are well under way. Does the Prime Minister agree that this new state-of-the-art hospital will uplift the health benefits for the residents of Uxbridge and South Ruislip, and will he join me in visiting the project site at a time when his diary allows? (900842)

My hon. Friend has been a fantastic campaigner for the new Hillingdon hospital and I agree that it will provide fantastic care to him and his constituents. I am pleased that planning permission and funding have now been granted for the site and that work is progressing. I will look at my diary, but in the meantime I can tell him that my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary will be very happy to visit the project and see the significant progress for herself.

Q4. Last year, my constituents had to wait months for an election to be finally confirmed, with uncertainty repeatedly prolonged, seemingly out of self-interest. This year, I did not expect the Prime Minister to be turning to my predecessor of all people for strategic inspiration but, if we are going to be waiting, I hope we can work together for a group in my constituency who really deserve support. Will the Prime Minister meet some fantastic kinship carers in Mid Bedfordshire to talk through how we can progress the strategy to make it go further and faster and, crucially, why Bedfordshire might be a fantastic place for one of the proposed pilot areas? (900832)

I pay tribute to all kinship carers for the incredible work they do. I would be happy to review the plans the hon. Gentleman mentions and make sure Ministers have a look at them too. I pay tribute to all those in his constituency and elsewhere who are doing a terrific job; in Government, as he knows, we are looking at ways we can support them further and we will continue to do so.

The Prime Minister knows that in Basingstoke we also need a new hospital. That is why he has given £900 million for our hospital trust to make that happen. Does he agree that that is a once-in-a-lifetime investment and must not just modernise the NHS healthcare that is provided, but support his plan to double medical training places by 2031? We are also ready to build our hospital a bit quicker, if that helps.

I am pleased that through our new hospitals programme Hampshire Hospitals NHS foundation trust will receive significant investment that will ensure that excellent care is available for my right hon. Friend and all her constituents. I think the trust started its consultation last year and the results are due at the end of March. We look forward to making sure we can deliver the project as quickly as possible, as part of the record capital investment in the NHS to deliver faster, better care to patients everywhere.

Q5. Reports suggest that the Prime Minister’s family investment company, Catamaran Ventures, is being wound up and that his wife is exiting her interests in her childcare company, Koru Kids. Will the Prime Minister keep his promise to the Liaison Committee, which includes a number of Conservative MPs, and confirm whether he has forgotten to register any of his financial interests? Will he also publish all details of Catamaran Ventures’ investments? (900834)

I take very seriously my responsibilities to register and declare all my relevant interests. All of them have been declared in accordance with the ministerial code and it is the role of the independent adviser to advise on what it is necessary to publish within that list, including in the case of Ministers’ family members. When specific questions are asked in sessions such as the Liaison Committee, as I have been in dialogue with the Committee, declarations are made on top of that, which I have made. As I have said from the Dispatch Box, my wife has been an investor in British companies over the past years, but that is now something that she has ceased to do going forward.

New, very large shellfish beds have been discovered in the Thames estuary, including those of razor clams and Manila clams, which are both highly prized around the world. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating local fisherman Mr Paul Gilson on his proactive work, and will he come to Leigh-on-Sea to meet my local fishermen, so we can discuss how to maximise this brilliant Brexit bonus for Essex fishermen?

I join my hon. Friend in welcoming this fantastic discovery. We have been capitalising on the benefits of Brexit since we left the European Union and we are making sure that we can transform opportunity in the UK, particularly in fishing communities. I know my right hon. Friend the Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries will be happy to meet her to discuss what more that could mean, and I hope I also have the opportunity to come and see her and see this incredible discovery for myself.

Q6.   I was a nurse in our NHS for 25 years. It is an offence to my colleagues and our patients when the Prime Minister pretends that he has a grip on NHS waiting times. Despite his big pledge to cut waiting lists, they have grown by half a million patients in the last year alone. He can blame striking all he likes, but after 14 years of the Tories, who can possibly say that the NHS is better off? (900835)

I thank the hon. Lady for her decades of service in the NHS, and commend all the work of our fantastic hard-working nurses in the NHS. I am pleased that we have delivered early on our manifesto pledge to have 50,000 more nurses in the NHS, together with record numbers of doctors, elective surgical hubs and community diagnostic centres, all of which means that we are now treating more people in the NHS than we have ever done before. One thing that is hampering progress on tackling the waiting lists is obviously industrial action, so I hope that the hon. Lady will join the million NHS workers, including nurses, midwives, therapists, paramedics, consultants and specialty doctors, all of whom have reached a fair and reasonable pay settlement with the Government, and urge the junior doctors to do the same.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

“I believe that not all Jewish people are bad.”

“Palestinians are dying whilst the Zionists are laughing their lives away.”

“How do you send letters believing the western media on how Hamas is a terrorist group? For all I know the only terrorist group is the Zionists.”

Those are not my words, but words produced by pupils as young as 11 in schools in this country, one of whom signed off their letter saying that they sought “vengeance”, although that word was crossed out. Pro-Palestinian activists were invited to another school in the north-west of England to educate pupils on the history of Palestine, and displayed slides to those students that denied the existence of the state of Israel. We know that other schools have allowed absences for people to attend protests, where, of course, there have been many examples of antisemitism. This is completely unacceptable. Will the Prime Minister look at what is going on in our schools and hold an independent review of how we can do more in our curriculum to educate about the perils of antisemitism?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising what is a deeply concerning issue. As I have said before, there is no place for antisemitism or the glorification of terrorism in Britain, especially not in our classrooms. That is why we welcomed the recent report from Lord Mann, the Government’s independent adviser on antisemitism, and in particular his recommendation on how schools can tackle antisemitism. We will continue to work together with Lord Mann on this vital issue. I look forward to hearing further suggestions from my hon. Friend, too.

Q10. When my best friend and constituent Dr Laura Williams lost her husband suddenly at 35, she was left alone with three children under the age of five. Nothing could have prepared her for that grief and loss. I have witnessed at first hand what a remarkable job she has done to carry on and stay afloat, but that has been made much harder by the fact that bereavement support payments have been cut to just 18 months—an allowance that is primarily for children who lose a parent. Will the Prime Minister be kind enough to meet Dr Laura and me to hear at first hand her experience of losing her husband, and to see what can be done for those who, like her, are bereaved with young children to support? (900839)

I am very sorry to hear about the hon. Lady’s constituent and her tragic loss. I would be very happy to meet her at the earliest opportunity.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

Passengers have been crossing the Thames between Tilbury and Gravesend in my constituency since 1307, but the ferry service today is currently under threat because of the withdrawal of local authority funding. With so many people using that ferry service to come to work in Tilbury docks, and given the upcoming expansion of the Thames freeport, will my right hon. Friend encourage the local authorities to do all they can to ensure that we take full advantage of the opportunities through a new contract for the service, and perhaps expand the service as a way of getting more people to work in the new jobs that are being created?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight that the Tilbury to Gravesend ferry service forms an important part of the local transport services provided by local authorities. Obviously, those funding decisions are for the relevant councils, but I encourage them to consider the importance of cross-river transport in their local community, which she highlights, as part of their upcoming local transport plan.

Q12. Has the Prime Minister seen the utterly damning new UNICEF report showing that in the decade to 2021, child income poverty rose way faster in the UK than in any of the other 39 countries analysed? Scrapping the benefits cap, scrapping the two-child limit and rolling out the Scottish child payment UK-wide could reverse a decade of utter failure, so why will he—or indeed the so-called official Opposition—not commit to those potentially transformative, but affordable, policies? (900841)

I point out to the hon. Gentleman that since 2010 the number of people living in poverty has actually reduced by 1.7 million, including hundreds of thousands of children, but the best way to make sure that children do not grow up in poverty—which no one wants to see—is to make sure that their parents are in work, and then to make sure that they can keep as much of their hard-earned money as possible. That is why I urge the SNP to think again about its plans to make Scotland the highest-taxed part of the United Kingdom for an average worker.

My constituents know only too well the disaster of living under a Labour regime. Just before Christmas, the Labour council in Bradford announced that it was bankrupt, and then spent the first three hours of the subsequent council meeting debating Gaza and Israel rather than the perilous financial situation it was in. Will the Prime Minister support my campaign and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore) to get our constituencies out of Bradford Council’s control? It is more urgent than ever. Will he also make sure that the Government deliver a swimming pool in Bingley, which is something that was run down and then closed down as part of the mismanagement of Bradford Council?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point: whether it is local councils in his area, in Nottingham or indeed in Birmingham, we see a track record of Labour mismanagement of finances in local areas. We all know, as my hon. Friend points out, that when that happens—when Labour is in power—it is working people who pay the price. That is why we have to stick to our plan.