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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 743: debated on Wednesday 10 January 2024

Science, Innovation and Technology

The Secretary of State was asked—

Research and Development: Private Investment

1. What recent discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on trends in the level of private investment in research and development in the last 12 months. (900779)

13. What recent discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on trends in the level of private investment in research and development in the last 12 months. (900793)

This Government have a fantastic track record of mobilising private investment in research and innovation, alongside delivering the largest ever public spending, which will reach £20 billion a year next financial year. In November, the global investment summit saw commitments to invest almost £30 billion in the UK, including the decision by Flagship Pioneering, one of the world’s leading life science investors, to have its first international base in the UK.

Hertford and Stortford lies at the heart of the innovation corridor, so private investment is very important to businesses in my constituency. Does the Minister have any assessment of the likely impact of the Mansion House reforms on that trend and the great track record of private investment?

Like its Member of Parliament, Hertford and Stortford is indeed innovative. The Mansion House reforms, which in my previous role I helped the Chancellor to deliver, will unlock an estimated £50 billion of investment to scale up high-growth companies across the whole United Kingdom, including in my hon. Friend’s constituency. That sits alongside our £250 million initiative for long-term investment for technology and science—LIFTS—which will focus particularly on British pensioners investing in long-term growth opportunities in tech and the life sciences. When it comes to British innovation, this Government are all in, and I hope that in 2024 financial institutions will be too.

In October, the Government announced the £60 million regional innovation fund to boost university support for regional economic growth. Wales was allocated £3.4 million through the Barnett formula. However, disappointingly, there is no evidence of that money having been spent on its intended purpose in Wales. What assistance can the Minister provide to encourage the Welsh Government to invest Wales’s proportion of the regional innovation fund in boosting the Welsh economy?

As my hon. Friend said, the recently announced regional innovation fund is providing £60 million of funding across the United Kingdom to harness the strength of our universities. It is intensely disappointing that the Labour Government in Wales have not seen fit to spend that in the same way. Ultimately, that is a decision for the Labour Government, and I am sure that the electorate will hold them to account for that.

Private investment will need to ratchet up significantly if it is to offset the loss to the research sector that we are seeing as international student applications plummet as a result of Government policy. What are the Minister and his colleagues doing to offset that decline in resources?

Once again, it is an enormous shame that the hon. Member for the wonderful cluster of Cambridgeshire is so keen to talk down the United Kingdom at every opportunity. This Government are mobilising more public funding for research and development than ever before, and mobilising private investment capital on the back of that—£2 for every £1 that the Government put in.

Yesterday I was talking to a Minister in the Lobby, and he referred to how impressed he was by the Northern Ireland workforce. I am equally impressed, as the Member for Strangford. When it comes to research and development across the United Kingdom, what is Northern Ireland getting to help our workforce grow, to train our people and to make us an integral part of this United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?

Having visited Northern Ireland, I am aware of just how innovative and highly skilled it is, and how much opportunity and headroom there is. It is very important to me, as the Minister for Science and Research, that Northern Ireland punches above its weight. I would be delighted to visit Northern Ireland to meet businesses, entrepreneurs and innovators there.

Digital Phone Network: Vulnerable Customers

2. What steps her Department is taking to help ensure that vulnerable customers are supported when their phone lines are transitioned to the digital network. (900780)

On 14 December, I convened the UK’s leading telecom providers to discuss the next steps to protect vulnerable households when providers upgrade phone lines. As a result, telecom providers have now signed a charter, committing to concrete measures to protect vulnerable households. This is a positive step by industry to make sure that safety continues to be at the heart of the nationwide switchover.

A concern about the new digital network for vulnerable people in North West Norfolk who rely on personal alarms in emergencies is loss of service in a power cut. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that those welcome new protections deliver robust back-up plans in such circumstances, and that they are clearly communicated to customers?

I absolutely agree that the power resilience of our digital infrastructure is key to keeping people connected. As part of signing up to the voluntary charter, the main communication providers have promised to work towards providing more powerful back-up solutions that go beyond Ofcom’s minimum requirements. I have had multiple conversations with Ofcom on this matter. It is now consulting, with the aim of further strengthening the UK’s resilience on power cuts.

Rural connectivity remains a huge problem in my constituency. As the Secretary of State said, the charter has been introduced. However, it was introduced over a year into the process, when things had already gone wrong. What is she going to do to rectify that?

I would like to correct the hon. Member. The decision on the public switched telephone network was made by business, because of the problems with the existing copper lines and the fact that that, too, poses significant challenges. What we have done is take proactive steps by convening industry to ensure that they are going further than their existing commitments, and we have involved the regulator at every step.

Rural Connectivity

Great digital connectivity is now absolutely vital to people’s life chances and we do not want rural areas to be left behind. That is why we are putting £2 billion into gigabit, so that it is in every corner of the country. We are putting cash into satellites for the hardest to reach bits. We have a plan for mobile operators to get much more phone coverage. The best bit, of course, is that we have a new rural connectivity champion, in my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (Simon Fell), to get the countryside connected.

I am delighted to hear everything the Minister has to say, but what further advice can she give to a colleague keen to champion specific rural communities facing challenges with poor digital connectivity?

First, I want to reassure my hon. Friend that a lot of work is being done on gigabit and mobile reception for rural areas. There is a regional procurement under way that covers his constituency and a neighbouring one, but I also recommend that constituents elect great MPs who can hold me and Building Digital UK to account in the surgeries we hold in Parliament—they already have such an MP in him. He is clearly doing something right, because Walsall North has 92% gigabit-capable coverage, compared with a national average of 79%. All I would say to Tamworth is: take note.

My hon. Friend will be aware of the difficulty in securing a Project Gigabit contract for Lancashire. Once signed, a contract will help isolated premises and rural communities get a much-needed superfast connection. Last month, I spoke with BDUK about progress on the procurement process. What steps is she taking to ensure that timescales do not slip and that we can see installation under way for the second half of this year, as currently planned?

I thank my hon. Friend for holding me to account and I very much share his sense of urgency. His constituency has 86% gigabit-capable coverage, so it is above the average, but none the less I understand the frustration that people have when their premises are not covered. I reassure him that I raised this matter with BDUK yesterday. I want to get going as fast as possible. We expect that procurement to be sorted in the summer.

I welcome my hon. Friend back to her place. She will know what is coming, based on the multiple conversations that she and I, and various digital Ministers over the years, have had on the woeful delivery of rural broadband in Scotland, which is the responsibility of the Scottish Government. The Reaching 100% scheme was supposed to bring faster internet to 60,000 properties across the north and north-east by the end of 2021, but so far it has delivered only a little over 9,000, with over 50,000 still to go and zero R100 North contract delivery in the Banffshire and Buchan Coast constituency. Since my hon. Friend has returned to her post, what discussions has she had with the Scottish Government about dealing with the pause implemented on BDUK and Scottish Government—

I appreciate my hon. Friend’s work in this area. He is a tremendous champion for his constituency. He will be aware that I spoke to the Scottish Government before I went on maternity leave. I asked for an update on that work yesterday when I spoke to BDUK. I understand that progress is being made. I am anxious to get that sorted because Scotland is missing out and falling behind other parts of the UK. That is not good enough and I want to help him to do everything he can to get this moving.

I have raised with the Minister over and over again the subject of the village of Bryncethin in my constituency, where three streets still do not have connectivity. BT Broadband has now come in to do the work, which it says it will complete in 2026. That is just not acceptable. Will the Minister point out to BT Broadband again that the position needs to be rectified quickly, and that the work on those three streets should not take two years?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, things are changing in Wales because the Welsh Government are starting to take some of the contracts in-house. That work is under way, but I am happy to look into that specific issue with Openreach on his behalf, because I appreciate the frustration felt by his constituents. Those Welsh Government contracts are being taken in-house because we think we will be better placed to deliver them.

When it comes to rural connectivity, nothing can be more important than connectivity for the emergency services. Does the Minister agree that it is a disgrace that the emergency services network upgrade programme is seven years late and now has a budget of more than £11 billion, which is nearly 10 times its original budget?

The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the vital importance of ensuring that the emergency services network is up and running and that it is robust, particularly in rural areas. I am not aware of the specific issues in his constituency—I am happy to look into them—but as far as I am aware, the programme is on track.

The shared rural network is key to improving mobile coverage in rural areas, but the maps showing the partial notspots certainly do not reflect the lived experience of my constituents. What will the Minister do to improve the data that companies use for deciding where to put their improved services?

That is an important issue, and we have raised it with Ofcom because we share the hon. Lady’s concern that the data is not good enough and is not being reflected in constituents’ actual experiences. I am very alive to this problem and want it to be put right.

Innovation in Technology

The science and technology framework is our clear plan for supporting innovation through our five critical technologies that underpin the future of the UK economy. We have already committed significant investment to those technologies, including £2.5 billion for quantum, £2 billion for engineering biology and £1 billion for semiconductors. We are also driving innovation through initiatives such as regulatory sandboxes, focusing on future skills and establishing a new digital markets regime to promote more dynamic competition in digital markets.

We have seen in recent years how much innovative technology can do to track down criminals, and we have seen, for instance, the use of drones in the war in Ukraine. What some of us cannot understand is why we and the French cannot use more of this innovative technology to track down the criminal gangs who are herding people on beaches and putting their lives at risk. Why can we not devote more resources to catching these people with new technology?

I thank my hon. and gallant Friend for his question. I can confirm that my colleagues in the Home Office are absolutely committed to breaking the business system of these callous and illegal criminal gangs. A key part of that is technological innovation, and a range of technologies are being used.

Businesses I speak to are excited about the innovation that artificial intelligence offers, but deeply frustrated by the Government’s uncertainty over regulation. The original White Paper was delayed for a whole year. When it finally landed, Ministers told Parliament that a response to the consultation would happen in 2023, but we are now in 2024. Will businesses have to wait for an election to be given the certainty they need, or will the Secretary of State and her ministerial team commit to publishing the response this month?

Businesses have made it clear that they want us to ensure that we understand the risks or AI, but also the balance between those risks and the opportunities that AI presents. We have already committed to publishing the response to the consultation in due course.

The proposed sale of the Rosalind Franklin Institute, a critical piece of national infrastructure, will be hugely damaging to innovation in biomedical science. I appreciate that the Science Minister will be meeting me later today to discuss the issue, but can the Minister explain how this sale sits with the UK Government’s plan to be a science superpower?

I hope that my colleague the Science Minister will be able to address the hon. Lady’s concerns at that meeting.

Artificial Intelligence: Skills Training

The Government have funded a broad package of AI skills initiatives through the education pipeline, to address the skills gap and to support citizens and businesses to take advantage of the wealth of opportunities that AI technologies provide. We have funded a new AI master’s conversion course and published draft guidance to help training providers develop business-relevant AI skills training.

The defence AI strategy acknowledged an AI skills gap across the whole of defence and promised to work with industry to provide expertise in AI and develop a skills framework. That was two years ago. Where is it?

The hon. Member does not quite grasp the magnitude of what we have done on this agenda. We have invested £290 million in it since 2018. We also recently published guidance to support businesses to adopt AI. We will continue to prioritise that area.

Just before Christmas, the EU institutions declared that they had agreed to a new EU AI Act. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of that? How does her intended approach in the UK differ?

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s work in this space. The EU has taken a slightly different tack from us. We want to foster innovation in AI, seize the opportunities for our public services and ensure that the jobs are located here in the UK. That is why we have our domestic track—we will produce a White Paper shortly—and also why we introduced an international track and convened the entire world for the first ever global AI safety summit. We are certainly leading in this area.

It is vital that Britain grasps the opportunity of AI to grow our economy and to modernise vital public services. That relies on having a supply of highly trained staff. However, the Government are failing in that. Their AI scholarship scheme is floundering, with Ministers finding only 21% of the funding they promised. Why has the Department failed? When will the Secretary of State authorise an urgent review of this vital policy area?

Perhaps the hon. Member missed my answer to the previous question, so I will indulge him by repeating it. Since 2018, we have dedicated £290 million to AI skills. That does not sound like a Government who are failing on that agenda.

Researchers from Overseas

7. Whether she is taking steps with Cabinet colleagues to help retain researchers from overseas who are working in the UK. (900785)

12. What steps she is taking with Cabinet colleagues to encourage overseas researchers and innovators to come to the UK. (900792)

I hope that the hon. Members and their party will join me in celebrating just what a fantastic place the UK is for international researchers to work and live. We have one of the strongest science bases, the world’s leading universities and research institutions, and the largest ever public research and development budget. With our association with Horizon from the beginning of the year, we are central to global research collaboration.

This year, the Migration Advisory Committee will review the graduate immigration route. International research students who are currently doing PhDs in the UK are attracted to coming here because of the ability to stay on and work after completing their PhD. Will the Minister engage with the Home Office to confirm that research students who arrive in the UK this year will continue to be entitled to a period of post-study work?

In keeping the UK an open and welcoming place to do international research, in order to deliver the Prime Minister’s vision of being a science superpower, my colleagues and I regularly meet Home Office colleagues. The facts belie the hon. Gentleman’s question: 41% of postgraduate research in the UK today is being conducted by researchers who have come from overseas.

The Government’s recent spousal visa policy to increase the salary threshold is forcing academics and innovators to leave. I give the Minister the example of a British constituent of mine who is graduating from Oxford with a PhD, which is funded by UK Research and Innovation. His American wife, who is graduating from Bangor with a PhD, cannot live with him because the job he has been offered is paid well below the salary threshold. Why are the Government using taxpayers’ money to educate people to become highly qualified researchers if their immigration policy then forces them to leave?

A fair immigration policy is absolutely part of an open Britain. It is right that those who come here from overseas and live cheek by jowl with those who clean their labs, drive their local buses and empty their bins do their fair share in contributing to the UK economy.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the great strengths of our rejoining Horizon and the other European programmes is that our expert researchers and top professors will lead research teams that attract researchers from across the world, including the EU? That is one way to retain researchers here.

My right hon. and learned Friend makes an apposite point. I would ask all Members of this House to go back to their constituencies and talk to local firms, innovators, clusters and universities to make sure the UK punches above its weight in the Horizon programme.

In my constituency, Phytome is a fantastic independent researcher of agro-pharmaceuticals. I invite the Minister to visit the firm one day. What more is he doing to ensure that we can attract the very best talent from around the world into life sciences, even in Cornwall.

I would be delighted to visit the innovative firm in my hon. Friend’s constituency. She will know about the global talent visa, which has seen a 76% rise in visas issued over the last year alone, welcoming the world’s best scientists to Britain’s science and technology superpower.

Topical Questions

This year, my ministerial team and I will be laser-focused on delivery. We will back the science and tech businesses that are growing the economy, creating new jobs and improving lives across our country. We want to make sure that British people have the skills they need to take advantage of those jobs, and we also want to support innovative start-ups across our country to scale up here and stay in the UK. We want to use regulation as a tool for innovation, by designing a transparent set of rules that encourage our entrepreneurs to be bold, and we want to ensure that the British people truly feel the benefits.

In advance of the Budget, what discussions has the Minister had with the Treasury regarding crucial funding for the development and uptake of human-specific technologies, as opposed to using 3 million animals for experimentation and research in the UK?

The day cannot come quickly enough when we are able to end the practice of animal testing. That day is not now, but this Government are committed to doing everything we can to bring forward and support the development of replacement technologies. The hon. Gentleman has my commitment that we will do that at the right pace.

T4. Will the Minister join me in congratulating SaxaVord on gaining its spaceport licence from the Civil Aviation Authority? Does he agree that the site in Shetland will serve as a critical vertical launch site not just for the UK but for the rest of Europe and beyond, and as such is deserving of full UK Government support? (900848)

Yes, I congratulate SaxaVord on achieving the necessary licences to pursue vertical launches from Scotland. I hope to see the success of that launch, as well as rocket boosters under the UK space programme in 2024.

A recent study has shown that, through digitisation, the UK’s small businesses can generate £77.3 billion in additional revenue and create 885,000 new jobs in this country. However, around four in 10 small businesses do not see new technology as relevant to their company and do not see tech investment as offering good value for money, citing a lack of skills and knowledge. What is being done to ensure that small businesses are not left behind in the technological revolution?

We work very closely with the Department for Business and Trade on this agenda, and we work with the Department for Education on skills in general. We have fantastic programmes such as Innovate UK, which is helping to support businesses with the uptake of artificial intelligence. We recently produced additional guidance, too.

I welcome my hon. Friend the Minister for Science, Research and Innovation to one of the great offices of state, and I thank the Secretary of State for supporting the science and technology superpower mission. Does she agree that, as the Prime Minister plans a rightly robust response to the Post Office saga, we need to learn important lessons about technology procurement to make sure that Whitehall never again repeats this appalling misjustice? [Interruption.]

You will see from the loud cheer the popularity of the former Minister, Mr Speaker, and let me take the opportunity to thank him for his hard work and dedication to the science, innovation and technology agenda. He worked very hard on the science and technology framework, an important pillar of which, as he knows, is procurement, and I absolutely agree with the sentiments he echoed.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


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.

Social Energy Tariffs

Q14. If he will launch a consultation on the potential merits of introducing social energy tariffs for disabled people and low-income households. (900843)

We are providing extensive financial support worth over £100 billion—or £3,500 per household on average—between 2022 and 2025 to help everyone with their energy bills.

Last month, Marie Curie told me that terminally ill people who want to die at home have been forced into hospitals to die because they cannot afford to heat their homes sufficiently. Will the Prime Minister meet me, Marie Curie and other organisations, including energy companies that are fully supportive of a social energy tariff, and try to find a way forward?

I will make sure that the hon. Lady gets the meeting she needs with the appropriate Minister. We are working very closely with Ofgem to make sure that the most vulnerable households are protected—especially this winter—and, crucially, we are developing the priority services register that vulnerable households, including those that are disabled or face particular needs, can sign up to for free to receive extra help with their energy supplier, but as I said, I will ensure that the relevant Minister meets with Marie Curie and the hon. Lady.


Prioritising connecting towns in the north of England is a big part of Network North, so you will be pleased that I have a suggestion, Mr Speaker. Direct trains between Preston and Liverpool do not exist because passengers have to get off because there are buffers at Ormskirk. Science, technology and new multi-modal battery trains are going to allow that to be an accessible possibility, and then get Midge Hall station in Leyland reopened; does my right hon. Friend agree that that is a great idea and we should crack on with it?

Network North will significantly improve connectivity across the north, including through £3 billion to connect up all the major towns and cities of the north and £12 million to improve connectivity between Manchester and Liverpool. My hon. Friend is a fantastic champion for the region and I know that she and my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Damien Moore) recently discussed Midge Hall station with the Transport Secretary, who is looking at options. We are keen to use every penny that will be saved from our decision on HS2 to reinvest back in the north, in local communities, and my hon. Friend’s idea sounds fantastic.

Every parent’s worst nightmare is watching their children starve and suffer, yet in Gaza living hell is being realised, with innocent children eating weeds and 1,000 children having lost one or more legs, with many of them having to have them amputated without anaesthesia or pain relief. I am sure the Prime Minister will agree that this is inhumane, so will he please publicly call for unhindered access for food and medicine to reach Gaza, and tell Israel to stop attacking healthcare facilities?

As I have said previously, we are deeply concerned about the devastating impact of the fighting in Gaza on the civilian population, and particularly, of course, children. Too many people have lost their lives already and there is a desperate need for increased humanitarian support to Gaza. I have stressed those points repeatedly to Prime Minister Netanyahu, and we are doing our bit to get more aid in. As I have said, we have trebled our aid commitment. Earlier this month, we sent in the first maritime shipment of aid into Egypt, which will help, and we are working with the United Nations to deliver a new humanitarian land corridor from Jordan into Gaza. I agree with the hon. Lady that we want to see more aid going into Gaza to help the most vulnerable people, and we should be proud in this House that the United Kingdom is playing a leading role in making that happen.