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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 743: debated on Wednesday 17 January 2024

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Restoration of Power Sharing

1. What recent discussions he has had with party leaders on the restoration of power sharing in Northern Ireland. (900948)

5. What recent progress he has made on the restoration of political institutions in Northern Ireland. (900952)

13. What recent discussions he has had with party leaders on the restoration of power sharing in Northern Ireland. (900960)

It will not have escaped your notice, Mr Speaker, that four years ago, on 11 January, the Northern Ireland Assembly reformed. The First Minister effectively collapsed the institutions and power sharing by resigning on 3 February 2022.

Behind these questions is a desire for the return of power sharing and the Northern Ireland Executive—a desire that I very much share, hence my most recent discussions with the leaders of most of the political parties that took place in Hillsborough on Monday, when we discussed the very many matters relating to this goal.

Negotiations with the Democratic Unionist party have been ongoing for quite some time, and they have not yet resulted in the restoration of the Executive. What does the Secretary of State think the DUP is looking for?

I cannot answer for the DUP, and would never seek to do so, but behind all this is the concern that it had about the Northern Ireland protocol as we left the European Union and how, as a consequence, goods were gradually being removed from Northern Ireland’s supermarket shelves—a visible sign that Northern Ireland was being pulled away from the United Kingdom’s sphere of influence and into the European sphere. I believe the Windsor framework set that straight.

I very much welcome the Secretary of State’s commitment to a £3.3 billion financial package. However, we are seemingly at an impasse. He will be aware that there is a groundswell of opinion that believes elements of the package should be released to address the ongoing crisis in our public services and, in particular, public sector pay pressures. Will he consider releasing some of that money to address public sector pay?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and, indeed, for the way in which he and his party have conducted themselves in the talks to try to restore the Executive. The UK Government put an extremely fair and generous package for a restored Executive, worth £3.3 billion, on the table before Christmas. The money that Northern Ireland civil servants and I have available is from the budget passed in this place in the last year.

I was recently in County Kildare with the Minister of State and the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, working to build understanding between the two countries. We heard from Irish Ministers and the ambassador about the impact of the lack of a functioning Northern Ireland Assembly. Bearing that in mind, and the struggles that we know people are having in Northern Ireland with their bills, potential strike action and all kinds of issues, can the Secretary of State say a bit more about what he is doing, and about the meetings and conversations he is having, to work at pace to try to get a solution?

I thank the hon. Lady both for her interest and for the sentiment behind her question. A huge amount is happening, including meetings galore with all the political parties in Northern Ireland, and especially the Democratic Unionist party, because it is the DUP that I need to get on board so that the Executive can be restored. The hon. Lady says “at pace”, and we will happily work at whatever pace we can, but it is slightly determined by our interlocutors.

The current industrial action is due to hard-pressed public servants feeling that they are at the end of their tether. Would it not be better if the Assembly were functioning normally, so that this could be resolved as soon as possible?

Yes, the hon. Lady is exactly right. There is a fair and generous £3.3 billion package on the table for a restored Executive to use for this purpose and many others. As everyone involved in Northern Ireland politics understands, there is a need to transform public services in Northern Ireland, and this package would help to do that too.

I commend my right hon. Friend for his efforts to try to restore the Assembly and the Executive with a big offer. Is it not right that, were direct rule to be contemplated, we would now need primary legislation following the St Andrews agreement? The political reality is that it would mean huge political pressure on all of us here, not only from within our United Kingdom but from outside. Does he agree that the best way to preserve our great United Kingdom is for everyone to get back around the table and to govern Northern Ireland from Stormont?

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his question and welcome his election as Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, probably more than some other Members will—I look to a certain Member on the Benches opposite. He is absolutely right in what he says; there is no way this Government want to go down the route of direct rule, which would need primary legislation. We do not want to go down the route of joint authority either and we will not do so. We need to find an appropriate form to allow the Executive to reform, which is what we are working unbelievably hard on with our colleagues in Northern Ireland.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is deeply regrettable that the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, is pandering to his domestic audience, rather than thinking of the greater good of Northern Ireland and the victims of the troubles?

My right hon. Friend makes a very fair point, because in the midst of everything we are trying to do to get the Executive back up and running, the Republic of Ireland’s decision to take an inter-state case out against the UK Government on our Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Act 2023, which is designed to bring justice and information recovery to victims of the troubles, is unhelpful and unfortunate. We have made our representations very plain on that matter.

Now that the talks have concluded, with the House having voted overwhelmingly to support the Windsor framework back in March, Labour Members stand by our commitment to implement it if we were to be in government, and we support the efforts the Government are making to restore the institutions. Furthermore, it is worth pointing out that there would be no prospect of negotiating with the European Union further arrangements of benefit to Northern Ireland if the UK were to renege, again, on an international agreement it has signed. Will the Secretary of State confirm that if the Executive are not restored by tomorrow evening, he will need to bring forward legislation to postpone the elections?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question and for his affirmation of the work done on the Windsor framework. Obviously, I will be doing everything I can to ensure that it is not a Labour Government who come in to do any of this in the future. However, he is right to say that as of midnight on Thursday—tomorrow night—I will need to bring in primary legislation, because a duty falls on me to call an election for the Northern Ireland Assembly. I have a number of weeks—I believe it is 12—in which to do that, and I intend to bring in legislation on these matters next week.

I am grateful for that clarification. The absence of the Executive and the failure to sort out the urgent question of public sector pay is going to result in the biggest strike in Northern Ireland for many years tomorrow. Some workers have not had a pay rise for almost three years—that is not sustainable. As we await the restoration of the institutions, the party leaders and indeed the head of the civil service in Northern Ireland have all called on the Secretary of State to release the money for pay, which he has said is available. Will he now do so, so that public sector workers in Northern Ireland can get the pay increase they deserve?

I am acutely aware of the industrial action scheduled for tomorrow and the detrimental impact it will have on public services. I hear the call from the right hon. Gentleman and others to step in, but let me put this into a slightly different context. Public sector pay is devolved to Northern Ireland, and he will know that, as I mentioned earlier, this Parliament set the budget for Northern Ireland this year, with primary legislation. He will also know that decisions on matters such as this are obviously ones that locally elected Ministers should take, as they involve big and fundamental choices; every penny spent on pay is a penny not spent on services. Choices on this are therefore eminently political—indeed, they are as close as we would get to the choices made in the period of direct rule. Direct rule is absolutely not the way forward; these decisions are for the Executive, and a restored Executive have a generous financial package available to them to do exactly as the right hon. Gentleman wishes.

The Secretary of State will know that Northern Ireland can benefit from power sharing arrangements only when those institutions enjoy the support and confidence of both the nationalist and Unionist communities. I think I have previously heard him accept that the Northern Ireland protocol does not enjoy the support of any Unionist in Northern Ireland. Despite references to talks having concluded in December, the Secretary of State helpfully indicated on Monday this week that further progress had been made. Does he accept that the restoration of institutions will be secured only when that confidence within the Unionist community is put where it needs to be?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and for the many, many hours of work that he personally has put into the talks we have been having. They are detailed talks and it is a complex situation. I have said before, because it is absolutely obvious, that the Unionists in Northern Ireland are deeply unhappy with the existing Northern Ireland protocol. I believe we have made excellent progress. I hope that in the coming days and weeks, we can get to a point where his party can come to a conclusion on those talks that leads us to reform the Executive, because I know that he is a democrat and wants it reformed.

I appreciate the Secretary of State’s remarks. He will have heard the concerns around the general strike, which will be called tomorrow. He will know that his Government dismissed our calls when we said that there simply was not sufficient money. He knows we had to battle for sufficient money and that in the run-up to Christmas he personally secured the availability of that money. The release of the funds is called for by the DUP, every political party in Northern Ireland, the head of the Northern Ireland civil service and, this morning, 50 chief executives of public sector agencies across Northern Ireland. I do not believe there is a lack of will on the Secretary of State’s part, but this is a choice—a political choice that the Government can make. Will the Secretary of State use today to encourage his Government colleagues, the Treasury and anyone else who believes that using public sector workers as blackmail or political pawns is beneficial in any way?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and the way that he put it. As I mentioned earlier, public sector pay is devolved and is properly a matter for locally elected politicians who are best placed to take decisions in that space.

Flooding: Funding

2. What progress he has made on allocating funding to help tackle the impact of flooding in Northern Ireland. (900949)

In the absence of the Executive, this Government have made up to £15 million of support available for businesses and non-domestic properties through the reallocation of existing funding. It is for the Northern Ireland civil service and local councils to consider how to utilise the remaining funds to provide further support to businesses and non-domestic properties.

Building resilience for the future is vital if this Government are to address the challenges around climate change. York’s resilience measures cost over £100 million to protect my city this winter, but the estimated cost to businesses in Newry alone is £37 million as a result of the winter weather. When will the Minister bring forward a proper amount of money—not just £15 million, which may be a deposit—to ensure that Northern Ireland can build its resilience for the future?

I will answer in a couple of ways. First, only just over £1 million of that £15 million has been drawn down, which is a sign that the amount is sufficient. Secondly, the Northern Ireland civil service has recently announced that up to £10 million has been made available to assist small and medium sized businesses, with up to £100,000 available per business. The experience of her constituents—I have the figures in front of me—shows that this Government are committed to our infrastructure being ready for the future. That is partly why we are so keen to see the Executive back, with a large package to help support the stabilisation and transformation of public services, so we can get the kind of investment she refers to.

Cost of Living

3. What recent discussions he has had with the Administration in Northern Ireland on the effect of increases in the cost of living on people in Northern Ireland. (900950)

10. What recent discussions he has had with the Administration in Northern Ireland on the effect of increases in the cost of living on people in Northern Ireland. (900957)

12. What recent discussions he has had with the Administration in Northern Ireland on the effect of increases in the cost of living on people in Northern Ireland. (900959)

The Government have taken decisive action to help tackle increases in the cost of living, including support for the most vulnerable households in Northern Ireland. We are targeting support this winter through a range of measures, including cost of living payments of £900. It remains vital that there is a functioning Executive in place that can deliver for the people of Northern Ireland, who deserve that stable Government taking the relevant decisions.

I want to return to the subject of public sector pay. Public sector workers in Northern Ireland have seen their real pay fall by more than 7% over the past year. Does that not demonstrate that the UK Government’s response to the cost of living crisis is leaving Northern Ireland behind? I encourage the Minister to join the cross-party calls to ensure that public sector workers in Northern Ireland are fairly paid for their important work.

I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman raises this matter again. He will have heard what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said. I wish to emphasise that the money that has been made available in what is a large package for stabilisation and transformation in Northern Ireland includes a sum of money to enable public sector pay to be settled, but that is a matter to be decided in Northern Ireland. That is why we continue to press the DUP and other parties with as much force as we can muster to restore the Assembly and the Executive to deal with that.

Given that the UK is experiencing the biggest drop in living standards on record, with households bearing the brunt of higher energy costs and temperatures dropping dramatically this week across Northern Ireland and, indeed, Scotland, why have the UK Government left households out in the cold this winter?

I do not accept that we have left households in the cold. Further cost of living support through the winter period for Northern Ireland households was announced in the autumn statement in 2022, with additional payments to households across the UK. Those on means-tested benefits are getting £900, those on disability benefits £150 and pensioner households £300. We are resolved to promote prosperity in Northern Ireland and we are seized of the reality that disposable incomes in Northern Ireland are particularly squeezed. That is why we have put in a range of measures to promote prosperity, which I hope to return to in later answers.

We have just heard the Minister say that incomes in Northern Ireland are particularly squeezed. In November, the typical monthly pay in Northern Ireland saw a month-on-month fall of 1.8%. By contrast, typical wages in the UK showed a 1.2% month-on-month increase. That means that earnings in Northern Ireland sat 11% below UK earnings—the biggest difference on record. What steps are being taken now, in the absence of a functioning Stormont, to offer some kind of sustainable pay deal in Northern Ireland for public sector workers?

Mr Speaker, I could give a lengthy answer to the hon. Lady’s question, which would try your patience, so I will just return to her final question on what is being done for public sector workers. We are absolutely seized, as we have said previously, of the need to ensure that public sector workers have a pay rise. That is why a very substantial sum is in the package on the table for the parties. None the less, we are absolutely clear that, on this issue, as across a wide field of others about which I am sure we will hear in the course of these questions, Northern Ireland needs devolved Government to take the relevant decisions in Northern Ireland, and on that there is consensus across the House.

The Government’s package to support people with the cost of living amounts to about £94 billion over two years. It is one of the most comprehensive in Europe. Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that people in Northern Ireland, as an integral part of our United Kingdom, have had full access to those cost of living support measures?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The extent of Government support for Northern Ireland households was unprecedented. It included the energy price guarantee on electricity and gas bills; £600 in payments comprising £400 for energy bill support scheme payments, plus £200 to recognise the widespread use of home heating oil; and targeted support for the most vulnerable households, some of which I have already touched on. She is right that we are determined to ensure that Northern Ireland feels the benefits of being in the Union of this United Kingdom.

I recently met the Melted Parents campaign group in Belfast. It speaks for so many parents across Northern Ireland, where the cost of living crisis is far harder for families because there is no funding for a free childcare scheme, or the 15 or 30 hours of pre-school, just eye-watering and unaffordable Bills. But there is a cross-party childcare strategy proposal. Will the Minister say for all the employers and parents watching, if there is a new temporary Budget for Northern Ireland, whether it will include childcare funding provision?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising this issue. It is of the highest importance in Northern Ireland, and it is impressed upon me frequently. The Budget will be debated in this House, of course, and I am confident that we will return to it. As we have said before, this is one of those issues that underscores the importance of the Executive returning, and I am grateful that we agree on that point. She is absolutely right to raise the issue.

Troubles Permanent Disablement Payment Scheme

4. What recent discussions he has had with the Administration in Northern Ireland on ensuring timely payments from the troubles permanent disablement payment scheme to eligible individuals. (900951)

Like the hon. Member, I too am quite surprised that he is that popular. [Interruption.] I am sorry; I misread the room again.

The troubles permanent disablement payment scheme is a devolved matter delivered by the Victims’ Payments Board. I met Judge McAlinden, the president of the board, last week to discuss those matters.

According to recent evidence presented to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committeethis is actually very serious; it is not a joke, so maybe Members would like to listen—it could take more than 10 years to process the applications for the troubles victims’ compensation scheme, meaning that victims in Northern Ireland who have waited decades for compensation to be delivered will need to wait even longer. Can the Secretary of State advise not only the House but those awaiting payment what his Government are doing to deliver that compensation scheme?

As I said, having met Judge McAlinden, I am conducting a review of the operation of the scheme, which will report before August this year. The review is under way, and I very much hope that it will address all those matters so that those who qualify for the payments get them in a much more expedited way.

Given the length of time it takes in many cases to gather the supporting evidence to make a claim under the scheme, the pressures on the payments board itself, and the strong likelihood that many of those who are potentially eligible are yet to apply, it is clear that there is a risk that many who could be eligible for a payment might miss out as things stand. One way the Secretary of State could mitigate that is by extending the period allowed for claims to be made and processed. As part of the review, will he consider extending that deadline?

The Union

6. What steps he is taking with Cabinet colleagues to strengthen Northern Ireland’s place in the Union. (900953)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I wish to reassure him that the UK Government are fully committed to protecting and upholding Northern Ireland’s place in the Union. I regularly discuss matters of the Union, and the importance of Northern Ireland within it, with Cabinet colleagues and frequently meet the Secretaries of State for Wales and for Scotland.

Would my right hon. Friend agree that the Union is now stronger than ever, particularly with the decline of the SNP, and that its vital importance can be seen not only in Northern Ireland but in border constituencies such as mine, Clwyd South, particularly in shared services across the border with neighbouring North Shropshire, such as the Gobowen to Wrexham line, the A5/A483 and the Chirk-St Martin’s GP partnership?

As we can see, all politics is local, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on the success of shared cross-border services in his constituency; he is absolutely right. I know he is a great champion of connectivity across the United Kingdom, and I am sure that his constituents appreciate his efforts on those matters.

Every devious, deceitful and dishonest tactic is being used to try to bribe, bully and beat Unionists into accepting the Windsor framework and the Northern Ireland protocol, despite the impact it has on our citizenship and on the Union. It seems that the latest recruit is the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, the right hon. and learned Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland), who only this week told the BBC that Unionists should get back to Stormont, because constitutional issues are the responsibility of the EU and the Irish Government, in any settlement, would have a say in the future of Northern Ireland. Can the Secretary of State confirm that this Conservative and Unionist Government have not handed constitutional control of Northern Ireland to the EU and that the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has either become an over-zealous advocate of the scare tactics or is talking through his hat?

Mr Speaker—[Interruption.] Based on that cheer, the Select Committee Chair has a lot of work to do to increase his popularity in this House. As ever, the right hon. Gentleman asks a question in his characteristic shrinking violet way. I completely disagree with what he says about my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland). We need to get a deal done now. The people of Northern Ireland want to get a deal done. It is time for a deal to be done. Let us get the Executive back up and running.

Before we come to Prime Minister’s questions, I am pleased to inform the House that, since last week, we have been providing British Sign Language coverage on all questions and statements as a matter of course. This is available directly on parliamentlive.tv, and it is also available to broadcasters and media outlets who may be interested in taking up the live feed. I am delighted that the House service has been able to deliver this significant improvement in the accessibility of our proceedings.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

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.

According to the Alzheimer’s Society, nearly 5,000 people are currently living with dementia in my Colne Valley constituency, of whom 3,153 have had a formal diagnosis. That figure went up by one this week with my dad’s diagnosis—my dad is my constituent. Will my right hon. Friend pledge to make dementia a priority by driving up diagnosis rates, bolstering dementia research, investing in social care, and improving access to the most innovative diagnostic methods and to new, life-changing treatments?

I send my warmest wishes to my hon. Friend and his father and family. I recognise that a dementia diagnosis can bring worry, both for the person who is diagnosed and for their wider family. He is absolutely right about the timely diagnosis of dementia; it is vital to ensure that those affected can access the care and support they need. NHS England is carrying out a pilot to ensure that we can improve dementia diagnosis in care homes, and our major conditions strategy includes a focus on dementia. Crucially, as he says, we are now doubling the funding for dementia research so that we can help everyone, including his father.

I send my best wishes to the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) and his father, and to all those suffering in that way.

I cannot let today pass without saying how saddened I was by the tragic death of Bronson Battersby, aged just two, who died in heartbreaking circumstances in Skegness. I know that the House will join me in sending our deepest sympathies to his family.

The Government have been forced to admit that they have lost contact with 85% of the 5,000 people earmarked for removal to Rwanda. Has the Prime Minister found them yet?

What I can tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman is that, in spite of him seeking to block every single attempt that we have made, we have now managed, because of our actions, to reduce the number of people coming here by over a third last year, to remove more than 20,000 people from this country back to their home countries, to carry out 70% more illegal immigration enforcement raids, to arrest hundreds of people, to close down thousands of bank accounts and to process more than 100,000 cases—the biggest number in more than 20 years. That is because, on the Conservative side of the House, we want to stop the boats. We have a plan and it is working. With him, we would just go back to square one.

My first thought is, “How do you actually lose 4,250 people?” Then I remember that this is the Government who scrapped High Speed 2, but the costs are still rising by billions; this is the Government who spent £400 million of taxpayers’ money on a Rwanda scheme, yet cannot deport a single person; and this is the Government who waged a week-long war on the Greek Prime Minister for reasons known only to themselves—and suddenly I remember that of course this farce of a Government could lose the people they were planning to remove. The Prime Minister did not answer the question, so I will ask him again: where are the 4,250 people the Government have lost? Where are they?

As I said, we have actually identified and removed over 20,000 people from this country back to where they belong. The right hon. and learned Gentleman asks these questions about the Rwanda scheme, but it is important that we get it up and running, because it is important, as the National Crime Agency says, that we have a working deterrent in order to resolve this issue. That is how Australia solved the problem, and that is how Albania has worked for us. He asks these questions about the detail of those things, but we all know that he does not actually care about solving the problem. We know that because the BBC quizzed him, asking:

“If…the numbers crossing the Channel on small boats decline— i.e. so it’s working—would you still reverse it?”

The Labour leader said, “Yes.” It is crystal clear that he does not have a plan and it will be back to square one.

Spending £400 million on not getting anybody to Rwanda while losing 4,000 people is not a plan; it is a farce. Only this Government could waste hundreds of millions of pounds on a removals policy that does not remove anyone. Only this Government could claim that they will get flights off the ground only to discover that they cannot find a plane. Only this Government could sign a removals deal with Rwanda only to end up taking people from Rwanda to here. The Prime Minister still has not answered the question, so I will try again. What progress has he made in locating the 4,250 people his Government have apparently lost? He has dodged it three times. Where are they?

It is the same thing again and again. Here we are, talking about what we are doing, and I am happy to go over it. What are we doing? We have increased the number of illegal immigration enforcement raids by 70%, leading to thousands of arrests, using powers that the right hon. and learned Gentleman sought to block in this House. We have closed down thousands of bank accounts of illegal workers—again, using powers that he sought to block—[Interruption.]

As I said, we have worked through a record number of cases and returned a record number of people back to where they came from. All that is a plan that is working, and we can see that it is working because the number of people coming to this country is down by over a third. Again, it is a bit rich to hear the right hon. and learned Gentleman pretending here that he cares about how we actually stop the boats when he has been crystal clear in saying that even if the plan to reduce the numbers is working, he would still scrap it. That is because he has no values, no conviction and no plan. It is back to square one.

The Prime Minister does not have a clue where they are, has he? I can tell you one place they are not, and that is Rwanda—the only people he has sent to Rwanda are Cabinet Ministers. For all the words, the ridiculous thing is that we know the Prime Minister himself does not even believe in this Rwanda gimmick. He had to be talked out of scrapping the whole thing. He did not want to fund it; he did not think it would work. When he sees his party tearing itself apart—hundreds of bald men scrapping over a single broken comb—does he not wish that he had had the courage to stick to his guns?

I have absolute conviction that the plan we have put in place will work, because I believe it is important that we grip this problem. The right hon. and learned Gentleman spends a lot of his time in this House talking about his time as a lawyer, and I would urge him to listen to lawyers, because Lord Wolfson has said that our Bill severely limits the grounds for removal. Four eminent King’s counsels have said that it is undoubtedly the most robust piece of immigration legislation this Parliament has seen, and—[Interruption.]

Order. I want to hear what the Prime Minister has to say, because it matters to my constituents; those who feel that it does not matter to theirs should please leave.

As I said, Mr Speaker, four eminent KCs have said that this is undoubtedly the most robust legislation this Parliament has seen, and a former Supreme Court justice has been clear that the Bill would work. But I know that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has always been more interested in what leftie lawyers have to say. I even have in my hands the textbook that he authored for them—it is called “European Human Rights Law” by Keir Starmer, so—[Interruption.]

Prime Minister, when I stand up, please sit down. Can I just say that we do not use props in this House? If you need reminding, I will certainly ensure that I do so.

It is such utterly pathetic nonsense. The Prime Minister has been brutally exposed by his own MPs yet again. He has one party chair who says that she hopes the Lords will rip his Rwanda deal to pieces, and two more who had to quit because they do not think it will work—all of them appointed by him, all now in open revolt against his policy, each other, and reality. Is it any wonder that they all think this gimmick is doomed to failure when the Prime Minister himself does not believe in it?

It is rich to hear from the right hon. and learned Gentleman about belief in something. It will be news to him that it is actually the case that you can believe in something and stick to that position on this side of the House. [Interruption.]

Can I just say to Members on the Government side that this is very important? It is an important day. People want to know what is going on, so I want my constituents, just like yours, to hear what the Prime Minister has to say.

Just this week we had another example of the right hon. and learned Gentleman doing one thing and saying another. This week he backed the Home Secretary in banning the terrorist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, despite him personally using the European Court of Human Rights to try to stop them being banned. You do not have to take my word for it; the extremists’ own press release said, and I quote, “the Hizb ut-Tahrir legal team, led by Keir Starmer”. I know that he does not like talking about them because they have been a client, but when I see a group chanting “jihad” on our streets, I ban them; he invoices them. [Interruption.]

There are eight questions that I think some Members might want to hear answered. I tell you what: some who wanted questions have already gone off the list.

If the Prime Minister stuck to his position, he would be voting with us. His former Home Secretary says that the plan will not work, his current Home Secretary calls it “batshit”, his former immigration Minister does not back his plan, and even the Prime Minister himself does not believe in it. Last week, another of his MPs said that the Tories should admit that things have got “worse” since they came to office, that after 14 years they have left Britain “less united”, and that the country is a “sadder” place. If the Prime Minister cannot even persuade his own MPs that it is worth supporting him, and if he himself does not even believe in his own policies, why on earth should anyone else think differently?

Another week when it is crystal clear that the right hon. and learned Gentleman does not believe in anything, and he does not have a plan. While he talks the country down, let me update him on what has actually been happening in the past week—inflation more than halved from 11% to 4%, and real wages rising for the fifth month in a row. Last week, rates started falling, and millions of people benefited from a tax cut worth £450. So while he takes us back to square one with a £28 billion tax grab, let us stick with the plan that is delivering a brighter future for Britain.

Q7. It is against the law to silence victims of crime, but that is exactly what the Post Office did through the use of non-disclosure agreements, and this is just the most recent case of NDAs covering up mismanagement, misconduct and even crimes at work. Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister consider banning their use in all severance agreements once and for all? (901004)

My right hon. Friend is right to raise an important point. The ability to speak out about things is key to unlocking justice. While NDAs can have a place—and my right hon. Friend is right to say that they should not be used to stop victims of crime in particular getting the justice they deserve—I can tell her that the Ministry of Justice is carefully considering how best to address this issue, including the use of legislation, and I know that my right hon. and learned Friend the Justice Secretary will keep the House updated on further progress.

When people woke up today in homes that they cannot afford to heat, with mortgages that they are struggling to pay, to news that inflation is once again on the rise, they will have looked to Westminster for answers, and instead they find a UK Government who are tearing themselves apart over how quickly they can send vulnerable people on a plane to Rwanda. Surely the Prime Minister must understand that the anger that some of his own Back Benchers have towards him is no comparison to the anger that the public have towards his party.

If the hon. Gentleman did care about supporting working families to pay their bills and to pay their mortgage, why on earth is the SNP making Scotland the highest taxed part of the United Kingdom, where the average—not the wealthiest, but the average—worker in Scotland is now paying more tax than they do in England.

Of course, when it comes to the Rwanda Bill the reality is that, if you want to stop the smuggler gangs, you should introduce safe and legal routes, but instead the Prime Minister is seeking to weaponise some of the most vulnerable people in society. It is straight out of the cruel and callous right-wing extremist playbook. His time in office is fast approaching its conclusion. Does he seriously want this to be his legacy?

As I said, it is important that we stop the boats because illegal migration is simply not fair. It is not right that some people jump the queue and take away our resources from those who need our help most—and, by the way they are exploited by gangs and many of them lose their lives making these dangerous crossings—so I completely disagree with the hon. Gentleman. The fair and compassionate thing to do is to break these criminal gangs, and that is why we are going to stop the boats.

Q9. Unexpectedly, five months ago, I had a heart attack. Thanks to the swift action of the NHS emergency services, it was caught early. So one stent operation later, I was on a swift path to rehabilitation and recovery, and I am sat here today fighting fit and a bit lighter, too. So along with encouraging everyone to visit the British Heart Foundation website to understand the early warning signs and get fantastic resources to help them, would the Prime Minister also join me in personally thanking everyone who helped to save my life and helped me recover, including the East of England Ambulance Service, the teams at Watford General Hospital and Harefield Hospital, the cardiac rehabilitation teams and everyone who supported me, especially my family and my team, some of whom are in the Gallery today, who help to ensure that I continue to deliver for the great people of Watford? (901006)

I thank my hon. Friend for sharing his story, and I know the whole House will be delighted to hear that he has made a swift recovery. We all wish him good health for the future, as he resumes his excellent campaigning on behalf of his constituents in Watford. I also join him in thanking our fantastic NHS staff for the life-saving work that they do up and down the country. We are backing them with record resources—from our doctors to our ambulance service—and we are all in this House truly grateful for what they do.

Mr Speaker,

“Until the UK Government calls for an immediate ceasefire, it is complicit in the horrors…in Gaza.”

Those are not my words but those of the head of Oxfam who, like every single agency trying to operate on the ground, is clear that aid cannot be effectively delivered while fighting continues. More UK aid is of course welcome but even when it does get through, it can result in what one Palestinian aid worker calls

“bombing us on full stomachs.”

Some 24,000 people have already been killed so what will it take for the Prime Minister to back a permanent bilateral ceasefire?

Of course we want to see a peaceful resolution to this conflict as soon as possible. A sustainable permanent ceasefire with an end to the destruction, fighting and loss of life, the release of hostages and no resumption of hostilities would of course be the best way forward, but in order to achieve that a number of things need to happen: Hamas would have to agree to release all the hostages; Hamas would have to no longer be in charge of Gaza; the threat of more rocket attacks from Hamas into Israel would have to end; and the Palestinian Authority, boosted with assistance, would need to return to Gaza in order to provide governance and aid. That is a sustainable ceasefire that we will work very hard to bring about.

Q11. Today I was unsure whether to raise a national issue such as the desperate need for a Minister for men or a local issue such as Doncaster’s need for a new hospital or Edlington’s for a new leisure centre, but I thought the best thing I could do was ask the Prime Minister to come and have a tour of Doncaster, and while I am showing him around my home town I can press the need for a Minister for men, I can show him the site for a new hospital, and I can introduce him to the people of Edlington so that he can discuss their new leisure centre. Will the Prime Minister accept my invitation? (901008)

Thanks to my hon. Friend’s fantastic campaigning on behalf of his constituents, City of Doncaster Council has received more than £80 million in levelling-up funding to support its regeneration projects and most recently Doncaster has been awarded £20 million in our long-term plan for towns over the next 10 years, which I know he is working very hard to make sure is prioritised for local people. I will be delighted to discuss both projects and his other ideas when I come and visit him as soon as my diary allows.

Q2. Some 71% of requests for funding from the community ownership fund aimed at saving libraries, pubs and village halls have been rejected since 2021. It pits communities against each other and does nothing to address the underlying causes that have led to the loss of these much-loved assets. When will the Government offer more than a simple sticking-plaster for our towns, high streets and communities? (900999)

I set up the community ownership fund when I was Chancellor and it is doing fantastic work funding hundreds of projects across the country, including, I believe, one in the hon. Lady’s constituency—the back on the map scheme. It is there to support local communities, take over assets—whether pubs, village halls or other community assets—and is doing a fantastic job. It is right that there is a competitive process because we want to make sure the money is deployed in the areas where it can make the most difference.

Q14. Over-crowding on Chiltern Railways has become a daily misery for commuters from stations including Haddenham and Thame Parkway and Princes Risborough in my constituency, the root cause of which is an ageing fleet constantly breaking down and shorter trains having to be run. There are proposals on the table for both short-term additional capacity and long-term fleet renewal. Will my right hon. Friend instruct the Department for Transport to fast-track those proposals so we can end overcrowding on Chiltern? (901011)

I agree with my hon. Friend that the performance on Chiltern has not been good enough in recent times. I know that Chiltern has recently begun engagement with the rolling-stock leasing market, which will help reduce overcrowding, but also, together with DfT, it is looking at providing additional capacity at peak times. I know that the rail Minister my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) will ensure that these plans continue to progress and keep my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Greg Smith) updated.

Q3.   What exactly is it about the prospect of deportation to Rwanda that make the Government think it will be such a deterrent to asylum seekers? Do they think that life in Rwanda is somehow less comfortable, secure and safe than here in the United Kingdom? What do the Government think is wrong with Rwanda that means asylum seekers will not want to live there? (901000)

It is not that there is anything wrong with it; it is just that it is not the United Kingdom. And I have to point out to the hon. Gentleman that deterrence works: we know that it works because our scheme with Albania has ensured a 90% reduction in arrivals from that country.

I know that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is committed to energy security and the development of renewables, as am I, and that is why Sizewell C started a development consent order this week. However, there are plenty of other developments happening on greenfield sites, where National Grid plans to use compulsory purchase orders to plough up farming fields used for food and tree production when brownfield sites are available that are connected to the network. National Grid is refusing to publish its study on Bradwell and why they deem it not suitable for the connection of offshore wind farms and interconnectors. Will he meet me and other East Anglian MPs to discuss this matter and use the powers of his office to get that study published?

As my right hon. Friend will know, planning applications for new infrastructure are managed independently, so I cannot comment on specific cases, but I agree with her that it is important to listen to the views of local communities, such as those she represents across Suffolk and East Anglia. I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero, my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie) was visiting her area recently to mark the commencement of the project at Sizewell C, and I can assure her that relevant Ministers will continue to pay close attention to her concerns.

Q4.   The Leader of the House last week correctly described the contaminated blood scandal as “on another level” compared with other scandals. Sir Brian Langstaff has announced today the publication of the final report of the infected blood inquiry, and he reminds us: “My principal recommendation remains that a compensation scheme should be set up with urgency. No-one should be in any doubt about the serious nature of the failings over more than six decades that have led to catastrophic loss of life and compounded suffering.”More than 100 parliamentarians wrote to the Prime Minister this week, so can he tell us when those affected will be paid compensation for their loss? (901001)

I am acutely aware of the strength of feeling on this issue and the suffering of all those impacted by this dreadful scandal. I gave evidence to the inquiry last year, and as I said then, I recognise the suffering that thousands have experienced over decades. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Minister for the Cabinet Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) updated Parliament on this matter towards the end of last year. The hon. Gentleman will know that it is a highly complex issue. Interim payments have been made in some cases, and we are absolutely committed to responding to the final report as quickly as possible following its publication.

Last week, Conservative-controlled Bromley Council’s children’s services were rated outstanding by Ofsted in all four areas of inspection. That is only the third time that has happened under the current framework. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating the officers and members of Bromley Council and perhaps even visit Bromley and see our new cost-saving civic centre?

It is perhaps not quite on my way to Doncaster, but I will bear it in mind. I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to Bromley Council and all the officers involved in providing an incredibly important service in their local community and looking after some of the most vulnerable children in our society. They all deserve our thanks and praise for their brilliant efforts.

Q5. HS2 promised to transform intercity travel and my seat, where Old Oak Common will one day be. However, after Leeds and Manchester were ditched, the London end of HS2 is now in doubt. Can the Prime Minister commit today to ensuring that it at least reaches Euston, or is he intent on stopping all transport forms, except perhaps private jets? (901002)

The Leader of the Opposition may have something to say about forms of transportation, and perhaps about HS2 as well—I still have not heard his position on the subject. Old Oak Common is destined to be one of the foremost stations in the country because of the extra connectivity it will have across London and as the initial terminus for HS2 trains. As we said at the announcement, we are working with the private sector, as we have in other developments in London, to raise private money, save the taxpayer money and deliver the connection to Euston as planned.

I have just got back from the inaugural women’s health summit. During the summer, it was announced that specialist maternal mental health services will be available to women in every part of England by March. That is particularly pertinent for me, after one of my constituents, Jessica Cronshaw, passed away while pregnant with her baby Elsie after suffering severe pregnancy sickness, hyperemesis gravidarum. I thank the Government for following through with this important reform and pushing to keep going with the spirit of this reform so that our NHS is fit for women in the future.

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this matter. I know that the whole House will want to convey its sympathies to Jessica’s family. I am pleased that the reforms we are making will make a difference to women across the country in the future. We are committed to our women’s health strategy, and I am grateful for her support and, again, her advice and ideas so that we can ensure that it delivers the care that we want it to across the country.

Q6.   Yesterday, the Conservative candidate for the Wellingborough by-election revealed that the Conservative party had offered her a deal to be the candidate if the previous Member—her partner—stood down without a fuss. Just last week, the Prime Minister said that “Candidate selection is done locally”in his party, so would he like to deny that this secret deal was offered? (901003)

Does my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister agree that a remote rural hotel is the wrong place to house asylum seekers or refugees from their point of view? Will he therefore join me in thanking the Home Secretary for announcing yesterday that the Wiltshire Hotel outside Royal Wootton Bassett is to be returned to its proper purpose in April?

I thank my hon. Friend for the question. He is absolutely right: the use of hotels is unfair on local communities and costs taxpayers £8 million a day. Our plans to reduce the number of people coming have meant that we can close the first 50 hotels across the country, with more to follow. I thank the Home Secretary and his team for their efforts. But, fundamentally, the only way to resolve this once and for all is to implement our Rwanda scheme so that we can have a working deterrent. That is how we will stop the boats.

Q8. I have been contacted by desperate constituents who have rung every single pharmacy within a 50-mile radius of Warrington and still have not been able to access their medication for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. This has been going on for months, and it is not just a Warrington issue: pharmacists are calling it the worst shortage ever, with only 11% of people able to access their full dose this month. ADHD UK has called the Government’s response “pathetic”. It is right, isn’t it? (901005)

I am sorry to hear about the situation in the hon. Lady’s constituency. The Health Secretary heard what she said and is in touch with the relevant drug bodies to ensure that we can have the provision of ADHD medicine for all those who need it.

For about a decade, over 200 of my constituents in the Mill complex in Ipswich have been caught in the cruellest form of limbo. The building has deep structural problems and cladding problems. A few years ago, they got about £15 million in an out-of-court settlement to make a contribution towards cladding costs, but the freeholder, the National Asset Management Agency—an Irish financial entity set up after the Irish banking crisis—ran away with that money, putting my constituents back to square one with little to no hope. Will the Prime Minister talk to the Irish Taoiseach to raise this immoral case and meet me to discuss a way forward for my constituents, who I meet every week?

I am sorry to hear about my hon. Friend’s case. I will ensure that the Government look into the details and get back to him in the shortest order about how we can support him and his constituents.

First Minister of Scotland

I have repeatedly expressed my commitment to joint working with the First Minister of Scotland to deliver for the people across the country.

I am grateful for that answer. Although much attention has rightly been paid to the Post Office-Horizon scandal, there is another shocking example of Government and private sector collusion that began under the last Labour Administration and has continued under the Tories. Almost 200,000 mortgage prisoners who borrowed with high street lenders such as Northern Rock have become trapped after the portfolio was sold off to foreign entities including Topaz Finance and Heliodor, who have been creaming off extortionate standard variable rates since 2008, leaving even those who kept up with payments in danger of having their homes repossessed. Some 200,000 aspirant homeowners have had their dream taken away from them. Will the Prime Minister, instead of playing catch-up as he is with the Post Office scandal, meet me and campaigners to discuss what more can be done for mortgage prisoners?

I am familiar with the situation for mortgage prisoners, and it was something that I worked on as Chancellor. The Treasury and the current Chancellor have been engaging with campaign groups and others to find ways to resolve it. It is not an easy situation to fix overnight, but things are being looked at as we speak.

Yesterday, the Scotch Whisky Association published a report on the economic impact of the sector not just in Scotland but across the whole UK. Some highlights included that in 2022, it generated £7.1 billion in gross value added, £2.1 billion was invested in capital projects between 2018 and 2022, and 41,000 jobs are supported by the sector in Scotland, including one in nine in my Moray constituency. Does the Prime Minister agree that supporting the Scotch whisky industry in the forthcoming spring Budget and beyond is a correct priority for this Government?

My hon. Friend is a superb ambassador for Moray and Scotch whisky. He is right that it is a hugely successful export industry that supports tens of thousands of skilled jobs across Scotland. I will not tread on the Chancellor’s toes about future Budgets, but I am proud of this Government’s track record of supporting the industry, having removed US tariffs on Scotch whisky, reduced tariffs in deals with countries like Morocco and Argentina and supported the sector’s interests in our free trade agreements with Australia and New Zealand and, most recently, the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership.

Engagements

Q12. The Prime Minister has been very keen to take credit for falling inflation in previous months. Will he now take responsibility for today’s rise? (901009)

Inflation was over 11% when I got this job. Inflation today is 4%, in common with the US, France and Germany. All countries have seen a mild tick-up in December, but the crucial thing is that inflation has been more than halved and delivered ahead of schedule. That is an enormous benefit to families up and down the country—a benefit that would be reversed by the Labour party’s plan to saddle them with £28 billion of tax rises.

I am a keen parkrunner in Walsall, but I am also part of the core team of volunteers that recently brought parkrun to Tamworth. In the 20th anniversary year of parkrun, will the Prime Minister join me in encouraging other towns that do not yet have a parkrun to get one?

It is great to hear that my hon. Friend is an avid parkrunner. I thank him for volunteering so that the people of Tamworth can enjoy one, too. I completely agree with him—when I had more time, I was a regular at the Northallerton parkrun, and the junior parkrun, which I recommend to those with children. It is a fantastic and accessible way to get people moving. I join him in encouraging everyone to get involved in his local area and beyond.

Q13.   At the last general election, residents in west Hertfordshire were promised a new hospital, but we are still waiting for the green light and are having to put up with broken lifts and overly crowded treatment wards. In other parts of the country, entire hospital buildings have had to be closed down, like the one in Stepping Hill in Stockport, because they are structurally unsafe. From broken promises on new hospitals to the backlog of repairs, people are sick and tired of waiting. Will the Prime Minister tell me, by the time of the next general election, how many broken hospitals will be fixed, and will my residents be able to point to a single spade in the ground? (901010)

We are investing record sums to deliver not just 40 new hospitals across the country but 90 different hospital upgrades. The hon. Lady will be familiar with the plans at West Hertfordshire trust to develop a new emergency and specialty care facility at Watford General, including women’s and children’s services. It will make an enormous difference to residents in the area.

A recent BBC news article raised fears that Blyth could become a ghost town, as we see our shopping centre close, to be replaced by a new higher education facility. Residents are right to be concerned. I have personally seen decades of Labour neglect and decline in our town. This Conservative Government have invested hundreds of millions of pounds to level up my constituency, with spades in the ground as I speak. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that the rebirth of our towns will continue as a key focus of this Conservative Government?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right and I commend him for being such a strong advocate for Blyth. Nearly half the recent towns fund has been distributed to northern regions in England to level up constituencies like his. That is the difference. As he said, after years, if not decades, of neglect under the Labour party, it is this Government who are levelling up across our country.

Q15.   In June 2022, to some fanfare, the Government announced the approval of £41 million for a package of works for the restoration of the Tyne Bridge, which is the route of the A167, the old A1, and connects Gateshead with Newcastle city centre. It is instantly recognisable around the world as an emblem of Tyneside. However, the funding is still awaiting sign-off within the Department for Transport and work cannot progress. Given the scale and complexity of the work required, and the significant additional cost implications if funding does not come forward, can we please have the money to get on with the work so that the bridge will be ready for its centenary celebrations in 2028? (901012)

I will ensure that the relevant Minister gets back to the hon. Gentleman with an update on the project. I am pleased that we are not just investing in that project in his area. Following on from the previous question, I know his area has received levelling-up funding worth £20 million to help transform the visitor economy in Gateshead—yet another example of the Government investing to level up across the north and across the country.