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Volume 744: debated on Wednesday 24 January 2024

I know that Members across the House will want to join me in offering our best wishes to His Majesty the King and Her Royal Highness the Princess of Wales.

This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, this afternoon I shall be meeting the extraordinary 100-year-old holocaust survivor Lily Ebert. Lily promised that, if she survived Auschwitz, she would tell the world the truth of what happened. Never has such a promise been so profoundly fulfilled. As we prepare to mark Holocaust Memorial Day on Saturday, I am sure the whole House will join me in reaffirming our promise to Lily that we will never forget the holocaust and we will carry forward her life’s work for generations to come.

Can I echo the Prime Minister’s comments on International Holocaust Memorial Day?

My constituents, like all of our constituents, rely on the Royal Mail to deliver important items of mail and packages, and for people to run their businesses, so they will be very alarmed to learn of the proposal from Ofcom that Royal Mail might be allowed to cut the number of days that it will provide that service. Will the Prime Minister give a commitment to me here today that, on his watch, there will be no reduction in the postal services provided by the Royal Mail in Scotland or anywhere else?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of the Royal Mail’s universal service obligation. As the hon. Member will have heard this morning from the Under-Secretary of State for Business and Trade, my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), we remain absolutely committed to ensuring that it remains as it is.

Q3. The Lib Dem-run council in Eastleigh has just received a report from its external auditors warning of the possibility of fraud and ignoring whistleblowers who tried to warn it. Does the Prime Minister agree that Lib Dem leaders who shun accountability, shun transparency and simply say, “Not me, guv,” should start showing some remorse and responsibility, or make way for those who will? (901170)

My hon. Friend raises an important matter to the people of Eastleigh, which I was pleased to discuss with him on my recent visit to his area, and I know that the contents of the report are deeply concerning. It is disappointing to see this Lib Dem-run council rack up debt with absolutely no plan for how to fund it. The council has been issued with a best value notice, and I know that he is talking to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, which will be monitoring this situation closely.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Can I join the Prime Minster in his comments about His Majesty the King and Her Royal Highness the Princess of Wales, and in his comments about Holocaust Memorial Day? “Never again” must be said more defiantly this year, as it is said every year.

Last week, we lost Sir Tony Lloyd, a true public servant who touched the lives of many people across the House and across the country. I am glad that his family were here yesterday to hear the many tributes to and memories of Tony. He will be greatly missed.

The Prime Minister has had quite a week—from endlessly fighting with his own MPs to collapsing in laughter when he was asked by a member of the public about NHS waiting lists—so I was glad to hear that he managed to take some time off—[Interruption.]

Order. I wanted to hear the Prime Minister, and I am certainly going to hear the Leader of the Opposition. Those on the Conservative Benches who do not want to hear him can certainly leave. That is how it is going to be, so get in order. Some of you will be wanting to catch my eye again, and that is not a good way to do it.

I love this quaint tradition where the more they slag him off behind his back, the louder they cheer him here.

I was glad to see that the Prime Minister managed to get some time off yesterday afternoon to kick back, relax and accidentally record a candid video for Nigel Farage. The only thing missing from that punishing schedule is any sort of governing or leadership. So was he surprised to see one of his own MPs say,

“He does not get what Britain needs. And he is not listening to what…people want.”?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about what Britain needs, what Britain wants and what Britain values—and that from the man who takes the knee, who wanted to abolish the monarchy, and who still does not know what a woman is. Just this week, one of his Front Benchers said that they backed teaching divisive white privilege in our schools. Looking at his record, it is crystal clear which one of us does not get Britain’s values.

The Prime Minister spouts so much nonsense, no wonder they are giving up on him. Even now, as his Government crumble around him and his own MPs point out that he is out of touch and has no plan for growth, crime or building houses, the Prime Minister is sticking to his one-man Pollyanna show—everything is fine; people should be grateful for him! The trouble is that no one is buying it. Does he actually understand why his own MPs say that he does not understand Britain, and that he is an “obstacle to recovery”?

Again, the right hon. and learned Gentleman calls it nonsense, but these are his positions. He does not want to talk about it, but these are the facts. He chose to represent a now-proscribed terrorist group. He chose to campaign against the deportation of foreign national offenders, just like he chose to serve the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn). That is his record, those are his values, and that is exactly how he should be judged.

In 2008, I was the Director of Public Prosecutions, putting terrorists and murderers in jail. The Prime Minister was making millions betting on the misery of working people during the financial crisis. We have seen this story time and again with this lot: party first, country second. Safely ensconced in Westminster, they get down to the real business of fighting each other to death. The country is forced to endure their division and chaos—the longest episode of “EastEnders” ever put to film.

Meanwhile, this week we discover that Britain is going to be the only major economy that no longer makes its own steel, that the Government are handing out £500 million to make 3,000 steelworkers redundant, and that the parents of thousands are being told that his free childcare promise is nothing but a mirage. Is he not embarrassed that the Tory party is yet again entirely focused on itself?

Yet more sniping from the sidelines, Mr Speaker—you can see exactly why Hizb ut-Tahrir hired him in the first place. The right hon. and learned Gentleman wants to talk about these things, but even members of his own party are now realising that he simply does not have a plan for this country. The hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas) said that it is difficult to “identify the purpose” of his leadership, and long-time celebrity backer Steve Coogan recently said that

“he licks his finger, sticks it up in the air, sees which way the wind is blowing”.

Even the Labour party knows that he is not a leader, he is a human weathervane.

It is not the sidelines but from behind him that the fire is coming. The Prime Minister can try to blame the Labour party all he wants, but the difference is that I have changed my party; he is bullied by his party. Has he found time in his busy schedule to work out why thousands of parents are being told by their nurseries that they will not get the free childcare that he promised them?

Let us see what the Labour party is offering the country. We all know that he does not have many ideas for our country—[Interruption.]

We do know that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is committed to his 2030 decarbonisation promise, which the Opposition say will cost £28 billion. I was reading about it this week. He says that he has changed the party, but one of his team called that promise “an albatross” hanging around their neck—that might have been the shadow Chancellor. But he said they are doubling down on it, and all this is ahead of a crunch meeting this week, we are told, for the Opposition to work out how they will pay for that. I can save them some time, because we all know the answer: higher taxes for the British people.

There is only one party that crashed the economy, and they are sitting right there. [Interruption.]

Order. Mr Holmes, you have had your question already. Obviously you do not want to remain for the rest of questions.

The Prime Minister is Mr 25 Tax Rises, and he has nothing to say on childcare. Millions of families will have been listening for an answer, and they got absolutely nothing. He announced the scheme a year ago, claiming that it would get 60,000 parents back into work. Only on Monday this week did he notice that there were, in his words, “some practical issues” with that. Eight weeks before its launch, parents cannot budget, plan for work or make arrangements with their employers. The Prime Minister’s response is to say, “It’s all fine. It’s the fault of the Labour party.” Is this merely a practical issue, or is it yet another example of him simply not understanding how life works for other people?

We are delivering the biggest ever expansion of childcare in this country’s history. While millions of parents will benefit from that, it is right that the right hon. and learned Gentleman should come clean with them about the cost that his plans will impose on all of them. He goes on and on about the green promise. He says he wants to keep it, but he does not have a plan to pay for it. What he is really saying is that he will scrap the borrowing associated with it, but he wants to keep the £28 billion of spending. For all those working families who are benefiting from our free childcare, why does he not come clean with them now and be clear that his plans mean it is back to square one and higher taxes for British people?

Making steelworkers redundant and failing to provide childcare is not a plan, Prime Minister; it is a farce. He may soon discover that with childcare there is an IT problem, nurseries do not have the spaces, they have not got the staff, there is a black hole in their budgets and there are eight weeks to go. That is not a plan. [Interruption.] Government Members can laugh all they like, but families are making plans now. Families are struggling with the cost of living crisis, trying to work out the household budget, balancing spiralling mortgages, prices and eye-watering bills, and then at the last minute they are thrown into chaos because their nursery says that it cannot deliver the free childcare that he promised. He calls that a practical issue, but I prefer the honesty of whichever of his colleagues briefed The Times that it was, and I quote, a complete “shit show”. [Interruption.] Who was it who briefed that to The Times? Hands up! Will the Prime Minister finally realise—

Order. I will decide how long the question goes on for. For those who wish not to hear it, I have told you the answer, and I will help you on the way.

When will the Prime Minister finally realise that the biggest practical issue facing Britain is the constant farcical incompetence of the Government he leads?

Another week with absolutely no ideas for the country and absolutely no plan. The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about the cost of living and the economy, but he never actually brings it up, and we all know why: because things are improving and we are making progress. Wages are now rising, debt is on track to be reduced and inflation has more than halved from 11% to 4%. He knows that our plan is working and that his £28 billion tax grab will take Britain back to square one. That is the choice: it is back to square one and higher taxes with him, or a plan that is delivering a brighter future with the Conservatives.

Q4. Changing gear, Mr Speaker. Too many oligarchs and kleptocrats are living off ill-gotten gains that are beyond the reach of domestic courts here or in countries such as America. Ever since the 2016 London anti-corruption summit, moves to create an international anti-corruption court have been gathering momentum to plug the gap. It already has support from countries such as Canada, Holland and Nigeria, and it would fund itself from the fines it charged. Will the Government take the lead in getting it under way, ending impunity for those crooks once and for all? (901171)

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his work on this issue. As I am sure he will appreciate, establishing a new bespoke institution is a significant endeavour, but I know that he has discussed it with the Foreign Secretary, who will look at the proposals in more detail. In the meantime, as he knows, our Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Act 2023 has a raft of new measures to crack down on dirty money, and we will shortly publish our second anti-corruption strategy. We will set out ambitious plans for combating corruption both here at home and internationally.

Last night, as Tory MPs were once again fighting among themselves, the public were at home watching John Irvine of ITV News report on footage from Gaza of an unarmed Palestinian man walking under a white flag being shot and killed by the Israel Defence Forces. Such an act constitutes a war crime, does it not?

We have been absolutely consistent that international humanitarian law should be respected and civilians should be protected. I have made that point expressly to Prime Minister Netanyahu, and the Foreign Secretary is in the region this week making exactly the same point.

I do not think it is unreasonable to expect the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom to rise to that Dispatch Box and tell the people of these isles and elsewhere that shooting an unarmed man walking under a white flag is a war crime. In recent weeks, the House has acted with urgency and intent following an ITV drama. The question is, will the House now show the same urgency and intent following this ITV News report and finally back a ceasefire in Gaza?

No one wants to see this conflict go on for a moment longer than necessary. We do want to see an immediate and sustained humanitarian pause to get more aid in and, crucially, the hostages out, helping to create the conditions for a sustainable ceasefire. I have set out the conditions for that in the House. The Foreign Secretary is in the region today, and we will continue to press all our allies and partners to make sure that we can bring about that outcome.

Q10. Access to NHS dentistry is a key issue in Ipswich and Suffolk. Locally, we have done something about it, and the University of Suffolk and the local NHS deserve great credit for establishing a new dental centre that will carry out 18,000 hours a year of NHS dental appointments. However, a source of great frustration for me and a number of constituents is that many people who train to be a dentist at university for five years and have their training heavily subsidised can immediately go private or go abroad without giving anything back to the NHS. That seems wrong to me. Will the Prime Minister support the view of many of my constituents that those dentists should work in the NHS for, say, five years and give something back? That would make a huge contribution to addressing the problem. (901177)

My hon. Friend is a long-standing campaigner for better dental access in his constituency. I congratulate him on the new dental centre that is opening, which I know he worked hard to deliver. I agree that it is right and fair that we seek better value for the significant investment that the taxpayer makes in the education and training of the dental workforce. That is why, as our workforce plan outlined, we are exploring whether a tie-in would ensure that dentists spend a better proportion of their time in the NHS. We will launch a consultation on that policy later this year.

In the week of the anniversary of Bloody Sunday, people in Derry are watching unarmed Palestinians being gunned down by Israeli soldiers. Over 25,000 people have now been slaughtered in Gaza. The Prime Minister has said—he has said it again today—that he wants to see a sustained ceasefire. My question is a very simple one: the next time there is a vote at the UN for a ceasefire, will his representative vote for it?

Of course we will engage with all UN resolutions on their merits. I have been clear that no one wants to see this conflict go on for a moment longer than is necessary. We want to see an immediate pause so that we can get aid in and hostages out, because the situation is desperate for many people there, but a sustainable, permanent ceasefire needs to fulfil a set of conditions, which include Hamas releasing all the hostages, Hamas no longer being in charge of Gaza with the threat of rocket attacks into Israel, and an agreement in place for the Palestinian Authority to return to Gaza to provide governance and services. The Foreign Secretary is in the region. Those are the principles on which we are working, and I believe that those are shared by all our major allies.

Q11. In 1859, Brunel opened his rail bridge over the River Tamar. In 2022, I met Network Rail and others to celebrate the agreement to build a simple footbridge over the railway line in Lostwithiel. That bridge still does not exist and I have no completion date. Can my right hon. Friend help? (901178)

My hon. Friend is a long-standing campaigner for the footbridge at Lostwithiel station. I recognise her concerns and the pressing need for the construction of the footbridge. I am told that Network Rail is currently working on a funding solution, so that it can take forward this important project in the next financial year. The Rail Minister will keep my hon. Friend updated on progress.

Q2. A report released yesterday by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that one in four people in the north-east are living in poverty; the child poverty rate for every local authority in the region is higher than the UK average. Too many of our people are being hard hit. The Prime Minister says that his plan is beginning to work. Where does rising child poverty fit in his plan? (901169)

In fact, the plan is working because poverty is falling in our country. There are 1.7 million fewer people in poverty than in 2010, including hundreds of thousands of children. Of course there is more to do—there is always more to do—to make sure children do not grow up in poverty, but that absolutely would not be helped by Labour’s £28 billion tax grab on their parents, which would take money out of their family’s bank account.

Q13. Bracknell Forest is a place of aspiration, opportunity and enterprise. Business occupancy rates and employment figures are, thankfully, high. Footfall at the Lexicon shopping centre is up and wages are up, but the cost of living continues to bite across the UK. What more can be done to put more money in people’s pockets? (901180)

It is great to see, thanks to my hon. Friend, that Bracknell Forest is thriving, with people in work up and footfall in the town centre up and, as he knows, almost 100% of his schools are now good or outstanding. But he is right that we must do more to relieve the burden on working people, which is why we cut taxes for tens of millions of people in work earlier this year, worth £450 on average. We have to stick to the plan for lower taxes, a strong economy and a brighter future for the people of Bracknell Forest, and absolutely not risk going back to square one with the Labour party.

Q5. If everyone had the same good health as the least deprived 10% of the population, in England there would have been 1 million fewer deaths between 2012 and 2019, and 28,000 fewer deaths in the first year of covid. Those inequalities are not inevitable. Does the Prime Minister think that cuts in social security to 85,000 low-income households, including people in low-paid work in my constituency, will help to address those health inequalities? (901172)

I can assure the hon. Lady that we are committed to caring for society’s most vulnerable and that is why almost 20 million families will see their benefit payments increase this April. That will bring our total support over these few years to around £3,700 per UK household. The Department for Work and Pensions is looking very closely at how it can target its services precisely on the most vulnerable customers. I know the hon. Lady spoke to the DWP permanent secretary at length about that when he appeared before the Work and Pensions Committee earlier this month. I can assure her that he will be writing to the Committee on exactly that subject shortly.

Q14. The Post Office scandal has affected so many people, including my constituent Seema Misra, a sub-postmaster from West Byfleet who has an outstanding record of service to her community, and who was wrongfully convicted in 2010 of stealing £75,000 and sentenced to prison on her first son’s birthday while pregnant with her second son. Does the Prime Minister agree with me, and more importantly with Seema Misra herself, who is in the Gallery today with her husband Davinder, that she is due a full apology from the Post Office, a full apology from Fujitsu, and proper compensation as a matter of urgency? (901181)

I know that my hon. Friend has been a great support to his constituents over all these years, and has fought relentlessly for the truth to come out. As I have said, the Horizon scandal is one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in our nation’s history, and, as I said a few weeks ago, we will introduce primary legislation within weeks to ensure that all convictions that were based on erroneous Horizon evidence are quashed. That will clear people’s names, deliver justice and ensure swifter access to compensation. Innocent people such as my hon. Friend’s constituents have waited far too long, and I am determined that they receive compensation as swiftly as possible. We have a clear moral duty to right these wrongs, and that is exactly what we will do.

Q6. In 2021, 3,527 food parcels were given out by Bestwood & Bulwell Foodbank. Last year that number exploded to 6,500, with nearly half of those parcels going to children. The food bank is now having to buy food to supplement donations, which can only be sustained for a short period. Rather than pretending that things are getting better, will the Prime Minister apologise for the daily chaos in the Government which is leaving widespread destitution unaddressed? (901173)

I do not want to see anyone reliant on food banks, but while they are in place I have nothing but praise and thanks for the people who run them. However, it is wrong to say we are not making progress. When I came into this job, inflation was running at 11%, which has had the single biggest impact on families’ cost of living. Now, thanks to the efforts of this Government—most of them opposed by the hon. Gentleman’s party—inflation has been more than halved, at 4%, and we are combining that with significant tax cuts to put more money into people’s bank accounts at the end of every month. That is the right way to go about supporting people, combined with our extensive cost of living support for the most vulnerable. All the statistics show that that support has helped and has made a difference, and that is what you get with responsible management of the British economy.

Q15. In November I held an Adjournment debate on the south Fylde line and the need for a passing loop to double its hourly service and increase resilience against the delays and cancellations which again caused misery for travellers over Christmas. The assurances that I received from the Rail Minister built on the positivity generated by the reallocation of HS2 funds. Since then progress has been desperately slow, and my efforts to advance this critical piece of infrastructure for the people of Fylde have been frustrated. Will the Prime Minister meet me to discuss how the Government can help to get the south Fylde line back on track? (901182)

My hon. Friend is correct: local transport projects are and must be prioritised, and every region of our country will have more transport investment as a result of the decision that we made on HS2. Work is under way to consider potential upgrades to the west coast main line, including improvements at Preston station which may support additional local services from south Fylde. I know that the Rail Minister is considering these options carefully as we speak, and will update my hon. Friend in due course.

Q7. Thames Water is a shambles. During the recent flooding in Oxfordshire, it dumped sewage from 270 sites along the Thames in one week. Waste was backing up into people’s homes because of drains that it had not unblocked, and it could not even refill its own reservoir because the rivers were too dirty. Rather than offering a rebate for this shoddy service, Thames Water is intending to put bills up for everyone by 60%. Will the Prime Minister explain to my constituents why they are being asked to foot the bill for Thames Water’s gross incompetence? (901174)

We have been clear that the volume of sewage discharge by water companies is unacceptable, and that is why we have launched the most ambitious storm overflow discharge reduction plan. We have now achieved the monitoring of nearly every single storm overflow in England—under this and previous Governments—and introduced unlimited penalties on water companies. Where there is evidence of poor performance, the Environment Agency will not hesitate to pursue the water companies concerned, just as it did, I believe, a couple of years ago in the hon. Lady’s constituency, when it specifically fined Thames Water £4 million following a serious incident.

Yesterday the right hon. Member for Knowsley (Sir George Howarth) and I published our report on T1DE—type 1 diabetes and disordered eating, a condition estimated to affect over a quarter of type 1 diabetics in the UK. It is life-shortening, life-threatening and can lead to death. I am pleased to say that Hampshire integrated care board has already responded positively to the report. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the Government not only look seriously at the recommendations that we have put forward but act on those recommendations, which would improve lives, save lives, and save money for the NHS?

Can I start by thanking my right hon. Friend, and indeed the right hon. Member for Knowsley (Sir George Howarth), for their important work on this issue? I know that both speak from personal experience. As my right hon. Friend says, it is important that people get the treatment they need. The Health Secretary will of course consider the report, and the NHS has already been piloting services to support those with this condition, as she will be aware. I understand that the NHS is now also expanding pilot sites to every region of the country so that even more people can benefit from the appropriate integrated care.

Q8. We entered 2024 with starvation and famine as acute as ever across the globe, much of it caused by the climate crisis, yet at present the world’s worst hunger crisis is in Gaza, created by Israel’s ongoing siege. The integrated food security phase classification has found that of the 600,000 people facing starvation globally, 95% are in Gaza. Starvation used as a weapon of war is a war crime. The Israeli Government have the power to end this starvation crisis by ending the siege of Gaza and opening all crossings—do they not, Prime Minister? (901175)

I have been absolutely clear that we are incredibly concerned about the devastating impact of the situation in Gaza on citizens. That is why we have tripled our humanitarian aid for this financial year to the region and, as I said in the statement yesterday, we are working with partners such as Jordan and the United States to open up new aid corridors so that we can increase the supply of aid getting to those who desperately need it.

This morning the press reported the tragic case of a 14-year-old girl who took her own life following horrific social media bullying, including on TikTok and Snapchat. Since 2010, across the English-speaking world, there has been a marked increase in poor teen mental health, teen suicide attempts and children addicted to pornography. The United Kingdom has a strong tradition of legislating to protect children from serious threats to their safety and welfare, so does my right hon. Friend agree that it is time to consider banning social media and perhaps even smartphones for under-16s?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the impact of what happens online on our children, which is why our Online Safety Act 2023 tackles criminal activity online and protects children from harmful or inappropriate content, such as bullying or the promotion of self-harm, and from accessing pornography, and also from exposure to eating disorders. Ofcom is now rightly developing and consulting on the guidance and the codes of practice for how those platforms will meet their duties, and if they do not clean up their act, Ofcom will be able to impose fines of up to 10% of global turnover on the social media firms.

Q9. Recently released documents reveal that the Foreign Office had serious concerns about Israel’s compliance with international humanitarian law and its ongoing assault on Gaza. This assessment was hidden from Parliament while the Prime Minister boldly stated his confidence in Israel’s respect for international law. Since then, the scale of Israel’s war crimes in Gaza has been revealed to the world, thanks to South Africa’s case at the International Court of Justice. Therefore, is it not now time for the Prime Minister to admit that he has the blood of thousands of innocent people on his hands, and time for him to commit to demanding an immediate ceasefire and an ending of the UK’s arms trade with Israel? (901176)

Mr Speaker, may I start by thanking you for commissioning the Holocaust Educational Trust’s exhibition in Portcullis House, and for your unwavering personal commitment to holocaust remembrance? As we approach Holocaust Memorial Day, will the Prime Minister join me in commending the Holocaust Educational Trust for its important work, particularly its work with holocaust survivors who, despite living through the darkest moment in human history, continue to share their testimony in the hope of ensuring “Never again.” In the face of the appalling rise in antisemitism that we see on the streets of Britain, will my right hon. Friend join me in encouraging all Members to sign the book of commitment and stand up against antisemitism?

I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the Holocaust Educational Trust for it brilliant work, and I thank her for all her work on this issue. I will be signing the book of commitment this afternoon, during my meeting with Lily Ebert, and I encourage Members on both sides of the House to do the same and to reaffirm our shared determination to ensure that the holocaust is never forgotten, and to defeat the resurgence of antisemitism and all forms of hatred in our country.

Q12. I represent a proud steel community in Rotherham that stands with the steelworkers in Port Talbot at this very worrying time. My constituents do not want to see their taxpayers’ money used to make British workers redundant, our primary steelmaking capacity decimated and our national security compromised, so will the Prime Minister change his destructive course, starting by looking at the credible multi-union plan to safeguard our steel industry’s long-term future? (901179)

I know that this is an anxious time for steelworkers in south Wales, but we are committed to working with the steel sector to secure a positive and sustainable future. The hon. Lady will know that, during the pandemic, we provided support to Celsa to safeguard jobs and ensure the sustainability of its steel plant in south Wales. The proposed complete closure of the plant would have seen the loss of 8,000 direct jobs in south Wales, and thousands more across the supply chain. Because of the Government’s investment, support and partnership with Tata, we have safeguarded 5,000 direct jobs and thousands more in the supply chain, and we have ensured the long-term sustainability of the steel plant so that it has a brighter future. Obviously this is difficult, but it is entirely churlish of the hon. Lady not to recognise one of the largest support packages that any Government have provided to any company, safeguarding thousands of jobs in the process.