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Commons Chamber

Volume 744: debated on Wednesday 31 January 2024

House of Commons

Wednesday 31 January 2024

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Cost of Living

The UK Government fully recognise the challenges posed by cost of living pressures that have come about as a result of the covid pandemic and the invasion of Ukraine. That is why they are providing £104 billion over 2022 to 2025 to support households and individuals across the UK—an average of £3,700 per household.

On Monday evening, ITV News featured a Bevan Foundation study on pensioner poverty in Wales. With nearly a quarter of Wales’s population being over 65, more pensioners are experiencing poverty in Wales than anywhere else in the UK. The “make do and mend” generation, who experienced imposed rationing as children, are now self-denying, with one in 10 pensioners skipping meals and one in five going without heating at some point this winter. What do the UK Government intend to do about this dire situation?

The UK Government fully recognise the importance of supporting pensioners. That is why we have committed to the triple lock and made sure that, even through the difficult crises we have faced over the past few years, pensions have risen in line with inflation. On top of that, there has been an extra payment of £300 for pensioners, and the UK Government’s policy of bringing down inflation is going to help everyone in Wales and the UK, including all pensioners. I hope the hon. Lady will agree that that is a much better focus than, for example, bringing in road user charging, which is going to hit pensioners who want to drive cars in Wales.

Citizens Advice Cymru has stated that during 2023, it referred over 21,000 people to food banks in Wales, almost double the number for 2021. What does that say about the impact of the Government’s policies on ordinary people in Wales?

As I have just outlined, the UK Government are absolutely focused on supporting those with the least in Wales and across the United Kingdom. That is why the UK Government’s policy of bringing down inflation to around half has helped everyone, and it is why the UK Government have made sure that benefits have risen in line with inflation. Households where there are benefits have received a £900 payment, and households where there is disability have received a £150 payment. I do not for one moment doubt the fact that many people are facing serious difficulties at the moment, but this Government are committed to helping them. When I visit food banks, I am told that all sorts of people have to go and visit food banks on a temporary basis—they should not be used to score cheap political points.

Welsh Labour’s reduction of business rates relief from 75% to 40% is already having an impact, with small businesses in Wrexham saying that they are going to fold. Despite the UK Government maintaining the rate at 75%, the Welsh Government are focusing more on wasting £140 million on a 20 mph scheme and increasing the number of Senedd politicians. Does the Secretary of State agree that the Welsh Labour Government should focus on what the people of Wales need, not what socialist Senedd politicians want to dictate?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is disgraceful that pubs in Wales are going to be paying, on average, thousands of pounds more in business rates because the Welsh Senedd Government have not passed on the money that has been given to them by the UK Government, and it is disgraceful that small tourism businesses are facing a tourism tax levy. If the Welsh Government want to focus on the priorities of small businesses and communities in Wales, they should indeed scrap the plan to spend £140 million on extra Senedd Members.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the best ways in whichthe Welsh Labour Government can help with the cost of living is by helping businesses create jobs and supporting employers, such as the iconic Lobster Pot on Anglesey, rather than increasing business rates punitively and increasing the number of Senedd Members by a staggering 60%?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. She is a huge champion of businesses in her constituency, and it is a shame that the Senedd does not look to her example of championing businesses instead of imposing all sorts of extra taxes, while—as she mentioned—wasting money on schemes such as creating extra Senedd Members and bringing in road charging on the M4. Even my own Labour council is suggesting bringing back Severn bridge tolls.

Some 8,000 homeowners in Wales face the Tory mortgage bombshell this month, with households projected to pay an extra £240 per month as their fixed-rate deals come to an end. Despite the Conservative party’s opposition, the Welsh Government have put in place measures to prevent repossessions, and a UK Labour Government would require banks to protect homeowners. What is the Secretary of State doing to help homeowners facing massive bills caused by the Conservative party’s economic mismanagement?

The UK Government have put in place a number of measures to support any mortgage holders facing difficulties at the moment, but the most important measure has been to bring down inflation. Inflation actually peaked at a higher rate in Europe than in the United Kingdom. Inflation is now down at 4%—much less than half of what it was previously—which will have a beneficial impact on mortgage interest rates over the longer term. I ask the hon. Lady whether, in all fairness, she thinks that her party’s plans to borrow £28 billion a year, which is going to increase inflation and have a very bad impact on mortgage interest rates, will be good or bad for homeowners?

Diolch yn fawr, Llefarydd. The Government’s own estimates warn that new Brexit border checks will increase the cost of fresh imports by £330 million and worsen food inflation. The Secretary of State used to dismiss warnings of Brexit border controls as scare stories. Will he now admit how wrong he was, and recognise that the best way to reduce food inflation, which sits at an eye-watering 8%, would be to rejoin the single market?

I make no apologies for rubbishing the scare stories that came out before Brexit took place. We were told that it was going to lead to the collapse of the economy, to the collapse of house prices, to the end of fresh fruit and veg being sold in shops, and even to no more Magnum ice creams. I think we were even going to run out of Viagra as well at one point. The reality is that none of those scare stories has happened, but it is a bit ironic that the right hon. Lady, the leader of the Plaid Cymru group, is demanding that we rejoin the European Union while at the same time wanting to take Wales out of one of the most successful financial unions—

Order. Secretary of State, I am this way, not that way, and you are getting a little carried away. There are a few more questions, and Liz Saville Roberts has another one for you.

That is a Brexit fantasy, and now we look at the wonder of the UK. Northern Ireland is set to receive over £3 billion and a fairer funding settlement from the Treasury, which I welcome. That includes millions of pounds to help balance budgets. Meanwhile in Wales, councillors face a budget black hole of £646 million, which is set to decimate our social services over the next three years. These cuts will be devastating for people left without resources during the cost of living crisis. As Wales’s man in the Cabinet, what has the Secretary of State done to demand equivalent fair funding for Wales?

First, I must point out to the right hon. Lady that, since leaving the European Union, our growth rate has been better than that of Germany, and our manufacturing has now exceeded that of France. As far as fair funding for Wales is concerned, we receive 20% more per head to spend on devolved services than is spent in England. One thing the right hon. Lady and I might agree on is that it is high time the Welsh Labour Government explained why we have longer waiting lists and lower educational standards, despite having more money to spend on devolved services.

Energy Mix

10. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the adequacy of the energy mix in Wales. (901231)

That was lively, Mr Speaker.

The UK has a secure and diverse energy system, and Wales continues to play a key role. The UK Government are going further to ensure our energy security by supporting our oil and gas industry, and investing to scale up our renewable energy production, such as floating offshore wind in the Celtic sea.

Many of my constituents make the long journey round to work at Hinkley, yet we have had this Government in power for 14 years and we have seen no new nuclear delivered in Wales, despite our proud history of generation, with its significant opportunities to lower energy bills, deliver high-quality jobs and reduce carbon emissions. Where on earth is their plan, and why are they not getting on with delivering it?

I very much welcome the hon. Gentleman mentioning nuclear. I seem to recall that, when his party was in power, Labour did next to nothing to advance the cause of nuclear energy in this country. It gives me ample opportunity to pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie), who has committed the Government to everything we have done on Wylfa so far. Progress is being made, in stark contrast to the record of his party.

We have had 14 years of successive Tory Governments, who have all had the chance to invest in the transition to net zero. Instead, they have chosen to backslide on climate commitments, and it is working people across my constituency of Cardiff North who are paying the price. With this Government intent on issuing new oil and gas licences, what does the Minister say to families in my constituency who are now paying treble for their energy bills?

I would point out that it is this Government who stepped in with £96 billion of support to mitigate the impact of those energy bills. I completely disagree with the hon. Lady’s assessment of our record on net zero, and I would point out that, when her party was in power, 7% of our energy supply came from renewable sources.

If the hon. Lady will let me finish the point, the figure is now just under 50%, and that is the record of this party’s 14 years in power.

My hon. Friend mentions the new industry of floating offshore wind, which has huge potential to create a large number of high-quality jobs in places such as Milford Haven and Port Talbot. The two ports both have bids in with the UK Government to the FLOWMIS port infrastructure scheme, which will be key to seeing this vision realised. When can the ports expect to hear back about those bids?

I thank my right hon. Friend, the Chair of the Select Committee, for that question. I am delighted that today the Crown Estate is hosting a bidders day to drive forward plans for innovative floating wind projects in the Celtic sea. The UK Government are supporting FLOW through our contracts for difference scheme, securing a long-term pipeline of projects in the Celtic sea. I would be happy to write to him with a further update on when more progress can be discussed.

On the issue of the energy mix, the Tata workers I met last week know that the virgin steel they make is vital to supporting our renewable energy aspirations, such as offshore wind in the Celtic sea, so the loss of 3,000 jobs is a kick in the teeth for our proud and skilled Welsh steelworkers. It will devastate local economies and the sovereign steelmaking capacity that would build the wind turbines we need, yet the Business Secretary told us at the weekend:

“It’s not about the job losses”.

Does the Secretary of State agree with her comments?

I am sorry that the hon. Lady has me replying to that question, not the Secretary of State.

It is important to recognise that the investment from this UK Government has saved thousands of jobs across the United Kingdom. Of course, the transition board is now working with the individuals affected in Port Talbot, which is the proper and right thing to do. I am glad that both the UK and Welsh Governments are working towards that; it is absolutely the right outcome. We need to think about these things in the wider context, which is our responsibility.

The Minister boasts about the transition board, but that only exists because of the Government’s failure to protect jobs and vital industries. Each year, Port Talbot provides enough virgin steel to deliver the UK’s 2030 wind targets by itself. Can she tell the House where that steel will come from when her Government’s intervention shuts the blast furnaces early? Will it come from India? If so, we will be surrendering our ability to create jobs, investment and cheaper bills here in Britain.

Mr Speaker, it will not surprise you to learn that I completely disagree with the hon. Lady’s assessment. I would point out that this Government have provided the transition board with £80 million. We have not seen any of the £20 million that the Welsh Labour Government have promised, but indications so far are that moving away from steelmaking would not have a direct impact on national security.[Official Report, 6 February 2024, Vol. 745, c. 4MC.] (Correction)

Speed Limit: Residential Roads

3. Whether he has had discussions with the Welsh Government on the introduction of a 20 mph speed limit on residential roads and pedestrian streets in Wales. (901220)

7. Whether he has had discussions with the Welsh Government on the introduction of a 20 mph speed limit on residential roads and pedestrian streets in Wales. (901227)

The Welsh Government’s policy on the blanket 20 mph speed limit is damaging communities and businesses across Wales. All of us support 20 mph limits if there is a safety reason outside schools, hospitals or old people’s homes, but the blanket 20 mph limit is, by the Welsh Government’s own figures, going to create a £4.5 billion hit to the Welsh economy.

In my constituency, bus services no longer serve Dyserth’s high street or the Tweedmill shopping outlet in Trefnant, which impacts on some of the most vulnerable people. Arriva has stated that the Welsh Government’s 20 mph policy is a key reason for that. Does the Secretary of State agree that the Welsh Government have failed in multiple ways to properly consider the impact of their policy and that they should repeal it in full?

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. Not only have the Welsh Government not considered the impact of this policy on the economy, businesses and commuters, but they have failed to consider the impact on users of public transport. We are seeing bus timetables across the whole of Wales being ripped up because of this daft policy. The Welsh Labour Government seem determined to apply a handbrake to the Welsh economy.

Blanket 20 mph zones do not command widespread public support and, as a consequence, are widely ignored and unenforceable. Furthermore, there is very little evidence that they improve road safety or air quality. The roll-out of the scheme in Wales has proved to be an utter farce. Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that the Labour party has not learned its lesson and would no doubt seek to impose this costly and disastrous policy in England were it to be elected?

My hon. Friend is correct. Not only have the Welsh Labour Government not considered this policy, but they have ignored the fact that 468,000 people have signed a petition calling on them to reconsider—the largest petition in the history of the Senedd. He is also correct to say that if a Labour Government were ever elected in this country—I certainly hope that will not happen—it is inevitable that they would pursue anti-motorist policies such as the 20 mph speed limit, a ban on new roads being built, and congestion charges and emission zones being set up all over the place.

The South Wales Argus of 28 December 2022 informs us that the Secretary of State for Wales outlined his “anger” that the 20 mph speed limit in Caerwent was not being enforced properly by the police. Is he still angry?

I began my response earlier by saying that all of us in this House support 20 mph speed limits where there is an issue of safety, and I could not be more clear about that. What I do not support is a blanket 20 mph limit. Alongside that blanket 20 mph limit on 30 mph roads, the Welsh Labour Government are using underhand methods to bring down the speed limits on perfectly safe dual carriageways from 70 mph to 50 mph. That is what lies in store if Labour is ever elected to government in the rest of the country.

Clearly the 20 mph speed limit that is being enforced in Wales will restrict people in their movement. Has the Minister had any discussions with the Welsh Assembly on providing more buses to take people out of their cars, and will there be more provision for cyclists? If there is not that provision, this system cannot work.

Unfortunately, Welsh Senedd Ministers do not seem interested in reconsidering the policy. Frankly, there is an anti-motorist agenda with the Welsh Labour Government, which has seen blanket 20 mph speed limits, speed reductions on dual carriageways, congestion charges being considered and charging to use the M4. Most shockingly of all, my own Labour council is considering bringing back Severn bridge tolls.

Rail Infrastructure

5. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the adequacy of rail infrastructure in Wales. (901222)

I have regular discussions with colleagues across Government on rail infrastructure. The UK Government are committed to building a strong rail infrastructure network across Wales, which will improve connectivity and drive economic growth. We have provided over £390 million for Welsh rail in recent years, and we recently announced a further £1 billion to fund the electrification of the north Wales main line.

The Welsh Affairs Committee highlights the need for greater connectivity between Swansea, Cardiff and Bristol, which would be of huge benefit, particularly for sports and music fans coming to Ashton Gate in my constituency. Why has the Wales Rail Board failed to initiate recommendations and other further improvements?

The hon. Lady’s constituents will be greatly affected by the project that she mentions and by the performance of Great Western Railway, which is not sufficient. The Office of Rail and Road has launched an investigation into poor train punctuality and reliability in Network Rail’s Wales and western region, and we await the recommendations of that review. I add that industrial action has affected things.

Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating Network Rail and its subcontractors on completing the repair works on the longest wooden rail bridge in Europe across the Mawddach estuary in Gwynedd?

I certainly will join my hon. Friend, and I am delighted that he takes such keen interest in Welsh rail infrastructure and raises it here on such a regular basis. He is right to flag that project, which is an example of this Government’s record investment in rail infrastructure in Wales. I was pleased to visit the project and give it my full support.


6. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the future of the steelmaking industry in Wales. (901225)

8. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the future of the steelmaking industry in Wales. (901228)

The Government are investing £500 million to secure the future of steelmaking in Port Talbot for generations to come. It is one of the largest UK Government support packages for steelmaking in history, and it will protect 5,000 jobs directly with Tata and many thousands more in the supply chain.

Last week, the Secretary of State stated in the steel debate that he understands

“the devastation that people will feel in Port Talbot—the whole community, but especially those people who face the loss of their jobs”—[Official Report, 23 January 2024; Vol. 744, c. 264.]

at the plant and beyond. Why is it, then, that the Secretary of State or the Business Secretary did not put in a red line on job losses while this work was being done, especially given that Tata has this morning doubled down on those losses at the Welsh Affairs Committee? It is nothing short of a disgrace.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, Tata approached the UK Government and said it was intending to pull out of the United Kingdom. If Tata had pulled out completely, that would have immediately cost 8,000 jobs and many thousands more in the supply chain. The Government therefore acted to take the only deal available, which was to build the electric arc furnace and save thousands of jobs.

I do not think that thousands of jobs will be saved at all. The people of Teesside, who saw the Tory Government abandon them and end virgin steelmaking at Redcar, leading to the loss of 3,000 jobs, will sympathise with those in Wales. The failure of the same Government will see virgin steelmaking also ended in Wales, with the loss of another 3,000 jobs, and leave the UK even more reliant on imports, as they are surrendering the market to other countries. Why would the Government want to do that when steel is a foundation industry and, with the introduction of new technologies, could have a bright future?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be aware that 100% of the materials—the iron ore and coke—used to produce steel in Port Talbot are imported from abroad. At the same time, we are exporting 8 million tonnes of scrap steel, so building an arc furnace to make use of that scrap steel will make us less dependent on other countries for our steel.

As far as job losses are concerned, the UK Government have put aside a budget of £80 million, combined with £20 million from Tata, to support anyone who loses their job. Thus far, we have not had one single penny towards that from the Welsh Labour Government—who, by the way, are able to find £100 million to create a whole load of extra Senedd members in Cardiff Bay. I know where my priorities are: with the steelworkers.

Steelmaking is essential to our national security, as is reaching net zero. The problem is that the Welsh Labour Government cannot make their mind up about which is more important. After trying to kill off the steel industry with their green measures, they now complain that the UK Government are not doing enough to support that industry. Does the Secretary of State think that they do not really know their ACAS from their NALGO?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. The Government have looked carefully at this, and very little steel being produced by Port Talbot is going into the defence industry, but the defence industry is being supplied with steel from an electric arc furnace by Sheffield Forgemasters. There is absolutely no reason why an electric arc furnace built at Port Talbot, using UK Government support, cannot help support our defence industry in the years to come.

Victims of Crime

I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues on a range of topics including on justice matters. The Government are committed to supporting victims. By 2025, we will have quadrupled funding in England and Wales for victim and witness support services from 2010 levels.

Nine in 10 crimes went unsolved in Wales in the last six months. What does the Minister say to the victims of the 82,000 unsolved crimes?

I would point to the Government’s record on crime. Last week’s Office for National Statistics crime survey shows drops in all major crime types, with an average reduction of about 50%. Violent crime is down by 51%, neighbourhood crime is down by 48%, and theft is down by 46%. That is due in part to the fact that the Government have met their commitment to provide 20,000 extra police officers. My own force, Dyfed-Powys, has now got an extra 143 officers.

Levelling-up Funding

11. What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the potential impact of levelling-up funding on Welsh communities. (901232)

I have regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues and delivery teams in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities on the progress of levelling-up fund projects in Wales. I look forward to hearing more about the projects taking place in my hon. Friend’s constituency.

The Môr i’r Mynydd—sea to mountain—active travel route in the Conwy valley received an £18.6 million boost through levelling-up funds The projects will make a positive difference to communities in Glan Conwy, Betws-y-Coed and Trefriw. Apart from unlocking the Conwy valley to visitors, it will help young people get to school safely and workers to their jobs. I meet regularly with Conwy County Borough Council about the progress of those projects. What is my right hon. Friend doing to ensure that levelling-up funds are being delivered effectively in Wales?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on being such a champion of levelling-up fund schemes in his constituency. The levelling-up funds have allowed us to keep our post-Brexit promise to ensure that Wales continues to be generously funded. That is one of many such projects, such as the levelling-up funds, the freeports and the investment zones that are ensuring that Wales levels up.

Like the towns and villages I represent, coalfield communities in Wales are still bearing the brunt of deindustrialisation. I am delighted that we will have a debate tomorrow on miners and mining communities, and I encourage Welsh colleagues to attend. Can the Minister tell us what steps he is taking to ensure that levelling-up funding in Wales and across the coalfields in the UK is targeted at the most deprived, left-behind areas, which have suffered most?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say we need to target the areas most in need, but that is exactly what this Government have been doing. It is not just about levelling-up funds; we have had four growth deals across the length and breadth of Wales, three rounds of levelling-up funding, two investment zones, two freeports, an electrified rail line in north Wales and an electrified arc furnace in south Wales. The reality is that while we are committed to levelling up, the Welsh Labour Government are committed to levying further taxes on people and businesses on Wales.

Before we come to Prime Minister’s questions, I want to say that recent exchanges have been lively, to the point where it is becoming difficult for colleagues to hear what is being said clearly, and there has been an escalation in unhelpful exchanges across the Floor of the House from sedentary positions and the attempted use of props. Some of the language used in questions has also fallen short of the standards of good temper and moderation that should characterise the proceedings of this House. I know there is a general election approaching, but I urge hon. Members on both sides of the House to exercise greater self-restraint in their choice of words and in their general behaviour, both when they are asking a question and when they are not.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


On Monday I met the families of Grace O’Malley-Kumar, Barnaby Webber and Ian Coates, who were killed in Nottingham. I assured them that we would do whatever it takes to get the answers that they want. Following constructive dialogue over past months, I welcome the significant steps the DUP has taken to make restoration of the Executive possible. I also thank the other political parties in Northern Ireland for the patience they have shown. After two years without an Executive, there is now the prospect of getting power-sharing back up and running, strengthening our Union, giving the people the local, accountable government that they need and offering a brighter future for Northern Ireland. My right hon. Friend the Northern Ireland Secretary will be making a statement shortly. 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.

Last week I met a constituent who was employed not by the Post Office, but by a supermarket that operated a franchise post office. She was wrongly accused of dishonesty as a result of the faulty Horizon system and put through a disciplinary process by her employer, the supermarket, which had a profound impact on her life. She is not alone—there are others in her position—yet there is no provision for compensating people who worked in franchise post offices, as she did. Will the Prime Minister give me a commitment that he will include those victims in the Horizon scandal compensation scheme?

I am very sorry to hear about the hon. and learned Lady’s constituent’s case. As I have said, it was an awful miscarriage of justice and everyone affected deserves not only justice, but compensation and answers. I will make sure we look into the precise details of her constituent’s case—surely there will be others like that—and will make sure that the Minister gets back to her with all due haste.

Q2. Sustainable aviation fuel plays a significant part in the sector’s decarbonisation. Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister commit to further policies for a SAF mandate to generate greater demand, and for a revenue support mechanism of the kind that other sectors, including solar and wind-powered generation, have? Will he give a commitment that work will start by the end of next year on the five promised sustainable aviation plants here in the UK? (901296)

I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that we are committed to ensuring the SAF mandate will be in place by 2025. By mandating the use of sustainable aviation fuel, we will be able not only to deliver carbon savings, but to create a brand-new UK market. As one of the steps in introducing the revenue certainty mechanism that he talks about by 2026, the Department for Transport will be consulting in the spring of this year on options for how that should work in practice.

May I join the Prime Minister in welcoming the DUP’s statement on the return of the Northern Ireland Executive? This is an important moment, but we now need all sides to work together to get Stormont back up and running for the people of Northern Ireland. I, too, met the families of Grace, Barnaby and Ian on Monday. It is impossible to express in words the horror that they have been through, and continue to go through. We must all redouble our efforts to do everything we can to help them with their campaign. This week, two young lives—16-year-old Max and 15-year-old Mason—were taken in Bristol. I know the whole House will join me in sending condolences to their families and friends.

One of the most difficult experiences for any Member of this House is speaking to those at the sharp end of this Government’s cost of living crisis. Nobody could fail to be moved by the plight of the hon. Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman). His mortgage has gone up £1,200 a month, and he has been forced to quit his dream job to pay for it. A Tory MP counting the cost of Tory chaos! After 14 years, have we finally discovered what they meant when they said, “We’re all in this together”?

Thanks to the mortgage charter that the Chancellor introduced last year, millions of mortgage holders across the country are benefiting from mortgage support. Rather than take the approach that the right hon. and learned Gentleman just did, it is important to focus on the practical support in place to help people who need it. Someone on a typical mortgage is able to save hundreds of pounds thanks to those reforms. Recently, we have seen mortgage applications at a multi-month high, as a result of confidence returning. If he really cared about helping people with the cost of living, he would do more to celebrate and acknowledge the fact that, thanks to our plan, millions of working people will start to pay hundreds of pounds less in tax from this month’s payslip. We all know that is not a priority for him. He said he wanted to back people on the cost of living, but I read that he has described tax cuts as “salting the earth”. It seems that his shadow Chancellor is equally confused; in Davos, she said that she backed tax cuts, but back here in Westminster she called them a “scorched earth” policy. She obviously cannot decide which Wikipedia page to copy this week.

For every £2 the Prime Minister says he is giving people back, he is taking £10 out of their back pocket through higher tax. He thinks they should be dancing in the street and thanking him. There are 200,000 people, just like the hon. Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman), coming off fixed-rate mortgages and paying more each and every month, because the Conservatives crashed the economy. Does the Prime Minister know how much their monthly repayments are going up by?

As I said, someone on a typical mortgage of about £140,000 with 17 years left is currently paying around £800. As a result of the ability to extend their mortgage term or switch to a six-month interest-only mortgage, someone on the average mortgage will be able to save hundreds of pounds. Again, the right hon. and learned Gentleman says that he cares about the cost of living, but what would have the biggest impact on everyone’s cost of living is his idea to spend £28 billion; a shadow Treasury Minister confirmed just this morning that they remain committed to that. But he has no plan to pay for that £28 billion—no plan at all. That is typical Labour economics. They want to keep the spending but drop the payment plan. At the weekend I saw the former Labour leader—the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s mentor—who was clear that Labour will make their sums add up with tax rises on people’s assets: their homes, pensions and businesses. It is the same old Labour party—no plan and back to square one with higher taxes.

The Government have crashed the economy, mortgages are through the roof and they have doubled the debt, and the Prime Minister thinks he can stand there and lecture other people about fiscal responsibility. He did not answer the question. Hundreds of thousands of people are coming off fixed-rate mortgages and facing huge mortgage increases, and the Prime Minister will not even do them the courtesy of answering the question. [Interruption.] No, he didn’t, so I will ask him again.

Order. I was very clear at the beginning. My constituents want to hear—if yours don’t, please leave.

Does the Prime Minister have any idea how much mortgages are going up by this month for those coming off fixed-rate mortgages?

Again, I point the right hon. and learned Gentleman back to my previous answer. Everybody’s situation will be different. Someone on a typical mortgage of around £140,000, who is currently paying £800, will be able to keep their mortgage payment essentially the same by using the facilitations the Chancellor has put in place. That is what we have done to help people. Again, it is incumbent on the right hon. and learned Gentleman to explain to the British public how his policy of decarbonising the grid by 2030 will be funded. He will not give the answer, but helpfully the shadow Energy Secretary, the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), popped up at the weekend in an interview in The Sunday Times and said that Labour does not need a plan to pay for it because, in his words, it will “produce real savings”, and it makes clear “economic sense”. The Leader of the Opposition does not want to talk about it at all. All these years later, it is the same story: the right hon. Member for Doncaster North has carved a promise in stone, and everybody else just looks away in embarrassment.

The Prime Minister just does not get it. The Government have crashed the economy; mortgages are skyrocketing; they are doubling the debt. They say they are going to max out the Government’s credit card at the next Budget—[Interruption.]

Order. I think the Chief Whip is getting very carried away. He does not want to lead everybody for a cup of tea, does he? Come on.

The Government have forfeited the right to lecture others about the economy. Somebody coming off a fixed-rate mortgage will be paying an average of £240 more each and every month—a constant reminder that working people are paying the price for the damage the Government have done to the economy.

This week, I met an employee at Iceland in Warrington—Phil. [Interruption.]

Order. Mr Gibson, the same voice keeps appearing again, and it will not appear any more. I am just letting you know now.

Laughing at an Iceland employee who is struggling with his mortgage—shame. Phil told me his mortgage is going up by a staggering £1,000 a month. He does not want other averages—other people, other stories. This is what is happening to him. If the hon. Member for Mid Norfolk, on £120,000, cannot afford this Tory Government, how on earth can people like Phil?

Thanks to the management of the economy, Phil and millions of people like him are now ensuring that inflation is less than half the rate that it was when we were talking a year ago; that is putting more money in their pocket. Thanks to this Government, Phil and millions of other workers—not just at Iceland, but across the country—are benefiting this month in their pay packet from a tax cut worth hundreds of pounds for someone on an average salary.

I hope the right hon. and learned Gentleman explained to Phil the cost of his policies. Did he explain how Phil is going to have to pay for the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s £28 billion green spending spree? Did he explain what it will cost Phil in higher taxes, with more coming out of his pay packet? Did he explain to Phil that he would be better off sticking with our plan, rather than going back to square one with him?

I invite the Prime Minister to get in touch with Phil and explain to him how paying £1,000 more in his mortgage is making him better off, because that is not how he feels. The Prime Minister is so out of touch, it is unbelievable. Finding hundreds of pounds extra per month may not seem like a big deal to the Prime Minister, but let me tell him that most people do not have that sort of money knocking around.

If that was not bad enough, this week, the Prime Minister told every council in the country to put their council tax up by the maximum of 5%. That is 26 tax rises now, Prime Minister. He says everything is fine, and people are better off, but when people see their mortgage going up, their council tax going up and food prices still going up, who does he expect them to believe: his boasts, or their bank account?

Again, I was puzzled—the right hon. and learned Gentleman resorts here, as always, to the politics of envy. I was genuinely surprised that, after recently and repeatedly attacking not just me but the Government for lifting the bonus cap, the shadow Chancellor has announced, just today, that she now supports the Government’s policy on the bankers’ bonus cap—I do not know whether he mentioned that to Phil when he was having his chat, but I am sure he can fill us in. I can tell him that trust and economic credibility come from sticking to a plan, but it is becoming clear that we cannot trust a word he says. When the shadow Chancellor claims that they will not borrow much or raise Phil’s taxes, we now know that those promises are just not worth the Wikipedia page they were copied from.

I actually did not expect the Prime Minister to be laughing at Phil. I did not expect that—[Interruption.]

Order. Look, I made the statement very clear. It is very serious that we make sure that people hear both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. It matters to the people who watch the proceedings of this Chamber. The behaviour that seems to be carrying on is not good.

The Prime Minister just does not get how hard it is for millions of people across the country like Phil. That is the primary problem: they are struggling with their mortgages, their bills and the spiralling cost of living. The Prime Minister’s response is never to take responsibility, and never to show contrition or even any level of basic understanding. He is so detached that he thinks he can paint a world in which their problems simply do not exist. The problem is that he cannot even fool his own MPs, let alone anyone else. The hon. Member for Mid Norfolk says he is “exhausted” and is looking forward to new opportunities outside of Parliament. Why does the Prime Minister not do him a favour and call an election, so that he and the whole country can move on?

Whether it is Phil or everyone else across the country, the plan that we are putting in place is working to help people and we are making progress: just this week, taking action to stop children vaping; just this week, ensuring that people can visit their pharmacies to get the healthcare they need, freeing up millions of GP appointments; and just this week, millions of working people starting to see hundreds of pounds of tax cuts delivered in their pay packet. That is a plan that is working. All the right hon. and Learned Gentleman is offering is £28 billion of tax rises. And that is the choice: a brighter future with us or back to square one with them.

Q7. The Prime Minister likes to attend live sport, so I wonder whether he will join me in welcoming the planning inspector’s decision to uphold Rugby Council’s rejection of an application for development at Brandon Stadium in my constituency, to keep the doors open for it to remain a sporting venue so that future generations will enjoy the thrills and spills of motorcycle speedway and stock cars. (901302)

I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute and being proud of Britain’s rich history in the automotive and motorsport sectors. The stadium he talks about is an historic motorsport venue. While it has been a shame to see it fall into disrepair, I hope that the decision he refers to will enable the possibility of both speedway and stock car racing to return. I know that he will continue, rightly, to champion this cause.

When the Tories scrapped the cap on bankers’ bonuses in the autumn during a cost of living crisis, the Labour party rightly opposed it. Yet here we are, just three months later, and the Labour party supports scrapping the cap—shameful. Is the Prime Minister comforted by the fact that he is now no longer alone in this House on being completely out of touch with public opinion?

As I said at the time, we supported the decision of the independent regulator because it was the right thing for financial stability, and because we on this side of the House have a set of convictions and we have a plan and we stick to it. But the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to point out the flip-flopping, U-turning and no convictions of the party opposite.

Of course, scrapping the cap on bankers’ bonuses was only made possible because of Brexit. What the Westminster parties are now telling the public is that it is OK for bankers to have unlimited Brexit bonuses, but the public who are sitting at home and struggling to feed their families have to suck up and deal with additional food costs as a result of Brexit red tape. That is the cost and that is the reality of broken Brexit Britain. Is it not the case that the great achievement of this Tory Government is getting the Labour party to agree to that bleak future?

We are actually delivering benefits for people across Scotland, not least the new free trade deals that are opening up markets for Scottish exporters, freeports that are attracting jobs and investment, and the Brexit pubs guarantee that is cutting the cost of a pint in Scottish pubs. The hon. Gentleman talks about the cost of living, but what he could do to help the most is ensure that Scotland is not the most highly taxed part of the United Kingdom—and not just for high earners; everyone earning £28,500 or more is paying more tax in Scotland than they would in England, thanks to the SNP.

Q8. One punch thrown, two days on life support, then three children left without a father. A four-year sentence is handed down and the perpetrator is released after two, but one grieving mother has to live a life sentence of agony. Sentencing for one-punch killers is not working in this country. Does the Prime Minister agree that now is the time to finally introduce a specific offence and a tougher minimum sentence for one-punch manslaughter? (901303)

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work that she has done to bring attention to so-called one-punch manslaughter and to highlight the anguish that—as she knows well—those cases cause to the families of the victims. I know that the Ministry of Justice has looked very carefully at the amendment that she has proposed, and that she will shortly be meeting the Minister for Safeguarding to discuss both her specific amendment and how we might best address the wider issue.

My constituent Millie, a wheelchair user, had a serious accident at a sporting event. Millie was left waiting on the floor in pain for over two hours before an ambulance arrived. During her months in hospital since then, she has been dropped, badly, multiple times; left stuck in her bed for days on end; and even told to soil herself when there is no one to take her to the toilet. Before all this, Millie was living independently and working, but the prospect of her returning to work is being destroyed by the crisis in the NHS and care system. I am sure the Prime Minister will agree that no one should ever have to go through what Millie has been through, so will he look again at our proposals to ensure that every patient receives the high-quality care that they need?

I am very sorry to hear about Millie’s case, and I am sure that if there are specific aspects of it that need to be examined, the Health Secretary will follow them up with the right hon. Gentleman. More generally, we want to make sure that everyone gets the care they deserve, which is why we are not just investing record sums in the NHS but ensuring that there are record numbers of doctors, nurses and new, innovative forms of treatment such as surgical hubs and virtual wards. All that is showing that ambulance times, which the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, are lower today than they were this time last year.

Q11. The No. 1 reason for children’s hospital admissions in my constituency is dental treatment, but we have no NHS capacity and no orthodontist in Barnstaple. Our dentists cannot recruit, even with a large golden hello. The emergency dental plan seems to have been stuck at the Treasury forever. Might my right hon. Friend use his spare set of keys and pop round to rescue it for us? My constituents and I would be ever so grateful. (901306)

My hon. Friend has rightly championed the provision of dentistry in her area. We are investing £3 billion a year, and the reformed contracts in dentistry from the NHS have improved access while ensuring fairer remuneration for dentists. We are also providing more financial support for those who need it the most—about half the courses of treatment last year were delivered to those who are non-paying, both adults and children—but yes, more needs to be done, and that is why our dentistry recovery plan will be published shortly.

Q3. More than two decades ago, the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, misled this House by promoting and endorsing the Post Office Horizon IT system as perfect, protecting the large corporation that created it and causing untold harm, damage and misery to innocent people. Can the current Prime Minister think of anything he has promoted, in partnership with huge businesses, as safe and effective that has ultimately harmed the British people? Will he use this opportunity to correct that safe and effective statement, or will he choose the same line as Tony Blair and sit back, do nothing and let the misery continue to pile up? (901297)

We have been clear that the Horizon scandal is a terrible miscarriage of justice, and we are doing everything we can to make it right. To what the hon. Member was more broadly insinuating, let me be unequivocal from this Dispatch Box that covid vaccines are safe.

Q12. The shocking revelations of the Horizon scandal highlighted the Post Office’s financial incompetence, and my right hon. Friend will know that the public’s confidence in the institution is at an all-time low. Does he agree that as high street banks are closing branches across the country, we should look at developing new community banking solutions rather than giving the Post Office sole responsibility for providing access to cash and other banking services in poorly served neighbourhoods? (901307)

I thank my hon. Friend for her question, but I would just say that we should not make the mistake of conflating this scandal with the actions of many hard-working local postmasters and sub-postmasters. Customers can access cash and banking services through a wide range of channels, including a contract with the Post Office Counters service, which provides a valuable channel. I agree with her, however, on the importance of access to cash, which is why the Government have legislated to protect that as part of the recent Financial Services and Markets Act 2023, to ensure that the vast majority of people should be no more than 3 miles away from such a cashpoint.

Q4.   One of the Nolan principles—integrity—states that holders of public office should not act to gain material benefits for themselves, their family or their friends. On 6 January the Prime Minister tweeted a link to the Conservative party website that seemed to scrape people’s data and place unwanted cookies on their machines. The Good Law Project is now pursuing this. Can he assure the House that no laws have been broken by his party? (901298)

A first responsibility for Government is to fix the housing crisis that young people did not cause. Three years ago, we dragged house building in this country up to the highest level since 1987, after the last Labour Government left it at its lowest level since the 1920s. But house building is weakening and we need to do more. Will my right hon. Friend consider using the Budget to do as he and I did together during the pandemic: cut stamp duty to boost housing starts, reignite the economy and support thousands of businesses across our country?

My right hon. Friend is right to point out that since 2010 we have delivered 2.5 million additional homes, and we are on track to deliver 1 million just in this Parliament and help over 850,000 families into home ownership through schemes such as Help to Buy and the right to buy. Obviously, tax decisions are a matter for the Chancellor, but I would point out that our existing stamp duty relief for first-time buyers ensures that the vast majority of first-time buyers in our country pay absolutely no stamp duty.

Q5. The all-party parliamentary group on eye health and visual impairment has today published polling that found that nearly half of employers exclude blind and partially sighted people from their workplaces and that one in four said that they would not be willing to make workplace adjustments. The disability employment gap remains stubbornly at 30% and the pay gap means that blind and partially sighted people effectively work for free for 47 days of the year. Will the Prime Minister meet me and sight loss organisations to discuss how we can create a more inclusive workforce? (901299)

I share the hon. Lady’s ambition for an inclusive workforce. The record in supporting those with disabilities into work over the past several years has been incredibly strong. I know my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is actively looking at that and making sure that our accessibility plan is up to date and inclusive. I will ensure that the hon. Lady gets a meeting with the relevant Minister.

Having visited recently, I know that Israel remains in shock following the rape, murder and butchery carried out by Hamas. All of us want to see a peaceful and demilitarised Palestinian state. However, Hamas remain in control in large parts of Gaza, support for them is growing in the west bank, polls show that nearly two thirds of Palestinians reject co-existence with Israel and the Palestinian Authority has continued to promote hatred of Jews. Does my right hon. Friend agree that any recognition of a Palestinian state must address these issues and can come about only as part of a negotiated settlement between Israel and the Palestinians?

The Government’s position is clear. My right hon. and learned Friend is right that steps and conditions need to be put in place on this journey: first and foremost, the removal of Hamas from Gaza; a Palestinian-led Government in Gaza and the west bank; a concrete plan to reform and support the Palestinian Authority; a reconstruction plan for Gaza; and a two-state solution, which we have long supported. Let me be clear: we stand with Israel. The terrorist threat it faces must be eliminated and Israel’s lasting security must be guaranteed.

Q6. On 15 November last year, I appealed to the Prime Minister to choose de-escalation and peace over violence, death and destruction, but he called me “naive”. So far, over 26,000 souls have perished in Gaza. In a powerful and moving open letter in Monday’s New York Times, the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council cited Deuteronomy—“I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life”—and accused President Biden of choosing death. If the Prime Minister will not listen to me or the International Court of Justice, will he listen to the Rabbinical Council, or will he call it “naive” too? (901301)

I have been clear multiple times that we are deeply concerned about the impact on the civilian population of the fighting in Gaza. Too many people have lost their lives and there is a desperate need for increased humanitarian support in Gaza. I will not go over all the debates we have had about the conditions that are necessary for an immediate pause leading to a sustainable ceasefire, but I assure the House that we are doing everything we can to get more aid into the region as quickly as possible.

Chatham docks support over 800 local, high-value jobs which are at risk because the owners are continuing in their pursuit to displace successful businesses, such as ArcelorMittal Kent Wire. The Labour council is failing to honour the commitment it made before the local elections to protect the docks and the jobs. Even the Leader of the Opposition said he was “proudly backing” the Save Chatham Docks campaign. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to see how we can protect the docks and save those jobs for my constituents? Is this not just another example of how Labour and its leaders change their position depending on which way the wind blows?

My right hon. Friend has been a constant champion of Chatham docks and I am disappointed to hear that the local Labour council is failing to honour the commitments it has made. As she points out, I am not surprised that the Leader of the Opposition has said one thing and then consequently done another. The docks support hundreds of jobs and I join her in calling on the council to rethink its approach.

Pharmacy First

With permission, I shall make a statement on the launch of our Pharmacy First service.

Pharmacies are at the centre of our communities. They are an accessible front door to our NHS for millions of people. Alongside general practice, optometry and dentistry, pharmacy is one of the four pillars of primary care in England. Four in five people in England live within a 20-minute walk of a community pharmacy. Pharmacies provide fast, fair and simple access to care and advice for the kinds of illnesses from which people suffer every day. Our constituents can now walk in off the high street whenever it suits them—whether they are at home, at work, or visiting somewhere.

Our pharmacists are not only conveniently located, but highly skilled professionals with years of training under their belts. The number of registered pharmacists in England has grown considerably under this Conservative Government—up 61% compared with 2010. None the less, these skilled healthcare professionals still represent a rather untapped resource in our NHS, so this Government are bringing forward reforms that will make the most of their expertise: giving people up and down the country a variety of quality care and wise advice, quickly and easily, saving them a trip to the GP; freeing up appointments for patients who need GPs the most; and driving our plan to cut waiting lists. The benefits are clear. That is why this Government have consistently taken the decisions that allow community pharmacists to deliver more clinical services and supply more treatments— whether that be other parts of the NHS referring patients suffering from minor illnesses to community pharmacists for advice and the sale of over-the-counter medicines, offering lifesaving blood pressure checks in pharmacies, or making it easier for women to access oral contraception in pharmacies. I am proud of everything that we have accomplished so far.

To unlock the full potential of our pharmacists, we need to go further and faster. That is why I am delighted to inform the House today that we are launching the Pharmacy First service—a personal priority of the Prime Minister, who is himself the son of a pharmacist. This will give pharmacists the power to supply prescription-only medications, including antibiotics and antivirals for seven common conditions: sore throats, ear aches, infected insect bites, impetigo, shingles, and minor urinary tract infections in women. More than 10,000 community pharmacies have signed up—over 95% of pharmacies in England—which is a brilliant sign of their approval.

The next time that anyone is suffering from any of those seven conditions, for most people their first port of call will be a quick trip or a call to their pharmacist. They will not need to see their GP first. They will not need to spend time making an appointment, and they can turn to their pharmacist whenever it suits them. That benefits everyone involved: people get the care they need faster; GPs can focus on more complicated cases; and pharmacists can make better use of their knowledge and skills. This is a common-sense reform. Pharmacists see and advise people with these sorts of conditions every day, but we have now enabled them to provide prescription-only medicines where clinically appropriate, so that they can help people more easily.

All this will deliver results. Pharmacy First will make it easier for millions of people to get the care they need on the high street and, together with the expanded blood pressure and contraception service, it will free up as many as 10 million GP appointments, in turn reducing unnecessary trips to A&E, reducing the pressure on GPs, and driving forward our plan to cut waiting lists for patients.

The investment that we are putting into Pharmacy First will also level up digital infrastructure in community pharmacies up and down the country, streamlining referrals to and from GPs, giving pharmacists better access to relevant information from patients’ GP records, and allowing them to share relevant information quickly in return.

Pharmacy First is not just about delivering care faster, but about making care fairer by driving down health inequalities. That is because there is double the number of pharmacies in the most deprived communities in our country. Getting the right care, the right contraception and the right test will now be faster and simpler for all those people in our more deprived communities than it ever has been before. Thanks to Pharmacy First, they will be able to take full advantage of their pharmacists’ expertise and use them to complement the care they receive from their GPs and throughout the NHS.

Pharmacy First was made possible only through close collaboration with Community Pharmacy England, which I thank for all the work it has done and will continue to do to support community pharmacies to gear up and deliver this new service for our NHS.

We on the Conservative Benches have a clear plan for the NHS: getting patients the care they need faster; making the system simpler for staff; and making it fairer for everyone. That is our plan and I look forward to working with pharmacists up and down the country to deliver today’s announcements as we build a brighter future for families right across the country. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Minister for advance sight of her statement.

Let me start by paying tribute to the many organisations that have been involved in preparing for this launch and the thousands of pharmacies across the country that have embraced this initiative. Labour has long been arguing that pharmacists should play a greater role in the NHS, so we support this move.

As the Minister has said, pharmacies already do far more than just dispense repeat prescriptions and sell shampoo: they are medicine experts within the NHS; they are highly trained; they are easily accessible right across the country; and, as we saw during the pandemic, they are a highly trusted part of their communities. But their skills and knowledge are often under-utilised. Therefore, bringing more services to British high streets for patients to get treated more quickly and conveniently is absolutely right. It is why, as we announced last week, we want to bring NHS out-patient appointments closer to people through high street opticians too.

The Minister is right to say that pharmacists can take pressure off GPs. However, let us be clear: this announcement will not make up for the 1,000 pharmacies which have been closed under the Conservatives, or the 2,000 GPs that have been cut since 2015. Patients today are waiting over a month to see a GP, if they can get an appointment at all. When Labour was last in office, people could get an appointment within 48 hours.

That is the thing with this Government: they give with one hand and take with the other. Will the Minister explain what has happened to the Government’s pledge to deliver 6,000 more GPs this year and what she is doing to support community pharmacies, which are already facing a perfect storm of inflationary pressures for running costs, recruitment challenges and an unstable medicines market?

The Government press release issued today claims that patients in England will be able to get treatment for seven common conditions at their high street pharmacy from today. I would like to dig down into whether that is actually the case. Healthwatch England has warned that it will take time for pharmacists to be trained in order to provide the services that Ministers have announced, so can the Minister tell us when she will be able to guarantee that the services advertised will actually be available?

Let me also ask about IT integration. To facilitate this roll-out, pharmacists were supposed to have access to GP Connect, so that details of patient consultations would automatically be sent to general practice through the clinical IT systems. The Government have had 12 months to get that ready, but from what I am hearing this morning it is still not live. Pharmacists are telling me that they can access only a summary of GP records, that they have to use another system to input what they have prescribed, and that they then have to download that and email it across to the GP. That is cumbersome. What estimate has the Minister made of the time that will be wasted at a local level to address that issue, and how long will it take before the system is ready?

Finally, what is the Government’s plan in the longer term to integrate the increase in independent prescribers who are being trained as part of the long-term workforce plan, and does the Minister agree with us that we should be accelerating the roll-out of independent prescribing to establish a community pharmacist prescribing service covering a broad range of common conditions? That would support patients with chronic conditions, which is the big challenge facing the NHS. Does the Minister agree that community pharmacies will have an important role to play in supporting GPs in the management of long-term conditions such as hypertension and asthma and in tackling the serious issue of over-prescribing, which is responsible for thousands of avoidable hospital admissions every year?

We agree that patients should be able to go to their local pharmacy to receive some services that they currently get at GP surgeries, such as vaccinations free of charge on the NHS, allowing patients to be seen faster and freeing up GPs to see more complex cases. By bringing healthcare into the community, patients will have greater control. The NHS should be as much a neighbourhood health service as a national health service, with healthcare on the doorstep, there when it is needed—and with Labour, it will be.

Oh, was it 8.31? I thank the Secretary of State. When will the services be available? I should think that many more are taking place already.

I am afraid that, while welcoming this, the hon. Lady is being a little pusillanimous with her praise. A lot of her suggestions, as she will know, are simply not true: already, well over 2,000 new GPs and tens of thousands of nurses are working in our NHS. Many thousands of additional practice staff are working in GP practices, and, as she will know, our brilliant GPs have made 50 million more appointments available each year ahead of the target in our manifesto. Good on them. They are doing an amazing job, and Pharmacy First will ease the ever-increasing burden on them.

The hon. Lady talks about technology. I am pleased to tell her that ensuring that the technology was in place was key in deciding when we could go live. There is a very short window in which some systems will have elements of manual intervention, but only for a few weeks. The whole system will be fully automated and will provide the ability to inquire into GP records and to swap advice, which is important for pharmacists to deliver the excellent service that they are already delivering.

Finally, the hon. Lady will know that community pharmacists have for some time now been delivering blood pressure checks, which in some cases are truly lifesaving. This is amazing patient access and patient convenience. The Labour party should, for once, simply praise it and be glad that the Government have stuck to our plan and got on with it.

I am so pleased to hear today’s announcement that we are delivering. It was one of the key things in our plan for patients that I wanted to ensure happened. In particular, many Members of this House, current and past, have had infections and, as a consequence of not dealing with them, have ended up in hospital. This is the sort of sensible approach that, frankly, met some resistance during my time in the Department, with worries about over-prescribing. It is about treating pharmacists like proper professionals and, most important, providing quicker access to necessary care, which patients will now properly enjoy.

May I say a huge thank you to my right hon. Friend for her contribution to kicking this project off? I feel very fortunate to be at the Dispatch Box on the day we launch it, because many others were involved in setting it up. She rightly highlights some of the problems with spotting things such as sepsis infections, which pharmacists are trained to spot. They really can be the first line of defence. Being able to walk in off the high street to see a pharmacist is incredibly valuable to us all.

As a long-standing supporter of the idea of Pharmacy First, I welcome the right hon. Lady’s statement and the specific reforms she has talked about introducing. She will be aware, however, that pharmacists in my constituency and further afield are very concerned that they are unable to do the job that they are already expected to because of lack of capacity and problems in accessing certain drugs that they need to prescribe. Can she indicate how the existing problems will be dealt with, so that they can do what is promised in Pharmacy First?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his support for the programme. There are around 14,000 licensed medicines, the vast majority of which are in good supply. The Department works very closely with the sector on finding alternatives and sourcing supplies of medicines, and most of the time we are able to meet the demand. Occasionally there are challenges, but that does not change in any way the ability of community pharmacists to be the expert medicine suppliers that they are, and to meet the need that members of the general public have for treatment and advice.

I warmly welcome the statement. This initiative has the potential to transform primary care and access to treatment, but does the Minister agree that to realise its full potential, we need to invest in new technology—she mentioned digitalisation—to make sure that community pharmacies are set up to take advantage of these new opportunities? We also need to invest in the pharmacy workforce as part of the Government’s long-term workforce plan, so that those in alternative roles within pharmacies, such as pharmacy technicians, have the capacity to take the opportunities she has outlined.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Investing in technology is vital, but so is investing in the workforce. We have seen a 61% increase in the number of registered community pharmacists since 2010, and we aim in our long-term NHS workforce plan to increase that by a further 50%. We have already increased the number of training places for both pharmacists and pharmacy technicians.

I, too, welcome Pharmacy First, which I think is a very good initiative. In recent weeks we have seen the closure of two pharmacies in my area, on Beverley Road and Chanterlands Avenue. I am also told by leaders in the Humber pharmacy community that our area has one of the largest numbers of temporary closures because of problems accessing pharmacists. Will the Minister look favourably, therefore, on my idea to attach a school of pharmacy to Hull York Medical School? We need a school of dentistry, too. If we could have a centre of excellence in the Humber area, it might solve some of our specific workforce problems.

I am always happy to speak to colleagues on both sides of the House about their ideas for new dental and pharmacy schools. It is an ongoing interest.

England is, in fact, blessed with huge numbers of community pharmacies—well over 10,000—and four in five of us are able to walk to a community pharmacy within 20 minutes. The number of pharmacies in more deprived areas is double the number in more well-off areas. We are very well served by our brilliant pharmacies, and I hope the Pharmacy First programme will improve their footfall and their value in each of our communities.

I very much welcome this initiative to encourage our pharmacies to provide more frontline healthcare. People need to know about this, because they often do not think of going to the pharmacy. What work are the Government doing in larger population centres such as Harwich and Dovercourt, which has over 20,000 people but no out-of-hours pharmacy cover? People have to make a round trip of more than 40 miles to collect a prescription on a Sunday, for example. Are the Government doing any work on 24/7 pharmacy coverage for larger population areas?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. Pharmacists will keep their community pharmacy open for up to 72 hours a week in most cases, and up to 100 hours in some cases, which means there is weekend accessibility. We keep this under review, but the availability is very good.

The Liberal Democrats have long supported calls for Pharmacy First, and the National Pharmacy Association, based in my St Albans constituency, has been calling for it since at least 2017. This is a welcome move, but it is long overdue. The Minister will be aware that there have been almost 700 permanent pharmacy closures since 2015, and the Company Chemists Association now estimates that eight pharmacies a week are closing, including one in my constituency. What steps is she taking to make sure there are no more closures this week, next week and every other week this year?

The hon. Lady might remember that the Liberal Democrats were in government for a good part of that period. She talks about pharmacy closures, and we see pharmacies opening and closing. There has been a small number of net closures, but we are very well served across England and we keep a close eye on that. Pharmacy First is a new boost to community pharmacies across England.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on bringing in this initiative. I have fantastic community pharmacies in South Derbyshire—although, sadly, when the boundary changes come, I will lose Hatton to Derbyshire Dales. They are leaders in their field and they are trusted in their communities. This is a brilliant initiative, and I cannot thank my right hon. Friend enough.

Order. That was a perfect answer. I have to tell the House that we have a lot of business to get through today, and I will therefore need short questions and admirably short answers, because otherwise not everyone who is standing will have a chance to ask a question.

I do not agree with most of what the Minister has said today. We are all in favour of pharmacies, but I think this statement is a distraction from the real problems in our health service, our GP service and much else.

Has the Minister looked at the number of pharmacies that have closed in the poorest areas of our country? Lastly, what is she going to do about companies like Boots? It has even closed its local branch in Westminster—

Order. Because of his seniority, I have allowed the hon. Gentleman a little leeway. One question, one answer.

The more deprived parts of England are much better served by community pharmacies than better-off areas are.

We have amazing pharmacists in Watford, and I have championed community pharmacies such as Sigma, which is a fantastic local business. Can the Minister provide an assurance that the general public will be made massively aware of this fantastic new service?

The Minister does not appear to be concerned about the record number of community pharmacy closures under this Conservative Government. Why does she think it is happening?

There has been a 61% increase in registered pharmacists since 2010, with plans to increase that number by 50% in the next few years.

I commend my right hon. Friend for her excellent statement, but how will she tackle the issue of funding for prescriptions? Community pharmacies are struggling, and she will understand that the NHS tariff does not pay them the full price of products. Will she look at that as she rolls out the scheme?

The Government currently contribute £2.6 billion to community pharmacy, quite apart from the £645 million addition for Pharmacy First. We are about to start negotiations for the 2024-25 period.

The three pharmacies in Shirley, in my constituency, have been there for decades. They are very well known and very trusted, but they are all on the edge of having to close. To stay open, one pharmacist is using their own savings and not paying themselves a wage. I welcome your announcement, but would you read a letter from them—

Order. There may have been lax obeying of the rules at other times, but would the hon. Lady please refer to the Minister as “she”, not “you”?

Forgive me, Madam Deputy Speaker. That was an error.

Would the Minister read that letter, consider these issues and perhaps meet us to talk about it? They are good people, and we want to keep their pharmacies open.

I am of course happy to read the letter, but I would say that Pharmacy First offers a significant new boost to community pharmacies.

My right hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that, across Cheshire and Merseyside, including my Eddisbury constituency, 535 community pharmacies will be starting the Pharmacy First initiative today. Particularly in rural areas, pharmacies are a lifeline for many people. Can she reassure patients of the clinical competence of pharmacists to make prescriptions, and can she reassure pharmacists on the issue of clinical liability?

I can assure my hon. Friend that pharmacists are highly skilled and better trained than ever before in this country. They are fully equipped to meet the demands of their new prescribing role.

I welcome the Pharmacy First initiative—its roll-out is long overdue—but what expectations are we creating in the minds of patients attending pharmacies? Will pharmacists be trained in denying medication to people who turn up expecting to be given a prescription of some sort? Clearly, the initiative will encourage more people to present in order to get medication when it may not be necessary.

The hon. Gentleman raises a good point. Of course, pharmacists will be prescribing for seven common conditions. Plenty of referrals will be made to GPs, and from GPs to pharmacists, to give patients the accessibility and the appropriate level of assessment for their needs.

Pharmacies in Horsham have asked for such a scheme, so they will very much welcome it, as do I. However, as the Minister is aware from our one-on-one discussions, for which I am grateful, there are currently issues of access to pharmacies in Horsham. Will she ensure that the sector is appropriately resourced and has the right training in order to ensure that the scheme is the great success that it deserves to be?

Northern Ireland’s minor ailments scheme, and this Pharmacy First initiative, are acknowledgments that GPs can spend up to 40% of their working day on minor ailments, but the scale in Northern Ireland is different from what has been proposed for England. Is there capacity for a UK-wide roll-out of Pharmacy First to take pressure off our GP services? If there is, that would be the right thing to do.

I seriously look forward to the re-establishment of the Stormont Assembly so that it will be possible for Northern Ireland to implement such a scheme itself.

I warmly welcome the statement. I have been a strong champion of pharmacies in my constituency. We are experiencing challenges, however, when the likes of Boots withdraw their services. It is difficult to transfer or apply for licences, despite the fact that we have a number of keen applicants who want to provide important pharmacy services. What more can the Government do to speed up and make the licensing application procedure smoother and better?

I would love to hear more about that from my right hon. and learned Friend. I will be happy to look into it.

In recent months, Boots has closed two of three pharmacies in the Hampton area of my constituency. That has left Hampton North, which is one of the most deprived wards in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames, without a single pharmacy, so elderly residents and those with long-term conditions have to walk for a lot longer than 20 minutes to access a pharmacy. Local GPs tell me that it is just not viable to set up a community pharmacy facility. Will the Government review the pressures on community pharmacy and consider the community pharmacy contractual framework so that we can make this initiative work and take the pressure off GPs?

As I have already mentioned, there are many community pharmacies starting up all the time, as well as closing down. The hon. Lady will appreciate that the Pharmacy First initiative is a real boost to community pharmacies. I am happy to discuss it with her, but I would imagine that there will be the capability to open new community pharmacies in her area.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend and her Front-Bench colleagues on rolling out this initiative. The Isle of Portland had two pharmacies, both run by Boots, but one is now shut. Can I meet my right hon. Friend and Front-Bench colleagues to discuss how we can ensure that deprived areas such as Portland retain the pharmacies that they desperately need?

With so many of my constituents waiting a long time to see GPs, any boost to primary care capacity must be welcomed, so I thank the Minister for today’s announcement. The GPs and pharmacy staff I meet raise concerns about recruitment to open roles. What assurances can the Minister offer that this will not be another policy, like the childcare announcement, that lacks the workforce or sectoral strategy to really gain the full benefits?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, our NHS long-term workforce plan intends to increase by 50% the number of registered pharmacists. That work is under way and includes increasing the number of pharmacy technicians.

It is great that people will be able to go to the pharmacy for their prescriptions, as well as for the products that they need, without the need to visit a GP. Chelmsford has some great community pharmacies, but Boots is closing three branches. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss how we can ensure that the people of Chelmsford will be able to get to a pharmacy, in order for the initiative to work?

The community pharmacy in Wem in my constituency has struggled to find a full-time pharmacist, relying instead on locums. That means that opening times are erratic, people cannot rely on the service, and the pharmacy is loss-making because locums are so expensive. How will the Minister help pharmacies in rural areas to recruit the full-time pharmacists and reduce their reliance on locums?

The hon. Lady will be aware that, although a few are owned by GP practices, community pharmacies are usually private businesses. We are training the registered community pharmacists that we need. Obviously, it would be for that local area to put in place its own recruitment policies, but I would be happy to meet her to discuss that further.

I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement, and I put on the record my thanks to all the pharmacists who work in my constituency. The geography of my constituency can often mean that someone’s nearest pharmacy is about a mile and a half away across the water, so they end up driving 11 miles around to get to it. I believe that the mapping needs to change. Will she meet me to discuss it?

I am always happy to meet my hon. Friend. Just to let her know, 100 pharmacies in Cornwall are signed up to Pharmacy First.

This brilliant announcement has the potential to free up many thousands of GP places in areas such as Peterborough, but the initiative will be the success that we need it to be only if more people know about. My right hon. Friend touched on an awareness campaign, but what efforts will she make to ensure that it reaches difficult-to-reach communities, such as those for whom English is an additional language?

There will be a big communications plan, which I am happy to share with my hon. Friend. Well over 100 community pharmacies in his area have signed up to Pharmacy First, which is brilliant news. It is incumbent on us all—and the purpose of the statement—to ensure that our constituents know about this excellent new service.

Although my right hon. Friend and I share a common scepticism of the sclerotic state of the European Union, there are lessons to be learned from Europe. I am glad to see that, like France, we are now respecting community pharmacies. However, I have one specific question. In her statement, she said that one thing on which the pharmacy can act is female urinary tract infections. Why not male?

I wish my hon. Friend a happy Brexit day. I will have to come back to him on that issue. The point is that the service is limited to minor urinary tract infections. That might be why it does not include men, but I will certainly get back to him on that point.

I and many—if not all—of my constituents very warmly welcome the statement. On integration with other NHS access services, if an individual were to dial NHS 111 with one of the conditions mentioned in the statement, would they be diverted to a pharmacy or to a GP first?

To a pharmacy. NHS 111, GPs and urgent and emergency care can all refer to pharmacists for those particular common conditions.

I join others in welcoming the new scheme. Will my right hon. Friend ensure, as part of the communications, that the NHS website is updated to show which pharmacies have signed up to Pharmacy First, and will she continue to encourage those that have not yet signed up to do so?

What is brilliant is that over 95% of all community pharmacies have signed up, including 172 in my hon. Friend’s area.

Key to the service’s success will be pharmacies actually offering it when patients turn up. Does my right hon. Friend know how many individual pharmacists have been trained to provide the services, and is there a way of gathering and publishing data on when pharmacies will offer the service, so that patients will not have a frustrated journey and we can see where the gaps are?

As I say, more than 95% of all community pharmacies have signed up to the service, and all their pharmacists have been trained in how to deliver it.

As someone who has championed the role of community pharmacies throughout my time in this House, I warmly welcome today’s statement. I am particularly delighted that we were able to host one of the pilot schemes in Cornwall, which was hugely successful, resulting in 7,500 consultations that took 6,000 appointments away from GPs and 75 A&E appearances. Will the Minister join me in thanking all the pharmacies in Cornwall that took part in that pilot, which was so successful?

Absolutely. It is only by trying these things that we can see how successful they can be, and I do believe this service is going to radically improve patient access to care.

Northern Ireland Executive Formation

With permission, I will make a statement on Northern Ireland Executive formation.

This Saturday would mark two years without a fully functioning devolved Government in Northern Ireland. That is two years without locally elected Ministers able to take important decisions on Northern Ireland’s schools and hospitals and the broader economy, and above all, it is two years in which Northern Ireland has been held back from achieving the massive potential of this unique part of the United Kingdom.

It was nearly two years ago that the then First Minister resigned over the old Northern Ireland protocol. The Government recognised that the protocol did not deliver to the people of Northern Ireland the same freedoms that leaving the European Union delivered for the rest of the United Kingdom. As the party of the Union, this Conservative Government have sought to address those concerns by replacing the protocol with the Windsor framework. I maintain that the Windsor framework was, and is, a good deal for Northern Ireland that addresses the issues around the old protocol and sets out a new way forward. However, it alone did not prove sufficient to allow the devolved institutions to function with the cross-community support that is such an essential bedrock of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.

As such, for the past few months, my team and I have been holding discussions with the Northern Ireland political parties on how we could see the return of devolved institutions. Those discussions have been long and necessarily tough, but that is testament to the patience of all Northern Ireland’s political leaders, who—as I have seen at first hand—work tirelessly to make sure that Northern Ireland is the most prosperous and safe society it can be. One of the people I have been talking to most is the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson). It has been a pleasure to work with him on these matters, and it was also a pleasure to confirm recently that the Government will support his Bill that seeks to create a dedicated route for eligible Irish nationals who wish to apply for British citizenship. If passed, that legislation would support the close historical and geographical ties between Ireland and the UK, and I commend him on championing that cause.

I am also pleased to be able to outline today the package of measures we are announcing, which has four key elements. First, it further protects Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom by demonstrating our commitment to restoring power sharing so that it has the broadest support from across the community in Northern Ireland. I know that I am not alone in believing firmly that the long-term interests of the Union are served by persuading those who might not vote for Unionist parties, or even think of themselves as Unionists, that Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom offers the best solution for them and their children. I have always believed that making Northern Ireland work—indeed, making Northern Ireland thrive—is the surest way to safeguard the Union, and I commend all Unionists on taking bold steps to make that case for the Union, too.

We will also legislate to reaffirm Northern Ireland’s constitutional status, including as reflected in the Acts of Union. We will also recognise in domestic law that, with the vital democratic safeguard of the Stormont brake that a new Assembly would wield, the idea of automatic and permanent dynamic alignment of EU law no longer applies. We will also future-proof Northern Ireland’s position within the UK’s internal market against any future protocol that would create a new EU law alignment for Northern Ireland, and with it, barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.

Secondly, the deal promotes and strengthens the UK internal market, delivering new legislation to guarantee and future-proof unfettered access for Northern Ireland goods to the whole of the UK internal market, and ensuring that internal trade within the United Kingdom takes place under a new UK internal market system. Only yesterday, we saw how quickly progress has been made, with a joint legal solution reached with the European Union on tariff rate quotas. That solution, which will be taken forward at the next UK-EU Joint Committee, will ensure that Northern Ireland traders can benefit from the UK’s independent free trade policy when importing agrifood goods, reflecting Northern Ireland’s integral place in the UK’s customs territory. To maintain that focus on delivering in the interests of businesses for the future, we will put in place new structures, such as a new independent monitoring panel to ensure a practical and pragmatic approach without gold-plating.

Thirdly, the deal will recognise the importance of the connections across the United Kingdom, now and in the future. A new UK-wide east-west economic council will bring businesses and Ministers together to identify the opportunities that unite us across all parts of the United Kingdom, and a new body—InterTrade UK—will promote and facilitate trade within the United Kingdom, recognising that while international trade is important, so too is the vital trade that occurs within our internal market.

Finally, the deal will help put Northern Ireland’s public services on a sustainable footing, with funding totalling over £3 billion to support public services in Northern Ireland and provide a solid foundation for the Executive to deliver better outcomes in the day-to-day lives of the people in Northern Ireland. That funding is part of a financial package I announced before Christmas that will help address public sector pay pressures; provide an updated Barnett formula for Northern Ireland, now and into the future, reflecting the needs and unique circumstances of the people of Northern Ireland; and give the Executive significant funding to stabilise public finances.

Much of what I am announcing today is the result of a significant period of negotiations between the Government and the Democratic Unionist party, led by the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson). Many of us in this Chamber last week could not have failed to be struck by his unshakeable advocacy on behalf of the Unionist cause. That same determination, fortitude and tact was at the heart of his approach during those detailed discussions, and further to the right hon. Member’s comments in this place last week, I am absolutely sure that the whole House will join me in expressing support for him in utterly condemning those shameless figures who have tried to threaten and intimidate him for simply doing his job. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] The right hon. Member is a man who is truly committed to Northern Ireland. He is truly committed to the Union, and has always worked hard to find solutions and improvements when others have taken the far easier path of simply criticising and heckling from the sidelines.

The result—as I hope hon. Members will agree—is a deal that, taken as a whole, is the right one for Northern Ireland and for the Union. With this package, it is now time for elected representatives in Northern Ireland to come together, end the two years of impasse and start work again in the interests of the people who elected them. This week, the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley was clear that this depended on the Government demonstrating their commitment to the Union, not just in word but in deed. That is exactly what we will do. Today, I am publishing the details of the deal, but I am also laying before the House the statutory instruments that enshrine several of its commitments in law. Those instruments will be debated in this place tomorrow, subject to a change in its future business with the will of the House, as an immediate show of good faith.

Once those instruments are passed by this House, as I hope they will be, I trust we will have the conditions to move onwards and to see Ministers back in post in Stormont swiftly. As those Ministers take their places, they will face massive challenges, but they have the tools to grasp those challenges, not least in moving to resolve the public sector pay issues that have been so disruptive. They will also be able to grasp the opportunities offered by Northern Ireland’s unique economic position and the good will that it enjoys across the world.

It is only right that I acknowledge that, for many in the community, an important part of this will be seeing Michelle O’Neill take her place as First Minister following the democratic mandate she won at the May 2022 Assembly election, recognising that the First and Deputy First Ministers remain equal in law. I look forward to working with the new First Minister and Deputy First Minister and all their colleagues in the Northern Ireland Executive to improve the lives of people from all backgrounds, whether Unionist, nationalist or other. As we move forward swiftly to give effect to our commitments, I urge the parties to do the same thing by notifying the Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly to recall Stormont, electing a First Minister and Deputy First Minister, and appointing new Ministers to the Executive.

It is time to build on the progress of the last 25 years. Today, we have presented a plan that will deliver the long-term change that Northern Ireland needs. It will strengthen Northern Ireland’s place in our Union and guarantee the free flow of goods across the entire United Kingdom. It is only by sticking to this plan that we will become a more united and prosperous country together, and I commend this statement to the House.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement.

This is a very significant moment. It is our chance to restore to the people of Northern Ireland what they desperately need but have been without for almost two years: a functioning Government. It will also mark a first in Northern Ireland history when Michelle O’Neill takes up her position as Sinn Féin First Minister in a power-sharing Government with a DUP Deputy First Minister. I would like to thank the Secretary of State for his tireless efforts that have brought us to this point. His is a great achievement.

I would like to acknowledge the courageous and decisive leadership of the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson), who in the face of abuse has consistently and persuasively made his case for change, while always being clear that he wanted to return to government with an agreement that was acceptable to all communities. I also want to thank the other party leaders in Northern Ireland—and I join the Secretary of State in doing so—who, with great wisdom, have allowed the time and the space for this deal to be reached, as well as to express my thanks to all the officials involved.

On the legislative changes that the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State has set out, I welcome the Government’s commitment not to ratify any new Northern Ireland-related agreements with the EU that would create new regulatory borders. This will be a helpful brake on divergence. Could the Secretary of State say when the new UK internal market lane will come into being?

We will of course examine in detail all the proposals in the statutory instruments to which the right hon. Gentleman referred—I understand that we are likely to debate them tomorrow—because we need to get on with this so that the Assembly can be recalled and the Executive established as quickly as possible. I have always made it clear that we believe in Northern Ireland’s place in the internal market of the United Kingdom, and that we support any practical measures to reinforce it that are consistent with the Windsor framework, which we also support, and that have the support of nationalists as well as Unionists. On that basis, we will vote for the legislation.

The money that the Secretary of State has announced, including the needs-based funding formula and the stabilisation funding, will enable a restored Executive and Assembly to give public sector workers a pay rise, for which they have waited too long, and to start to tackle the huge challenges facing communities and public services and make the most of the great economic potential of Northern Ireland. We also welcome the plans to defer and then write off Stormont’s overspend, provided that the Executive produce a new fiscal sustainability plan. How quickly does the right hon. Gentleman expect the money to be transferred, and when does he think the new Executive will produce a budget?

Finally, as we reflect on the importance of this moment, since the Good Friday agreement was signed the people of Northern Ireland have been without a devolved Government for over a third of the time. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree with me that we need to work together—all of us in the House—to prevent the institutions from collapsing again in the years ahead? Stability is everything, especially to the people of Northern Ireland after all they have been through, and we all have a duty to ensure that it endures.

I thank the shadow Secretary of State for his very kind words and for all the work he has done with me on these matters. I really do appreciate the way we have been able to work together. It has contributed to our getting to this point and it has made a big difference, so I thank him for that.

The shadow Secretary of State is completely right that everyone in this House will need to work together to ensure stability for Northern Ireland and to ensure that the institutions do not fall again. It is vital that we all understand the responsibility that sits with us in this place: we are guarantors of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. We have a responsibility to the people of Northern Ireland, and in every way we should consider that in everything we do, because this Union is stronger for it.

The shadow Secretary of State asked some questions. We hope to have the UK internal market lane in operation as soon as possible, and we obviously need some legal changes—I mean, other changes—to have that done. The money will flow as soon as the new Executive is up and running, and I very much hope that a new Executive will be sitting very soon.

I warmly commend the hard work of my right hon. Friend—and good friend—the Secretary of State. It is only a week ago that we passed legislation to extend the election period, and heard the impressive and powerful speech of the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson). He has demonstrated, with his colleagues in the DUP, that to lead is to choose and to make difficult decisions. They have done that, and I think respect and praise are due in large measure for their hard work.

I am particularly pleased that the Command Paper incorporates many of the sensible recommendations from the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson), which we share, on further legislation to make sure that the position of Northern Ireland within the UK internal market is absolutely cemented. I am particularly pleased that the Command Paper looks forward to new investment—not just the important investment in public services, but the enhanced investment zone proposal of £150 million, which will be at the centre of how we attract new inward investment to realise the huge potential that Northern Ireland presents for jobs and the economy both here in the UK and across the wider world.

It is tempting for this Parliament, once it passes the secondary legislation, to say that the job is done, but we cannot afford to devolve and forget. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that this Government will not devolve and forget?

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his welcome for this package of measures. It is a package, and it has been negotiated over a long period of time, with a better understanding of all the things that Northern Ireland needs to be an active and wonderful part of the Union. I welcome his comments on the investment zone, and he is absolutely correct in what he said at the end. Northern Ireland will never be forgotten in this place, and I hope we are demonstrating that today.

Can I just say on behalf of my party that we very much welcome the progress that has been made? We are firmly of the view that Northern Ireland is governed best when it is governed locally, and we welcome the publication of the Command Paper.

I would like to take this opportunity to recognise the distance that has been travelled by all parties in getting to this point, but we were brought to this point by a failure of politics around the manner in which the UK chose to leave the European Union. Now that the politics has moved on, it is time for the politicians in Northern Ireland to step up, and we wish the MLAs well in that endeavour and look forward to seeing the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister taking office in what will be a very significant moment in history for all in these islands.

The Secretary of State describes his party as being the party of the Union, and I say to him that it has not gone unnoticed in other parts of the Union that Northern Ireland has for some time had the offer of a status, in its access to the UK market and to the European market, that other parts of the Union are now deprived of. I am sure that voters will draw their own conclusions from that.

I want to ask two questions. When might the details of any new fiscal framework emerge? While I would like to take this opportunity to welcome the new east-west economic council, can the Secretary of State clarify what role there might be for the other devolved institutions in these islands to make that new council as successful as it possibly can be?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his questions, his welcome and his help in the past few weeks and months, which has been much appreciated. Again, it has helped us to get to this place. He is right to recognise that Northern Ireland is a special place, and has a special place as the only part of the United Kingdom with a land border with the EU. In the past, that has created disadvantage, but we hope it will create advantage for it in the future. Everyone recognises that; it was recognised in the Windsor framework and, as he will see, in various choices we are making in the Command Paper.

On the fiscal framework, I very much hope that the incoming Northern Ireland Executive and Ministers responsible will work with His Majesty’s Treasury in great detail to make sure that we get that absolutely right. I have never conducted a negotiation with His Majesty’s Treasury in that sort