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Volume 744: debated on Wednesday 31 January 2024

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.