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Commons Chamber

Volume 745: debated on Tuesday 6 February 2024

House of Commons

Tuesday 6 February 2024

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Treasury

The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—

Tax System: Fairness

Regarding fairness, we have a progressive tax system where the top 5% of income tax payers pay nearly half of all income tax, while the top 1% pay more than 28%. In addition, the national insurance reforms announced at the autumn statement cut taxes for 29 million people. That package also strengthens the fiscal position by helping taxpayers to get their taxes right, while bearing down on the small minority who seek to avoid paying their fair share.

The Minister talks about tax cuts, but in April most households in this country will receive a 5% increase in their council tax. That is not because local councils have mismanaged their finances, but because after 13 years of austerity, the local government finance system is essentially broken and relies on a regressive and unfair council tax. Why in the autumn statement did the Chancellor freeze the budgets of the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities for the whole of the next Parliament, leading the Office for Budget Responsibility to forecast a further £13 billion rise in council tax? Does that not show that the Chancellor has no regard at all for councils and the services they provide, or is he simply deferring a problem that his Government has created for the next Government to sort out?

I am afraid that is a ridiculous characterisation. We on this side of the House care, including about our vibrant, important local councils. That is precisely why they just received an additional £600 million, and future spending will be a matter for future fiscal events.

I am a strong believer in fairness in taxation. Would my hon. Friend care to advise the House about who would bear the heaviest burden of taxation, should His Majesty’s Government choose to adopt the £28 billion spending commitment that the Labour party announced on the radio this morning?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Of course, we never know from day to day exactly what Labour’s policy is, and I understand there are even differences among its Front Benchers at the moment, but we heard a firm commitment, without any promises at all about where the money would come from. We therefore know where it would come from: it would come out of taxpayers’ pockets or further borrowing, which is deferred taxation. Everybody will pay for it.

The Labour party has set out clear proposals to close tax loopholes on non-doms, private schools and private equity to give a much-needed boost to our public services. Will the Treasury Minister confirm whether the Government have assessed, or plan to assess, the merits of such a policy?

I am pleased to hear the hon. Gentleman’s enthusiasm for closing down tax loopholes and going after the abusers. It begs the question why Labour did not vote in favour of the Finance Bill last night, which included measures along those lines.

That is a short answer, but the answer to the wrong question—perhaps the Minister can have a second go. While he is thinking about the answer, I point out that the Comptroller and Auditor General has highlighted that the Government are wasting up to £28 billion a year on mismanaged procurement and governance of major projects. Does the Minister agree that the Conservative Chancellor and his predecessors have had to raise taxes so much partly because they are wasting so many billions of taxpayers’ money each and every year?

The reason we have had to raise taxes is £350 billion of support during the pandemic, which I did not hear the Opposition oppose, and an additional £100 billion to help people during the cost of living crisis, which I did not hear the Opposition oppose. We therefore had to increase taxes out of necessity, but we reduce them out of choice, which is exactly what we are doing. Labour increases taxes out of necessity and then continues to increase them out of choice.

Economic Growth in Scotland: Tax Policies

2. If he will make an assessment of the impact of his Department’s tax policies on economic growth in Scotland during this Parliament. (901357)

The Government remain committed to increasing economic growth in Scotland and right across the UK. As part of 110 growth measures in the autumn statement 2023, the Government introduced tax policies that are projected to stimulate economic growth in Scotland and across the country. That includes making full expensing permanent and the largest ever cut to employee and self-employed national insurance contributions, which means more people working.

The EY Independent Treasury Economic Model Club forecast published yesterday found that the UK’s growth forecast of 0.8% this year is only slightly outperformed by the even more disappointing 0.7% growth in Scotland. Given this Parliament has hiked taxes 25 times, and the Scottish National party now think that those on modest incomes in Scotland should pay even more tax, does the Minister agree that the people of Scotland are simply paying the price for two Governments with no economic credibility?

No, I do not agree. The hon. Member should be aware that the OECD suggests that in the coming years we will be growing faster than France, Italy and Germany. Of course, the Government have a strong track record against our OECD friends over the last 14 years, and Scotland benefits from this economic growth.

As in Scotland, business rates are devolved in Wales. With business rates relief set to fall from 75% to 40%, businesses in Wales will pay almost twice as much as in England. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Welsh Labour Government should be supporting local businesses such as the Kinmel Arms in Moelfre and not increasing the number of Senedd Members by a staggering 60%?

My hon. Friend puts it well. Of course, we have seen the considerable protections and support given in retail, hospitality and leisure business rates relief in England. That has not been extended to the same extent in Wales, and Scotland failed to extend it as well. She makes an important point.

Contrary to what the Minister said, OECD forecasts show that the UK will have the lowest growth in the G20 and the highest inflation in the G7. Ministers like to pretend that there is no real cost of living crisis, but there is one, and it is biting hard. How long will Ministers—and their Labour counterparts—continue to peddle the fantasy that Brexit is somehow good for the Scottish people?

I am afraid that the thing that would most impoverish the people of Scotland is separation from the UK. After 16 years of SNP rule—longer than the Conservatives’ in England—GDP per head in Scotland is lower, productivity is falling, employment is lower and inactivity is higher. That is not exactly a proud record.

The Minister talks about GDP. The Office for Budget Responsibility forecast that GDP in the UK will be 4% lower in the long term due to Brexit. Meanwhile, independent Ireland in the EU is booming with a giant fiscal surplus. Given that the Tories, Labour and the Lib Dems are all now champions of Brexit, is it not the case that the only way for Scotland to rejoin the EU is through becoming an independent country?

The hon. Gentleman knows that the IMF has forecast us greater growth than France, Italy and Germany over the next few years. If he is so enthusiastic about supporting growth, including helping businesses across the United Kingdom, perhaps Scottish National party Members could have joined us in the voting Lobby last night instead of voting against, for example, full expensing and investment in research and development. They voted against that—how on earth is that in the interests of their constituents?

Business Investment: Fiscal Measures

Mr Speaker, may I add my comments to yours yesterday about His Majesty the King? I wish him and his family well, as well as saluting his courage in being so open about his condition.

At the autumn statement last year, I announced an ambitious growth package, which will boost business investment by about £20 billion a year. We are making full expensing permanent, which the CBI welcomed as a game changer that will fire up the British economy.

I also welcome those measures. Business rates are among the biggest issues for small businesses in Meon Valley, so I welcome the Chancellor’s £4.6 billion package of support in the autumn statement. However, following covid, there are a number of empty offices where landlords are still having to pay business rates. Does the Chancellor have any measures to support those who are struggling with a lack of income to pay business rates?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the pressures caused by business rates. That was why in the autumn statement we introduced the 75% discount for retail, hospitality and leisure. All I would say is that the reason we were able to introduce those large cuts in business rates was that we did not embark on a spending spree of £28 billion a year, which is Labour’s policy on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, but not apparently on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

I will try to be nice to the Chancellor, but he seems to be living in a parallel universe. If he came to Huddersfield and talked to my businesses and manufacturers, he would find them at the lowest ebb that I can ever remember. It is time that the stimulus was there to make people invest and create jobs. Get on with it, Chancellor!

If that was being nice, I am relieved that I have not seen the other type of questions that the hon. Member asks. I agree that manufacturing is central to our economic fortunes, which is why it was good news that last year we overtook France to become the eighth-largest manufacturer in the world. But we have gone even further: in the autumn statement, we announced a £4.5 billion manufacturing strategy to give further support to make our manufacturers the best in the world.

Yesterday, we had the pleasure of discussing the very many benefits from the autumn statement, including research and development grants and simplification of the tax code. However, I wonder whether the Chancellor might go a little further and see whether cutting VAT for the tourism and hospitality sector, perhaps by 10% over five years, would be advisable to help the economy across the United Kingdom.

My hon. Friend is an assiduous supporter of the many pubs, restaurants and shops in Devon, and I commend him for that support. We will, of course, keep all those measures under review ahead of the Budget.

Hair salons are a vital mainstay of our high streets, but many employers are worried about the sustainability of their businesses; a huge issue is their tax bills, with VAT a significant concern, making further business investment very difficult. Cutting VAT to 10% would make an important difference to local businesses, high streets and apprentice training. Will the Chancellor look at doing that to support all our local economies?

I will always look at anything that helps businesses to grow and expand. I set up and ran my own business for 14 years. Can I gently say to the hon. Lady that it is slightly incongruous to argue for lower taxes when the SNP has given Scotland the highest taxes in the United Kingdom?

Loan Charge: Bankruptcy

4. If he will make an assessment of the potential impact of the loan charge on levels of bankruptcy. (901359)

I have heard the concerns expressed by hon. Members on the impact of the loan charge, and I have pushed His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs for firm assurances on the safeguards that it has in place. No one will be forced by HMRC to sell their main home or access their pension funds early to pay their loan charge debts, nor has HMRC petitioned for bankruptcy, which would be only a last resort and is in nobody’s interest. There is substantial support in place to help people in debt, including agreeing time-to-pay arrangements with them.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer and his engagement with the loan charge and taxpayer fairness all-party parliamentary group, including a meeting this evening with its officers. In an internal document that surfaced as part of the 2019 Morse review, HMRC admitted to around 100 bankruptcies from the loan charge. Can the Minister tell the House why that figure has never been given publicly by HMRC, and what the figure is today?

Again, I thank my hon. Friend for championing this area and his great concern for the human stories behind the difficult circumstances resulting from some of these schemes. As I have said, I am constantly seeking reassurance from HMRC on this matter, and my understanding is that where bankruptcies have occurred, it has often been because of requirements outside of the loan charge, not from HMRC; indeed, some people have declared bankruptcy of their own volition. However, if my hon. Friend has evidence to the contrary, I would like to know about it.

The original Treasury impact statement for the loan charge stated that it would have no material impact on

“family formation, stability or breakdown”,

yet there have been countless divorces, family break-ups, mental health breakdowns and bankruptcies, and at least 10 suicides. That impact statement was grossly wrong, but also surely negligent. We now need a full investigation, including how and why Parliament was so misled over the dangerous and unfair loan charge.

I hear the House’s concern about this issue, on which we had a debate not so long ago. Of course, the suicides the hon. Gentleman mentions concern us, and independent reviews have taken place. However, I want to provide the House and anybody listening with reassurance that the best thing to do if people have concerns is to engage with HMRC, because very generous and long-term plans can be put in place to help people to repay. As I said, there are fears out there—there is a bit of scaremongering—that homes are being taken over or people are having to give up pensions. That is not the case. Engagement with HMRC to establish reasonable time to pay would therefore be reassuring for many of the people who fear much worse consequences. My appeal is to engage with HMRC.

The Government’s approach to the loan charge has become a nightmare for ordinary people across the country who are the victims of mis-selling and facing financial ruin. The torment and devastating reality is the clearest possible proof that the Government need to think again. Those facing the loan charge ordeal cannot bear to hear yet again that the Morse review is the final word on this matter. Will the Minister finally agree today to commission a new, truly independent review?

We had an independent review in 2019 under Lord Morse. The Government accepted 19 of its 20 recommendations. The review has taken place, but as I have said repeatedly, I am challenging HMRC and listening to colleagues. If action needs to be taken, I will take it, but I do not believe that there is a case for another review, because we have already had one, and the Government have already taken action.

Homeowners with Mortgages: Support

As the House knows, the path to lower interest rates is through lower inflation, which is why the Government are fully committed to supporting the Bank of England to get inflation back down to its 2% target. If mortgage borrowers fall into financial difficulty, our mortgage charter, which covers about 90% of the market, includes new flexibilities to help customers manage their repayments, on top of the Financial Conduct Authority’s rules on how lenders must treat borrowers.

Given that a lot of mortgage payers are suffering because of the rapid hike in interest rates, will the Government continue to talk to the Bank of England and mortgage lenders to see what can be done to bring interest rates down? That would help most people.

I completely agree on the absolute need to drive mortgage rates down, which is why we are supporting the Bank of England’s independent remit to bring interest rates down. We are also ensuring that we do not do things to make inflation worse, such as adding £28 billion to Government borrowing, which would increase inflation.

The rate for a two-year fixed mortgage remains more than double the level of December 2021. More than 900,000 borrowers are set to see their monthly payments rise by £500 or even £1,000 a month. Government Ministers are having to resign because of increasing mortgage payments. How does the Chancellor expect people in Scotland to cope with increased mortgage rates if his Ministers cannot?

I would say two things in response to the hon. Lady. First, the best thing we can do is to help people with the cost of living, not increase their taxes, as the SNP in Scotland proposes, and to maintain—[Interruption.] I will not get bored of saying this. Secondly, we maintain our support for the Bank of England driving inflation down. We have more than halved it. We will continue to do that, and interest rates will come right down.

Economic Growth Forecasts: 2024 and 2025

6. What recent assessment he has made of the implications for his policies of economic growth forecasts for 2024 and 2025. (901362)

We announced 110 growth measures in the autumn statement. Taken together with the measures in the spring Budget, the independent Office for Budget Responsibility says that they will have the biggest impact on output that it has ever measured in a fiscal event, increasing GDP by 0.5% by 2028-29.

The UK economy is set for slower growth than previously thought. The International Monetary Fund predicts that next year we will have the second worst growth in the G7. In Scotland, the SNP has increased taxes, which we have heard about already, and Scots now face six bands. Stagnation there is even worse, and businesses and households in my constituency need reassurance. Will the Chancellor tell us what he will do to give confidence to people up and down the country that we will soon see economic growth?

May I gently correct the hon. Lady on the IMF? It said that over the next four years, UK growth will be higher than in Germany, France, Italy and Japan. I agree about SNP tax rises, but I point out that the Liberal Democrats have some tax rises of their own. They want to increase capital gains tax, which would be incredibly damaging for Scotland’s financial services industry, which employs thousands of people.

Has the Chancellor had the opportunity to look at the New Conservatives’ budget proposal, a budget for families? It has a six-point plan, with two points to help unlock growth, particularly for the many small, family-run businesses in places such as Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke. Those plans to increase the VAT registration threshold to £250,000 and to abolish the IR35 reforms would surely help us unlock the growth of our great nation.

I have been talking with my hon. Friend about these issues recently. In fact, we were discussing increasing the VAT threshold only last night—such are the interesting evenings I have in this job! We will look seriously and carefully at any measures that help small businesses. They are the lifeblood of the country.

Cost of Living

7. What recent assessment he has made of the impact of increases in the cost of living on living standards. (901363)

The Government stand by households, with one of Europe’s largest support packages, worth on average £3,700 per UK household, but we all know that the key to reducing cost of living pressures is to bring down inflation, which we have more than halved, delivering on the Prime Minister’s promise.

Families in Luton and Bedfordshire, and indeed the rest of the country, are worse off because of 14 years of economic chaos and incompetence under the Conservatives. Does the Minister concede that, even if the Government’s inflation target is met, families will still be paying £300 a month more for their household bills than they were just 18 months ago?

Fourteen years of the Conservatives has halved unemployment and increased employment by 4 million. Crucially, poverty is down: we have 1.7 million fewer people in poverty now than in 2010, including 400,000 children and 200,000 pensioners. That is a legacy to be proud of.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s report on poverty in the UK in 2024 reiterates that, consistently, the demographic with the highest poverty rates is children. Although 29% of the children in my constituency live in poverty, the Scottish Government are doing what they can with their limited powers via the Scottish child payment. Will the Chancellor and his team use their powers to make a concerted and determined effort to tackle the scourge of poverty, which is so damaging to our children?

I reiterate: we have 400,000 fewer children in poverty now than in 2010. In addition, the national insurance contributions cut that we have introduced has been shown to cut child poverty dramatically. Crucially, the leading indicator of whether a child is in poverty is whether their parents are in work, and that is what we have delivered over this Parliament—[Interruption.] Yes it is—it absolutely is. Getting more people into work will help to solve child poverty.

The British public are still struggling with the Conservative cost of living crisis, and the Government are now forcing up council tax. Last week, for the first time in my life, a Conservative MP spoke for me when he said:

“There’s almost no point chopping £100 off tax bills nationally if you’re adding on to it with council tax.”

Labour Members agree with the hon. Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley). Does the Chief Secretary agree with her hon. Friend and colleague?

Council tax is a matter for councils, but we put in place a limit, which I do not believe existed under the previous Labour Government. More than that, the most difficult thing for councils and consumers more broadly is the £28 billion-worth of tax rises that Labour is planning in government.

Bankers’ Bonuses: Removal of Cap

8. If he will make an assessment of the potential impact of removing the cap on bankers’ bonuses on the financial sector. (901364)

Removing the bankers’ bonus cap was a decision made by the independent Prudential Regulation Authority, which has long said that the cap was completely ineffective; it did not limit pay or make banks safer.

The cap on bankers’ bonuses might have been a great newspaper headline, but it did little to tackle the City’s excesses. Financial institutions quickly changed remuneration packages and structures so that risk takers still receive substantial pay-offs, sometimes even taking them through offshore mechanisms. Does the Chancellor agree that what we need is enhanced regulation to mitigate excessive risk taking in the square mile? That could require, beyond merely capping bonuses, a move toward an alignment of interests focused on the form of bonus payments, share allocations and deferred amounts, and robust clawback mechanisms for those who have behaved maliciously, in order to deter misconduct in the square mile more effectively?

I suspect that when the hon. Gentleman tabled his question, he was not expecting that the biggest supporter of abolishing the bankers’ bonus cap was not the Chancellor but the shadow Chancellor. I hear what he says, and indeed those are some of the reasons we abolished it, because it was not working. If Labour is going to change its mind on that policy, may I ask—just to take a totally random example—when will it change its mind about the planned £28 billion of additional borrowing?

Non-dom Status: Abolition

9. Whether he has made a recent assessment of the potential merits of abolishing non-domiciled tax status. (901365)

The Government want the UK to have a fair but internationally competitive tax system, designed to bring in talented individuals and investment that contributes to the growth of the economy. Non-doms play an important role in funding our public services through their tax contributions. They pay tax on their UK source income and gains in the same way as everyone else.

The Minister talks of fairness, but the fact is that during the cost of living crisis nearly a million more struggling pensioners will start paying income tax, because of the freeze in personal allowance rates, while the Government protect some of the richest members of society through non-domicile status. Scrapping that status could bring the Treasury an extra £3 billion a year. Why do the Government not do the right thing and bring in that extra money to protect pensioners and the lowest paid?

Non-doms contributed about £8.5 billion in taxes in 2022, and have contributed to investment to the tune of £7 billion since 2012. The hon. Gentleman will be well aware that scrapping their status would not be risk-free in a world in which people can be quite mobile, and could damage the UK’s competitiveness. As for the need for other support, that is exactly why we have been reducing national insurance rates, for example.

Mortgage Interest Rates: Impact on Disposable Income

10. What recent assessment he has made of the potential impact of changes in mortgage interest rates during this Parliament on household disposable income. (901366)

Mortgage interest rates have fallen by more than 100 basis points from their peak in the summer. None the less, the Government have prioritised support for households that are vulnerable to cost of living pressures. We have introduced one of Europe’s largest support packages, and it is partly thanks to those measures that real incomes have proved more resilient than was anticipated. In the third quarter of 2023, real household disposable income per person was just 0.5% lower than in Q4 2019, versus the Office for Budget Responsibility’s autumn statement 2023 forecast that it would be almost 3% lower.

I thank the Minister for his answer, but since his party’s disastrous mini-Budget fiasco under the previous Prime Minister, food prices have soared, extreme damage has been done to the economy and mortgages have skyrocketed. Every month 200,000 people are having to remortgage, the average monthly rate has risen by £240, and 1.6 million people will have to remortgage this year. Overall, after 14 years of a Conservative Government, people are more than £10,000 less well off than they were on pre-2010 trends. Is it not time that the Chancellor and his ministerial team looked again at the possibility of additional support for those who are facing mortgage and other financial distress? The Chancellor is frowning, but it is time that he took further action to support people in distress.

This Government have introduced one of Europe’s largest support packages, worth more than £100 billion during 2022 to 2025. That is an average of £3,700 per household. The point about mortgage rates is that they went up everywhere across the world, to a higher level than ours in many jurisdictions such as the United States. I have already mentioned the work that we have done on the mortgage charter, helping hundreds of thousands of people to manage their mortgages, but the critical thing that we need to do is bring inflation down. She needs to talk to her shadow Chancellor and the shadow Treasury team about their plans, which would make inflation higher.

Infected Blood Compensation: Funding

11. Whether he has had recent discussions with Cabinet colleagues on funding for a UK-wide infected blood compensation scheme. (901369)

13. Whether he has had discussions with Cabinet colleagues on the potential cost to the Exchequer of compensation for people infected and affected by contaminated blood and blood products. (901372)

This is an appalling tragedy, and my thoughts remain with all those affected. We understand the strength of feeling, and the need for action. The Government have accepted the moral case for compensation, and have acknowledged that justice needs to be delivered for victims. As such, the Government intend to respond in full to Sir Brian Langstaff’s recommendations for wider compensation following the publication of the inquiry’s final report in May this year.

The Minister’s answering that question has brought forth another question. The Chancellor was previously Secretary of State in the Department of Health, and three of his former colleagues all gave a commitment to address the issue. Now that the Chancellor is in a position to do something about that, how long is it going to take? As this Government’s days are numbered, the difficulty I have is whether this will be in place before we have an election. Will they ensure that the commitment is there?

I know that the hon. Gentleman has a lifelong friend who has suffered from this terrible tragedy, and I can reassure him that we are determined to do right by the victims and those who have tragically lost their loved ones. The victims of the infected blood scandal deserve justice and recognition. On his question on timing, Governments of all colours have failed to sort this out, but I am pleased that the interim payments at least have been paid. As I have said, the Government are committed to the moral case for compensation and we are expecting the final report very soon. We will move as quickly as possible afterwards.

We have had Sir Brian Langstaff’s recommendations since April 2023. Mrs Dorricott, the wife of the Chancellor’s constituent Mike, told the inquiry that the Chancellor, when he was Health Secretary, told Mr Dorricott:

“Don’t worry about this, we’ll sort it.”

He is now the Chancellor, with his hands on the purse strings, so will he now—through his colleague the Chief Secretary to the Treasury—confirm that the Government have identified the contingencies to pay the compensation to the people hit by the infected blood scandal?

I can confirm that we are working with the Cabinet Office and the Department of Health and Social Care to ensure that we can respond as quickly as possible once the inquiry reports.

Small Businesses: Support

Small businesses are the engines that drive our economy and we support them to thrive using levers right across Government. Our small business rates relief means that one third of business properties in England already pay no business rates. We provide tax reliefs benefiting small and medium-sized enterprises, such as the annual investment allowance and employment allowance, and we support investment in SMEs through British Business Bank programmes and a variety of other support measures.

What consideration has been given to reducing employer national insurance contributions to help small businesses to sustain employment following the record increase in the national living wage from April, particularly in the tourism and hospitality industries?

My hon. Friend and I have spoken about these policy areas on a number of occasions. In terms of supporting small businesses, the employment allowance enables businesses with employer national insurance contributions bills of £100,000 or less to claim up to £5,000 off those bills. That was increased in April 2022 from £4,000 to £5,000, so the smallest 40% of businesses have already been taken out of paying employer national insurance contributions, and many of those are in the hospitality and leisure sector. We always keep policies under review, and I know that my hon. Friend will always be lobbying on this issue.

Becoming an entrepreneur in this country has become increasingly purgatorial over the past 25 years. Does the Minister agree that what small businessmen want is not more handouts and allowances from the Government but lower, simpler and flatter taxes, and less regulation not more? They want the Government to get off their backs and shove off.

That was very interestingly put by my right hon. Friend. I completely agree with his instincts, though, and those instincts are completely shared on the Conservative Benches. When we are able to reduce tax and release the entrepreneurial spirit, independence and innovation that exist right across the UK, the country thrives and all of us thrive.

In 2020, the former Chancellor set a public sector net investment target of 3% of GDP, but that was abandoned after the 2022 debacle and today we have the second lowest business investment among advanced economies, partly because of that failure on public sector net investment. Can the Minister offer us any reassurance on the future trajectory of public sector net investment?

Of course, Labour left us in pretty terrible financial circumstances back in 2010. Instead its figure is up £28 billion in real terms at the start of the next Parliament, an increase of 40% in real terms or 7% annually—the biggest ever published.

Small businesses are the backbone of our economy, but they have a constant problem with late payments, which increased by 7% last year, and that is driving many of them into insolvency. Given that the Government are a major contractor, what are they doing through project bank accounts to reduce the impact of late payments?

The hon. Lady makes an important point, and I know there is agreement on this issue across the Chamber. We made statements last year along those lines, putting particular pressure on the public sector. I am sure there will be continuing pressure on the private sector, too.

Financial Services: Growth Support

The Government are taking ambitious steps to grow the UK’s world-leading financial services sector, with widespread industry support. To take one example, reforms to Solvency II will help to spur a vibrant, innovative and internationally competitive insurance sector. The reforms will unlock £100 billion-worth of productive investment to grow the economy in every constituency over the next 10 years.

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer but, clearly, to grow the financial services industry, investors must have confidence that their money is safe. I have written to him about the Woodford equity scandal, of which there are many thousands of victims across the country. The Financial Conduct Authority refused to intervene, so will he now intervene and take action to ensure that the investors get at least a large part of their money back?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question, for writing to me and for standing up for the rights of his constituents. It is important the House knows that over 90% of investors voted to accept the scheme of arrangement. It is now up to the court to decide whether to approve it, and I therefore will not comment on it any further. I am happy to be in constant dialogue with him on this matter, as on many others.

As the Minister knows, the Northern Ireland Assembly sits for the first time today to make a change for Northern Ireland. We would very much like to be part of the financial services sector, so what can he and the Government do to support the Northern Ireland Assembly in relation to the financial services sector, and to ensure that we in Northern Ireland can be part of this great country of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland? Always better together.

I strongly echo the hon. Gentleman’s sentiments. I am very happy to engage with him and his colleagues from Northern Ireland to see what more I can do in the Treasury to work with him and, indeed, the Northern Ireland Executive, particularly to encourage our financial services institutions to invest more in Northern Ireland. I am very happy to discuss ways in which we can do that.

Regional Economic Inequalities: Fiscal Steps

This Government are committed to supporting all parts of the United Kingdom. In October we announced the £1.1 billion long-term plan for towns, which gives 55 towns up to £20 million of endowment-style funding. We are delivering an ambitious programme of investment zones and devolution deals, we ae continuing to support local growth through the UK shared prosperity fund and we are investing billions to improve local transport connections in our regions outside London.

By their own measures, the Government are failing on almost half of their levelling-up missions in the east of England. Meanwhile, the Cambridge sub-region, which is a net contributor to the Exchequer, has vital transport projects on hold or awaiting finance. When will the Treasury stop stalling growth and give power back to the regions, which know best what needs to be done in their area?

This Government are committed to levelling up by boosting growth, raising living standards and spreading opportunity throughout the country in several different ways. The hon. Gentleman talks about giving more power to local areas, and he will know that the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority is getting a £97 million devolution deal. He will also know that Cambridge received some £14 million as part of the shared prosperity fund to spend on local projects. I reject his assertion; the people of Cambridge are benefiting from this Government.

The way to reduce regional inequality is to ensure that growth happens everywhere across the country. One way to do that is to support small and medium-sized enterprises and community enterprises, which are particularly located in under-served regions. I commend the Government for the recovery loan scheme, which has been a lifeline to many small businesses and community enterprises. Can the Minister tell us whether that scheme is likely to be renewed? Hundreds of millions of pounds of private investment is waiting on the Government to make a decision.

My hon. Friend has a long history as a great champion for community organisations. I will write to him on his specific question.

National Living Wage

The Government are committed to ending low pay. From 1 April 2024, the national living wage will increase by 9.8%, to £11.44. That represents an increase of more than £1,800 to the annual earnings of a full-time national living wage worker and it is expected to benefit about 2.7 million workers.

I congratulate the Government on increasing the national living wage, because that will make a huge difference. However, after speaking to not only those in the public sector, at the likes of my local Leicestershire County Council and Hinckley and Bosworth Borough Council, but small businesses in the private sector, I know that there is a trade-off, because they have to foot that wage bill. What steps can the Government take to make sure that those businesses and the public sector have the money to pass on to those who are earning so well?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and I will take the two parts of it in turn. The Government continue to support businesses with the higher costs through a generous package of support. At the autumn statement, we showed our commitment to supporting small businesses by extending the 75% retail, hospitality and leisure relief, and by freezing the small business multiplier, which will protect more than 1 million properties from the multiplier increase. Yesterday, we announced a wide-ranging package of support worth £600 million for local councils, including £500 million of new funding for social care.

I understand that concerns were expressed some years ago about how a significant increase in the minimum wage may well have a knock-on effect, particularly on the hospitality sector. Given that that did not come about with previous living wage increases, will the Chief Secretary commit her Government to ensuring that future increases will be monitored closely to enable and assist small businesses to increase wage levels systematically and sustainably over the longer term?

I can commit to the hon. Gentleman that we are absolutely monitoring the effects, but, as I said, a good package of support is in place for businesses.

Topical Questions

I would like to update the House on a couple of data releases published since our last oral questions. Total greenfield foreign direct investment since 2010 has not just been higher than that of France, Germany and Italy, but in the past two years has overtaken that of China to be the second highest in the world. Yesterday’s labour force survey said that unemployment fell to a quarterly average of 3.9%, meaning that unemployment has halved and Conservative Governments have overseen the creation of more than 800 jobs every day since 2010.

Can the Treasury find funds for an increased pay offer for junior doctors? I completely agree that we must safeguard the public finances and have regard to affordability, but if ever a group deserved a pay rise, it is junior doctors, and we need to get the dispute settled.

As my right hon. Friend knows, as Health Secretary I campaigned for extra money for the NHS to make sure that we could pay NHS staff fairly, but I do believe that junior doctors have had a very fair offer—one that is higher than was recommended by the independent pay review body and is about double the rate of this year’s predicted inflation. I know that the Health Secretary is willing to talk about anything else that could help make their working conditions better.

Last week, at Prime Minister’s questions, when asked about the Tory mortgage penalty, the Prime Minister boasted that someone coming off a fixed-rate mortgage

“will be able to save hundreds of pounds.”—[Official Report, 31 January 2024; Vol. 744, c. 857.]

But the small print was that they had to add many years to their mortgage. Three million people have been coming off fixed-rate mortgage deals this year and last, so does the Chancellor agree with the Prime Minister that British homeowners have never had it so good?

The way we are helping families with mortgages is not just through the mortgage charter, which is a lifeline to many families, but by bringing down inflation. We have been having a few pops about Labour’s confusion about its £28 billion policy, but the real reason we are against it is that going on a borrowing splurge pushes up inflation, pushes up interest rates and makes mortgages more expensive.

It is under a Conservative Government that interest rates, inflation and mortgage costs have gone up. The Government need to take responsibility because, after 14 years, this out-of-touch Government are making it harder for ordinary people to get on. If the Chancellor decides to campaign in next week’s by-elections, what will he say to the 3,100 people in Wellingborough who are remortgaging and paying £210 more on their mortgages every month, and to the 2,800 people in Kingswood paying £270 more a month because of the Conservative mortgage penalty?

What I will say to them is that responsible, difficult decisions, the vast majority of which the shadow Chancellor opposed, have seen the inflation rate more than halve and interest rates likely to have peaked. Last year, we built more houses in one year than in any single year under the previous Labour Government. We are doing everything we can to help bring down mortgage rates, but a £28 billion borrowing spree will make them worse not better.

T4.   In 2011, the Government quite rightly set up the fund to compensate victims of the Equitable Life scandal. Notwithstanding the fact that the Government did not give them enough money, we know that the fund will not be fully spent on the people being compensated. Will my right hon. Friend ensure the fund is used for the benefit of the people who suffered in the scandal, rather than being returned to the Treasury? (901385)

T2. Many of my constituents whose lives have been destroyed by the loan charge scandal feel the central injustice is that the Government are focused on pursuing the victims rather than the companies responsible. They were dismayed to read recent allegations that individuals linked to such companies have donated hundreds of thousands of pounds to the Conservative party. Will the Chancellor confirm why exactly the Government are ignoring the providers and operators of the schemes? How many have been prosecuted specifically for their involvement in disguised remuneration, and not for other misdemeanours? (901383)

Eighty-five per cent of the funds recovered from the loan charge so far—about £3.9 billion in total—have come from the employers, therefore those who were running those schemes, so the hon. Lady is mischaracterising where we have gone so far. There has been one criminal conviction so far; others are in place. I repeat what I said to the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Ealing North (James Murray), earlier: if they were that concerned about ensuring we go after the wrongdoers, they would have voted with us last night in the Finance Bill.[Official Report, 22 February 2024, Vol. 745, c. 12MC.] (Correction)

T9.   At the meeting this evening, will the Financial Secretary review the injustice that prevents loan charge victims who have engaged with His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, but who cannot agree with their assessment, having any access to a tribunal? (901390)

I know my right hon. Friend has been campaigning on the issue. I respect and appreciate the information he has provided, and his contributions to the debate. I assure him that I am in listening mode and looking forward to the meeting this evening, because I want to ensure that I hold HMRC to account to make sure everyone involved is treated fairly and respectfully.

T3. Last week, the International Monetary Fund joined many others in urging the Chancellor to prioritise public spending and investment above tax cuts. Rather than seeking to appease his Back Benchers with tax cuts in the next Budget, will he finally deliver the level of public investment this country is crying out for, including in a nationwide energy efficiency programme that would shield households from volatile gas prices, get their fuel bills down for the long term and create jobs? Or is he yet another one who is running scared of green investment? (901384)

I am sure the hon. Lady understands that I cannot talk about what will be in the Budget ahead of the Budget because no decisions have been made. I celebrate with her that the UK recently became the first major economy in the world to decarbonise by more than 50%, ahead of France, Germany, Japan and the United States.

If the Chancellor had an ambition to spend an additional £28 billion a year on something, will he explain to the House what level of tax that would impose on ordinary households?

I thank my hon. Friend for asking that question. I am curious to know where that figure of £28 billion has come from, but as she has asked the question, I will tell her that, if we were to stick to the fiscal rules, as the Labour party claims it will do, to increase spending by £28 billion would mean increasing income tax by 4% or increasing corporation tax, which Labour says it will cap, by 8%.

T5. With winter still upon us and fuel bills still rising, Ofgem is advising that the level of domestic energy debt is approaching £3 billion. When people cannot meet their current bills, how can they possibly be expected to meet that level of arrears? Is it not time to fund a debt write-off scheme, as proposed by National Energy Action and other fuel poverty campaigners, before hypothermia and misery worsen? (901386)

The Government continue to work with Ofgem. In fact, I met the chief executive officer very recently. Ofgem continues to monitor the levels of energy debt to ensure that consumers are protected. The hon. Gentleman will know that, last year, the Chancellor announced measures to ensure that households with prepayment meters paid no more than those with standard meters, and that is on the back of the energy price guarantee, which effectively paid 50% of people’s household energy bills.

The Chancellor will be aware of a proposal from the World War Muslim Memorial Trust to establish a memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum, honouring an estimated 750,000 Muslims who have fought for the British armed forces, with tens of thousands of them paying the ultimate sacrifice. Previous Budgets have supported memorials that honour those who have given us the freedoms that we enjoy. May I ask the Chancellor to personally consider this proposal and help make it a reality?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right: we must remember and honour the sacrifices made by those of all nationalities and religions who fought for our freedom, including, I believe, nearly 150,000 Muslims who died in the second world war. My officials would be happy to engage with him to identify how best the Government can help make this vision a reality.

T6. Business owners and high street businesses in Oswestry told me that their biggest challenge is business rates. In his upcoming Budget, will the Chancellor consider a radical reform of business rates that puts the high street on an even keel and on a level playing field with the online retailers? (901387)

Over the past few years, we have helped to support our high streets by freezing multipliers and, importantly, targeting further relief at the retail, hospitality and leisure sector. Frequent revaluations are now par for the course, because of the recent changes we have made.

Last July, following a debanking scandal, I wrote to the Economic Secretary to the Treasury about the risks of implementing so-called diversity, equity and inclusion policies. Far from being inclusive, their implementation has often been divisive, yet Labour put such policies at the heart of its financing and growth strategy just last week. Will my hon. Friend assure us that he will give clear direction to the Prudential Regulation Authority and the Financial Conduct Authority to avoid all the risks of so-called DEI policies?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I am studying those policies carefully. I am concerned about certain aspects of what is proposed, and I will be discussing the matter with the PRA and the FCA to make sure that we have sensible policies on this matter.

T7. At the autumn statement, the Chancellor announced that he would explore selling off the Government’s remaining stake in NatWest this year. As it stands, does he anticipate that this will result in a better or worse return for taxpayers, compared with the previous sales? (901388)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. Indeed, the Chancellor announced at the autumn statement last year that, over the next 12 months, the Government will consider selling shares in NatWest. That is all subject to value-for-money concerns and other matters, as he will appreciate, and it is market sensitive. Of course value for money will be at the heart of any consideration of the sale of shares, and the House will be kept fully informed over the coming weeks and months.

My right hon. Friend and his colleagues will be aware of the challenges that businesses and households face in coastal communities. As the Budget approaches, may I urge him to be ever mindful of how we maintain the vitality of the economies in our coastal areas?

I absolutely will; that is a core part of the levelling-up agenda, and my hon. Friend will be pleased to know that, since we started on that agenda, two thirds of all new jobs created have been outside London and the south-east. We will continue to look at any proposals he may have in that respect.

T8. The Government have deliberately created a funding model for universities in which they are dependent on income from international students. Does the Chancellor share my concern about ensuring that nothing is done to undermine that income? (901389)

The university sector is one of the jewels of this country and I am proud that we have four of the world’s top 20 universities. I am happy to look at any individual proposals from the hon. Gentleman.

Last June the Exchequer Secretary announced the energy security investment mechanism, and I welcomed the announcement in last November’s autumn statement that the floor price would rise with inflation from April. How and when will that be legislated for, and will he look at alternative ways of setting that floor price, other than the 20-year reference period that is already used?

The energy security investment mechanism was designed, as my hon. Friend points out, to give more certainty not only to the oil and gas sector, but to investors, ensuring that the energy profits levy is disapplied when prices return to historically normal levels. To provide additional certainty, on the back of urging from him and the industry, we have agreed to legislate for ESIM and will be announcing that shortly.

Regardless of what the Chancellor tells us, the reality remains that people in Bradford are worse off after 14 years of this Government. Healthcare, GPs and dentists are less accessible, homes are more expensive, colder and riddled with mould, jobs are less secure and badly paid, with stagnating wages, and household savings have been wiped out by rising food, water, energy and fuel bills. Ahead of the last Budget he will deliver before the general election, will the Chancellor apologise for 14 years of disaster that have devastated our communities?

Let me tell the hon. Gentleman some positive messages he can take home to his constituents in Bradford: violent crime and burglaries have been halved, school standards are up, the NHS has more doctors and nurses than ever in history and real after-tax income for people on the minimum wage or national living wage is up by 30% if they are working full time.

Can my hon. Friend tell me how many staff are now employed across the eight Departments based at the Darlington Economic Campus? What progress is being made on naming the new building “William McMullen House”?

I can tell my hon. Friend that 750 staff are employed across all Departments at the Darlington Economic Campus. The Treasury’s aim is to reach 355 full-time staff by March 2025, and we are on track to meet that target. The official name of the campus will be decided closer to the 2025-26 delivery date and will be consulted on by the Government Property Agency, but we have heard very clearly his suggestion of William McMullen House, and we will consider that in due course.

The Chancellor knows jolly well that in April 2023 Sir Brian Langstaff made his final recommendations on compensation for those infected and affected by the contaminated blood scandal. The Chancellor also gave evidence in July to Sir Brian and said that work was under way. In December, this House voted for a compensation body to be set up. I would like the Chancellor to answer my question, please, not a junior Minister, and explain exactly what is going on in the Treasury, what work is being undertaken and whether there will be an announcement in the Budget.

With great respect to the right hon. Lady, who has campaigned formidably on this issue, I do not think she is giving a fair representation of what the Government have done. I stand by every word I said as a Back Bencher, and as Chancellor I have tried to do everything I can to speed the process up. She has not mentioned that the Government have already given £100,000 to the families affected. We have accepted the moral importance of the duty to give compensation, and we will now work with colleagues in the other place to make her amendment workable.

Point of Order

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Last week, we saw the lid lifted off the secret empire of Tory Tees Valley Mayor Lord Houchen, and the 28 recommendations for improvement in the way he does business covered everything from poor decision-making and a failure to provide his board with proper information, to a lack of transparency and value for taxpayers’ money. Yesterday, we learned that he had squandered several million pounds of that money in losing a needless legal action against PD Ports about access rights.

In the past, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities has refused to call in the National Audit Office to examine how the Mayor did business, opting instead for his own independent inquiry. Given this latest revelation, can you advise me, Mr Speaker, on how we can get the Levelling Up Secretary to make a statement from the Dispatch Box about the latest scandal, so that we can persuade him of the need to get the NAO in there to look at that colossal waste of public money and report his findings to Parliament?

I am grateful to the hon. Member for giving notice of his point of order. I can assure him that I have had no indication that Ministers intend to come to the House to make a statement on that matter, but I am sure that the Table Office will be able to help and advise him on how to pursue it, so I know that he will not give up yet.

Bills Presented

Support for Infants and Parents etc (Information) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Sally-Ann Hart presented a Bill to make provision for and in connection with the making available of information about support available for infants, parents and carers of infants, and prospective parents and carers, including reporting requirements relating to such support.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 15 March, and to be printed (Bill 160).

Ministerial Severance (Reform) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Emily Thornberry presented a Bill to amend the Ministerial and other Pensions and Salaries Act 1991 in relation to grants to persons ceasing to hold ministerial and other offices; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Tuesday 27 February, and to be printed (Bill 162).

Social Energy Tariff

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the Secretary of State to publish proposals for a social tariff for energy.

During the autumn statement of 2022, the Government committed to developing a new approach to consumer protection in energy markets in order to consider the best options, including social tariffs. That commitment has been repeated multiple times since, including by the Prime Minister. In April 2023, the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero reiterated that pledge by promising to consult on a social energy tariff in the summer of 2023. However, despite multiple commitments, and to the frustration of many, a consultation never materialised, and as we are now in February 2024, there is a significant risk that no new protections will be in place this year. All the while, low-income and disabled households have struggled to heat their homes over the festive period and the cold snap in January—and winter is not over yet.

I am introducing this Bill in an attempt to fight for protections for the most vulnerable in society. By their continued inaction on this matter, the Government continue to disregard the real and immediate concerns of many people. The great need for a social energy tariff is best demonstrated by the wide and varied support for its implementation. Disability groups, debt advice groups, politicians from across the political spectrum, consumer groups, local authorities, housing providers, Ofgem and even energy companies are in favour of one.

Such is the united front on this vital issue that it is even more surprising that the UK Government have failed even to hold the consultation that they promised. They have continued to bury their head in the sand, despite the fact that National Energy Action, Energy Action Scotland, Age UK, Scope, Citizens Advice, MoneySavingExpert and 150 other organisations, as well as MPs, wrote to the Prime Minister in September calling for the promised consultation on a social energy tariff. Now we are into 2024, and the situation is catastrophic for low-income households. I thank the many organisations that have provided briefings on this topic both for my debate in November last and once again today.

You may ask what a social energy tariff is, Mr Speaker. Admittedly, many different organisations and groups have slight variations in their approach to such a tariff, but in its most basic form, which is universally agreed upon, it is a system of targeted support through a reduction in energy bills for vulnerable, low-income and disabled households, in response to incredibly high energy bills. As one in three households will spend more on energy bills this winter than they did last winter—a figure that is closer to half for the poorest households—the need for a social energy tariff cannot be stressed enough. Citizens Advice research shows that energy bills are 61% higher than in 2021, while other research suggests that high energy bills will become the new normal for the rest of the decade. That highlights the desperate need for more meaningful long-term support.

When I held a debate on this topic in November, I was heartened by the cross-party support and atmosphere in Westminster Hall as Members from across the political spectrum presented a united front on this matter, each raising the need for longer-term, targeted support for the most vulnerable households. I was then immediately disheartened by the lack of a meaningful response from the Under-Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero, the hon. Member for Derby North (Amanda Solloway), and now—over two months on from that debate, and 14 months on from the Government’s initial call for a consultation—we are no further along.

Government Members highlight that energy bills have fallen from last year, but that does not paint a picture of the reality for many. Even though we are told that the energy market has stabilised, bills remain sky high, and winter 2023-24 is projected to be much worse due to the huge levels of energy debt accrued last year. Ofgem and Citizens Advice research shows that energy debt is at the highest level ever, and Ofgem’s chief executive officer, Jonathan Brearley, has said that

“we think there is a case for examining, with urgency, the feasibility of a social tariff”.

In the absence of an energy bill support scheme this winter, many people have had to once again choose between heating and eating. Some conditions require the constant charging of essential lifesaving equipment, such as oxygen concentrators or feeding pumps. It is dreadful that, in the UK in 2024, some households have been forced to self-disconnect, but that is simply not possible for many disabled households, as they would not survive.

A coalition of charities—Age UK, Scope, Fair By Design, Mencap, the Motor Neurone Disease Association and Sense—warns that the cost of living crisis is still adding huge pressures to household finances, with millions facing the dilemma of how they are going to pay their energy bills. Around one in eight households in the UK—that is 12% of households, or 3.4 million—are experiencing fuel poverty this winter. Marie Curie shared with me the thoughts of Rhian, who is terminally ill:

“People with terminal illnesses feel the cold so much more than the healthy and need to heat their homes. People with terminal illnesses still have mortgage or rent and bills to pay. There are no specific benefits offered to help terminally ill people so they have to carry on working with debilitating symptoms. I live with incurable terminal cancer. My monthly heating bill is currently more expensive than my mortgage.”

A social energy tariff is the best way forward. That tariff must be in addition to the warm home discount and the default tariff price cap; it must be targeted at the neediest and go beyond the benefits system, as National Energy Action has estimated that approximately two thirds of fuel-poor households do not receive any social security payments. All eligible consumers should be auto-enrolled using suppliers’ existing data and/or data shared by the Department for Work and Pensions, and the tariff must reduce costs for consumers to pre-crisis levels.

We all know that a social tariff will cost money, so it is essential that those costs are met in a progressive manner. If not, the tariff risks creating a significant cliff edge, with those who narrowly miss out being much worse off. National Energy Action, Citizens Advice and Centrica all say that an energy social tariff should be funded by general taxation to ensure the greatest level of fairness. If that cannot be done, low-income households on the fringes of support must be exempted from paying towards the social tariff. The Government have said that the new round of oil and gas licensing would raise money to reduce bills. A social tariff would have numerous economic benefits; it would also offset costs, as illnesses brought on by having a cold and damp home cost the NHS between £500 million and £1.4 billion a year. Further, increased spending power could boost local economies, with more money spent on our high streets.

Millions of the most vulnerable households and organisations spanning all of civil society are shouting from the rafters for the implementation of a social energy tariff, and the Government cannot and must not continue to bury their heads in the sand. A society should be measured by how it treats its most vulnerable, and this Government, through inaction, are continuing to fail the most vulnerable households right across the country. There were 4,950 excess winter deaths last year in the UK that were down to people living in cold and damp houses, and that is why we need this Bill. Millions of people cannot wait any longer, and that is why I am asking for support for this motion.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Marion Fellows, Peter Aldous, John McDonnell, Cat Smith, Owen Thompson, Kirsten Oswald, Alison Thewliss, Patricia Gibson, Dave Doogan, David Linden, Alyn Smith and Drew Hendry present the Bill.

Marion Fellows accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 15 March, and to be printed (Bill 161).

Opposition Day

[4th Allotted Day]

Knife and Sword Ban

Before we begin the debate on banning knives and swords from UK streets, I remind hon. Members that, under the terms of the House resolution on sub judice matters, they should not refer to any individual cases that are currently before the courts.

I call the shadow Minister.

12.47 pm

I beg to move,

That this House condemns the Government for overseeing a 77 per cent increase in knife crime since 2015; recognises the devastating impact that knife crime has on victims, their families and the wider community; acknowledges that the Government recently announced measures to ban zombie knives and machetes; believes, nonetheless, that this legislation does not go nearly far enough, meaning that a number of dangerous types of knives and swords will remain legal and available on UK streets; therefore calls on the Government to address the shortcomings of the ban by extending it to cover ninja swords and consulting on a further extension; and further calls for the Government to establish an end-to-end review of online knife sales and introduce criminal liability for senior management of websites which indirectly sell illegal knives online.

Ronan Kanda was 16. He went to get a PlayStation controller from his friend, and was yards away from home when he was murdered. He was murdered by two teenagers, who used a ninja sword. They had obtained that sword by buying it online, using someone else’s ID to collect it. They stabbed him in a case of mistaken identity. This is a heartbreaking, tragic story of a young life lost, with a family trapped in the most extraordinary grief, and we are here today because it is time that Parliament acts to tackle knife crime head-on.

Seventy seven per cent. That is how much knife crime has risen since 2015, according to the latest figures released by the Office for National Statistics and the Home Office in recent weeks. That equates to a staggering 48,716 violent and sexual offences committed involving a knife or sharp instrument in the past year. There is a huge human cost to this, with 261 lives lost in the year up to March 2022—the last complete data available to us—and roughly four in 10 murders involving a knife or sharp instrument. For those carrying a knife, almost half of cases led to no further action, with current rules allowing those carrying knives to escape further sanction by writing an apology letter.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way because he is describing a situation that is virtually identical to the one we faced in Scotland 15-plus years ago. The initiative taken by the then Strathclyde police force and the Scottish Government since has been a very different approach to tackling it—that of treating it as a public health and social problem, with a violence reduction unit. There is nothing in the hon. Gentleman’s motion that I would disagree with, but it is like playing whack-a-mole with the different sorts of knives available. Does not he agree that this issue requires a much more fundamental and radical approach?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and that will be part of my case, so I am sure I will be able to meet that test.

It feels like most days we wake up to another tragic story of death and families torn apart. The most basic search online tells us it is all over the country—Bristol, Feltham, Warrington, Haverhill. My own community of Nottingham was rocked last summer when my constituent Ian Coates and University of Nottingham students Barnaby Webber and Grace O’Malley-Kumar were killed with a knife, and I stand with their families in their attempts establish the facts and failings in this dreadful case.

Things are getting worse, not better, and that means more young lives lost, more children drawn into crime and more exploited by criminals. We know this has a huge impact on our society: hundreds of families crippled by grief for murdered loved ones; life chances of young people squandered; potential left unfulfilled; and the criminals getting away with it and going on to cause further misery. Knife crime destroys lives, devastates families and creates fear in our communities. That is why this debate matters. We must invest in our young people so that they are supported to make the right decisions in life, and we must come down hard on those involved in knife crime—real support, real consequences.

Under the Conservative Government and a Conservative police and crime commissioner, Cleveland has the highest crime rate in the UK, and only this weekend we saw another serious stabbing a mile down the road from me in Norton village. We hear the Government try to talk the talk but the bottom line has to be that they are not taking the necessary actions. I am sure my hon. Friend will agree.

I share my hon. Friend’s view. He talks of a case in his community, and we are waking up seemingly so many days in every week with another case in another area in villages, towns and cities. The public are rightly looking for action from us, and that is what I will be setting out in my explanation of this motion.

I am glad the shadow Minister talked about “us”. I understand that this is an Opposition day debate and the Government will be criticised, but is it not the case that what the public—on the left and the right and the apolitical—are looking for is cross-party consensus where it can be found in this place to deal with what is a very important issue, and that party politics should be set aside for greater cross-party working? Does he also agree that stop and search has a part to play? On machetes and zombie knives, banning them is not the only solution, although it is a good place to start, but the most radical step is to work together.

We have been clear throughout that when the Government bring forward proposals designed to take this issue on we will give them our support. That is true of the forthcoming legislation on zombie knives, although we have concerns about the scope, but there has to be action, and where there is not action it is our role to point that out. I think the right hon. Gentleman will find that in the tone and spirit of my contribution: we serve no one if we do not do that, but of course we will build consensus wherever we can, and I hope the whole House can get behind our motion today.

It would be a key mission of a future Labour Government to make the streets safe and halve knife crime within 10 years. Recently, my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) and the Leader of the Opposition unveiled our plans to deliver this with a crackdown on knife crime today and a radical youth prevention programme, and this motion starts to build that out. We are clear: no more loopholes, no more caveats, no more false promises—we need a total crackdown on the availability of serious weapons on Britain’s streets.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments on this often heartbreaking topic. My constituent Julie’s daughter Poppy Devey Waterhouse was killed in her home with a knife already in her kitchen. Currently, offenders convicted of murder who use a weapon already available at the crime scene have a starting sentence 10 years lower than those who brought a weapon with them. Domestic violence murderers can bank on leniency. Does the hon. Member agree that women killed by knives already in the home need to see equal justice?

The hon. Member raises an important point that needs parliamentary scrutiny. We have an anxiety, as hon. Friends have mentioned many times, that crimes happening in domestic spaces are in some way deemed less significant and that can be reflected in sentencing. This bears our parliamentary scrutiny.

To turn to the motion, we want to see restrictions on the sale of the most serious weapons, those with no functional purpose. Since 2015 the Government have released 16 different press releases about zombie knives but action has been slow to follow. We are pleased that two weeks ago we saw the statutory instrument aimed at taking some of the knives and machetes off the streets, and, as I have said, we will support the Government in that venture, but I hope to hear from the Minister an explanation of why that is a ban not for now or a few weeks’ time, but for September, eight months away. This is an immediate problem that needs more urgency; where is that urgency and leadership? He can be assured of our support, so let’s get on with it.

We also believe, as set out in the motion, that we should go further. We would broaden the ban to include a wider range of weapons and to toughen existing rules on serration and length. That would mean finally banning blades such as ninja swords, the weapon that killed Ronan Kanda. His incredible family are campaigning for this, ably supported by their Member for Parliament, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden), and they are right: any ban on offensive weapons that would not have taken off the street the blade that killed their son is insufficient.

There is also an unintended consequence of leaving out ninja swords. Those who sell these weapons are indifferent to their customers and their customers’ intentions. If colleagues think I am overstating my case, they should just put into a search engine “zombie knives” or “ninja swords” and look at how they are marketed. If knives and machetes are prohibited, these firms will just move on to pushing ninja swords at customers. This is a hole in the Government’s plan and it must be plugged.

We can go further still here. Many banned knives continue to be sold where young people can buy them and have them delivered to their home within a few days. We would introduce, and believe the Government should introduce, criminal sanctions on the tech executives who allow knife sales on their online marketplaces—not just Ofcom sanctions as the Government have opted for, but proper criminal sanctions to send a very serious message to these leaders that if their platforms are being used, and they are not actively making sure they are not being used, for the sale of dangerous weapons, there are going to be very serious consequences, not ones that can be priced in as the cost of doing business. To add to that, we must ensure we have the right tools in law to deal with the digital age.

To drive this work forward, our motion calls for a rapid review of online knife sales from the point of purchase through to delivery, in particular looking at strengthening ID and age checks conducted by Royal Mail and Border Force for UK-bound parcels. Currently, all too often serious weapons can be purchased online with loose ID and age checks, with little oversight, and with no background checks. Every time oversight is loosened and checks are not carried out properly, these weapons potentially fall into the wrong hands and are used to kill. We must ensure we have the most robust system possible to prevent this. To those who carry these weapons, we need to send the unmistakable message that the law will come down hard on them—not apology letters, not weak warnings, but proper and serious interventions.

My hon. Friend is making a great speech. Will he support two parents in my constituency, Leanne and Mandy, whose children were killed by knife crime? They are calling for much stronger sentences and greater deterrence for knife crime; does he agree with me and their families?

I am going to set out a few of them shortly, but I would be very interested in meeting Leanne and Mandy, if my hon. Friend could help facilitate that, to hear what more they might want to see.

Our commitment is for every offender to be referred to a youth offending team and have a mandatory bespoke action plan to prevent reoffending. As part of that we need tougher new guidance so that serious penalties are always considered where appropriate, such as curfews, tagging and behavioural contracts. Too many of these are being overlooked and insufficient sanctions such as a letter of apology being used in their stead. That is wrong; we need stronger guidance from the centre on this. But speaking to the point made by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), all of this on its own will not resolve and remove the issue of knife crime in our communities.

We must invest in young people, because prevention is better than cure. We need a total approach—not an either/or, but both. That is particularly germane to this debate, because we know that those who seek to profit from the sale of dangerous weapons shapeshift and adapt around legislation—that is one of the challenges. So we must tackle demand and tackle issues that mean that young people think they need to carry harmful weapons.

Building on the success of Sure Start—the last truly transformative prevention programme for young children—we would create the Young Futures programme to help prevent violent crime. It would be a targeted programme in every area to identify the young people most at risk of being drawn into violent crime and of buying these products that we are seeking to restrict. We would build around them a package of support that responds to the challenges they face.

As well as providing support to young people—I welcome the £100 million of existing funding to divert and support young people through preventive work—does my hon. Friend agree that it is crucial to provide positive role models through mentoring to every young person in the country? I have worked on that with the charity UpRising, which I have chaired for many years. Does he also agree that we should look at institutions such as the Royal London Hospital and its trauma unit, which has worked on the frontline dealing with the results of knife crime, whether in hospitals or out with paramedics? We can draw on a great deal of knowledge to tackle this epidemic.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, because she has done incredible work that is admired by me and the shadow Home Secretary. A lot of what I am about to talk about is based on that experience, because that work has been very good.

The Young Futures programme will bring together services locally to better co-ordinate the delivery of preventive, evidence-based interventions around a young person that help to tackle mental health issues, substance abuse issues, and issues that people might get into with their friends and family. We will then bring that together in a national network that shares evidence, delivers support for teenagers at risk of being drawn into crime across boundaries and, where appropriate, could deliver universal youth provision. Then, crucially—this speaks to the point just made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali)—we would build out from that, with youth workers in accident and emergency units and in custody centres, and with mentors in pupil referral units, to target young people who are starting to be drawn to violence.

Those are change moments, particularly in healthcare and custody settings. We know it might be the moment when an individual who is sliding into serious violence, whether as a perpetrator or a victim, may need that intervention. It might be the moment where we can get that change in behaviour that will in many cases save their lives. That is why it is so crucial that we have this degree of investment into young people, because otherwise such measures will not work.

The hon. Member makes good point. As the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) pointed out, a lot of this work has been going on in Scotland. Has the hon. Member met Medics Against Violence, whose “Navigator” project does exactly what he is talking about within a hospital setting? It intervenes through people with lived experience to try to get young people into that frame of mind where they might want to exit that lifestyle and that violence they have got themselves into.

There is clearly much that we can learn from the Scottish approach. I have not had the opportunity to meet Medics Against Violence, but on the hon. Member’s recommendation I will seek to do that. We strongly support the idea of support and mentors in A&E and custody settings. The evidence shows that would be highly effective.

We need to end the exploitation of children and young people by criminal gangs, and that includes county lines. We need a new criminal offence of child exploitation and a new serious organised crime strategy to go after those cowards who make millions off the back of exploiting young people. To bring the change to deliver that, we need a new, proper cross-Government coalition to end knife crime, bringing together those who have key roles in tackling it and in keeping young people safe, whether they are Ministers, community leaders, faith leaders, the families of victims, sporting bodies, tech companies or young people themselves. Everybody should be brought into this fight. That is the sort of Government that we would seek to lead, if given the opportunity.

The hon. Member is making a passionate speech about bringing various people from across Government and communities together to tackle knife crime. When the shadow Home Secretary and the Leader of the Opposition held a summit in east London last year on knife crime, the Mayor of London, who is the police and crime commissioner, was nowhere to be seen. Can the hon. Member ask the shadow Home Secretary why?

I have to say I am a little saddened by that intervention. This is a deeply serious issue about which the public expect to hear answers. I do not think the public would consider the policing of the diary of the Mayor, the hon. Gentleman or anybody else to be part of a substantive solution. I wrote my note for his intervention ahead of time, because I know that 86 days before a mayoral election, the Tories are much more interested in trying to fight that election than tackling the problem. If he really believes that is the approach—I do not, but it is for him to use his time as he chooses—let us put that to the people of London.

On the point about working together, perhaps outside this House, rather than inside it, may I say I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman—yes, I agree with His Majesty’s Opposition—on working together more cohesively with local authorities, public bodies, health services and, in particular, around pupil referral units and exclusions? There are so many disparities throughout the country, and it makes sense to bring everybody together to look at best practice.

That is a hugely important intervention from the right hon. Gentleman. I have real anxieties about pupil referral units, exclusions and internal exclusions. It was a problem prior to the pandemic, but what we are seeing with school absence only compounds that. There is a risk of there being a generation of young people who are vulnerable to these types of behaviour, unless we take the field and fight for their hearts and minds. The right hon. Gentleman and I are in the same position on that.

I will draw my remarks to a close, because lots of colleagues have lots to say. The motion before us in the name of the Leader of the Opposition is tightly drafted and calls for three of the most pressing changes that we believe are needed to kick-start this process: the ban on ninja swords, with a consultation on further extensions to the proposed ban on zombie knives; an end-to-end review of online knife sales; and criminal liability for senior executives of those websites who do not adequately prevent them from selling knives. We believe those are reasonable changes that the whole House can get behind, and I hope the Government will take them seriously. They should support this motion today. The Minister for Crime, Policing and Fire and I have been working on the Criminal Justice Bill Committee for many weeks, and we will be tabling changes to enact those measures, and the Government should accept them. If they take up our ideas before the Bill’s next stages, we will support them, but we will not ignore the large-scale damage that knife crime is doing across the country. The public are rightly looking to us for leadership and action, and we stand ready to give them that.

I am grateful to the Opposition for giving me the opportunity to respond on behalf of the Government and to speak about our record on fighting crime, including our work to get weapons off the streets and stop them falling into the wrong hands, which is having a real impact.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) said, we should remember what this debate is all about. He is absolutely right that it is not about party politics, point scoring, cheap jibes or sound bites, because the truth is that serious violence and knife crime leave the same trail of misery and devastation in their wake, regardless of the constituency we represent. The tragic reality is that many of us—in fact, far too many—on both sides of this House will have had the humbling experience of sitting with the loved ones of victims of crime whose lives have been cut short in the most tragic ways. There is little one can say in those circumstances that will ease the pain of losing a son, daughter, brother or sister. It is incumbent upon us all—by “us”, I mean the Government and the police, but also each and every one of us here who contributes to public life—to strain every sinew to stop others suffering as they have.

I have also been in the situation in the past month of having to write to the mother of a 21-year-old young man who was stabbed to death at Strawberry Hill station in my constituency last month. Understandably, parents, teenagers and other young people are raising concerns with me about how we can tackle this huge increase. In London alone, as the Minister for Crime, Policing and Fire will know, we have seen an increase of almost a fifth in knife crime since 2022. If we are to ban all these weapons, we need good intelligence-led community policing, but in London since 2015 we have seen our police community support officers cut by a third. What assurances can the Minister give my constituents that we will see an uplift in police officers, including in places such as Richmond upon Thames, which are often deprioritised because they are seen as safe areas? No area is immune from knife crime.

I agree with the hon. Lady’s last point. Given the representatives in the Chamber, I think a lot will be said in the debate, and rightly so, in relation to crime and knife crime in London, including by her. It is right to say that every time somebody picks up a knife or another dangerous weapon, there is the potential for bloodshed, and every time somebody arms themselves, whether for protection or with violent intent, they risk ruining not only others’ lives but their own life. That has been brought home time and again in the most devastating fashion in recent days, weeks and months. My thoughts and prayers are with the family and friends mourning such devastating losses. It is any parent’s worst nightmare.

That the victims are so often young people with their whole lives ahead of them makes it all the more unbearable. In our shock and our grief, we must remain steadfast in our conviction that we can get knives and other dangerous weapons off our streets and that we can prevent young people from getting drawn into violent crime in the first place.

In the spirit of the intervention that my right hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) made on the shadow Minister, I would like to reflect on a debate before the recess led by my right hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton). During that debate, in which there was cross-party support, my right hon. Friend mentioned the Knife Angel in Aldridge-Brownhills, in the borough of Walsall. She also mentioned a campaign by the Brindley family, and the Brindley Foundation that was set up to bring about positive social action as a result of a tragedy. My hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr French) made powerful interventions during that debate.

It is right to look at the numbers and the latest data. The latest data on hospital admissions of under-25s following an assault with a sharp object show a 25% reduction since December 2019. That is a good indicator—the most reliable indicator for serious youth violence. My right hon. Friend the Policing Minister will in due course mention the crime survey, which shows that violent crime has reduced by 51% since 2010. It is also right to say that nationally homicide has fallen, but it is obvious that data on a chart provides no comfort for victims’ families, and that any incident of serious violence or knife crime is one too many. That is why the Government are continually looking at what more we can do to protect our citizens—especially children and young people—and drive those numbers down further.

The police are on the frontline in this effort. Forces up and down the country are aware that this is an issue of significant public concern, and they are firmly committed to tackling it. It is right that I, as a Dorset Member of Parliament, mention our police and crime commissioner David Sidwick, and I pay tribute to him, the work he is doing and the crime plan that he has put together for Dorset.

Thanks to our recruitment drive, which has delivered the promised 20,000 extra officers, we have significantly bolstered the police across England and Wales. With every additional officer, the ability of forces to crack down on weapons carrying and violence is strengthened. That includes through the natural deterrence that flows from an increased police presence. There is the added benefit of reassurance to all our communities, who are clear that they want to see more officers on the beat.

Of course, it is about not just how many police officers there are, but what forces do with the resources and powers given to them. The Government have consistently and publicly backed the police to take the toughest possible stance when it comes to addressing serious violence, knife crime and weapons carrying. That includes supporting the use of stop and search, which is a crucial tool. Since 2019, the police have removed 120,000 knives and dangerous weapons through stop and search surrender programmes and other targeted action.

On that specific subject, every knife seized through stop and search is a potential life saved. In the year 2022-23, stop and search resulted in about 74,000 arrests and removed over 15,000 weapons and firearms from our streets. The significance of stop and search should not be downplayed, because every knife or weapon seized is a potential life saved.

On criminal sanctions, the motion tabled by the Opposition—they will have to forgive me—is too generic, too sweeping and perhaps too adversarial. On criminal liability for the senior management of websites that indirectly sell illegal knives online, however, what is the Government’s current thinking—unless, perhaps, the Minister does not want to tell me—vis-à-vis the Criminal Justice Bill, on which I know he is working closely with the shadow Minister?

The Criminal Justice Bill is passing through Parliament, having had its Committee stage. I do not want to steal the thunder of the Policing Minister, who will wind up the debate on behalf of the Government, but I encourage my right hon. Friend to be here for that.

In the round, we have some of the toughest knife crime laws in the world. For example, it is illegal to carry any fixed-bladed knife in public without a good reason, with such an offence carrying a maximum sentence of four years in prison. The Offensive Weapons Act 2019 strengthened the law on the sale and delivery of knives to under-18s.

On tougher sentences—I know that the Government are bringing in very tough sentences for knife crime—does my hon. and learned Friend agree that it is not just about tough sentences? Knife crime is due to a number of factors, including socioeconomic factors, gang activity, the county lines drug trade, which affects us in Hastings and Rye, and social media influence. Does he agree that building trust between communities and law enforcement is as important as effective community policing and tough sentences, and that as part of that building of trust, raising awareness about knife crime and educating young people about the risks can deter them from carrying weapons?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I will turn directly to violence reduction units, which will help to address some of those points.

The fact is, where gaps or loopholes are identified, we have shown time and again that we will do what is necessary, and we will always put the law-abiding majority first. My right hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin mentioned the Criminal Justice Bill, which is the latest illustration of our unwavering commitment to that mission. It will give the police more powers to seize dangerous weapons, create a new offence of possession of a bladed weapon with an intent to harm, and increase sentences for those who import, manufacture or sell dangerous weapons to under 18s.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart) mentioned, as well as tough enforcement, an emphasis must be placed on prevention. It goes without saying that the best thing we can do to make all our communities safe is to stop these crimes from happening in the first place. May I mention and develop my point on violence reduction units, which bring together communities and local partners to tackle the underlying causes of violence in the first place? She will be interested to hear that violence reduction units identify young people in danger of following the wrong path, bringing together key partners from local authorities, the police, health, communities and beyond to better understand the local drivers of violence and provide intensive support through mentoring programmes and the like. I know that she and other hon. Members—across the House, I hope—will support the work going on there.

In addition, we have supported the police in their implementation of the Grip hotspot patrols programme. Taken together, these initiatives have prevented more than 3,200 hospital admissions for any violent injury since funding began in 2019. This shows the real-world impact that our approach is having as we strive relentlessly to break the deadly cycle of violence that robs young people of a future and destroys families.

The Minister is making a powerful speech. Does he agree that the best thing we can do is to put police stations on our high streets, such as in Maltby, Dinnington and Swallownest in Rother Valley? I am sure he is aware that the Labour police and crime commissioner has underspent his budget this year to the tune of £3.5 million—money that could have been used to reopen police stations and get them going. Does the Minister back my campaign to use that underspent money to get police stations on our high streets?

My hon. Friend is a powerful advocate for his community; I know he will continue to champion this important issue and continue his campaign. I look forward to his further contributions, and I am grateful to him for raising that point. It is right that through the concerted efforts of the Government, police and partners, we have shown that this threat can be addressed, but we will not stop there.

I thank the Minister for responding to this immensely important debate, but may I press him on the specific issues in the motion? Will the Government launch a new consultation on including ninja swords in the ban on online knife sales? If he agreed to that today, we would make a significant step forward.

The right hon. Lady will know from my response that I referred to previously that the police have told us the greatest risk is the criminal use of zombie-style knives and machetes. That is action that is already being taken, but we will, of course, keep the matter under review. We will not stop there: we will continue to think of the victims and their families, and reaffirm our commitment to getting weapons and knives off our streets. We can and must stop knife crime and make our communities safer. That is what this Government will work tirelessly to achieve.

I rise to speak conscious of the tragic deaths of two teenage boys stabbed in my constituency last week, and the very live police inquiry being conducted. My thoughts are with the families and friends of those boys, in particular during this debate. I am conscious that we have had many debates on this subject, and that there are many Members present whose communities have also been hit by similar tragedies, but lamentably those debates have not stemmed the rise in knife crime, as we saw in my own community last weekend.

Over the past few months, regular meetings with the police were already being held in Knowle West, set up by some amazing women in the community. Fortuitously, a meeting was held on the Monday after the events, which I was able to attend, where people came together to express their grief and sorrow. There was a strong message at the meeting. The people there were very clear that they could see that events had been leading to a tragic outcome, and they wanted to know, where have the resources from their communities gone? Where are all the police on their streets? What has happened to their local healthcare and mental health services to support young people? What has happened to their youth services? What has happened to the council funding for services that make those streets and communities fit for living in, such as street cleaning, and make our communities so vibrant? Despite the high-falutin’ statistics thrown around in this place, those people know that their community has lost out. People in Knowle West and the rest of south Bristol, like those across the country, have seen those services disappear because of political decisions made in this place since 2010. I am unashamedly political about that point, because those decisions have consequences in our communities.

I pay tribute to Avon and Somerset police for the preventive work they were doing with those communities before these tragic incidents and for the way they have worked since, and to Bristol City Council and organisations such as Youth Moves and Bristol City Football Club’s Robins Foundation, which have been doing amazing work for a long time, but particularly in the past couple of weeks. Despite that, and despite working with the voluntary and community sector across Bristol, they cannot fill that gap.

The very clear message from that meeting, and indeed from our city, is that we are totally united in getting these crimes and these criminals off our streets. However, we need much more than the basics. These communities deserve the resources to help young people to thrive, and we owe it to the families of the boys who lost their lives to do everything we can to ensure that it does not happen again.

My constituents are looking for answers on how we can prevent crime, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) said, we also need to give them action. We have to redouble our efforts to bring Government support back into these communities to enable our local authorities, schools and the police force to take the preventive measures we need to tackle knife crime. It is vital that there are tough consequences for those carrying lethal weapons, and there must be sanctions, but we also need early interventions to stop young people being drawn into crime. As my hon. Friend said, the cowards who bring young people into crime must also face strong sanctions.

Working with the community, as the police are doing in South Bristol, is vital to help to intervene on early criminal behaviour. However, we also desperately need Government support for youth services and mental health support in schools to ensure that young people are safe. I pay tribute to all the schools working so hard across south Bristol to ensure that young people are safe and encouraged to go back into school and back out to live their lives. Young people need to be listened to and, crucially, have that stake in our society. That is why bringing together local partnerships of schools, neighbourhood policing and community groups is so important to prevent crime and tackle the crisis among young people. The communities I represent across south Bristol need to know that we in Westminster understand the urgency and the devastating effect that knife crime is having.

I hope the Government will do more to address the shortcomings of the current proposals by extending the ban to cover ninja swords and introducing criminal liability for the senior executives of the websites that are still selling those weapons online. We need a properly resourced cross-Government effort to tackle crime, with tough consequences for the perpetrators, support for the victims and a renewed focus on prevention.

A couple of weeks ago, I was sitting in a meeting of an all-party parliamentary group in Parliament when I received a call from my 17-year-old son’s school. It is unusual to get such a call, so I took it. His head of year informed me that he had been mugged by several youths wearing balaclavas and carrying knives. You can imagine my feelings of utter shock and concern for my son, Mr Speaker. It suddenly dawned on me that I was not alone; there are so many mums who receive that call. Sometimes, that call is tragic, and those mums never get to see their son again—or their daughter, although it is quite often our sons who are involved.

I am relieved to say that it was a case of mistaken identity and my son had not been mugged—he had witnessed the mugging further up the street. However, it reiterated the fact that nobody is immune from knife crime. It is not a socioeconomic issue that affects only certain demographics, but can hit any family, as we have seen in too many situations in this country over the years. It can be the kids of middle-class professionals or kids from estates—it does not matter. Knife crime will affect every child who is out there. That is why we all have to work together to ensure that our children are safe when they go out. I am one of those mums who cannot relax when my children are out until I hear that key in the door. I know I am not alone in that.

This is not a modern phenomenon that is happening only now. It has happened for decades, and we must get a grip of it. Eleven years ago, a 16-year-old boy was slaughtered in Pimlico in my constituency. Hani was attacked by a group of young people and murdered. Five young men were sentenced to 26 years at His Majesty’s pleasure. It dawned on me that because Hani lost his life, his mother Pauline will never hear his key in the door. The lives of the young people involved in that murder have also ended, as have the lives of their families. We must do more to ensure that children do not spend the rest of their lives in prison. Of course we do not want more victims, but those involved in such heinous crimes often are victims themselves, because they are involved in county lines or drug crimes. We must deal with that.

Unfortunately, my constituency is a hotspot for the Met. It has the highest number of knife or sharp instrument offences recorded in any borough of the Metropolitan police force. In the last 12 months, 1,930 knife offences were recorded in Westminster alone—an increase of more than 18% on the previous year.

The Office for National Statistics showed that for the year ending March 2023, Sussex recorded 59 offences per 100,000 people—below the national average of 87 per 100,000. We have seen a 16% reduction in knife crime for that period. In contrast, for the Met police—the highest funded force in the country—ONS figures show a 22% increase in knife crime in London. That has a knock-on effect on all the surrounding counties. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Labour Mayor of London Sadiq Khan should take a leaf out of the book of Sussex Conservative police and crime commissioner Katy Bourne, and get a grip of serious knife crime—

Order. If the hon. Lady wants to speak, I will put her on the list of speakers, but her intervention is far too long and others want to speak. She has been here since the beginning of the debate, so I will certainly put her on the list if she wishes.

I agree with my hon. Friend. As the largest city in the country with more than 9 million people, London will always have higher statistics, but it is being let down. Londoners have constantly been let down for eight years because of the current Mayor’s failure to get a grip of knife crime. Too many families across London have been affected by knife crime and have lost their beloved children.

There were 156 knife offences in December 2023 alone. That will not stop unless we get a grip of it. It has to be a holistic approach. It is not just about stricter sentences; they have a part to play in the criminal justice system, but we must get to the nub of why young people carry knives in the first place. I have always believed that someone who carries a knife is more likely to use one. I am so concerned that today, too many young people feel that they have to carry a knife for their own protection. We must persuade our young people that there is an alternative. We have heard about different approaches from several Members. We should learn from what is happening in Scotland, which has a lot to offer.

We need a public health and community approach. When I was cabinet member for public protection at Westminster council in 2013, I was shocked to find that Westminster—a borough that people think of as affluent, with areas such as Mayfair, Belgravia and the west end—was No. 3 in the Met’s serious youth violence table in 2013. We were even higher than Hackney. I remember going to see the then deputy Mayor for policing, now my right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse), who told me that if I did not get on top of the problem immediately, it would only get worse, and it would never change.

I immediately worked with my brilliant officers at Westminster City Council and the police to establish the first ever integrated gangs unit. I set up a scheme called “your choice”, because I wanted to send a message to young people that they had a choice: they could be involved in gangs and knife crime, but that would end either in the morgue or in prison. There were alternative ways, where young people could work with us. I was clear that we had to understand why young people were involved. I also sent a message to the parents. Often, parents do not know what their young people are getting involved in when they are out, and they do not know how to handle the problem. I offered a helping hand to parents. I am delighted to say that we went straight back down those tables within a year to where we are usually, around 16th out of 19.

There needs to be a full approach, where all the agencies work together. The integrated gangs unit included the police, probation, special needs, schools and social workers. Interestingly, we discovered that a lot of young people on the periphery of knife crime had speech and language issues. They could not properly communicate, and they had not really progressed since primary school. They had had a nightmare moving into secondary school, and they had been lost in the system. We grabbed those young men, and I am delighted that we improved the situation. We have to work together. It should not be a political issue but a community issue where we all work together, as our young people deserve.

We have heard about violence reduction units. We have one in London, run by a very impressive woman, Lib Peck, whom I have known for a long time. She is not getting the backing and seriousness from the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. In 2018, he held a knife crime summit just before the local elections. The then Home Secretary attended, as did the Metropolitan Police Commissioner and the deputy Mayor for policing. The Mayor chaired it—he did not speak; he was not held to account. I will never forget that he never allowed himself to be held to account on the situation. He has got to be held to account.

We talk about accountability, but it works both ways. I agree with everyone who has said that the result is not political, as it affects all political stripes, but we have got here because of political decision making. The hon. Member talks about children not being able to speak or read or write—that is the political decision of 14 years of this Government eroding our education system. We talk about not enough resources for the police—that is a decision to erode community policing. Will the hon. Member take some responsibility for 14 years of this?

I have to gently push back. We have come up from 25th in the PISA tables under the previous Labour Government to 14th for reading under the Conservative Government, which is an impressive result. I am sure that the Policing Minister will mention later that this Government provided the current Mayor of London with funding for 1,000 extra police officers, but he failed to recruit those officers and the money went back into the pot, to be given to other police forces, which I am sure have taken advantage of it. This is not a political issue. I take responsibility for the period in which I was leader of Westminster City Council when we cut youth services, and saw a direct link to problems on the streets. I put my hands up to that, and we put £1.5 million back into the pot. It is right that we make sure that young people have choices and the ability to do things after school and college, and that we give them the best start in life.

We are talking today about a knife and sword ban and the legislation that would be required. I find it quite incredible that manufacturers do not take the responsibility they should take, and that they can use loopholes in legislation. They get away now with producing zombie knives without writing on, because zombie knives with writing on are banned. I cannot understand why anyone would want to manufacture zombie knives; there is only one use for them, and that is not a use we want to see. I suggest that Ministers produce more flexible legislation that talks about “blades”, rather than focuses on specific products. We need to widen the legislation to cover many existing and future products. It is also important that we look at other corporates, such as record labels that willingly put out drill music, which often celebrates gang culture. There must be a direct link to young people feeling that to carry a knife and to be willing to use it is culturally the right thing to do.

I welcome this debate. It is important that we work together, across the parties, to send a clear message to all young people that carrying a knife is not a solution. Every young person in this country, in whatever town, city or village they live, whatever their background, deserves to be safe.

I am pleased that the Opposition secured this debate today. It is an important debate and an emotional one for many of us, certainly for me.

Serious violence, including knife crime, is a critical issue in cities, towns and villages across the country. It is important to acknowledge that it is not just a London problem; it affects many constituencies across the whole country. Knife crime alone has risen by 77% since 2015, and the impact is felt widely—not just the devastating and all too often fatal impact felt by immediate family and friends, but the trauma and distress felt by the wider community.

In Batley and Spen, unfortunately we have felt at first hand the traumatic and life-changing impact of knife crime. Since my election, I have worked with two extremely brave local families whose lives have been torn apart by truly dreadful incidents involving horrific attacks with knives. Robert Wilson, from Birstall, was stabbed to death in January 2020 outside the factory where he worked, just doing his job; the attack was carried out by two youths wielding a samurai sword in what the judge called a “frenzied and senseless” assault. Robert’s wife, Elaine, is a remarkable woman who has shown incredible strength and selflessness following this heinous attack. She is determined to raise awareness of the horrors that knife crime inflicts on families and communities. Despite her unimaginable personal pain, she speaks to young people in schools about her experience, to help them to understand the potentially life-changing consequences of carrying a knife.

In June 2020, just a few months after Robert was killed, Bradley Gledhill, a local 20-year-old, was attacked and stabbed to death in Batley by six young men, five of whom were teenagers. This despicable attack on Bradley and on two of his friends, who were seriously injured, shook the community. It was unprovoked, robbed a young man of his future and showed the very worst of humanity. Having met his incredibly strong mum, Kelly Hubbard, and his sister, Bryony, I do not have the words to describe the trauma and devastation wrought upon Bradley’s family. Like Elaine, however, they have channelled their trauma, with incredible resilience and strength, to campaign to tackle knife crime by establishing the “Bin the Blades” campaign on social media, and working with local schools, speaking to students to convey at an early age the seriousness of this issue and the consequences of carrying dangerous weapons.

I recently worked with Elaine, Kelly and Bryony on a soon-to-be-released short film, commissioned by the BBEST group of schools across Batley and Birstall, specifically about the horrors and impact of knife crime, in which I also reflect on my personal experience of the murder of my sister, Jo Cox, in 2016. It was an extremely emotional experience for all of us, but we all felt that we had a duty to spread the message about the real horrors and personal impact that knife crime can have. This important work is having an impact, and I cannot praise these brave individuals and the schools involved in the project highly enough for what they are doing. No other family should have to go through what these families, the other families we have heard about today and my own family have gone through.

Sadly, there is no single simple solution to eliminate knife crime and remove dangerous weapons from our streets. Families and communities need national leadership if we are to tackle this most serious of issues, and I am always happy to work across parties, but the national leadership has been lacking in recent years. That is why I am pleased that Labour has a five-point plan that will deal with knife crime in a holistic, multi-agency way.

Of course we need tougher consequences for carrying a knife and of course we need more officers on our streets, but we also need early intervention in schools, including youth hubs. We need youth workers embedded in A&E units, pupil referral units and custody centres, and the establishment of mental health and mentoring programmes. We must also, finally, crack down on the availability of these hideous weapons and take action where, sadly, the Conservatives have failed to do so. We should also go after the gangs and tackle the exploitation of young people who are drawn into criminality. All of this should be co-ordinated across Government in a Home Office, Health and Education approach that addresses the root causes of the issue, not just the symptoms—an approach that will break the chains of criminality, prevent young people from getting into these groups and gangs, and, if they are drawn in, provide help and mentoring by offering a tailored and supported route out.

Like colleagues across the House, I visit schools in my constituency most weeks, as well as local community groups, sports clubs and businesses. I applaud the work they do across Batley and Spen to build strong communities, but I also hear about the fear many of them feel about antisocial behaviour and violence, including knife crime, in our communities, and their worries about young people being drawn into dangerous behaviours, or simply ending up in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Only a tough approach, but one that is targeted and multi-agency, will succeed. It is hard work, and it will take time, resources, determination and co-ordination. It is not a gimmick. The Labour plan demonstrates how seriously we take this issue, with our mission-led approach, which has been sorely missing in recent years. Only Labour has a detailed plan to make our towns and villages safer, to restore safety to our communities and to get these dangerous weapons off our streets. We owe it to Robert and Bradley, to their families and to all the other families we will hear about today to put that plan into action. I am pleased to endorse the Labour plan today.

On behalf of the whole House, let me say to the hon. Lady that we all appreciate the courage it takes for her to speak on this subject. We as a House, and as friends and acquaintances, will never forget the sacrifice made by her sister, Jo Cox, while she was carrying out her duties as a Member of Parliament.

I would like to place on the record my thanks to the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Kim Leadbeater) for her courage in speaking about her personal experience.

We have heard a lot about how this should not be a political debate, but I am afraid that the choices made have been very political. “London highlights what Labour can do in power”—not my words, but those of the Labour leader in a rare moment of consistency. For once, I agree with him. Just look at the regional crime data and at the data specifically for our capital city, London. The only “PC” Londoners are likely to come across is political correctness. The two areas where knife crime has risen the most, London and the west midlands, both have a Labour police and crime commissioner in charge. If those two areas are taken out of the national figures, they show that across the country knife crime actually fell last year, proving yet again that the shadow Front Benchers need to get their own house in order before preaching to others.

“Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”—empty words that we have heard Labour politician after Labour politician parrot for the last 30 years. But when they were in power, those words from the pound-shop Blairites could not have been further from reality. For all the playground politics of this place, we must remember that these failures have real-life consequences for both the victims of crime and our communities.

When I was growing up in Bexley, one of London’s suburbs, life was always relatively safe, with Bexley consistently ranked in London’s top five safest boroughs. Issues such as knife crime and gang crime were viewed as a distant inner-city issue, which many families, including my own, thought they had left behind when they chose a better life for their children in Conservative-run Bexley. Fast-forward to today, and while Conservative-run Bexley is still one of the safest boroughs in London, with a crime rate approximately a third lower than that of the rest of London, fears about knife and gang crime on our doorstep are very real. Several serious incidents have tragically taken place in my constituency in recent months, and my thoughts remain with all those families, and those across London, who have lost loved ones.

The latest crime rate data highlights the fact that violent crime has been on a consistently upward trend since Sadiq Khan became Mayor, and tragically Bexley is not immune from Labour’s shameful record in London over the past eight years, which has seen more than 1,000 people killed. Life after life has been destroyed by the scourge of knife crime in London, with Londoners let down time and again by politicians in this place who are not brave enough to openly back effective policing measures such as stop and search, which take an average of 400 dangerous weapons off the streets each month. The Labour spokesman could not even bring himself to mention stop and search today. Let us not forget that it was this Labour Mayor of London who openly pledged to

“do all in my power to further cut”

the use of stop and search.

Now look at the state of London after eight years of Sadiq Khan’s politically correct policing. Just look at the data. In London, we have seen a 54% increase in knife crime since Labour took office. According to the Met’s official data, the number of stop and searches carried out in 2023 was 18.9% lower than it had been in the previous 12 months, and at the same time knife crime offences rose by 17.1%.

Before anyone accuses me of stoking a culture war—which, as we all know, is the left’s new buzzword to try to shut down critical debates about their woke ideas—let me also point out that the official data shows that white people were the most searched ethnic group in this period: 10,000 more over a two-year period. That is why I make no apology for my support for frontline officers using the likes of stop and search to help take dangerous knives off the streets, and why I back this Government to close the legal loopholes on zombie knives and to roll out scan-and-search technologies as quickly as possible. As politicians, we should all be showing real leadership in this place and doing the same.

The public have rightly had enough of empty gesture politics and warm words from politicians when yet another life is unnecessarily taken. They want action. They want their political leaders to get a grip on crime and make all our communities safer again. In London, the need to get a grip on crime and get back to basic policing could not be clearer. Not only are the Metropolitan police in special measures, but their leadership now faces a confidence crisis, from the perspective of both the public and many serving frontline police officers. Morale in the Met has arguably never been lower. It is little wonder, when decent, hard-working frontline officers feel that time and again they do not have the backing of the Mayor and their leaders to do the dangerous job of being a police officer in London, whether that means using stop and search to take dangerous knives off the streets, or specially trained firearms officers still having the confidence to pull the trigger in those split-second life-or-death moments when they guard us in places like this.

I am genuinely sad to say that I was not surprised to learn that the Met was the only force in the country that had failed to hit its recruitment target, despite millions of pounds in support being provided directly by the Government. That is yet another failure on the part of the Labour Mayor and police and crime commissioner, and one that has cost London more than 1,000 police officers—1,000 extra police officers could be walking the beat, actually attending burglaries or helping to stop what feels like a never-ending rise in knife crime. Seriously, what chance do ordinary Londoners have when criminal gangs roam the streets of London targeting their next victims, with the only questions normally being whether a watch, a car or a phone has been stolen this time, and whether the police will even bother to investigate the crime?

True to form—and this is what Labour Members are trying to do here today—the Labour Mayor of London continues to deflect all of these failures on to the Government, rather than taking any accountability as the police and crime commissioner for London. In fact, I understand that the Office for Statistics Regulation recently had to correct Sadiq Khan’s misinformation on knife crime, stating that it had “significantly increased across” his tenure and not declined, as he had claimed.

Quick to plead poverty at every opportunity, the Mayor always manages to find money for his mates or money to waste on his latest pet projects rather than more funding for frontline policing. All that is paid for, of course, from the wallets of Londoners, including a staggering £200 increase in the Mayor’s share of council tax and his continued hammering of motorists across London. And look how he spends taxpayers’ hard-earned money, with £30 million for his union mates despite a record number of strikes—

He has spent £29.5 million on additional staffing costs, including a 57% rise in Mayor’s Office costs and a 33% rise in press office spending; and let us not forget the £10 million for Met officers to learn what colour their personalities are. Now I do not know what colour my personality is, but what I do know from my experience of life is that when you see red ahead, you should follow the warning signs and stop. When it comes to crime and transport, the Great British public should look very closely at the sorry state of our capital city to see the big bright red warning sign highlighting what to expect if another left-wing, human rights London lawyer were ever in charge of our United Kingdom.

As the Leader of the Opposition has said himself, London highlights what Labour can do in power. With taxes up 70%, with London now officially the slowest city in the world in which to drive—that is, if your car has not already been stolen—and with more than 1,000 people tragically killed under this Labour Mayor, a Labour-run United Kingdom is a scary prospect indeed.

I wish I could say that it is an honour to follow the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr French), but I would not like to mislead the House in any way.