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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 745: debated on Wednesday 7 February 2024

Women and Equalities

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Violence against Women and Girls

6. What recent steps she has taken with Cabinet colleagues to help tackle violence against women and girls. (901446)

Tackling violence against women and girls is one of the Government’s key priorities. We are making progress in delivering various cross-Government workstreams, including the tackling violence against women and girls strategy and the rape review action plan.

Three quarters of police-recorded domestic abuse cases are closed due to evidential difficulties or because the victim does not support further action. Does the Minister agree that Labour’s proposal to put rape and domestic abuse specialists in every police force in England and Wales will give women the confidence to come forward and secure more convictions?

We will have 2,000 rape specialists across all police forces by April. In the autumn statement, the Prime Minister announced that the Government would provide £2 million of additional funding for a flexible fund that trials one-off payments to victims of domestic abuse. That fund was made available to victims on 31 January.

Last week, I co-hosted an event here in Parliament with a delegation from Israel who have first-hand experience of the aftermath of 7 October. They described innocent women, dead or alive, who had been raped by terrorists. Hamas desecrated their bodies and even booby-trapped them. Those acts of sexual violence must be condemned by every institution and individual who cares about women’s rights.

I thank my hon. Friend and her co-chair for organising what was for attendees an extremely difficult meeting. We heard the harrowing accounts of witnesses and family members of young girls who were kidnapped on 7 October, and we heard from the first responders who found the bodies of women and girls of all ages with obvious signs of sexual violence. Female soldiers were found naked with nails and sharp objects shoved into their vaginas. One told of a mother he found with her hands tied behind her back, naked and bleeding from the waist down, shot in the back of the head, and with a live grenade left in her hand for whoever found her body.

We must support the courage of those witnesses in giving that harrowing testimony about Hamas’s mass-scale perpetration of sexual violence on 7 October. We cannot be silent about these atrocities. We must ensure that the world does not forget that sexual violence shatters lives and devastates communities. The UK stands in solidarity with survivors and continues to call for the release of the remaining hostages.

I appreciate that the Government have been trying to tackle violence against women and girls, specifically with the Domestic Abuse Act 2021. Unfortunately, amendments that would have gone further to protect migrant women, who too often still feel unable to come forward and report abuse for fear of their data being shared and their being detained or deported, were not accepted. Will the Minister commit to reassessing the merits of preventing survivors’ personal data from being shared with the Home Office for immigration purposes?

That is a matter for the Home Office. I support all the work that Home Office Ministers are doing to tackle domestic abuse, and I know there would have been good reasons for not accepting those amendments to the Act. We will continue to do all we can. I have just heard from the Minister for safeguarding—the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Laura Farris)—that concessions are being made. We will continue to work with her and others to tackle domestic violence in all its forms.

In some instances, there are good reasons why immigration control should be able to work with forces of law enforcement when it comes to domestic abuse. My constituent Emma has been serially abused, harassed and stalked by a US national, who crosses the border with no visa—he does not need one—to continue his campaign of harassment. Will my right hon. Friend please work closely with the Home Office to ensure that British women are protected from foreign abusers who have found ways around our immigration system?

My right hon. Friend is right to raise that. I ask her to let her constituent know that the Government are doing all they can. The safeguarding Minister has said that she will write to my right hon. Friend so that this specific case can be further investigated.

Windrush Compensation Scheme

2. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for the Home Department on the time taken to process claims to the Windrush compensation scheme. (901442)

5. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for the Home Department on the time taken to process claims to the Windrush compensation scheme. (901445)

14. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for the Home Department on the time taken to process claims to the Windrush compensation scheme. (901455)

As of December 2023, 91% of all claims either had received a final decision or were less than six months old. The Windrush scheme has reduced the time taken to allocate a substantive casework decision from 18 months to less than four months. That includes making all essential eligibility checks together with a preliminary assessment to make an initial interim payment of £10,000 wherever possible.

In response to a parliamentary question, the former Immigration Minister, the right hon. Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick), confirmed that by April last year, 41 of the 6,122 Windrush compensation claimants had sadly died before their claims were settled—an increase of more than 100% since 2021. Will the Minister update us on how many applicants have now died while waiting for the Government to right the wrongs done to thousands of innocent survivors and their families?

I can confirm that we have been made aware of 53 claimants who have unfortunately passed away. I want to provide the hon. Lady with two reassurances: first, if we are notified an individual is suffering from a critical or life-limiting illness, their claim is prioritised; secondly, if they do pass away, their family are still able to pursue their claim.

Only 14% of 150,000 eligible applicants to the compensation scheme have received redress. Will the Government learn lessons from the Horizon scandal and listen to victims and campaign groups who are calling on them to lower the burden of proof for claims, and ensure that legal aid is guaranteed to all eligible claimants?

So far, £75 million has been paid out on more than 2,000 claims. I gently say to the hon. Gentleman that it is not appropriate to draw precise equivalence with things like the Horizon scheme, because that involved a judicial process, with different facts, different losses and different harms. However, we have been making consistent improvements to the compensation scheme, including making it easier for applicants to use, and we have rapidly accelerated the speed at which we make our payments.

Victims of the Windrush scandal have experienced huge injustices of destitution, humiliation and varied health issues, as well as delays in receiving compensation. To make matters worse, they do not currently receive compensation for the loss of private pensions. Will the Minister look into reducing the delays and compensating Windrush victims for private pension losses?

We consider each claim on its facts, and no two claims are the same. I would be happy to write to the hon. Lady about specific issues, but I reassure her that we do not take a blanket approach to each individual and we assess claims individually.

The Conservatives have failed the Windrush generation twice now: first by denying their rights as British citizens, and secondly by delaying their compensation, as we have just heard again. Labour would sort out the compensation scheme, re-establish the major change programme and Windrush unit scrapped by the Conservatives and appoint a Windrush commissioner to ensure that this kind of scandal never happens again. What is the Government’s plan here?

I find it difficult to accept that a scheme is failing when more than 80% of claims have now received a final decision, and more than 90% have either received a final decision or are less than six months old. So I disagree with that. I think it was suggested that we should take the scheme out of the Home Office—perhaps that is Labour’s proposal. I remind the hon. Lady that Martin Levermore, the independent adviser to the Windrush scheme, supported the scheme remaining in the Home Office in his most recent report, published in March 2022.

There is no accountability for the failures being felt so acutely by so many people who, frankly, do not have much time left to see justice. The Windrush generation and their families helped to build our NHS, but today we see big inequalities in health outcomes. Labour’s race equality Act would include a target to close the appalling maternal mortality gap for black and Asian women. It seems another nine months have passed since the maternity disparities taskforce last met—is that because the Minister for Women and Equalities thinks this is another of her alleged fake problems?

I say to the hon. Lady that that is not accepted. In fact, the Health Secretary made an announcement on maternal services this week; I think it would be appropriate to refer to my colleagues at the Department of Health and Social Care, and then I will write to the hon. Lady on this point.

Domestic Abuse

3. Whether she has had recent discussions with the Domestic Abuse Commissioner on taking steps to help tackle so-called honour-based abuse. (901443)

I meet the Domestic Abuse Commissioner regularly, and our last joint visit was to a refuge for minoritised women for whom honour-based abuse was a specific issue. It is important work of the Home Office to look at the specific harms connected with this issue. One of the things we are most proud of is our forced marriage unit, which has provided support services to more than 300 cases in the past year. We also fund a national honour-based abuse helpline, which has helped more than 2,500 people in the past 12 months.

Savera UK, which is based in my constituency, and the Domestic Abuse Commissioner are concerned by this Government’s failure to provide a statutory definition of so-called honour-based abuse. Does the Minister agree that that will lead to under-reporting and a lack of detail on the scale of the problem?

I am afraid that the Government take the opposite view. We use the expression honour-based abuse, which has been controversial in itself, because often victims understand it the best. Victims of honour-based abuse are often the hardest to reach, and sometimes are the least able to articulate their claims and to escape their circumstance. We keep the definition wide to capture successfully all the various insidious forms that it takes. Let me reassure the hon. Lady that both the Crown Prosecution Service and the Home Office use a working definition to guide investigations and, so far, it is proving effective.

One of the most insidious forms of domestic abuse is conversion therapy. It is cruel and it does not work. Could my hon. Friend give me some indication of when legislation will come forward to ban it?

I can reassure my hon. Friend that the Government will publish a draft Bill on that in due course.


4. What steps she is taking to help support women into science, technology, engineering and mathematics jobs. (901444)

We are helping to get young girls and women into STEM sectors in three key ways: first, by increasing the number of young girls taking up courses. We have seen a 50% increase in the number of undergraduate STEM courses taken up by young women. Secondly, this week is National Apprenticeship Week, and 70% of jobs are now accessed through an apprenticeship, which is helping young women get into STEM careers. Thirdly, we are helping women with experience of working in STEM who have left the profession to return to the workplace with our STEM returners project.

University technical colleges are a good place for young women to start in STEM. I welcome the new UTC in Southampton, which will provide the extra places that Portsmouth UTC is unable to offer. Some 6,000 girls attend UTCs around the country, of whom 82% go on to apprenticeships, university or straight into employment—mostly into STEM careers. Does my hon. Friend agree that UTCs provide a great start to a career in STEM, and that the proposal for UTC sleeves in secondary schools will help more girls into STEM careers?

I absolutely agree. University technical colleges provide an excellent experience for young people, not just academically but in providing technical skills. They have excellent links with industry, which provides great work experience for those pupils. I am pleased that the young people in my hon. Friend’s constituency have such great options for UTC provision.

I am always encouraged by the number of young ladies and girls who wish to be involved in science, technology and mathematics in Northern Ireland. They can do the job every bit as well men. Is it not important to ensure that companies that wish to employ people do more to encourage young ladies to take up jobs?

The hon. Member is absolutely right. The Government cannot do it all; we need industry, and there are some great examples. We have a £17 million scholarship programme for artificial intelligence and data science conversion courses. We also have the UK Space Agency investing £15 million into diverse workforce streams, particularly to help young women get into the sector. He is right that we need to work hand in glove with industry.

Caring Responsibilities and Work

7. What steps the Government are taking to help support women with caring responsibilities to continue working. (901447)

We all know that women take on the bulk of caring responsibilities. The Carer’s Leave Regulations 2024 will come into force on 6 April across England, Wales and Scotland, allowing carers to take a week of unpaid leave from the workplace knowing that their jobs are protected.

The ministerial team knows that it is an absolute scandal that in all these years of so-called popular Conservative Government we have seen such a bad deal for early years, carers and talented women. Legions of them want to use their talent at work but are stopped by the highest childcare costs in the world.

I would respectfully say to the hon. Gentleman that God gave us two ears and a mouth for a reason, and I would encourage him to put his listening ears on to hear about the track record of this Government. We have, for instance, improved payments for carers, introduced groundbreaking legislation to allow flexible working from day one, and legislated for parental leave including shared parental leave and paternity leave. The kinship care strategy was launched in December to provide a funding model for kinship carers. We have gone further than any Government with our plan to improve the lives of carers and value the work that they do.

That right to flexible working would particularly benefit workers with caring responsibilities, most of whom are women, but unfortunately the UK Government’s response to the results of their consultation on flexible working simply does not go far enough to provide some of the real practical support needed by many people with such responsibilities. Last week Nikki Pound of the TUC told the Women and Equalities Committee that one in three requests for flexible working were denied by employers. What steps are the UK Government taking to give real support to workers with caring responsibilities and ensure that flexible working is a day-one right by default?

I am a carer myself, holding down a full-time job, so I am aware of the difficulties involved. As I have said, the Government have passed legislation allowing flexible working from day one, and we have also introduced 18 weeks of leave entitlement for parents. That is on top of the Carer’s Leave Regulations 2024, which will come into force on 6 April. We have gone further than any other Government in introducing those rights for carers.

Disabled People: Energy Bills Support

8. If she will make an assessment with Cabinet colleagues of the potential impact of Government support for energy bills on disabled people. (901448)

The Government understand the importance of this issue. I have recently met key stakeholders representing disabled people, including members of Disability UK and cross-Whitehall colleagues.

My constituent Mr Peter Bodek has a severe lung condition which necessitates the use of oxygen. There is mould in his house, and it is getting on to his clothes. He can only afford two small electric heaters. I should be grateful if a Minister could meet me, very briefly, to discuss this rather difficult situation.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue, and I speak both for myself and on behalf of the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work in saying that of course we will have a meeting.

Topical Questions

In the light of some of the commentary about the employment tribunal’s judgment in the case of Professor Miller and Bristol University, I want to clarify the fact that antisemitism must continue to be challenged wherever it arises. We have seen people in this country use their views on Israel as an excuse to display antisemitism. We have seen that in protests on our streets, and also in our universities. It is therefore important to stress that this ruling does not change the fact that while academics have the right to express views, they cannot behave in a way that amounts to harassment of Jewish students. Disguising that as discourse about Israel would be no more lawful than any other form of antisemitism. The Government will consider the ruling carefully, and we will continue to do all in our power to protect Jewish people throughout our country.

On Monday, my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) hosted a very positive event marking the start of the Football v. Homophobia month of action. Will Ministers join me in thanking all those involved in the campaign—which includes LEAP sports and the TIE campaign in Scotland—and offer their wholehearted support for making football a safe and welcoming sport for LGBT people?

Of course we join the hon. Gentleman in that. I pay tribute to the work of the Minister for Equalities, who has been very supportive of the campaign—as are all of us in the ministerial team.

T3. I hear more frequent use of the word “microaggression”. As an engineer, I know that “micro” means something extremely small. It is tiny. In fact, it is one millionth of whatever a standard aggression might be. Has the Minister a view on this, and does she recognise it as a new phenomenon? How big a priority might it be? (901459)

As my hon. Friend will know, I too am an engineer by training, and we engineers have to stick together. We are very sceptical when people introduce to the lexicon terms that are not helpful to the real work of tackling serious criminal behaviour. I am not a fan of that term, and my hon. Friend will be pleased to know that microaggressions training was removed from the Government Campus prospectus in November 2022.

Under the Conservatives, police-recorded rapes have soared to record highs while convictions have fallen to record lows. It emerged last week that the Conservative police and crime commissioner in Cheshire victim-blamed girls wearing short skirts for this epidemic. Why are these attitudes still tolerated in the Conservative party?

Those attitudes are not tolerated in the Conservative party. I have not seen the remarks the hon. Lady refers to, but I am sure that we can investigate. However, I will push back on what she said about rape statistics. The fact is that, for the year ending March 2023, the crime survey for England and Wales shows a 5.1% reduction in the number of adults experienced domestic abuse—a statistically significant decrease—compared with the year ending March 2020.

T5. Last month I received a letter from my local NHS trust regarding children’s services at Southend Hospital. It referred to women and “birthing people” going into labour. Can my right hon. Friend clarify whether the term “birthing people” is required language under the Equality Act 2010? If not, does she agree that it should not be used, because it is dehumanising, confusing and insulting to many women? (901461)

This Conservative Government and this Conservative Prime Minister have been clear that biological sex matters, and language is important too. We have issued guidance to trusts because there is evidence that clinical damage and harm can come with the removal of the use of the term “woman” from literature. I would be happy to write to my hon. Friend’s local trust to point that out.

T2. Scope has noted that potential changes to the work capability assessment might force disabled people into ill-suited employment, and it is worried that huge numbers of people will end up being forced into doing exactly that. What steps is the Minister taking, with her Cabinet colleagues, to ensure that disabled people are not forced into jobs that are not suited to them? (901458)

The hon. Lady joined me yesterday at the disability action plan event, where many stakeholders welcomed the changes and opportunities in disabled people’s lives. Many disabled people want to work, and we at the Department for Work and Pensions will always ensure that we listen to their wants and needs and that they will never be forced into anything that is not suitable for them.

At 5 pm today, women’s groups and other community groups in Gosport will be staging a peaceful protest about the Lib Dem council’s decision to completely end all live CCTV monitoring. They are worried about the impact on people’s safety. Does the Minister agree with them?

It is important that people understand that CCTV and street lighting are important in helping women to feel safe on the streets. I fully understand the campaign and I am glad that my hon. Friend is supporting it. We are doing everything we can in Government to reduce violence against women and girls.

T4. Will the UK Government redouble their efforts to ensure that the humanitarian needs of women and girls in Gaza are being addressed, in line with the UK’s commitments under the international women and girls strategy, the women, peace and security national action plan, and the international development White Paper? (901460)

I am working closely with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office on this issue. We are very concerned about the events taking place in both Israel and Gaza and we want to see the violence end. The hon. Gentleman will know about all the work we have been doing on preventing sexual violence in conflict, for example, and we will continue to do everything we can to minimise any impact on women and girls.

Female-led businesses often face particular challenges, and in the Department for Business and Trade we work with the British Business Bank to ensure that those businesses continue to have access to finance. We have the Investing in Women code and a taskforce for women-led entrepreneurs. We hope that all these actions together will help improve the lives of women in business.

T6. Will the Minister make a statement about today’s report by the Patient Safety Commissioner addressing redress for victims of sodium valproate and mesh? (901463)

The hon. Lady will know that the Government commissioned that report from the Patient Safety Commissioner to look at options for redress, specifically for those affected by sodium valproate, but also for those affected by mesh. The report has been published only today, so we will look at the details closely before reporting back to the House.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


I know the thoughts of the House and the country are with the King and his family. We wish His Majesty a speedy recovery and look forward to him resuming his public-facing duties in due course.

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, and I shall have further such meetings later today.

I, too, send my best wishes to the King.

Last week, the Foreign Secretary said that, with allies, we will look at the issue of recognising a Palestinian state, so that the Palestinian people

“can see that there is going to be irreversible progress to a two-state solution.”

Afterwards, it was briefed that these words had not been signed off by No. 10. Does the Prime Minister agree with his Foreign Secretary?

Our long-standing position has been that we will recognise a Palestinian state at a time that is most conducive to the peace process. The most important thing is that we are committed to that two-state solution and are working with our allies to bring it about.

Q2. People in Northampton South are desperately short of NHS dental provision—indeed, in Duston there are now none at all. So today’s dentistry recovery plan announcement is hugely welcome, but can the Prime Minister guarantee to my residents that there will be improvements within months, not years? (901393)

We are publishing the dentistry recovery plan today, and my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary will be making a statement shortly. Over 1 million more people saw an NHS dentist last year than the year before, but we know that there is more to do. That is why the recovery plan will make sure that NHS dental care is faster, simpler and fairer for patients and staff.

I join the Prime Minister in sending His Majesty the King our very best wishes for his treatment. Across the House, we all look forward to seeing him back to full health as quickly as possible.

This week, the unwavering bravery of Brianna Ghey’s mother, Esther, has touched us all. As a father, I cannot even imagine the pain that she is going through. I am glad that she is with us in the Gallery today.

A year ago, the Prime Minister promised to bring down NHS waiting lists. Isn’t he glad that he did not bet a grand on it?

At least I stand by my commitments. He is so indecisive that the only bet he would make is an each-way bet.

He says he stands by his commitments. He once insisted that if he missed his promises,

“I’m the Prime Minister…it’s on me personally”.

Today we learn from his own officials that he is the blocker to any deal to end the doctors’ strikes. Every time he is asked, he blames everyone else. What exactly did he mean when he said “it’s on me personally” if he does not meet his promise?

We are bringing down waiting lists for the longest waiters and making progress. It is a bit rich to hear about promises from someone who has broken every single promise he was elected on. I have counted almost 30 in the last year: pensions, planning, peerages, public sector pay, tuition fees, childcare, second referendums, defining a woman—although, in fairness, that was only 99% of a U-turn. The list goes on, but the theme is the same: empty words, broken promises and absolutely no plan.

Of all the weeks to say that, when Brianna’s mother is in this Chamber—shame! Parading as a man of integrity when he has got absolutely no responsibility, it is absolute—[Interruption.]

Order. I think Members are getting carried away. Our constituents want to hear the questions and they certainly want to hear the answers. They do not want to hear organised barracking, so please, I want no more of it.

I think the role of the Prime Minister is to ensure that every single citizen in this country feels safe and respected, and it is a shame that the Prime Minister does not share that view. I welcome the fact that he has finally admitted that he has failed on NHS waiting lists. I also welcome the fact that he has finally acknowledged the crisis in NHS dentistry. He is calling it a “recovery plan”, after 14 years of Tory Government. What exactly does he think NHS dentistry is recovering from?

Order. I am certainly not having that from the Opposition Front Bench either. Please, I want to hear this. I am hoping that election fever is not coming tomorrow, so let us not behave as though it is.

As ever, the right hon. and learned Gentleman conveniently forgets the impact of a pandemic on NHS dentistry; it was specifically because of the close proximity nature of dental provision that it was unable to operate as normal throughout the pandemic—that was a recommendation of the medical and clinical experts. That is why, inevitably, there is a backlog in dental care, with the impact that this has. But that is why, as my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary will outline later today for the House, we are putting in more funding to provide more NHS provision across the country, on top of plans that will see the number of dental training places increase by 40%. Our plans mean that there will be 2.5 million more NHS appointments, which is, in fact, three times more than the Labour party is proposing.

There are some areas in the country where people literally cannot have an NHS dentist, and the Prime Minister says that that is down to covid. People are literally pulling out their own teeth—[Interruption.]

Order. Let me just say that I do not need any more from those on the Government Front Bench either. Do we understand each other?

People are literally pulling out their teeth using pliers—an experience that can be compared with extracting an answer from the Prime Minister at the Dispatch Box. The truth is that after 14 years of neglect, this “recovery plan” is just a desperate attempt to recover back to square one. If he wanted to move forward, he should follow Labour: scrap the non-dom tax status and use the money to fund 2 million more hospital appointments every year. But the Prime Minister is oddly reluctant to follow us on this. What exactly is so special about this tax avoidance scheme that means he prioritises it above the NHS?

Let us look at that record. In the NHS, we have record funding; record numbers of doctors and nurses; a record number of appointments; and higher cancer survival rates. But what is happening on Labour’s watch in Wales? Let us have a look at that. A fifth of people in Wales are currently on a waiting list; the number of waits of 18 months or more is 10 times higher than in England; and people are waiting twice as long for an operation. Labour’s failure has sent the Welsh NHS back to square one, and we will never let them do that here.

When the Prime Minister admitted that he had failed on waiting lists, I actually thought that we might be entering a new era of “integrity, professionalism and accountability”—remember that one? But just like all the other relaunches, it has proved to be a false dawn. He is still blaming everyone else and is still removed from reality. It is very simple: you can either back more NHS appointments or more tax avoidance. We know what side we are on; why doesn’t he?

The best way to ensure that we continue to fund the NHS, as we have, is not to make £28 billion of unfunded spending commitments. Just this morning, independent Treasury officials have published a formal costing of just one part of Labour’s eco promise, its insulation scheme, and it turns out that it will cost double what Labour had previously claimed—it is not the £6 billion that Labour accounted for, but £13 billion every single year. It is now crystal clear that Labour has absolutely no plan, but we all know it is going to fund that gap: more taxes on hard-working people.

The Prime Minister is Mr 25 Tax Rises. He is literally the country’s expert on putting taxes up, and he thinks he can lecture everyone else on the economy. Last week, he and his MPs were laughing at someone whose mortgage had gone up £1,000 a month. This week, he casually made a £1,000 bet in the middle of an interview. Last week, he thought even raising questions about the cost of living was resorting to “the politics of envy”. This week, he has finally found the cause he wants to rally around: the non-dom status. When he finds himself backing tax avoidance over NHS appointments, does he start to understand why his own MPs are saying that he simply does not get what Britain needs?

I will take no lectures about getting Britain from a man who thought it was right to defend terrorists. What we are doing is building a brighter future for our country: just last week, we expanded healthcare in pharmacies; today, we are expanding dental care; and this week, we are helping millions with the cost of living and, most importantly, cutting national insurance. That is all while the Labour party argues over 28 billion different ways to raise people’s taxes. That is the difference between us: we are delivering a plan, but they cannot even agree on one.

Q4. My constituents and I send our best wishes to the King and the royal family.Despite the popular narrative, our economy is doing well, with an unemployment rate well below the EU average, strong inward investment and record employment. Taxes are higher than Conservatives would like, but does my right hon. Friend agree that a key reason for this is that we rightly spent £400 billion on covid support, including one of most generous furlough schemes, in order to ensure that no one was left behind, and that it is our intention and instinct to lower taxes, unlike the Opposition parties? (901395)

My hon. Friend is right to highlight our record of providing support to the country when it needed it, whether it is the NHS, vaccines, furlough during covid or, most recently, help with people’s energy bills. We are only able to afford that because of the strong management of our economy. That is why we must stick with the plan and not risk going back to square one with the Labour party, which, as we know, has absolutely no plan and will cost everyone in this country with its £28 billion of tax rises.

I begin by expressing my heartfelt sympathies to Brianna’s mother, who is in the Public Gallery. I also send my best wishes to King Charles for what will hopefully be a quick and full recovery.

The public are used to the Tories gambling on the lives of others: Boris Johnson did it with public health during the pandemic, and his immediate successor did it with household finances. Not to be outdone, on Monday this week the Prime Minister accepted a crude bet regarding the lives of asylum seekers. In doing so, he demeaned them as individuals and he degraded the office that he currently holds. Will he apologise?

We may have a principled disagreement on this: I believe, and we believe, that if someone comes to this country illegally, they should not be able to stay and they should be removed. That is why we are committed to our Rwanda scheme.

As ever, the Prime Minister does himself no favours, because the bet to which I refer was worth £1,000, and it came just hours before he ended cost of living support worth just £900. His justification for doing so was that the cost of living crisis is easing. What does he believe leaves him looking most out of touch with the public: gambling £1,000, or believing that the cost of living crisis is getting better?

The hon. Gentleman talks about the cost of living, but perhaps he can explain to the Scottish people why it is that, while the UK Conservative Government are cutting their taxes, the Scottish Government are raising them?

Q9. The thoughts of the people of East Worthing and Shoreham are with His Majesty, too. The Archbishop of Canterbury has admitted that, since taking office, attendance at the Church of England has dropped by 15%. In the 10 years to covid, the number of baptisms in the Church of England has fallen from 140,000 a year to 87,000, so Christianity in the UK seems to be on the wane, unless, apparently, you are from a Muslim country in the middle of an asylum claim. We are now told that one in seven occupants of the Bibby Stockholm has suddenly become a practising Christian. Given that the Church of England has now issued secret guidance to clergy supporting asylum applications for these Damascene conversions, to whom is the Church accountable? Are taxpayers being scammed by the Archbishop? (901400)

When it comes to illegal migrants, we need to have a system whereby, if someone comes here illegally, they should not be able to stay. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has asked for more information about the extent to which migrants converting to Christianity is playing a role in our asylum system. More generally, under our Illegal Migration Act 2023, anybody entering the UK illegally will not be granted asylum here. That is why we need to have somewhere to send them and why our Rwanda scheme is so important. The Labour party has blocked these measures every single step of the way, because it does not have a plan and it will not keep Britain safe.

May I, on behalf of my party, extend our best wishes to His Majesty the King for a full recovery?

I thank the Prime Minister for his dedication and leadership in helping us to restore our place in the United Kingdom and its internal market and to revive our political institutions at Stormont. The Union is more secure as a result of our combined endeavours and, together, we have greatly enhanced the potential to build a strong and prosperous economy that will help to cement our peace in Northern Ireland.

Securing peace in an unstable world is vital for all of us, so will the Prime Minister examine the findings of a recent report by Policy Exchange that calls for Northern Ireland to play an even greater role in the defence of our nation?

May I start by thanking and paying tribute to my right hon. Friend for his own leadership over the past few months? He and I agree that the Union is stronger for the return of devolution and the work that we have done. I would be delighted to examine the findings of the report, and I have seen, with my own visits, the vital role that Northern Ireland is playing through the location of firms such as Thales and Harland & Wolff. However, as he will know, I was delighted that, in last week’s Command Paper, we specifically committed to examining how we can further bolster Northern Ireland’s share of the UK defence sector, because it is another essential pillar of our precious economic Union.

Q10.   Mr Speaker, does the Prime Minister know where the best site for large-scale, new nuclear in the UK is? [Hon. Members: “Wylfa!”] Will he commit to buying the Wylfa site—now the only gigawatt site in Wales—this year and ensure that it is progressed as soon as possible to meet our net zero and energy security needs, and give an enormous boost to the Ynys Môn and north Wales economy? (901401)

As ever, my hon. Friend is a fantastic champion for Wylfa and the nuclear industry. I can confirm to her that Wylfa is a candidate for the new nuclear site and one of a number of potential sites that could host civil nuclear projects. No decisions have been taken at present, but Great British Nuclear is working with the Government to support access. We are also developing a new national policy statement, providing the planning framework for new nuclear power, and we very much welcome her, and other, contributions to that consultation.

Q3.   Last year, the Prime Minister and other senior Ministers were given the conclusions of a Government audit of research programmes at UK universities with links to the Chinese state. The audit flagged up hundreds of programmes as being at high risk of potentially being used by the Chinese Communist party for military use, and other applications in strategic and sensitive areas as being of high interest to an authoritarian regime such as China. A smaller proportion was judged to be extremely high risk. Despite that, the Government have elected to do nothing about it. Will the Prime Minister confirm his personal knowledge of that report and explain to the House why no action is to be taken and why these programmes must be continued unimpeded? (901394)

We will continue to take a robust and proactive approach towards our relationship with China, rooted in the UK’s national interest and values. The National Security Act 2023 brings together vital new measures to protect our national security. That includes creating a foreign influence registration scheme through the Act specifically to tackle covert influence in the UK. We will continue to take all possible powers to keep the country safe.

Q12. Two remarkably talented and enthusiastic individuals from Kettering, Beccy Hurrell and Lindsey Atkins, have put together a really ambitious £2 million bid to repurpose the redundant Gala Bingo hall in Kettering high street into a community arts, music, business and family hub, which would be simply transformative for Kettering town centre. Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister please be kind enough to facilitate a meeting for us with the relevant culture and levelling-up Ministers so that we can explore how a combined community ownership fund and cultural development fund bid might get us across the line? (901403)

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting this exciting initiative, and commend Beccy and Lindsey for their campaigning. He will know that our £150 million community ownership fund is there specifically to help to safeguard small but much-loved local assets. Our cultural development fund, which he mentions, is there to support further cultural projects as well. I will ensure that he gets a meeting with the relevant Minister to discuss the plans further, and wish him and his constituents all the best with this redevelopment project.

Q5. Data revealed by the Centre for Cities showed that, after 14 years of Tory rule, towns and cities in every corner of our country have been levelled down, left behind, and left out of pocket. On average, people are over £10,000 a year worse off because the Prime Minister’s party has failed on growth. When will he take responsibility for breaking Britain? (901396)

In fact, what we are seeing is record investment in our towns across the UK, many of which were neglected by the Labour party for decades. If we really care about levelling up, we need to avoid saddling hard-working Britons with higher taxes, which is exactly what Labour’s £28 billion green spending spree would do.

Q13. For 27 years, constituents across the Vale of Glamorgan and the whole of Wales sadly have had to wait longer to see a doctor, longer for an ambulance, longer at A&E, and longer for an operation than patients in England. There are 24,785 patients in Wales waiting longer than two years for an operation. The number in England is 227. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Aneurin Bevan will be turning in his grave over the fact that we cannot trust Labour with the NHS? (901404)

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Here in England we have a plan when it comes to education, where we are marching up the league tables, and we have virtually eliminated the longest waiting times, but in Labour-run Wales, as he said, education rates are falling and waiting lists over 18 months are more than 10 times higher than in England. It is crystal clear that we should stick to our plan for a brighter future and not go back to square one with Labour.

Q6. According to openDemocracy this week, since 1999 at least 391 people have died at our borders. That is a rate of more than one man or woman per month for 25 years. On top of that, there is the financial cost. The deadly and failed border regime as well as the Prime Minister’s plan for Rwanda are estimated to have cost at least £800 million since 2014. Will he now show that he understands that the people whose lives he is making sick bets on are human beings, and provide them with safe routes to the UK in order to seek asylum, instead of more failed and extreme forms of deterrence? (901397)

It is in fact criminal gangs that are exploiting vulnerable people and leading many of them to lose their lives as they make these dangerous crossings. Conservative Members think that that is wrong, and we want to do something about it, which is why we need to get a deterrent up and running, and be able to send people to Rwanda. It is the hon. Gentleman’s party that opposes that, so the question for Labour Members is why they remain on the side of the criminal people smugglers.

February marks Emotional Health, Boost Your Self Esteem and Children’s Mental Health Month. In recent years, about 6,500 people have died in the UK each year due to suicide. In 2021, I was nearly one of them. Luckily my attempt failed, I was found by family members quickly, I received amazing care at St Helier and Springfield Hospitals, I did not do any permanent damage and I was well looked after by the NHS in the months that followed. I want to say thank you to everyone who saved me and sorry to my family and loved ones, whom I put through such an awful ordeal. In that moment, I felt alone and scared, like there was no way out, and that the world would be better off without me in it. But I do not recognise that man any more. I know that nothing is ever really worth that, that help really is out there—and I am pretty awesome. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] Does the Prime Minister agree that one death by suicide is one too many, and will he send a message from the Dispatch Box today that, whatever you are going through, you are not alone, help is out there and better days lie ahead?

I know the whole House will join me in commending my hon. Friend for his bravery in sharing his story and I can absolutely assure him that we take this issue incredibly seriously. The new suicide prevention strategy ensures that we will have the actions in place to reduce suicide over the next years, because we absolutely recognise the impact that it has on people and their families, and we should do everything we can to prevent that from happening.

Q7. May I take this opportunity to ask the Prime Minister if he will consider apologising to Brianna Ghey’s mother for his insensitive comment? Turning to my question, the independent report into Teesworks released last Monday throws up more questions than it answers. It is vital that we now have a National Audit Office investigation. The report was scathing and said that there is insufficient transparency to offer evidence of value for money. Should the Government not lead by example, and will the Prime Minister finally release details of his conversations surrounding Teesworks, as he was asked to do twice last year? (901398)

I think the hon. Lady was talking about the report on Teesworks, as far as I can see. What that report noted was that the pace and scope of the regeneration had had a wide-reaching positive impact on the local economy—and of course it was an independent external report. It makes it clear that there is no evidence of corruption or illegality and the Government will of course respond to the recommendations in the report as soon as possible.

I give my heartfelt thanks to the Prime Minster for his support for our Melton, Harborough and Stamford villages following the recent devastating flooding. Tens of homes, farms and businesses in Rutland were also devastated, but our county is in effect excluded from ever receiving support in the future due to the arbitrary floor currently in place. Flood support should be based on the most affected or a percentage of population, but Rutland must have 1,000 times more flooding than next-door Lincolnshire for us ever to access support. Will my right hon. Friend please give a meeting to me and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland) to discuss this important issue?

I extend my sympathies to all those impacted by the recent storms and flooding. We are investing record sums in flood defence across England and a recovery support framework is in place for families and businesses in every area that has experienced exceptional flooding. I know that my hon. Friend is in touch with Ministers in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities about how those schemes affect her constituency, but I will ensure that she gets the correspondence and meetings that she needs to deliver for her local communities.

Q8. Two weeks ago, I challenged the Prime Minister on his Government’s broken promise on building new hospitals by 2030, including in my own area. Now it seems the Government are downgrading existing hospitals too. Children and parents in Eastbourne will be forced to travel for miles if the proposed downgrade of the hospital’s paediatric services goes ahead. Campaigners have asked the Government to call in this disastrous plan, so will the Prime Minister agree? (901399)

Actually, we are investing record sums in improving hospital infrastructure across the country. In Eastbourne in particular, spades are already in the ground to deliver an elective surgical hub. I know that there is local Liberal Democrat scaremongering about the future of services, but the local Conservative MP is doing a fantastic job, engaging with her community and working with local health officials.

It was my huge pleasure to host the aerospace defence and security industry apprenticeships event in Parliament yesterday, welcoming two apprentices from Collins Aerospace in Wolverhampton. Will the Prime Minister join me, in National Apprenticeship Week, in celebrating the opportunities that apprenticeships can provide in the defence industry, as well as in our armed forces, which are all in the top 10 apprenticeship providers?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the importance of our apprenticeship provision, which is providing young people with opportunities across the country, particularly in the defence and aerospace sectors, as she said. Those plans are in stark contrast to those of the Labour party, which has caved in to big business and is now proposing to halve the amount of apprenticeship funding and the number of apprenticeships.

Q11. If Grangemouth refinery closes, Scotland will be the only major oil-producing nation without a refinery capacity. At a time of energy insecurity, is it not economic madness to allow a profitable plant to close, and is it not environmental madness to tranship oil for refining and distribution across the increasingly dangerous high seas? Given the billions that the Prime Minister has received and will continue to receive from North sea oil, will he ensure that Scotland retains a refinery capacity for Scotland’s oil? (901402)

The future of Grangemouth refinery is obviously a commercial decision for its owners, but I am told that the site will remain operating as a refinery until at least May 2025. In the meantime, the UK and Scottish Governments are working together to seek assurances from Grangemouth about how it is supporting employees. We remain confident in our fuel supply. On energy security, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, this Government are unambiguously backing the North sea oil and gas sector because that is how we support energy security in this country, attract investment and create jobs, particularly in Scotland.

I was very proud that it was a Conservative Government who appointed the Patient Safety Commissioner, and that we commissioned the Hughes report on medical devices and medicines, which was published this morning. Will my right hon. Friend also make me proud by addressing the points that the commissioner has raised and bringing forward a redress scheme in a timely manner?

I am grateful to the Patient Safety Commissioner and her team for their work on this important issue—one that I know my right hon. Friend has spoken about in the past. Of course, first and foremost, our sympathies remain with those affected by sodium valproate. We are focused on improving the system and how it listens to patients, and it is right that the Government carefully consider the report’s recommendations. The Department of Health and Social Care will respond to the report in due course, and the Health Secretary will keep the House updated on a regular basis.

Q14. Many of my constituents, such as local mum Jessica, have contacted me about special educational needs and disability support. Jessica’s son has waited years for an autism diagnosis, and he is not expected to have an education, health and care plan in place by the time he goes to secondary school. Will the Prime Minister confirm that students who need an EHCP will get one so that they can thrive in school? (901405)

Of course, we want to see every child thrive at school, which is why we have tripled the amount going into special educational needs for capital places and put more money into support ECHPs. I am sorry to hear about the case that the hon. Lady mentions. I will ensure that we continue to look at this matter in particular, because, as she said, we want every child to thrive at school.

I put on the record my best wishes to His Majesty the King and to Her Royal Highness the Princess of Wales.

Building on the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), I know that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is exceptionally pleased about the Hughes report, which has been published today. A huge amount of work has been done by Members from across the Chamber, including the hon. Members for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) and for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), and my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North.

May I press my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on the fact that tens of thousands of women and children have suffered immensely since the 1970s, with Government after Government doing nothing about it? I am proud that this Government have done something about it, but I urge him, in the strongest terms, to talk to the Chancellor to ensure that we can address the issues raised in the Hughes report at the Budget.

I thank my right hon. Friend and colleagues from all parts of the House for their campaigning over many years on this issue. As I said, it is right not only that we extend our sympathies to those affected, but that we carefully consider the recommendations from the Patient Safety Commissioner’s report. I can assure my right hon. Friend that we will do that with all due haste, and I know that the Health Secretary will keep the House updated.

Why did the Prime Minister downgrade the role of Minister for Disabled People? What message does he think that sends to disabled people, and will he commit to reconsider that move and ensure that the role is held by a Minister of State? If not, will he agree to meet with me and disabled people’s organisations to explain his reasoning?

Actually, the Minister for Disabled People, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies), is going to do a fantastic job, because she cares passionately about this issue. This Government have a record to be proud of, whether that is supporting many more of those with disabilities into work and ensuring they can live independently, or making sure that children with complex disabilities have access to more changing places across the country. Those are the values of this Conservative Government.

I would also like to say to Brianna Ghey’s mum, who is here, that as I said earlier this week, what happened was an unspeakable and shocking tragedy. In the face of that, for her mother to demonstrate the compassion and empathy that she did last weekend demonstrated the very best of humanity in the face of seeing the very worst of humanity. She deserves all our admiration and praise for that.