Skip to main content

Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 746: debated on Wednesday 6 March 2024


The Secretary of State was asked—

Financial Settlement for Scotland

Last weekend Scotland once again showed the world that we can host fantastic sporting events, with the World Athletics Indoor Championships held in Glasgow. I offer my congratulations to everyone involved, and especially to medal winners Jemma Reekie from Ayrshire and Josh Kerr from Edinburgh, who was the first Scottish man to win a gold medal in those championships in over 30 years. I also congratulate the Scottish rugby team who, thanks to their recent victory over England, have now won the Calcutta cup four times in a row. It would have been five in a row, but covid got in the way. [Laughter.]

Contrary to what we hear from the Scottish National party, the Scottish Government are well-funded. This UK Government have provided a record block grant, averaging £41 billion a year, with an additional £2.4 billion across the last three fiscal events. Scotland also continues to benefit from the Barnett formula, under which the Scottish Government receive around 25% more funding per person than equivalent spending across the United Kingdom.

Will the Secretary of State explain how his Government’s £1,600 million cut to Scotland’s capital budget over the next three years will impact the provision of infrastructure, including roads, hospitals, schools, new homes, digital connectivity, and the economic growth we need to escape the recession into which the Tories have dragged us?

It is nice to see that the hon. Lady and her colleagues have turned up for work today, even if that is in defiance of the deputy Leader of the SNP, who thought they should not bother coming. Let me be clear on resource spending and the capital budget: the Scottish Government are able to divert their resource spending for capital infrastructure investments; and they can also borrow to enhance capital investments if they so choose.

The Secretary of State is correct that the block grant from the UK Conservative Government to Scotland is the highest it has ever been. Despite that, just last week the SNP/Green Government pushed through their “tax and axe” budget in Scotland. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the nationalists have got the wrong priorities for Scotland by cutting services while increasing income tax rates for anyone earning more than £28,867?

I agree with my hon. Friend, and I add further that the Scottish Government’s six tax bands, as opposed to the UK Government’s three tax bands, are really holding Scotland back.

While the SNP and the Tories argue about the financial settlement between the two Governments, they do agree on two things: first, that working people should pay the price of this economic mess, by raising tax to sky-high levels; and secondly, at least until today, that oil and gas giants earning record profits should not face a proper windfall tax, although it now seems as if the SNP might be the only people holding out on that position. Who does the Secretary of State support—the Scottish Tory leader who is standing up in Holyrood today attacking an extension of the windfall tax, or the Chancellor who we understand is about to announce exactly that?

My position has always been clear: I believe that the energy profits levy on the excess profits caused by Putin’s illegal war in Ukraine was the right thing for the Government to do, to give support to people in the cost of living crisis.

It started so well, and I agree with the Secretary of State about the Calcutta cup—I was there to witness an historic occasion—and about the World Athletics Indoor Championships in Glasgow. I played rugby with Jemma Reekie’s cousin for many years, and I send my congratulations to them. However, everything from that point on, from both sides of the House, has been absolute nonsense.

At a time when many Scots are struggling to pay their energy or shopping bills due to the rapid inflation that the Secretary of State’s Government have presided over, and with inflation in the public sector running even higher, his Government have cut the Scottish Government’s funding in real terms again. Commons Library research shows that the Scottish block grant will be at its lowest level of UK Government spending since the start of devolution. As the Secretary of State counts down the weeks to his departure, is he proud of his legacy?

That is an easy one to answer, Mr Speaker, as I am very proud of my legacy. Rather like winning four Calcutta cups, I have won in court with the Scottish Government four times, and there are any number of things I would like to list for my legacy. Importantly, the Scottish Government receive a record block of £41 billion, and record Barnett consequentials on top of that. Spending in Scotland is 25% higher per person than the UK average, so that equates to an extra £8.5 billion.

I had no idea we should all just be very grateful for the largesse of the Secretary of State, but does that largesse extend to capital funding? Capital funding to the Scottish Parliament has not just been cut, but slashed by 10% on his watch. That money could have been used to invest in hospitals, schools and infrastructure, and it is about to be frittered away by the Chancellor on a sickening pre-election bribe that precisely no one will buy. Will he finally accept that it is his Government’s “bust or bust” austerity that is driving public services to the edge, and does he support tax cuts at a time when even Tory voters know that increased public investment is required?

This is nonsense. Austerity is not a thing under this Government—not a thing at all. [Laughter.] No, absolutely not. Departmental spending—this is the point that the SNP does not acknowledge—throughout this Parliament has grown by 3.2% on average. That is the simple truth.

International Relations

2. What discussions he has had with (a) the Scottish Government and (b) Cabinet colleagues on the Scottish Government’s international relations policy. (901747)

I have had frequent and recent discussions with the Foreign Secretary on the Scottish Government’s international relations policy. Foreign affairs are reserved to the United Kingdom Government. We have been clear to the Scottish Government that they must respect that.

First, may I associate myself with the Secretary of State’s comments about the Scottish victory in the Calcutta cup?

Does the right hon. Gentleman share my concern that these recent forays into international relations by the SNP are not only inappropriate, because it is a reserved matter, but potentially damaging, both to important relationships between Scotland’s two Governments and, critically, to UK foreign policy at a time when international tensions are at a height we have not seen since the cold war?

I agree with the hon. Lady. It is important that the United Kingdom Government speak with one voice and the United Kingdom is seen to speak with one voice on foreign affairs. I note that Angus Robertson has produced another independence document this week on foreign affairs and defence, and there is a lot of nonsense in there. The Scottish Government want to join the NATO nuclear alliance, but they want to get rid of the nuclear deterrent. They want to join the EU, but not the euro. They want to have a Scottish spy agency—some are referring to it as the sleekit service, with agents heading across Europe in their bulletproof motorhomes. It is all nonsense, and a complete waste of taxpayers’ money.

Promoting Trade with Northern Ireland

3. Whether he has had recent discussions with Cabinet colleagues on promoting trade between Scotland and Northern Ireland. (901748)

I am pleased to say that I have had discussions with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland about maximising trade links, now that the Northern Ireland Executive have been restored. What is more, the UK Government have committed to establishing the East-West Council, which will identify opportunities for deepening connections between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, including the scope for extending the Northern Ireland investment zone benefits to Stranraer and Cairnryan.

Will the Minister ensure that business bodies in Scotland are fully aware of, for example, the new Intertrade UK body so that business can prosper between Northern Ireland and Scotland? Importantly, will he ensure that people can see the improvement in business trade flows between Scotland and Northern Ireland in six months’ time, as compared with six months ago?

As set out in the Command Paper, the UK Government are working to establish Intertrade UK, which will fulfil our pledge to grow the economy by ensuring that businesses large and small can make the most of the east-west trading opportunities. Implementing the Windsor framework and the Command Paper are the Government’s priorities, and we will provide an update in close time.

Cost of Living

We prioritised bringing inflation down, which is the key to reducing cost of living pressures. We delivered on the Prime Minister’s promise by more than halving it. In addition, the UK Government supported households with a package worth £104 billion—or, on average, £3,700 per household across the United Kingdom, including in Scotland.

Families in my homeland are reeling from the cost of living crisis, as both the Tory UK Government and the SNP Scottish Government have jointly loaded them with the highest tax burden in 70 years. Does the Minister agree that it is time both Governments stopped going round in circles, left the dance and cleared the floor for Labour Governments to sort out their sorry mess?

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman’s conclusions. Thanks to this Government, 2.4 million workers in Scotland benefited from £340 back in their pockets thanks to the national insurance cuts in January. However, I do agree with him in not agreeing with the SNP Government’s approach to tax, making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the United Kingdom.

Scottish rail fares are set to rise by 8.7% next month. This eye-watering fare hike will hit Scots hard during a cost of living crisis and push Scotland’s rail service into a spiral of decline. Does the Minister agree that we need affordable fares to help people through the cost of living crisis and encourage more people to travel by train?

I certainly agree that we should do all we can to encourage people to travel by train. The Scottish Government’s approach to ScotRail might discourage that. I am happy to meet the hon. Member to discuss that further.

Recent findings from the Trussell Trust have revealed that 32% of people claiming universal credit in Scotland have fallen into debt because they could not pay essential bills. Does the Minister agree that the people of Scotland and the people of Britain should not be made to pay for SNP and Tory failures?

In 2021-22, there were 1.7 million fewer people in absolute poverty after housing costs than there were in 2009-10, including 400,000 fewer children. This Government are certainly taking lots of action to address poverty, and particularly in-work poverty. But I agree that making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK does not help with that.

Does the Minister agree that putting up taxes as the SNP is doing at present will do nothing to help with the cost of living? Does he further agree that if it continues on that trajectory, more and more Scots will want to leave and come to places such as Carlisle, where of course they will be very welcome?

Due to the SNP’s tax rises in Scotland, anyone earning more than £28,867 will pay more income tax than those living in England. From my own experience representing a Borders constituency, I see increasing evidence of people choosing to live south of the border rather than in the high-tax Scottish jurisdiction. In my discussions with science, technology, engineering and maths businesses, I find that they are finding it increasingly difficult to recruit in Scotland because of the aggressive high-tax policies of the SNP.

Regardless of what the Chancellor announces today, we are in the highest tax-raising Parliament in history, which is a consequence of the Minister’s Government’s failure over 14 years. Ordinary hard-working Scots did not cause this economic crisis—the Government did—but they are being made to pay for it. There have been 25 Tory tax rises since the last election, and the average family is much worse off as a result. Does the Minister agree with the Institute for Fiscal Studies that even after today’s Budget the overall tax burden on working people will still reach record levels?

Clearly, I will not speculate on what the Chancellor will announce shortly. I remind the hon. Gentleman that 2.4 million workers in Scotland have benefited from £340 going back into their pockets thanks to the changes to national insurance that have already been announced.

In relation to the hon. Member’s wider points about the tax burden, we should not forget the huge interventions that the Government made to support workers, families, communities and businesses during the pandemic. As a consequence, we are having to repay that, but that saved jobs and many businesses from going under during the covid pandemic.

Regardless of what the Chancellor says today, working people will still be paying a much higher tax burden at the end of this Parliament, and it will reach record levels. Shockingly, the tax burden in Scotland is even higher. Anyone in Scotland earning more than £29,000 a year will pay more income tax after the SNP voted for yet another tax rise on working people. That means we are in the absurd position in Scotland of the SNP raising taxes on nurses and teachers while opposing Labour’s plan for an extended windfall tax on the oil and gas giants. We even hear that the leader of the Scottish Conservatives threatened to resign last night on potentially another U-turn from the Chancellor on the windfall tax. Does the Minister accept that the best thing to happen now would be for this circus to be brought for an end and for the Prime Minister to call the election?

As I said, I will not speculate on the contents of the Budget. But when the election comes, Scotland’s voters will have a clear choice: a party who will stand up for Scotland’s place in a strong United Kingdom, or the Scottish National party, who wants another referendum. I am unclear what the Labour party has to offer.

Farm-gate Prices

6. Whether he has had recent discussions with Cabinet colleagues on farm-gate prices for farmers and crofters in Scotland. (901751)

We want all farmers to get a fair price for their products. The Government have committed to tackling contractual unfairness in the agrifood supply chain. We will use the powers in the Agriculture Act 2020 whenever necessary. At the National Farmers Union conference, the Prime Minister announced that the UK Farm to Fork summit will be an annual event. That will help to strengthen joint working by Government and external partners to support a prosperous agrifood sector.

The Minister should be aware that his colleagues in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs have recently concluded a consultation on contractual relationships in the fresh produce industry. At a time when 23% of dairy farmers doubt that they will continue in business into 2025, will he impress on his colleagues in DEFRA and the Department for Business and Trade that urgent action is needed in relation to that consultation?

As the son of a Borders farmer, I completely understand the invaluable work that farmers and crofters do to put food on tables across Scotland and the United Kingdom. This Government will continue to support the agriculture and food production sector. Scotland Office Ministers regularly attend the inter-ministerial group for environment, food and rural affairs, along with representatives from the devolved Administrations. This group oversees how changes to price, supply and trade affect our markets. We will continue to take whatever action is necessary support that important sector.

Allegations of Impropriety in Public Life

7. What assessment he has made of the potential implications of allegations of impropriety in public life for his Department's work on strengthening the Union. (901752)

Our Union is strong. [Interruption.] Yes, it is. Scotland’s contribution to our United Kingdom is beyond doubt, and this Government’s commitment to Scotland is without question. From freeports and investment zones to the record block grant and £1.5 billion for the 12 city and region growth deals, we deliver for Scotland.

SNP MPs have been disengaged from Westminster for years. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is a disgrace that its deputy leader has said that its MPs will not engage should the party win seats at the next general election? Does he also agree that Members elected to this House should turn up and do their job?

Three years ago, on 16 March 2021, we had a debate in this House on precisely the subject of this question. At the time, I was concerned that Nicola Sturgeon’s Government were covering up interference in the complaints process against the First Minister. Since then, in defiance of the Information Commissioner and of a court order, they have continued to cover up. Will the Cabinet Secretary look at whether the ministerial code and the civil service code have been broken?

My right hon. Friend should write to the Cabinet Secretary and ask him to do that very thing.

Marine Energy Sector Support

8. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the adequacy of support for the marine energy sector in Scotland. [R] (901753)

The Government are firmly committed to supporting Scotland’s marine energy sector to grow. Around 80% of tidal stream contracts awarded through contracts for difference in the last two rounds will be deployed in Scotland. In addition, Horizon Europe selected two Scottish-based UK tidal stream developers to deliver projects in Orkney. They will lead construction on two £17 million projects, funded by the UK Government’s financial guarantee.

The Minister knows that successive Energy Ministers have hugely helped the development of the marine energy sector in Scotland, as elsewhere in the United Kingdom. Does my hon. Friend agree that there is an opportunity in the next round of the renewables auction to allow for wave technologies alongside tidal stream technologies? Will he encourage the Scottish Government to speed up approvals of sites to get great green energy projects started as soon as possible in Scotland, as elsewhere?

I am grateful for that important question. The Government are undertaking analysis of the technology pipeline available for contracts for difference auction round 6 against our legal obligation to ensure that the auction round is competitive. We are considering the appropriate parameters for all technologies, including tidal stream and wave energy. The final parameters will be published in the budget notice this month, ahead of the auction round opening.

The Seastar tidal farm off the coast of Orkney is set to be the largest tidal energy farm anywhere in the world, and it was supported by EU funding through the European Marine Energy Centre. This comes after Edinburgh University’s report found that the UK Government could save hundreds of millions of pounds by bringing forward the development of tidal by years, if it worked more closely with its EU partners. It is clear that the EU’s role in this in Europe and around Scotland is very important, so if Scotland is better together with anyone, is it not better together with the EU and its investment in tidal?

What a load of nonsense. Scotland is much better served by being part of the United Kingdom, and we will continue to support all renewable energy sectors, including tidal.

Cross-border NHS Provision: Waiting Times

10. Whether he has had recent discussions with (a) Cabinet colleagues and (b) the Scottish Government on waiting times for cross-border NHS provision. (901755)

The Government recognise the invaluable job that all NHS workers do; I see that every day of the week in my constituency in the Scottish Borders. That is why the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care has written to the Scottish Government about working together to reduce patient waiting times. We continue to be open to exploring that further.

I have a lady constituent who suffers from a rare and dangerous condition called subglottic stenosis. Only one clinic has the expertise to treat the condition, and it is in London, yet our local health board is refusing to refer her. It says that it can offer another treatment, but it is thought to be less safe and possibly not very effective. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that patients, regardless of which side of the border they live on, get the best possible treatment?

I am regularly reminded, particularly as an MP for the Borders, of the need for healthcare to benefit people on either side of the border, particularly through cross-border working with the NHS. Local people in the Borders often get treatment faster and more easily because of that. Sadly, the hon. Member has highlighted a real problem with Scotland’s NHS, thanks to the mismanagement by the SNP Government in Edinburgh, particularly in rural health services. He has identified a very distressing case for his constituent and I am very happy to write to the Scottish Government, along with him, to raise the case with them.

Food Exports

Scotland Office Ministers have banged the drum tirelessly to promote the Scottish food and drink industry overseas, including on trade missions in Europe, India, the United States of America and Vietnam. In Vietnam, sales of Scotch whisky have increased fourfold and are still growing. I was delighted to discuss what more can be done to improve trade links and market access with the Vietnamese Government during my recent visit.

Scotland’s farming and fish sector produces some of the finest produce in the world. Will the Secretary of State do all he can to promote the sale of Scottish smoked salmon abroad as a premium product known the world over?

I think I heard “smoked salmon”, but this is not just about smoked salmon. The most recent figures show that Scotland’s world-leading food and drink sector accounted for 29% of all UK food and drink exports. To help the sector to continue to flourish, the Government have secured trade agreements with 71 non-EU countries and the EU. Total UK trade with those partners is worth £808 billion.

Some of Scotland’s food export companies have been prevented from trading with Northern Ireland. The InterTrade UK body has been set up as a result of discussions that have taken place. What are the Minister and his Department doing to ensure that the companies that have stopped trading with Northern Ireland are encouraged to start doing so again?

In the UK Command Paper, we said that we are setting up the East-West Council, which will work to bring about the solutions.

Departure from the EU: Impact on Scotland

The UK Government are working tirelessly to maximise opportunities following our departure from the European Union. Scotland continues to punch above its weight, both in exports of goods and services and in foreign direct investment, and I am delighted to be able to say that trade is now well above pre-Brexit levels.

Scotland has been hammered by Westminster’s imposition of a hard Brexit, with the Scottish salmon industry alone suffering an additional £12 million of Brexit red tape costs. Across every sector of Scotland’s economy, Brexit has added red tape costs, limited access to vital workers and limited markets. Is the Secretary of State proud of his legacy, which includes a deliberate and avoidable undermining of Scotland’s economy?

As the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate, our departure from the EU has allowed us to forge new relationships. Consequently, Scotland’s exports are performing well—they are up by 13%.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the completion of fisheries negotiations with the Faroe Islands, which have resulted in 2,200 tonnes of fishing quota, mostly for the Scottish fleet? Does he agree that since the UK became an independent coastal state, the Scottish fleet and those who negotiate on its behalf, including SNP Scottish Government Ministers and their officials, have a far stronger voice in these annual negotiations than if the SNP had its way and we went back into the EU common fisheries policy?

My hon. Friend is a great champion of the fishing industry, and I completely agree with him.

We now come to Prime Minister’s questions. We are joined today in the Gallery by the Speaker of the Supreme Council of the Kyrgyz Republic.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, including listening to the Chancellor’s Budget statement, I shall have further such meetings later today.

The UK used to be a world leader in psilocybin research but, despite the calls of the Home Affairs Committee, leading researchers, charities, veterans’ organisations and the Royal College of Psychiatrists, we have shamefully fallen behind on breakthrough treatments for conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, causing misery to millions of people in our country. Can the Prime Minister explain why this policy remains the responsibility of a Home Office that cannot give it the attention it deserves, and why it is okay that American, Canadian and Australian patients can access treatment that British patients cannot?

I completely sympathise and understand why people suffering from distressing conditions will want to seek the best possible treatment available, and I thank the hon. Lady for raising the issue. We are committed to ensuring that the UK is a world-leading jurisdiction for pharmaceutical, clinical and other medical research, and we have asked the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to review barriers to legitimate medical research involving controlled drugs such as psilocybin. I am pleased to tell the hon. Lady that our response to the council’s recommendations will be published as soon as possible.

Q3. My constituency has a long and proud history of farming, with generations of the same families helping to feed our nation. Not since world war two have we been so aware of how important food security is to our national security, so will the Prime Minister update the House on what his Government are doing to support our fantastic farmers? (901832)

As I set out at the NFU conference just a couple of weeks ago, we will always back British farmers for continuing to produce fantastic food. We are accelerating that plan, with the largest package of grants ever. Indeed, one of the new schemes opens just today, supporting farmers with up to £125,000 towards the purchase of new equipment and technology. Our schemes in England are all about more choice, not less. Unlike Labour in Wales, we will never introduce top-down, arbitrary targets that damage farm incomes, damage our food security and take farmers back to square one.

Three years ago, Sarah Everard was walking home when she was abducted and murdered by a serving police officer who should have been trusted to keep her safe. As a father, I cannot imagine the pain her parents, her family and her friends are going through in this difficult anniversary week. Lady Angiolini’s report exposes the appalling failure in police vetting and in misconduct processes, and I am very troubled by its conclusion that there is

“nothing to stop another Couzens operating in plain sight”.

How can that be the case, three years on from this horrendous crime?

Can I first say that I am sure all Members of the House will have been thinking about Sarah Everard in recent weeks? It was, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman said, an absolutely shocking case, and the abuse of power in particular was appalling. That is why we took action quickly to strengthen police vetting and strengthen the rules for rooting out officers who are not fit to serve, and conducted the largest ever screening of all serving officers and staff. We are now ensuring that any officer who has been charged with a crime will be suspended from duty automatically until their case is concluded, and we will thoroughly consider all the report’s recommendations and respond in full.

The Prime Minister mentions vetting and I just want to press him on that, because serious failures in police vetting were raised in independent reports as long ago as 2012, 2019, 2022 and 2023. That is why Labour has been arguing for mandatory national vetting standards that would stop anybody with a history of domestic abuse or sexual offending being allowed to join the police in the first place. Why are mandatory national vetting standards not already in place?

It is vital for public confidence that those who are not fit to wear the badge are rooted out of the police and not able to join in the first place. That is why the College of Policing updated its statutory code on vetting, and that happened quickly. In addition, the policing inspectorate carried out a rapid inspection of all forces’ progress against the previous findings and, in addition to that, an entire check against the national police database was carried out for all serving officers and staff.

I am obviously very familiar with codes in criminal justice systems, but—[Interruption.] This is too serious for that. There is a world of difference between a code and binding mandatory standards which do not have legal effect, and that should trouble Members across the House.

Couzens’ history of sexual offending stretched back many years. On four occasions, despite allegations of indecent exposure, he was not sacked. We know that indecent exposure is a gateway to more horrific crimes, as was tragically shown to be the case not only in Sarah Everard’s case but in that of Libby Squire, but it is not treated with the seriousness required. The Angiolini report recommends reviewing all indecent exposure allegations against serving officers in order to identify, investigate and remove those officers from service. Given the obvious urgency of this recommendation, can the Prime Minister give a categorical assurance that it will be implemented immediately?

The Home Secretary addressed this specifically when he made his statement. Indecent exposure, just like any other kind of sexually motivated crime, is abhorrent and we expect police chiefs to take it extremely seriously. We fully expect police chiefs to suspend an officer charged with any kind of sexually motivated crime. It is worth pointing out that, in addition to the new powers that the Home Secretary outlined about automatic suspension, chief constables have existing powers to suspend any officer in their force when allegations are made, and we fully expect them to use those powers.

I do think the recommendation that I referred to should be implemented urgently and I ask the Prime Minister to look again at that, because every day that goes past when it is not implemented carries risk for victims in these cases.

Sarah Everard’s murder should have been a watershed moment for policing reform, for the criminal justice system and for violence against women and girls, but the sad reality is that victims of rape who have the courage and bravery to come forward have just a 2.4% chance of their perpetrator being caught and charged within the year. How does the Prime Minister expect women to have confidence in the criminal justice system when almost all rapists do not see the inside of a courtroom?

As we acknowledged a couple of years ago, of course we need to do more to improve rape outcomes in the criminal justice system, and the rape review action plan is showing considerable progress. We have already increased the average sentence for rape by a third since Labour was last in office—by the way, using a power that the Labour party voted against in this House. Thanks to our action plan, we have seen police referrals double and charges double, and last year there was a 50% increase in rape convictions—and now rapists will serve every single day of their sentence behind bars.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman raises his time at the Crown Prosecution Service, but he has not acknowledged that, under his tenure, rape convictions actually dropped.

The Prime Minister knows that is going to be fact checked. He also knows that I support tough sentences. I really think that victims of violence against women and girls deserve better than this nonsense from the Prime Minister. It needs to be taken seriously. It is not a game.

We all want more victims to come forward, but we have to be honest that, unless things change, the criminal justice system will continue to fail them. That is why we are committed to introducing specialist rape and sexual offences teams in every force to give victims specialist support and confidence that their experience will be investigated properly. When will the Prime Minister commit to doing the same?

We have already implemented the rape review action plan. The Leader of the Opposition says that we need to take this seriously, and here are the things that we have done: we have ended the appalling digital strip search of victims’ mobile phones; we have ensured that there is better use of pre-recorded cross examination; we have rolled out Operation Soteria, with incredible success, across all the nation’s police forces; we have significantly increased the number of independent sexual and domestic violence and abuse advisers to up to 1,000; and there is more specialist training in all police forces for these prosecutions. That is the plan we have already put in place, and it is a plan that is working to ensure that we keep the women and girls of this country safe.

The problem is that the rosy picture the Prime Minister tries to paint of the current criminal justice system is completely at odds with the confidence that many women currently have in it. With the publication of the Angiolini report, the country deserves to know that we are doing all we can to make our country safe for women. That starts with what should be the most basic task: creating a safe workplace here in Westminster. At the moment, as everyone in this House knows, we are failing in that endeavour, and we all have a duty to change that. When will the Prime Minister make time for the vote on banning from Parliament those MPs who face allegations of sex offences?

It is absolutely right that we ensure our communities are safe for women and girls, which is why we passed the landmark Domestic Abuse Act 2021, why we set up a new 24/7 victim support line, why we quadrupled funding for victim support and why we are investing in practical things like CCTV and better streetlighting for safer communities up and down the country. Of course, there is always more we can do, but this Government have a strong track record on ensuring that women across this country feel safe.

Q4. I want the Prime Minister to know that the people of Romford are struggling with ever-increasing energy prices, yet providers are making huge profits that run into the hundreds of millions. Does he agree that reductions in wholesale prices should be passed on to consumers and that standing charges should be brought down? Will the Government hold utility companies to account for their actions? (901833)

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the challenge that high energy bills have posed not just to his constituents in Romford but to constituents across the country. That is why we stepped in with a significant package of support that paid around half of a typical household energy bill when prices were at their highest.

I know my hon. Friend will join me in welcoming the fact that the energy price cap is set to fall by almost £250 in April, which will bring relief to many families, but we must hold companies to account. That is why we introduced the energy profits levy on the windfall profits caused by an unexpected increase in energy prices. We are going further to cut people’s costs by cutting their taxes and putting more money into their family bank accounts.

Much to my surprise, this morning it has been widely reported that the Conservative party in Scotland is absolutely furious that Westminster is about to tax Scotland’s natural resources in order to pay for a tax cut in England. Is the Prime Minister in danger of turning his colleagues into nationalists?

Obviously, I would not comment on the Budget, but I will say that when I was in Scotland last week it was crystal clear that there has only ever been one party consistently standing up for the North sea energy industry, and it is the Scottish Conservatives.

The Prime Minister knows that not to be the case. But there is a serious point to be made here: the Conservative party wants to use Scotland’s natural resources to pay for tax cuts in England, and the Labour party wants to use Scotland’s natural resources to pay for nuclear power stations in England—the cost of that is up to 100,000 jobs. Scotland’s wealth, resources and jobs are all a game to Westminster. With the Tories on just 15% in the polls in Scotland now, will the Prime Minister do us all a favour and call a general election?

The hon. Gentleman claims to be supportive of the North sea energy industry, but why has he opposed all the measures that we have taken to protect those jobs in Scotland over the past couple of years? He talks about tax in Scotland and England. I gently point out to him that, thanks to the actions of the Chancellor and this UK Government, everyone in Scotland has received a significant tax cut from January this year. In contrast to the Chancellor’s last Budget, the SNP’s budget put taxes up for working Scots. Scotland is now the high-tax capital of the UK, but this Conservative Government are going to keep cutting taxes for hard-working Scots.

Q10. The Government are rightly acting to compensate properly the Horizon victims who were highlighted by Alan Bates’s legal challenge. However, there are thousands more sub-postmasters across the country who were not prosecuted but faced financial penalties for bogus shortfalls, causing them enormous financial and personal distress. Does the Prime Minister agree that we should now be doing everything possible to do right by all the victims of a gross miscarriage of justice, clear their names and, at last, properly financial compensate them? (901840)

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the appalling impact that this miscarriage of justice has had on people’s mental health. As he acknowledged, our focus is on delivering justice for the postmasters, and that is why we will introduce legislation to overturn convictions and pave the way for the swift payment of compensation. I thank him for his long-standing campaign on mental health on this issue, and I assure him that the postal Minister is closely examining the issues he raises, is considering next steps and will keep my right hon. Friend closely informed.

The Prime Minister will be aware that the Government’s proposals to deal with the legacy of our troubled past in Northern Ireland continue to be the subject of scrutiny, most recently in the High Court ruling in relation to compatibility with our human rights obligations. Many families of victims in Northern Ireland are deeply disappointed with the lack of co-operation by the Irish Government in relation to murders committed in their jurisdiction or from their jurisdiction. In relation to the Omagh bomb inquiry, for example, the Irish Government have declined to conduct a public inquiry on this worst atrocity in our troubled past, despite the courts urging them to do so. Will the Prime Minister continue to press the Irish Government on the need for them to make available facilities to enable the families of innocent victims, including in Omagh, to pursue justice for their loved ones?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question on this important topic, which I know will be of great interest, not only to his constituents, but to many others across Northern Ireland. The Government have set forward their plans to deal with the legacy of the past and will continue to engage with everyone in Northern Ireland, whatever their views, to set out the best way forward. I can confirm to him that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has raised these specific issues directly with the Irish Government and will continue to do so. I, too, spoke to the Taoiseach about this very matter. We would hope to see further co-operation on Omagh and many other outstanding cases that involve Irish jurisdiction, because, like my right hon. Friend, I want to give families as much information as possible.

Q12. Putin has put the Russian economy on a total war footing. He has increased military spending by 68% to 7.5% of GDP. He claimed this month that over 520,000 new jobs have been created in the arms industry, which now employs an estimated 3.5 million Russians. On my recent visits to Ukraine I have met Government Ministers and senior military figures who have expressed great frustration to me about the length of time it is taking to develop collaboration in building a defence manufacturing capability jointly with UK defence companies in Ukraine. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss how we can unblock the bureaucracy and, as our Ukrainian friends say,“build the arsenal of the free world together”? (901842)

I reassure my hon. Friend that we remain steadfast in our support for Ukraine and we will not allow Putin to achieve his aim of eradicating Ukrainian freedom and democracy. Our cross-Government taskforce is working diligently to support the armed forces of Ukraine and lead UK and Ukrainian defence industrial co-operation. I am pleased to say that in December last year, we conducted our first successful trade mission to Ukraine, alongside the UK defence industry. The Government and UK industry will continue to work hand in glove with our Ukrainian allies, seizing the opportunity for collaboration and bolstering our joint defence industries.

Q2. Last week, the Institute for Public Policy Research published a paper, “State of the North 2024”. That paper predicted that wealth inequalities, already too large between the north and the south-east, would increase to nearly £250,000 per head by the end of this decade. Does the Prime Minister accept that his levelling-up agenda has failed—or did he never want it to succeed? (901831)

On the contrary, inequality in our country has actually declined under this Conservative Government. When it comes to levelling up in the north, the north has received some of the highest amounts of per capita levelling-up funding of any region in the country. After the hon. Gentleman last popped up to ask me a question about our investment in the north, did he manage to get an answer about what exactly is the Labour party’s position on HS2? I would still like to know, because we are taking that money and reinvesting every penny of it across the north in forms of transportation that people use every day, delivering benefits to communities more quickly, not just in his constituency but across the entire north. That has been warmly welcomed everywhere that I have been.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the performance of the Labour party in voting down our Rwanda Bill in the House of Lords was a disgrace? It is only the Conservative Government and the Conservatives who have a plan for dealing with illegal immigration and the people smugglers. Action on illegal immigration is a top priority in my constituency, and Labour has no policy or plan on this at all.

My right hon. Friend makes an excellent point. He knows, as I know, that if we want fully to stop the boats, we need to have a working deterrent, so if someone comes here illegally, we must be able to remove them to a safe third country alternative. That is why the Rwanda scheme is so important, and why we are determined to see it through. Just in the past week, an independent report was published that talked about the Labour party’s policies in this area. It made it crystal clear that Labour does not have a plan to stop the boats. In fact, its idea would see the UK accept hundreds of thousands more migrants.

Q5. Which part of his economic legacy is the Prime Minister most proud of? Is it presiding over the highest tax burden since the second world war, or is it delivering the slowest real wage growth since the Napoleonic war? (901834)

The Prime Minister will know that there is consensus across this House on the need to build new houses. Where that consensus breaks down is where those houses should be built. Does the Prime Minister agree with me that, wherever possible, new houses should be built on brownfield sites, not on green spaces, not on green fields, and certainly not on prime farmland?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right: sustainable planning must be at the heart of our planning system. That is why we are committed to meeting the needs of communities by building homes in the right places and, as he says, making best use of brownfield land. We have made it clear that that is what the priority should be and we have put extra funding aside to unlock those sites. Our recent changes to the national planning policy framework provide clearer protection for the green belt, making it clear how future housing supply should be assessed. That is the clear difference between our two parties: the Conservatives will protect the green belt and Labour will concrete all over it.

Q6. In some jurisdictions, Ministers routinely publish their tax returns. The Prime Minister voluntarily published his UK tax return last year. Does he agree that Ministers of the Crown should publish their tax returns as a matter of course, and has he ever filed any returns in the USA that have not been published? (901835)

I do not think that would be proportionate or appropriate. [Hon. Members: “Oh!”] No, I do not think it would be proportionate for all Ministers to publish their tax returns. In keeping with long-standing tradition, I voluntarily published my tax returns, as did the Chancellor. That is the right balance and I have been completely transparent about that as I have done it.

Last year, a number of us were on the first transatlantic flight powered by sustainable aviation fuel. This week, the International Airlines Group made its first major purchase of that fuel, but that fuel is coming from the United States and it is important that we have a SAF industry in this country. Will the Prime Minister tell the Treasury and the Department for Transport to accelerate the work that they are doing to put in place the right framework and the right support mechanisms to ensure that we have a SAF industry for our aviation sector for the future?

I thank my right hon. Friend for championing this cause, which is absolutely right, and reassure him that we are committed to ensuring that the SAF mandate is in place in 2025. That will require about 10% of jet fuel to be made from sustainable feedstock by 2030. I am pleased to tell him that, to get there, we have provided £135 million to 13 different UK sustainable aviation fuel projects to kickstart our domestic industry and, importantly, as he also knows, we have committed to introducing a revenue certainty mechanism to support SAF production in the UK as soon as practically possible.

Q7. As our 2,000-year-old Roman walls are an important historic monument of world renown, will the Prime Minister join me in Chester to walk the walls and explore how the Government can support the upkeep of these important structures, which, unlike the Conservative party, are stable, solid and in no danger of imminent collapse? (901836)

I join the hon. Lady in paying tribute to the history of her local community. I am pleased that the city of Chester is benefiting from so much investment from the Conservative Government, so that it can maintain its local infrastructure.

Five weeks ago, Conservative MPs from across south-east London and Kent wrote to Transport for London and the Labour Mayor of London to call on them to do the right thing following the botched implementation of a temporary 40 mph speed limit on the A20 near Sidcup, which has seen thousands of drivers unfairly issued with fines and points on their licence. It has left many drivers, including carers, emergency service workers and teachers, at risk of losing their licences and jobs, despite travelling less than 50 miles an hour in the zone. Does he agree that TfL, the Met police and Sadiq Khan must come clean about the number of fines, and cancel these issued points?

I thank my hon. Friend for the question. I understand the concerns that local drivers have over this ongoing TfL issue. Although, we are doing everything we can to back motorists across the country, it is disappointing that the Labour Mayor and, indeed, Labour-run Wales are hammering drivers at every opportunity, whether that is with temporary speed limits, blanket 20 mph zones, or the ultra low emission zone expansion. I will make sure my hon. Friend has a meeting with the responsible Minister to discuss his concerns.

Q8. To strengthen current spiking legislation, forensic evidence is essential. The NHS does not have uniform policy for the screening of suspected victims of spiking at A&E. We can pass all the laws we want in this place, but to achieve justice that forensic evidence is vital. Will the Prime Minister commit to ensuring that hospital emergency departments have a statutory obligation to take forensic samples from these victims? (901837)

I agree with the hon. Lady that spiking is an appalling, violating crime, which seriously undermines public safety, particularly the safety of women and girls, and we want to ensure that the existing laws recognise the threat that spiking poses. That is why at the end of last year we announced a raft of new measures to confront spiking and support victims, including changing the law to make it clear without any doubt that spiking is illegal, as well as other measures, such as an online reporting tool, investing in research and rapid testing kits, and training for bar staff. I will ensure that we look into the issue that she raises and write back to her.

This winter, there has been significant flood and storm damage to the infrastructure in and around my constituency of Mansfield, including our roads, drains, and flood infrastructure. It is among the highest concerns that residents raise with me on a regular basis. I am really grateful that from next year in particular very significant infrastructure funding is coming our way, but what can my right hon. Friend do to help fix this for my constituents now?

I am pleased that in 2020 we announced that we would double our flood investment to a record £5.2 billion. In Nottinghamshire, since 2010 we have invested over £50 million to protect 15,000 properties. I know that currently there is a programme in Mansfield that is looking at surface water and drainage improvements, but I will ensure that I talk to the Chancellor, and that we have a strong economy to keep investing in local infrastructure in my hon. Friend’s area. That is exactly what we are about to hear from my right hon. Friend in just a second.