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Volume 747: debated on Wednesday 13 March 2024

The Post Office IT scandal is one of the greatest miscarriages in our nation’s history. I am determined that the victims get the justice and redress they deserve. Today, we are introducing legislation to quash convictions resulting from this scandal. The Department for Business and Trade will be responsible for the new redress scheme, and we are widening access to the optional £75,000 payment. Hundreds of innocent sub-postmasters have fought long and hard for justice. With this Bill, we will deliver it.

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

Despite serious opposition from the Archbishop of Canterbury, three former Home Secretaries and three Government advisers on antisemitism, social cohesion and political violence, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities is due to widen the definition of extremism tomorrow. While Members on the Government Benches peddle far-right conspiracy theories about Islamists and Muslims taking over Britain, should the Prime Minister’s priority not be to get his own house in order and to stamp out extremism, racism and Islamophobia in the Conservative party? Will the Prime Minister finally take Islamophobia seriously and agree to the definition?

Discrimination has no place in our society. It is important to distinguish between strongly felt political debate on one hand and unacceptable acts of abuse, intimidation and violence on the other. I urge the hon. Gentleman to wait for the details of the strategy. It is a sensitive matter, but it is one we must tackle because there has been rise in extremists who are trying to hijack our democracy. That must be confronted. He talks about peddling conspiracy theories; I would just point him in the direction of the previous Labour candidate in Rochdale.

Q4. Armed forces personnel who serve their country for 15 years are eligible for the medal for long service and good conduct. Similar medals are in place for those who make a career serving in the police, the fire service, the ambulance service and the coastguard. As I learned on a recent visit to Royal Bournemouth Hospital, where I met the dedicated staff, no such accolade is in place for the NHS. Will the Prime Minister support my campaign to see whether that anomaly can be corrected, so the nation can formally recognise those who devote much of their working lives in the NHS to helping others? (902006)

My right hon. Friend is right that our incredible NHS staff deserve our utmost thanks for their service. I am pleased that many NHS organisations, as he knows, have their own schemes in place to do that. We also recognise outstanding NHS staff through our honours system, and MPs are able to acknowledge their work through the NHS parliamentary awards. Nominations remain open and I encourage colleagues to avail themselves of that scheme. I will make sure that my right hon. Friend gets to meet the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, to discuss his specific proposals further.

May I welcome the legislation on the Post Office scandal?

Mr Speaker, this week we lost the formidable Tommy McAvoy, who served his hometown of Rutherglen and the Labour Government with loyalty and good humour. We send our deepest sympathies to his wife, Eleanor, and their family.

We also learnt that the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) will be taking her well-deserved retirement. She has served this House and her constituents with a real sense of duty, and her unwavering commitment to ending modern slavery is commended by all of us. We thank her for her service.

Is the Prime Minister proud to be bankrolled by someone using racist and misogynous language when he said that the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott)

“makes you want to hate all black women”?

The alleged comments were wrong, they were racist, and he has now—[Interruption.] As I said, the comments were wrong and they were racist. He has rightly apologised for them and that remorse should be accepted. There is no place for racism in Britain, and the Government that I lead is living proof of that.

Mr Speaker, the man bankrolling the Prime Minister also said that the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington should be shot. How low would he have to sink, what racist, woman-hating threat of violence would he have to make, before the Prime Minister plucked up the courage to hand back the £10 million that he has taken from him?

As I said, the gentleman apologised genuinely for his comments, and that remorse should be accepted. The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about language. He might want to reflect on the double standards of his deputy Leader calling her opponent “scum”, the shadow Foreign Secretary comparing Conservatives to Nazis, and the man whom he wanted to make Chancellor talking about “lynching” a female Minister. His silence on that speaks volumes.

The difference is that the Prime Minister is scared of his party; I have changed my party—[Interruption.]

Two weeks ago, the Prime Minister invited himself into everyone’s living room at 6 o’clock on a Friday evening. No one asked him to give that speech; he chose to do it. He chose to anoint himself as the great healer and pose as some kind of unifier, but when the man bankrolling his election says that the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington should be shot, he suddenly finds himself tongue-tied, shrinking in sophistry, hoping he can deflect for long enough that we will all go away. What does the Prime Minister think it was about the hundreds of millions of pounds of NHS contracts given to Frank Hester by his Government that first attracted him to giving £10 million to the Tory party in the first place?

Mr Speaker, I am absolutely not going to take any lectures from somebody who chose to represent the antisemitic terrorist group, Hizb ut-Tahrir, who chose to serve a Leader of the Opposition who let antisemitism run rife in this Labour party. Those are his actions, those are his values, and that is how he should be judged.

The problem is that the Prime Minister is describing a Labour party that no longer exists; I am describing a man who is bankrolling the Conservatives’ upcoming general election. [Interruption.] They can shout all they like. Two weeks ago, the Prime Minister marched them out like fools to defend Islamophobia, and now the hon. Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson) is warming up the Opposition Benches for them. Yesterday, the Prime Minister sent them out to play down racism and misogyny until he was forced to change course. He will not hand the money back. He will not comment on how convenient it is that a man handed huge NHS contracts by his Government is now his party’s biggest donor. You have to wonder what the point is of a Prime Minister who cannot lead and a party that cannot govern.

Mr Speaker, national insurance contributions fund state pensions and the NHS, so is the Prime Minister’s latest unfunded £46 billion promise to scrap national insurance going to be paid for by cuts to state pensions or cuts to the NHS?

I am glad that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has brought up the Budget; it is about time that he spoke about his plans, because what have we heard from the shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury—[Interruption.]

The shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury has confirmed that the Labour party will not be sticking to the Conservative Government’s spending plans, so we now have a litany of unfunded promises on the NHS, mental health, dentistry and breakfast clubs. That does not even include the £28 billion 2030 eco-pledge that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is still committed to. We all know that while we are cutting taxes, Labour’s unfunded promises mean higher taxes for working Britons.

No, the Labour party will not be sticking to the Prime Minister’s completely unfunded £46 billion promise. He thinks that he can trick people into believing that simply shaking the Tory magic money tree will bring it into existence. Let us be clear: 80% of national insurance is spent on social security and pensions; 20% is spent on the NHS. He is either cutting pensions or the NHS, or he will have to raise other taxes or borrowing. Which is it, Prime Minister?

I know that it is not the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s strong point, but if he actually listened to the Chancellor last week, he would have heard that NHS spending is going up. It is a plan that is backed by the NHS chief executive officer, who says that we are giving her what she needs. At the same time, we are responsibly cutting taxes for millions of people in work, with the average worker benefiting from a £900 tax cut. What I am hearing from the right hon. and learned Gentleman is that he is against our plans to cut national insurance.

We have the highest tax burden since the second world war. I did listen to the Chancellor: £46 billion of unfunded commitments. The Conservatives tried that under the last Administration, and everybody else is paying the price.

Two weeks ago, the Prime Minister promised to crack down on those spreading hate. Today, he has shrunk at the first challenge. Last week, he promised fantasy tax cuts. Now he is pretending that it can all be paid for with no impact on pensions or the NHS. All we need now is an especially hardy lettuce and it could be 2022 all over again. Is it any wonder that he is too scared to call an election, when the public can see that the only way to protect their country, their pension and their NHS from the madness of this Tory party is by voting Labour?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about pensions. Pensions are going up by around £900 this year. It is this Government who have protected the triple lock for the last 10 years. He talks about supporting working people. It is this Government who are cutting taxes for every single person in work. It is this Government who are investing in the NHS. All we have from him is a £28 billion unfunded promise. I had a look at “Make Britain a Clean Energy Superpower”. It is all there. He is still stuck to it, Mr Speaker, and if you look through it carefully, there is billions in spending that he has already committed to for Scotland, and billions for Wales. There is actually money for north London too, I notice. The problem is that none of it is funded, so why does he not come clean and tell us that under his plans the British people’s taxes are going up?

Q6. Millions of people around the UK and Europe have been inspired by the brilliance of Six Nations rugby. Premier league clubs like Gloucester Rugby, which were funded during the pandemic through loans authorised by the Prime Minister, the then Chancellor, have always been grateful for being kept solvent, but he will know that some clubs’ finances are fragile, and that the current loan repayment schemes could be crippling. Will he ask the Sports Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew), and the Treasury to try to find a solution, so that taxpayers’ interests are protected, and all of us can go on being inspired by top-class rugby for years to come? (902008)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we stepped in with a £150 million financial lifeline to ensure the survival of premiership rugby league clubs during the pandemic. I am told that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is working with Sport England, as the agent, to talk to borrowers with concerns about their loan agreements—any that have concerns should contact Sport England in the normal way. I can also proudly tell him that we are talking to the Rugby Football Union and the premiership league to secure the future not just of rugby union, but of his local Gloucester rugby.

I begin by wishing Ramadan Mubarak to Muslims across these isles.

The Conservative party has accepted a £10 million donation from an individual who has said that one of our parliamentary colleagues in this Chamber “should be shot.” Why is the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom putting money before morals?

As I have said, the comments were wrong, the gentleman in question has apologised for them and that remorse should be accepted.

This is complete rubbish. The gentleman in question apologised for “being rude”. He was not rude; he was racist, odious and downright bloody dangerous. On Monday, No. 10 said that we have

“seen an unacceptable rise in extremist activity, which is seeking to divide our society and hijack our democratic institutions.”

Is not the extremism that we should all be worried about the views of those Tory donors we have read about this week?

No, there has actually been a rise in extremist activity that is seeking to hijack our democratic institutions. It is important that we have the tools to tackle this threat. That is what the extremism strategy will do. I urge the hon. Gentleman to wait for the Communities Secretary to release the details.

Q7. Sub-post-masters across the country will welcome the Government’s announcement today on the introduction of legislation to overturn wrongful convictions. Will my right hon. Friend reassure the House that the legislation will be passed as quickly as possible and that we will support all sub- postmasters right across our United Kingdom? (902009)

I pay tribute to all postmasters who have campaigned tirelessly for justice, including those who tragically will not see the justice that they deserve. Today’s legislation marks an important step in finally clearing their names. Across the House, we owe it to them to progress the legislation as soon as possible, before the summer recess, so that we can deliver the justice that they have fought for. We continue to work with our counterparts in Scotland and Northern Ireland as they develop their plans, but regardless of where and how convictions are quashed, redress will be paid to the victims across the whole of our United Kingdom on exactly the same basis.

The future of children’s cancer services in my constituency, and across south-west London, Surrey, Sussex and beyond, will be decided by NHS England tomorrow. The existing service is world leading and has saved the lives of countless children. Many of us who have engaged with the consultation process feel that the wrong decision is about to be made, ignoring risks to children’s cancer care by moving them to the Evelina London Children’s Hospital. If the Evelina is chosen tomorrow, will the Prime Minister intervene personally to delay any final decision until he has met me and concerned MPs from across the House so that he can prevent the risks to our children’s cancer services?

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, decisions about clinical provision are rightly made by clinicians in local areas across the country. More generally, we are investing in more oncologists, radiologists and community diagnostic centres, which is contributing to cancer treatment being at record levels, but I will of course ensure that he and colleagues get a meeting with the Secretary of State.

Q8. Radical Islamists pose a serious threat to our nation’s security. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister that we must urgently address that, but reports that the Government wish to broaden the definition of extremism are concerning, because in separating the definition of extremism from actual violence and harm, we may criminalise people with a wide range of legitimate views and have a chilling effect on free speech. Will my right hon. Friend reassure me that, instead of trying to police people’s thoughts and speech—as Opposition Members clearly wish to do—the Government will target specific groups that foster terrorism and those who fund them? (902010)

My hon. Friend makes a good point. That is why the strategy, which I urge her to wait for, will be one that she can support. It is our duty to ensure that the Government have the tools to tackle the threat that she rightly identifies and highlights. This is absolutely not about silencing those with private and peaceful beliefs, and nor will it impact free speech, which we on this side of the House will always strive to protect.

Q2. Children deserve the right to breathe clean air, but many schools are in areas with high levels of air pollution. Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, has announced a pilot for 200 of London’s most impacted schools to access air quality filters so that children can breathe clean air in their classrooms. Does the Prime Minister support that pilot, and will he implement similar measures across our country? (902004)

I am pleased that the latest published figures show that air pollution has reduced significantly since 2010, partly due to our legally binding targets to reduce concentrations. They will continue to reduce over the following years. On top of that, we have also provided almost £1 billion to help local authorities across the country to implement local plans to reduce nitrogen dioxide and to ensure that we can help those impacted by those plans.

I understand that the latest scheme being considered is to pay migrants thousands of pounds to leave Britain. Let us just leave the European convention on human rights and deport them for free. So far, more than 40,000 Brits have signed my petition with the Conservative Post calling for us to leave the ECHR. Will the Prime Minister commit to leaving the ECHR or, at the very least, have it in our manifesto to have a referendum and let Britain decide?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we must do everything we can to secure our borders and ensure that those who come here illegally do not have the ability to stay. That is why our Rwanda scheme and legislation are so important. As I have said repeatedly and will happily say to her again, I will not let a foreign court block our ability to send people to Rwanda when the time comes.

Q3. The National Theatre’s production “Nye”, which stars Michael Sheen, celebrates at its end the transformational increase in life expectancy since the founding of the NHS. However, University College London findings indicate that austerity policies between 2010 and 2019 are responsible for a three-year setback in life expectancy progress. Does the Prime Minister, or the Leader of the Opposition for that matter, think that public services can withstand an extra £20 billion of cuts? (902005)

First, I am pleased that the National Theatre received significant funding from the Chancellor in the recent Budget to support its fantastic work across the UK. However, I am surprised to hear the right hon. Lady raise the NHS, when her party is propping up the Welsh Labour Government, who have absolutely the worst NHS performance of any part of the United Kingdom.

May I thank my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister for meeting me six weeks ago to discuss the plight of victims of covid-19 vaccine damage? Following that discussion, and his very sympathetic response during the GB News “People’s Forum” to Mr John Watt, who is himself a victim of covid-19 vaccine damage, will the Government be supporting my Covid-19 Vaccine Damage Payments Bill this Friday?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising the issue and for the conversation I had with him. I extend my sympathies to all those who have been affected. I will of course ensure that he can meet the Secretary of State to discuss his Bill. We are, as I committed to him, looking at the issue in some detail to ensure that our policies are providing the support that is needed.

Q5. The Prime Minister stood outside Downing Street and said that he wanted to root out hate and extremism, yet shamefully it took him more than 24 hours to finally say that the remarks by the Tories’ biggest donor that looking at the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) makes you“want to hate all black women”were indeed racist. In November, the Prime Minister accepted a non-cash donation to the tune of £15,000 from Frank Hester for the use of his helicopter, so will he reimburse him—yes or no? (902007)

No, Mr Speaker. I am pleased that the gentleman is supporting a party that represents one of the most diverse Governments in this country’s history, led by this country’s first British Asian Prime Minister.

I look forward to voting later today for a tax cut for thousands of my constituents; a national insurance tax cut that will mean £900 off the tax bill of thousands of my constituents. After listening to the rhetoric from the Leader of the Opposition today, does the Prime Minister expect that the main Opposition party will vote against this afternoon’s tax cuts?

My hon. Friend raises an excellent question, because while Conservative Members believe in a country where hard work is rewarded and people can keep more of their hard-earned money—which is why we are cutting their taxes by an average of £900 each—we hear consistently from Labour Members that they not only disagree with that approach, but continue to cling to unfunded spending promises that would put taxes up. Also, just yesterday the shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones), described our plan to end the double taxation on work as “morally abhorrent”. That is the contrast between us and them: Labour will put your taxes up, and the Conservatives will keep cutting them.

Q9. Many of his Back Benchers—and now, it seems, the Prime Minister himself—have taken to referring to the European Court of Human Rights as a foreign court, as if there is something inherently wrong with things being foreign, or people being foreign. In what way can a court that the UK has belonged to since 1953, and which has an Irish president and a UK justice with an LLB from the University of Dundee, be considered foreign? The House needs to hear the Prime Minister commit today to the UK’s continued membership of a court and convention that have protected our rights and freedoms for over 70 years. (902011)

When it comes to the issue of tackling illegal migration, when Parliament expresses a clear view on what it believes should happen and supports that with legislation, and when we believe that we are acting in accordance with all our international obligations, I have been very clear that I will not let a foreign court stop us from sending illegal migrants to Rwanda. That is the right policy and, in fact, the only way to ensure the security of our borders and end the unfairness of illegal migration.

As a general election is not merely an expression of opinion but a serious choice, does my right hon. Friend agree that there is only one potential party of government that has the will, the inclination and the determination to stop mass illegal and legal migration, and that is the Conservative party? Let us unite our movement and do that.

I agree with my right hon. Friend entirely. We know this because not only has the Leader of the Opposition opposed the scheme, but he has been clear that even when the scheme is implemented and working, he would still scrap it. That tells us everything we need to know: on this issue, Labour’s values are simply not those of the British people. There is only one party that is going to stop the boats: the Conservative party.

Q10. On this Conservative Government’s watch, Thames Water has dumped over 72 billion litres of sewage into London’s rivers, all while racking up multi-billion-pound debts, and it is now reported that Thames Water could go bust any day. Despite this, the Government are still refusing to publish their contingency plans for the collapse of our country’s biggest water firm. Does the Prime Minister believe that Thames Water will still exist by the end of the year—yes or no? (902012)

It would not be right for me to comment on individual companies, but what I can say is that our ambitious storm overflow reduction plan is backed by £60 billion of capital investment. We now monitor every single storm overflow across England, and we have legislated to introduce unlimited penalties on water companies that breach their obligations. The independent regulator and the Environment Agency have the powers they need to hold water companies, wherever they are, to account.

Later this year, a new digital EU border system will come in, yet key changes that are required and key details have still not been decided by the EU. Urgent decisions are needed on additional funding and preparation to keep Dover clear and traffic moving through Kent. Can my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister assure me that this issue is being taken seriously at the highest levels of Government, and that funding and support will be made available to keep Dover clear, support the residents of Dover and Deal—and Kent—and secure our vital cross-channel trade and tourism?

My hon. Friend is right to raise this issue, and I assure her that it is being discussed at the highest levels of Government between UK Ministers and our EU and French counterparts to make sure that we have practical and constructive solutions that will ease the flow of traffic in the way that she describes and benefit her local community.

Q11. One hundred and fifty eight days, and there is no peace and no justice. There is no food, no clean water, no sanitation and no medical aid. There are just no words left, as disease is spreading and the death toll is rising, not least among children—the victims of these atrocities. It is evident that the Prime Minister’s plan is not working, so will he change track for the sake of these children and so many more, and work to secure a bilateral, immediate ceasefire between Israel and Hamas? (902013)

I have said repeatedly that we are incredibly concerned about the growing humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Too many civilians have lost their lives, and nowhere near enough aid is getting through. In contrast to what the hon. Lady said, actually the UK is playing a leading role in alleviating that suffering. Just recently, we increased the amount of aid this year to £100 million. Just today, 150 tonnes of UK aid is due to arrive in Gaza, and a full field hospital, flown from Manchester to the middle east last week, will arrive in Gaza in the coming days, staffed by UK and local medics to provide lifesaving care. We are doing absolutely everything we can, working with our allies, to bring much-needed aid to the people of Gaza.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking the maternity team at the Royal Cornwall Hospital at Treliske in my Truro and Falmouth constituency for all the outstanding work they have done to improve maternity services over the last few years? Their sheer hard work, along with the coming new women and children’s hospital, means that there are no midwifery vacancies in Cornwall, which I think he will agree is a fantastic achievement.

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the improvement in maternity services at the Royal Cornwall. She is a tireless campaigner on reducing baby loss, and I commend her for her recent work on the introduction of baby loss certificates. As she knows, we are committed to a new women and children’s hospital for her local trust in 2030, as part of the new hospital programme.

Q12. My constituents in Somerton and Frome, working together with the Langport Transport Group, submitted a robust strategic business case to the Government in July 2022 for the reopening of a train station in the Somerton and Langport area. Such a train station would connect over 50,000 people to the rail network, boost the local economy and support local people to reduce their reliance on cars. Almost two years on, they are still waiting for a response. Does the Prime Minister support this project, and can he provide confidence to my constituents that their hard work to drive this vital project forward has not been futile? (902014)

Conservatives in the south-west are rightly championing the reopening of local stations. Cullompton and Wellington will be among the places that receive funding as a result of our decision on HS2. It is because of that decision that we have now freed up billions of pounds of funding to invest in local transport across the country, and local leaders will be put in charge of that money to prioritise their local needs.

Prime Minister, in the 1930s, one of your less illustrious predecessors, Neville Chamberlain, so denuded the British armed forces of funding, until it was too late, that we failed to deter Adolf Hitler, and 50 million people tragically died in the second world war. Russia has invaded Ukraine, China is threatening Taiwan, and British shipping is being attacked by Houthis in the Red sea. Could you please assure me, as the son of a D-day veteran, and the House of Commons that we are not going to forget the lessons of history and make the same mistake again?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his tireless campaigning for our armed forces. He is right to champion them and the role they play. I agree with him wholeheartedly that sadly the world we are living in is becoming both more challenging strategically and more dangerous, and in response to those challenges we must invest more in our armed forces. That is exactly what we are doing, with the largest uplift since the cold war recently topped up with billions of pounds to strengthen our nuclear enterprise and rebuild stockpiles.

My right hon. Friend rightly mentioned the threats posed by the Houthis and by Russia in Ukraine. I know that he will be proud of the role that the United Kingdom is playing in both those situations. We are respected and valued by our allies. Most importantly, we on the Government side of the House will do whatever it takes to keep our country safe.