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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 747: debated on Wednesday 20 March 2024

Women and Equalities

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Islamophobia: Definition

1. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities on implementing a definition of Islamophobia. (902123)

12. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities on the work of the anti-Muslim hatred working group. (902135)

We will not tolerate anti-Muslim hatred in any form, and we will seek to stamp it out wherever it occurs. We are appointing an independent adviser to tackle the scourge of anti-Muslim hatred, to join our independent adviser on antisemitism. We have a programme for tackling anti-Muslim hatred, which includes the consideration of definitions. It also includes £117 million of funding to protect Muslim places of worship and faith schools until 2028.

Despite what the Minister says, many believe that the Government’s two-year delay in coming up with a definition on Islamophobia—the Conservatives are the only political party in the UK to have taken so long—reflects their indifference to the fear, discrimination and hatred that thousands of Muslims experience. Why has it taken so long?

We do not agree with the all-party group on British Muslims’ definition of Islamophobia; we believe the most appropriate term is “anti-Muslim hatred”. Let me explain why. In this country, there is freedom of religion, and also freedom to criticise a religion. What someone cannot do is discriminate against or show hatred to me because of my religion.

A senior Conservative who went on to become Prime Minister said that Muslim women “look like letter boxes”. A Conservative candidate for London Mayor said that she wants to defeat her Muslim opponent to make things safer “for our Jewish community”. A former Conservative deputy chairman said that Islamists have “got control” of the Mayor of London. Are those incidents of anti-Muslim hatred the kind of incidents that the Minister just said will not be tolerated?

We have made it very clear that a number of these comments we just do not accept—we think they are wrong—but before the hon. Lady throws abuse at Conservative Members, she should take a look at what is happening on the Labour Benches. Hers is the only party that has been sanctioned by the Equality and Human Rights Commission for institutional racism. Her party has now given the Whip back to the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald), even though the Labour party said that his comments were deeply offensive. The right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) has also had the Whip suspended because of antisemitism.

It is important that we do not trade abuse about these very serious issues. [Interruption.] With respect, that was the tone that I adopted. Where there are issues with political parties, rather than laughing about them, we should take action. That is what the Labour party did after the EHRC investigation. Sadly, the Conservatives have not acted to develop a definition of anti-Muslim hatred. We have changed, but the Conservatives have not. A definition was promised, and an adviser was appointed to develop one five years ago—perhaps the Minister is unaware of that—but today there is still no definition. There is no adviser now, no active anti-Muslim hate crime working group, no hate crime strategy, and minimal action on tackling online hate. When are the Government going to wake up to this problem?

As I said, this Government are completely committed to supporting our Muslim communities. We have said that we will appoint an independent adviser. We have made more money available to protect mosques and Muslim faith schools. I am visiting my local mosque, al-Manaar, this afternoon/early evening to attend an Iftar. If one looks at the composition of the Conservative Front Bench and at how diverse the people there are, one can see clearly that our party is committed to diversity and equality.

HIV Action Plan

Our 2021 HIV action plan sets out actions to achieve no new HIV transmissions by 2030 in England. To deliver that, the Department of Health and Social Care is investing more than £4.5 million between 2021 and 2025 to deliver the HIV prevention programme.

Happy St Cuthbert’s day, Mr Speaker. I congratulate my right hon. Friend on all the work done in the fight against HIV, but does he agree that if we are to reach our commitment of zero transmissions by 2030, we need a four-pronged approach that includes improved sex education, an expansion of opt-out testing, better availability of pre-exposure prophylaxis, and finding the 13,000 people with HIV who are lost to care?

My hon. Friend’s suggestions are right. Through opt-out testing, we have identified 1,000 cases of undiagnosed and untreated HIV. We have expanded that testing to a further 47 emergency rooms, so that we can find even more people. On the availability of PrEP, we are gathering evidence to understand why some population groups who would benefit from it are not accessing it; this is still an important area of work for us as a Government.

Since the funding has been secured for opt-out HIV testing in very high prevalence areas as part of the HIV action plan that I published when I was Minister for public health in 2021, the scheme has far exceeded expectations; over 4,000 people were newly diagnosed with HIV, hepatitis B or hepatitis C in just four cities in 21 months. The scheme also disproportionately identified women, people of black African ethnicity and older people with those blood-borne diseases. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on progress in expanding the programme to an additional 47 hospitals across England, including in Derby and Nottingham, and confirm that work is under way to ensure that opt-out testing will continue beyond April 2025?

I put on record my thanks to my hon. Friend for the amazing work she did in the Department; the initiative has been a great success story. It is amazing that we have been able to find more cases, which is precisely why an extra £20 million has been allocated to increase the testing. I will write to colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care about what will happen post 2025, but we are doing lots of other work with partners, such as the Terrence Higgins Trust, to ensure that we do everything we can to make this important goal a reality.

In Northern Ireland, we have a proactive HIV action plan, but it is always good to share information about the work that is done here, and the work that is done back home. What discussions has the Minister had with the Department of Health in Northern Ireland on extending the HIV action plan guidelines to Northern Ireland? Let us exchange good ideas and move forward together.

I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman that we should always share information and best practice. I will make sure that colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care hear his request and ensure that happens. At the end of the day, it is in all our shared interests to get to that goal by 2030.

Israeli Victims of Sexual Abuse by Hamas

3. What discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on support for Israeli victims of sexual abuse by Hamas. (902125)

I thank my hon. Friend for her tireless campaigning on behalf of Israeli victims of Hamas. This Government are appalled by reports of sexual violence since 7 October in Israel and Gaza. I am working closely with Cabinet colleagues on the issue. It is important to continue to highlight the fact that many hostages, both male and female, have still not been released, and they face the daily threat of rape, sexual assault and violence. Across Government, we have been meeting with their families. Just last week I met with the Hostage and Missing Families Forum, and I know that the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have also done so in recent months.

A United Nations report recently confirmed that sexual violence was used against Israeli women on 7 October. Last week I raised concerns with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office that women did not feel that they could trust the UN enough to speak about their experiences. Victims of sexual violence deserve a voice and to be treated with respect, so what can my right hon. Friend do to encourage the international community to unite in calling out sexual violence and those who seek to deny that it happens?

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the issue. She will be pleased to know that just last week, following calls from the UK, Lord Ahmad, the Minister in the other place, attended the UN Security Council to express deep concerns about the findings of the UN special representatives of the Secretary-General on their recent visit to the region. The UK is leading work internationally through our preventing sexual violence initiative, and through dedicated funding, totalling £60 million, to prevent conflict-related sexual violence and to strengthen justice and support for all survivors.

Gender Pay Gap

It was this Conservative Government who introduced mandatory gender pay gap reporting for large employers, to shine a light on the gender pay gap and promote action to close it. As a result, the gender pay gap has fallen by approximately a quarter over the past decade.

I thank the Minister for her response. Can she indicate whether the narrowing of the gender pay gap over the past 10 years has been less pronounced, in percentage terms, among women on lower incomes than among those on larger salaries?

Actually, the results from our gender pay gap reporting are slightly different: it is in higher-paid professions that the gender pay gap seems to exist, but that is because women are often in low-paid work. The hon. Member is absolutely right to raise the issue. Next month, we are introducing a pay rise of 10% for the lowest paid through an increase to the national living wage. After the national insurance cut, added on to the cut in January, people will be almost £900 better off in work.

The issue is not just the gender pay gap; there is also the gender pension gap, the lack of women on boards, and the importance of making sure that we have a pipeline of talented women at every level. Yesterday, I was with the community interest company, Women on Boards, and its clear message to the Minister is, “Please can we have more action and fewer initiatives, to ensure that we make real progress in getting women in our companies, at every level?”.

We absolutely are taking action. We are planning to introduce the pay transparency pilot, because in high-paid jobs, salaries are often not advertised, and women end up being paid less than men for the same role. It is such action that will make a difference to women across the country.

Menopause: Workplace Support

In March 2023, I appointed Helen Tomlinson as the Government’s first menopause employment champion. We are working across Government and with employers to increase awareness and develop policies to support women experiencing the impact of menopause at work. We recently launched new guidance on the Help to Grow portal to empower businesses to educate their organisation about menopause.

Last July, we saw the introduction of the British Standards Institution standard on menstruation, menstrual health and menopause in the workplace. Earlier this month, the International Organisation for Standardisation voted to develop an international version. Will the Minister join me in congratulating the BSI, countless grassroots organisations, individuals including my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris), and the menopause all-party parliamentary group, who have all worked tirelessly to ensure that menopausal women in this country are given the support that they so deserve?

I am absolutely delighted to welcome all of that work. I also welcome the fact that the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) was able to join us in a roundtable discussion at Gower College. In fact, Jane from the BSI was one of a number of women to join our first menopause roundtable for International Women’s Day at No. 10, where we celebrated the BSI and its international achievements. Helen Tomlinson, too, has been recognised internationally.

Faith-based Discrimination and Harassment

6. What steps she is taking with the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to help reduce faith-based discrimination and harassment. (902129)

All forms of religious hatred have absolutely no place in our communities, and we work with police and community partners to monitor and combat it. We are taking a broad approach to tackling religious hatred, and are engaging extensively with experts to explore how religious hatred is experienced by British communities and how it affects different faiths and individuals.

There has been an appalling surge of antisemitism and Islamophobia in recent months, but the anti-Muslim hatred working group has been suspended since March 2020, and the hate crime strategy is four years old; we clearly need a new one to tackle the hate crime in our communities. Will the Minister commit to restarting the anti-Muslim hatred working group and bringing forward a new hate crime strategy?

As I said in answer to previous questions, we will appoint a new adviser on anti-Muslim hatred. We are engaging with the Muslim community at senior levels. The Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities have recently met Tell MAMA, which plays a very important role in tackling hate crime. This Government are completely behind our Muslim communities, and we will absolutely do the right thing for them.

I welcome the Minister’s comments. We are all behind her, and endorse what she said, but can she give me some idea of recent progress she has made on delivering the Inclusive Britain action plan?

We have been doing lots of work on that, and will be releasing the report today.[Official Report, 16 April 2024; Vol. 748, c. 4WC.] (Correction)

With permission, Mr Speaker, I will briefly pay tribute to my constituent Henry Wuga, whose funeral took place earlier today. Henry, who came to Glasgow on the Kindertransport, was a truly remarkable man. He and his late wife Ingrid made an enormous contribution to Scotland and the world through their work as holocaust educators. His legacy is truly immense, and I am sure that the House will join me in sending our thoughts to Henry’s family. May his memory be a blessing.

The increase in antisemitism and Islamophobia is eye-watering. It should be of serious concern to us all. Urgent action is needed on both fronts, and community cohesion and dialogue must be a priority. In recent months, there has been a 335% increase in Islamophobic hate cases in the UK. None the less, and despite our just having had the International Day to Combat Islamophobia, the UK Government have not convened the anti-Muslim hatred working group in more than four years. Now that the next anti-Muslim hatred adviser has quit over extremist threats, we need concrete answers. When will the Government take tackling Islamophobia seriously?

On behalf of the Government, I pass on my condolences. We have made it incredibly clear that the Government are completely committed to tackling anti-Muslim hatred. We have upped the amount of money going towards the protection of mosques and Muslim faith schools. We are about to appoint a new anti-Muslim hatred adviser. This is an effort across Government. I completely agree that the levels of both anti-Muslim hatred and antisemitism that we see at the moment are not acceptable. That is why we are dealing with it.

Workplace Inclusivity and Accessibility

7. What steps she is taking to help increase inclusivity and accessibility at work for disabled people. (902130)

The Government have a programme of initiatives to support disabled people and people with health conditions in starting, staying and succeeding in work. That includes Access to Work, Disability Confident, and a digital information service for employers, which aim to increase inclusivity and accessibility for disabled people in the workplace.

The Beacon Centre for the Blind in Sedgley does amazing work. Meeting Kaydee and Nathan, who are partially sighted employees, was an inspiring experience. My visit to the centre served as a strong reminder of the significant day-to-day challenges that vulnerable people experience in doing things that able people take for granted. What more can the Minister and her Department do to raise awareness and better support charities such as the Beacon Centre and its users?

I met representatives from the Disability Charities Consortium yesterday, and some of those matters were discussed. We have invested £2 billion in improving inclusivity and accessibility at work for disabled people and people facing health barriers. We have hundreds of jobcentres across the country, and fantastic work coaches are tapping into extra support through our network of disability employment advisers to assist people just like Kaydee and Nathan.

Adjustments are often vital for helping disabled people in their job, but Scope says that disabled workers face many issues with the Access to Work scheme, including a long wait for an assessment, a cap on costs, and low awareness of the scheme among disabled people. Only 40% of them know about it. Will the Minister work with her Cabinet colleagues to improve the Access to Work scheme and prevent the disability employment gap from widening?

The Access to Work scheme is a demand-led personalised discretionary grant, but working with employers, looking around occupational health and other interventions to support people are equally as important. I can assure the hon. Lady that I met my officials yesterday about the Access to Work scheme. I am looking at any delays, any impacts and any changes every couple of weeks to ensure that people who want to work and need support can get it in a timely fashion.

Topical Questions

I am pleased to announce today that the independent inclusion at work panel has launched their report on achieving fairness and inclusion for all in the workplace. The report, part of our inclusive Britain agenda, sets out how employers can do away with ineffective, divisive and poor-quality diversity and inclusion practices. It notes that the UK employs almost twice as many diversity and inclusion workers per head as any other country. Instead, we should focus resources on interventions backed by evidence, which will benefit all people. I thank the panel for their hard work and thoughtful consideration on this issue.

My young disabled constituent Ella Wakley in Braunton goes to college, but her blue badge is accepted on buses only after 9.30 am, which is too late, so she has to pay for herself and her travel assistant. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that improve accessibility for people such as Ella, who are trying to get on with their everyday lives?

As ever, my hon. Friend is a great advocate for her North Devon constituents. In the national bus strategy, the Department for Transport committed to conducting a wholesale review of the English national concessionary travel scheme. That will include reviewing eligibility and extensions to travel times for older and disabled people.

Last week, the Minister for Women and Equalities rightly called the comments of Conservative party donor Frank Hester about the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) “racist.” It has since emerged that Mr Hester has said that a group of Indian members of staff should

“climb on the roof, like on the roof of the train”

and has made reference to “Asian corner.” Does the Minister agree that those comments are racist—yes or no?

I understand why the Labour party insists on bringing this issue up over and over again, but Mr Hester has apologised for his comments, we have welcomed his apology, and we are drawing a line under it. We are focused on what matters to the people of this country. I had letters last week from people telling me that we were wasting time focusing on issues that were not relevant to them. We need to focus on what matters to the British people.

Boys lag behind girls at every level at school, creating a gender attainment gap that has been in place for some 30 years. Will the Minister meet headteachers and a working group to see what we can do to reduce that gap?

T2. Will the Minister clarify when the right moment is to move on from a Tory donor calling for an MP to be shot in the context of hating all black women? Is it when there is an apology for rudeness? Is it when £5 million more has arrived in Tory coffers? Is it when she tires of explaining racism to her party? Or is it when the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) says that justice has been done? (902154)

I am not going to take any lectures whatsoever from Labour Members. This is a good time to remind the House that it is only the Labour party that has been sanctioned for institutional racism by the Equality and Human Rights Commission. It continues to disappoint its members. Where is the Forde report? Why is the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) complaining that nothing has been done about racism in the Labour party? We will take no lectures from them.

Despite an overwhelming consultation response and promises from the Government, caste as a protected characteristic still hangs over the Hindu community. We have now established that the current provision could be removed via statutory instrument. Will my right hon. Friend take the opportunity to remove it once and for all before the general election?

I commend my hon. Friend, who has been working diligently on this important issue. Our view is that we need to do that through primary legislation. I recognise that it is important to many of his constituents and others, so I would be more than happy to meet him to see whether we can discuss a way forward.

T3. Compassion in Care’s helpline received 486 reports of homophobic abuse in care homes over the past four years, yet 481 of the service providers accounted for in those allegations are still rated as good by the Care Quality Commission. Will the Minister work with Cabinet colleagues to end discrimination against LGBTQ residents in care homes to ensure they are safe in the care system, and would she support the development of a “Pride in Care” quality mark and an LGBTQ+ care champions scheme? [Interruption.] (902155)

If only that cheer was for me.

The hon. Lady raises a really important point—it is something I feel really passionately about myself, and it is going to increase in prevalence as we get generations becoming older, because people have been more out in recent years. I have been speaking to people about this important area of work, and will continue to raise it with colleagues in relevant Departments.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


I know the whole House will join me in congratulating Vaughan Gething on his election as Welsh Labour leader and expected election as First Minister of Wales, and also in offering Mark Drakeford our best wishes on his retirement. The Government I lead will always work tirelessly to benefit the lives of people across the United Kingdom, and I look forward to working constructively with the new First Minister to deliver for the people of Wales.

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.

The people of Clacton have had a tough time with the cost of living, and I am doing everything I can to support them. With that in mind, does my right hon. Friend agree that cutting inflation is the very best way to do that, and that today’s statistics are very welcome? Can he reassure my constituents that he will continue working hard to get inflation as low as possible, in order to protect their savings, help with their bills and give them the financial security they deserve?

Today’s figures show that our plan is working. Inflation has fallen to 3.4% from its peak of over 11%, down by almost 70%—the steepest fall since the 1980s, and now at the lowest level since September 2021—and people’s pay packets are going further, with real wages growing for eight months in a row and taxes being cut by £900 for the average worker. That is why we need to stick to the plan to deliver a brighter future for our country.

I thank the Prime Minister for his words in welcoming Vaughan Gething to his post as First Minister of Wales. As the first black leader of any European Government, it is a historic moment that speaks to the progress and values of modern-day Wales. I also pay tribute to Mark Drakeford for his long, steady service in Wales.

With violent prisoners released early because the Tories wrecked the criminal justice system, 3,500 small boat arrivals already this year because the Tories lost control of the borders, the NHS struggling to see people because the Tories broke it, millions paying more on their mortgages, a Budget that hit pensioners and a £46 billion hole in his sums, why is the Prime Minister so scared to call an election?

As I said in January, my working assumption is that the election will be in the second half of the year. I must say, I thought that out of everybody, the Leader of the Opposition would be the most grateful, because he has now actually got time to come up with a plan for Britain. We are all looking forward to finally seeing it.

Oh, we are ready—just call it.

Let us just take the Prime Minister’s Rwanda policy. When the Tories first announced this gimmick, they claimed it would settle tens of thousands of people. The Home Office then whittled it down to a mere 300. Four times that number have already arrived this month, and the backlog stands at 130,000. Can the Prime Minister see any flaw in his plan to deport less than 1% of that backlog?

Since I became Prime Minister, the number of small boat crossings is actually down by over a third. That is because we have doubled National Crime Agency funding and we have increased illegal immigration enforcement raids by 70%. We have closed 7,500 bank accounts, deported 24,000 illegal migrants and processed over 112,000 cases—more than at any point in the last two decades. It is crystal clear, as we are seeing from the Labour party’s opposition in this House, that while we are committed to stopping the boats, the Labour party would keep them coming.

The tragedy is we know the Prime Minister does not even believe in the Rwanda gimmick. He tried to stop funding it, but he is now so diminished that his entire focus is stopping his MPs holding the sword of Damocles above his head—perhaps even literally in the case of the Leader of the House. His great hope is to placate those in his party with a couple of empty planes, praying they will not notice when the flights stop going, the boats are still coming and the costs keep mounting. How has he managed to spend £600 million of taxpayer money on a gimmick to deport 300 people?

It is crystal clear that not only does the Labour party not have a plan to fix this issue, but the truth is it does not actually care about fixing this issue. The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about gangs. When we gave the police new powers to crack down on the people-smuggling gangs, he spent months campaigning and voting against it. But thanks to our new laws, 900 criminals have been arrested and 450 have been convicted, serving over 370 years behind bars. If it was up to him, those criminals would still be out on our streets. The truth is that, if he was not the Labour leader, he would still want to be their lawyer. [Hon. Members: “More!]

I have prosecuted more people smugglers than the Prime Minister has had helicopter rides, and that is a lot. [Interruption.] I have done it. This Rwanda gimmick is going to cost the taxpayer £2 million for every one of his 300 people that they deport. I know the Prime Minister likes to spend a lot on jet-setting, but that is some plane ticket. It is the cost of Tory chaos, and it is working people who are paying the price. The man he made his Immigration Minister let the cat out of the bag when he said the Prime Minister’s

“symbolic flights…will not provide a credible…deterrent”.

We know the Prime Minister himself thought it would not work. If the people selling this gimmick do not believe in it, why should the country?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is very keen to talk about who he prosecuted. He is a bit less keen to talk about when he defended Hizb ut-Tahrir. But when it comes to this question of how to deal with people who are here illegally, his values are simply not those of the British people. After all, this is the person who campaigned to stop the deportation of foreign dangerous criminals. A dangerous criminal was jailed for dealing class A drugs after he fought to keep him here. A gangmaster was convicted of carrying a knife after he fought to keep him here. So whether it is representing terrorists or campaigning for criminals, it is clear whose side he is on, and it is not the British people’s.

It is genuinely sad to see the Prime Minister reduced to this nonsense. Let us take another example, which I started with. [Interruption.]

After 14 years of Tory chaos in the prison system, the Justice Secretary was reduced to begging the Prime Minister either to send fewer offenders to prison or to release them even earlier. I must say I have sympathy for anyone trying to get an answer out of the Prime Minister. So what is it going to be: fewer criminals behind bars in the first place, or more released early on to our streets? Which is it?

Thanks to our record and plan, violent crime has fallen by 50%. We have recruited more police officers, given them more powers and kept serious offenders in prison for longer. What is the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s record? He voted against greater protection for our emergency workers, opposed tougher sentences for violent criminals and failed to give police the powers they need. It would be back to square one with Labour—soft on crime and soft on criminals.

You can see why he doesn’t want an election, Mr Speaker, why his party have lost faith in him, and why half his Cabinet are lining up to replace him—no answers, no plan, no clue. The Prime Minister has never had the courage to stand up to his party, so let me help him out and say to them what he wishes he could say: the mortgage mayhem, the waiting lists, the criminals walking free—they are the cost of Tory chaos. And if they cannot bring themselves to stop the endless games and gimmicks, and stop putting themselves before country, they should pack up, go home, and waste somebody else’s time. It wasn’t that difficult, was it, Prime Minister?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about his ideas, but we are two weeks on from the Budget. The shadow Chancellor found time to make a one-hour speech last night, and we still do not know how Labour is going to pay for its £28 billion black hole. But while he tries to talk down Britain and the progress we are making, today’s news shows that the plan is working—inflation down, energy bills down, wages up, pensions up, and taxes cut by £900. That is the choice: higher taxes and back to square one with Labour, or tax cuts and real change with the Conservatives.

Q2. The UK birth rate is falling, the while numbers of those requiring fertility treatment to conceive are rising. There are no employment rights attached to those undertaking fertility treatment, and no paid time off work. Will the Prime Minister join me in encouraging employers, large and small and across the United Kingdom, to sign up to the fertility workplace pledge that I have launched with Fertility Matters at Work, LGBT Mummies, Fertility Network UK and many others, to support those undertaking fertility treatment when they are in work? (902139)

May I start by thanking my hon. Friend for her excellent work campaigning on this issue? She is right: employers should offer their staff understanding, support, and flexibility while they are undergoing fertility treatment. The best way to improve the experience of those undergoing treatment, both women and their partners, is through voluntary approaches. That is why I join my hon. Friend in encouraging all companies to sign up to the fertility workplace pledge.

With his Back Benchers looking for a unity candidate to replace him, which of the now numerous born-again Thatcherites on the Labour Front Bench does the Prime Minister believe best fits the bill?

It was surprising, Mr Speaker, to hear all this talk about the 1970s from the shadow Chancellor in particular, but if you see what is happening in places like Birmingham, where taxes are going up by 21% and services are being cut—whether that is social care, children’s services, or in some streets the lights literally being turned off—it is unsurprising why they are talking about the ’70s. I just say that what they have done to Birmingham, the Conservatives will never let them do to Britain.

Of course there is a serious point to be made here, because the Institute for Fiscal Studies has warned of the conspiracy of silence that exists between the Labour party and the Conservative party when it comes to £18 billion of looming public sector cuts. Indeed, just last night it outlined that the fiscal rules of the Labour party and the Conservative party are, in effect, identical. With such continuity on offer, the public are right to be anti-Westminster, aren’t they?

I am surprised to hear the hon. Gentleman quoting the IFS, because it also described the recent SNP Budget as, in its words, “misleading”, and said that

“pain is almost certainly coming”.

It is a savage tax and axe budget, because here is the reality: while NHS spending in England is going up in real terms, in Scotland it is going down; while taxes are being cut by the UK Government, the SNP Government are putting them up. That is the contrast, and where the SNP or indeed Labour are in charge, it is working people who pay the price.

Q3. The Prime Minister rightly often criticises the Scottish Government for the extra tax they put on residents. In my part of Cornwall, we have an extra tax called the Tamar toll. I have been working on a petition with my constituency neighbour, my right hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer). Will the Prime Minister make our part of the country more competitive by losing this extra tax and helping our community to level up? (902140)

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this important local issue. Any application for a toll revision will be considered by the Transport Secretary at the right opportunity when it has been received, but I am told that there are plans in place to create a new locally led focal group of key stakeholders to ensure that there is a real opportunity for them to make their views about crossings heard, and I know that she will play an active role in that group.

Yesterday saw the Northern Ireland Assembly for the first time in its history exercise its new veto powers to prevent the application of new EU law that would harm our ability to trade with the rest of the United Kingdom. That is something that the DUP campaigned to achieve when others were calling for rigorous implementation of the protocol. To his credit, the Prime Minister was able to work with us to deliver the real changes to the protocol that will help to restore Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom and its internal market.

Will the Prime Minister now assure me that the Government will continue to faithfully implement the measures outlined in the Command Paper, “Safeguarding the Union”, including fully restoring our place within the United Kingdom and its internal market and ending the unnecessary checks on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland?

I want to congratulate my right hon. Friend again on his leadership of Unionism. I agree that it has been an encouraging few weeks, and I salute the work of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister in representing the future of Northern Ireland. I assure him that we will implement our commitments at pace, including further regulations to be laid before this House in the coming days to take power to deliver those commitments on UK internal trade. We are also hosting the first meeting of the UK East-West Council and establishing Intertrade UK, but it comes down to this fundamental point, and I know that he will agree: Northern Ireland’s place is stronger in the Union, with locally elected politicians in place representing the needs of all parts of the community.

4. Noting the National Audit Office report today on the spiralling costs of using ex-military bases for migrants, and noting that the Home Office has announced this week that it is to reduce the projected numbers at RAF Scampton down to 800, will the Prime Minister ensure that an immigration Minister meets West Lindsey District Council and me urgently, so that we can release most of this iconic RAF base— the home of the Red Arrows and the Dambusters—for regeneration? (902141)

I pay tribute to the way that my right hon. Friend has engaged with the Government on this important issue for his local community. As he acknowledged, our plan is working to cut the use of asylum hotels, and we will have closed 100 hotels next week, on top of cutting small boat arrivals. I know that he is talking to the Minister for Legal Migration and the Border, my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Tom Pursglove), about how best to accommodate a smaller number of asylum seekers safely at RAF Scampton, while recognising the council’s ambitious plans for regeneration. I fully support those discussions, and the Government are committed to the site being used for accommodation for the shortest possible time and then released for the benefit of the local community.

Q5. Our NHS is at breaking point. My constituent was told that he needed a gall bladder operation after a visit to accident and emergency. He waited all day in hospital, nil by mouth, and had no operation. He was then told to stay overnight or risk his place on the list, so he sat in a hot, smelly, windowless waiting room for eight hours on a plastic chair. Then a gurney came with no pillow, and that is where he slept. The next day, the nurses said, “No operation. There just aren’t any beds.” His wife told me that the Conservatives are running the NHS into the ground. Given his experience, which so many others across the country share, how can he say otherwise? (902142)

I am very sorry to hear about the experience of the hon. Lady’s constituent, and I am sure she will be raising it with the local NHS trust as well. The NHS is, of course, recovering from a difficult two years, but it has received considerable backing from this Government, including record investment, as was acknowledged by the NHS chief executive officer just the other week, and a plan to improve productivity in the future. We have invested in 5,000 new beds over the last year and more ambulances. All of that is contributing to lower waiting times, waiting lists coming down and an improved A&E performance over the last year.

Q8. The people of the eastern villages of Guildford—the Clandons, the Horsleys, Effingham, Ripley, Send and Ockham—have had enough. Unwanted development and villages taken out of the green belt without promised infrastructure is why I have been calling for an immediate review of the local plan for the last three years. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Labour’s promise of concreting over the green belt, even against the wishes of local MPs, would simply add insult to injury? (902145)

Unlike both the Liberal Democrats and the Labour party, who believe in top-down targets that decimate the green belt, we believe in local people having a say over their local communities. That is why we are committed to protecting and enhancing the green belt. The national planning policy includes strong protections to safeguard this important land. I note that my hon. Friend’s local plan is currently under review by the council, which has indicated that it will be updating it, and I hope my hon. Friend and her constituents engage with that process to help shape Guildford for future generations.

Q6. The EU High Representative for foreign policy, Josep Borrell, said on Monday that Israel is provoking famine in Gaza and using starvation as a weapon of war. President Biden has said that there should be no attack on Rafah without a plan to ensure the safety of the more than 1 million people living there. Does the Prime Minister agree with High Representative Borrell and President Biden? Because I do, and we need a ceasefire. If he does agree, will he say so here in the Chamber today? (902143)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I have explained to the Opposition repeatedly that the findings from the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification initiative are gravely concerning. It is clear that the status quo is unsustainable, and we need urgent action now to avoid a famine. The UK is doing all it can to get more aid in and prevent a worsening crisis. Two thousand tonnes of UK-funded food aid, including flour and hot meals, is being distributed by the World Food Programme in Gaza today, as we speak, and it is enough to feed more than 275,000 people. We will continue to do everything we can to alleviate the suffering that people are experiencing.

Herefordshire Council: Children’s Services

Q9. Whether the Government plan to intervene in the running of children’s services by Herefordshire Council. (902146)

The Department for Education is mounting a significant intervention in Herefordshire’s children’s services, including expert improvement advice, a commissioner with statutory powers to direct the council, and a two-year improvement partnership with Leeds. I can assure my hon. Friend that the Department is closely monitoring the council’s progress.

I thank my right hon. Friend for taking this terrible situation so seriously. The permanent secretary at the Department for Education visited Hereford recently, so he will know that the new Conservative council is trying to mend the damage done by the previous Green and independent authority to far too many young people and their families. As a father, does my right hon. Friend agree that progress is still far too slow? Will he meet me to discuss what more we can do?

Like my hon. Friend, I am concerned to hear that children in Herefordshire are not receiving the level of service that they should expect. I know that Ministers have revisited the commissioner’s latest report, and while some improvements have been made, I agree that it is very clear that the pace of change is not what it should be. My hon. Friend has been right to campaign tirelessly on this. I assure him that Ministers continue to hold the local authority to account, but I will be happy to meet with him to discuss his concerns further.


Q7. Bedford renal unit is closed until further notice while investigations into the water treatment unit are carried out. This is a major incident for the nearly 100 patients in Bedford whose lives are now severely disrupted by the need to travel around 50 miles up to four times a week to access lifesaving kidney dialysis. Will the Prime Minister commit all the necessary resources needed by East and North Hertfordshire NHS Trust renal services to urgently fix this major issue? (902144)

I am sorry to hear about that specific issue in the renal unit. The hon. Gentleman will forgive me for not being familiar with the details, but I will make sure that the Department looks into it and that the NHS is provided with all the support that it needs to rectify the situation.

Q11. Tomorrow is World Down Syndrome Day. We have made huge innovative strides in this country, with the unanimous passing in this House of the Down Syndrome Act 2022 and initiatives such as yours, Mr Speaker, to provide work placements here in the Palace of Westminster for people with Down syndrome. However, there is an outstanding issue that we must deal with. The time limit on abortion in the UK is 24 weeks’ gestation, but due to an anomaly in the law, for Down syndrome it is 40 weeks —up to full term—which many Members may not understand. With cross-party support I will table an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill to equalise the time limit in line with our disability and equality legislation. Surely, in the 21st century we cannot accept that people with Down syndrome are second-class citizens in our country. Will the Prime Minister support the change? (902148)

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his dedicated work to pass the Down Syndrome Act. I thank him also for highlighting World Down Syndrome Day, and we will host a reception in No. 10 to mark the occasion. As he knows, when the grounds for abortion were amended, Parliament agreed that doctors were best placed to make those difficult decisions with women and their families. He also knows that it is a long-standing convention that it is for Parliament to decide whether to make any changes to the law on abortion. These issues have always been treated as an individual matter of conscience.

Q10. Some of my Livingston constituents in Broxburn and Craigshill have the misfortune of living in houses built with reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete. Many cannot get insurance or mortgages, and one constituent told me very emotionally that he cannot even afford a survey. Will the Prime Minister arrange for his Ministers to meet me to discuss how his Government can fund local authorities and devolved Governments—which did not even exist when these houses were built—and give the support that was promised? We need action now. (902147)

I will happily look into the issues that the hon. Lady raises, but in the first instance I am sure that that would be a question for the SNP Government in Scotland to answer, to ensure that they are providing for their constituents. We have a strong track record of investing in local communities right across Scotland with our levelling-up funding and investment partnerships. She will know that housing is a devolved area, but I will happily look into the issue.

Q13. The Prime Minister should be aware that the people of Romford are appalled by the catastrophic reign of the current Mayor of London. Does he agree that traditional boroughs such as Havering should have more independence from City Hall? In the meantime, to save London, should we not sack Sadiq and elect Susan Hall as the next Mayor of our capital? (902150)

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for his championing of his area and for his passion to preserve its character. Although there are no current plans to redraw the boundaries, I understand his desire, especially with London being run by the Labour Mayor. With nightlife decimated, crime increasing and the Mayor raising taxes on hard-working people by more than 8%, London can certainly do better. The only way for pride to be restored in London is with Susan Hall as its new Mayor.

Q12. Sunday was the second anniversary of P&O Ferries’ illegal sacking of 786 British seafarers. Despite what Ministers have said, P&O has faced no sanction, and this Government’s new code of practice on fire and rehire would not stop it happening again. This Parliament will be the worst on record for living standards, and real wages are still worth less than in 2008. After 14 years, why have this Government failed to deliver a better deal for workers across Britain? (902149)

As the Chancellor recently pointed out, living standards are £1,700 higher in real terms than in 2010. If the hon. Gentleman wants to protect working people in this country, perhaps he should have a chat with his shadow Chancellor about her plans to impose £28 billion of tax rises on everyone in our country.

15. After decades of a Labour MP, Wrexham was known as “spice town”. But not any more: in the last four years, we have become a city with a £160 million investment zone, £20 million from the towns fund and £23 million from the shared prosperity fund. We are soon to have the largest trading estate in Europe, with more jobs than jobseekers. We have secured the future of Hightown Barracks and Hollywood has boosted our football club! Does the Prime Minister agree that it is this Conservative MP and this Conservative Government who are delivering for Wrexham? [Hon. Members: “More!”] (902152)

My hon. Friend has been an excellent campaigner for Wrexham, putting it on the map after years of decline under the Labour party. It is the heart of one of Wales’s investment zones, with our plan for towns helping to regenerate the local high street and improve public safety. I can tell my hon. Friend that with a great campaigner like herself, the next five years will only look brighter for Wrexham.

14. Last week, the Prime Minister rightly called Conservative party donor Frank Hester’s comments about my right hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) racist. It has since emerged that Mr Hester has made comments that a group of Indian members of staff should“Climb on the roof, like on the roof of the train” and made reference to “Asian corner”. Does the Prime Minister agree with me that those comments are racist— yes or no? (902151)

I addressed this last week, and the Minister for Women and Equalities addressed it just half an hour ago.

Mr Speaker, you and the Prime Minister will be welcome in the Arun district of my constituency, where developers are trying to build over every vineyard, horticultural nursery and piece of agricultural land. Will he point out that the last place to build homes is prime agricultural land, especially in an area where developers have enough permissions to meet the council’s targets for the next five years?

My hon. Friend is right that sustainable development must be at the heart of our planning system. That is why we are committed to meeting the housing needs of our communities by building the right homes in the right places, making sure that everyone makes best use of brownfield land, conserving our countryside. That is also the point he makes, which is important. I have been crystal clear: we must protect agricultural land. Food security is incredibly important and we need our farmers to produce more Great British food.

We know the Prime Minister has received advice about the legality of the Israel-Gaza war, that he has had time to consider it, and that Governments can and do publish such advice. Will he tell the House what steps he is taking to act on that advice in reviewing UK arms sales, in supporting the proceedings of the International Court of Justice and International Criminal Court, and in exercising the UK’s vote at the UN Security Council?

We continue to call for Israel to respect international humanitarian law and for civilians to be protected. Too many civilians have been killed and we want Israel to take greater care to limit its operations to military targets. Those are points that both I and the Foreign Secretary have made repeatedly to Prime Minister Netanyahu. We have previously assessed that Israel is committed and capable of complying with international humanitarian law, and of course we always keep that under review.

The Prime Minister will be aware of plans by National Grid to build a network of 50-metre-high pylons through much of rural Lincolnshire. This is causing much consternation, particularly in rural villages. Can my right hon. Friend assure my residents that when Ministers finally consider the consultations that come forward from National Grid, they will give sympathetic consideration to putting some of the sections underground?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the concerns of his constituents. He will recognise the balance we need to strike by making sure that we give our country the energy security it needs but doing it in a way that is respectful of the impact on local communities. I will make sure that Ministers take into account the concerns he raised and that all the views of local constituents are taken into account.

Given that the Prime Minister’s and his Government’s days are numbered and that they will soon be in opposition, will he use the small amount of time available to him to join 138 United Nations member states in recognising the state of Palestine?

Our position has been consistently clear. We will recognise the state of Palestine when it makes the most beneficial sense for the overall peace process. Of course we are committed to an ultimate two-state solution, but in the here and now what we are calling for is an immediate, sustained humanitarian pause that would allow for the safe release of hostages, including British nationals, and would allow more aid to reach Gaza. We urge all sides to seize the opportunity, and continue negotiations to reach an agreement as soon as possible.