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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 748: debated on Wednesday 17 April 2024

Science, Innovation and Technology

The Secretary of State was asked—

AI in the NHS

1. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care on increasing the use of AI in the NHS. (902258)

The Department for Science, Innovation and Technology closely engages with all Departments on the adoption of AI, including the Department of Health and Social Care, and we are committed to ensuring that the adoption of AI is done in an ethical, safe and responsible way. That includes using AI to improve public service outcomes and productivity in the NHS. Ahead of the AI Safety Summit last year, we announced a new AI in healthcare fund, backed by £100 million, to target areas where the rapid deployment of AI could create transformational breakthroughs.

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. Without doubt, AI offers an opportunity to innovate regarding medical diagnostics. What discussions is he having with colleagues from the Department of Health and Social Care to ensure that the next generation of clinical scientists, including radiologists and pathologists, gain the right skills to make full use of AI?

I thank my hon. Friend for that important question. Ensuring that the UK’s life sciences sector can grow and access the variety of skills it needs to support innovation, including the adoption of AI, is a key commitment of the life sciences vision. To deliver that we are working cross-Government, including with the Department for Education and DHSC, industry and academia, to ensure that our ecosystem can deliver and attract interdisciplinary talent. The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care and her Department are also working to ensure that the NHS can take advantage of the opportunity that AI represents for healthcare. In addition, DSIT is actively represented on NHS England’s radiology and pathology boards, where AI and skills are regularly discussed.

The Health and Social Care Committee’s report into the digital technologies of the future clearly demonstrated the opportunities that sit before us if we get the basics right. AI is not only of use for increasing productivity in diagnostics, but also when setting treatment plans and in pharmacology. How is the Minister setting out a strategic plan for how AI can be invested in the NHS for the future, as Labour has done with our “Fit for the Future” plan?

The hon. Lady is right to say that AI can play a great role in improving the way we treat conditions, provided that it is implemented in an ethical, safe and responsible way. One great example of that is Brainomix, which is already being used in 37 NHS healthcare trusts. It means that the in/out time has been greatly reduced, and three times more people who previously would have not been able to live independently are now able to do so because of the use of AI. That is also being used in additional critical pathways, and lessons are learned. I know the NHS is working closely with DHSC to ensure that AI is used effectively.

AI: Regulation

In our White Paper on AI regulation we set out our ambitious pro-regulation, pro-innovation framework, outlining five cross-sectoral principles to be applied by existing regulators. In February we published our response, setting out how we are supporting regulators to deliver the framework and strengthen our global AI leadership. That includes new funding and guidance for our regulators, and we have established a central risk function to support.

Yet we heard just a few months ago from the Prime Minister that the UK’s answer is not to rush to regulate. The Competition and Markets Authority has been clear about the potential harms that unregulated AI could generate from baking in biases that affect certain demographics, and general purpose models that could get out of control. Why have the Government dragged their feet on safeguards for the most advanced AI models, or is the Secretary of State simply waiting for the next Labour Government to control the new AI models?

Mr Speaker, this is absolute tosh. We have led the world when it comes to AI safety. We have set up a long-term process in the AI Safety Summit, and the next one will be in Seoul in just a few weeks. We have also set up the world’s first AI Safety Institute, which is testing both pre and post deployment. We have also been clear: we will not rush to legislate. We will grip the risks and better understand them, rather than produce out-of-date legislation as a gimmick.

Tomorrow the TUC will officially launch its Bill on AI regulation and employment rights, which recognises that transparency, observability and explainability are all key elements of a fair and just workplace. What will the Government do to ensure that AI does not lead to a weakening of workers’ rights?

We want to garnish the opportunities of AI for the British public, which include the comple- mentary aspect that it can pose for jobs, especially in teaching and medicine, by taking away some of the admin and bureaucracy. We are also very realistic that technology always changes labour market needs. In 1940, 60% of the jobs we now have did not exist. That is why we have undergone a revolution in our skills system, including the launch of the lifelong learning entitlement next year.

It is all very well the Government saying that they will take their time over this response, but the point is that the Federation of Small Businesses is saying that a regulatory framework is urgent, and Dr Rogoyski of the University of Surrey is pointing out that delay could mean the UK probably having no choice but to follow the approach of the US and Europe on AI regulation. Can the Secretary of State set out exactly what the timeframe will be for regulation?

The hon. Member is getting confused between regulation and legislation. We already have a plethora of regulation and world-leading regulators that we are supporting. We were clear in our White Paper response that we will legislate—as will every nation around the world—but we want to get that legislation right. She commented on the US’s approach. We are working hand in glove with the US, and I signed the world’s first memorandum of understanding on AI institutes just a few weeks ago.

What assessments have the Government made of the United Nation’s plans to internationally regulate artificial intelligence? What are the implications for UK sovereign security?

The UK Government are committed to unlocking the opportunities of AI, while mitigating the risks. That requires both domestic and international action. The UK is a leading voice internationally, having hosted the AI Safety Summit, which delivered the world-first Bletchley declaration, as well as actively participating at the UN. That includes our proactive role shaping UNESCO recommendations on AI ethics.

The Secretary of State knows that leading AI developers are expected imminently to release new, more sophisticated AI models. Can she confirm that our AI Safety Institute has had access to those models, as was agreed at Bletchley Park? Is it the case that the developers have made changes to their models where they have been requested by the institute?

I know that my right hon. Friend shares my passion and enthusiasm for this topic, as well as a desire to make sure we grip the risk. Our institute is the first in the world to be doing pre and post-deployment testing, in line with the agreement we made at Bletchley Park. I cannot get into the specifics of which models we are testing, as I am sure he will understand, as that is highly commercially sensitive information, but I can assure him and the House that where risks are found, we expect relevant action to be taken. The responsibility of developers is to ensure that their models are safe, but the Government are committed to holding them to account.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that spreading best practice in this field is perhaps the most important thing? For example, the health benefits of AI have already been mentioned, such as in the diagnosis of bowel cancer, and that is about promoting the health of the public at large. Those things need to be pushed forward with urgency. It is not enough just to try to slow things down and over-regulate.

I absolutely agree. AI has the potential to be revolutionary, especially in areas such as healthcare. That is why at the summit we announced a £100 million pot to accelerate some of our existing healthcare missions. We are working hand in hand with the Department of Health and Social Care on this important topic.

AI is an incredible new technology, and it can help the NHS to save lives, but there are also risks, such as the danger of deepfakes. The Government have been warned about those risks, yet time and again Ministers have dithered and delayed, and the Government’s failure to act was highlighted in the Financial Times this week. Have the Government run out of ideas, or are they just scared of their own Back Benchers?

As the hon. Member will know, we have the defending democracy taskforce, which is dedicated to this very subject and is led by the Security Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat). We as a team are actively participating in that, and we also work with social media companies and our international counterparts. It is something that I personally put on the agenda at the summit and that I have personally discussed in forums such as the G7. The Deputy Prime Minister is also leading the way with his AI compact. There is no easy answer to this, but we are working in a conciliatory and speedy manner to ensure that we address all opportunities and answers.

Personal Data

The Data Protection and Digital Information Bill before Parliament builds on the high standards that we already have for personal data protection. It strengthens and modernises the regulator so that it can enforce standards must more robustly, to protect people. We are looking at what we can do to strengthen our cyber-resilience and data infrastructure all the time as new technology develops.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. It is clearly vital that the enormous amounts of personal data collected by Departments and private companies are safeguarded. I have received a number of complaints about people’s personal data being abused by companies, and indeed about public sector data being sold to companies who then use it. Just this weekend, our Greater London Authority candidate had his phone hacked and his social media destroyed. That is equally important as a demonstration of what can happen to democracy when data is abused. Will my hon. Friend take further action to safeguard people’s personal data?

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting that case. I regret what has happened to the GLA candidate, which highlights some of the risks in relation to technology. That is why we have high data protection standards, but there is a range of ways in which we need to tackle this problem. We have the national cyber strategy, which is working to ensure that we can deal with the cyber-threats we face. We are taking measures to protect our data infrastructure and trying to do things to stop fraud in the national “Stop! Think Fraud” strategy, as well as new laws on security of devices, such as connected devices. We need to do a whole range of things, but we need to keep making sure that we are vigilant about the risks.

When my 91-year-old mother died, I took on her landline for purely sentimental reasons. For months and months after that, I kept getting scam calls offering all sorts of dodgy products. Does the Minister agree that the elderly almost more than anyone else must have their personal data protected?

I am sorry to hear of that experience, which I am afraid is shared by constituents across the country. That is why we have taken new measures in the data Bill to try to deal with scam calls by trying to ensure that we can see where those numbers are and take action by blocking them on bulk. I appreciate what the hon. Member said; it is something that we must tackle.

We are told that this is the general election year. In other countries, we already see those who want to manipulate democracy using AI to scrape together personal details, including someone’s face and voice, allowing them to falsify candidates’ views. What the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) raised about the GLA candidate is pertinent. As we quickly approach the second half of the year—when we are told the Prime Minister will finally call the election—will the Government commit to ensuring that personal details are protected for candidates, voters and, above all, democracy as a matter of urgency?

We absolutely share those concerns. That is why we have a defending democracy taskforce working across every Department to look at the threats to our democracy. We face a substantial threat, and it is one that we must all be mindful of in how we conduct ourselves as candidates. AI, fakes and the protection of data is one element of that, but I assure the House that we are taking a whole range of measures to ensure that the protection of the coming general election is robust.

Individuals’ personal data is not safe in Tory hands. A recent article in The Guardian reported that senior Tory party officials planned to make millions from selling off their own members’ data through the “True Blue” app. If the Tory party is happy to sell off its own members’ personal data, how can the public possibly have confidence that their data is safe under the Government?

The allegations that the hon. Lady has put forward were written in The Guardian, and I have not seen them myself. I am presiding over the data Bill, and I have seen no evidence to suggest that we are trying to bring forward laws that would do such a thing.

Online Safety Act: Implementation

Ofcom is the independent regulator of the Online Safety Act. The Government are working with it to implement the Act as quickly as possible, including the relevant secondary legislation. Ofcom is taking a phased approach to bringing the duties into effect and is consulting on guidance and codes of practice. Offences around serious online abuse came into effect on 31 January this year.

The Online Safety Act introduced many measures to keep children safe, but given the increased concerns about children’s online safety, does the Secretary of State agree that it is time to go even further and introduce a child-safe phone? That would ensure that, at a minimum, all phones intended for children are properly fitted with parental controls to stop children accessing harmful content.

The Government produced world-leading legislation on online safety, which puts the onus on social media companies, not parents. I know that my right hon. Friend has spoken about information, which is particularly important to make it as easy as possible for parents. She raises an important about device-level controls, and I assure her that I am listening not just to Members of this House but to parents.

Yesterday, the Government finally backed Labour’s calls and announced that they would make the creation of deepfake porn a criminal offence. However, it is disappointing that the Government continue to adopt an intent-based approach over one of consent in relation to these crimes. Why are Ministers prioritising a man’s right to have banter over a woman’s right to feel safe? Will the Government look at the regulation of AI apps such as Nudify and ClothOff, which are freely available, easy to use and exist only to humiliate and violate women?

I share the hon. Member’s passion in this area, which is why we put it in the Online Safety Act with regard to the sharing of that content. We have now gone one step further, and are in the process of making it illegal to create that content in the first place.

AI: Impact on Democracy

The Government are clear that artificial intelligence is the defining technology of our time, with the potential to transform humanity positively. We also recognise the challenges that AI can pose. As has been said, we are working to ensure that we respond to the full range of threats to our democratic processes, including through the defending democracy taskforce. DSIT is engaging with social media platforms, civil society groups, academia and international partners to tackle the risks that AI can pose to democracy.

In the longer term, I agree that AI has enormous potential to support participation in politics, and we should seek to harness that. But in the short term, disinformation and deepfakes, often put together by foreign actors, threaten to have the most immediate impact on democracy. What risk does the Minister believe AI poses to this year’s election in particular, and what steps is he taking to alleviate those risks?

Let me be very clear: the UK will not tolerate malicious cyber-activity that targets our democratic institutions. The Deputy Prime Minister has already come to this Dispatch Box and taken definitive action where that has happened. The defending democracy taskforce and Government teams are working collaboratively to ensure that we respond to threats to our democratic processes, including digitally manipulated content. The Online Safety Act will force companies to take proactive, preventive action against illegal, state-sponsored content online via the foreign interference offence, including deepfakes and other AI-generated content within the scope of the Act.

In two short sentences, will the Minister reassure us that AI will not destroy not just democracy, but the human race?

Two sentences, Mr Speaker. I can confirm that the Government are taking a proactive approach to AI. The defending democracy taskforce is working very hard to protect our democratic processes.

Topical Questions

I want the British people to be able to seize the extraordinary opportunities that AI offers, but that can happen only if we address the risks. At Bletchley Park we kick-started a global conversation and, since then, the Bletchley effect has seen countries from around the world collaborating on the development of safe, responsible and trustworthy AI. Two weeks ago I signed an agreement with the United States to allow us to collaborate seamlessly on AI safety testing. Last week we announced the date of the second AI Safety Summit in Seoul. We also remain laser-focused on implementing the landmark Online Safety Act, which will make Britain the safest place to be online. Last month we saw the first sentencing under the cyber-flashing offences that we brought in in January.

A fast and reliable internet connection is vital for everyday life and so many local businesses. I conducted a broadband survey in East Devon, which showed that some rural parts of my constituency sadly still lag behind, such as Sidbury, Fluxton, Marsh Green and Talaton. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that broadband providers improve connections across our county?

I am glad to say that over 75% of premises in my hon. Friend’s constituency can access gigabit-capable broadband. That is up from 6% in 2019, but we want to do more, so we have included mid and east Devon in our cross-regional framework for Project Gigabit. That is currently undertaking pre-procurement market engagement. We hope to give him news very soon.

The first act of the Prime Minister was to promise a Government of professionalism and integrity, yet here we have a Secretary of State who uses her position to accuse a British scientist of being a terrorist sympathiser. She goes on to use public money to settle her libel case and then she tries to cover up just how much taxpayers’ money she has wasted. Are those the actions of someone with integrity and professionalism—yes or no?

As the Minister responsible for UK Research and Innovation, I was alerted to a tweet by officials in my Department, which stated, “This is disturbing”

and to the comment:

“Suella Braverman urges police to crack down on Hamas support in UK”,

with no further context or wording. That was posted by a representative of an equality, diversity and inclusion board that sits under UKRI. At the time, like many others, I was indeed concerned and used the forum that the person used to alert UKRI to my concerns. This was highlighted using that medium, but on receipt of the letter, UKRI itself said that it was deeply concerned and launched an investigation.

T2. WhatsApp can be very handy, but it can also be very dangerous. Its end-to-end encryption means that even the most vile illegal content, such as child sexual abuse, cannot be policed or prevented. Given the obvious dangers to children, does the Secretary of State agree that it is woefully irresponsible of Meta to reduce the age for using WhatsApp to 13? (902299)

We are pro-innovation, but also pro-privacy. However, it is clearly not right for anyone to be exposed on any service to harms such as sexual abuse, extortion or grooming. Platforms must have robust processes in place to safeguard children, in line with the Online Safety Act 2023. Responsible encryption has an important role to play in protecting privacy, but it should not compromise safety, and Ofcom will take robust action when that is compromised.

T5. At the Lords Science and Technology Committee, the Secretary of State said there had been no surveillance of academics in that case. What was the evidence, then, on which she based her decision to write to the UKRI chief executive? (902302)

I have answered that multiple times. An official alerted me to those concerns. I then saw the tweet myself and asked the Department for further advice.

T3. The Kettering-based company In2tec is the only company in the world that can manufacture and completely recycle circuit board technology. The potential for it and for the UK is huge. Will the Minister for Science, Research and Innovation be kind enough please to visit In2tec in Kettering to see this groundbreaking innovation for himself? (902300)

In2tec is indeed a great example of innovation in sustainable electronics. I am pleased that it has benefited from £250,000 in UK support. It would be my pleasure to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency in Kettering, and I believe we have a date soon.

T7. Following the confidence and supply agreement with the previous Government, Northern Ireland should have virtually 100% access to fibre broadband, which is a first in any of these islands. Does the Minister agree that Northern Ireland and other regions in the UK should take full advantage of that broadband access to maximise employment opportunities across these islands? (902304)

Absolutely. The hon. Gentleman is right about the importance of gigabit broadband to the economy. I am very glad to say that 95% of Northern Ireland has that access—the highest percentage in the country. That is a tribute to the work done between central Government and the Northern Ireland Assembly.

T4. Why should people living in rural areas be second-class citizens when it comes to mobile phone coverage? (902301)

We agree; that is why we have the shared rural network programme, which is dealing with a lot of those notspot problems.

Black students studying science, technology, engineering and maths subjects are leaving education in great numbers. What is the Minister doing to identify the challenges and help the progression of black students in STEM subjects?

The Government are absolutely committed to expanding STEM opportunities. A key way of doing that is building mathematical capabilities and helping girls and minorities to stick with maths, which is why the Prime Minister has announced our ambition to see all young people receive maths education until they are 18.

T8. There is a high incidence of respiratory disease in Amber Valley. What more can the Government do to increase investment in research on respiratory conditions in the areas that need that research most? (902305)

The Medical Research Council is benefiting from the highest ever level of research spending, but I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend to talk about what more we can do in this important area.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


We are joined today in the Gallery by postmasters caught up in the Horizon IT scandal. It is one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in our history, which is why we have introduced a Bill to quash convictions, delivered schemes to ensure swift compensation, and established an independent inquiry.

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

Does my right hon. Friend agree that towns such as Barnstaple—the main transport hub in North Devon, serving hundreds of square miles—should have a fully functioning bus station? Liberal Democrat-run North Devon Council has not reopened ours since the pandemic, leaving residents out in the cold with no public facilities. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, as people start to feel the difference as a result of tax cuts and falling inflation, we should be making it easier for people to use the bus, come to town and support Barnstaple’s local economy? Will he join me in calling on the Lib Dems to get on with reopening the bus station?

We know how vital bus services are for communities right across the country. That is why we are providing Devon with £17 million to deliver better bus services, and we introduced the £2 fare bus cap. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport recently visited my hon. Friend and saw the benefits of reopening Barnstaple bus station, and it is clear that the local Liberal Democrats should just get on and do it.

I, too, welcome the postmasters in the Gallery, in their quest for justice.

This week we marked 35 years since the disaster at Hillsborough, and the enduring courage and determination of the families must be marked by the passing of a Hillsborough law.

We also lost Lord Richard Rosser, a lifelong member of the Labour party. He will be greatly missed, and our thoughts are with his wife Sheena and his family and friends.

I am privileged to be the proud owner of a copy of the former Prime Minister’s new book. It is a rare unsigned copy; it is the only unsigned copy. It is quite the read. She claims that the Tory party’s disastrous kamikaze Budget, which triggered chaos for millions, was the “happiest moment” of her premiership. Has the Prime Minister met anyone with a mortgage who agrees?

All I would say is that the right hon. and learned Gentleman ought to spend a bit less time reading that book, and a bit more time reading the Deputy Leader’s tax advice. [Interruption.]

We have a billionaire Prime Minister, and a billionaire—[Interruption.] Both of whose families have used schemes to avoid millions of pounds of tax, smearing a working-class woman. [Interruption.] The former Prime Minister has a long list of people to blame for the economic misery. Conservative Members do not want to hear it, but they made her Prime Minister, and millions of people are paying the price. She blames the Governor of the Bank of England, the Treasury, the Office for Budget Responsibility. The American President is blamed at one point. We even learn that the poor old lettuce was part of the “deep state”. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is actually much simpler than that? It was the Tories’ unfunded tax cuts—tens of billions of pounds of unfunded tax cuts—that crashed the economy and left millions paying more for their mortgages, wasn’t it?

Everyone knows that two years ago I was not afraid to repeatedly warn about what my predecessor’s economic policies would lead to, even if it was not what people wanted to hear at the time. I was right then, but I am also right now when I say that the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s economic policies would be a disaster for Britain. He would send inflation up, mortgages up and taxes up, and working people would pay the price.

I appreciate the Prime Minister having the stomach to say that out loud, but everyone knows that it is the Tory party’s obsession with wild, unfunded tax cuts that crashed the economy. We know it, he knows it and his party knows it, and the whole country is living it. When is he finally going to learn the lesson from his predecessor’s mistakes and explain where the money is coming from for his own completely unfunded £46 billion promise to scrap national insurance?

When my predecessor was running for leader, I did have—to use the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s words—the stomach to argue out loud about her economic policies. I had the conviction to say that they were wrong—not once, but twice. He tried to make his predecessor Prime Minister, despite him opposing NATO and Trident, ignoring antisemitism and siding with our enemies. It is clear what the right hon. and learned Gentleman did: he put his own interests ahead of Britain’s.

Actually, when the Prime Minister was running for leader, he explained how he was funnelling money from poor areas to pay it into richer areas. We know what his record is.

I notice the Prime Minister is not denying the £46 billion promise to scrap national insurance, but he is refusing to say where the money will come from. We have been trying for months to get to the bottom of this, so now is his chance. No more spin, no more waffle, no more diversion—I know that will be difficult. This is the choice: either he can cut the state pension or the NHS, which national insurance funds—that is route one—or he can put up income tax. Which one is it?

We have just cut taxes by £900 for a typical worker. We have delivered the biggest tax cut for businesses since the 1980s. But while we are cutting taxes, Labour is already putting them up. In Wales, it is putting up taxes right now for small businesses. In Birmingham, it is putting up council tax by 21%. In London, the Labour Mayor has put up taxes by 70%. This is just a glimpse of what they would do if they got into power. A few weeks ago, the right hon. and learned Gentleman finally admitted it to The Sun. What did he say he would do? He said, “We would put up taxes.” It is always the same: higher taxes, and working people paying the price.

No single politician has ever put tax up more times than the Prime Minister has. But hang on, he was just given the chance to rule out cutting the NHS or state pensions to pay for scrapping national insurance. I was a lawyer long enough to know when someone is avoiding the question, so I am going to give him another chance. Will he now rule out cuts to the NHS, cuts to the state pension or putting up taxes to pay for his unfunded £46 billion promise to scrap national insurance? Which is it?

I make absolutely no apology about wanting to end the unfairness of the double taxation on work. The NHS is receiving record funding under this Conservative Government. Pensioners have just received a £900 increase under this Government. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman wants to talk about tax, let us have a look at what Labour’s brand newly appointed tax adviser has to say. This adviser thinks that supporting pensioners is “a complete disgrace”. He believes their free TV licences are “ridiculous”. If it was not bad enough, this adviser has called for increases in income tax, national insurance and VAT. It all makes sense now—that is who the shadow Chancellor has been copying and pasting from.

This is genuinely extraordinary: two chances to rule out cuts to state pensions, cuts to the NHS, or income tax rises to fund his promise to abolish national insurance—[Interruption.]

This really matters. The Prime Minister has had two chances to rule out cuts to the NHS, cuts to pensions or tax rises. This matters to millions of people watching who will want to know what is going to happen to their NHS and pensions—[Interruption.] It really does matter to millions of people who are watching, so I will be really generous now and give him one last chance. It is very simple and very clear. Is his £46 billion promise to abolish national insurance being paid for by cuts to the NHS, cuts to the state pension or yet another Tory tax rise?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman has really got to keep up. It is this Government who have just delivered a £900 increase to the state pension. It is this Government who have already committed to the triple lock for the next Parliament. He has had six opportunities, but I do not think I heard him say that. When it comes to the NHS, you would much rather be treated in the Conservative-run NHS in England than in the Labour-run NHS in Wales. It is another week where all we have heard is political sniping. Not a word about their plans for the country. He has failed to acknowledge that since we last met, taxes have been cut by £900, the state pension has gone up, free childcare has been expanded, wages have risen for nine months in a row and just today, inflation is down again, to 3.2%. Our plan is working and the Conservatives are delivering a brighter future for Britain.

Q4. Mr Speaker, you will not be surprised to learn that I very much welcome the £20 million allocated to Carlton in my constituency as part of the long-term plan for towns. I am eager to see that this money is spent according to local wishes. I know that there will be consultations following the setting up of the town board, so will my right hon. Friend join me in urging Carlton residents to take part in those forthcoming consultations to make sure that their voices are heard and to ensure that this money is spent on what the people want? (902246)

I thank my hon. Friend for his tireless campaigning on behalf of the residents of Carlton. Our long-term plan for towns means that 75 towns across the country including Carlton will benefit from £20 million each to invest in their local area. Crucially, as he has said, it will be in the hands of local people to decide on their priorities for the place where they live. Whether it is regenerating local high streets, investing in parks and green spaces or tackling antisocial behaviour, we are levelling up across the country and he deserves enormous praise for his role in securing that investment.

This week, a former Prime Minister who oversaw a financial crash before being unceremoniously turfed from office told the public the truth—and I am not referring to that one, Mr Speaker. On Monday, Gordon Brown told the people of these isles that

“the forces pulling Britain apart are greater than the forces holding it together”.

Maybe the Prime Minister can find some time this afternoon to agree with just one of his predecessors?

Where I do agree with my predecessor very strongly is that Scotland would be far stronger inside the United Kingdom.

Gordon Brown was also correct in stating that Scottish independence is not simply off the agenda. Those remarks were echoed just yesterday by the general secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress, who stated that it remained an unresolved issue—[Laughter.] Conservative Members may laugh at her, but she went on to say:

“That can be a very dangerous place to end up in when you are not allowing people to express their wishes in a democratic manner.”

Does the Prime Minister welcome the fulsome, wholehearted and warm support of the Labour party in denying the people of Scotland the opportunity to have a say over their own future?

We did have a democratic vote on that topic, but I would suggest to the SNP that, rather than obsessing about independence, and wasting time cracking down on free speech and trying to lock up J. K. Rowling, he should focus on what the people of Scotland care about: schools, hospitals, jobs and our new tax cuts.

Q5. I abhor a two-tier policing system, and we must ensure that everyone is treated equally under the rule of law. The Labour police and crime commissioner who investigated the beergate scandal handed their police chief constable a new three-year contract while the investigation into the Labour party leader and deputy leader was ongoing. Now, two former MPs are overseeing the force due to investigate the Labour deputy leader. Does the Prime Minister agree that complete transparency throughout this investigation is of the utmost importance? (902247)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. A key principle of our country is that there are the same rules for everyone. On this topic, the Labour leader should show some leadership: stop reading the legal advice; simply publish it and get a grip of the situation. It says a lot about his priorities that, with his famed legal expertise, he is more than happy to help defend Hizb ut-Tahrir but refuses to help his deputy.

The recently published Kenova report makes it clear that the IRA was riddled with British agents from top to bottom. Those agents were involved in the abduction, torture and murder of British and Irish citizens. The British Government—successive British Governments—knew all about it and did nothing. The report also calls for an apology from the Government to those victims. Will the Prime Minister take this opportunity to make that apology?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the report is an interim one. As the Secretary of State has laid out, we cannot comment on the findings until we get the final report, but we would never condone wrongdoing where there is evidence of that. I will also say, because it is not said enough, that the overwhelming majority of the police, armed forces and intelligence services served with great distinction. They defended democracy in the face of some horrendous violence, and without their service and their sacrifice, there would have been no peace process. They helped ensure that the future of Northern Ireland will never be decided by violence but by the consent of its people.

Q6. Does my right hon. Friend agree—we do not agree on everything—that anyone who want to see why the Government introduced strong Mayors need look only at Ben Houchen in the Tees Valley? From saving our airport to introducing our freeport to bringing steelmaking back, Ben delivers. Does my right hon. Friend also agree that the best thing is that Ben has done this without charging any mayoral tax, which his Labour opponent would need to do to fund his unfunded spending plans? (902248)

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the great work of Ben Houchen. I share his concerns about the pledges of the Labour candidate—over £130 million of unfunded spending, showing that Labour cannot be trusted. We see the results in Labour-run Birmingham, with taxes going up by 20%. The story of Labour in local government is one of working people paying the price. That is exactly why my right hon. Friend and I completely agree that the people of Teesside should vote Ben Houchen and vote Conservative.

Q2. Last year, in Shropshire, 10,000 people waited for more than 24 hours in A&E. That is 10,000 people over 65 waiting on hard plastic chairs or on trolleys in our accident and emergency department. The Prime Minister tells us that he has got a plan for the NHS, but people in North Shropshire want to know how long they will have to wait for him to get on and fix the issues where we are. (902244)

With the record funding that we are putting into the NHS, our urgent and emergency care plan is delivering more ambulances and more beds, with faster discharge through our hospitals to speed the flow, and that plan is working. Of course there is more to do, but this winter we saw ambulance and A&E waiting times improve from the year before for the first time in many years, and if we stick to the plan, we will continue to deliver improvement for the hon. Lady’s constituents and everyone else.

Q7. In 2010, somebody earning £15,000 a year paid £1,700 in income tax. Today, somebody earning £15,000 a year pays less than £500 of tax. Does the Prime Minister agree that this has helped to create jobs, growth and self-reliance? (902249)

My hon. Friend is quite right. Because of our plan, the economy has, after a tough few years, turned the corner. Inflation has fallen from over 11% to 3.2%, and it is forecast to return back to target in just a few months—a year ahead of expectations. That is why we have been able to cut people’s taxes. As he mentions, the tax cut is worth £900 for an average worker. That is part of our plan to end the long-term unfairness of the double taxation on work.

Q3. Four years ago, my constituent Juliana was drugged and raped by her then boyfriend. After his conviction, Juliana was advised that reading a transcript of his trial would help her to come to terms with her experience. But when she requested that transcript, she was told that she would have to pay more than £7,000. Astonishingly, Juliana is not alone. I have heard about victims who have been quoted fees of up to £22,000 just to read trial transcripts that are part of their own story. Justice should not have a price tag. The Liberal Democrat amendment to the Victims and Prisoners Bill would give all victims the right to read sentencing remarks and summings-up free of charge. Julian is here in the Gallery today, and she asks whether the Prime Minister will support that amendment. Will he look her in the eye and say yes? (902245)

I am extremely sorry to hear about Juliana’s case, and my sympathy is with her and her family. We are committed to improving victims’ access to court transcripts to help them move on and rebuild their lives. We already offer a free service to families of homicide victims, for example. That is why we have already committed to a one-year pilot to help identify the current demand and to inform our next steps. Alongside this, we are actively looking at other options to immediately reduce the costs.

Q8.   Bracknell Forest Council has a particular challenge with special educational needs, and I am keen to support it. I am grateful to the Government for the recent SEND review, the significant increase in resources and the bespoke safety valve programme for Bracknell, but additional school places are needed now. Will the Prime Minister please agree today to release the funding for our new SEND units at Sandhurst and Edgbarrow schools, and commit to fully funding up front our new SEND school in Crowthorne? (902250)

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting how Bracknell Forest Council has worked positively with the Department for Education through the safety valve programme. As part of that agreement, the council will receive £16 million in extra funding over the next few years to provide the vital education that his constituents deserve. I am told that the Department is still reviewing capital bids for the safety valve programme, but it will be in touch with local authorities directly as soon as possible.

Q14. In earlier exchanges, we did not hear much of a defence from the Prime Minister of his predecessor. Could he tell the House what he considers to be her greatest achievement? (902256)

While the Labour party was busy trying to take us back into the EU and reverse the referendum result, my predecessor was signing trade deals around the world that have seen Brexit Britain overtake the Netherlands, France and Japan to become the fourth largest exporter in the world.

Q9. My constituent Claire Massey and one of her two children almost lost their lives in a fire at her home in February 2023. Since then, Claire has been a victim of bullying by aggressive claims handlers, and of negligent and unprofessional conduct, including violating a policy and withdrawing alternative accommodation, by the insurer Policy Expert—part of the Accredited Insurance (Europe)— and Trinity Claims. Claire has raised institutional failings with the Financial Conduct Authority, which appears toothless. She has also successfully raised individual issues with the financial ombudsman, but the delaying tactics of the insurers mean that she is no closer to a resolution. Claire is here in the Gallery today and asks whether the Prime Minister will meet her and me to look at how we can better protect consumers against bad practices in the insurance industry. Does he agree that it is time to establish on “Office of the Whistleblower”? (902251)

My hon. Friend is an excellent campaigner on behalf of her constituent, and I extend my sympathy to Claire and her family. While I cannot comment on individual cases, as I am sure she will understand, I know that the Financial Conduct Authority has the powers it needs to take action against firms that breach its rules. Further, customers can contact the Financial Ombudsman Service, whose decisions are binding on insurers. I will immediately ensure that the relevant Minister meets my hon. Friend to look more closely at this specific issue and the case that she raises.

Q15. Ukrainian Member of Parliament, Mykola Stefanchuk, is in the Public Gallery this afternoon. I am sure we all wish to welcome him and wish Ukraine “Slava Ukraini”. Mykola has told me that Ukraine has the people and the courage, but does not currently have the weapons and the air defence to secure her freedom. In light of the Russian attacks on Chernihiv this morning, which have killed at least 10 people and injured many more, will the Prime Minister respond to President Zelensky’s statement that this “wouldn’t have happened” if Ukraine had received sufficient air defence equipment? (902257)

It was a pleasure to address Members of the Ukrainian Parliament when I visited Ukraine earlier this year. Indeed, it was my first foreign visit of the year; I was the first foreign leader to visit Ukraine and President Zelensky to demonstrate our strong support for the Ukrainian people at their moment of struggle against Russian aggression. We have increased the amount of support we have given to Ukraine this year— the first major country to do so—and a big part of that support concerns air defence. Where we have led in supporting Ukraine’s efforts, we will continue to do so and continue to encourage other countries around the world to step up and match our leadership, because we all want to see a future for Ukraine based on freedom from tyranny.

Q10.   On a recent visit to Pimlico, in my constituency, the Prime Minister heard directly from local people concerned about the eye-watering rise in violent crime and robbery. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the London Labour Mayor has failed to take advantage of extra Government funding to recruit more police, and that on 2 May Londoners can send him a very clear message that he has let them down? (902252)

Sadiq Khan is failing London. While burglary is down across England, it is up in London. Violent crime is down across England, but up in London. The Labour Mayor is the only one of 43 police and crime commissioners to have missed his police recruitment target. Londoners will have the chance to speak when they cast their votes on 2 May. I hope that they kick him out because we all know they will be safer with Susan Hall.

My local community is reeling from the discovery of 35 bodies and unidentifiable cremated ashes at a local funeral home. The pain was made worse when people realised that the funeral plans they had used their life savings for were fake. Does the Prime Minister agree that in these unique and limited circumstances banks should offer discretion when deciding if chargeback applies to payment refunds?

I express my sympathies to the families affected by the case that the hon. Lady raises. I believe the Ministry of Justice is urgently looking at the matter. I will ensure someone gets in touch with her as soon as possible.

Q11. Robotic surgery allows laparoscopic surgery to be performed with increased precision, flexibility and control. This can result in reduced patient complication rates, reduced lengths of stay in hospital and reduced hospital readmission. However, there is currently no robotic surgery provision in Cornwall. As a result, residents of Cornwall must travel to Devon for robotic procedures, a journey of more than 80 miles for those from west Cornwall and 120 miles for those from the Isles of Scilly. Will the Prime Minister commit to ringfence capital funding for Cornwall to establish a robotic surgery service, and address the health inequalities our constituents have lived with for far too long? (902253)

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the potential of this innovative technology for patient care. I am delighted that more generally Cornwall is benefiting from our new hospital programme, providing a new women and children’s hospital at the Royal Cornwall Hospital, in the centre of Cornwall, which he and I discussed when I was last with him. NHS England is actively exploring opportunities to expand robotic-assisted surgery. Any decisions on funding new allocations will factor in health inequalities, such as areas with less access to robots to date. I will ensure that the current access to robotic surgery in my hon. Friend’s local community is appropriately considered by the relevant health Minister.

The Prime Minister told us on Monday that he was off to make a telephone call to Mr Netanyahu, to urge restraint on a Government that have killed and maimed well over 100,000 people in six months, 72% of them women and children. Will he tell us how the telephone call went? What will he do if his advice is not taken and an unrestrained war begins?

I was pleased to speak with Prime Minister Netanyahu, who thanked the UK for its support of Israel’s security over the weekend. We discussed the situation and how Iran is isolated on the world stage. I also made the point to him that significant escalation is not in anyone’s interest and that it is a time for calm heads to prevail. I also reiterated our concerns about the humanitarian situation in Gaza. I welcome the statements and commitments that the Israeli Government have made about significantly increasing aid into Gaza, and now we need to see those commitments delivered.

Q12. Residents in Smalley and Denby now face two huge solar farm applications. There is only a 500-metre gap between them and both sites are wholly in the green belt. Does the Prime Minister agree that we should change planning guidance to make it absolutely clear that productive farms in the green belt are not the right place for solar farms, and that the investment and the time being spent should go on sites that might be appropriate, such as car parks, brownfield land or roofs of industrial buildings, rather than wasting people’s time and causing fear? (902254)

My hon. Friend is right that, particularly at a time of increased geopolitical risk, we must protect our nation’s food security and therefore our most valuable agricultural land. We do want to see more solar, which is one of the cheapest forms of energy, but, as he said, on brownfield sites, rooftops and away from our best agricultural land. That is why our recently published national infrastructure planning rules set out the requirement for solar not to be placed on what is described as the best and most valuable versatile land where possible. The Secretaries of State for Energy Security and Net Zero and for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are ensuring that developers and planning authorities strike the right balance so that we can deliver what my hon. Friend wants, which is more British food grown here at home.

I went out recently with Chris McEwan, the mayoral candidate in Teesside. It was clear that residents are really worried about crime. Levels in Tory-run Teesside are among the highest in the country. The residential burglary rate is 52% higher than anywhere else in the country. When will the Prime Minister realise that he has lost control not only of his party, but of crime in this country?

Mr Speaker, what a joke! We have police and crime commissioner elections across the country, and the hon. Lady really should look at the record. Under this Government, crime has been cut by 50%, and we have 20,000 more police officers. Let me give her the facts, because this is why it is so extraordinary to hear what she said. People with a Labour police and crime commissioner are more likely to be victims of burglary and twice as likely to be victims of robbery. The facts completely speak for themselves, so people should vote Conservatives for safer streets.

Q13. Every month in my constituency, the Labour-run Warrington Borough Council spends nearly £4.5 million on interest payments to cover its £1.8 billion debt. It has used borrowing to spend on an energy company that went bust, offices in Birmingham and Manchester, and even a business park that it purchased through an offshore company, presumably to avoid paying tax. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is time to send in the inspectors? Warrington Borough Council has gone too far in its money-making schemes. Local councils should be focusing on delivering great services, and the way to achieve that is by voting Conservative on 2 May. (902255)

This year, the Government announced a further £600 million in extra funding for local councils—a real-terms increase, as has been the case in every single year of this Parliament. But we all know what happens when Labour is in charge—whether it is racking up debt in Warrington, as my hon. Friend said, increasing council tax by 21% in Labour-run Birmingham, slashing services in Nottingham, or, as I have just said, higher crime on average in each Labour police and crime commissioner area. It is crystal clear that, whenever Labour is in charge, it is working people who pay the price.

While 64,000 people are on the waiting list for a council house in the west midlands, families are living in hotels, cold and damp homes and mouldy flats. The Mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street, has built 46 social homes in eight years. Does the Prime Minister think that that is good enough?

Andy Street is absolutely delivering for the west midlands. Unlike the Labour Mayor in London, he has delivered on all his housing targets. It is the Labour-run council in Birmingham that is imposing on the hon. Lady’s constituents and others a 21% council tax rise, and what are they getting in exchange? Six hundred job losses and cuts to services. On some streets, they are even turning off the lights. What Labour has done to Birmingham the Conservatives will never let it do to Britain.

I ask the Prime Minister to thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport for holding further meetings with Hitachi this morning—and, indeed, with the union representatives. We were all glad to see what happened with Alstom yesterday, but it is important that we do the same to support the factories up at Hitachi in Aycliffe.

I thank my hon. Friend for his role in championing the rail industry in the UK. As he rightly said, the Department for Transport and the Secretary of State have been actively engaged with companies to ensure that we have a robust supply chain. As my hon. Friend knows, we are investing record amounts in rail, particularly in the north, and we are pleased to see that that is being delivered.

The Prime Minister is no doubt aware of the collapse of SSB Law, and many constituents, including hundreds in my constituency, have been affected and have bills of up to hundreds of thousands. One constituent had to sell his wedding gifts, and his father had a heart attack with the stress. People are having to raid their pension pots; they are getting bills, and bailiffs are knocking on the door. Will the Prime Minister meet me and my constituents’ representatives on the collapse of SSB Law, and make sure that the Government respond to this injustice that has happened to people across the country?

I am sorry to hear about the situation impacting the hon. Lady’s constituents. I will be more than happy to make sure that the right Minister looks into it and that we get back to her as soon as possible.