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Volume 748: debated on Wednesday 24 April 2024

Mr Speaker, I have been asked to reply. I know that Members across the House will wish to join me in offering condolences to the family and friends of Lord Frank Field. He was an outstanding parliamentarian who worked tirelessly to make society a better place.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is in Berlin. He has announced the biggest strengthening of our defence in a generation.

I am sure that Members will want to join me in wishing the Jewish community a happy Passover, a celebration of freedom. Of course, we remember the empty chairs of those hostages still being held captive in Gaza and call for their immediate release.

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.

I, too, wish to pass on my thoughts and prayers to Lord Field’s family, friends and colleagues and particularly to students and teachers at the Birches Head Academy in Stoke-on-Trent who are part of the Frank Field Education Trust.

Since being elected in 2019, I have: helped to reopen Tunstall Town Hall with a new library and family hub; secured funding for additional CCTV, new alley gates and better lighting in Tunstall to ensure that our streets are safe; and helped to breathe new life into Tunstall’s old library and baths, thanks to this Government’s levelling-up fund of £56 million to Stoke-on-Trent.

Sadly, Labour-led Stoke-on-Trent City Council seeks to undermine that progress by: introducing a brand new tax on residents to have their garden waste collected; refusing to take planning enforcement against rogue and absent landlords who plague Tunstall High Street; and increasing crime and antisocial behaviour by dumping undesirable people in the centre of Tunstall. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that Stoke-on-Trent Labour—[Interruption.]

This just goes to show the disdain that the Labour party has for Stoke-on-Trent.

Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that it is time for Stoke-on-Trent Labour to axe the garden tax, to take the fight to lousy landlords—

Order. There is a question to be asked and a time in which we ask it. I suggest that the hon. Member puts in for an Adjournment debate. I am sure that he has the answers.

Mr Speaker, there is not much that I can add to that. [Laughter.] The hon. Member has, as ever, proved what an excellent campaigner he is for his constituents. He highlights the same problems with Labour councils across the country, raising taxes and letting services fall into disrepair. Of course he is totally right to be holding rogue landlords to account.

First, may I share the Deputy Prime Minister’s comments regarding our Jewish community and wish them a happy Passover? I wish to acknowledge the loss of David Marquand and Baroness Massey, both of whom made historic contributions in Parliament, politics and wider life. I also send my condolences, following today’s news, to the family of Lord Frank Field, who was a good friend of mine and a colleague. He was a tireless campaigner against poverty and a champion for his constituents.

Mr Speaker, I know that the Conservative party is desperate to talk about my living arrangements, but the public wants to know what this Government will do about theirs. Natalie from Brighton has been served with two no-fault eviction notices in 18 months. She joins nearly a million families at risk of homelessness due to the Deputy Prime Minister’s failure to ban this cruel practice. Instead of obsessing over my house, when will he get a grip and show the same obsession with ending no-fault evictions?

To begin with, it is a pleasure to have another exchange with the right hon. Lady in this House—our fifth in 12 months. Any more of these and she will be claiming it as her principal residence.

On the issue of no-fault evictions, it may have escaped the right hon. Lady’s attention, but we will be voting on exactly that matter later today. This is the Conservative Government taking action.

The Deputy Prime Minister clearly thought that he could spend all week obsessing over my living arrangements and did not even bother to read up on his own Government’s Bill this afternoon. The reality is that he caved in to vested interest on his Back Benches and delayed justice for people like Natalie. This week, the Housing Minister said that there is no solid date for banning no-fault evictions. The Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities now says that it will not happen before an election. If the Deputy Prime Minister can give us a date, will he name it now?

I can name the date for the right hon. Lady: today. It is today that the House will vote on it, and I am confident that, in line with our manifesto, we will deliver on that commitment.

The Deputy Prime Minister clearly has not been looking up his own Government Bills. Let me turn to another Tory housing failure. Leaseholds are a rip off and a con, but the Government’s proposed ban on new leaseholds applies only to houses. The majority of leaseholds are in flats. What is the point of a ban on new leaseholds if it will not apply to flats?

Again, the right hon. Lady is talking about legislation introduced by this Government that the Labour party totally failed to introduce in its entire time in office. It is no surprise, because it is this Government who have brought social housing waiting lists down by nearly half a million, and delivered more affordable homes in the last 12 years than Labour delivered when it was in office. Of course, all this can only be paid for by ensuring that we have a strong economy. Her policy to repeal every single Conservative trade union law in the first 100 days would open the door to French-style wildcat strikes, sweeping away the reforms that made this country great. We all know, though, the one reform by Margaret Thatcher that the right hon. Lady would not abolish: the right to buy your council house.

I was expecting a little bit better from the Deputy Prime Minister. He seems to be a bit worn out. Maybe it is the 3 am calls from the “bad men” that have been keeping him up at night. He talks about strikes and the unions. We have had more strikes under this Government’s watch than at any time before. Once again, he has not read his own Bill. Their ban on leasehold will not apply to the majority of people. It is like banning non-doms but exempting Tory Prime Ministers. He speaks about affordable homes. Families are trapped in temporary accommodation and stuck on waiting lists, and in the west midlands the Conservative Mayor has used his multi-million pound housing budget to build just 46 social homes in eight years. That is almost as many as in the Chancellor’s property portfolio. The British people know that the Conservative party will not build the homes that this country needs, so when will they get a chance to vote for a Government who will?

I am surprised that the right hon. Lady raises the west midlands when Labour-controlled Birmingham has virtually bankrupted the council and is hiking up council tax by 21%, while in the meantime—I am sure that this would please her—continuing to hand out £1.8 million to the trade unions. By contrast, Andy Street, our brilliant Mayor of the wider west midlands, has delivered £6.1 billion of investment to improve transport. There you have it: the contrast between the Conservative party and the Labour party, and the usual political opportunism from her, failing to ask about the issues that really matter. If you want more bin collections, more potholes filled, lower debt and lower council tax, vote Conservative, because whether it is Ben Houchen in the Tees Valley or Andy Street in the west midlands, it is only the Conservative Mayors who deliver more for less.

It is pretty revealing that the Deputy Prime Minister thinks that housing is not an issue for the British people; I think it really is. People in glass houses should not throw stones, because in Birmingham and across the whole country, councils are facing black holes because of his Government’s austerity programme. I warn the Deputy Prime Minister that Tory councils have also faced section 114 notices, and Birmingham City Council has had over £1 billion taken from its budget—from some of the poorest people. More than 16,000 families face losing their home after the Tory party’s mini-Budget, and mortgage bills continue to soar. Meanwhile, the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), parades around the world in a twisted victory lap promoting her new book, saying that the mini-Budget was her proudest moment. Since she will not apologise to those families losing their home, will he?

What the Prime Minister has done since he has taken office, with the Chancellor, is to restore stability to our economy, with inflation halved and more, down to 3%. As a result of that, in an increasingly dangerous world, the Prime Minister was able to announce his plan for the biggest strengthening of defence spending in a generation. But it should come as no surprise that the Labour party refused to say whether it backs that, because this comes from the right hon. Lady who voted to scrap Trident and to install in Downing Street someone who wanted to change the Army into a peace corps. There you have it.

The right hon. Gentleman talks about defence. We all want to see 2.5%; the difference is that we have not cut the Army to its smallest size since Napoleon. Never mind some secretive deep state, it is the state of the Tory party that is the problem. The Tories are in a deep state of sewage. After 14 years they have failed renters, they have failed leaseholders and they have failed mortgage holders. I read with interest that the right hon. Gentleman has been urging his neighbour in No. 10 to call an election, because he is worried they might get wiped out. Has he finally realised that when he stabbed Boris Johnson in the back to get his mate into No. 10, he was ditching their biggest election winner for a pint-sized loser?

I think the whole House will have heard, despite all the bluster from the right hon. Lady, not a single word on whether she would actually back our plans to invest in our armed forces. No plans, in a dangerous world. Of course, as ever, the deputy Labour leader is always looking to attack others’ failures, but never one to take responsibility for her own. She once said, “You shouldn’t be waiting for the police to bang on your door. If you did it, then you shouldn’t be doing your job.” The right hon. landlady should forget her tax advice and follow her own advice.

Q4. Levelling up, which my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) mentioned earlier, is absolutely on fire in the Calder Valley, with £196.5 million for hospital reconfiguration, £150 million for flood defences, no fewer than 11 schools being remodelled or rebuilt as we speak, £45 million for the regeneration of three town centres and Elland getting a new railway station. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the naysayers around levelling up need look no further than the Calder Valley to see the great achievements of this Government? (902467)

My right hon. Friend is right; it is not just in the Calder Valley, but in communities up and down the country. The Government are investing billions in infrastructure across the United Kingdom, creating jobs and opportunities in every region. I know that he has been a staunch advocate for the Calder Valley, which is a fantastic example of that in action.

I join in wishing the Jewish community a happy Passover and sending my condolences to the family and loved ones of Frank Field.

Two years ago, when mass graves were discovered in Ukraine, this House united in condemnation and rightly treated those graves as evidence of war crimes, which Russia must be made to answer for. Yesterday, Palestinian officials uncovered two mass graves outside the bombed hospitals in Gaza. Those graves also constitute a war crime, do they not?

Of course, we would expect the democratic Government of Israel to investigate any allegations of misconduct. That is exactly what they are doing, and it is exactly what the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister urge them to do. However, I find it quite extraordinary that the hon. Lady seeks to draw parallels between the legitimate war of self-defence of Israel and the conduct of Russia.

Three hundred bodies, including of the elderly and the injured, some of which had been stripped naked and mutilated, with their hands tied behind their backs. The UK’s own arms policy states that if there is even a risk that war crimes may be taking place, that is reason enough to halt the sale of arms. Given all that we know, why is the Prime Minister yet to do so?

We continue to urge the Israeli Government to investigate any allegations of misconduct. The difference though is that we can trust the Israeli Government—a democratically elected Government—to properly investigate those things. Of course, we keep the advice under review. The Foreign Secretary has recently made it clear that he has conducted a determination and has not changed his advice regarding export licences, and I think that is the correct decision.

Q6. The good people of Lincoln, who all declare their taxes and pay tax on profit when selling their second homes, overwhelmingly want Lincoln Christmas market to be brought back after the Labour-run city council cruelly closed it last year. The Labour city council has refused to do what the people of Lincoln want. What message does the Deputy Prime Minister send to the voters of Lincoln before next week’s local elections? (902469)

I am afraid that what my hon. Friend has described is the Grinch in action. That Christmas market, in the home of Magna Carta, was beloved by local residents, but the council has totally ignored their wishes and cancelled it. It should reverse that decision.

On behalf of the Liberal Democrats, I offer our condolences to the friends and family of the late Lord Frank Field, and wish a happy Passover to all those in the Jewish community.

Unpaid carers have shared heartbreaking stories of how they have been hounded by the Department for Work and Pensions and told to pay huge fines for minor infringements of carer’s allowance earning rules, all because the Government have failed to do anything about a problem that they have known about for years. Yesterday, one of the Prime Minister’s own dementia advisers resigned, saying that the Government’s treatment of those unpaid carers was “beyond the pale.” Will the Deputy Prime Minister apologise to all unpaid carers who have been failed by his Government, and will he commit to a full review of the system?

I pay tribute to all unpaid carers. Indeed, I met some of them over the weekend and know how hard they work. They keep our society functioning through their commitment to us. That is why we have uprated the benefits by £81.90 a week, and have increased the carer’s allowance by almost £1,500 since 2010. In respect of allegations of overpayment, of course appropriate discretion should be shown, but if there have been erroneous overpayments, it is right, on behalf of the taxpayer, to be able to recuperate them. However, we will work with anyone who is struggling with those repayments to negotiate sustainable and affordable repayment plans.

Q7. My island constituency of Ynys Môn is accessed via two bridges: the Menai suspension bridge and the Britannia bridge. Holyhead is the second busiest port in the UK, but bridge repairs and the weather can result in long traffic queues. To make the most of our Anglesey freeport and new nuclear at Wylfa, a third crossing is vital. Last year, the Welsh Labour Government scrapped plans for all new road projects, including our third bridge. Will the Deputy Prime Minister use his influence to ensure that north Wales is not ignored by Cardiff, and that we get that third bridge? (902470)

I know and understand the frustration across Wales, particularly in my hon. Friend’s constituency, about this state of affairs. The Welsh Government have not prioritised building new roads. They are damaging growth potential in places such as Anglesey, and are spending £100 million on new politicians. We will work with her to ensure that we resolve the matter.

Q2. The Conservative candidate for London Mayor has promoted Islamophobic tropes online, endorsed the beliefs of Enoch Powell and claimed that the black community has a problem with crime. In the week when we marked the 31st anniversary of the murder of Stephen Lawrence, does the Deputy Prime Minister really endorse those views? (902465)

I think the hon. Lady knows that she does not correctly represent the views of the candidate. I find it extraordinary that she has raised the issue of crime, because while Labour’s London Mayor has increased the precept by over 70%, recorded crime in London has increased by 20%. That is the record of the Labour London Mayor—no wonder people will be voting against him.

Q13. I note that I am the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on fisheries, and thank the Government for the recent pollack catch compensation. On 12 May, we will see the first ever national fishing remembrance day. I will be marking the occasion by laying a wreath at a service held at Looe quayside by the memorial plaque that has the name of my late husband and, unfortunately, others on it. Will the Deputy Prime Minister mark the occasion by remembering those who have died bringing this important food source to our tables, and will he ask the Prime Minister to do so? (902476)

I know how important this matter is to my hon. Friend—I am sure she will be remembering her late husband Neil on that day. It is important that we all recognise the sacrifices made by fishermen and women to bring food to our tables, and I know that my colleague the Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Sir Mark Spencer), will be visiting Grimsby on that day.

Q3. In today’s Northern Echo, Boro chairman Steve Gibson describes the Mayor of Tees Valley as having given away the future of the region’s children. He was referring to the 40% of Teesworks, with a forecast worth of £500 million, gifted by Lord Houchen in a deal to two local business mates. Mr Gibson, who helped establish the local development corporation, describes that deal as “unforgiveable”. Will the Government finally admit that Lord Houchen and the Conservatives have sold Teesside taxpayers down the river? (902466)

The hon. Gentleman talks about Teesside taxpayers, but Ben Houchen has never imposed a mayoral precept in Tees Valley, full stop. At the same time, he has saved Teesside airport and secured a new freeport for Teesside—no wonder people will be voting for him again.

Has my right hon. Friend seen the video that is doing the rounds of the theft in a shop in my constituency, Boots the chemist on Station Road? In the space of eight minutes, two threatening individuals robbed thousands of pounds out of that shop, and they are not alone: it is happening again and again. In fact, one of my team went out and photographed them leaving brazenly, not caring, and even spitting at the police. Will my right hon. Friend please now say to the Home Secretary, and through him to the police, that this is not a petty crime? This is a threat of violence and massive robbery, and it should be a priority for the police. We always talk about more police; surely what we should be asking for is more effective policing that gets those criminals off the streets.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight this issue: often, the allegedly lower-level crimes are the ones that have the biggest impact on communities. I know that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has been very clear on that point, and I will make it to him again. That is also why we are rolling out a range of crime prevention measures through the safer streets fund; it is why we are improving CCTV and street lighting; and it is why we introduced the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 to give the police greater powers to deliver tougher sentences for more serious offenders.

Q5. Earlier, the Deputy Prime Minister said that when the Prime Minister and the Chancellor took office, they restored stability to the UK economy. Who does he think caused the instability? (902468)

Labour Members might want to forget it, but I remember the day the Conservatives came into office in 2010. What was the note left on the desk of the Chief Secretary to the Treasury? “There is no money left.” That is the challenge that we have addressed through the Prime Minister and Chancellor successively.

Labour’s mayoral candidate in the West Midlands talks about housing, but makes no commitment to protect our precious green belt. He talks about transport, but he fails to commit to reopening Aldridge train station. He committed to saving police stations such as Aldridge; then, when the Labour police and crime commissioner said he would close them, he changed his mind and agreed to that. So we are left wondering in my constituency what he stands for. Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that only Mayor Andy Street has a plan and a track record to be trusted to deliver for the West Midlands?

As ever, my right hon. Friend is absolutely correct to highlight the record of Labour’s police and crime commissioner, and West Midlands police has actually been put in special measures on Simon Foster’s watch. When it comes to the green belt, we have all seen the new wheeze from the Labour party—redesignate green belt “grey belt” and concrete all over it. Well, the Conservatives will not allow that to happen, and people up and down the country will vote Conservative to stop that happening.

Q8. Conservative Ministers like to blame strikes and the pandemic for the appalling waiting times in the NHS. The Blackpool Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust has not hit its target for seeing patients in A&E within four hours since 2015—before the strikes and before the pandemic, but five years after the Conservatives came to office. So who does the Deputy Prime Minister blame for that? (902471)

Labour Members like to pretend the pandemic did not happen, and they like—[Interruption.] That is the cause of the biggest pressure on the NHS. They complain about NHS performance while backing strikes by doctors, who unreasonably want a 35% pay rise. Despite all of those pressures, actually A&E performance has improved in the past month.

The Labour leader of the almost bankrupt Hastings Borough Council and several other Labour councillors resigned from the Labour party citing that the national Labour party has become overly authoritarian, in a “dereliction of local democracy”, and has “lost its moral compass” and is suffocating local voices because its only objective is power for power’s sake. Would the Deputy Prime Minister agree that voting for Conservative candidates in upcoming elections will ensure local voters are heard, local democracy is upheld and better services are delivered?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the really serious concerns about Labour councillors in Hastings. One former Labour councillor said that Labour are no longer providing

“the policies, the support, or the focus on local government”.

I could not have put it better myself.

Q9. With thousands of steelworkers’ jobs on the line, the likelihood of industrial action and reports of a deal for India to be exempt from carbon taxes, will this Government now back the detailed, serious and robust multi-union proposal as the only way to keep primary steel making in the UK? (902472)

The Government will engage with any proposals that have been brought forward, as we always do, but it is actually the case that we have already provided over £700 million in energy cost relief to the steel sector in the past 10 years. It is also the case that, even in the past year, the Government spent £97 million more on UK-made steel for major public projects. So we are continuing to work with the steel industry, but we have already provided tremendous support.

I very much associate myself with the remarks of my right hon. Friend regarding Lord Frank Field, who was a good man.

I very much welcome the Government’s firm commitment to increase defence spending to 2.5% by 2030. It is something that will send the right message to our allies and potential adversaries alike, and it is something on which the 1922 defence committee has been campaigning for a little while. However, would my right hon. Friend do what he can to ensure that some of that increased money is spent on additional recruitment—including, if necessary, increasing wages sufficiently—to ensure that the Navy can manage ships, the Air Force can maintain its aircraft and the Army can dominate ground?

I know what a staunch advocate my hon. Friend is for the armed forces and for funding the armed forces. All of us can take great pride that we are putting the resources in to meet the challenges that the nation is likely to face over the next five years. We will be working through the allocation of that, but it is already the case that in January we had the largest ever number of applications in recent years to join the armed forces, so we are making progress on that.

Q10.   My constituent Lisa cares for her mother. She works part-time at WHSmith and was sure to keep the Department for Work and Pensions informed so that she would not be overpaid carer’s allowance. However, because of a DWP blunder, she now faces a bill for £4,000. The Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology cares for her career. She works part-time as a woke detector. However, when she blundered, calling a top scientist a Hamas supporter, the bill—tens of thousands of pounds in costs and damages—was picked up by taxpayers like Lisa. Why? (902473)

It is this Government who have uprated benefits for carers, with almost £1,500 more. I think it is the case that the hon. Lady’s constituents, my constituents and people up and down the country would expect the Government to seek to recover overpaid sums. We need to do that in a compassionate way, and if people are struggling to make repayments, the DWP will engage to ensure that they have a sustainable and affordable way to make those repayments.

May I associate myself with the tributes and condolences paid to the late great Frank Field? One of his lasting achievements in the world of education is the holiday activities and food fund, which this Government can take great pride in having funded. May I urge my right hon. Friend to use his good offices across Government to ensure that we secure a multi-year settlement for the continuance of that vital work?

I know what an important piece of work this is, and I know my hon. Friend’s commitment to campaigning for it. We have already provided substantial sums, and I am sure we will continue to do so.

Q11.   As the chair of the Scottish arm of Feeding Britain, may I thank you, Mr Speaker, and those on the Front Benches for their tributes to the great Frank Field? He chaired an all-party parliamentary inquiry 10 years ago on food poverty, and food bank use has increased relentlessly since then. Will the Government consider, in Frank Field’s memory, a cross-sector summit with the aim of helping communities to secure the resources to deliver food security programmes at the necessary scale? (902474)

I join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to Lord Frank Field’s campaigning. It is the case that over the past couple of years, we have provided more than £108 billion-worth of support with the cost of living, including extra cost of living payments of £900 last year. The effect of all that is that 1.1 million fewer people are living in absolute poverty than when the Conservatives came to office.

Last week we had the Finance Bill, and in it I noticed a reduction in capital gains tax from 28% to 24% on residential properties to try to turbo-boost the residential market. Will that apply retrospectively, so that hypothetically, if a Labour Front Bencher owed capital gains tax, they would benefit from this Conservative tax cut?

Q12. This week marks the fifth Lesbian Visibility Week, founded by my good friend and publisher of DIVA magazine, Linda Riley. It comes at a time when LGBTQIA women are being let down by this Government, and nowhere more so than in their failure to remove the financial burdens that same-sex couples face when accessing IVF. My constituents Holly and Leanne, like so many others, have been priced out of having a family, so will the Deputy Prime Minister commit to finally ending this gay tax for same-sex couples who want to start a family? (902475)

I would dispute the hon. Lady’s characterisation of the Government’s record in this area: it was this Government who introduced marriage for same-sex couples and passed the Turing law. She raised an important point that I am happy to take up the Health Secretary, but the overall record of this Government is an excellent one.