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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 749: debated on Wednesday 1 May 2024


The Secretary of State was asked—

Spring Budget 2024

We have again seen calamitous events in Scotland this week. However, I wish Humza Yousaf very well for the future. I always found him to be a very decent man to work with, and there is no doubt that he was dealt a rotten hand.

Although I do not want to dwell unduly on the private grief of SNP Members, I very much hope that whoever becomes First Minister will work with us on the issues that really matter to people in Scotland, such as public services and our economy, and will not continue to obsess with independence.

This Government are taking long-term decisions to cut taxes for working people and to grow the economy. The spring Budget represented a significant milestone in the UK Government’s levelling-up mission, with investment into Scotland bursting through the £3 billion mark. In addition, the Scottish Government will benefit from a £295 million funding uplift through the Barnett formula for 2024-25.

The reality is that the Chancellor’s regressive spring Budget left the people of Scotland behind. In contrast, the SNP Scottish Government took the bold step of implementing a progressive tax scheme.

The Westminster establishment argued that Scotland’s income tax rates would somehow cause people to leave the country. Last week, however, it was revealed by His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs that the opposite is true, with many more taxpayers moving to Scotland than leaving. Will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming this brilliant news and congratulating the Scottish Government on standing up for the people of Scotland?

The hon. Lady’s point would be relevant if that report were not from 2018-19, long before we entered into six tax bands in Scotland, versus three in the rest of the UK. I absolutely do not agree with her.

The Secretary of State mentioned levelling up, which is curious. We know that the Budget cut public services across the board and cut Scotland’s capital funding, yet levelling up seems to benefit places such as the financial district of Canary Wharf, which has benefited by £16,000 per head. Is he suggesting that Scotland, but not other parts of the UK, should accept austerity from this Government?

That is a ridiculous remark. The levelling-up agenda in Scotland has been fantastically successful, and there has been absolutely no austerity. The Scottish Government have received a record block grant of £41 billion, the highest since devolution began. I am surprised that the SNP wants to talk about the Budget, because the Scottish Government’s Budget put taxes up and cut vital public services, so Scots are actually paying more and getting less.

What utter nonsense. The hypocrisy of this Tory party, which is busy gaslighting the Scottish public by complaining about cuts to capital spending while the Tory Government are busy cutting 16%, or £822 million, from the Scottish Government’s capital block grant allocation, is quite astonishing. With Westminster holding Scotland back yet again, can the Secretary of State tell us, as Scotland’s man in the Cabinet, whether he argued against these cuts? Will he argue for the Scottish Parliament to have the ability to raise more capital borrowing to mitigate these savage Westminster cuts and to help drive Scotland forward?

In the fiscal framework settlement, we made it very clear and agreed with the Scottish Government that resource funding could be reallocated, if they so wished, from the record block grant into capital funding. That is what has happened. Additionally, they have the ability to borrow £450 million, if required.

I also begin by passing on my best wishes to Humza Yousaf and his family. I always found him very personable in my dealings with him, although I disagree with virtually everything he has said or done as First Minister of Scotland, particularly putting up taxes and delivering poorer public services.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that businesses in my constituency are struggling to recruit employees from other parts of the United Kingdom because of the higher tax rates in Scotland, which are damaging our local economy?

My right hon. Friend makes a good point. I am well aware, as are businesses in Dumfries and Galloway, that having six tax bands in Scotland but three in the rest of the UK is not the way to incentivise people to go to work in Scotland or even to relocate their businesses there.

On this International Workers’ Day, May Day, Scottish Television journalists are striking for fair pay. I am sure the Secretary of State will join me in insisting that STV gets back around the table with its journalists to thrash out an acceptable deal. Given all the news that is happening this week, we need them back on the television.

I too pay tribute to the outgoing First Minister, Humza Yousaf. We may not have agreed on everything, but his historic appointment marked a pivotal moment in our multicultural public life in Scotland, and I wish him and his family well for the future.

The spring Budget was just another moment that exposed the damage done by the chaos of the former Prime Minister’s kamikaze Budget. The Secretary of State has been spinning that it brings taxes down, but is it not the case that the tax burden in Scotland and across the rest of the UK continues to rise? The Prime Minister now wants to mirror his irresponsible predecessor with an unfunded £46 billion policy to get rid of national insurance altogether. The Secretary of State sits around the Cabinet table, so which one of these have they discussed to pay for this: pensioners, the NHS or income tax rises?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the tax burden in Scotland is too high and rising, and people are paying more and getting less. Fortunately, the UK Government have taken the decision to partially offset that, not through income tax cuts but through national insurance cuts, with 4p coming off NI. To pick up on his last point, he was referring to an aspiration that this Government have. We have already reduced NI by 4p, a third, and we aspire to remove it altogether, because it is a tax on jobs.

This is a £46 billion, unfunded aspiration, and the Secretary of State and the Government will not tell us where they will get the money from. Scotland is trapped between two chaotic and failing Governments; we have had three Prime Ministers, and we will have had three First Ministers, in as many years. All the while, the right hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Stephen Flynn) thinks he is already the First Minister and calling the shots, although he has been shooting himself firmly in the foot. What is abundantly clear to the people of Scotland is that neither the Scottish Government nor the UK Government are even interested in delivering the change that Scotland needs. With neither Government wanting to let the people decide, will the Secretary of State tell the House who he thinks is most scared of a general election, the Tories or the Scottish National party?

We absolutely do not fear an election, whether for Holyrood or a general election. As I watch the nationalists implode again, I say, “Bring it on.” I hear them say the same from a sedentary position. [Interruption.] Bring it on! Chaps and chapesses over there, start polishing up your CVs.

I, too, on behalf of the SNP group, put on record our sincere thanks to Humza Yousaf for his public service over the months and years. I wish him, Nadia and the rest of his family all the best in their future.

Let me also observe that fewer people in Scotland will see our proceedings today as Scottish Television is currently blacked out because of a strike by TV journalists. I implore the management of STV to get back around the table with the National Union of Journalists, improve its pay offer and try to settle this dispute.

The Budget that was approved a few months ago also contains forward planning assumptions on income and expenditure over the next three to five years. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of those assumptions on the Scottish public finances?

As I have said before, we have a record block grant. It is running over a three-year period and it averages out at £41.6 billion, and then there are Barnett consequentials added to that. This year, that figure is £295 million, based on the spring Budget’s figures.

That sounds like no assessment at all has been made. The truth is that, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, these forward planning assumptions involve public service cuts of up to £20 billion. That can only imply savage cuts to the Scottish block grant in the next two to three years. Sadly, these planning assumptions and the framework are endorsed by the Labour party. So if people vote either Conservative or Labour at the coming election, are they not consenting to massive cuts in public services in Scotland?

Of course I do not agree with those figures. Public services in Scotland are in a desperate state. In their recent Budget, the Scottish Government froze council tax, thereby putting more pressure on local authorities to deliver those public services.

Defence Spending

2. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Defence on the level of defence spending in Scotland. (902548)

14. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Defence on the level of defence spending in Scotland. (902561)

Scotland Office Ministers have regular discussions with the Ministry of Defence on all matters relating to defence. Defence spending contributes significantly to delivering thousands of high-skilled jobs and investment in Scotland. I welcome the announcement by the Prime Minister that we will increase our defence spending to 2.5% of GDP in response to rising global threats.

Clearly it is good news for the United Kingdom, and Scotland in particular, that 2.5% of GDP will be spent on defence. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the number of jobs that will be protected and potentially be created in Scotland as a result of this decision?

The short answer is that the increased investment announced by the Prime Minister will be focused on firing up the UK industrial base. The whole United Kingdom will benefit from that, and it will ensure that our armed benefit from the latest technology. Both of those things will bring economic benefits and support jobs across the whole of the United Kingdom, including Scotland. At this time of heightened global tension and an illegal war in Ukraine, sparked by the Russians, I am confident that Scotland will play a growing role, as the UK Government ramp up their spending.

Thanks to the armed forces parliamentary scheme, I have been lucky enough to meet some of the amazing military personnel and civilians working at His Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the increase in defence spending announced last week by the Prime Minister will bring benefits across the whole country, whether at RAF bases in my own constituency or at the many military establishments in Scotland, and that it is another clear demonstration that it is the Conservatives who can be trusted to defend and protect our entire United Kingdom?

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. It is the Conservatives who are trusted to defend the whole of the United Kingdom. The SNP has consistently proposed abandoning our nuclear deterrent, including in its most recent independence paper. The irony is that the SNP wants to be part of the NATO alliance, but not part of a nuclear NATO alliance.

A vital part of defence spending is ensuring that military personnel live in safe and suitable accommodation. At last week’s debate on the Renters (Reform) Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Helen Morgan) ensured concessions from the Government on the standards of military accommodation. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of that in Scotland?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. As the father of a serving soldier, I completely agree with her. I hear from members of the military that they are disappointed with the standard of accommodation. I have raised the issue on a UK-wide basis and discussed it with the Defence Secretary. He said the programme of improvements, which started before last winter, amounts to £400 million of spending.

Further to the Secretary of State’s comments about nuclear bases, I hope he is aware of the alarming rise in more serious nuclear safety incidents at Scotland’s Trident nuclear bases on the Clyde. My questions have revealed 179 incidents were logged in 2023 and 2024, including six with a risk of radiation leakage to the environment, the first category A incidents in 15 years. Has he concerns if there was a radioactive leak beyond safe levels in many of these incidents? What reports will his Government produce to reassure crew and those living nearby that the nuclear infrastructure is not, as one former Downing Street adviser described it, “dangerously rotting”?

I have visited Faslane, our base on the Clyde. It is an absolutely fantastic facility. We do not comment on matters relating to Faslane. If the hon. Lady has any more specific questions, she should ask them at Defence questions, but regarding our nuclear deterrent and our nuclear facility, we do not comment on things that happen there.

Youth Mobility: European Commission Scheme

3. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the potential impact of the European Commission’s proposal for a youth mobility scheme on young people in Scotland. (902549)

7. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the potential impact of the European Commission’s proposal for a youth mobility scheme on young people in Scotland. (902554)

9. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the potential impact of the European Commission’s proposal for a youth mobility scheme on young people in Scotland. (902556)

I am in touch with Home Office Ministers regularly to discuss immigration matters that affect Scotland. This Government have youth mobility schemes agreed with 13 countries and we remain open to new arrangements with our international partners, including individual EU member states.

I have to say that I am bemused by that answer. I will never shake in my view that Brexit was an act of gross harm against the next generation, particularly in Scotland, where we rejected it. But we are where we are, and the EU has offered the UK a comprehensive youth mobility scheme up to the age of 30 for four years. That strikes me as a fantastic deal. Scotland wants to do it, so why is the Minister so keen to hold Scotland back? But my actual question is: is he as delighted as I think he must be that the Labour party completely agrees with him?

The hon. Member and the SNP continue to obsess about Brexit and the decision of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. This Government are absolutely committed to offering young people opportunities to travel around the world during their education, as demonstrated through our association with the Horizon scheme and through the Government’s Turing scheme.

The youth mobility scheme would allow young people in my constituency of Glasgow North East and across Scotland to participate in youth exchanges, work, study and travel across Europe. The Minister got to do that. Is his message to my constituents that this freedom was for the likes of him, but not for the likes of them?

The UK Government currently operate 13 successful bilateral youth mobility schemes with international parties. The countries with which we already have arrangements include Andorra, Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, Iceland, India, Japan, Monaco, New Zealand, San Marino, South Korea, Taiwan and Uruguay. [Interruption.] SNP Members may scoff at these countries, but these countries are offering unique opportunities for Scots to travel internationally and to learn, as many of us did as well.

Anyone in Scotland watching this will be incredibly disappointed with the responses that we have had from the Minister to date. In March 2021, the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie) said on BBC Scotland that young people were not reaping the benefits of Brexit. I do not often agree with my constituency neighbour in the south, but he was absolutely right then and he is still absolutely right now, is he not?

The biggest obstacle to opportunities for young people in Scotland is the SNP Government. By restricting the number of places for Scottish students at Scottish universities so heavily, the Scottish Government seem intent on driving young people out of our country.

Having been involved in running a number of our youth mobility schemes, I am fairly familiar with the concepts that they involve, such as capped numbers; reciprocity—the idea that we do not have a large flow one way without it happening the other way; limited terms; no access to the welfare system; and the fact that people cannot take dependants with them given their temporary status. Will the Minister assure me that we will maintain the position that we had under the former Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, that we will do this where it is in the UK’s economic interest and where we know that the main drivers of issues such as immigration abuse do not exist? That is why we have the schemes that we do with Australia, Canada and New Zealand, and why we should maintain that open approach.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his work in this area and his continued interest in it. The Government have made it absolutely clear that we have no plans to agree an EU-wide youth mobility scheme for the reason that he has highlighted, but we are open to negotiating with individual member states individual arrangements that suit the United Kingdom and Scotland.

Cost of Living

4. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the cost of living in Scotland. (902550)

This Government have demonstrated their commitment to supporting households across the United Kingdom and in Scotland with the cost of living, with a £108 billion package of support—one of the largest in Europe. Inflation is now at 3.2%, which is less than half its recent peak, and is expected to fall to its 2% target one year earlier than expected.

According to the Scottish Parliament’s own research as well as the Fraser of Allander Institute, the Scottish Government’s child poverty targets for 2023-24 are not set to be met. Given the dereliction of their net zero targets and the widening attainment gap, does the Minister agree that the Scottish Government have given up on governing and given up on the future of Scottish children?

I agree with the hon. Member: the SNP gave up governing in Scotland a long time ago thanks to its continued obsession with independence and referendums. The UK Government remain committed to supporting households across Scotland, demonstrated through our 6.7% increase in working age benefits, our maintaining the triple lock for 12 million pensioners and our cut to national insurance.

I wish Humza Yousaf well for the future, but after his year in office, nobody in Scotland is better off, and that is coupled with our having a Prime Minister who is clinging on to power. Child poverty is up. Life expectancy is falling. NHS waiting lists are up. Drug deaths are up. Homelessness is up. Economic growth has flatlined. Is it not the inescapable truth that Scots have been failed by two Governments for far too long? Does the Minister agree that what Scotland needs now is to be rid of both these distracted, incompetent and hopelessly out-of-touch Governments?

I certainly agree that the SNP Government have not been focused on the day job. They have been neglecting Scotland’s schools, NHS and transport network. They have not been getting on with the day job, but the harsh reality is that whoever is elected to replace Humza Yousaf as First Minister will still have the same obsession with independence and referendums.

UK Internal Market

6. What recent assessment he has made of the impact of the UK internal market on the Scottish economy. (902553)

The Government’s assessment is that our internal market is the essential basis on which businesses are able to trade freely across the United Kingdom, minimising red tape and maximising opportunities. In Scotland, 60% of outgoing trade is with the rest of the United Kingdom—more than with the rest of the world combined.

The internal market is beneficial for all parts of the United Kingdom. It is, however, more important to those areas where there is a border. Does the Minister therefore agree that the internal market should be very helpful in maintaining and developing economic activity in the borderlands area, and will he consider a second borderlands growth deal, which would certainly help the area on both sides of the border?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: the UK’s internal market is essential to promoting economic activity, ensuring that businesses in the borders—in my constituency, in Carlisle and beyond—benefit from frictionless trade with the rest of the United Kingdom. The borderlands growth deal, which includes a £265 million investment from the UK Government, was signed in July 2021, and is developing a range of projects to further boost economic growth.

When the BBC has the headline on its webpage, “Why has Ireland got so much surplus cash?” is it not clear that the reality is that independent Ireland is more successful in the European and world markets than Scotland, trapped in the UK? Ireland has a surplus of £8.6 billion to spend on its society. The UK has a deficit and cuts, which are hurting people. Will the Minister remind us of the size of the UK deficit?

I am very clear that Scotland is better served by being at the heart of a strong United Kingdom. The spending figures of the Scottish Government are very clear, in terms of their dependency on Scotland being part of the UK to support vital public services like the NHS, schools and the transport network.

Rivers and Streams: Biodiversity

10. What discussions he has had with the Scottish Government on the biodiversity of Scotland’s rivers and streams. (902557)

Water quality policy is devolved in Scotland. The Scottish Government are responsible for biodiversity in rivers and streams in Scotland, not the United Kingdom Government. It is for the Scottish Government to take action in this vital area.

Is it not the truth that Scottish waters, streams and rivers are purer and cleaner because the Scottish people rejected the privatisation of water and, led by Scottish Labour, made sure that we had Scottish water in the public realm and delivered clean water for everyone?

The hon. Member is absolutely wrong. According to a recent report, untreated sewage has been released into Scottish waters and seas more than 58,000 times over the past five years, but only 4% of sewage overflows in Scotland are required to be monitored, unlike in England and Wales, where nearly 100% are monitored, thanks to the efforts of this Government. Unlike this Government, the Scottish Government and Scottish Water are failing to take tough action to monitor sewage overflows and protect our very important waterways.

Protection of Free Speech

11. What recent discussions he has had with the Scottish Government on the protection of free speech in Scotland. (902558)

This Government are committed to protecting free speech. It is the responsibility of the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament, working with Police Scotland, to ensure that the hate crime legislation is implemented and enforced in a way that protects freedom of speech and has the confidence of people in Scotland.

The Scottish Government’s Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act 2021 came into force this month and is already having a chilling impact on free speech. What lessons can the UK Government learn from the introduction of this poor legislation in Scotland?

Yes, and Police Scotland already has stretched resources—not least because it has been checking up on the SNP finances for the last three years. My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and we do have concerns that the legislation could have a potential chilling effect on free speech, but it is for the Scottish Government to speak to their own devolved laws. For my part, I believe it is an awful piece of legislation; it lacks clarity on what constitutes an offence, and, importantly, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made it very clear that the UK Government will not enact similar legislation.

Never before has such rubbish been uttered about a piece of legislation as has been uttered about the Hate Crime Act. In one week, the Tories have tried to repeal it—which, given that it mainly consolidates existing legislation, will leave us unprotected against islamophobia, racism and homophobia. Will the Secretary of State now issue one of his famous colonial decrees and tell the Scottish Tories to back off?

First of all, those laws already existed—that is the important thing. Secondly, I was right about police resources. There were 8,000 hate crime reports in the first week, more than in any of the seven preceding years. It is a ridiculous, unnecessary piece of legislation.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


I know the thoughts of the whole House are with the people of Hainault in east London following yesterday’s appalling attacks. Such violence has no place on our streets. It is absolutely heartbreaking that a teenage boy has died, and I cannot imagine what his family are going through. We send them our heartfelt condolences and offer our very best wishes to all those injured. I reiterate my thanks to the police and other emergency first responders for embodying the highest standards of public service under such awful circumstances. I know our thoughts are also with those injured this morning in an attack at a school in Sheffield.

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.

We know that more than one in five teenagers are vaping, with some experts describing it as an epidemic. Yesterday, new research suggested that teenagers who vape could be at risk of exposure to toxic metals, potentially harming brain or organ development. I agree with the Prime Minister in his wish to reduce the harms caused by smoking and vaping through the Tobacco and Vapes Bill. Does he agree that permitting football strips to be sponsored by vaping companies sends entirely the wrong message to young people, and that it is time to ban vape companies from advertising on sports strips?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. Obviously, decisions about kit sponsorship will rest with individual teams, but I agree with her that it is important that we do everything we can to tackle the scourge of teenage vaping. That is why I am glad that she supports our Bill, which will not only clamp down on marketing and availability of flavours, targeting point-of-sale purchases, but improve funding for trading standards to clamp down on those selling vapes illegally to children.

Q2. My husband is a veteran, and the defence of the country is the Government’s first duty, in order to protect people across the United Kingdom. Can the Prime Minister reassure the House that he has a plan in place for backing our world-leading armed services, and does he know why the Opposition refuse to back his plan? (902598)

I start by paying tribute to my hon. Friend’s husband and all our veterans for their service to our country. In the most uncertain times since the cold war, it is right that we build our security, protecting our values, our interests and indeed our nation. That is why this Government have taken the step to increase defence spending to 2.5% of GDP, making us the biggest spender in Europe under NATO. When the Labour leader stands up, I hope he stops dithering, does the right thing and confirms that he will back our plan to increase defence spending.

I join the Prime Minister in his words about yesterday’s awful events in Hainault. I am sure that the whole House will want to commend the first responders and send our deepest condolences to the family of the 14-year-old boy who was murdered. I join the Prime Minister in his remarks about the attack in the school in Sheffield as well.

I know that everyone in the House will be delighted to see His Majesty the King returning to his public duties and looking so well. We all wish him and the Princess of Wales the best in their continued recovery.

I welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) to his place on the Labour Benches. After nearly two decades as a Tory politician and an NHS doctor, he has concluded that if you care about the future of our country and our NHS, it is time for change; it is time for this changed Labour party. As of today, he is our newest Labour MP, but I am sure he will not mind my saying that I hope he loses that title on Friday. When a lifelong Tory and doctor says that “the only cure” for the NHS is a Labour Government, is it not time that the Prime Minister admits that he has utterly failed?

I am glad to actually see the hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) in the House, because he recently pointed out that residents under his local Labour council are

“charged much more in council tax but in return receive…lower quality”

services. He has been wrong about some things recently, but on that point he is absolutely right, and this week, people everywhere should vote Conservative.

The Prime Minister comes out with all that nonsense, but he locks himself away in his Downing Street bunker, moaning that people are not grateful enough to him. The reality is that Tory MPs are following Tory voters in concluding that only the Labour party can deliver the change that the country needs. I say to those Tory voters that if they believe in a better Britain, they are safe with this changed Labour party, and it is for them. In the two weeks since we last met at the Dispatch Box, has the Prime Minister managed to find the money for his completely unfunded £46 billion promise to scrap national insurance?

We addressed that a few weeks ago, and I am happy to address it again. I know that economics is not the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s strong point, but he would do well to listen to his shadow Education Secretary, the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson), who just this morning said, “No, that’s not how it works.” Indeed, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has also said that the link between national insurance and public services funding is “illusory”—just like Labour’s economic plans. However, it is crystal clear that there is one party that will deliver tax cuts for working Britain, and it is the Conservative party. [Interruption.]

Order. Whoever is banging the furniture will have to pay for it if they damage it. Can we have less of that? We are not in the sixth form now.

That was a long, rambling non-answer to the question, which was: has the Prime Minister found the money to fund his £46 billion promise to abolish national insurance? Whenever he is asked about the date of the election, or about people’s pensions, he acts as if answering straightforward questions is somehow beneath him, but pensioners and those who are planning their retirement deserve better than his contempt for their questions. If £46 billion were cut from its funding, the value of the state pension would almost halve, so I do not apologise for asking him again—[Interruption.]

Order. Mr Gullis, you have the next question, which you are not going to reach at this rate, and you have the ten-minute rule Bill. I would be quiet for a while if I were you.

I do not apologise for asking on pensioners’ behalf again whether the Prime Minister will finally rule out cutting their state pension to fulfil the enormous black hole in his spending plans.

Of course we can rule that out. The right hon. and learned Gentleman should stop scaremongering, because it is thanks to the triple lock that we have increased pensions by £3,700 since 2010, and they will rise in each and every year of the next Parliament. It is Labour who always hit pensioners hard. It is his mentors, Blair and Brown, who broke their promises, raised pension taxes by £118 billion, and delivered an insulting 75p rise in the state pension. As one former Labour adviser just said, Brown “destroyed our pensions system”. They did it before, they will do it again. Labour always betrays our pensioners.

It is clear that the Prime Minister cannot answer the question of where he is going to find this £46 billion. [Interruption.] No, he has said where it is not coming from; he has not said where it is coming from. Luckily for him, one of his peers, Lord Frost—yes, him again—does know. He says that to solve the problem of the Tories’ spending plans, the state pension age should be raised to 75. Understandably, that will cause some alarm, so will the Prime Minister rule out forcing people to delay their retirement by years and years in order to fulfil his £46 billion black hole?

I have answered this multiple times for the right hon. and learned Gentleman, but I am happy to say it again: the Conservative party is the party that has delivered and protected the triple lock. Ultimately, he is not worried about any of this, because as we all remember, he has his very own personal pension plan. Indeed, it comes with its very own special law: it was called the Pensions Increase (Pension Scheme for Keir Starmer QC) Regulations. It is literally one law for him and another one for everyone else.

The Prime Minister wants to abolish national insurance, which will cost £46 billion, and he will not tell us where the money is coming from. We are no closer to an answer. I am going to persevere. Last year, the Prime Minister was apparently drawing up plans to remove the winter fuel allowance from pensioners. His Paymaster General went a step further, saying:

“these are the sorts of things I think we need to look at”.

Will the Prime Minister now rule out taking pensioners’ winter fuel payments off them to help fund his £46 billion black hole?

It was this Government who, just this winter, provided double the winter fuel payment to support pensioners. What is crystal clear is that we believe that the double taxation on work is unfair. We believe that hard work should be rewarded, which is why this week, we are cutting taxes by £900 for everyone in work. In contrast, it is Labour’s newest tax adviser who thinks that pensioners should be taxed more—those are his words. This adviser calls them “codgers”. He thinks that supporting them is a “disgrace”, and he believes that their free TV licences are “ridiculous”. It is Labour who hit pensioners with tax after tax, and they would do it all over again.

Is it any wonder that the Prime Minister’s MPs are following Tory voters in queuing up to dump his party? Even the Mayors who he is apparently pinning his political survival on do not want to be seen anywhere near him, because until he starts setting out how he is paying for his fantasy economics, he has a completely unfunded £46 billion promise that puts people’s retirement at risk. How does it feel to be one day out from elections with the message, “Vote Tory, risk your pension”?

Tomorrow, voters will have a choice. It will be a choice between Mayors like Andy Street and Ben Houchen, who are delivering, or Mayors like Sadiq Khan, who simply virtue-signal. It is higher taxes, more crime and the ultra low emission zone with Labour, or lower taxes and better services with the Conservatives—that is the choice. From the West Midlands to Teesside to London, there is only one choice: vote Conservative.

Q4. We can see the Rwanda deterrent is working, and we have now deported our first illegal migrant, but, unsurprisingly, Labour just does not care. The shadow Home Secretary is busy posing for pics encouraging more boats to come over. The leader of the Labour party has said he would cancel the Rwanda flights. He took the knee when signing letters stopping us deporting foreign national offenders who have committed crimes such as murder and rape, and he would do a deal with the EU, surrendering our borders to 100,000 legal migrants. Is it not right that only the Conservatives will stop the boats and cut legal migration? (902600)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Our plan is working. Legal migration, the latest figures show, is down by 24% and student dependants down by 80%. We all know Labour’s big idea: it is to scrap the Rwanda plan even when it is operational. However, as one senior Labour adviser said to Andrew Marr just yesterday:

“'We can’t just come in, tear it up, and have nothing to put in its place”.

I am sorry to break it to Labour Members, but that is exactly their policy. While we are getting on and stopping the boats, all Labour would do is stop the planes.

On Monday, the Armed Forces Minister could neither confirm nor deny that UK troops may soon be deployed on the ground in the middle east. The public watching will be hoping that Members of this House do not have a short memory when it comes to the potential deployment and involvement of our military in the middle east. Can I ask the Prime Minister to provide some much-needed clarity: is he giving active consideration to the deployment of UK forces in the middle east—yes or no?

Mr Speaker, you would not expect me to get into any operational planning details, but what I will say is that we are absolutely committed to supporting international effort to get more humanitarian aid into Gaza, which I think the whole House would support, by land, sea and air. We have tripled our aid commitment, and right now—together with the US, Cyprus and other partners—we are setting up a new temporary pier off the coast of Gaza to get aid in as securely and quickly as possible.

Let us all be in no doubt: aid is required in Gaza, and it is required because, when people are not being bombed, they are starving to death. The solution to that is a ceasefire and the opening of safe ground aid routes, not the involvement on the ground of UK military personnel. These are dramatic and potentially dangerous developments, so will the Prime Minister confirm to the House today that, before he makes a decision, all Members will be afforded a vote?

I am not going to apologise for our armed forces playing a leading role in supporting international effort to get more aid in. Indeed, we are sending Royal Navy support ship RFA Cardigan Bay to the region to support that effort. The right hon. Gentleman talks about this conflict; the fastest way to end it is to ensure that we have a hostage deal that gets hostages out and aid in, and for there to be a sustainable pause in the fighting. It seems clear that there now is a workable offer on the table, so I hope he joins me in encouraging all parties, including Hamas, to accept that deal so we can move towards a sustainable solution.

Q5. My right hon. Friend’s decision to cancel HS2 led to £207 million for Herefordshire’s potholes and transport infrastructure; Hereford hospital has a new ward, more beds and a new diagnostic centre on the way; £35 million has been allocated to the River Wye recovery plan; inflation is down; the Rwanda Bill has been passed; and defence spending is increasing. Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that, if he carries on like this, he is going to win the next election? (902601)

I am thankful for my hon. Friend highlighting the work that the Government are doing, whether that is increasing our defence spending to keep us safe, securing our borders with our Rwanda Act, cutting taxes by £900 or raising the state pension by £900. I am also pleased that, locally in Herefordshire, we are filling in potholes, helping to save the River Wye and improving local health services. It is crystal clear that it is the Conservative Government who have a plan and are delivering a brighter future for our country.

In February, the Foreign Secretary said that it would be difficult for a ground offensive on Rafah to avoid harming civilians and destroying homes, and just yesterday, the Deputy Foreign Secretary admitted that he was struggling to see how such an attack could be compliant with international humanitarian law. All the signs are that Netanyahu is about to defy the international community, and that an attack on the 1.5 million Palestinians sheltering in Rafah is imminent. If that attack begins, will that be the moment when the Prime Minister finally finds the moral backbone to ban arms exports to Israel, and if not, how much more suffering has to happen before he acts to prevent further UK complicity in crimes against humanity?

What the hon. Lady did not acknowledge at all is that Israel suffered an appalling terrorist attack that killed hundreds of its citizens, and it does have the right to defend itself. Of course, as I have been crystal clear, we want to see humanitarian law respected and adhered to by all parties. Too many civilians have been killed, and we want to see Israel take greater care to avoid harming civilians. I have made these points repeatedly to Prime Minister Netanyahu, specifically about the impact of any military incursion into Rafah, and we continue to say to the Israelis at all levels that we want to see more aid going in, and bring about a hostage deal so that we can move towards a sustainable ceasefire.

Q6. The 60% increase in funding for special educational needs and disabilities is extremely welcome, but challenges around the recruitment of community paediatricians mean that some children in Leighton Buzzard, Dunstable and Houghton Regis are waiting too long for an assessment. What can the NHS do to attract more of the 39,000 additional doctors recruited under this Government into community paediatrics, as a specialty that is incredibly rewarding and important? (902602)

My hon. Friend is right, and he joins me in welcoming the significant action that we have already taken to improve children’s health, whether that is reducing sugar in children’s food, or the £600 million we have invested to improve the quality of sport and physical activity in schools. The NHS has established a special group to ensure that the recovery of paediatric services keeps pace with that of adult elective care, and he will be pleased that the NHS long-term workforce plan, which we have fully backed, doubles the number of medical school places in England and increases specialty training places. That will increase the size of the pool from which community paediatricians can be drawn in the future.

Q3. I know that you, Mr Speaker, want to join me in sending condolences to the friends, family and colleagues of our former colleague, Lord Andrew Stunell, who served with exceptional diligence and grace as MP for Hazel Grove in this House, and who passed away very suddenly on Monday. When the BBC ends longwave radio transmission next year, that will also end access to electricity tariffs such as Total Heating Total Control, which is relied on by almost 1 million households across the United Kingdom. Switching to smart meters will not fix that for most people, not least because the roll-out programme is so far behind. Will the Prime Minister, or possibly the Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero, get energy companies, the regulator and customer groups together, so that we can stop passing the blame around, and find a solution that does not yet again leave people in the highlands and island behind and out in the cold? (902599)

I understand that an agreement has now been reached to ensure that radio teleswitch services will continue until June next year. Ofgem is also engaging with energy suppliers on their plans to support consumers through the transition. While households currently covered by the service should not be disadvantaged by the switch-off, energy suppliers are best placed to advise on tariffs for those who have been switched to a smart meter. However, I will ensure that the right hon. Gentleman gets a meeting with the relevant Minister, to ensure that his constituents are not left behind during the transition.

Q8. The east of England is playing a lead role in delivering the UK’s energy security, and without our contribution the country will not be able successfully to transition to a renewable energy supply system. In recent months, our coast has taken a battering, and projects such as the Lowestoft flood defence scheme have been postponed. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that Departments are fully co-ordinated, so as to provide the region with good supporting infrastructure, proper protection for coastal communities, and every opportunity for local people to take up exciting new jobs? (902605)

We are levelling up across the United Kingdom and investing in places that need it the most, including, as my hon. Friend rightly highlights, our coastal communities. Almost £1 billion of levelling-up funding has been allocated to the east of England, including £75 million for coastal places. I know that he welcomes the town deal for Lowestoft in particular. I will ensure that he gets a meeting with the relevant Minister to discuss how we can further support his region with its role in our energy security, and, in particular, its coastal communities.

Q7. Greenpeace Unearthed found 36 supposed grassroots campaign groups that were actually administered by Conservative staff and activists and which were forums for vile racism, antisemitism and Islamophobic attacks on Sadiq Khan. While the Prime Minister is above such co-ordinated efforts against 20 mph zones in Wales, will he shed some light on these shady groups spreading abuse, including on their funding and their links to his party, and whether he is aware of similar operations existing elsewhere in the UK? If he will not, will he at least commit today to investigating and taking action to tackle the sources of this grubby gutter politics? (902603)

I am not aware of the topic that the hon. Lady raises, but I am not going to make any apology for Conservatives pointing out the record of the SNP in Scotland or the Labour Government in Wales, because that is exactly what the democratic process is about. She might not like it when we highlight their record, but we will keep doing that so that we can deliver for people across the United Kingdom.

Q9. I welcome our Government’s commitments to boosting defence spending and supporting Ukraine, made possible by this Conservative Prime Minister’s international leadership and sound management of the economy. My constituents have been doing us proud supporting Ukraine, with the Pot Place Garden Centre delivering ambulances, medical equipment and supplies, and Steve Hodgson providing vital aid. Will the Prime Minister join me in paying tribute to my constituents and people up and down the land for their support for Ukraine and reaffirm that we will continue to stand with Ukraine for the sake of freedom, democracy and global security? (902606)

I join my hon. Friend in thanking people up and down the country, including his constituents, for their fantastic work in supporting the Ukrainian community in the face of Putin’s illegal invasion. We remain steadfast in support of Ukraine.

In total, since the war began, we have pledged over £12 billion of aid to Ukraine. Last week, we announced an additional half a billion pounds of funding, which will be used to deliver much-needed ammunition, air defence and engineering support and drones. More importantly—President Zelensky welcomed this—we are now able to say, because of the historic increase in our defence spending, that we will continue with this level of support for as long as it takes. It is crystal clear that, on the Government Benches, we can say that our support for Ukraine will never waver.

Q10. In 1969, my constituent Georgina Jacobs gave birth to a baby boy whom she named Robert. Sadly, Robert was born asleep. In those days, the hospitals would ask the father to collect the baby’s body, take it to the cemetery and leave it there for burial. For 53 years, Georgina did not know exactly where Robert was buried. When she eventually found him, she shared her story on social media, and other mothers who had been through the same experience got in touch. Since then, she has located over 60 babies on behalf of grieving parents and has deservedly been presented with the Wirral award for her achievements. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating Georgina on her award and on having brought comfort to so many parents and families? Will he, on behalf of all previous Governments, apologise for that former practice, which left grieving parents with nowhere to visit their buried children? (902607)

I thank and commend the hon. Lady for raising that case, and I pay tribute to Georgina for what she is doing. I often say that one of the most incredible things about doing this job is meeting people like Georgina, who have suffered tragedy in their lives but used that to campaign, inspire and bring about a better life for everyone else. She is a prime example of that, and she deserves nothing but our praise and admiration. I am so pleased that she has brought comfort to so many other people, too.

Q12. Since I was elected in 2010, Rugby has seen employment grow by nearly 6,000, with 10% more of my constituents in work. Much of that has been driven by investment in advanced manufacturing in places such as Ansty Park, where we have got the Manufacturing Technology Centre, which the Prime Minister visited, the High Temperature Research Centre, Rolls-Royce, Parker Meggitt, Fanuc and the London Electric Vehicle Company. Given that every Labour Government have left office with unemployment higher than when they came in, can the Prime Minister see any reason why anybody would want to put this fantastic progress at risk? (902609)

On a recent visit, I was pleased to see for myself that my hon. Friend is a great champion for his constituents. I was very pleased to see the thriving local technology and manufacturing industry, which will help us deliver on our ambitions to make the UK a science and technology superpower. He is right that we have a record 1 million fewer workless households, and unemployment near record lows. He is also right that we need to stick to the plan, because that is how we will deliver the long-term change that our country needs and a brighter future for families up and down the country, including in his constituency.

Q11. Hypocrisy needs to be called out. Everyone in this House will recall the former Irish Prime Minister in Brussels with a photograph of a bombed customs post, lamenting that any border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland was unworkable, in breach of the Belfast agreement and could result in such troubles again. The hypocrisy of the Irish Government position has not been not lost on us, with the Irish police now tasked to patrol the border to protect from the unsubstantiated, unfounded 80% of asylum seekers who supposedly—actually, the reverse is true—make their way to the Republic of Ireland from the UK via Northern Ireland. Will the Prime Minister challenge and call out those actions, and confirm what representations he has made to the Irish Prime Minister and the Irish Justice Minister about the integrity of our UK border? (902608)

The House will be aware that we have made commitments to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland. The hon. Lady makes a very important point that the Irish Government must uphold their promises, too. We cannot have cherry-picking of important international agreements. The Secretary of State is seeking urgent clarification that there will be no disruption or police checkpoints at or near the border. I can confirm that the United Kingdom has no legal obligation to accept returns of illegal migrants from Ireland. It is no surprise that our robust approach to illegal migration is providing a deterrent, but the answer is not to send police to villages in Donegal but to work with us in partnership to strengthen our external borders all around the common travel area that we share.

Q14. I was the Lord Commissioner who signed into law the special pension of the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer). He owes me one! The Prime Minister is right: Labour’s 75p was an insult to pensioners, yet last year our triple lock afforded pensioners the highest increase in 30 years. The Prime Minister is going to continue to deliver dignity in retirement, is he not? (902611)

My right hon. Gentleman is right that we will provide dignity to all those in retirement. That is why we introduced the triple lock and why this year the state pension is rising by £900. I am also proud of our record to bring 200,000 pensioners out of poverty. As I have said previously, the state pension will increase in each and every year of the next Parliament. He reminds us of the 75p increase—unlike Labour, pensioners in this country can trust the Conservatives.

Q13. In only one of the 194 local authority areas in England are NHS ambulances meeting the national response time targets for potential heart attack and stroke victims. Does the Prime Minister know which one it is? (902610)

When it comes to ambulance waiting times in A&E, of course there is work to do, but the place where they are the worst in the country is in Labour-run Wales. Thanks to our plan, we have seen an improvement in A&E and ambulance times this winter compared with last winter. We have 800 more ambulances on the road, faster discharge out of our emergency care centres and 10,000 virtual ward beds. As I said, there is more to do, but the contrast with Labour-run Wales is crystal clear: it has the worst A&E performance anywhere in Great Britain.

For six months, thousands of my constituents have lived with foul polluted air from the Withyhedge landfill site. The company is owned by someone with previous convictions for environmental crimes, who a few months ago gave £200,000 to help Vaughan Gething become First Minister of Wales, after another of his companies was loaned £400,000 from the Development Bank of Wales, overseen by the then Economy Minister Vaughan Gething. Does the Prime Minister agree that this serious matter demands an independent investigation? It is not some internal Labour party matter. Ultimately, that company needs to get out of my constituency and let people in Pembrokeshire have their quality of life back.

My right hon. Friend brings up an incredibly important issue. I know that people in Wales are concerned about the relationship he mentions. I also agree with him on the need for transparency and an investigation regarding the Welsh Labour leader, because it is very clear that the situation is not at all transparent and answers are needed.

It has been revealed by The Observer newspaper that the Conservative candidate for the Mayor of London is a member of the six Facebook groups mentioned by the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock). They are full of Islamophobia, antisemitism and the most disgraceful incitement to damaging property. The worst bit, for those of us who were in the House when our Members of Parliament were taken, are the death threats to the current Mayor of London, Mr Khan. Will the Prime Minister close down those Facebook pages, which were begun by Conservative members of staff, and will he investigate the role of the current candidate and her membership of those disgraceful racist Facebook groups?

The election tomorrow will be fought on the substance of the issues that Londoners face. The Labour record is crystal clear: house building in London has collapsed; knife crime is rising; mayoral taxes are up 70%; and drivers have been hit with ULEZ charges. The Labour Mayor simply panders to unions and has decimated London’s night-time economy. That is his record and that is how he will be judged. People across London know that they will be safer with the Conservatives, with lower taxes and better services.

Today is Staffordshire Day, when we celebrate all the brilliant things about the county of Staffordshire. Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to our brilliant police, fire and crime commissioner, Ben Adams, and encourage the people of Staffordshire to vote for Ben tomorrow to ensure that Staffordshire remains one of the safest places to live, work and visit?

I wish everyone a happy Staffordshire Day. My right hon. Friend mentions the police and crime commissioner elections. It is right that she does, because under this Conservative Government and previous Conservative Governments we have cut crime by over 50% and delivered 20,000 more police officers. People with a Labour police and crime commissioner are more likely to be victims of burglary and are twice as likely to be victims of robbery. As I said, last year knife crime in London went up by 20%. The facts speak for themselves: vote Conservative for safer streets.