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Commons Chamber

Volume 749: debated on Wednesday 1 May 2024

House of Commons

Wednesday 1 May 2024

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


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.

Immigration Update

With permission, I would like to make a statement on immigration.

The Government are committed to reducing immigration—both legal and illegal—into the United Kingdom. Legal immigration has risen in recent years in part because we have extended the hand of friendship to people fleeing conflict and persecution in Ukraine, Hong Kong and Afghanistan. That was the right thing to do. But another factor has been the numbers of overseas students and workers and their dependants rising to unsustainable levels. The steps that the Secretary of State for the Home Department, my right hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (James Cleverly) announced last year to cut net migration will mean that around 300,000 people who would have been eligible to come to the UK will now not be.

We have restricted most students from bringing dependent family members, increased the salary that most skilled worker migrants need to earn in order to obtain a visa by nearly 50% to £38,700, stopped overseas care workers bringing dependent family members with them, raised the minimum income for family visas to ensure that people are supported financially, and scrapped the 20% going rate salary discount for shortage occupations and replaced the shortage occupation list with a new immigration salary discount list. The latest estimates from the Office for National Statistics show that net migration in the year to June 2023 was 672,000, 73,000 lower than it was six months earlier. The figures are provisional and we need to go further, but these are encouraging signs.

The latest statistics show that the numbers applying for skilled worker, health and care and study visas in the first three months of 2024 were down by 24% on the same period last year. We removed, from 1 January, the right of students starting courses—other than those on postgraduate research programmes and Government-funded scholarships—to bring dependants to the UK via the student visa route. The number of applications for student dependant visas has fallen by 80% since our changes came into force. From 11 March 2024, we have stopped overseas care workers bringing family dependants here, and have required social care firms in England to be registered with the Care Quality Commission to sponsor visas. In the year ending September 2023, an estimated 120,000 dependants came here via that route. In the first three months of 2024, the number of applications for health and care visas was down by 28%—and this is just the start; most of our changes have only just come into force.

Meanwhile, we remain committed to stopping the boats. Following Royal Assent for the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Act 2024 and the ratification of our treaty with Rwanda, we can operationalise our plan to relocate illegal migrants to Rwanda. Rwanda is a safe country that has repeatedly shown its ability to offer asylum seekers a chance to build new and prosperous lives. It has a strong and successful track record of resettling people, hosting more than 135,000 refugees, and it stands ready to accept thousands more who want to rebuild their lives and who cannot stay in the UK. Once flights begin, we will have added another vital deterrent to crack down on the people-smuggling gangs who treat human beings as cargo. The first illegal migrants set to be removed to Rwanda have now been detained, following a series of nationwide operations this week. Operational teams within the Home Office have been working apace to detain, safely and swiftly, individuals who are in scope for relocation to Rwanda, with more activity due to be carried out in the coming weeks. This action is a key part of the plan to deliver flights to Rwanda in the next few weeks.

We have made solid progress in stopping the boats, although we need to finish the job. The number of small boat arrivals fell by more than a third in 2023, and our work with international partners prevented more than 26,000 crossings last year as well as helping to dismantle 82 organised crime groups since July 2020. Our new agreement with Albania has cut Albanian small boat arrivals by more than 90%, and we recently signed a groundbreaking deal with Frontex—the European Border and Coast Guard Agency—which marked another crucial step in the securing of our borders. An initial cohort in the thousands of suitable cases for removal to Rwanda has been identified and placed on immigration bail, with strict reporting conditions. We have a range of measures in place to ensure that we remain in contact with individuals, including both face-to-face and digital reporting, and Immigration Enforcement has a range of powers to trace and locate any individuals who abscond, as well as a dedicated team of tracing officers who work with the police, other Government agencies and commercial companies to help trace individuals and bring them back into contact. It would, of course, be inappropriate for me to comment further on operational activity.

Immigration has enriched this country beyond measure, but it needs to be sustainable and it needs to be fair. Legal immigration should be focused on helping those in genuine need, and on ensuring that our economy has the skills that it needs in order to flourish. It is simply not right for those who can afford to pay gangsters to jump ahead of those who would play by the rules, and whose need is greater. No one needs to flee to the UK from a safe country such as France. Both illegal immigration and unsustainable legal migration place intolerable burdens on communities, and over time they will undermine support for immigration in general, which would be a tragedy. That is why this Government have a plan, which we are putting into action. There is further to go, but we are seeing its positive impact already. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Minister for advance sight of his statement, but I have to say that this really is getting quite difficult to watch. Not for the first time, the Minister has come to the Dispatch Box desperately fishing for compliments, when it is his Government, his Home Secretary and his Prime Minister who are the cause of the catastrophic state of both the work-based migration and asylum systems. This is their bin fire—their chaos—yet they expect praise each time they half-heartedly attempt to throw a single teacup of water towards the flames.

Net migration has trebled since 2019 to a barely comprehensible 745,000. Under this Government, the number of people crossing in small boats has spiralled from a few hundred in 2018 to tens of thousands every year. It was toe-curlingly embarrassing to watch the Minister claim that he has made “solid progress” on stopping the boats, when this year the number of crossers is at the highest level on record—more than 7,000 between January and April.

It was excruciatingly painful to watch the Home Secretary boast on social media about removing people with no right to be here, when the removal of failed asylum seekers has collapsed by 44% under this Government since 2010, when the removal of foreign criminals has plummeted by 27%, and when he has completely lost track of the 3,500 asylum seekers he claims have been identified for deportation to Rwanda. It is also painful to hear Government figures bragging in the media that their Rwanda policy is somehow a success because a single person, who did not even cross the channel on a small boat, has chosen to fly to Rwanda voluntarily, with thousands of pounds of Government money stuffed into his pocket by the Home Secretary. This is not a policy; it is a headline-chasing gimmick, a fiasco and a farce.

Labour has been absolutely clear that we reject the £500 million Rwanda scheme, based on its unaffordability and unworkability. It will cover only 1% of small-boat asylum seekers, and the Government have no plan for the other 99%. We will repurpose that money to smash the criminal smuggler gangs with our new cross-border police unit and a security partnership with Europol. Crucially, our new returns and enforcement unit will ensure that more flights take off to other countries, which will remove foreign criminals, failed asylum seekers and visa overstayers so that we can restore some control and integrity to our asylum system in a way that is firm, fair and well managed. We will also end the use of 250 asylum hotels and other inappropriate accommodation for asylum seekers, which is costing the British taxpayer millions of pounds every single day.

It is painful to hear the Minister bragging today about the reduction in the number of health and social care visas awarded as a way of bringing down net migration—first, because it is based on such a small data sample; secondly, because this is only one sector of the economy; and, thirdly, because the Minister seems to care not one iota what the reduction in workers will mean for our elderly parents. Where is the impact assessment, and where is the plan to recruit local talent?

Can the Minister explain why net migration has trebled since his party pledged during the 2019 general election to lower it? Will he admit that the huge surge in work-based migration over recent years is evidence of this Government’s total failure to deliver on domestic skills and training? Labour pushed the Government into scrapping the unfair 20% wage discount for jobs on the shortage occupation list, which allowed companies to undercut British workers by hiring overseas. Can he explain why it took so long for his party to steal our policy?

On asylum, Home Office sources have told The Times that only 400 to 700 detention spaces are reserved for migrants who are due for deportation to Rwanda. Can the Minister confirm that this equates to less than 1% of the current asylum backlog in the UK? The Prime Minister promised to detain everyone who has crossed the channel on a small boat—over 30,000 last year. Given that we have only 2,200 detention spaces, what will happen to the remaining 28,000?

The Government’s immigration and asylum policies have failed. We need to put the grown-ups back in charge so that we can fix this broken system and once again give our country an asylum and immigration system that it can be proud of.

What a quite extraordinary response! The fact is that this is a Government who have a credible plan to bring net migration down by 300,000, and all those measures are now in flight. As I have been able to set out for the House, it is beginning to deliver the results we said it would deliver.

I will take no lectures from the shadow Front Bench about the issue of domestic employment. I was one of the Ministers in the Department for Work and Pensions that was proud to bring forward the back to work plan and the comprehensive reforms of the welfare system that we are taking forward as a Government. We are also seeing enormous cross-Government join-up to support more domestic workers into those roles. That is the right thing to do: to support people in this country to take on those roles and fill those vacancies. And let us not forget the record of every single Labour Government: without fail, they leave unemployment higher at the time of leaving office than it was at the start. Under this Government, we have seen record low unemployment benefiting communities across the country.

We have begun the process of delivering the measures in relation to legal migration, and we are also delivering when it comes to illegal migration. We have a plan. We are now getting on and closing hotels—150 asylum hotels have been closed. That is a positive thing. It is the right thing to do to make sure that we accommodate people in appropriate accommodation, but get away from the model of providing hotel accommodation for people. What is Labour’s plan on that? We have seen massive gains when it comes to asylum decision making and productivity around those processes. What is Labour’s policy on that? We have seen crossings down by over a third last year compared with the year before. We have seen Albanian arrivals falling by 90%. Again, what is Labour’s offering to achieve likewise? There isn’t one.

We will continue to sustain the progress that we have made, and we know from everything that has been said in recent days that the Rwanda policy is beginning to have the desired effect: the deterrent is clear. When it comes to the hon. Gentleman’s meagre offering, I would just say that we have already doubled funding for the National Crime Agency for organised immigration crime work, and we already have approximately 5,000 officials working on these matters within migration and borders. That is all that Labour Members are offering; it virtually resembles a blank sheet of paper. The truth is that they offer no deterrent. They have nowhere to send people. They have no plan. They have no solutions. They try to bluff that they do, but they are kidding nobody. They are terrified that our plan is going to work. They are terrified that they will have to scrap it, and they are terrified that they have no alternative. Only we have a plan. It is delivering results and we will see it through.

Again, no hint of a plan for how we deal with failed asylum seekers from countries to which they cannot be returned without the Rwanda scheme. I am pleased with the progress that the Minister has made on reducing net migration, but I am worried about the figures that came out yesterday. Of the 5,700 migrants who have been identified for removal, only 2,145 can be located. This reflects the evidence from the second permanent secretary to the Home Affairs Committee earlier in the year, when some 17,000 failed asylum seekers who should have been removed could not be located. Where are these people, and what is the Department doing about tracking them down and making sure that they can be removed, as needs to happen as swiftly as possible?

My hon. Friend will appreciate that I cannot go into the granularity of the operational work that is ongoing to ensure that we can deliver on this policy, but I can say that an initial cohort of suitable cases of around 2,000 people has been identified for removal, and they have been placed on immigration bail with strict reporting conditions.

For those outside that group, there is still a wide range of tools to maintain contact with them. That includes, as I said earlier, face-to-face and digital reporting, and many individuals also reside within Home Office accommodation. The Minister for Countering Illegal Migration, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Michael Tomlinson) leads on this work and he is confident of the whereabouts, once the decision to detain is made, and this is just one of the cohorts of people who may be eligible for removal to Rwanda. The policy is clear and we are getting on and operationalising it. That includes detaining people for the purposes of relocation.

It is hard to know where to start with this complete and utter drivel. The Minister comes here today proud of this tawdry, pathetic, self-defeating piece of fascist nonsense—[Interruption.] The Tories—[Interruption.] They do not like it, but it is true and I will explain to them why. The Home Office has put out—[Interruption.] Mr Speaker, they do not like the truth. The Home Office has issued a promo video this morning of people being detained, and it absolutely turns my stomach. This is a Government who glorify their state-sponsored people trafficking plans as they cuff people and take them out of their beds to be sent to another country against their will. It is sickening.

These plans are damaging to our society, to our economy, to the people who need care and to the people who want to love, live and study here. Universities are up in arms about the cuts to student numbers. It makes absolutely no sense. The draft rules that the Government have issued on adults at risk in immigration detention were released this week, but instead of taking action on the serious recommendations of the Brook House inquiry, the Home Office is instead doubling down on its policy of indefinite detention. And Labour Members are going along with all of this. Shame on them.

Far from what the Minister said, small boat arrivals are up this year. Rwanda is no deterrent because none of their other policies has proved a deterrent. The thousands of people they want to send there have disappeared, never to be seen again, and who can really blame them, if they are going to be plucked from their beds and taken away by Ministers and sent to countries against their will? Indeed, who can blame them? The risk is that these people will end up being exploited because they have gone into hiding. They will be exploited, they will be trafficked and they will be vulnerable. Why is the Minister not acknowledging the impact that this policy will have on vulnerable people?

Finally, if it is indeed the case that the person the Government sent to Rwanda has not been granted refugee status in this country, why are they not being returned to their country of origin? Is it perhaps that that country is actually unsafe? If that is true, why were they not given refugee status here in the first place?

It is a perfectly respectable position to want to protect our borders. It is right and proper to want to ensure that we have a fair and balanced system of legal migration that is sustainable. I make no apology whatsoever—and nor will this Government or any of the Ministers in the Home Office—for placing front and centre the determination to protect people’s lives. We have seen too many lives lost in the channel at the hands of evil criminal gangs with no regard whatsoever for human life who take people’s money, exploit them and send them out to sea in unseaworthy vessels. Candidly, beyond that, I am not going to edify the hon. Lady’s contribution with anything further.

I very much welcome the fact that the Minister is able to come to this House with the first encouraging signs of lower migration numbers, which will be welcomed widely outside this House—including, I suspect, in Scotland. Does he agree that the lesson we should draw from this is that taking practical, detailed measures to crack down on the exploitation of certain types of visa routes is the way to make progress on bringing immigration numbers down, rather than the windy rhetoric we heard from the Opposition spokesman?

My right hon. Friend is a distinguished former Home Office Minister who had responsibilities in the immigration space, and I would argue that a lot of the measures that we have announced, and that are now all in flight, build on the earlier efforts of colleagues such as him. He is absolutely right that the policies are balanced and measured and that they deliver on the legitimate aim of wanting to reduce inflows of legal migration into our country, to ensure fairness, to ensure that the model is sustainable and to ensure that people who come here are able to be properly supported. I think that that is something that the British people strongly support, and I entirely share his sentiments.

The National Audit Office estimates that it will cost £11,000 per person to fly people to Rwanda. Can the Minister tell the House which airline he will use to transport people to Rwanda? What is his estimate of the number of people who will be sent to Rwanda in the first three months of operating the policy?

The Chairman of the Select Committee, for whom I have enormous respect and admiration, will understand why I am not going to get into operationally or commercially sensitive matters on the Floor of the House. We have consistently seen great efforts to thwart this policy, in a whole host of senses, over the course of weeks, months and years. We will not be thwarted. We have made commitments, and we will get on with delivering this policy. There is a plan and, as the Prime Minister has said, we will send a flight within the next 10 to 12 weeks. That is where our focus lies, and it would be entirely inappropriate to share the logistics on the Floor of the House.

As mass migration has been shown to depress GDP per capita, and as it is clear that it is easier to control the much higher number of legal migrants, may I encourage the Government to return to their promise of having migration in the tens of thousands?

Again, I am not going to set out today what the Government’s future ambitions may be. What I am able to say is that we have a package of measures that is delivering a reduction of 300,000 in net migration, spanning various different routes. I think it is a very credible offer to meet the ambition of the British people to bring those numbers down, not least for the reason that my right hon. Friend touches on: legal migration to this country needs to be sustainable. When we consider, for example, that we saw 100,000 care workers come with 120,000 dependants, I do not think that any fair-minded person would, by any objective yardstick, think that that was a reasonable position. That is why we are bringing it to an end, and I am pleased that the measures we have introduced are delivering results.

The Times reports this morning that the number of visas granted for care workers in March this year was 83% down on the figure for March 2023. Does the Minister expect that reduction to continue? If he does, who will do the work that those carers would have done, and what impact does he think it might have on the national health service?

We have committed to monthly reporting on the net migration measures we have introduced to allow Parliament and others to take a view on our progress. There are extensive efforts across Government to employ more people from our domestic labour force. I wish Liberal Democrat Members were as enthusiastic as I am about the back to work plan and our work on recruitment and retention. We are taking forward those credible efforts to try to support more people in this country into these roles. We are also working intensively to improve the processes for rematching individuals who are already here on health and social care visas. These are the right steps to take, and I will not pre-empt what the figures might look like in the coming months. The right hon. Gentleman will be able to look at them in the same way as everybody else.

It is interesting to hear the Minister’s comments and to see the impact of things that, I think it is safe to say, he and I would have wanted to do slightly earlier, such as abolishing the 20% discount on the SOL. Does he agree that the core problem is that, all too often, people see immigration as an alternative to policies that affect the domestic labour market, rather than as something that supports those policies? Sectors and businesses that will be very keen to have a meeting with him in his new role were not quite so keen to meet him when he was trying to promote the Disability Confident scheme as Minister for Disabled People. What are the Government’s plans to make sure that future migration policy clearly links up with our wider policy for the UK labour market, and to make sure that it is not open to lobbying to try to avoid it?

My hon. Friend speaks with real authority and experience on this issue. I recall our conversations in our previous ministerial roles, and he is absolutely right that immigration ought not to be the first port of call in meeting our skills needs and filling vacancies. That is why the Government have a co-ordinated plan, with our immigration policies, our back to work plan, our health and disability benefit reforms, and our reforms in a host of other areas. That should be our focus. I would argue that there is a strong moral case that investing in our domestic labour force to get people into vacancies is the right thing to do. Where there needs to be a practical approach to migration, we should look at it, but it most definitely should not be the first port of call.

I welcome the comments on legal migration, which is very important to many sectors in Northern Ireland.

On the important and perplexing issue of illegal migration, can the Minister say something about what the Irish Republic’s Government said this week about pushing back returnees to Northern Ireland? Can he confirm that the Irish Justice Minister made up the fact that 80% of the problem stems from Northern Ireland? Will he say something about the Republic of Ireland’s courts claiming that the United Kingdom is an unsafe destination to return people to in the first instance? Will he please assure me that Northern Ireland will not become a dumping ground for the right-wing problems being faced across the EU?

As the Prime Minister has rightly said, including at Prime Minister’s questions, we are not going to accept returns from the EU via Ireland when the EU does not accept returns to France, from where illegal migrants are coming to the United Kingdom. The UK Government’s position is clear. We have regular and ongoing work on the abuse of the common travel area, which is right and proper. We also stand by our obligations under the Good Friday agreement. I would argue that the Prime Minister has made our position very clear.

Chelmsford is a very welcoming community. We have welcomed Ukrainian refugees, the families of those brave Afghans who stood beside our soldiers, and the Hong Kong Chinese. We have amazing domestic abuse services, and we have welcomed women and their families from all over London and the south-east who are fleeing violent men. We have built thousands of new homes and, because the Labour Mayor of London has so spectacularly failed to build new homes, we have welcomed social housing tenants from all across London, but this cannot go on. We have 400 families who are unable to find a home in temporary accommodation. We have to control migration. I am delighted that the Minister is closing 100 hotels. Will he please close the Atlantic hotel and the Legg Street flats in Chelmsford? Chelmsford has welcomed so many, and we cannot home everyone.

I am very mindful that my right hon. Friend’s community in Chelmsford has been incredibly generous. The UK Government have been delivering work in conjunction with communities to provide sanctuary for those fleeing the most dreadful conflicts around the world, including in Ukraine, Afghanistan and Syria, as well as those fleeing the situation in Hong Kong. She is also right to touch on the abuse of routes, which is precisely why we are introducing greater Care Quality Commission oversight and accreditation of the health and social care visa system.

I hear my right hon. Friend’s representations on accommodation, on which we have had conversations. Reducing inflow is critical to allowing us to get on with closing hotels across the country, and to getting the accommodation picture into a more manageable state. It is clear that only this Government have a credible plan to reduce the inflow of people coming here illegally via small boats across the channel. We will see that through to make sure that we can get on with closing more hotels.

As the policy is rolled out, it is seen to be the brutal and inhumane financial fiasco that it is. Asylum seekers were detained as they turned up for their normal monthly reporting yesterday, causing immense distress. A number of them will inevitably be sent to the detention centres in my constituency. We have experience of what happens when people are distressed in this way. We have seen suicides, self-harm and mental breakdowns. Can I have an assurance from the Minister that the charities that support asylum seekers in detention, including Care4Calais, will have direct access to these detained individuals, and that these individuals will have access to legal advice?

There are, of course, established processes whereby people can access the support that is appropriate in the circumstances. I have a principled disagreement with the right hon. Gentleman on this point about detention, and I recognise that those in the Scottish National party do not support detention either for the purposes of removal. However, where people are here who have no right to be here, I think it is appropriate that they are detained for the purposes of removal. That is done entirely properly, in accordance with the law, with the proper safeguards around it. As ever, that will continue to be the case during the ongoing work as part of the Rwanda relocations.

I welcome the statement and, in particular, the news that in some categories at least immigration is finally beginning to fall. On asylum specifically, the Irish Foreign Minister and former Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, complained bitterly just a few days ago that large numbers of asylum seekers were moving from Northern Ireland into the Irish Republic. Sky News reported yesterday that the Irish Government are seriously contemplating moving police officers to the border to interdict that flow. In effect, that would create a hard border on the island of Ireland. Some of us were lectured for years, including by today’s Opposition spokesman, that the Irish Government would never contemplate that in any circumstances, so the stench of hypocrisy is strong. Will the Minister assure me that we will never allow the Republic to return those people to Northern Ireland unless and until we can remove illegal cross-channel migrants to France? As for the contemptible remarks of the SNP spokesman, let me say that at least the UK has a Government, which is more than we can say for Scotland this week.

My right hon. Friend knows that this Government are resolutely opposed to a hard border on the island of Ireland. I understand that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has requested an urgent meeting with the Irish Government to seek assurances that there will be no adverse implications for the smooth operation of either the common travel area or the Good Friday agreement. That is an important meeting and he is right to seek it. I reiterate that we would welcome a returns agreement with the EU. We think it is right that we explore those opportunities and we will continue to pursue that.

When I was first elected to this House, we often debated safe and legal routes, but we do not hear much about that any more. Many of my constituents are writing to me because they want a family reunion scheme for their relatives in Gaza. I recently co-authored a report with Helena Kennedy recommending that the UK Government have a humanitarian visa for women in Afghanistan and Iraq. Will the Minister therefore tell me whether the Government have any plans to announce any safe and legal routes before the next general election?

I am sure the hon. and learned Lady has followed the position closely. Through the Illegal Migration Act 2023, we made a commitment, which was reflected in the legislation, to publish the cap and the statutory instrument that sits alongside it, which will support our efforts to provide resettlement opportunities in this country for people in the years ahead. That work is on track and we will deliver on that commitment, and I will be able to say more in due course.

In December, Care England appeared before my Select Committee and told us that the care sector had been “blindsided” by the change to ban overseas care workers from bringing dependants to the UK. The Government’s impact assessment said that the policy would not affect the number of those applying to come here and help look after our constituents, yet today’s figures show that care worker applications have decreased by more than half. We all want to see a care sector sustained by domestic labour—why wouldn’t we? However, with 152,000 vacancies to the end of March this year, is that decrease the intention or the unintended consequence of these changes?

As I have consistently described, the situation on dependants has been unsustainable. As I said in answer to an earlier question, we saw 120,000 dependants coming with 100,000 care workers. That position could not realistically continue to be sustained. We are in the very early stages of the delivery of these measures; the health and social care changes have only just come into force. My hon. Friend will want to satisfy himself on this having looked at the figures across a number of months, but I reiterate that there are huge opportunities associated with domestic recruitment and enormous work is going on in government with a focus on retention. That is the right way to deal with these challenges, but a health and social care visa route is still available for people. It is not unreasonable to think that in future individuals without dependants will come—they will still be able to come—and that is entirely appropriate.

When the Minister gave a statement to the House, he said that the Government had extended the hand of friendship to those fleeing persecution and oppression. Is he aware that a considerable number of people who are in Calais, or who have crossed the channel and tried to get to this country, are victims of human rights abuse, environmental disaster and wars, some of which this country has been involved in, such as in Afghanistan? His answer is to demonise them and to try to force them to go to Rwanda. Should he not think for a moment of a sense of humanity about people in a desperate situation, through no fault of their own, looking for a place of safety in a country that was involved in the war in Afghanistan in the first place?

I am exceptionally proud of the work that this country, supported by the Home Office and its teams, has done as part of the enormous resettlement efforts we have taken forward in recent years. Only last week, I had the real privilege to spend some time with a team who had been supporting new Afghan arrivals through the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme. I was incredibly moved by that work. Those individuals had come through a safe and legal route, and we will continue to see those commitments through. The UK has played its part and it will continue to do so. But what is not right, in any sense, is to give the impression that anybody ought to be getting in a small boat, having paid an evil criminal gang to do so, and coming across the channel and risking their life. We saw a young girl lose her life only last week. Nobody needs to leave those French shores in order to find safety. We do have safe and legal routes, and it is right that people come through those.

Fifteen months after the Government announced that they were taking over the whole of RAF Scampton and putting 2,000 migrants there, not a single one has arrived. We have fought the Home Office to a complete standstill and everything we have said has been proved correct; the costs are rising exponentially from £5 million to £27 million, and the buildings are decaying, as is the runway. The Labour party has now joined me in my early-day motion against this proposal. We have involved the Levelling Up Secretary, who is now imposing all sorts of conditions on the Home Office. Will the excellent, first-class Minister before us today now ensure that his attention is laser-focused on working with us and doing what we have argued for from the beginning: releasing the entire site to Scampton Holdings so that we can get the biggest and best levelling up we have ever had on a former RAF base?

My right hon. Friend is a tireless campaigner for his constituents. He knows that I am exceptionally sympathetic to trying to deliver this regeneration project for Lincolnshire. I appreciate entirely the enormous economic benefit and opportunity that it presents for people in the Scampton area, from a perspective of not only amenities but jobs. We are working intensively with him and with the local authority to move this forward. We do of course need to realise our accommodation ambitions for that site in the short term, but I also want to find and agree a way forward that means that those regeneration ambitions can also be realised as quickly as possible.

We now know that it is the Government’s intention to pay board and lodging for five years for anyone voluntarily removed to Rwanda. That commitment will fall heavily on the next Government, if this one are even successful in getting anyone to Rwanda. So how much is this nonsense going to cost?

It is fair to say that if we were to adopt the approach of the Labour Front Benchers, which the hon. Gentleman no doubt subscribes to, we would continue to have uncontrolled immigration to our country via the channel. He offers no alternative solution to the one that the Government are taking forward. That is an unsustainable position. I am confident that the Rwanda policy will help to bring to an end the channel crossings, put the evil criminal gangs out of business and get the issue under control. That has to be right. What is clearly unacceptable is to parade around with no credible policy alternative and just pretend that everything is going to be okay.

It is very encouraging to hear the news about the progress on tackling both legal and illegal migration, and particularly about the operationalisation of the Rwanda policy. I pushed on a number of occasions for further schemes with other third countries, because we need to see that deterrent, but I was told that we were waiting for the delivery of the Rwanda scheme. Now that we have delivered the Rwanda scheme through Parliament, will the Minister look again at further schemes with other third countries, so that we can offer the maximum possible deterrent to those trying to come here illegally?

My hon. Friend is right on the point about deterrents. He has been very supportive of our work that has seen Albanian arrivals fall by 90%. Again, that shows the value that deterrents have. I know the Minister for Countering Illegal Migration has been having conversations with the Vietnamese about the small boat arrivals we have seen from Vietnam. We will continue to work hard to deliver more international co-operation in this space. I also think it is right that the Home Secretary is spending considerable amounts of his time and energy on informing the conversation internationally about what more we can do to tackle these migratory flows. We know that where we led the way in announcing our Rwanda policy, others internationally are seeking to follow.

Yesterday, my 21-year-old Springburn constituent, Abdullah Salimi, was detained. He was then taken on a 10-hour journey from Scotland to England, I suspect because in Scotland he would get legal aid and he would have legal representation, but down here he will have none. During the 10-hour journey, he was given no water and no food. Is that right? Is that acceptable? What is the reason for that? He had his phone taken off him so he could not contact anybody or tell anybody. Is that right? Is that acceptable? What is the reason for that?

I haven’t finished. I emailed the Home Office last night and I went to the Home Office this morning, but officials refused to give me any information. I went with a letter for one of the Minister’s colleagues, but they refused to take the letter. I am Mr Salimi’s MP. I have the right to know what is going on in his life and the right to try to represent him. Why am I being denied that and why is he being denied the rights that the Minister enjoyed at the age of 21?

I am a British citizen who is in this country legally. [Interruption.] If the hon. Lady will allow me to finish the point, it is entirely right and proper that people are detained on a legal basis for the purposes of removal under this policy, but there are always safeguards around that. I will gladly accept the letter from the hon. Lady and ensure it reaches the right destination in the Home Office. We will, in the normal way, look carefully at any concerns she wishes to raise. I recognise that she is entirely opposed to the policy objective we are seeking to advance. There is a principled disagreement there—she thinks I am wrong about this, I think she is wrong—but if she would like to share those specific points with me, I will gladly ensure that she receives a full response.

The signs of a fall in net migration will be welcomed across Amber Valley. Can I raise my concerns about the situation where a young UK national works abroad for a while and forms a relationship, but is not yet earning enough to sponsor their spouse to live in the UK? Is there more we can do to help in this situation, perhaps by clarifying in the guidance that they can use both their salaries to meet the earnings threshold?

There has been no change to the way that the various family visa requirements can be met, through savings and the like. We had a good debate last week in Westminster Hall on the important safeguard of article 8 rights. As part of the consideration of any application, all those factors are given proper and due consideration to ensure we get the right decisions on individual cases. We think it is right to introduce these salary changes—they are being increased incrementally and not applied retrospectively—but as I say, there is an important safeguard around article 8 rights.

We have supported this policy, albeit with some reservations, because we believe it is important to break the criminal gang model and ensure the stability of the United Kingdom. However, I am not convinced today by the Minister’s argument given that we are sending one person to Rwanda with £3,000 in their pocket and we are still looking for half the people who are meant to be sent there.

This week, the Irish Government, in an attempt to divert attention from their own domestic failures on housing and immigration, have started a row about immigrants coming from the United Kingdom into the Irish Republic and have refused to publish the deal—it is the usual Brit-bashing exercise that they engage in. The Minister has been asked twice today but has not given an answer, so will he tell us what specific measures he will put in place to ensure that the cynical Irish Government do not simply bus immigrants to the border and dump them in Northern Ireland?

The situation he describes would not be appropriate. That is a matter for the Minister for Countering Illegal Migration, who leads on that work within the Home Office. We have been clear that if there is a desire for a returns deal, that needs to be done with the EU in the way the British people would rightly expect.

On the right hon. Member’s earlier point about Rwanda, the voluntary return we saw is part of an established approach to voluntary returns that was in place even when the last Labour Government were in office. We are now getting on and delivering a wider scheme. The Prime Minister has been clear that we will operationalise that over the course of the next 10 to 12 weeks. We are determined to send individuals with no right to be here to Rwanda and to put out of business the evil criminal gangs responsible for the misery in the channel.

I welcome the news about the reduction in the number of legal migrants. Immigration must be set at sustainable levels so that migrants can integrate properly into our country. Does the Minister agree that to fill any skills gap, it is vital that we ensure that we upskill our own people and not become dependent on immigration? Will he confirm that his Department is working with the Department for Education and the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure we achieve that?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about that. There is concerted effort going on across Government, building on the back to work plan. I am playing my part in discussions with colleagues from the Department for Education, the Treasury, the Department for Work and Pensions and a whole host of other Departments, including that of the Minister of State, Department for Business and Trade, my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), who is in his place. We are going sector by sector looking at what more we can do to support the domestic recruitment of staff in the first instance. That is the right approach to this. It is not right to resort to immigration as the first port of call. My hon. Friend’s support for those efforts and endeavours is appreciated.

Labour pushed the Government into scrapping the unfair 20% wage discount on jobs on the shortage occupation list. Will the Minister explain why it took so long for the Government to adopt our policy?

I do not see it like that. Labour’s policy is a blank sheet of paper. This Government’s policy is a credible offering to get on and deliver on legal and illegal migration. The good news is that those efforts are delivering results.

The Minister has said that the numbers of applications for skilled worker health and care visas and for student visas are down 24%. Astonishingly, he is proud of that. International students bring massive economic benefits to the UK. In my constituency alone, that is worth £83 million per annum. They are also highly mobile. If the graduate route is closed, we lose out economically but, more importantly, our businesses lose skills and the ability to develop and expand. Will the Minister confirm that there are no plans to close the graduate visa route?

The hon. Member presents the Government’s position in, I would argue, an inaccurate and disingenuous light. The fact is that we want to see a balanced approach to migration. The position around dependants was not sustainable. She will also recognise that there is a proper process, which is ongoing, in relation to the graduate route. The Migration Advisory Committee is looking at that route, looking at the data and taking representations and will report in a proper way to the Department. Ministers will then take decisions around those recommendations, taking full account of the facts and having proper conversations within Government about the right way forward, but it is entirely right that we wait for the Migration Advisory Committee’s findings.

Can the Minister explain what will happen to the more than 150,000 people whom the Refugee Council estimates cannot be removed to Rwanda or returned to their home country since the introduction of the Illegal Migration Act 2023? Does he accept that those people, stuck in limbo, are likely to be reliant on Home Office support or go underground?

I will not get into the operational specifics of the work that is ongoing to operationalise the Rwanda policy. We are clear that there is a basis on which we can send people to Rwanda for the purposes of relocation, with the ultimate objective of putting out of business the evil criminal gangs who are responsible for bringing people here, but we work cohort by cohort and we take appropriate decisions for individuals according to the circumstances that are relevant in each specific case.

I thank the Minister for his answers to all the questions today. Clearly, the Government have a policy that they are trying to implement, and I think they need some support from Members across the Chamber to make that happen. The Home Office has stated that a crackdown on visas has led to an 80% fall in skilled worker visas. Does the Minister agree that our fishing sector relies on the provision of skilled workers? What steps can be taken to ensure that the fisheries do not suffer as a result of what the Minister has said today?

Historically, the Government have been very generous and allowed the fishing and seafood processing sectors to have a privileged position within the immigration system, with quite considerable support. There has been some legitimate and understandable concerns raised around the risks of exploitation and the need to safeguard people properly. I make this offer again having made it previously to the sector: if it has ideas about how we can still uphold those duties to safeguard people and about how the English language requirement can still be met in a way that is conducive to helping the industry, I would welcome those representations and that evidence base.

UK Trade Performance

With permission, I would like to make a statement on the UK’s trade performance.

When I am overseas, as Secretary of State for Business and Trade, other countries speak with nothing but admiration and respect for what we are achieving in Britain. As the chief executive officer of Nissan Global recently remarked:

“It is surprising to hear people asking why they should choose the UK”—

because, in his words,

“we have both great people and great talent here.”

Certainly, in the firms that I have visited up and down this country, I am proud to see our employers and exporters firing on all cylinders. Yet, when I return to Westminster, some people seem unaware of the progress that we have made as an independent trading nation. Today, I want to put that right.

The latest trade data, published by the Office for National Statistics and also by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, should give everyone in this House cause for celebration and renewed pride in our country. They confirmed that the strategy the public voted for on 23 June 2016 is delivering. Leaving the European Union was a vote of confidence in the project of the United Kingdom, and we are seeing results. Since that referendum, the UK economy has grown faster than that of Germany, Italy and Japan, and contrary to gloomy predictions, our manufacturing productivity has grown more than that of Germany, France, Italy and the USA.

According to the latest UN statistics, the UK, outside the EU, became the world’s fourth biggest exporter in 2022, overtaking Japan, the Netherlands and France. The value of UK exports was £862 billion in the 12 months to February 2024. That builds on progress we have made in growing our exports outside the confines of the EU. Exports are now 2% above 2018 when adjusted for inflation. Services exports are at an all-time high. A summary of these figures, along with the most recent business and labour statistics, were published on in April. Together, they definitively disprove the claims of those who prophesied a catastrophic economic collapse when we left the EU to become a sovereign nation.

Today, we are selling not only more services to EU countries than ever before, but record amounts of services to the rest of the world, too. We are the largest net exporter of financial and insurance services in the world. Far from an exodus of businesses out of the UK, European firms have doubled down on their commitments to the UK. In 2020, Unilever chose to headquarter exclusively in London over Rotterdam. Since 2022, Cadbury has brought more chocolate production back to the UK from Germany. In the same year, Shell moved its headquarters out of the Netherlands and into the UK.

We are tearing down the barriers to trade. Since the start of 2022, we have resolved barriers all over the world, estimated to be worth more than £15 billion to UK businesses over a five-year period. In 2023, this was equivalent to removing around £1 million-worth of trade barriers every single hour. British pork farmers are benefiting from newly agreed access to the Mexican market, which is worth £80 million over the same period. Our work on bottle labelling for UK gin and whisky has driven up exports to Chile by tonnes. We have ended the US ban on British beef and lamb.

We are working to deliver a strategy on a situation that faces the whole world, not just our friends and neighbours in Europe. This is crucial if we are to lock Britain into the future of where global growth will be. In 2022, the EU took more than 60% of UK goods exports. In 2023, this was 47%, because UK goods exports to the EU remained broadly flat, while exports to non-EU countries rose by around 70% in real terms.

We are going further to seize the benefits of an independent trade policy. We have deals with 73 countries around the world, with more to come under this Government, plus the most comprehensive trade deal to which the EU has ever agreed. Later this year, we will join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, one of the world’s biggest trading blocs. This will mean that more than 99% of UK goods will be eligible for zero tariffs in some of the Asia Pacific’s most dynamic economies. British business is set to benefit.

As well as service exports, where Britain excels, our top goods sales were in cars, mechanical-powered generators, medicines, pharmaceutical products and aircraft components. We have one of the world’s largest manufacturing sectors. Productivity in our manufacturing industry has grown faster than in every other G7 nation since 2010. Hundreds of businesses in steel, chemicals and other sectors stand to benefit from the newly introduced British industry supercharger, which is bringing energy costs down for key industries. Our £4.5 billion advanced manufacturing plan is opening new markets and removing obstacles to growth while helping to crowd in new funding for plants and factories throughout the UK. Every penny the UK Government spend on manufacturing is matched fivefold by the growth creators of the private sector. This pro-investment approach is working: the UK’s automotive sector attracted £3.7 billion-worth of greenfield foreign investment in 2022 alone.

The Labour party will remember Mr Alastair Campbell, who asserted during the referendum that if we leave the EU, Nissan will leave. Nissan is still here. The two new 100% electric models are set to be built at its Sunderland this year. More Minis are rolling off production lines in Oxfordshire today, thanks to a £600 million investment from BMW. These are firms that look for opportunities the world over and decide that the UK is the place to be. Listening to some of the remarks made in this House and elsewhere, people would think that our country was not worth investing in at all. Let us be clear: the British ingenuity and industry that made this country prosper in the past still exists today, and even if those on the Opposition Benches cannot see it, international investors certainly can.

The statistics published by my Department show that the UK’s inward FDI stock has reached more than £2 trillion. Our FDI stock is the highest in Europe—more than Germany, France and Italy combined. The most recent OECD data show that our employment rate is higher than that of the US, France and Italy.

The regulatory freedoms that we gained by leaving the EU have allowed our smarter regulation programme to cut the red tape that has been holding them back. We have already reformed the working time directive reporting requirements, saving businesses up to £1 billion per year. We recently announced that we will raise the thresholds that determine company size, reducing burdens on smaller businesses, and remove low-value and overlapping reporting requirements.

Those changes will make reporting simpler and deliver savings of around £150 million per year to UK companies, with small and medium-sized companies benefiting by around £145 million. It is no surprise that the most recent NatWest SME business activity index shows that output is increasing strongly, driven by renewed manufacturing sector expansion, and companies’ activity expectations remain upbeat. These things do not happen by accident, and I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will welcome those figures.

I have no doubt that this statement will disappoint some people, as it does not align with the story that they want to tell of a nation riven by injustice and economic stagnation, clinging to Europe for any hope for the future. That is not to say that everything is perfect—of course there is still more to do—but we are not alone in our problems. Ministers in other countries are quick to remind me about supply-chain issues affecting everything from getting car components to stocking supermarket shelves. They tell me about how they are coping with problems in the jobs market, as societies from Germany to Japan get older.

Only when I am back in the UK am I told that all these issues are down to Brexit. Far from it. Our plans are working, and Britain is thriving as an independent sovereign home of free enterprise and free trade. That is what the recent figures published by my Department, by the ONS, and by the UN tell me. It is what our businesses, exporters, employers and investors all tell me, and I hope that hon. Members present can see it too. I commend this statement to the House.

As usual, I am grateful to the Secretary of State for advance sight of her statement. I am always pleased to hear any positive news on trade and investment, but she appears, presumably inadvertently, to have missed out one or two facts and issues in her statement.

Under the Conservative party, business has suffered from endless U-turns and policy changes that undermine investment. There have been constant changes on policies, from net zero to corporate governance. The Government’s failure to address the big challenges facing business, such as skills shortages, infrastructure issues and net zero, have undermined business confidence. Foreign direct investment figures are down nearly 30% since 2016-17, according to the Government’s own figures. Without an industrial strategy, and with constant policy uncertainty, more businesses will not have the confidence to invest in the UK.

Specifically on trade, British exports in the past decade have grown slower than those of any other member of the G7 besides Japan. According to the Office for Budget Responsibility, since the Secretary of State was appointed, British exports have dropped and are expected to decline again this year, with at best anaemic growth in each of the next three years. Ministers have cut funding to help small businesses get to the international trade shows that they need to attend in order to find new export markets, and have cut funding to allow business groups to lead their own trade missions to win vital new orders for British business.

Farmers and Conservative members think that the Government’s record on trade negotiations is one of giving away far too much for far too little in return. Ministers delivered a poor trade deal with Europe that has put up barriers to trade, raised costs for businesses and helped to drive up prices, and there is no sign of any plan to use next year’s review of the trade and co-operation agreement to try to address at least some of those issues. Then there is the Conservatives’ failure to deliver on the promises in their manifesto at the last general election to have trade agreements in place with at least 80% of the world, and to have a trade deal with the United States. The target to deliver £1 trillion of exports has been moved many times, and will at best be delivered 15 years late.

Perhaps the right hon. Lady could answer the following questions. Last week, we heard about the impact that the Government’s constant flip-flopping is having on the automotive sector, with Stellantis airing serious warnings. What discussions has she had with the Transport Secretary to try to mitigate the impact of the Conservative party’s chaos? As the devastating news from south Wales continues to come, we have heard next to nothing from the Secretary of State on the damage that she has allowed to our steel industry. Does she still think that spending millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money to make thousands of people redundant and leave us as the first developed country with no primary steelmaking capacity was “a great deal”, as she said at the time?

Given that this House has repeatedly been promised an amazing trade deal with India, usually by Diwali, will the right hon. Lady update the House on the state of free trade agreement negotiations with India? Lastly, given the media reports at the weekend, which have caused concern, will she update the House on whether FTA negotiations with the Gulf Co-operation Council are still ongoing or have stalled?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his questions. I could see that it was very difficult for him to find things to pick at in the statement, so I broadly welcome some of what he said, which implied that the good news is true.

The hon. Gentleman started with the OBR. He picked that statistic very selectively. Of course exports fell during covid; exports overall have grown. Many Opposition Members will say, “Oh, it’s just services.” That is because they do not understand the UK economy. The UK economy is 80% services, so it is good that services exports are going up. That is what we mainly do in this country.

The hon. Gentleman asked about Stellantis, and talked about U-turns. I remind him that the whole House voted for the net zero by 2050 target. It happened under a previous Conservative Government, but with the consent of the whole House. When business talks, we listen. The Opposition criticised us for making the changes that Stellantis asked for, so why is he now raising those comments? The Transport Secretary, the Prime Minister and I had a discussion—we do have discussions—and we extended the zero-emission vehicle mandate to ensure that we were not imposing undue costs on people if they were not ready to take up electric vehicles. We listen; the Opposition do not. Look at their plans for net zero. I assure the hon. Gentleman that businesses are absolutely terrified about what Labour would do with its new green deal, and all the measures that would just put costs on businesses and consumers.

The hon. Gentleman asked about steel. I am afraid that I need to correct several points. We saved jobs in Port Talbot—8,000 jobs were going to be lost, and we saved 5,000. If we want a net zero transition, we will have to move to electric arc furnaces, which require fewer staff. The Opposition cannot blame the Government for that while demanding a transition to net zero. We saved 5,000 jobs in Port Talbot. We invested £500 million out of a total £2 billion investment made with Tata. It is wrong to say that the Government are not saving steel; we are the only ones who have a plan for steel. The Opposition have no plan. We have a great plan, which will transform and regenerate south Wales.

The other thing that the hon. Gentleman said that was incorrect was about us having no primary steel production. We still have British Steel in Scunthorpe. There may be changes in Port Talbot around moving to electric arc furnaces, but he needs to remember that even the steel production that we have there relies on imports. We do not have iron ore here, so I recommend that he gets a briefing on exactly what is going on with steel production in the UK.

On India, the hon. Gentleman is right that a deal was promised by Diwali under a previous Prime Minister, but as soon as I became Trade Secretary, I said in this House over and over that it is about the deal, not the day. We do not sign trade deals that will not make businesses happy. We are keen to ensure that whatever we do will do right by our farmers. The Opposition laughed when I paused the FTA discussions with Canada. That was because what the Canadians were offering was not going to be good. The industry there is complaining that the UK got too good a deal from the CPTPP, but the Opposition do not talk about that. We are negotiating great deals for this country. I am very proud of the work that my Ministers and my Department are doing. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his questions.

I am grateful for the statement. It is wonderful news on exports; it shows that all the pessimism at the time of the referendum was completely wrong. I fully support the approach of the Secretary of State in delaying the target for battery vehicles, because people are not buying them in enough quantities, but will she add to that by adopting the advice of Stellantis not to fine motor manufacturers here for producing good petrol and diesel cars before people are ready to buy electric ones, because that is putting off investors?

I understand the point that my right hon. Friend makes. This is something that we have heard from some bodies in industry. The auto sector is giving us two different messages. Some people want us to bring the mandate forward and make the change faster; others want us to delay it. It is a very tricky balance. We understand the concerns. We do not want to put additional burdens on business, so he is right to make that point. I have made representations to the Transport Secretary, but this is his policy area, and he will make the ultimate decision.

With these selective statistics, the Secretary of State would clearly make a good cherry-picker, while clutching at straws at the same time. The reality is that we still have a cost of living crisis, and I would welcome her to my constituency to tell people there how rosy things apparently are in the UK. Real GDP growth in the UK—growth since before the pandemic—is just 1%. That is one third of the EU average figure, and one eighth of US growth.

The here and now figures are even worse. The UK economy shrank in 2023, whereas there was significant growth in the G7 and the OECD average. Now is probably the only time in living history that the UK economy has been on a par with Germany’s—but sadly that is because Germany is also an international outlier in lacking economic growth. Volumes of UK goods imports and exports are 7.4% smaller than in 2018—the biggest five-year decline for which comparative records exist.

The Secretary of State is right that exports to the EU are up, but imports from the EU are also up, so the trading deficit with the EU has increased by more than 5%. Allianz Trade has estimated that the introduction yesterday of new customs and checks procedures on animal and plant products and goods entering the UK will cost British business £2 billion a year. UK Energy also estimates that energy bills are £1 billion a year higher due to post-Brexit trading arrangements.

Instead of talking up the minimal savings from what the Secretary of State calls “cutting red tape”, I wish she would tell the truth about the trading cost increases resulting from Brexit red tape for businesses in the UK, not to mention the impact of labour shortages. This Parliament is set to break a lot of records: we have the biggest drop in living standards, the longest decline in GDP per capita, the steepest five-year decline in volume of trade, and the stock market shrinking at its fastest pace in history. Which of these record-breaking achievements for broken Britain is she most proud of?

It was very interesting to hear the hon. Gentleman talk about his constituents. What he should tell them—certainly what I would, if I was there—is that under the seven-year Administration of First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP welfare economy grew at half the growth rate of England’s economy. If the SNP had achieved growth in line with England, it could have increased Scotland’s economy by £15 billion. Instead, that welfare economy means no growth, because of Scotland having the highest income tax rates in the UK, and higher wages in the public sector than in the private sector. The SNP’s policies are not helping.

The hon. Gentleman asks questions—[Interruption.] He does not want to hear the facts, but I will give him the facts. He talks about the real, pre-pandemic GDP figure. Of course the pandemic had an impact; we cannot stand here and pretend that it did not. Even the statistics I am quoting showed that covid had a far bigger impact than leaving the EU ever will, just as Russia’s war in Ukraine will have a far bigger impact than leaving the EU. He talks about international outliers, which shows that he is the one who is cherry-picking. We have to look at our peer countries, because we will not grow as quickly as developing countries. It is astonishing that he is also complaining that imports from the EU are up. That shows that, despite our leaving the European Union, trade is doing well and things are going well. If his Scottish Government took some lessons from the UK Government, they would see much better things happening for their constituents.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement, and especially the fact that Japan was mentioned on, I think, five or six occasions. The latest statistics show there has been a £777 million increase in total trade between our two countries, which works out at an increase of 2.9%. I would also welcome her to an event that we are hosting with Baker McKenzie in the first week of June, launching Baker McKenzie’s UK Japan Connect, which seeks to foster business and trade between our countries.

I thank my hon. Friend for the question; I will check my diary to see if I am available for the event, but I am glad that he raises the issue of trade with Japan. We signed an upgraded FTA with Japan after leaving the EU, so these roll-over deals are no longer roll-over deals, because we are adding more into them, especially the digital trade chapters. These are deals fit for the 21st century—the age we live in—rather than the 20th century.

It is good to see the Secretary of State in the House again. I know she has a difference of opinion sometimes with the Office for Budget Responsibility, but can she confirm that the OBR’s figures for March 2024 show that the UK has the lowest trade intensity in the G7? There was important progress, as she has reported today, but much of it rests on progress in our services trade, which provokes the question of why we are not pursuing services-only trade agreements in a more expansive way, not least as the Minister for Trade Policy was unable to confirm whether any comprehensive free trade deals would be signed before the election when he came before the Committee yesterday. He said that services-only deals were not allowed under World Trade Organisation rules, which of course is flat-out wrong.

The question I want to put to the Secretary of State is about our goods trade. The Office for National Statistics figures show that our goods exports have fallen by about £31 billion over a year. The risk is that that number will be hit even harder by the chaos at the border. The new border operating model involves data that is submitted by traders, but then not shared with ports; sometimes two hours’ notice is needed for a journey that only takes 90 minutes; there is no standardisation of inspection charges; and British Chambers of Commerce says that many businesses will be hit by thousands of pounds-worth of customs bills that they did not know they were on the hook for.

The question is this: did the Secretary of State warn her colleagues in Cabinet that there would be complete chaos, and that the EU checks that we are introducing would be a disaster? That is what small business is saying to me, and I know it is what small business is saying to her.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his questions. He asks why we are not pursuing services-only deals. We have done two of those: one with Singapore and one with Ukraine about digital trade exclusively. However, it is an area where we need both sides to agree, and most countries still want a goods deal; for many of the countries that we are negotiating with, goods are still the larger part of their economy. We have to bear that in mind, because trade deals are not a one-way story.

I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman welcomes my statement. He will of course know that I am not somebody who pretends that everything is perfect and nothing could be better. I do think things could be improved, but one thing we have to acknowledge, in reference to his comments about the border operating model, is that the people voted to leave the European Union. There will be opportunities and there will be costs. Farmers regularly tell us that they want better food standard checks and other checks at the border. That will impose a cost. We have done everything we can to minimise those costs—we have even found cost savings in doing so. I have heard many scare stories about what businesses will see at the border, but not all of them will apply. We are doing everything we can to minimise the burden, but the fact is that the EU imposed the same measures on the other side, and we need to give our producers a level playing field.

It is a pleasure to follow the Chairman of the Business and Trade Committee. I am a relatively new member of the Committee; I joined this year. I recall my first meeting, at which we heard that the UK has had the third-highest foreign direct investment over the past years; we are behind only the US and China. This week, at our meeting with the Minister for Trade Policy, we heard about our trade deals with over 70 countries, including the landmark CPTPP. Does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State agree that that track record of success contrasts starkly with Labour’s track record? Under Labour, the UK’s share of global trade declined. Does she agree that, just perhaps, aside from the Chairman of the Select Committee, there is not a single Labour Back Bencher in the Chamber who wants to hear about that track record of success, because they do not have a leg to stand on?

I thank my hon. Friend for the question. She is right, and I am sure that the hon. Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas), who was a Labour Trade Minister, could verify those figures about our trade dropping.

He is shaking his head. In answer to my hon. Friend’s question, we were often told that we would never be able to get those 73 trade deals—we were mocked—and that nobody would sign any deals with the UK that were like what we had in the EU. We got 73 done, and many of them we have actually improved on. We in this House must remind people that we have done much good; they may forget. People live in the moment, and we have to remind them of our record—and this is a record we should be proud of.

As much as we welcome the good figures that have been produced, Northern Ireland still suffers from not having full access to the trade deals that the United Kingdom has struck throughout the world with 70 countries. What measures would ensure that we can take advantage of those deals and get rid of the injustice of the protocol and the difficulties that it causes businesses in Northern Ireland?