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Commons Chamber

Volume 749: debated on Wednesday 8 May 2024

House of Commons

Wednesday 8 May 2024

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Speaker’s Statement

Before we begin questions, I wish to make a short statement about the House’s sub judice resolution. Members will be aware of the recent deaths at HM Prison Parc, including two more deaths overnight. A coroner’s inquest has been opened into some of those deaths. These proceedings are now sub judice. While the sub judice rule can be waived, it is not to be done lightly, and for the time being no reference should be made to those proceedings in the House.

Members may ask about related issues to do with the health and safety of prisoners, and the security of the prison estate. But I urge hon. Members to exercise caution in what they say, and particularly to avoid speculating on the causes of the deaths of these men.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

20 mph Speed Limit: Impact on Road Users

1. What recent discussions he has had with the Welsh Government on the impact of the 20 mph speed limit on residential roads and pedestrian streets in Wales on road users. (902647)

6. What recent discussions he has had with the Cabinet Secretary for North Wales and Transport on the impact of the 20 mph speed limit on residential roads and pedestrian streets in Wales on road users. (902652)

9. What recent discussions he has had with the Welsh Government on the impact of the 20 mph speed limit on residential roads and pedestrian streets in Wales on road users. (902655)

Mr Rosindell is not here, but will the Secretary of State answer his question, as it is the lead?

Before I do so, Mr Speaker, may I fully support your ruling and send my deepest condolences to the relatives of all those who have died in prison?

May I make it absolutely clear that I, Conservative MPs, Senedd Members and councillors are supportive of a 20 mph speed limit in certain areas, such as outside schools, hospitals, old people’s homes or anywhere where there are vulnerable pedestrians? But the blanket 20 mph speed limit has had a detrimental effect on road users, users of public transport and businesses across Wales, and I call on the Welsh Labour Government to think again.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. Clearly, there is a strong case for 20 mph limits outside schools, in shopping areas and in other areas where there is huge pedestrian activity, but a blanket ban is outrageous. Has he any detail as to the cost to the Welsh economy of this extremely damaging move, and, indeed, the cost of implementing it across Wales in such a blanket fashion?

My understanding is that the vast majority of 30 mph roads are now 20 mph. I have seen a figure suggesting that it is around 96%—[Interruption.] Mr Speaker, it is a blanket ban on 30 mph roads and that is exactly what the Welsh Labour Government put out there. I can give my hon. Friend an indication of the costs, because the Welsh Government’s own impact assessment suggested that this would cause a £4.5 billion hit to the Welsh economy and, on top of that, taxpayers have had to pay £30 million for 20 mph road signs.

This is really concerning and I note that almost half a million people—a record number—signed a petition on the Senedd’s move, because they were so concerned about the impact that the measure will have. It cost £33 million to implement and now it is estimated that an extra £5 million is needed to unwind the changes. What conversations is my right hon. Friend having with the Welsh Government to ensure that we do not see such policies again?

We certainly do not want policies such as this. There is an anti-motorist agenda with the Welsh Labour Government that includes not only 20 mph speed limits, but legislation bringing in tolls on the M4 and a ban on any major new road projects being built. We have even had Monmouthshire Labour Council suggesting that it might want to campaign to bring back Severn bridge tolls. The lesson is that if people support motorists and support the right to drive a car they should vote Conservative at the next general election.

On this illogical decision to pursue a 20 mph limit, does the Minister agree that there is a lesson to be learned for a Government—in Wales or elsewhere—trying to pursue something that the general public quite clearly do not want at all?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. He raises a very good point, because this was clearly done against the wishes of almost half a million people—a record number of people—who signed a petition on this matter. The most recent announcement by the Welsh Government, which raises the possibility of their doing a screeching U-turn on the policy, suggests to me that they might be more interested in deflecting national press attention from the scandal involving the Welsh Labour Government in Cardiff Bay.

If you will indulge me, Mr Speaker, I would like to acknowledge the 25th anniversary this week of Welsh devolution—delivered by a Labour Government. It has helped to nurture a confident, modern and outward-looking Wales, and Labour Members are proud of it.

Not a single one of the hon. Members who have raised questions on this issue lives in Wales, and the speed limit is not blanket, as the Secretary of State well knows. It is a bit like the Conservative councillor in Sunderland who set up anti-20 mph Facebook groups while campaigning for the limit in his own area. Meanwhile, a mother whose 11-year-old son was hit by a car near his school in Flintshire said that the 20 mph speed limit likely saved his life. Does the Secretary of State agree that her intervention represents an important endorsement of the Welsh Labour Government’s policy to protect lives, especially children’s lives?

I, too, acknowledge the 25th anniversary of devolution. We were promised that it would deliver better schools, hospitals and public standards. What we actually have are the longest waiting lists and the worst educational standards in the United Kingdom, and a First Minister who is willing to take a £200,000 donation from a twice-convicted criminal. That is the record of 25 years of Labour-run Government in Wales.

I said straightaway that I am in favour of 20 mph limits outside schools, hospitals and other places where there are vulnerable pedestrians. I do not like the blanket ban that has been imposed as part of the anti-motorist agenda of the Welsh Labour Government.

It is rich of Government Members to chunter about donations. How much of Mr Frank Hester’s millions is bankrolling the Conservatives’ general election campaign? This is a man who said that a black woman MP in this House “should be shot”.

On roads, does the Secretary of State agree with his own association deputy chairman, writing in ConservativeHome this week, that politics in Wales is a “cul-de-sac” for the Tory party? The Welsh public do not like divisive politics, and they do not like Wales being constantly talked down by the Tories. Is that why they have not won a domestic election in Wales for over a century?

I remind the hon. Lady that we just got more votes than the Labour party in my constituency of Monmouth in the police and crime commissioner elections. What people in Wales want is public services, waiting lists and education standards that match what is being delivered by this Conservative Government in England, and standards in public life that reflect what we expect from Members of Parliament in the United Kingdom. That is not what we are getting under the Welsh Labour Government.

Biodiversity: Rivers and Streams

2. What discussions he has had with the Welsh Government on the biodiversity of Welsh rivers and streams. (902648)

Water is a devolved matter in Wales, and therefore rivers and streams in Wales are the responsibility of the Welsh Government. The UK Government recognise that rivers are an essential part of our natural environment. That is why we are working on the UK national biodiversity strategy and action plan.

Will the Minister fess up to the fact that the real scandal in Wales is that the UK Government keep denigrating a good Welsh Government that in terms of biodiversity and so much else are better than the rest of the UK? On biodiversity, they are three times better than England. Is it not about time that we got a few Welsh ideas and Welsh leaders to help us clean up our act and our rivers?

That was a good attempt, but I simply cannot disagree with the hon. Gentleman more. It is this Government who forced water companies to provide £56 million towards investment in the storm overflow network, improving water quality across England. In Wales, the picture could not be more different. The average number of sewage spills per outflow is 38; in England, it is 23. Our record speaks for itself.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for clarifying the sub judice rules in relation to Parc Prison. MPs across south Wales were disappointed that the urgent question was declined yesterday, but we understand why. We will continue to seek answers and to scrutinise Ministers over these deeply distressing events, and the way the prison is being run.

Thousands of Pembrokeshire residents continue to have their lives blighted by air pollution and fears about water pollution from the Withyhedge landfill site. Given that the Ministers in Wales who are responsible for overseeing the public health and the environmental regulatory response both voted last week to block an independent investigation into the financial dealings between the owner of that site and the First Minister, how on earth can my constituents have confidence that their concerns will be addressed impartially and the problems resolved?

My right hon. Friend lives this issue on a daily basis, and I commend him for highlighting the plight of his constituents, who have to endure the impact of such devastating environmental pollution. Any way we look at it, this donation stinks, and it is shameful that the Welsh Government are evading scrutiny on the issue. His constituents can have no confidence that this matter will be investigated. There is no independent scrutiny here. Labour Members should explain why they are scared of scrutiny on this question.

Cost of Living

3. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the cost of living in Wales. (902649)

12. What recent assessment he has made of the impact of increases in the cost of living on people in Wales. (902658)

The UK Government fully recognise the challenges posed by cost of living pressures that have come about as a result of covid and the invasion of Ukraine. That is why they have committed to the triple lock on pensions for this Parliament, increased the living wage, benefiting 140,000 people in Wales, and put an average £701 back into the pocket of a typical worker in Wales through national insurance cuts.

The Trussell Trust says that one fifth of people in Wales have cut back on or skipped meals in the last 12 months. What conversations is the Secretary of State having with supermarkets about holding down the cost of food for customers?

I know that many supermarkets are supporting food banks within their local areas, and the UK Government have certainly supported those with the least by making sure that pensions, benefits and the minimum wage all go up in line with inflation, and making extra payments on top to pensioners, those on benefits and households where there is disability. However, if the hon. Lady is truly concerned about cost of living pressures in Wales, perhaps she ought to ask her colleagues in the Welsh Labour Government why, on this very day, Welsh Labour Ministers are supporting a plan to create dozens of extra Senedd Members at a cost of £120 million—all money that could be far better spent on supporting those with the least.

Is the Secretary of State aware of a study by Citizens Advice Cymru indicating that more than half a million people in Wales are struggling to make ends meet? If he is aware, what is he doing about it?

I have already outlined the extra payments that are being made to pensioners and those on benefits and disability, and the fact that pensions, benefits and the minimum wage have all gone up in line with inflation. On top of that, the UK Government have delivered five towns funds, four growth deals, three rounds of levelling-up funding, two investment zones, two freeports, an electric arc furnace in south Wales and an electrified rail line in north Wales—and what are we getting from the Welsh Labour Government? We are getting £120 million spent on extra Senedd Members. While we level up the economy, they want to level up the number of politicians in Cardiff Bay.

The Secretary of State mentioned Ukraine and covid as contributing factors to the cost of living crisis, but he forgot to mention Brexit—or is he going to try to argue that Brexit has somehow improved things and made goods and services cheaper for people in Wales?

I would be only too delighted to mention Brexit, which was voted for by a majority of the United Kingdom and a majority in Wales, and point out to the hon. Gentleman that since Brexit the UK has grown faster than France and Germany. I could also mention wasting money on Scottish embassies all around the world, trying to build ferries that have not yet been floated anywhere, raising taxes and trying to shut down the oil and gas industry in Scotland as measures that are unlikely to help with cost of living pressures in Scotland.

The Development Bank of Wales is supposed to be aiding businesses through cost of living pressures. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is unacceptable that one company received £400,000 from the bank, and was then able to give the First Minister of Wales £200,000?

My hon. Friend raises a very interesting point here. The Development Bank of Wales, which is owned ultimately by the Welsh taxpayers, should be there to support businesses through cost of living pressures. It was able to make a £400,000 loan to a company that was then able to turn round and add £200,000 back into a political donation to enable the First Minister to win the Welsh Labour leadership election. It is a very good question, but it is not a question for me; it is one that should be answered by those on the shadow Front Bench. On this matter, they have been very silent indeed.

Small businesses, particularly those in retail and hospitality, are directly affected by cost of living challenges coming from covid and the energy price spike from the Ukraine conflict. The Chancellor has, therefore, introduced a 75% business rate relief scheme in England, which is supporting businesses in England. Does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State share my concern that that funding is not being used to the same degree in Wales, and that business rates in Wales are only being relieved at a rate of 40%, so businesses are paying more in tax?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The UK Government made certain that the money for the business rate discount was passed on to the Welsh Labour Government, but instead of passing it on to the pubs, restaurants and small businesses that are so vital to communities in Wales, they have decided to spend it on other matters, such as the one they are voting on today. As a result, the average pub in Wales is paying thousands more in business rates than a pub just across the border in England. That is absolutely scandalous, and I urge the Welsh Labour Government to think about where their priorities are.

No contrition, then, in any of those answers from the Secretary of State, whose party has, by freezing tax thresholds, piled on £960 extra on average to the tax bills of around 400,000 pensioners in Wales. The Prime Minister has now made a totally unfunded £46 billion promise to scrap national insurance. Will the Secretary of State tell us how on earth the Government will pay for that, and will he rule out raising income tax by 8p or scrapping winter fuel payments to do so?

We have made it clear that we want to keep the triple lock to ensure that pensions continue to increase in line with inflation. We will be able to afford that by ensuring that we get growth in the economy, which is why we wanted to end the double taxation system of making those in work pay extra money through national insurance tax. We have also made it clear that we will make tax cuts only when we can afford them, because on the Conservative side of the House, we do not believe in making unfunded promises in order to buy votes.

More than one in four children in Wales lives in poverty. Devolution has the capacity to transform people’s lives, but the current First Minister is distracted by questions about his integrity, deleting messages and taking dodgy donations. After 25 years since the start of devolution, does the Secretary of State agree that Governments at both ends of the M4 need to recommit to integrity and transparency?

I can absolutely assure the right hon. Lady that this Government, and the Conservative party, are completely committed to integrity—[Interruption.] Labour Members are laughing, but their own First Minister took £200,000 from a convicted criminal—one who had received £400,000 from a bank for which the First Minister is responsible—and told the covid committee that all the messages on his phone had been accidentally deleted by the IT department, but now we see a screenshot in which he urges people to delete their messages so that they cannot be subject to a freedom of information request. Labour Members have the audacity to sit there laughing when people ask questions about standards. I say that the right hon. Lady makes a very good point: let us collapse the coalition and stop supporting the Welsh Labour Government, and then we can get a decent Government with decent values running Wales.

My party seeks to make a difference to the lives of the people of Wales, but the Secretary of State and I are in agreement for once when it comes to his judgments in relation to the First Minister. It screams hypocrisy, however, because the Tories in the Senedd voted against a Plaid Cymru motion to set a cap on political donations, and his party has still not returned a £10 million donation from a man who made racist and misogynistic remarks. In that spirit of open democracy, will he support a cap on donations to political parties?

I will not sit here and start making policy on the hoof, but I say to the right hon. Lady—and I think she would agree—that I would not have taken hundreds of thousands of pounds in donations from somebody who had been convicted twice of environmental offences. If Labour Members are happy with that, it is a matter for them.

River Wye Action Plan

I thank my right hon. Friend for his work as Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee. The UK Government’s River Wye action plan will halt ongoing decline of the River Wye to preserve and restore that treasured river to the rating of favourable condition.

As the Minister has already said, the environment is a devolved matter, but nobody seems to have told the River Wye, which rises in Wales and crosses the border to merge into the River Severn in England. I very much welcome the River Wye action plan, which the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs announced recently. Has my hon. Friend seen any action taken by the Welsh Government to match the UK Government’s commitment to cleaning up the polluted River Wye?

In the interests of time, I will give my right hon. Friend a very short answer: no. The Welsh Government have failed to come to the table time and time again on this issue, which is close to my heart as a constituency MP for the River Wye. That has been the missing piece of the puzzle, and it is why we are seeing no action in Wales.

NHS Waiting Times

Healthcare is devolved to the Welsh Government, who have received record levels of funding to deliver on all their devolved responsibilities, receiving 20% more funding per person than in England.

So many people in Wales are waiting longer for NHS care than people in England, and in a 12-month period, 40,000 people had to go from Wales to England for elective care. Does that not show that Labour’s claims to be better for the NHS are completely false?

My right hon. Friend is entirely right: the NHS is not safe in Labour’s hands, and we have living proof of that in Wales. It is a great shame that when the Secretary of State for Health in England offered the support of the NHS in England to alleviate pressures on waiting times in Wales, the Welsh Health Secretary turned that support down. That is Labour’s record on the NHS.

One of the problems that a lot of my constituents have raised with me is that when they do get a letter calling them for an appointment—including one for which they have been waiting for some time—that letter arrives after the appointment date, because the Royal Mail is now delivering such an appalling service. Is it not time that we had a strong word to make sure that people who are being called for appointments get a chance to turn up to them, because they have actually received their letter on time?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, and one that I will certainly investigate with colleagues, but I think the problem lies with the mismanagement of the Welsh NHS, for which his party must take responsibility.

Victims of Crime: Support

The UK Government recognise the importance of victims having access to the support they need to recover from the impact of crime. That is why we are quadrupling funding for victim services, up from £41 million in 2010.

As a recent victim of crime, I know that one impact on victims is that it makes you reflect on how many crimes remain unsolved. The latest figures show that nine in 10 crimes in Wales went unsolved in the past six months, so what can the Minister say to the victims of the 82,000 reported crimes that went uncharged last year?

First, may I say how sorry I am to learn that the hon. Lady has been a victim of crime? I know the experience she has gone through, and I personally send her my huge sympathies.

This Government have a proud record of delivering for victims of crime, whether through new pieces of legislation or the record headcount of police officers. Unfortunately, it was the Welsh Government who chose to reduce the number of police community support officers last year, which is having an impact on victims of crime.

Does my hon. Friend agree that we are all victims when senior Labour politicians make false and misleading statements at public inquiries?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is deeply concerning that a First Minister should reveal himself to have acted in such a way, which appears to be entirely contrary. I look forward to Welsh Labour Members calling for further scrutiny of that issue.

Future of Steelmaking

10. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the future of the steelmaking industry in Wales. [R] (902656)

11. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the future of the steelmaking industry in Wales. (902657)

I have regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues on a range of subjects, including steelmaking in Wales. The Government are investing £500 million to retain steelmaking at Port Talbot and other Tata sites including Llanwern and Shotton, protecting 5,000 jobs and thousands more in the supply chain while increasing our economic security. At the same time, the Government have put aside £80 million for the transition board to spend on supporting anyone who loses their job in Port Talbot or in the wider community.

Whether it be the transmission pylons and lines needed to upgrade our power grid as demanded by the Winser report, or the prospect of building steel-based offshore wind platforms, the Welsh steel industry can and should be central to our transition to a net zero nation. When historic investments in green steel are being made by European competitors, does the Secretary of State recognise that the Government’s lack of ambition for Britain has let thousands of skilled workers down?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point about the importance of making sure there is a grid connection to enable an electric arc furnace to work properly. I have raised this issue with National Grid, and it has assured me that the grid connection can be made on time.

The hon. Gentleman makes a second reasonable point about the importance of being able to use steel produced in Port Talbot for floating offshore wind turbines. That is not the case at the moment because, as some of his Front Benchers seem to be unaware, the steel made in Port Talbot is coil, which is too thin to make those turbines. However, he will be pleased to know that there are discussions going on with one major investor to try to ensure that the steel produced from the arc furnace can be made in a way that could support floating offshore wind structures.

The sustainability of domestic automotive manufacturing is vital to the future prosperity of Luton’s local economy, so what discussions has the Secretary of State had with the UK’s automotive industry about the effect of losing our sovereign virgin steel production on their supply chain costs?

I have regular discussions with the automotive industry, and I have also had regular discussions with the steel industry across the United Kingdom. Some 90% of the grades that are currently produced by Port Talbot can be produced using an electric arc furnace, and there is work going on to ensure that the other 10% can be.

May I just remind the hon. Lady that we actually have a plan for Port Talbot? When Tata came to us, it was looking to close down Port Talbot and pull out of the United Kingdom, a move that would have cost 8,000 jobs and 12,500 in the wider supply chain. As a result of that, the UK Conservative Government stepped forward with half a billion pounds of investment to support an electric arc furnace, and a further £80 million to support retraining workers and infrastructure improvements in Port Talbot. We have had not one single penny from the Welsh Labour Government, who instead have decided today to prioritise spending £120 million on more Senedd Members. More Senedd Members or support for steelworkers—I know what my priority is.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


I know the whole House will join me in congratulating John Swinney on becoming Scottish National party leader and Scottish First Minister. I look forward to working constructively with him to deliver for the people of Scotland.

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.

At last week’s Prime Minister’s questions, I highlighted the shocking rise in the number of teenagers trying vaping, and I asked the Prime Minister if he would take decisive action to stop vape advertising on football strips. He declined to do that. Since then, I have had an exchange with the Scottish chief medical officer, Professor Sir Gregor Smith, during a sitting of the Tobacco and Vapes Bill Committee, and he said:

“Where I become very uncomfortable, and I am not supportive, is where the massive attraction of sports companies is used in a way that promotes behaviours that are known to be unsafe or unhealthy.”––[Official Report, Tobacco and Vapes Public Bill Committee, 1 May 2024; c. 80, Q11.]

Can I ask the Prime Minister again: does he still think it is right that vape companies should sponsor football kits?

I am glad the hon. Lady agrees with me and the Government that we should do more to tackle youth vaping, and that is why we are bringing forward measures in the new Bill to restrict the availability and appeal of vapes to children specifically, whether that is flavours or, indeed, marketing. As she knows, advertising of vapes is already heavily restricted by UK regulations, including a ban on advertising on television, radio and most places online. We have seen football take positive voluntary action in the past on issues such as this, but I will say to the hon. Lady that the Government will respond to her specific amendment in the usual way.

Q2. I declare that my daughter is a serving officer in the armed forces. In recent weeks, my right hon. Friend has announced plans to control welfare and get people back to work and to increase defence spending to 2.5% of GDP, and has passed legislation to get flights off to Rwanda. Does he agree with me that these are all issues that real people such as my constituents in South East Cornwall care about, and that the Leader of the Opposition should do the right thing and back them? (902728)

My hon. Friend is a fantastic champion for her local area, and can I also thank her daughter for her service in the armed forces? My hon. Friend is right: I am not surprised that Labour Members do not back our plans to stop the boats and I am not surprised they do not back our plans to get people into work and reform welfare, but I do think that they should do the right thing when it comes to the security of our nation, and that is to back our plans to increase defence spending and give our brave armed forces personnel the resources they need to keep us safe.

May I warmly welcome my hon. Friend, the new Member for Blackpool South (Chris Webb)? After the representation that fine town has had recently, it is good to know that it has a proper champion back at last.

May I also warmly welcome the new Labour MP, my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mrs Elphicke), to these Benches? If one week a Tory MP who is also a doctor says that the Prime Minister cannot be trusted with the NHS and joins Labour, and the next week the Tory MP for Dover—on the frontline of the small boats crisis—says that the Prime Minister “cannot be trusted” with our borders and joins Labour, what is the point of this failed Government staggering on?

Can I join the right hon. and learned Gentleman in welcoming his newest MP for Blackpool? He looks a lot happier than the Member sitting in that spot last week. Let me also join the right hon. and learned Gentleman in congratulating all new and paying tribute to all former councillors, police and crime commissioners and Mayors across the country. I hope that his new ones do him as proud as I am proud of all of mine, including such great leaders as Andy Street. They leave behind a strong legacy of more homes, more jobs and more investment, in sharp contrast to the legacy left by the last Labour Government, which was a letter joking that there was no money left.

In addition to losing two Tory MPs in two weeks, the Prime Minister has been on the receiving end of some of the biggest by-election swings in history. He has also lost 1,500 Tory councillors, half of his party’s Mayors and a leadership election to a lettuce. How many more times do the public and his own MPs need to reject him before he takes the hint?

This time last year, I reminded the right hon. and learned Gentleman of some advice from his own mentor, Tony Blair, who said at the time that he

“can be as cocky as he likes about the local elections; come a general election, policy counts.”—[Official Report, 9 May 2007; Vol. 460, c. 152.]

One year on from that advice, what has he managed? He has £28 billion of tax rises, 70 new business regulations, 30 U-turns and a deputy leader under a police investigation.

I am surprised that the Prime Minister brought up a police investigation; his record is played one, lost—well, actually it is two, there was the seatbelt as well. His record is played two, lost two in relation to police investigations. The voters keep telling him that it is not good enough. Instead of listening, he keeps telling them that everything is fine, if only they would realise his greatness. He just does not get it, but at least after Thursday night he can go to the many places he calls home and enjoy the fruits of his success. In Southampton or Downing Street, he has great Labour councils. At his mansion in Richmond, he can enjoy a brand-new Labour Mayor of North Yorkshire. At his pad in Kensington, he can celebrate a historic third term for the Mayor of London. Now that he, too, can enjoy the benefits of this changed Labour party, is he really still in such a hurry to get back to California?

I must say that I was surprised to see the right hon. and learned Gentleman in North Yorkshire, although probably not as surprised as he was when he realised he could not take the tube there. I can tell him that the people of North Yorkshire believe in hard work, secure borders, lower taxes and straight-talking common sense. They will not get any of that from a virtue-signalling lawyer from north London.

It was great to be in Northallerton, where they have just voted to reject the Prime Minister’s proposition. He has finally found something in common with the British public: no matter where he calls home, all his neighbours are backing this changed Labour party. They keep rejecting him, because they have sussed him out. They know there is nothing behind the boasts, the gimmicks and the smug smile. He is a dodgy salesman desperate to sell them a dud. Sixteen days ago, when he held a press conference claiming victory on Rwanda, he said:

“The next few weeks will be about action…people want deeds not words.”

Let us test that. How many small boat crossings have there been since he said that 16 days ago?

Actually, just before we get on to that, the right hon. and learned Gentleman talked about a changed Labour party—[Interruption.] This is important. He talked about a changed Labour party; he talks about it a lot. He also talked about his Mayor in London. Just this morning, we learned that the Labour Mayor in London believes there is an “equivalence” between the brutal terrorist attack of Hamas and Israel defending itself. Let me be crystal clear: there is absolutely no equivalence between a terrorist group and democratic state. Will he take this opportunity to demonstrate that the Labour party has changed? Will he condemn those comments from the Labour Mayor?

I know that was the last run-out before the general election, but the Prime Minister is getting ahead of himself in asking me questions.

I notice that the Prime Minister did not even attempt to answer the question. He knows the answer: since he claimed victory 16 days ago, there have been a staggering 2,400 small boat crossings. That is a gimmick, not a deterrent, and those 2,400 will be added to the Tories’ asylum perma-backlog, which is forecast to rise to 100,000 by the end of the year. The Prime Minister pretends that he will remove them all to Rwanda, but Rwanda can take only a few hundred a year. At that rate, his grand plan would take over 300 years to remove them all. There are tens of thousands of people with their claims going unprocessed, who will be here for their entire lifetime, living in hotels at the taxpayers’ expense. It is absurd to call that anything other than an amnesty handed to them by the Tory party, isn’t it?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman had the opportunity to condemn the comments of his Mayor—a Mayor who said that there is an “equivalence” between Hamas and Israel—and he did not do that. Everyone will see: that is the changed Labour party right there.

Since I became Prime Minister, small boat crossings are down by a third. That is because we have doubled National Crime Agency funding, increased enforcement rates, closed bank accounts, deported 24,000 people and processed more claims.[Official Report, 14 May 2024; Vol. 750, c. 4WC.] (Correction) When it comes to border control, there is a crucial difference between us: the Conservatives want secure borders; the right hon. and learned Gentleman is happy with open borders.

The whole country knows that removing less than 1% of asylum seekers is not stopping the boats; it is granting an amnesty—a Tory amnesty. If the Prime Minister thinks the voters are wrong, that his own MPs who have joined the Labour party are wrong, and that anyone believes any of the nonsense that he spouts, why does he not put it to the test and call a general election?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about removing people—this is a person who campaigned to stop the deportation of foreign national offenders. That shows how out of touch his values are with the British people.

It is yet another week where we have heard nothing about the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s plan to do anything on the issues that matter to the country. Meanwhile, the Government are getting on with reforming welfare and getting people into work—he opposes it. We are controlling legal and illegal migration—he opposes it. And, as we heard, we are boosting defence spending to strengthen our country—he opposes it. That is the difference: he snipes from the sidelines; the Conservatives are building a brighter future.

Q4. When it comes to small boat crossings, there is a lot of talk of human rights, but surely the only human right and life that matters is the life of children who are being taken across the channel. In that respect, will the Government now do the only thing that will actually be a real deterrent and arrest and detain all those who land illegally on our shores and then offshore them promptly so that, once and for all, we can save lives and end this cruel and callous trade? (902730)

My right hon. Friend is right that these crossings are incredibly dangerous and risk people’s lives. Just weeks ago, a seven-year-old girl died attempting a crossing. That is why, as a matter of basic compassion, we must do everything we can to break the cycle of the criminal gangs.

That is why we need a deterrent. That is what the National Crime Agency says, and that is how we dealt with illegal migrants from Albania. It is only by removing people who should not be here that we remove the reason for them to come in the first place. That is how we will control our borders. It is clear that it is only the Conservative party that has a plan not only to stop the boats but to stop the tragic loss of life in the channel, too.

May I begin by also congratulating the fantastic John Swinney on becoming Scotland’s First Minister? Our opponents should be very careful what they wish for.

As we await the imminent Israeli incursion into Rafah, where 1.2 million people are sheltering, including 600,000 children, it has been reported that the United States has paused an arms shipment to Israel. The UK will now follow suit, will it not?

The right hon. Gentleman may not realise that the UK Government do not directly provide or ship arms to Israel. When it comes to the situation in Rafah, I have been very clear that we are deeply concerned about a full military incursion, given the devastating humanitarian impact; I have made that point specifically to Prime Minister Netanyahu whenever we have spoken. I will continue to urge all sides to focus on the negotiations at hand, to bring about a pause in the conflict, to release hostages and get more aid in.

Let us be clear: the confidence that Israel has shown in its military ambitions in Rafah stems from the silence of its allies on the Front Benches in this place and elsewhere across the world. We all know that UK arms and tech are supporting Israel’s activities in Gaza, and will be used in any attack on Rafah. Knowing that, and the devastation that will occur, surely the time has come to end our complicity and halt arms sales to Israel.

Of course we take our defence export responsibilities extremely seriously. That is why we operate one of the most robust licensing control regimes anywhere in the world. We periodically review advice on Israel’s commitment to international humanitarian law, and Ministers always act in accordance with that advice. That is crystal clear for the House to understand. Following the most recent assessment, our position on export licences is unchanged. I know that the right hon. Gentleman will join me in urging all parties to engage in the negotiations, so that we can see a pause in fighting to get more aid in, hostages out and bring about a sustainable ceasefire in this conflict.

Q5. My constituents in rural villages and on the fringes of the Grimsby-Cleethorpes urban area are very concerned about overdevelopment. They recognise that highway infra- structure and public services are already overloaded. Could my right hon. Friend consider amending planning guidance, so that local plans and decisions taken by local planning authorities are not overridden by planning inspectors? They would be greatly encouraged if he would agree to meet me and my colleagues from neighbouring constituencies, my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) and my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Lia Nici), to discuss this further. (902731)

My hon. Friend is right that sustainable development must be at the heart of the planning system. That is why we are committed to meeting housing needs by building the right homes in the right places, and protecting the environmental assets that matter most. The national planning policy framework is clear that we should be responsive to local circumstances. I know that the local plan in my hon. Friend’s area is due for further consultation later this year, and that he will engage with that process, but I will happily meet him and colleagues to discuss the situation further.

The abuse suffered by 88-year-old Ann King at the hands of staff in her care home was captured on a hidden camera. The footage is stomach churning. Ann died in October 2022, and it took nearly a year for the Care Quality Commission to launch a criminal investigation. Ann’s children are working to protect other care home residents from being subjected to such appalling abuse. Her son came to see me, as his MP, to ask for my help with their campaign. Will the Prime Minister join me in backing Ann’s law, a proposal for measures, including a national register, to professionalise the care workforce and hold abusive staff to account? Will he meet Ann’s family and me to discuss this idea?

Let me first extend my sympathies to Ann’s family for what she went through. Obviously that is not appropriate, and I will ensure that the Department engages with the right hon. Gentleman and Ann’s family on the proposed law. He is right to say that we should have high standards across the care industry, and we are working towards more investment to support our care home staff, making sure that they have training qualifications and development, and that we have a regime that can hold everyone to account for delivering the high standards that we would all expect.

Q6. Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the greatest qualities that those on these Back Benches bring to Westminster is plain old-fashioned common sense? Derbyshire common sense led the good people of Ashbourne and surrounding villages to reject the Sadiq Khan ULEZ rules, and even the Welsh 20 mph rules. Will my right hon. Friend join me, and perhaps ask his neighbour the Chancellor if he will pay for the Ashbourne bypass? (902732)

I know that my hon. Friend has been a dedicated campaigner for the Ashbourne bypass. The Government are committed to investing more in the midlands, and in particular to putting every penny of the £9.6 billion from High Speed 2 back into the local area. My hon. Friend is right: we will focus on drivers and their priorities, rather than continuing the war on motorists that is being waged by the Labour Mayor in London, but also by the Labour party in Wales, with both the ultra low emission zone and 20 mph speed limits. It is this party that is unashamedly on the side of the motorist.

Q3. Our cross-party child of the north all-party parliamentary group found that expectant mothers were terminating wanted pregnancies because they could not afford another mouth to feed. Recent figures show that infant and child death rates have increased in the most deprived areas, and 50 children have died alone in unregulated accommodation. Is this the Prime Minister’s plan for a brighter Britain in action? (902729)

Obviously, what the hon. Lady has described is a tragedy. No one wants to see children grow up in those circumstances, and that is why I am proud that since 2010, with a range of measures, the Government have overseen a significant fall in poverty, particularly child poverty. I will ensure that, for the benefit of her constituents, the hon. Lady is aware of all the support that is in place—through the Department of Health and Social Care and the Department for Work and Pensions, and through local authorities—for the most vulnerable families in our communities.

Q9. Weston-super-Mare is a growing town, so local health services are rightly growing as well. Weston General Hospital is treating more patients for a wider variety of problems than before, GPs’ surgeries are offering thousands more appointments this year than last, and our new diagnostic centre means faster tests and treatments. However, there is a fly in our NHS-prescribed ointment: dentistry is not fixed yet. The new dental recovery plan is very welcome, but when will it mean appointments that Westonians can book? (902735)

Our dentistry recovery plan will make dental services faster, simpler and fairer for patients, funding about 2.5 million more appointments. I was pleased to note that access is improving in my hon. Friend’s area, with nearly 10% more children seeing a dentist in June last year than in the previous year, but we are going further: the new patient premium that was announced last year is ensuring that more NHS dentistry will be provided, and since then, at the end of January, 500 more practices have said that they are now open to new patients.

Q7. It is more than a month since the parliamentary ombudsman delivered the long-awaited report on pension injustices, but women born in the 1950s in my constituency, and indeed in every constituency across these islands, are still waiting to hear whether the UK Government will listen to its recommendations and deliver compensation. I was proud to see the Scottish Parliament support a motion last week calling for compensation to be delivered without delay, but utterly dismayed to see members of both the Conservative party and the Labour party abstain. Can the Prime Minister finally tell us when the Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign—the WASPI women—will receive the compensation that they rightly deserve? (902733)

I understand the strong feelings across the Chamber about this topic, and the desire for urgency in addressing them. However, following the ombudsman’s five-year investigation, it is imperative that we take the time to conduct a thorough review of the comprehensive findings that have been published. An update will be given to the House once those findings have been fully considered. More broadly, we are committed to ensuring that pensioners have the dignity and security in retirement that they deserve. Most recently, we increased the state pension by £900 a year, thanks to the triple lock.

Q12. Is the Prime Minister as appalled as I am by reports of militant civil servant and trade union political activists seeking to find ways not to implement the Rwanda deportations? Does he agree that if they are not prepared to implement the will of the Government and an Act of Parliament that was passed by both Houses, they should conclude that being in the civil service is perhaps not for them? Maybe they can look for alternative employment at other left-wing organisations that masquerade as being impartial. Maybe they could try the BBC or “Channel 4 News”. (902738)

My expectation is that civil servants will continue to be committed to supporting our priority of stopping the boats, and will deliver, in accordance with the civil service code. My hon. Friend will know that we made specific changes to ensure compliance with that code as we push through with our plans. More broadly, I agree with him that we are the only party that has a plan to stop the boats. We will face down all the obstacles in our way to deliver on this crucial priority for the British people, whoever stands in our way—whether it is the Labour party or others. We will deliver for this country on this vital issue.

Q8.   China has now hacked the data of defence personnel, the Electoral Commission and various other public institutions, and has targeted many Members of this House, yet plans by China’s largest wind turbine manufacturer, Ming Yang Smart Energy, to build its largest European facility right here in the UK advance at pace. The facility is set to be built in Scotland. Given widely shared concerns about the involvement of hostile states such as China in the UK’s critical national energy infrastructure, does the Prime Minister not agree that now is the time for this project to be paused and reviewed by the Government on national security grounds? If not, what message does he think that sends? (902734)

As I have said repeatedly, China is a country with different values from ours, and is acting in a way that is increasingly authoritarian at home and assertive abroad. It is right that we take firm steps to protect ourselves against that, particularly in the area of economic security. This Government passed the National Security and Investment Act 2021 precisely so that we can screen transactions—without commenting on individual ones, of course—to protect this country. We have used those powers, not least to block Chinese investment in a sensitive semiconductor company, but also to ensure that the Chinese state nuclear company had no part in the future of our nuclear plan. The hon. Gentleman can rest assured that we are alive to the challenges, and have passed laws that give us the powers to protect against them.

Q14. Five-year-old Benedict Blythe was a lovely little boy who attended a primary school in my constituency. Sadly, he died of anaphylaxis, a severe allergic reaction. The coroner’s inquest has not yet reported, but on average, two children in every class have a food allergy, and more allergic reactions take place in school than in other setting outside the home. Severe allergic reactions are on the rise and can be fatal, yet there is no explicit legal requirement for schools to have allergy medication and an allergy policy, or for other recommended safeguards to be made available; there is only guidance. Will the Prime Minister meet me and Benedict’s parents, Helen and Pete, so that we can discuss a way forward to ensure that children who suffer from allergies can be safer in school, including by ensuring that schools have an allergy policy, adrenalin pens, and staff who know how to use them? (902740)

First, may I extend my sympathy to Benedict’s family? It is always tragic to hear about the loss of a child. We fully understand the seriousness of severe allergies, and believe that children with medical conditions should be properly supported to enjoy a full education and be safe at school. There is a legal duty on the governing body of schools to make arrangements for supporting pupils, including setting out what needs to be done, symptoms and treatment, but I will ensure that my right hon. Friend gets a meeting with the Health Secretary to discuss how we could further support pupils with serious allergies.

Q10. Yesterday, the Chancellor confirmed that it is Government policy to abolish national insurance, at a £46 billion annual cost, with no indication of where the money will come from. Can the Prime Minister rule out further freezes in tax allowances or an 8p increase in income tax to pay for it? (902736)

That is total nonsense, and of course I rule that out. There is no unfunded policy. What we have said is that we have a long-term ambition to keep cutting national insurance to end the unfairness of the double taxation on work. We will make progress towards that goal in the next Parliament, just as we already have in this one by cutting national insurance by a third in six months, delivering a £900 tax cut, at the same time as increasing investment in the NHS and increasing the state pension. It is increasingly clear what this reveals: the Labour party opposes tax cuts for working people.

Q15. Empowering local pharmacies is a key part of this Government’s plan to cut waiting lists. In Guildford, we have recently lost two neighbouring pharmacies, but there is good news. I am pleased to report that, by working diligently with local pharmacists, concerned residents, the Minister and the integrated care board, I have helped to secure a new pharmacy in Burpham. Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming this new pharmacy and does he agree that it is vital that residents should have access to a good, efficient and, above all, local pharmacy? (902741)

I care deeply about the future of our community pharmacies, and I am pleased to hear about my hon. Friend’s success in securing a new one for her constituents, joining the 10,500 others across the country. She is right about the important role that our local pharmacies can play, and that is why we are backing them with £645 million of additional funding through Pharmacy First, so that people can now go straight to their pharmacist and receive treatment for seven of the most common ailments, saving patients’ time and ensuring that they get the care they need quicker and closer to home.

Q11. Last Friday, The Guardian reported major structural deficiencies at Stepping Hill Hospital in Stockport. Stepping Hill’s major out-patients building, the radiology department and the critical care unit have all been condemned. In March, I met with senior officials at Stockport NHS Trust and they were clear that a sustained lack of capital investment was the root cause of problems at my local hospital. Does the Prime Minister believe that our hospitals quite literally crumbling is the price worth paying for 14 years of successive Conservative failure? (902737)

We fully recognise the need to invest in health infrastructure across the country, including at Stepping Hill Hospital. That is why we are currently spending around £4 billion a year for trusts to spend on necessary maintenance and repairs, on top of the £20 billion new hospital programme and the additional funding that was put aside to deal with RAAC—reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete——maintenance. The hon. Gentleman talks about a legacy of the NHS; all he needs to do is look at his party’s record in Wales, where people are currently experiencing the worst A&E performance and the longest wait times anywhere in Great Britain.

Nottingham City Council is expecting to fall short of its housing target by 6,000 new homes. Last time this happened, Rushcliffe, as a neighbouring authority, was forced to take thousands of homes on top of its own housing target, which led to huge pressures on our green spaces and public services. Can my right hon. Friend reassure me and my constituents that the changes we have made to the planning system will mean that this time we will be protected from Labour’s failure in Nottingham?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. While on this side of the House the Conservatives believe in building the right homes in the right places with local people having a say, all that Labour would do is impose top-down housing targets on areas, decimating our precious countryside. In Nottinghamshire, as she says, we can see the difference between the well-run Conservative county council and the bankrupt Nottingham Council, which has left residents to pick up the bill for its profligacy.

Q13. Untreated sewage was pumped into English waterways for more than 3.6 million hours last year, and into the sea off Sussex beaches three times in the last 24 hours alone, yet since privatisation the water companies have been allowed to rack up debts of over £64 billion and their shareholders have been allowed to pocket £78 billion in dividends. The majority of the public, including 58% of Conservative supporters and 80% of Labour supporters, want to turf out of the profiteering polluters. They want water brought back into public hands. When is the Prime Minister going to listen to them and end the legalised scam of privatisation? (902739)

Our plans to tackle this go further than those of any previous Government. In fact, we now monitor 100% of overflows, up from just 7% under the Labour party; we are investing a record £56 billion into our water infrastructure; and we have enshrined strict targets in law and introduced unlimited fines for water companies, holding them and their bosses to account. It is crystal clear. The record shows that only one party has a clear plan to tackle this issue for the environment: the Conservative party.

Everybody knows that Stockton is a great place with great people and a great football team. My right hon. Friend recently visited the mighty Stockton Town to see the incredible work they do in the local community, and he heard about their promotion battle. I am sure that he will want to join me in congratulating Micky Dunwell and the mighty Anchors on their promotion.

It was fantastic to visit Stockton Town football club with my hon. Friend, who is a brilliant champion for his local community, which I see at first hand on a weekly basis. I join him in congratulating everyone at the club on their well-deserved promotion, and I hope that some of their good luck rubs off on Southampton in the coming weeks.

End of Custody Supervised Licence: Extension

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Justice if he will make a statement on the expansion of the end of custody supervised licence scheme.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question.

Protecting the public is our No. 1 priority, so it is right that we take tough and decisive action to keep putting the most serious offenders behind bars, and for longer, as the public rightly expect. We are carrying out the biggest prison expansion programme since the Victorian era, and we are ramping up removals of foreign national offenders.

We have a duty to ensure that the prison system continues to operate safely and effectively, with offenders held in safe and decent conditions. This means ensuring that no prison exceeds a safe maximum operating limit. ECSL allows lower-level offenders to be released before their automatic release date. In March, the Lord Chancellor stated that we will

“work with the police, prisons and probation leaders to make further adjustments as required.”—[Official Report, 12 March 2024; Vol. 747, c. 157.]

This extension is in line with what he said.

ECSL operates only when absolutely necessary and is kept under constant review. I know that many Members of this House will be concerned about the early release of offenders into the community, but I make it clear that only offenders who would soon be released anyway will be considered for ECSL.

We have put in place safeguards, including that the Prison Service retains the discretion to prevent the ECSL release of any offender where early release presents a higher risk than if they were released at their automatic release date. There are strict eligibility criteria, and anyone convicted of a sexual offence, a terrorist offence or a serious violence offence is ruled out. Public safety will always be our No. 1 priority, and all those released will still be subject to probation supervision and stringent licence conditions.

Here we go again. Never in this country have a Government been forced to release prisoners more than two months early. This is the price that the public are paying for a justice system in crisis and a Government in freefall.

The early release scheme has now undergone three major extensions in just six months: it was quietly started in October, when the Government began releasing prisoners up to 18 days early; in March it was slipped out that it had been expanded from 18 to 60 days; and now it has emerged through a media leak that it has been extended once again, this time to 70 days. Worst of all, the Government are doing all of this in secret. They have not responded to any freedom of information requests, parliamentary questions or even the Justice Committee with any useful details about this scheme. The Government are releasing prisoners but not the facts. The strategy is clear for all to see: say nothing, try to get away with it and get to the other side of the general election. It is shameless and, frankly, a disgrace.

The public and this House rightly expect the Minister to be transparent and honest, so let us see whether he will answer these basic and simple questions. Why the increase of early release to 70 days? How many offenders have been released in the six months since the scheme became operational? How will they ensure that the probation service has the time and resources to adequately assess risk and protect the public? And will he give a guarantee to the House today that this secretive scheme will not be extended again?

I am grateful to the shadow Secretary of State for her question and would gently say a number of things to her. First, she suggests we were sneaking this out in October and March; that included statements to this House and was entirely transparent. On the hon. Lady’s party’s record, it operated an early release scheme for three years between 2007 and 2010, which leaves her on rather shaky ground. She talked about a media leak. This was an operational decision with operational guidance sent out to His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service and prison governors as well as other stakeholders, including, if I recall correctly, the probation union, for a minor change that was already reflected in the points made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Justice in March to this House.

The hon. Lady talked about data. The Secretary of State has been consistently clear that we will publish the data on an annualised basis, in exactly the same way as we do, for example, for deaths in custody and supplementary breakdowns of the prison population. We have been clear that we will always ensure that the prisons system has the spaces for the courts to be able to send people to prison. We are making an appropriate operational decision to ensure that continues to be the case.

The hon. Lady also rightly asked about probation, and I suspect that in our exchanges the one thing on which we might find ourselves in agreement is paying tribute to those who work in our probation service. As she will know, since 2021 we have increased the budget for the service by £155 million, with 4,000 additional probation officers in training. We have worked with the leadership of our probation service on this scheme and the probation union was one of the bodies we notified on the changes to the operational guidance.

This is a perfectly rational, sensible and pragmatic response to the pressures in our prisons, and the Minister should take credit for it. However, I do ask him to reconsider the point about the transparency of data—precisely because it is a sensible thing to do, there is no reason why we should not release the figures in better time. But the underlying problem, which all parties in this House must face up to, is that the pressures in our prisons, to which the Justice Committee has repeatedly referred, stem from decades of underfunding by Governments of all parties? Prison costs £46,000-plus per year for each place, so it is a very expensive way of dealing with people, and not always the best means for handling lower-level offenders. May we have a more intelligent debate on sentencing and the purpose of prison, and perhaps we could start with the Minister committing to bringing back the sentencing Bill, which would enable us to have a more nuanced approach?

I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for his questions. He rightly highlights the ongoing capacity challenges and a number of the drivers of those, one being that the average custodial sentence in this country has gone up from 14 months to about 21. In addition, the remand population has gone up from about 9,000 to some 16,500, partly as a result of the covid backlogs in the courts system and partly as a result of the Bar strike. On the publication of data, I gently and respectfully refer him to the answer I gave to his Committee and at the Dispatch Box just now. It is important that alongside recognising the pressures the system is under, we are taking steps to increase capacity, both by increasing the removals of foreign national offenders and doing it at a faster rate, and through having built almost 6,000 new prison places. That is in stark contrast to the record of the Labour party, which built not one of the 7,500 Titan prison places.

Court backlogs are sky high; prisons are dangerously close to capacity, which is why this policy had to be implemented; and the Government are claiming, as the Minister has just done, to be carrying out a big prison expansion programme, yet their record is appalling. In 2016, in response to the Taylor review, the Government committed to building two secure schools for young offenders. Since then, the budget has spiralled out of control and not one of those schools has opened. Does this not all just prove that the Conservatives cannot be trusted with our justice system?

The hon. Lady knows that I have a huge amount of respect for her, but even by Lib Dem standards that was stretching the bounds of credibility a little, not least because, as she will be aware, we have built two new prisons. We also have one in construction and two that have completed planning, and one that is subject to a planning appeal. As for the secure school, she should look forward to its opening in a matter of days.

Will my right hon. Friend expand a little on the great improvements being made to increase capacity? Will he tell us a little more about the progress on ensuring that more foreign national offenders are removed to their own countries? Will he expand a little, as this seems to be badly understood by Opposition Members from all parties, on quite how much of a prison building programme the Government have? Will he say something on the number of prisons and the number of spaces that that will create, and on the consequent prospects for the rehabilitation of offenders and, in time, having fewer victims of crime?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight that and I pay tribute to his work in the justice system not only in this House, but prior to his being a Member of it. I believe—I will, of course, correct this if I am slightly out—that about 16,000 FNOs have now been removed. It is timely that as I say that, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary appears in the Chamber, so that I can pay tribute to him and his Department for their work on delivering that. On prison places, I set out to the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) the progress on the six new prisons. Alongside that, we have built a vast number of rapid deployment cells and new house blocks, so we are expanding our prison capacity rapidly. As I say, that stands in stark contrast to the failure to deliver on the Titan prison places by the Labour party.

Napo has said that

“the ECSL scheme is an unmitigated failure and has not only been extended without parliamentary scrutiny but represents an increasing risk to public safety”.

The Secretary of State knows that our probation service is in crisis and cannot cope without a significant increase in support and resources. Will the Government be providing that?

I am very grateful to the hon. Lady. As I said to the shadow Secretary of State, I have great respect for the work done by those in our probation service. Indeed, I have met the probation unions in the past. Although we do not always agree, I have huge respect for the work those unions do in representing their members.

I would make two points. First, to say that it was done without scrutiny in this House stretches the bounds of credibility. There have been two statements by the Secretary of State and multiple oral parliamentary question sessions, and I have undergone a polite but thorough grilling at the Justice Committee by its Chair. I do not think it stacks up to say that this has not been subject to scrutiny.

On the hon. Lady’s underlying point, I set out earlier that we are investing in probation. There is £155 million of additional investment a year since 2021 and there are 4,000 more probation officers and staff in training.

A moment ago, the Minister set out the significant increase in the number of people being held on remand—I think he said it had increased from 9,000 to 16,000. What work are the Government doing to address court backlogs? What steps are being taken to look at other routes for monitoring people who are on remand, who could perhaps serve their remand period in the community under a tagging system?

To correct myself, there are now 16,500 people on remand in the prison population. On court backlogs, we have increased the investment in our courts and the number of sitting days, and we are seeing progress. Obviously, courts take the decision on whether to remand or bail someone, and we can help that process by giving the courts the information they need. We continue to invest in the Bail Information Service, which gives sentencers reassurance about the information they need to make a judgment call about whether someone is safe to be bailed. We are increasing our investment in the community accommodation service, so that when someone is not bailed because they do not have a stable address, there is an increased opportunity for them to have an address, giving sentencers the opportunity to bail them.

As the Minister and the Chair of the Justice Committee know, I have been in the House long enough to know when something is a sticking plaster. Perhaps the extension is necessary, but it is a sticking plaster. How many Queen’s Speeches since 2010 have included a thorough look at the justice system with a royal commission? That has never happened. We all know that building prisons does not solve the crisis. We need radical reform of the whole justice system, which will need extra resources and real motivation from an incoming Labour Government. Does the Minister agree with me?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, with whom I have occasionally tussled across the Chamber. I agree with some of what he says. He will not be surprised that I do not agree with his last statement because, judging by the track record up to 2010, I fear it would be another case of being let down by Labour. I am grateful for his typically thoughtful comments and his looking at the bigger picture behind the challenges we face.

It is right that we are putting those who commit the most serious crimes in prison for longer to protect society and ensure they pay their debt to society, but it is also important that we look at how we rehabilitate people when they are in prison. We all want those who have served their time to come out and live their lives, within bounds, in the community, and to be constructive and positive contributors to society. That is why we are focusing on providing education in prison and getting people into employment. I am grateful to the Minister for Schools, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds), for his work and focus on that area, both when he was Secretary of State for Education and as my predecessor. There are currently measures before Parliament, for example in the Sentencing Bill, that offer the House an opportunity to think about other ways to do things.

Diolch yn fawr iawn, Mr Llefarydd. This announcement comes after nine prisoners have recently lost their lives in HMP Parc in Bridgend. The Ministry of Justice says it will not step in. A private prison in Wales is an unaccountable anomaly that fails everyone—victims and prisoners alike. While we await the long anticipated devolution of justice, will the Minister tell me why, after 25 years, there is still no clarity over which ombudsman is responsible for health in Parc?

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady. We may disagree in our views on the devolution of justice to Wales, but she raises an important issue about the deaths in the past few months in HMP and YOI Parc. I visited Parc recently and spoke to the governor and director, those in custody and those working at Parc. I have to be cautious about what I say, given that the matter will be before the coroner and the ombudsman. I will be appearing before the Welsh Affairs Committee next week, when I suspect some of the issues will be debated. I am happy to have a discussion with the right hon. Lady, but it is right that I do not stray at the Dispatch Box when these matters are before the coroner and the ombudsman.

I hope the Minister will be happy to have a discussion with the MP whose constituency the prison is in, as well.

I thank the Minister for his answers to all the questions. The scheme was initially designed to allow short-term early release by a matter of days, yet some releases are now early by some 70 days. Does the Minister understand why victims of crime are anxious that so-called “soft crime” criminals are getting an easier time? Victims of crime are told that perpetrators have been released early, so the victims can prepare themselves to see those perpetrators down the town or at the local supermarket, for example, which can be extremely disconcerting, even if it is not unexpected.

Mr Speaker, I reassure you that I was due to be meeting the Member whose constituency HMP Parc is in at this moment in time, but I am here at the Dispatch Box. The meeting has been rescheduled and there is a date in the diary. As I promised at the last oral questions, that meeting has been arranged.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is right to highlight that point. Our ECSL protections are significantly more stringent than those used by the Labour party when it ran its scheme for three years. Unlike its scheme, ours allows governors to veto the release of any prisoner when they think early release will create a risk to victims. There are a number of exemptions from the scheme and it allows for rigorous conditions to be placed on the release licence, be it tagging, exclusion zones or curfews. Prisoners will be well aware that if they breach those conditions, which are put in place to protect victims, they will hear the clang of the prison gate and be recalled.


With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement to the House regarding measures that His Majesty’s Government will take in response to the reckless and dangerous activities of the Russian Government across Europe and now suspected here in the UK.

As was reported on Friday 26 April, five individuals have been charged in connection with an investigation into alleged offences under the National Security Act 2023, as part of a counter-terrorism policing investigation. The offences relate to what was widely reported by the media as a suspected arson attack on a Ukraine-linked business in the UK. The Crown Prosecution Service has confirmed that the charges relate to alleged

“hostile activity in the UK in order to benefit a foreign state—namely Russia.”

I pay tribute to our law enforcement agencies for their quick and professional work to ensure these charges were brought. They are the first charges to be brought under the new National Security Act. Measures that this Government brought forward and this House passed are already being used to keep our country safe.

I thank the emergency services who responded to the fire at a commercial property in London where the suspected activity took place. The charges are serious and it is only through good fortune that nobody was hurt. I reassure the House that public safety is of the utmost importance, which is why the law enforcement response has been quick and decisive.

As Members will appreciate, I must not say anything further on this specific case, or any related case, to avoid prejudicing the outcome of ongoing criminal proceedings. I ask the House to respect that and to avoid using the debate to add to speculation about the incident. It is vital that justice runs its course.

However, I wish to highlight to the House a pattern of suspected Russian activity that we are seeing across Europe. This is not the first time that we have uncovered malign activity in the UK that is seemingly linked to Russia in the past year. In September, five Bulgarian nationals were charged with conspiring to commit espionage activities in the UK on behalf of Russia. A sixth individual was later charged and legal proceedings against all six are ongoing.

There is a much broader pattern of Russian malign activities across Europe. These include: plans for sabotage activities against military aid for Ukraine in Germany and in Poland; espionage in Bulgaria and in Italy; cyber-attacks and disinformation activities; air space violations; and GPS jamming with impact on civil aviation.

Over a number of years, we have witnessed Russia and its intelligence services engage in yet more open and brazen attempts to undermine our security, harm our people and interfere in our democracies. Such attempts involve Litvinenko, Georgia, Crimea, Salisbury, Ukraine and activities across Europe. Since the illegal invasion of Ukraine, the rhetoric, threats and accusations from Russia have only increased, as Putin seeks to justify the death and destruction that he has brought to the Ukrainian people. These activities bear all the hallmarks of a deliberate campaign by Russia designed to “to bring the war home” across Europe, and to undermine our collective resolve to support Ukraine in its fight. It will not work.

As the Prime Minister said in Poland last month, we are at a turning point for European security. With our allies, we will stand firm in the face of Russian threats to the UK and to our way of life. It is why, after Salisbury, we took measures with our partners to make Europe a harder operating environment for Russian intelligence services, including the expulsion of 23 undeclared Russian intelligence officers from the UK. It is also why the UK has announced the biggest strengthening of the UK’s national defence in a generation, with a fully funded plan to grow the defence budget to 2.5% of GDP by 2030.

The UK and our allies will not falter in our support for Ukraine, because it is existential to the security of Europe. This is why the Prime Minister has also announced an uplift in UK military aid to Ukraine, bringing it to £3 billion this year, and has committed to that level of support every year until the end of the decade, or longer if it is sadly still required. We have sanctioned more than 1,700 individuals, over 90% of the Russian banking sector, and more than 130 oligarchs and family members, with a combined net worth of £147 billion at the time of the invasion.

As of October, over £22 billion-worth of Russian assets were reported frozen as a result of UK sanctions. These assets can no longer be taken back to Russia to fund Putin’s war machine. We consider Russia’s campaign to undermine our support for Ukraine as unacceptable and it is destined to fail. We must wait for the ongoing criminal cases across Europe, including here in the UK, to conclude, but given these allegations, the Government will not wait to take further action to send a strong deterrence message to Russia and to further reduce the ability of the Russian intelligence services to threaten the UK. That is why today, in conjunction with my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, I am announcing a package of measures to make it clear to Russia that we will not tolerate such apparent escalations.

I can tell the House that we will: expel the Russian defence attaché, an undeclared military intelligence officer; remove diplomatic premises status from several Russian-owned properties in the UK, including Seacox House, a Russia-owned property in Sussex, and the trade and defence section in Highgate, which we believe have been used for intelligence purposes; and impose new restrictions on Russian diplomatic visas, including capping the length of time that Russian diplomats can spend in the UK.

The measures that we and our international partners have taken in recent years have already made the UK an extremely challenging operating environment for the Russian intelligence services. These further measures will serve only to strengthen our resilience to the Russian threat.

Our NATO allies share our view of Russia’s alleged behaviour, as seen in the North Atlantic Council statement of last week. Russia has failed to provide any explanation of these events. In the coming days, we should expect accusations of Russophobia, conspiracy theories, and hysteria from the Russian Government. That is not new and the British people and the British Government will not fall for it and will not be taken for fools by Putin’s bots, trolls and lackeys.

Russia’s explanation was totally inadequate; our response will be resolute and firm.

Our message to Russia is clear: stop this illegal war; withdraw your troops from Ukraine; and cease your malign activities. I commend this statement to the House.

As the Secretary of State himself noted at the beginning of his statement, he has referred to a live case. This case is sub judice and I ask other Members not to refer to it in their questions. I call the shadow Home Secretary.

I thank the Home Secretary for advance sight of the statement.

It is the first job of any Government to keep our country safe from those who wish to do us harm, not least those who wish to undermine our democracy and everything that we stand for. We pay tribute to the remarkable work of our intelligence and security services and our law enforcement agencies—at home and abroad—which strain every sinew to keep us safe. We will always work with the Government on those national security issues.

The arson attack that the Home Secretary describes was a very serious one. The charges now laid are important. We support the work of law enforcement in this case, and it is immensely important that nothing is done to cut across that criminal justice case. I simply ask for the Home Secretary’s reassurance that a investigation is under way not just into the specific offences, but into the wider context and any wider threats to our national security that might be linked with this incident.

The Home Secretary has been clear in linking these charges to Russia and we echo his strong condemnation of Russian interference and hostile activity here in the UK and throughout Europe. Repeatedly, we have seen a brazen disregard by Russia for the rule of law, for the UK, for our allies and for our domestic security. As my right hon. Friends, the shadow Secretaries of State for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and for Defence have made clear, we stand shoulder to shoulder with the Government in our support for Ukraine. Any change in Government will not change that strong cross-party support, as we stand with our allies. Putin must be defeated in Ukraine, and Britain must stand four-square behind our Ukrainian friends.

Russia under Putin is a long-term, generational threat to the security of Europe, which requires a long-term response. As my right hon. Friend the shadow Defence Secretary said just yesterday, the defence of the UK starts in Ukraine, but as the Home Secretary has made clear, these challenges are also to our homeland security, which is why we support wholeheartedly the measures that the Home Secretary set out today. Just as we worked on a cross-party basis with the Government to pass the National Security Act 2023, so we will work closely with them in going further. May I ask the Home Secretary a few further questions about these and any further measures that the Government may be able to take and ask him whether he expects there to be a diplomatic response from Russia?

As we saw in Salisbury to an appalling extent, there is a willingness of Russian-sponsored actors to put the safety of British citizens and British residents at risk through cyber-threats—threats to undermine our democracy and our economy. I am concerned that we have known about the scale of these threats for some time, and that, in some areas, we have been too slow to respond. The Home Secretary has been too slow to rid the UK of illicit finance. He will know that concerns have been raised about prohibited imports of Russian-origin oil through third countries making their way to UK shores. Can he tell me what action is being taken to ensure that sanctions are being enforced?

The Home Secretary will know that there is real concern that the UK is still too easy for lawyers and accountants and for the laundering of Russian money through the UK that potentially aids and abets Putin’s war. The US has seized huge amounts of Russian-related assets as part of the sanctions evasion and charged more than 70 individuals in that regard. Can he confirm that no one has yet been charged with sanctions evasion in the US and set out what is being done to address the issue?

The Government said that in principle they support the seizing of Russian assets to fund the reconstruction of Ukraine, but there have been no proposals to take that forward. Will the Home Secretary tell us what is happening there? We have also still not had a full account of the scale of risk from golden visas. He will know, too, that there are threats to our democracy. The work of the defending democracy taskforce is far too limited. While the Security Minister is working on that, what engagement has the Home Secretary had, and has it been discussed at the National Security Council?

Finally, the update to the Government’s integrated review warned in March last year that

“the transition into a multipolar, fragmented and contested world has happened more quickly and definitively than anticipated.”

From the Iranian-sponsored kidnap and kill threats on UK soil to the repression of Hong Kong protesters outside the Chinese consulate in Manchester, the UK has undergone, because of behaviour not just from Russia but more widely, a fundamental shift in the threat landscape, as increasingly aggressive state actors feel emboldened to target the UK, often in co-operation with serious and organised crime. I urge the Home Secretary to look at the work that was done after the huge shift in the terror threat that we faced following 9/11 and 7/7 to draw up the Contest strategy. We do not have a similar strategy for state actors and state-sponsored threats. The work is far too fragmented. The Labour party would like to see a comprehensive equivalent to Contest. I urge him to look again at that. We will work with him on that too.

I thank the right hon. Lady for her party’s commitment to the ongoing support for Ukraine’s self-defence. She was right to read that into the record. There is no doubt about her commitment among Government Members. I reassure her that we do look at the wider threats emanating from Russia. We liaise closely with our international partners. We suspect that other countries in the coalition of support for Ukraine are being targeted by Russia. Those countries will take discrete, domestic actions, but I draw the House’s attention to the shared commitment set out in the North Atlantic Council statement. I do not have the precise quote in front of me, but from memory it said that nations will take both individual and collective action.

Our response is calibrated. It is designed to send a very clear message, as well as hampering Russia’s ability to conduct espionage here in the UK. We will look closely at Russia’s response and whether it seeks to escalate matters. We will always ensure that we protect our ability to have lines of communication with Russia, even during these most challenging of times. Routes for de-escalation, error avoidance and the avoidance of miscalculation are very important. We recognise that, and I believe that Putin’s regime in Moscow recognises that. We will seek to maintain lines of communication, even while we take these decisive actions.

With regard to the extensive sanctions, we moved quickly, in concert with our international friends and allies. Those sanctions are having an effect. Of course Russia seeks to evade sanctions where it can. While sanctions enforcement is primarily the responsibility of the Treasury, it is a cross-Government piece of work. All parts of Government—this was very much the case when I was Foreign Secretary, speaking with our international counterparts and interlocutors—try to close off opportunities for sanctions evasion.

The defending democracy taskforce is incredibly important, particularly as we head towards a general election. We will of course adapt, and seek to work cross-party, because it is in all our interests that we defend democracy. I will continue to ensure that both the Security Minister and I work closely with the shadow Front Bench and other Opposition parties’ Front-Bench teams to protect something that is incredibly valuable.

I welcome the update from the Secretary of State. The United Kingdom has led the world in supporting Ukraine—militarily, economically and diplomatically. Our key ally, the United States, has introduced legislation, put forward by Congressman French Hill, my counterpart in the British-American parliamentary group, on seizing Russian assets and using them to rebuild Ukraine. I introduced a similar Bill in Parliament, which is due for a Second Reading on 17 May, and I have written to the Foreign Secretary about that. Will the Home Secretary clarify whether the United Kingdom will support the measures that the United States has introduced? It is crucial that we do everything that we can to cut off Putin’s finances and ensure that he pays for the reconstruction of Ukraine.

We work very closely with our international allies to put pressure on the Russian regime. We will look closely at the detail of the proposals going through the United States system. There is a very big difference between freezing and seizing of assets. Going from one to the other would need close international co-operation and co-ordination to ensure that we always act within the rule of law. We do not want to inadvertently find ourselves on the receiving end of criticism from a regime such as Putin’s that we are stepping outside the bounds of international law, but we have made it clear that we will be incredibly imaginative and will work hard to ensure that the regime and people who have funded the brutal attack on Ukraine are also those who fund the rebuilding of Ukraine. We will work with our international partners to ensure that is the reality.

I thank the Home Secretary for advance sight of his statement. Like him, I pay tribute to those in law enforcement who work so diligently to counter these types of threats, which are extremely well known, and understood right across Europe. Disinformation and other types of hybrid threat are now a feature of democratic life in this country and elsewhere. We need a comprehensive sea change in how we approach that threat—a new whole-of-society approach to dealing with hybrid threats. I am fine to support the Government’s increase in defence spending, but what we really need is new thinking, new doctrines and new institutions in order to compete against threats that are ever evolving, becoming more sophisticated, more aggressive, and extremely well funded.

I will focus in particular on the threat of disinformation, especially because we are in an election year. The Government used to provide Parliament—I cannot quite recall when this stopped—with a six-monthly update on the threat posed by Daesh. Can we have a similar type of statement on hostile disinformation—a written statement to Parliament on a regular basis, informing Members of where the threat is and what is being done to meet it? I echo the comments about pressing the Government to ensure that sanctioned money is converted into Ukrainian hryvnia to allow that country to rebuild. I will not press the Home Secretary on that any further—he knows our views—but while I welcome the seizure of the assets that he mentioned and the expulsion of the defence attaché, I can tell him that there are tons of assets in Scotland, including land, estates and much else, that could also be seized. If he chooses to look into that any further, he will certainly have our support.

It is important that we are precise in our use of language. The Russian assets have been sanctioned and frozen, and there is an important difference between freezing and seizing. As far as I am aware, no one has seized or liquidated Russian assets. However, of course we abide by our commitment to ensure that the people who funded the brutality fund the reconstruction. We are absolutely committed to that.

I have taken note of the hon. Gentleman’s point about regular updates, particularly as disinformation and distortions of our democracy and society have a more direct and immediate effect in the UK than perhaps the activities of Daesh do. I will take on board the practicalities of how much detail we might be able to put in the public domain, but the Government have set aside significant amounts of money to the Defending Democracy Taskforce and the workstreams that flow out from that, to help parliamentarians and candidates at the forthcoming election to defend themselves both physically and digitally against assaults that might come for them. We are looking at ways to ensure that that is as effective as possible. With regard to the point he made about international co-operation, of course we will continue to work closely with our allies; our self-defence has to be collective if it is to be fully effective.

I wholeheartedly support every word the Home Secretary has said today. He is right that Putin has been engaged now for at least 10 years—arguably longer—in a sustained, hostile and malign set of actions against the UK and our allies. On occasions where we have not been as overt in our opposition, I think he has taken advantage, so I am glad that the Home Secretary has taken this action. He knows all the things I will ask about: why is there still Russian oil coming into the UK? Why is Russia still exporting the same amount of oil as it did before sanctions were introduced? Why have we still not gone as far as the Americans and Canadians in seeking not just to freeze, but to seize Russian state assets so that they can be used for the development of Ukraine? Why has the Abramovich money still not gone to Ukraine? That would be more than £3 billion, more than the amount the UK has so far devoted. Finally, can he say a word about Vladimir Kara-Murza, a man many of us have met? He is very brave and we want to make sure that the UK Government are doing everything in their power to ensure that he is protected in Russia.

The hon. Gentleman has asked a number of questions, some of which fall within the remit of the Foreign Secretary; the Deputy Foreign Secretary will answer in this House on the Foreign Secretary’s behalf, but I can let the hon. Gentleman know that the answers that I and the Foreign Office have previously given him remain unchanged. We work with our international partners, because both sanctions evasion and the fight against it are by nature international acts. As I say, enforcement is predominantly a Treasury competency and the international co-operation falls within the remit of the FCDO, but we all work to ensure that sanctions evasion does not happen.

I have to correct the hon. Gentleman. Although a number of countries are investigating what a regime for the seizure and liquidation of Russian assets might look like, and we will continue to work with our international partners to explore ways of ensuring that the people who paid for the brutality pay for the rebuilding, it is not accurate to say that other countries have seized and liquidated Russian assets.

May I say what a pleasure it is to see that we are taking this seriously? The words of the Home Secretary filled me with renewed optimism, because we need both optimism and action. Does he agree that we can never underrate the Russians and Vladimir Putin? The fact is that they are very clever; they are using both financial strategies and dupes in Europe and other places to channel their influence. We must be wary at every level.

Does the Home Secretary think our intelligence services are equipped to cope with the real challenge that we now face from Russia, and indeed from China? Has he been picking up what I am picking up from a lot of my old friends in Washington? Not only are they very disturbed about Russian influence on American elections, but I have heard very strong information that they believe that some of the influence is coming from Russia via London and from the United Kingdom. That is a real problem.

The Home Secretary knows I have a bee in my bonnet about this, but there are people in this Parliament who have been named as very close to Russia. We had a member of the House of Lords featured in a main article in The Times only two weeks ago. Surely we must make our House and our Parliament as clean and above board as possible, and if there are such groups or individuals in this place, we should know about it.

The hon. Gentleman speaks with great knowledge and passion about these important issues. He will of course understand that I will not go into detail about intelligence and security matters, but I can reassure him and the House that our intelligence services, the external-facing services and our security services, are incredibly effective. They are without doubt amongst the best in the world, and I would—perhaps rather arrogantly—suggest that they are the best in the world. In my experience both as Home Secretary and in my former role as Foreign Secretary, I have seen the positive diplomatic influence that our agencies exert on our behalf; they are regarded very highly by our allies and international partners. Without going into detail, I hope that he and the House can feel reassured that we are in good hands.

However, we must recognise that, as the hon. Gentleman has said, Russia takes pride in its long history of disinformation, propaganda and kompromat. It wears that history as a badge of honour and it is constantly evolving its threats towards us, so we have to constantly evolve our defences. I can reassure him that we are doing that; the National Security Act 2023 is part of that, but that we reserve the right to take further action, were Russia to be foolish enough to escalate or to attempt once again the actions that we believe it has taken in our country.

Neither prosecutions nor penalties have been applied to those importing Russian oil that is refined in, and branded as coming from, India and other countries. At the same time, the threat of closure hangs over Grangemouth refinery. The world knows that this activity is ongoing, and Grangemouth is aware of the threat facing it and industrialisation in Scotland. Is it not time the Minister spoke to colleagues to ensure that not just state security, but energy security is considered, that our refinery capacity remains in Scotland and that, at the same time, those profiting from bringing in Russian oil are prosecuted?

This Government are committed to ensuring security. While they have not been universally applauded, the licences that we have awarded to ensure that there is a vibrant hydrocarbons industry in Scotland are important for jobs, for the Scottish economy, for the UK economy and for our energy security. I can reassure the hon. Gentleman and the House that energy security will remain at the forefront of our minds. On sanctions evasion—particularly oil and gas sanctions—I assure him that my noble friend Lord Cameron, as I did when I was Foreign Secretary, raises these issues internationally with those countries still trading with Russia, at every opportunity.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement and very much welcome his clear commitment, which encourages all of us in this House and across this great nation. Bearing in mind the overnight raid on Ukraine’s energy facilities and the continued aggression carried out while our eyes are turned towards the middle east, does he not believe that we must send the swift and strong message to Putin that we are approaching the point when decisive action must be taken by the allies, and that we have both the capacity and the will to intervene against the despicable war being waged against the Ukrainian people?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point that I want to reinforce. It was quite clear that Vladimir Putin thought that the UK and our wider allies would be either distracted or dissuaded from supporting Ukraine when he initiated his full-scale invasion. Nothing could have been further from the truth. If he thought that the evolving situation in Gaza—the terrorist attack against Israel and Israel’s military action to defend itself—would distract us from our support for Ukraine or our self-defence against Russian malign activity, he was again mistaken. I can reassure the hon. Gentleman and the House that, although of course we are very focused on the situation in Gaza, south-west Israel and the wider middle east region, we will not lose sight of our commitment to the Ukrainians in their self-defence and to re-establishing the fact that national borders cannot be redrawn by force.

Passport e-Gates Network Outage

With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement about disruption at the border.

At around a quarter to eight last night, the Home Office became aware of a significant IT outage. Investigations determined that the incident was caused by technical issues within the Home Office network. The relevant teams quickly swung into action and a technical response was under way within six minutes. Once the fault was identified, officials worked closely with partners to rectify the problem and restore service. I joined a gold call with the lead officials at midnight last night, and the issue was resolved shortly before half-past midnight.

My information this morning is that all impacted systems have been restored and the incident has been formally closed, with all due diligence checks completed. At this stage, I can assure the House and the wider public that all security checks were maintained throughout. Border security was not compromised at any point, and there is no indication of malicious cyber-activity. Police access to operational systems was unaffected.

As a result of the outage, there were delays at some airports, as Members will be aware. The queues remained manageable and within health and safety parameters. Staff on the ground supported passengers, including through the provision of water, and ensured that welfare needs were met. Although undoubtedly inconvenient, the delays were necessary to maintain the integrity of our border. That is not to minimise the impact of the disruption; I realise that it will have been frustrating for all those affected. I offer my thanks to passengers for their patience as urgent activity was mounted to resolve the incident. I also place on record my gratitude to all the personnel who were involved in the response, including staff within the Home Office and Border Force, and at airports.

I realise that a number of questions will arise from this occurrence. I will, of course, do my utmost to provide as much information as possible, with the caveat that detailed work to understand the circumstances is ongoing. As the House and the public would expect, comprehensive activity to ascertain all relevant information about what happened will be undertaken in earnest in the coming days. Any incident involving our border systems causes concern—that is perfectly understandable. It is worth putting this into context, however. Border Force facilitated over 132 million passenger arrivals last year, consistently processing over 90% of passengers within service standards. As I have said, security was maintained at all times, an urgent response was mounted, and the issue was fully resolved in a matter of hours. None the less, I sincerely apologise for the disruption that occurred.

I can assure the House that the Home Secretary and I will be unswerving in our determination to ensure that every possible lesson is learned and that this does not happen again, and I know that will be the objective of everyone across the Home Office. The security, integrity and effectiveness of the UK border is paramount. It is my foremost priority, and will be for the entirety of the time that I have in this role. I commend the statement to the House.

I thank the Minister for his statement and for advance sight of it. I join him in paying tribute to the staff who responded swiftly to resolve last night’s e-gate network outage, whose actions should be commended. It is also right to pay tribute, as he did, to the passengers who waited patiently for hours—some after very long flights.

Our border security is not and should not be a dividing issue. The Minister has done the right thing by coming to the House today with the aim of providing clarity and reassurance on this extremely important matter. However, I am sure that the House will agree that the chaotic scenes across many of the UK’s major airports last night were unacceptable, not least because e-gates have failed on several occasions in recent years. The system collapsed at the start of the late May bank holiday weekend in 2023 because of a failed system upgrade, and technical issues in 2021 caused the gates to fail three times in two months.

That is unacceptable, and it brings into sharp focus how the current high-capacity e-gate system is no longer reliable enough and risks further damaging public trust in the Government’s management of our border security. Furthermore, although the Minister has made it clear that last night’s e-gate failure was down to technical issues rather than malign activity, the Home Office and Border Force must make every effort to ensure that any such technical issues do not expose vulnerabilities in the system that could be exploited by our adversaries, be they state or non-state malign actors. Britain’s border system should at all times allow lawful entry into our country and stop illegal entry. The safety and security of our country depends on it.

I would be grateful if the Minister answered the following questions. First, at this stage, is he able to confirm whether the same technical issue responsible for previous e-gate failures is behind last night’s events? If so, what urgent action will be taken to ensure that it is finally resolved? Secondly, does he believe that the contingency plan for a national e-gate failure worked last night, and what does he deem to be an acceptable wait time for processing entries into the UK when e-gates fail? Thirdly, is he able to share figures on how many Border Force officers were redirected from other vital duties to manually process entries in the UK last night, and were there backlogs in other parts of the border system as a result?

While he is answering questions about mobility and security at the border, can the Minister give a guarantee that full preparations are in place at Dover to avoid queues when the European entry and exit checks are introduced in the autumn? Finally, will he take this opportunity to give an assurance that no other national e-gate failure will happen on his watch? I hope that the Minister will take those questions in the constructive spirit in which they are intended. If he is not able to answer them today, will he write to my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock), and to me?

There cannot be another repeat of the chaos seen at Britain’s border last night. The Government must do everything they can to resolve these persistent problems for once and for all. The public must have faith that the UK’s border security system still works.

I am very grateful to the shadow Minister for the tone with which he has approached today’s statement and the response on behalf of His Majesty’s Opposition. I reiterate the thanks and appreciation that were reflected in his remarks on Border Force staff and the teams within the airports, who worked alongside the airlines to support passengers during this period of disruption. Again, I place on record my sincere apologies to all passengers who were affected by this issue last night. I can understand their frustration, and I sincerely apologise for it.

The hon. Gentleman specifically asked whether the contingency plan that was in place worked. Of course, we will always learn lessons from contingencies, evolve those models and make sure we are responsive to feedback. However, I think it is fair to say that overall, the contingency plans did work last night, with that strong partnership underpinning them—working with the airlines and airports, with leadership from Border Force teams. He also asked whether border security was compromised. I can confirm that it was not: proper checks were undertaken in the way that we would expect, just not in the automated manner that people would wish to see, with greater manual processing of cases but relying on the underlying systems. Again, that demonstrates that the contingency plans that we put in place for incidents such as this one were robust and did work. The response was triggered within six minutes; the operational contingency then began within an hour. That has subsequently been assured as well, to ensure that the integrity of the border was maintained at all times.

Turning to the security breach aspect of this issue, let me again be clear that this was not a cyber-attack, but the hon. Gentleman is right about the need for us always to be vigilant when it comes to border security and making sure that the IT systems that underpin it are able to withstand those sorts of pressures. We continue to factor that into the work that we are taking forward through our future borders endeavour. When it comes to the root cause of what has happened—how we got to this point in the first place—as soon as the fix was put in place, the posture changed to getting us to a place where we better understand that root cause. That work is ongoing, and it would not be right for me to speculate on it, but I can absolutely assure the hon. Gentleman that we will get to the bottom of this issue.

As for the specific technical issue last night, I am assured that the technical team are confident that there is now a permanent fix to that issue. When it comes to e-gate reliability in general, more than 90 million passengers use e-gates each year, and we are world leading in their use. This is an extremely rare occurrence; as the hon. Gentleman will recognise, one can never guarantee that any IT system will be 100% reliable 100% of the time, but that is why it is imperative that robust contingencies are in place to underlie all those systems, to maintain the integrity of our border.

As a Government, we are clear that we must never compromise border security, and we did not: the border was operational, albeit slower than any of us would like, for which I am sorry. This incident also demonstrates why automation at the border and e-gates are such an important part of the way in which people enter the country: without them, we would see the sort of operation that we saw last night all the time. In fact, last year, over 90% of people cleared the border within 30 minutes, which demonstrates just how integral e-gates are and why we place a real emphasis on making sure they are available. As I have said, we will get to the bottom of this.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman asked about the EU entry-exit system. In recent weeks, we have had a number of opportunities to debate that system in the House. An enormous amount of cross-Government work is going on at the moment to ensure we have the best possible plans in place. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman)—who is in his place—and I are working very closely together on this matter, alongside colleagues from across Government, as well as engaging thoroughly with our EU and French counterparts. We have made real progress in recent weeks, and we will continue to sustain that effort.

May I press the Minister a little further on the reliability of the airports’ contingency plans when we have failures such as this one? As he has alluded to, this is not the first time that this has occurred. I would be interested to know what lessons learned from previous handlings were deployed on this occasion, particularly for supporting passengers who are elderly, have disabilities or young families, or require additional care and support, so that they do not suffer unduly during delays.

My hon. Friend the Chairman of the Transport Committee is right to raise those concerns about passengers and their experiences. As I say, this was a highly regrettable situation, but the response swung into action very quickly. It is fair to say that we always iterate and always learn. We probably will not have got everything 100% right in the immediate response, but there was a genuine effort, co-ordinated by Border Force, with the airlines and airports, to support passengers, particularly vulnerable ones. Individuals who were at airports last night have said to me that they were impressed by the contingency arrangements that were in place, but there are always things that we can learn from these efforts, and we will do exactly that. Our contingency plans always have to be iterated; we always have to be responsive. The integrity of our border is of the utmost importance, and supporting people—particularly vulnerable people—when things go wrong is at the forefront of our considerations.

As was said by the Labour shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), this is the third e-gate failure in a year, and just weeks ago, travellers in Edinburgh, Manchester and Bristol faced hour-long queues. It sounds like the Minister is conducting a thorough investigation; could he confirm that, and also confirm that he will report his findings to the House in a future statement?

This time, the problem appeared to affect not just e-gates. Belfast international airport, which does not have e-gates, said that the Border Force systems had been impacted. Could the Minister please clarify that issue? Finally, the Home Office has been talking for a long time about introducing other technological innovations in order to carry out its business. What lessons does the Minister think this example provides?

I thank the SNP spokesman for the constructive tone he has taken in asking his questions. He has raised a number of points. I can absolutely guarantee him that a thorough investigation is ongoing to establish exactly what went wrong. The technical team is confident that the fix that has been put in place addresses the issue, but of course, we want to understand the underlying causes of what went wrong last night to ensure that the system is as robust as it can possibly be, so that it can withstand any technical challenges going forward. I will gladly take away his point about updating the House, and will consider how that can best be achieved.

The hon. Gentleman has raised a point about Belfast airport. If he does not mind, I would like to take that point away, speak to Border Force officials about it, and provide him with a written update. As for the wider point about delivery of a considerable programme of change at our domestic border over the coming months, he will recall that we are rolling out changes through the electronic travel authorisation scheme. We have been delivering that in phases, and the early indications have been good. That scheme gives us much greater information upstream about passengers before they arrive at our border. That helps us to tackle threats before passengers travel, which is an improved situation, and allows us to understand more about passengers whom we currently know very little about before they set off for the United Kingdom, as opposed to trying to deal with issues at the border. We have also introduced e-visas, which are another important part of our programme to digitise the border.

It is important to say that there will always be a physical Border Force presence at our airports. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Rhondda (Sir Chris Bryant) remarks on that point; I wanted to make it clear to the House, because although there is always a place for technology, and automation has an important role to play, it is right that there always be a physical presence as well, to support people who arrive at our ports, and to ensure that we can respond to any issues. Automation will allow us to focus increasingly on risk, and to deploy more Border Force officers to deal with it, as well as to improve the passenger experience, so the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) is right to raise the issue. Any and all learning will be taken forward as we develop processes and programmes, but I am confident that our plans for them are robust. We will get on with delivering on the commitments we have made.

Whenever there are malfunctions of the e-gates at the UK border, it is the airport operators, including Gatwick in my constituency, that have to bear the brunt of the congestion caused by the delays that result. As the Home Office updates the e-gates system with new technology, what assurances can the Minister give me that he and the Home Office will engage with the airport operators, so that they are very much part of ensuring that we have a secure and free-flowing border?

I know that my hon. Friend recognises the importance of the digitisation that we are undertaking of our border from a security, efficiency and customer service perspective. All of those are very important to airlines as well as airport operators. My understanding is that there has consistently been significant engagement with our work on the future borders programme, in addition to routine engagement with Border Force officials. That was reflected in the work done on the ground last night in responding to the issue; it showed how strong those links and connections are. However, we must never be complacent, and when it comes to the programmes that we are developing and have made commitments to deliver, I guarantee my hon. Friend that we will sustain that drumbeat of engagement. I am keen to lean into that as the Minister, and officials will continue to do so as well. I am very grateful for his efforts in raising Gatwick airport’s issues and concerns. He is a very diligent representative of his area, and I am really appreciative of his input.

I commend the Minister for making the statement; it is good to see such transparency. Can he clarify how long it took from the moment the service went down to its restoration? Was it one, two, or three hours? What is the longest period that passengers had to wait? If it was not a cyber-attack and there was no malicious activity, as he said, what was the problemt? Was it with the IT, was it some kind of glitch—a Horizon kind of glitch—or was it the physical operation of the barriers?

Last night was not the day with the largest number of travellers in the UK. We will have days later on this year when we could have significantly larger numbers—for instance, the Whitsun bank holiday. What is the Minister putting in place to ensure that there are sufficient contingency measures, just in case the system goes down again?

Again, I thank the hon. Gentleman for the way in which he puts his questions. Many passengers saw waits of two to three hours last night as they were processed at the border. As I set out in my statement, the fix began to take effect at around half-past midnight, so there were several hours between the issue first becoming known—the response kicked in around six minutes later—and the fix beginning to make a difference at around 12.30 am.

The hon. Gentleman asked what more we can do on the contingency side. I think that there will be learning that comes out of last night. We will take that on board, and there will be opportunities for us to discuss and evaluate it, working with the airports and the airlines. As I have consistently said, I think the response last night proved that there is robust contingency planning in place. It did make a difference, and it meant that the integrity of the border was maintained, but I am sorry that passengers had a longer wait than any of us would want.

On the technical issue, I will not pre-empt the work ongoing at pace in the Department to get to the bottom of the specifics, but we will of course respond to that issue, and any learning required that flows from that will take place.

The British are world-renowned for their patience in queueing, but I thank the Minister for his statement, and for his apology, especially for my Dudley constituents. I think the part that my constituents would struggle with more is his saying that it is a No. 1 priority to make sure that our borders are 100% secure, when the same constituents can see hundreds of people, if not 1,000 a day, landing on the beaches with no documentation whatsoever, and being allowed to stay in this country; if they go on to commit a crime, several years later, they may still be allowed to stay in this country. It is a very real frustration, and something that even I cannot reconcile.

I think my hon. Friend will recognise that there are proper checks in place when people arrive at our airports, as there were last night. Those people were arriving in our country and going about their business perfectly legally. The work we are taking forward—initiatives such as the electronic travel authorisation scheme—will only enhance the security of our border, which I think his constituents would welcome. That is akin to what we see in the United States and countries such as Australia.

However, my hon. Friend is right to raise the issue of illegal migration. I can assure him and his constituents that proper security checks are carried out when people arrive clandestinely. People should not be making small boat crossings of the channel, and should not be coming to the United Kingdom in the backs of lorries. It is completely unacceptable, and that is why his constituents so strongly support the work that the Government are taking forward, particularly focused on making channel crossings unviable. Those crossings happen at the hands of evil criminal gangs, who take people’s money, put them in small boats, and have no regard to whether they get safely to the other side. It is heinous, and that is why we are determined to put them out of business.

I think travellers last night were given an authentic introduction to life in Brexit Britain under this UK Government, where absolutely nothing works whatsoever. That is the churlish point over, but clearly passengers in Glasgow were impacted by this issue. However, the fix at 12.30 am came just before whole slew of 12 flights arrived, so Glasgow in many ways was a lucky airport, as were the passengers arriving there.

The Minister speaks about the contingency plans working. What he is doing to reach out to individual airports, and to look at how their contingency plans worked last night? What resources are available to those airports for improving those contingency plans?

On the first part of the hon. Member’s question, what a load of rubbish. E-gates were an important part of our border infrastructure when we were a member of the European Union, and they continue to be important now that we are a non-member of the European Union, so I think we can discount that perspective.

However, the second half of the hon. Member’s question was very valid. That is precisely why I want operational teams to spend time engaging with airports and airlines following the incident last night, to make sure that we capture any and all learning flowing from it. As I have said, I think it is fair to say that across those organisations, working in partnership, there was a robust response. The contingency plan did work, but there will be things that we can learn from the incident. That is as relevant to Gatwick as it is to Heathrow, Stansted, Belfast and other airports. We should and will have those conversations.

It is probably worth reminding ourselves why the expansion of the use of e-gates, including to families with children aged 10 and over, has been useful, not just from a passenger comfort and convenience point of view, but because there is a range of security benefits to the checks that machines can perform, particularly biometric checks, but I am sure that the Minister will be grateful to me for not going into that on the Floor of the House of Commons.

On this type of outage, inevitably, when a technology is being relied on, there is the potential for something to happen. It is reassuring to hear that in this instance the problem was not caused by a malign influence. If it later emerged that it had been, I am sure that the Minister would come back to the House, but I can imagine the type of assurance that has been given in the Home Office before he came here to give his assurance from the Dispatch Box.

For me, it is about further exploring the opportunities for other agencies and authorities to support Border Force in delivering the border. It seems clear from the Minister’s statement that at all times people are still being checked, but just by an officer, rather than through an e-gate. What further work could be done on rapid deployment through support agreements, potentially with officers from other parts of the civil service who have the training to operate the border, but are not necessarily routinely positioned on it? We must consider the fact that our core goal for the border, particularly as the electronic travel authorisation scheme comes in, is to stop people who are a threat or who we do not want to allow into the country from getting on a plane in the first place to come to the United Kingdom. We should increasingly be declining them at the place where they check in, rather than at the UK border.

My hon. Friend speaks with real authority on these issues, having been the architect of so much of the change we are introducing at the border. He is right that the possibilities of automation are enormous, for improving the passenger experience and having a greater understanding of many of those individuals who are travelling to our country and being able to prevent some of that travel in the first place, rather than responding to that at the border, where risk is involved.

My hon. Friend asked about contingencies. There is always a place for ensuring wider training and opportunity within the organisation to surge capacity when there are challenges. We have done that in responding to a number of different challenges over the years. It is fair to say that last night there were Border Force staff members who are perhaps not on the primary control point ordinarily who were surged in to support the team working on the PCP to help get people through the border as quickly as possible. In particular where there are protracted issues affecting our ports, we should always look at what we can do to provide additional support from other parts of the Home Office and perhaps even elsewhere.

I pay tribute to the staff who worked so hard to respond to the crisis and to every traveller who waited so patiently. The episode says a lot about the Government’s priorities when it comes to controlling our borders properly. Instead of chasing headlines on immoral and expensive policies to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda, can the Minister assure me that he will focus on ensuring that my Bath constituents can travel freely, safely and without huge delays?

That is always the priority of the Government. I have set out the focus on security, efficiency and ensuring that passengers have the best possible experience of the UK border. I have been able to set out the fact that in so many instances—a very high percentage of occasions—the e-gates work successfully. Some 90 million passengers pass through the e-gates quickly every year. When it comes to border security, I am probably right in saying that the hon. Lady voted against the sorts of measures, such as the electronic travel authorisation scheme, that we legislated for through the Nationality and Borders Act 2022. That is a cornerstone of our efforts to help improve security at the border, improve that automation and be able to bring passengers through more quickly.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker—you perhaps saw the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) handing me the wooden spoon on his way out of the Chamber earlier.

None of this will surprise those of us who think that the Home Office’s default position is to make entering the UK as difficult as possible, because this is essentially a manifestation of the hostile environment writ large. May I press the Minister on the contingencies and redundancies? When people are processed manually at the border, is it essentially the e-gate system with a human being doing the verification, or is it sufficiently separate that people can be processed manually through the border while the e-gates are down? What is his relationship with the airlines and the airports? Is there awareness, as my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) said, when large numbers of flights are expected, so that the e-gates are fully operational and fully staffed? Certainly in my experience and that of some constituents, that is not always the case.

I rather wonder whether the SNP reshuffle is on the minds of SNP colleagues here this afternoon, and their prospects, because we have heard some rather bizarre angles in some of the questions. On the more serious points that the hon. Gentleman raises, when it comes to how we dealt with this incident yesterday, there was underlying system availability to support manual checks to get people through the border as quickly as possible. We also work closely with the airlines and the airports to ensure that we maximise the staffing on the primary control at peak times to ensure that people can be processed as quickly as possible. There are people who pass through having face-to-face interactions with Border Force officers, and there are people who pass through the e-gates. We make sure that we take proper account of the flows through our ports and that staffing reflects the demand at any given point of the day.

Bill Presented

Medicines (Vitamin B12 Injections) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Jane Hunt, supported by Peter Aldous and Anthony Mangnall, presented a Bill to provide that vitamin B12 injections may be sold, supplied or administered by a registered pharmacist without a prescription; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 7 June, and to be printed (Bill 213).

Assistance Dogs and Pavement Parking

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to remove exemptions from requirements to provide access or services to a person who is accompanied by an assistance dog; to make the undertaking of disability equality training in relation to assistance dogs a condition of holding a licence to drive a taxi or private hire vehicle; to prohibit the parking of motor vehicles on pavements and footpaths; and for connected purposes.

Just imagine how hard life would be if you could not see. There are amazing people, however, who can use a dog to help them go about their daily life—dogs trained so skilfully that they can transform opportunities for blind people. Sadly, almost a third of people with sight loss are reluctant to go out on their own, and almost half of guide dog owners are forced to change or restrict where they are willing or able to go. As we see assistance dogs able to help more people with more and different disabilities, this Bill will solve some of the problems that these dog owners face.

We have all felt for a light switch in a dark room at home, and we can understand those feelings of frustration, helplessness or even panic. If that is what it is like to turn on the lights in our own homes, imagine trying to do so somewhere strange, where a mishap could mean cracking one’s head on a kerb or, worse, being hit by a truck. No shop, no restaurant and no supermarket should be turning away someone with an assistance dog. No taxi driver should be worrying about dog allergies when they see a blind person, because they must and will know how to look after them, because they have been trained to deal with those customers. No pavement should be an obstacle course, blocked by parked vehicles.

I am proud that in North Herefordshire people with sight loss have an especially esteemed place. Hereford is home to the Royal National College for the Blind, where young people with visual impairment receive training and education. It is wonderful to witness these individuals learning not to cope, but to thrive. However, figures suggest that 74% of people with assistance dogs were turned away from food and drink outlets between July 2021 and July 2022; that 53% experienced a refusal when visiting a shop; and that 37% were told “No” by hotels and bed and breakfasts. All of that is in spite of the Equality Act 2010, under which the vast majority of such refusals are already illegal. The Equality Act protects the assistance dog, not the person, so it allows for far wider opportunity for access.

It is the plight of these people, however, that is of the greatest importance to me, because of how the Royal National College for the Blind is located in Herefordshire, but also because I am a Royal National Institute of Blind People champion and the owner of a former guide dog, Warwick. There is no reason why anybody should be turning away assistance dog users. “Angry”, “embarrassed”, “disappointed” and “isolated” are the words used by respondents to a Guide Dogs UK survey to describe such bad experiences. But, of course, the dogs say nothing.

At a time when the RNIB reports that only 56% of blind and partially sighted people have received vision rehabilitation support and 26% of local authorities have left people waiting more than a year for assessment and support, it is critical that we do more, and we must do it now.

Working assistance dogs receive up to two years of intensive training—and that is before the further training they get during their working lives. They are not disruptive, because they are so highly trained. I have tested this on our family dog, Warwick. When we—the owners—go for a walk with our dogs, we lead our dogs across the road, but Warwick can lead me across the road.

These dogs are hygienic. The fact that the Food Standards Agency has confirmed that assistance dogs should be allowed entry to food shops and premises proves that. I have seen the facilities for blind owners to be trained on how to maintain the high standards of grooming required for these dogs, and vets regularly check them.

Because most blind owners keep their retired guide dogs, my Bill will go further and allow retired assistance dogs to have that same universal access. Those retired dogs are often still owned by their original users and are just as well trained as working assistance dogs. It is already recognised that they are well disciplined and that they present no risk of disruption or hygiene issues, so what reasons are there to refuse them and their handlers access? There is none.

Even if permitting access to assistance dogs were a burden on business owners—as I have outlined, it is not—the numbers involved are so small that any negative effects would be negligible. Just over 7,000 people in our country rely on assistance dogs, of which about 4,500 are guide dogs. That is just one person in every 10,000.

Currently, taxi and private hire vehicle drivers can be issued with exemptions from carrying assistance dogs on medical grounds. Some people are allergic to dogs—that is an unavoidable fact—but only taxi and minicab drivers can hold exemptions due to allergy. There are only 7,000 assistance dogs out there, so surely we can accommodate everyone. If it is a legal requirement for owners and employees in small shops to accept assistance dogs, why should taxi and PVH drivers be allowed a total exemption?

Since covid, protective screens for drivers have become widespread and are easy to fit. We need drivers to be trained to think ahead so that they have a solution to their dog allergy rather than refusing to carry a blind person. It is what we all do—we give consideration to how we can accommodate disability rather than reject disabled people—yet 81% of guide dog owners, according to research by Guide Dogs in 2022, have been refused access to taxis. Almost 63% had experienced that in the previous 12 months.

In 2016, a private Member’s Bill contributed to the formation of a Department for Transport task and finish group looking into that. Three years later, the Government agreed to make it a requirement for drivers to undertake disability equality training, yet, despite Government commitments, last year only 62% of authorities required disability equality training for taxis. In Northern Ireland, where training is required, instances of access refusals for taxis are rare. Training and forethought are the solution.

Equally clear is the solution to the problems that face assistance dog owners on foot. In 2019, 80% of blind or partially sighted people reported that pavement parking made it difficult for them to walk on pavements at least once a week, and more than 95% of people with sight loss stated that it had forced them to walk in the road. Consequently, one in five people with sight loss have been injured because of pavement parking. We should be helping these people, not impeding them.

The England blind football team train in Hereford. They stand as a testament to the fact that people with sight loss can do almost everything that someone who does not suffer visual impairment can. The next time someone thinks that they need to park on the pavement, they should try shutting their eyes when they try to take a shower and see what a mess they make. In London, where pavement parking has been heavily restricted since 1974, only 26% of people with sight loss face daily problems, while, in the country at large, that figure is 45%.

There are already ways for the police to fine obstructive vehicles, but enforcement is the issue. Prohibiting pavement parking would do a great deal to help people with sight loss. It has been done London, in Scotland and in Northern Ireland, so it is possible and it does work. The Transport Committee’s report of September 2019 recommended it.

I know that the Government are committed to the wellbeing and equality of people who use assistance dogs. The Bill would make the lives of people with assistance dogs easier. It would also encourage and support people who use dogs—or perhaps want to use a dog—but are afraid of being made to walk home in the rain, barred from using a taxi or restaurant and forced off the pavement and into the traffic by pavement parking. Just imagine if that person was you.

Question put and agreed to.


That Sir Bill Wiggin, Henry Smith, Greg Smith, James Gray, Selaine Saxby, Mr David Jones, Dame Tracey Crouch, Mr Mark Francois, Dr James Davies, Bob Blackman and Rachel Maclean present the Bill.

Sir Bill Wiggin accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 21 June, and to be printed (Bill 214).

Finance (No. 2) Bill

(Clauses 1 to 4, 12 and 13, and 19)

Considered in Committee

[Relevant documents: Oral evidence taken before the Treasury Committee on the morning of 12 March 2024, on the Budget 2024, HC 625; oral evidence taken before the Treasury Committee on the afternoon of 12 March 2024, on the Budget 2024, HC 625; oral evidence taken before the Treasury Committee on 13 March 2024, on the Budget 2024, HC 625; correspondence from the Chancellor of the Exchequer to the Treasury Committee, on the Budget 2024, reported to the House on 1 May 2024.]

[Dame Eleanor Laing in the Chair]

Clause 1

Income tax charge for tax year 2024-25

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Clauses 2 to 4 stand part.

New clause 1—Review of impact of section 2—

“(1) The Chancellor of the Exchequer must, within three months of this Act being passed, publish a review of the expected impact of section 2 of this Act.

(2) The review must include analysis setting out the number of individual taxpayers facing a marginal tax rate in the tax year 2024-25 of—

(a) the basic rate of 20%, and

(b) the higher rate of 40%.

(3) For comparative purposes, the review must take account of—

(a) equivalent actual figures to those in subsection (2)(a) and (b) for the tax years 2021-22, 2022-23 and 2023-24, and

(b) equivalent projected figures to those in subsection (2)(a) and (b) for the tax years 2025-26, 2026-27 and 2027-28.”

This new clause requires a review of how many people will be liable to pay income tax at 20% and 40%, and would compare figures for the current tax year with those for the three preceding and three subsequent tax years.

New clause 4—Review of impact of section 1 on pensioners—

“(1) The Chancellor of the Exchequer must, within three months of this Act being passed, publish a review of the expected impact of section 1 of this Act on those over State Pension age.

(2) The review must include analysis setting out, for the tax year 2024-25—

(a) the total number of people over the State Pension age paying tax under section 1, and

(b) the average tax liability per person of those in subsection (2)(a).

(3) For comparative purposes, the review must take account of equivalent projected figures to those in subsections (2)(a) and (2)(b) for the tax years 2025-26, 2026-27 and 2027-28.”

This new clause requires a review of how many pensioners will be liable to pay income tax this year and in each of the next three years, and what the average pensioner’s tax bill will be in each of those years.

New clause 5—Impact of income tax and corporation tax provisions on Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland

“The Chancellor of the Exchequer must, within three months of this Act being passed, publish an analysis of the impact of the measures in sections 1 to 4, 12 and 13 of this Act on—

(a) Wales,

(b) Scotland, and

(c) Northern Ireland.”

This new clause requires an analysis of the income tax and corporation tax measures in the Bill on Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

New clause 6—Report on impact of section 2—

“Within three months of this Act being passed, the Chancellor of the Exchequer must lay before the House of Commons a report setting out—

(a) the number of taxpayers that will pay income tax at each rate during the tax year 2024-2025 under section 2;

(b) the number of those taxpayers that are pensioners or are of State Pension Age;

(c) comparative figures for each tax year since 2021; and

(d) comparative projected figures for each tax year to 2030.”

It is an honour to open the debate. I will start by setting out how, because of the progress the Government have made, we have been able to cut taxes as part of our plan to reward work and grow the economy.

The Government cut national insurance at both the autumn statement and the spring Budget and have made above-inflation increases to thresholds since 2010, with the basic rate threshold rising from £6,475 to £12,570 today. Taken together, those measures mean that an average worker on £35,400 in 2024-25 will save £1,500 more in personal taxes than they otherwise would have done. Due to the significant real-terms increases to the personal allowance, it is estimated that 1.8 million people will be taken out of income tax altogether by 2024-25, compared with the threshold rising in line with inflation from 2010-11. All workers can now earn £1,000 a month before paying any tax, due to the significant increases to the national insurance starting threshold, which we changed in July 2022.

Let me turn to the first four clauses of the Bill. Income tax is the largest source of Government revenue and helps to fund the UK’s schools, hospitals and defence, and other essential services we all rely on. In 2024-25, it is expected to raise more than £302 billion. Each year, the Government must legislate to charge and set rates of income tax, which is why we are all here today. Clauses 1 to 3 impose an income tax charge and set the rates of it for 2024-25. The rates are not changed by the Bill; rather, we are confirming that they will remain the same.

Clause 1 imposes a charge on individuals to pay income tax for the year 2024-25. Clause 2 sets the main income tax rates—namely the basic rate of 20%, the higher rate of 40% and the additional rate of 45%—for non-savings and non-dividend income of taxpayers in England and Northern Ireland. Those rates are set separately from those in clause 3, as the income tax rates for non-savings and non-dividend income, such as earnings from employment, are devolved to the Scottish and Welsh Governments, and are set by their respective Parliaments. The decision to separate savings and dividends from other forms of income was made as part of the devolution settlement. It ensures that the UK system works effectively and coherently, recognising that dividend and savings income is generally more mobile and generated across the UK, and has some interactions with corporation tax, which is not devolved.

Clause 3 sets the default income tax rates at the same levels as the main rates—namely 20%, 40% and 45%—across the entire UK. These rates apply to the non-savings and non-dividend income of taxpayers who are not subject to the main rates of income tax or to Welsh or Scottish rates of income tax, such as non-UK resident individuals. The clause also sets the savings rates of income tax for all UK taxpayers, again at 20%, 40% and 45%.

As I mentioned, income tax is a vital revenue stream for our public services, without which we could not fund our schools, hospitals, defence and more. It is important that we keep it at its current level.

We all know that, because of the level of intervention that we had to take, out of necessity, during the pandemic and in response to the cost of living challenges, Government intervention was far greater than any of us anticipated—to the tune of £400 billion in the pandemic and £100 billion for the cost of living challenges. That money has to be paid back, and I think most of our constituents know that. We have seen the same pattern right around the world, where tax levels have had to be higher out of necessity. That means that thresholds have not been able to move in the way that we would normally like. However, now that economic circumstances are changing, we have turned a corner and we are able to reduce taxes, such as for the 27 million people who will receive on average an extra £900 through the national insurance cuts.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way a second time. He started by talking about some of the fiscal measures that the Government have taken to reduce tax, but by not unfreezing the personal allowances, are the Government not taking money from one pocket and putting it back in the other?

No. I advise the hon. Member and others to look at their wage slip from a few months ago—say, in December last year. They will see a direct impact because of the national insurance changes that we made in January and again in April. People will see that they are paying less national insurance than in the past. That is transparently and clearly a tax cut. We are able to reduce taxation because the direction of travel is changing.

Taxes have increased across the whole of the western world. Our tax level is projected to increase to about 37%, compared with around 39% in Germany, around 42% in Italy and around 46% in France. This is a phenomenon whereby Governments have had to intervene and spend more money and, as an obvious consequence, they have had to increase taxation to a greater level than anticipated or desired.

However, now that we are back to growth and on a firmer footing, the economy has turned a corner, and we are able to reward the hard work of the British public by reducing taxation. We are doing that in the form of income tax cuts. As the Chancellor and the Prime Minister have said on multiple occasions, we wish to continue in that direction of travel. As I said, people should look at their pay packets. I recognise that it is one thing to talk in the Chamber about implementing laws, but people will now see that in their pay packets in a meaningful way. An average worker on £35,400 will be £900 better off as a result of the national insurance cuts. That is a meaningful amount for constituents right across the country, including those in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency.

Another principle of taxation is fairness. Income tax is fair: those with the most contribute the most. The income tax system is highly progressive, with different rates of tax sitting above an internationally high personal allowance. The top 5% of income tax payers are projected to pay nearly half of all income tax in 2023-24. The top 1% are projected to pay more than 28% of income tax. Thanks to the personal allowance, almost a quarter of individuals will not pay income tax at all in 2024-25. It is important to note that the percentage paid by the top earners is greater than it was under the last Labour Government. In other words, the tax system is more progressive under the Conservatives.

Income tax is also internationally competitive. According to the OECD, the UK has some of the most generous starting allowances for income tax and social security contributions in the OECD, and the most generous in the G7—more generous than in France, Germany, Italy, Canada, Japan and the US. According to the OECD, in the United Kingdom the average single worker faced a net average tax rate of 23.7% in 2023, compared with the OECD average of 24.9%. In other words, in the United Kingdom, the take-home pay of an average single worker after tax and benefits was 76.3% of their gross wage, compared with the OECD average of 75.1%.

I have talked a lot of statistics, but what they mean is more money in people’s pockets to spend as they wish—a fundamental Conservative philosophy. We have also been able to return some money to taxpayers now that inflation is falling and the economy is improving, by reducing national insurance contributions. We have put money back into people’s pockets. We have prioritised tax cuts for those in work, and we believe that that is the best way to stimulate growth in the economy overall.

Clause 4 continues the theme of maintaining the income tax arrangements by keeping the starting rate limit for savings at its current level of £5,000 for the 2024-25 tax year. Many colleagues may be familiar with this but some may not, so briefly by way of explanation, the starting rate for savings is an extra £5,000 tax-free allowance for interest from savings, specifically for individuals who have earned incomes of less than £17,570. That supports in particular people with low earned income, such as pensioners who are reliant on savings interest.

The Government made significant changes to the starting rate for savings in 2015, when they raised the threshold to get the starting rate for savings from £2,880 to £5,000, and lowered the starting rate for savings from 10% to 0%. As many Members will be aware, the starting rate limit for savings must be legislated for each year to confirm the band of savings income to which it applies. Again, that is what we are doing today. This clause will ensure that the limit is held at this level. It ensures simplicity and fairness in the tax system, while maintaining a generous tax relief and supporting the public finances by taking fiscally responsible decisions. As well as benefiting from the starting rate for savings—whereby, as I have said, individuals with earned income of less than £17,507 can earn up to £5,000 in savings income free of tax—savers are supported by the personal savings allowance, which provides up to £1,000 of tax-free savings income for basic rate taxpayers. They can also continue to benefit from the annual ISA allowance of £20,000. Moreover, in the spring Budget 2024 the Government introduced the British ISA, which will provide a new allowance of £5,000 in addition to the existing ISA allowance, along with a new tax-free savings opportunity for people to invest in the UK. Taken together, those generous allowances mean that about 85% of savers pay no tax on their savings income. The Government are committed to continuing to help people on all incomes and at all stages of life to save. The significant increase in the starting limit in 2015 means that the taxation arrangements for savings income remain generous, and the Government therefore believe that it is appropriate to retain the starting rate for savings at its existing value at this time.

The Government are managing the public finances in a balanced and responsible way. Our approach to delivering fiscal sustainability is underpinned by fairness, with those on the highest incomes paying a larger share. By maintaining the current rates of income tax and the starting rate limit for savings thresholds, we will ensure that the highest earners contribute more to the revenue, helping the Government to take a balanced approach to revenue raising while still supporting vital public services.

I rise to speak on behalf of the Opposition to new clauses 1 and 4, which stand in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq).

“This remains a parliament of record tax rises.”

Those are not my words but those of Paul Johnson, the director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, following the spring Budget from which this Finance Bill derives. However, the IFS was not alone in its view. In response to the Budget, the Institute for Government was clear as well, saying that taxes were set to rise

“to a post-war high as a result of decisions made by Conservative chancellors over the past 14 years.”

Meanwhile, the National Institute of Economic and Social Research described the Chancellor’s announcements in March as a

“low-key budget…unlikely to unlock the UK’s growth and productivity problems”.

The verdict is clear. People in Britain are facing higher taxes, squeezed living standards and weaker public services, and they have a Government who are unable to undo the damage that they have caused. No matter what the Conservatives now say or do, the truth is that the tax burden is set to rise to its highest level in 70 years. The decisions taken by Conservative Chancellors in this Parliament—and, let’s face it, there have been a few of them—mean that the average family will face a tax bill that is £870 a year higher by 2028-29. For pensioners, it is even worse: people over the state pension ago do not even benefit from any changes in national insurance, which means that pensioner taxpayers will pay an eye-watering £960 more a year by the end of the forecast period.

People across Britain are struggling to make ends meet as they find their wages squeezed and taxes rising relentlessly, yet the Conservatives have decided to tell the British public that they have never had it so good. I note that Ministers are trying to do that again today, telling us that their plan is working, although that is not the reality of life for people who, at the next general election, will be asking themselves whether they and their families feel better off than they did 14 years ago. It is that reality that new clauses 1 and 4 seek to expose: as the Conservatives gaslight the British people, our new clauses are there to call them out.

New clause 1 does that by requiring the Government to come clean over how many people will be liable to pay income tax at 20% and 40% in the current tax year, how the number has changed over the last three years, and how it will change in the three years ahead. We want the Government to admit the impact that their six-year freezing of the income tax personal allowance and the higher rate threshold will have. According to the Office for Budget Responsibility, 3.7 million more people will be paying tax by 2028-29, and 2.7 million more will be paying the higher rate, as a result of the Government’s threshold freezes. Will the Minister repeat those figures and admit that they are correct? We believe that the Chancellor should be honest about this too, and that is what new clause 1 seeks to achieve.

We know that the outcome of the Conservatives’ decisions during the current Parliament is hitting pensioners who pay tax especially hard: because taxpayers over the state pension age do not benefit from any of the changes in national insurance, they will feel the impact of the Conservatives’ tax rises even more. That is why we tabled new clause 4—again, requiring the Chancellor to come clean about the impact of his and his predecessors’ policies. The new clause requires the Chancellor to set out the number of pensioners who will be liable to pay income tax this year and in each of the next three years, and what the average pensioner’s tax bill will be. Pensioners deserve to know the truth about how the Government’s decisions will affect them, and they have good reason to be concerned about this Government.

While Labour has guaranteed that the pensions triple lock will be in our manifesto and protected for the duration of the next Parliament if we win, the Conservatives refuse to say what impact on pensioners their £46 billion unfunded pledge to abolish national insurance altogether would have. As the shadow Chancellor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) said yesterday, it is a tax bombshell aimed squarely at Britain’s pensioners. The Conservatives are refusing to say how they would pay for this massive commitment, so it is hard not to suspect that they are concealing their plans to make pensioners pay the bill. Perhaps they will pay for the revenue lost through the abolition of national insurance by making changes to pension rates or to the state pension age, but if they are planning to keep pensions the same and make up the revenue by raising the basic and higher rates of income tax, that would mean an 8% increase in income tax rates.

My colleagues and I have asked Ministers time and again to come clean about how they would pay for their plans, but they resolutely refuse to do so. They could clear this up right here, right now, by either abandoning their unfunded commitment or explaining how they would pay for it. I would happily give way if the Minister would like to do that, but I suspect that he will not. We know that the Conservatives find the reality of their tax-raising record so hard to bear that they would rather hang on to a reckless, unfunded plan to abolish national insurance to make them feel better about themselves and to desperately try to keep their divided party together. It is crystal clear that for the Conservatives it is party first, country second.

We also know that the Conservatives’ high tax record goes hand in hand with their record of low growth in the economy. Indeed, one of the reasons taxes are so high is the fact that economic growth has been so weak over the past 14 years. Again, no matter what the current set of Ministers say, the idea that the economy is turning a corner is simply not reflected in reality. The truth is that our economy is smaller per person than it was when the right hon. Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak) became Prime Minister. Our country is forecast by the OECD to have economic growth of just 1% next year, weaker than that in every other G20 country except Russia. If, under the Conservatives, the UK economy had grown at the average OECD rate, it would now be £140 billion larger—and that growth would have provided an extra £50 billion in tax revenues to be invested in our public services. Instead, economic growth is on the floor, taxes are going up, and public services are falling over. That is the Conservative doom loop that we are in. We know that the only way out of the doom loop of ever-rising taxes with nothing to show in return is to get the economy growing with Labour’s plan.

Labour’s plan for economic growth is driven by the need for stability, investment and reform. Stability, something so sorely lacking in the recent years of Conservative chaos, must be the basis of a secure and responsible approach to the economy, and with strong fiscal rules, a new fiscal lock and respect for independent institutions, we will put stability at the heart of our approach.