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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 750: debated on Wednesday 15 May 2024

Women and Equalities

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Support for People with Disabilities

The Government deliver wide-ranging support for disabled people, including in work and education. We continually seek to enhance support—for example, via improvements to the health and disability benefits system, and in the accessibility of homes and transport, and through delivery of the national disability strategy and the disability action plan.

The United Nations has found that the Government have breached the rights of sick and disabled people, including their rights at work, and the UK’s own equality watchdog has said that the Department for Work and Pensions has discriminated against sick and disabled people. Given that only 2.7% of participants in the Government’s work and health programme have a successful job outcome, what meaningful proposals do the Government have to reduce the 29% disability employment gap?

I thank the hon. Lady for her point, which takes me back to our time on the Work and Pensions Committee. I genuinely feel disappointed about that report, and the Government strongly rejected its findings in 2016, but we will continue to implement the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities and the Committee’s recommendations through many of our policies to improve disabled people’s lives, whether that is WorkWell, our disability employment advisers, or the work we are doing on fit note reform. We are absolutely determined to support disabled people in work. Indeed, in the first quarter of 2024 there were 10.3 million disabled people in employment, which is an increase of 400,000 on the year before.

I know that my hon. Friend is absolutely committed to disability employment, but can she please outline exactly what she is doing, both at the DWP and in her wider role across Government, to ensure that inclusion is embedded in policy and leadership so that disabled people—particularly those who are neurodiverse—are supported into civil service jobs?

I thank my right hon. Friend for her point and for her work in this area. We are delivering on the Buckland review, and all ministerial Departments are signing up to Disability Confident, progressing to Disability Confident leader status and having evidence independently validated on that work. Arm’s length bodies are also signing up to Disability Confident, and we are working with parent Departments to encourage more of them to do the same. One in 10 senior civil servants declare themselves to be disabled, and since 2013 the proportion of civil servants with a disability has increased to 16.8%.

I am already a little confused by the Minister’s answers this morning. In December I raised the issue of the disability pay gap, and she replied from the Dispatch Box that the Government were closing the disability employment gap. She has mentioned this morning that that is apparently happening, but the numbers tell a different story: in the period from January to March 2024, 100,000 fewer people with disabilities were in employment compared with the same period 12 months earlier. Why does she think the plan is not working?

The hon. Lady and I could trade statistics, but what I am interested in is opportunities for disabled people and people with health conditions, hence the work we are doing on the Buckland review, and indeed on entrepreneurship and the Lilac review—there will be further updates on that to the House shortly. If the hon. Lady is ready to listen, I can reassure her that we are working on the Disability Confident scheme and are doing further work on the employment goal, and I will update the House soon.

Menopause: Workplace Support

In March last year we appointed Helen Tomlinson as the Government’s first ever menopause employment champion. She has been working up and down the country, visiting businesses large and small and giving them advice on policies to support menopausal women in the workplace. She recently published her 12-month review, “Shattering the Silence about Menopause”.

I am grateful for that reply. Labour is the party of women’s equality. The previous Labour Government did more to advance equality than any other, and the next one will match that record. We are committed to supporting women experiencing menopause to thrive at work by requiring large employers to adopt menopause action plans. Will the Minister do the same?

As usual, this Government have already done all of that work. In England we have the Wellbeing of Women pledge, which the NHS, the civil service and this Parliament have signed. We will take no lectures from Labour on women’s health. While we have had a women’s health strategy for two years, Labour-run Wales has no health plan for women.

Research shows that one in 10 women with menopausal symptoms have left work due to a lack of support. In some cases, this will have been due to discrimination. Women experiencing menopause know that this is because of their age and sex, but the law does not protect them on that combined basis. Why not?

The Equality Act 2010 already protects women on the basis of sex, age and disability. It is this Government who are changing the experience of menopause by rolling out women’s health hubs in every integrated care board across England, so that women can access menopause support. We also have our hormone replacement therapy prepayment certificate, which is available for just under £20 a year for women to get all their HRT prescriptions. Over half a million women in England have bought one of those certificates.

The Minister referred to Labour’s Equality Act, which of course includes protections against dual discrimination, but the Conservatives have refused to enact those protections. Labour would put that right. We would also require large businesses to produce menopause action plans, which the Government have refused to do, and we would also publish guidance for smaller businesses. We would set a new investment target for women-led start-ups, and we would transform the rights of women at work with a new deal for working people. The Minister for Women and Equalities has suggested, of course, that menopause at work is a left-wing issue. Does this Minister agree?

The shadow Minister fails to mention the Help to Grow portal, which has a menopause resource hub that enables employers to use that information to better support women in the workplace, whether with flexible working—under laws that this Conservative Government have introduced—or through simple measures such as recognising that even the uniform a woman wears in the workplace can make a difference. This Conservative Government have raised the bar on menopause health and support in the workplace and in healthcare, while Labour for many years could not even define what a woman actually is.

Community Cohesion

In this country, we believe in religious freedom. Everyone should be able to express their identity, faith and beliefs. However, this must be done in a way that respects the rights of others. Community cohesion in many of our towns and cities has been strained in recent months, following the 7 October attacks in Israel. The boundaries of acceptable behaviour in the public sphere are being tested. That is why on 18 December 2023 I published new guidance for public authorities, reminding them of their legal obligations under the public sector equality duty, and specifically that they should consider how they contribute to the advancement of good relations in communities as they deliver public services.

My right hon. Friend will know that, in Romford, our national, country and county flags—the Union Jack, the cross of St George and the flag of Essex—are flown with great pride as inclusive symbols of our shared identity. Does she agree that all public buildings, schools and organisations should be encouraged to fly the appropriate flags as symbols of unity, patriotism and equality, rather than of division?

I do agree with my hon. Friend. The Union Jack and the cross of St George are symbols of unity, not division, and of course, as an Essex MP, I am also particularly fond of our county flag. The point is that national pride should be celebrated, not shunned. That is why anyone in the UK is able to fly any of our national flags without needing the consent of their local authority, as per Government regulations that exempt national flags.

I thank the Minister for her answers. On community cohesion between different ethnicities, what plans does she have to make funding available to enable community events whereby each member of a community can demonstrate their culture and heritage, with all ages and all groups, and to build relationships in a similar way to what we are doing in Northern Ireland?

We encourage every celebration of the diversity in ethnicity that we have in this country. In particular, the Government want to emphasise equality under the law, the fact that there are not protected groups but protected characteristics, and that everyone should be free from discrimination. We know that in many events up and down the country, including in Northern Ireland, that is what is being celebrated, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for highlighting that in the House. We encourage all local communities to do just that.

Welfare Reform: Disabled People

4. What recent discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on the potential impact of the Government’s proposed welfare reforms on disabled people. (902864)

5. What recent discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on the potential impact of the Government’s proposed welfare reforms on disabled people. (902865)

The Department engages regularly with the Cabinet Office on the different options for reshaping the current welfare system set out in the health and disability Green Paper, including on the potential impact on claimants with different health conditions.

The proposed reforms to personal independence payment unjustly target disabled people in a cost of living crisis. The Multiple Sclerosis Society found that nearly two in three people with MS said that the application process had a negative effect on their physical and mental health. Instead of pursing reforms that risk worsening inequality, will the Minister make representations to scrap informal observations to any PIP changes, as has already been done with the adult disability payment in Scotland?

We want to understand how best to target support for disabled people and those with health conditions, to provide the right kind of support for those who need it most, and to ensure value for the taxpayer. Providing the right support to people who need it most, and understanding long-term health conditions and how people want to live independently and reach their full potential, is key to that. We must also ensure that disabled people feel understood and have a voice, which is why I strongly urge people to be part of that consultation and have their say. We want to hear from disabled people—that is what they say to me: they want to be heard and understood.

In November, when I raised the concerns of Parkinson’s UK about changes to the work capability assessment, the then Minister agreed to meet the organisation. Six months on, there has been no meeting, and the Minister has replied to my follow-up written questions with standard answers about meeting a number of organisations. Will she step up to the plate and meet Parkinson’s UK to hear directly its concerns about the changes to welfare reform for those suffering from Parkinson’s?

I try not to give standard answers, and I will not give a standard answer to that question. I recently met people who were diagnosed with Parkinson’s early—perhaps as young as 35—and I am happy to meet more broadly with Parkinson’s UK. I recently met Mind, and as much as my diary allows, and at events in the House, I engage with advocates for disabled people and those with health conditions. I am happy to pick up that meeting, because if it is not already in my diary, it should be soon.

The United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities recently concluded that the UK Government have

“failed to take all appropriate measures to address grave and systematic violations of the human rights of persons with disabilities and has failed to eliminate the root causes of inequality and discrimination.”

With those damning findings in mind, will the Minister confirm whether an equality impact on the proposed welfare reforms has been carried out, and if so, can we expect it to be made public?

I will write to the hon. Lady on that question. I can reassure her that I have met her and my counterparts in the devolved space regarding PIP reforms and the wider consultations, to ensure that we are hearing voices from everyone. As I said earlier, the UK is a signatory to the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, and we remain committed to ensuring that the UK is one of the best places to live and work as a disabled person. I come from caring and a family that lived with disablement. We must listen to disabled people, stop scaremongering and ensure that they are understood. That is exactly what our reforms and engagement are all about.

State Pension Equality

6. Whether she has had recent discussions with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on state pension equality. (902866)

Ministers in the Department for Work and Pensions continue to have regular discussions about state pension inequality. We introduced the new state pension in 2016, which improves outcomes for many women. Outcomes will equalise for men and women by the early 2040s—more than a decade earlier than under the previous system.

Some WASPI—Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign—women in Bedford are living in severe financial hardship, having had their pension income stolen, in some cases twice. Their right to compensation has been tested and won. Given that a WASPI woman dies every 13 minutes, does the Minister agree that a compensation scheme needs to be set up immediately? It should not be a one-size-fits-all package, but it must be simple, clear and easy to operate.

I know that this issue is very emotive. For all of us with constituents who are worried about their pension age, I remind them that pension credit provides a safety net for people on low incomes, so they should look at the benefits calculator on There will be a full debate on the ombudsman’s report tomorrow, and the Government will take all views into account as we identify and implement the next steps. The ombudsman’s report is complex and substantial, and the investigation covers 30 years. I appreciate that all parties want to see the situation resolved as quickly as possible. As the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has said, there will be no undue delay, and we will be listening to everyone.

Sex-based Data: Health and Social Care

7. What steps she is taking with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care to help ensure that health and social care providers collect sex-based data. (902867)

NHS England plans to make further changes to reporting on sex and gender in national datasets once the unified information standard for protected characteristics has been approved and published. This will unify reporting on eight of the nine protected characteristics, including gender reassignment and sex.

I know that the Secretary of State agrees that vulnerable women with learning disabilities and all women should be able to access same-sex care, particularly with regard to intimate physical care. That is especially important in the light of the shocking report by the Women’s Rights Network and Jo Phoenix on rape and sexual assault in hospitals and care settings. That is why the proper collection of data based on sex is vital. Does the Minister agree?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. We are currently consulting on the NHS constitution, which will give women not just the right to same-sex accommodation in hospitals, but the right to ask for someone of the same sex to conduct intimate examinations. There are safeguards, and we are looking at some of the incidents in trusts in order to better protect patients and staff. She is absolutely right to raise the issue of data collection and ensuring that that is happening.

Business Start-ups

8. What steps she is taking with Cabinet colleagues to encourage more people from Black, Asian and ethnic minority communities to start up a business. (902868)

The Government have worked to advance equality of access to start-up opportunities, irrespective of social background or race. We have a range of business support programmes and Government-backed financial support through Help to Grow: Management, growth hubs and the British Business Bank. The success of our endeavours to engage and support diverse business leaders can be seen in the data. In 2023, 44% of the 30,000 people in England helped by the business support helpline were from ethnic minority backgrounds.

I thank the Minister for that response, although I found it a little difficult to hear. Bristol has a thriving and entrepreneurial Somali community, but one of the things they constantly come across is almost an expectation that they will set up businesses that serve just their community, rather than being part of mainstream regeneration efforts and the general commercial life of the city. What is the Equalities department doing to try to ensure that those people can make that breakthrough from just being community-based projects?

It is interesting that a number of people have that perception that they should stay in their lane. This Government do not support any sort of activity that is segregationist. We believe that we must treat people equally under the law. All of our access programmes are available irrespective of ethnicity. People should be encouraged to serve the entire community, not just people who look and sound like them. Some of the schemes that I mentioned in my earlier answer are available. The hon. Lady should know that the Start Up Loans Company reported that in her constituency 42 start-up loans were issued to ethnic minority-led start-ups, for about £315,000, so there are opportunities out there. I am happy to write to her with more information if she needs it.

Topical Questions

Institutions should be able to operate free from ideological pressures. I am delighted that the Equality and Human Rights Commission has retained its accreditation as an A-status national human rights institution, denoting full compliance with the Paris principles, despite Stonewall’s attempt to have it stripped of its status at the UN. As I have said before, Stonewall does not dictate the law in this country, or indeed in the UN. The Equality and Human Rights Commission, having retained its A-status, retains its independent participation rights at the UN Human Rights Council and remains able to report directly to the United Nations on human rights issues.

Data from the Office for National Statistics shows that 25.3% of women are economically inactive, compared with 18.4% of men. Many women say that access to flexible working could see them return to the paid workplace. What steps is the Minister taking alongside her Cabinet colleagues to ensure that all workers have access to flexibility in their working hours?

There is a lot that my Department in particular is doing. We have put out multiple bits of legislation that will help to entrench workplace equality, whether that is around flexible working rights or sexual harassment in the workplace. We are doing more even on the trade side, where we continue to ensure that we have provisions that advance gender equality in our free trade agreements because we want to break down barriers and create opportunities for female entrepreneurs.

T2. I would like to raise an issue with the Minister that was raised with me at a recent constituency surgery. What are the Government doing to ensure that privacy and dignity for women is protected in toilet facilities? (902886)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. There are various reasons why women and men should be able to access single-sex spaces, and public toilets are no exception. We are updating building regulations so that toilets in non-domestic buildings offer safety, privacy and dignity for all people who use them. There is often confusion between gender-neutral toilets and unisex toilets. We support unisex toilets, but through these new building regulations we are trying to get rid of toilets and bathrooms where men and women share the same space.

T3. During the Northern Ireland Assembly campaign, some female candidates were subjected to AI-generated deepfakes and grossly offensive content. What action are the Government taking to regulate the dissemination of such imagery where it could affect the otherwise freely expressed choice of voters at the ballot box, especially as we approach a general election in the coming months? (902887)

The Online Safety Act 2023 introduced new offences that criminalise sharing or threatening to share an intimate image without consent, which includes deepfake intimate images. The Government are working to ensure that we are ready to respond to the full range of threats to our democratic processes, including through the defending democracy taskforce. If deepfakes are discovered by users on social media, they should report them directly to the platform. In the case of elections, they should be reported directly to the Electoral Commission, because it is already an electoral offence to make false statements of fact about the character or conduct of a candidate during an election.

Having endured an induced coma and six rounds of chemotherapy, 17-year-old Leoni Miller launched her new business at a WayfinderWoman event last month. Will my right hon. Friend join me in wishing Leoni every success and outline what support and advice is available so that other young women see running their own business as a real prospect?

I wish Leoni every success. My hon. Friend is right to raise this issue. In March, we proudly announced the launch of the invest in women taskforce, whose mission is to make the UK the best place in the world to be a female founder. Since the taskforce’s launch, its members have been working with the private sector to begin raising funds for female founders just like her constituent.

T4. Both Baroness Cumberlege in the “First Do No Harm” report and the patient safety commissioner in the Hughes report recommend a redress scheme for women harmed by surgical mesh. What conversations is the Minister having with Government colleagues to make the redress scheme a reality for those women, who are still suffering? (902888)

It is this Conservative Government who have commissioned the patient safety commissioner to do a report on what redress would look like. It is important that we take those recommendations in detail. We are looking at that and we aim to respond to the commissioner in the coming weeks.

Some sporting bodies have interpreted the Equality Act 2010 in such a way that they believe they cannot lawfully ban males who identify as girls or women from competing in women’s sport. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that interpretation is not correct and that it is lawful to exclude all males from female sport to achieve safety and fairness for women and girls?

I agree. There is so much misinformation out there and incorrect guidance that creates confusion. I recently had a roundtable with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, and she and I agreed that sports bodies in the UK need to tackle this area more strongly.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


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.

Residents across the eastern villages of Woking, in Byfleet, West Byfleet and Pyrford, have seen a large number of proposed developments in recent years. Of particular concern is an area of beautiful fields near West Hall, where more than 1,000 constituents have written back to me in recent weeks, expressing their deep concerns about the lack of provision of local infrastructure and the potential effects on the local environment. My residents and I will fight on, but does the Prime Minister agree that Labour’s proposals to concrete over vast swathes of the green belt in Surrey and the south-east would be a complete calamity?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Unlike both the Liberal Democrats and Labour, who believe in top-down targets that would decimate the green belt, we believe in local people having a say over their local communities. That is why we are ensuring that we make best use of brownfield land and that we conserve and enhance our precious countryside for generations to come.

On Monday, the Prime Minister treated us to his seventh relaunch in 18 months. He vowed to take on the dangers that threaten the country, so it was good to see the Minister for common sense immediately take up that mantle by announcing a vital crackdown on the gravest of threats—colourful lanyards. Meanwhile, in the real world, after 14 years of Tory Government, the prison system is in chaos. Does the Prime Minister think that his decision to let prisoners out 70 days early makes our country more secure?

Civil service impartiality is an important principle that we are right to support—perhaps the right hon. and learned Gentleman could ask his chief of staff about that. What I did on Monday was outline the serious security threats that our country faces from an axis of authoritarian states: Russia poisoning people on our streets; China targeting our democracy; and Iranian proxies firing on British ships. Yet he will not back our plan to increase defence spending and we all know why—especially since the deputy leader and the shadow Foreign Secretary voted to scrap our nuclear deterrent. It is clear that you simply cannot trust Labour with our country’s security.

I appreciate that the Prime Minister has been busy on the frontline of the war against lanyards. He must have missed that I was the first to call for 2.5% on defence spending. The last time that happened was under the last Labour Government. It needs a credible plan, not his fantasy economics.

I am disappointed to see that version 7.0 of the Prime Minister’s time in office does not extend as far as answering questions or giving any information on those prisoners he is releasing early—basic details such as how many, where are they and what crimes have they committed. Will he at least guarantee that none of the criminals who he is instructing prisons to release early is considered high-risk?

There are strict eligibility criteria in place, with exclusions based on public safety. No one would be put on the scheme if they were deemed a threat to public safety. The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about 2.5%, but if he thinks that is important—I think he just stood up and acknowledged that it was the right thing to do—we have a fully funded plan to deliver an increase in defence spending. He and his party have refused to match that commitment.

Just like his £46 billion—fully funded! If anyone was looking for the perfect metaphor for this shambolic Government, we saw it on Monday. The Prime Minister woke up deciding his latest rebrand was “Mr Security”, but within hours the Tory party was being investigated for accidentally publishing the personal details of hundreds of people. He must be the only tech bro—brother—in the country who cannot work a debit card or send an email. [Interruption.] But he has not answered my question, so I will try again. Are any of the prisoners he is currently letting out early considered to be high-risk?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman just showed spectacularly why he is just not fit to lead this country into the future. This country has a proud tradition of leading the world. We led the world when it came to the industrial revolution, but if he was around he would have probably called James Watt the steam bro. What we are doing is preparing the country for the future. He talks about the prison scheme. Let me be crystal clear: no one would be put on the scheme if they were deemed a threat to the public. Offenders are subject to the toughest of licensing conditions and, if those conditions are broken, they are back in prison for considerably longer. But what is his record on this? He voted against tougher sentences for violent criminals. He actually opposed new powers for the police to tackle violent crime and voted against new laws that have arrested 1,000 criminal people smugglers. The message is crystal clear: he cannot be trusted to keep this country safe.

I appreciate that all this rebranding has taken all the Prime Minister’s time, but he may want to read the recent inspection report into Lewes prison on this topic, which I have asked him twice about. It documents, on page 5:

“high-risk prisoners…being released at short notice without sufficient…planning”.

Page 46 states:

“a high-risk prisoner had his release date brought forward…despite having a history of stalking, domestic abuse and…a restraining order.”

In the report’s words,

“He was a risk to children”.

Does the early release of stalkers, domestic abusers and those considered a risk to children sound like the work of someone who is making the country more secure?

As I said, no one should be put on the scheme if they are a threat to the public. Let me be crystal clear: it does not apply to anyone serving a life sentence, anyone convicted of a serious violent offence, anyone convicted of terrorism, or anyone convicted of a sex offence. Crucially, in contrast to the system Labour put in place, governors in the prison service have an absolute lock so that no one is put on the scheme who should not be. Labour’s scheme let out thousands upon thousands of violent offenders on to our streets and even two terrorists. Thankfully, we have toughened up sentencing against those criminals with new legislation, but the right hon. and learned Gentleman voted against it.

Well, I am glad to hear that those on life sentences are not being released early. The Prime Minister may not think that releasing domestic abusers is a problem, but Labour has repeatedly called for domestic abusers to be exempt from the scheme to release prisoners early. His Government have shamefully ignored those calls. Now that we have the evidence that domestic abusers are being released early—the Lewes report—will he finally change course and back Labour’s calls?

I have been crystal clear. There is an absolute governor lock on people who are put on the scheme, in contrast to the last Labour scheme. Prisoners were let out with no supervision, no electronic tags. In fact, 80,000 offenders were let out—16,000 were violent, leading to multiple murders committed. We fixed that system. When it comes to this question, not only are we building the biggest prison programme in history, but we are deploying rapid deployment cells. On the Conservative Benches, we understand the importance of prison, unlike one of his Front Benchers, who said, “Prison doesn’t prevent crime”. It is always the same with the Labour party: soft on crime and soft on criminals.

The Prime Minister is literally letting criminals out early. The only answer to the question that I have asked—whether domestic abusers should be exempt from his early release scheme—from anyone who is serious about security is yes.

Perhaps the most ludicrous part of the Prime Minister’s speech on Monday was when he said that he would not accept the idea that any of the problems people were facing had been caused by 14 years of Conservative Government. He will not say how many prisoners the Government have released early; he will not say whether they are burglars, abusers or stalkers; he will not say where they are or what support their victims are getting. Yet he thinks he has the right to tell people that they cannot blame his Government for any of it. Does he not think that, rather than confiscating lanyards like some jumped-up milk monitor, he should stop issuing “Get out of jail free” cards to prisoners who are considered to be a risk to children?

Another week with no ideas and absolutely no plans for the country! The Opposition have had 14 years to think about nothing but the future, but all they can do is talk about the past.

I am surprised that the Leader of the Opposition did not bring up what has happened in the week since we last met. Statistics have confirmed that we have had the joint fastest growth rate in the G7 this year. The Bank of England has said that the economy has “turned a corner”, EY has said that our growth is “impressive”, and the chief economist at the independent Office for National Statistics has said that

“the economy is going gangbusters.”

The shadow Chancellor may want to copy and paste their comments into her next speech—or does she think that they are all “gaslighting” the British public too?

Q3.   While I understand the need to upgrade our broadband infrastructure, it cannot be right that a company called BRSK is proposing to erect telegraph poles at the Squirrels estate in Hayley Green, in my constituency. The residents are 100% opposed to these proposals, which go against the guidance. Does the Prime Minister agree that BRSK should abandon its proposals, that there should be a review of permitted development rights in relation to this type of infrastructure, and that he should give Ofcom more power to investigate breaches? (902822)

I thank my hon. Friend for rightly championing the views of his constituents on this important topic. Network operators must follow legal obligations when deploying their networks and Ofcom can, in fact, investigate reports of failure to follow those obligations. I know that the Minister for Data and Digital Infrastructure, my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Julia Lopez), met representatives of the sector and Ofcom recently to raise concerns about reports of poor pole siting and asked operators to share infrastructure, and I will ask her specifically to give my hon. Friend a more detailed update.

On Monday, the Prime Minister outlined what he considers to be extremist threats to our society, and in doing so he actively compared North Korea, Iran and Russia with those people in Scotland who believe in independence, so can I ask him to rise, once, to the standards befitting his office, and apologise for those puerile and pathetic remarks?

That is not what I said, but I will say to the hon. Gentleman that his party is indeed a threat to the integrity of the United Kingdom. I hate to remind him that that is literally its entire purpose. When the people of Scotland accepted the referendum result in 2014, it was the SNP that didn’t. It went on creating a Minister for independence, focusing on constitutional wrangling and ignoring the needs of the people. Education standards are falling and taxes are rising. It is the right hon. Gentleman who should finally do the right thing: end the obsession with independence, and put the needs of the Scottish people first.

Let us be clear. What the Prime Minister did was not just equate my colleagues and I to dangerous despots across the world; he proactively compared almost half the Scottish population to a war criminal like Vladimir Putin, and he did so as their Prime Minister, as the man who represents them on the world stage and as the man who on these isles is tasked with defending their liberties and their democracy. We know that his sorry time in office is rapidly coming to a conclusion, but is this really how he wants to be remembered?

As ever, the right hon. Gentleman is distracting from the actual record of what the SNP is doing in Scotland. This obsession with independence means that Scottish schoolchildren are being let down, plummeting down international league tables; the Scottish NHS is the only place in the United Kingdom where funding is actually falling in real terms; and taxes are going up for ordinary hard-working families and small businesses. That is what the SNP is doing in Scotland while this UK Government are delivering for them.

Q4. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating Uxbridge College, which has recently entered into a pioneering partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology? This is groundbreaking work for the further education sector and it will have great benefits for local businesses and local students, and for the education sector and the local economy. (902823)

I join my hon. Friend in congratulating Uxbridge College and the West London Institute of Technology on their collaboration with MIT. This is equipping students with the skills of the future that local businesses require, and that is very much the story of this Government, with the biggest long-term settlement for post-16 education in this country in years and a proud record of creating over 5.5 million apprenticeships since 2010—providing opportunity for all, while the Labour party wants to halve the number of apprenticeships and put a brake on people’s aspirations.

My party, Plaid Cymru, has secured a crucial win for our farmers as Labour in Wales is forced to pause the sustainable farming scheme. We have done our bit for farmers; now it is time the Prime Minister did his. Harmful trade deals and Brexit checks are hitting our world-famous Welsh lamb and beef. Will he therefore guarantee to Welsh farmers that he will never again sign a deal that threatens their interests?

If the right hon. Lady cares about Welsh farmers, perhaps she should stop propping up the Welsh Labour Government. It was actually the work of the Welsh Conservatives that ensured that there was a spotlight on the Labour Government’s proposals in Wales, which would have led to thousands of job losses and less food security for our country, and destroyed rural incomes. Farmers rightly described it as “bleak”, “damaging” and “shocking”, just like the Labour party’s approach to rural Britain.

Q6. Barnet Hospital’s A&E is expanding, Finchley Memorial Hospital has had its diagnostics hub boosted by new equipment and there are more appointments in general practice locally than there were before the pandemic, but I still have constituents who are waiting too long for NHS care, so can I urge the Prime Minister to redouble his efforts to grow the NHS workforce and get waiting times down? (902825)

I am delighted to hear about the new community diagnostics centre at my right hon. Friend’s local hospital. We are working tirelessly to reduce the overall NHS waiting list, which has come down by around 200,000 since September last year. That is an achievement in light of the pressures from industrial action, but she is right: there is more to do. Our productivity plan will free up clinicians to spend more time with patients and, to her point, our long-term plan for the NHS will ensure that we train more doctors and more nurses to meet the workforce requirements of the NHS for the future.

Q2. Thirty thousand Palestinian deaths are not enough to move this Prime Minister to end arms sales to Israel. The killing of British aid workers is not enough to move the Prime Minister to end arms sales. It even seems that an all-out assault on Rafah, with all the death and destruction that would entail, would not be enough for him, unlike the US, so just what on earth would be enough finally to move this Prime Minister into the same position as the majority of the British public and end arms sales to Israel? (902821)

I point out to the hon. Gentleman that, unlike the US, the UK Government do not directly sell arms to Israel, and neither do the UK Government offer any military lethal aid packages to Israel, as the US does. He should not conflate these issues.

As part of the Government’s robust arms control regime, we regularly review advice to ensure compliance with international law, and Ministers act in accordance with that advice. As the hon. Gentleman knows, our position with regard to export licences is unchanged following the most recent assessment, and it is, indeed, in line with other partners, including the United States.

Q7. As a member of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, I am delighted that the Prime Minister found time yesterday to ignite the light of liberation at the start of its journey to Normandy to commemorate the sacrifices made for the liberation of Europe. In this War Graves Week, will my right hon. Friend join me in confirming that standing up to tyrants who bring about war in Europe is as much in our national interest today as it was 80 years ago? (902826)

I thank my right hon. Friend for his work as a commissioner on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. He raises an important point about authoritarian states with different values from ours becoming increasingly assertive. It is right that we build our security in uncertain times to defend and protect our country, our values and our interests. That is why we made the generational decision to increase our defence spending. It is crystal clear that only the Conservative party can be trusted with our nation’s security.

Q5. On 2 June, the Levenmouth railway reopens after years of community campaigning but, just at that point, TSB has announced that it is closing its Leven bank branch. Bank losses hollow out communities and are an impediment to small businesses. Cash Access UK has said that it will roll out 100 banking hubs by the end of the year, and the Financial Conduct Authority is consulting, but does the Prime Minister accept that the Government have been too slow on this? What else will he do to prevent banking deserts from emerging? (902824)

As I have repeatedly said from this Dispatch Box, it is imperative that banks and building societies recognise the needs of all customers, including those who still need to use in-person cash services. That is why we legislated to protect access to cash as part of the Financial Services and Markets Act 2023. As a result, customers can access cash and banking services through a wide range of channels, including post offices, ATMs and telephone and community initiatives such as banking hubs.

Q11. Double child rapist and murderer Colin Pitchfork is having yet another parole hearing in the next few weeks. As well as the brutal murders, this man exposed himself to over 1,000 girls and women. As the MP for South Leicestershire, I distributed a constituency-wide survey asking my constituents about Parole Board reform. The problem is that the reconsideration mechanism rules allow Mr Pitchfork to ask for a reconsideration of a reconsidered decision limitless times, and it is cost-free to him. Will the Prime Minister arrange a meeting between me and the Justice Secretary to discuss necessary changes to the reconsideration mechanism rules? Will he arrange for me to deliver the findings of the survey, to which thousands of constituents responded, to his No. 10 policy team? (902830)

I commend my hon. Friend for his tireless campaigning on this case. I know the whole House will join me in recognising the horror of the crimes committed by Colin Pitchfork and in sending our condolences to the victims’ families.

We are reforming the parole system to add a ministerial check on the release of the most dangerous criminals, and we are changing the law so that, for society’s most depraved killers, life means life. I will, of course, arrange for the findings of my hon. Friend’s survey to be properly considered, and I will ensure that he meets the Justice Secretary to discuss his proposals further.

Q8. In Gaza, Israel has attacked hospitals, attacked refugee camps and killed aid workers. Israel has blocked vital aid, turned off water supplies and denied access to food. Israel has killed thousands upon thousands of innocent civilians as the world watches, trampling all over international humanitarian law. No other country would be allowed to act with such impunity. Why does the Prime Minister allow Israel to get away with it unchallenged? And why does he continue to act as a bystander to such horror? (902827)

We do support, and I do support, Israel’s right to defend itself and remove the threat that Hamas, the terrorist organisation, pose to its people. But I am also deeply concerned about the growing humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and I have consistently made that point at this Dispatch Box and to Prime Minister Netanyahu. We must see further action to ensure that more aid gets to people who desperately need it; the Rafah and Kerem Shalom crossings must be open to allow more aid in. We are doing everything we can, trebling our investment; trying to get aid in by land, air and sea; and currently working with allies to build a temporary pier. The hon. Lady can rest assured that the Government will continue to do everything we can to get support to the people in Gaza who need it.

Q12. Last week, along with apprentices from the nuclear fuel company Urenco, I visited Coleg Menai in Llangefni. The students were excited, but they need certainty about the future of Wylfa before they commit to a career in nuclear. Will the Prime Minister confirm when Great British Nuclear will decide whether Wylfa will be a gigawatt or a small modular reactor site, when my students can expect to see spades in the ground and when his brilliant nuclear Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero, my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie), will be able to visit Wylfa again to announce some good news? (902831)

My hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie) is a tireless campaigner for the Wylfa nuclear site in her constituency. As she knows, at the spring Budget the Chancellor announced that Great British Nuclear has reached an agreement to purchase the site at Wylfa, and it and one other site will be vital to achieving our aim of more energy security from nuclear power. Decisions have not yet been made on the final sites to be used, but, as ever, she makes a very strong and compelling case for her area. I know that as soon as a decision has been made the Energy Secretary will be keen to update her at the earliest opportunity.

Q9. In March, the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman’s report on 1950s women’s state pension injustice made it clear to the Government that the Department for Work and Pensions was guilty of maladministration; that these women had suffered significant injustice; that they were owed compensation; and that Parliament must urgently identify a mechanism for redress. Nearly 279,000 women have already died waiting for justice, so when will the Prime Minister finally place before this House a mechanism for appropriate redress? (902828)

As I said to the House last week, I understand the strong feelings across the Chamber about these matters and the desire for urgency in addressing them. Following the ombudsman’s multi-year investigation, it is imperative that we take the time to review the findings thoroughly; I am not entirely sure I agree with the hon. Lady’s characterisation of all of them so far. Broadly, we are committed to making sure that pensioners have the dignity and security that they deserve, including through the triple lock, which is increasing pensions by £900 this year. I welcome tomorrow’s debate on the ombudsman’s report and we will, of course, take all views into account as we identify and implement next steps.

Q13. I know that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister takes a personal interest in community pharmacy. Community pharmacists play an essential role in reducing pressure on urgent care services by helping people prevent ill health and manage long-term conditions. Pharmacy First is a good example of Government commitment to community pharmacy. However, community pharmacies are under extreme financial pressure and some are closing, including in St Ives. This year, 177 pharmacies have closed, which compares with a figure of 116 in the same period in 2023. Will he do everything he can to ensure that funds are directed toward community pharmacy, so that our pharmacy friends can help the Government to deliver NHS services where and when they are most needed? (902832)

As my hon. Friend knows, I care deeply about the future of our community pharmacies. There are over 10,500 community pharmacies across the country and they are working incredibly hard to serve their patients. I am pleased that about 80% of people live within a 20-minute walk of a pharmacy. That is why we are backing them with Pharmacy First, with £645 million of extra funding, whereby people can now go to see their pharmacist, rather than their GP, to get treatments for the seven most common ailments, such as ear infections and the like. Not only will that ensure that they can get treatments closer to home, but it will help to deliver our plan to cut waiting lists and get people the care they need more quickly.

Q10. Three North Tyneside schools have been identified as having a structural problem—not reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete—and hundreds of pupils are now being taught off site. The costs of putting those schools right significantly outweigh the £3.5 million school condition allocation funding for all of North Tyneside. Will the Prime Minister ensure that the Department for Education applies this policy: if it is alerted to significant issues with a building that cannot be managed with local resources, it will provide additional support on a case-by-case basis? (902829)

I thank the hon. Lady for raising the case. As she knows, the Department for Education has provided extensive support and funding to all those schools that have RAAC, which in the end was less than 1% of all schools that could have been affected. More generally, there is the very significant amount we are investing in school rebuilding and maintenance. I am sure the Education Secretary will have heard her concerns and will write to her in due course.

Q14. The clear message from yesterday’s Farm to Fork summit is that food security matters. As we await today’s written statement on ground-mounted solar, can my right hon. Friend assure me that proposed solar installations in my constituency, which would cover thousands of acres of agricultural land—from a 2,100 acre installation in the Claydons, called Rosefield, to smaller but equally destructive ones, such as the one proposed for an area near the village of Kimblewick—now have less chance of getting approved? (902833)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this. Particularly at a time of increasing geopolitical risk, we must protect this nation’s food security and our most valuable agricultural land. We can achieve our solar deployment targets by using brownfield sites and rooftops away from our best farmland. I know he looks forward to the Energy Secretary’s statement later today, which will ensure we avoid using our best agricultural land. Like him, I agree that we should be backing British farmers to produce more food. That is good for our country, our economy and our food security.

Q15. I have seen for myself the mouldy and damp accommodation that our military families are sometimes forced to live in, so I was disappointed this week to find out that the officer in charge of accommodation wrote to families this month to say that requests for non-urgent repairs are not currently affordable. The Prime Minister has spent this week claiming that defence is a priority, so when will he prioritise a safe, warm and decent home for the servicemen and women who put their life on the line for us? (902834)

We are committed to ensuring that our armed forces personnel and their families have safe and well maintained accommodation. At this point, 96% of service family accommodation meets or exceeds the Government’s decent homes standard. Last year, we put aside an extra £400 million of investment to improve things. The Ministry of Defence has set up a dedicated hotline to ensure that when issues are reported, those complaints are investigated by a professional surveyor. I know there have been several improvements made specifically to accommodation in the hon. Lady’s area. We are able to continue backing our armed forces personnel and the job they do for us because the Conservative party is the only party in this place that is committed to increasing our defence spending.

This week, the all-party parliamentary group on birth trauma published our first report, called “Listen to Mums: Ending the Postcode Lottery on Perinatal Care”. This was the first national inquiry by cross-party politicians on the issue. We received more than 1,300 testimonials from the public. I thank the Health Secretary for attending our report launch on Monday. I am delighted that she has agreed to our headline recommendation for a national comprehensive maternity strategy, to be published by NHS England. Will the Prime Minister fully back our report and implement all our recommendations, to ensure that all mothers in this country get the aftercare that they deserve?

I thank my hon. Friend for her incredible campaigning on this issue. When we met and discussed the issue, she presented me personally with a copy of this important report. I am hugely grateful to her and the APPG on birth trauma for carefully considering the issue, and to all the brave women who have come forward to share their stories. I am delighted that the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care and the chief executive officer of the NHS both support the overarching recommendation for a comprehensive national strategy to improve maternity services. We will update the House on next steps in due course, but we are fully committed to improving the quality and consistency of care for women throughout pregnancy, birth and the critical months that follow.

When adult rape cases take two years, on average, to complete, it is no wonder that 62% of all rape survivors drop out of the process. Given that just 2.5% of rapes recorded last year resulted in a charge and fewer still will end in conviction, it is no wonder that the Victims’ Commissioner, Rape Crisis and others have argued that rape has been effectively decriminalised in this country. Is the Prime Minister not ashamed that, because of his Government’s failings, victims and survivors are being put through a living hell in our criminal justice system?

While it is right that the hon. Lady raises this incredibly important topic, I completely disagree with her characterisation of how this Government have treated it. It is actually this Government who previously introduced the rape review action plan, which is now showing significant improvements in how we treat rape, end to end, through the criminal justice system. Violence against women and girls is now a strategic policing requirement for the first time ever. We have rolled out Operation Soteria, so that police forces have the expertise that they need. We have actually quadrupled funding for victim support, with more independent domestic sexual violence advisers. There is new 24/7 support for victims. We have ended the digital strip search and provided pre-trial cross-examination. All of that has meant improvement to the process, and we have seen an increase in the average sentence for rape by a third since Labour was last in office—and by the way, Mr Speaker, we did that using a power that the hon. Lady’s party voted against.