Skip to main content


Volume 672: debated on Wednesday 26 February 2020

The whole House will want to join me in extending our condolences to the families and friends of those who sadly lost their lives as a result of Storm Ciara and Storm Dennis. We will also want to thank all those who are providing support to tackle the impact of the storms, including the Environment Agency, local authorities, our emergency services and our armed forces.

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.

I associate myself with the Prime Minister’s thanks to all those helping in the aftermath of Storm Dennis—[Interruption.] It has brought record high water levels in the Rivers Severn and Trent, and over 100 properties in my constituency have been flooded, bringing misery to those affected. As we speak, the Severn has just breached its banks at Bridgnorth. Will the Prime Minister use his influence in the Budget and in the comprehensive spending review later this year to increase infrastructure spending on flood defences for at-risk communities as part of his determination, in this year of COP26, to show global leadership in taking action on climate change adaptation and mitigation?

Indeed I can, and I thank my right hon. Friend. We have been ensuring that the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government is able to extend the Bellwin scheme where appropriate. Of course, we are also investing massively in flood defences—£2.6 billion has already gone in and, as he knows, we have pledged to commit another £4 billion to defend this country against flooding.

My thoughts are with those across the world who are suffering from the coronavirus. I praise medical and emergency staff all over the world for what they are doing to try to stop the spread of the disease. I hope that public health services in Britain will get the resources they need; there is an urgent question on this topic after Prime Minister’s Question Time—[Hon. Members: “It is a statement.”]

Thousands of people across the country are still struggling with the devastating impact of the floods. I pay tribute to the work of the Environment Agency, the Scottish and Welsh Governments, council staff, the fire service, and the huge number of community volunteers who have pitched in to help their neighbours. Does the Prime Minister agree with the Conservative leader of Derbyshire County Council that he has turned his back on the people affected by the floods?

Since the flooding began, this Government have been working flat out night and day to ensure that the people of this country get the support they need. We have activated the Bellwin scheme, ensured that businesses get the rate relief that they need and, as I told the House just now, put £2.6 billion into flood defences, with £4 billion more to come.

“You can’t give local authorities the clear message you are going to support them and then turn your back on them”—not my words, but the words of a Conservative council leader. When I visited Pontypridd last week, I saw at first hand the damage and destruction that the floods have caused to people’s lives, homes and businesses, but the Prime Minister was silent, sulking in his grace-and-favour mansion in Chevening. After two weeks of flooding, memes are being produced, asking not, “Where’s Wally?” but, “Where’s Boris?” When is he going to stop hiding and show people that he actually cares, or is he too busy going about some other business? If he is too busy, he could send his chief adviser, Dominic Cummings. I am sure that he would be very well received in all the flooded areas.

I am very proud of the response that the Government have mounted over the past few days. We convened the national flood response centre on 14 February. Since the flooding began, there has been a constant stream of ministerial activity led by my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and for Housing, Communities and Local Government. No one should underestimate the anguish that flooding causes, and of course it is an absolute shock to the households that are affected, but it is thanks to the measures that this Government have put in place that 200,000 households have been protected from flooding. We do not hear that from the right hon. Member.

During the election campaign, I wrote to the Prime Minister demanding that Cobra be convened to deal with the floods at that time. He very reluctantly agreed and eventually did call a meeting of Cobra. The situation across the country is now even worse than it was then, and no Cobra meeting has been called. Is he just pretending to care when he does not really care at all, because there are no votes on the line at this moment?

As the right hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well, there has been a stream of ministerial meetings since the flooding began. The national flood response centre was convened on 14 February, and I have been directing things, as he perfectly knows. Cobra is a reference to Cabinet Office briefing room A, which is not the only room in which meetings can take place.

The issue is very serious for people around the country whose homes are being flooded. They need help and support. They do not need trite answers like that from their Prime Minister.

Time and again, communities and lives are being put at risk and the Government simply refuse to acknowledge the scale of the problem. Does he agree with his hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), who said the Government have done “precious little” to stop the floods happening again?

Let me repeat for the benefit of the right hon. Gentleman that this Government have a fantastic record of investing in flood defences and will continue to do so. The reason we can do so, the reason we have been able to commit £2.6 billion for flood defences and the reason we are able to pledge another £4 billion is because this Government are running a strong, successful and robust economy, which he would ruin.

If that is the case, why are the Government investing less than half the money the Environment Agency of England says is necessary to improve flood defences across the country? It says that £5.6 billion is needed. So far as I am aware, the Government are investing less than half of that.

I have visited many areas and many households, and do you know what, I have learned a lot from visiting the victims of floods—the Prime Minister should try it one day. They have told me that they cannot afford the insurance on their homes, as costs have skyrocketed. Recent studies have shown that 20,000 homes are not protected by the Government’s insurance scheme and are also not protected by flood defences. That is 20,000 homes with no insurance and in danger of being flooded imminently. Is it not time that the Prime Minister found a very urgent solution to this problem?

Just imagine what it is like to live in a home that is in danger of being flooded when you cannot get it insured and, if you own it, you cannot sell it and cannot move—you are totally stuck. They are looking for the Government to help them out at their time of crisis.

The right hon. Gentleman is perfectly right in the sense that there are particular problems to do with insurance, as anybody who has visited a flood-affected household will know. Flood Re, on the other hand, has provided cover for over 164,000 households since 2018-19.

Since last December’s events, we are now looking at what we can do to protect households that do not have proper insurance, but the right hon. Gentleman also knows that there are measures in place to ensure that householders get £500 and £5,000 to compensate themselves for the worst damage that flooding can do. That is cash we can put in thanks to the investment we have made in flood defences, which, believe me, would be beyond the capacity of any Government led by the right hon. Member.

The Welsh Government have done their best to step up to the crisis, despite the underfunding from Westminster. The Prime Minister was keen to pose for cameras when there was a crisis on during the election, but he often goes AWOL: he was late to respond to the London riots because he was on holiday; he was on a private island when the Iranian general was assassinated; and last week he had his head in the sand in a mansion in Kent. The hon. Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker), another of his colleagues, said that it “is not good enough”. How can the country trust a Prime Minister, a part-time Prime Minister, who last night was schmoozing Tory party donors at a very expensive black-tie ball instead of getting out there and supporting the people who are suffering because of the floods? This Government need to step up to the plate, invest in defences and ensure that there is real insurance for people whose homes are being ruined by these floods as we speak.

The right hon. Gentleman asks what this Government have been doing in the past few days, so let me tell him. Not only have we been investing massively in flood defences and compensating those who have suffered from flooding, but we have been stopping the early release of terrorists; we have restored the nurses’ bursary; we are beginning work on 40 new hospitals; and we are recruiting 20,000 more police officers. We can do that because we have a strong and dynamic economy, with employment at record highs, unemployment down to the lowest levels since the early ’70s, wages going up and home ownership up. What are the Opposition doing? They are still deciding—[Interruption.] Listen to them jabbering away.

Quite right, Mr Speaker. They are jabbering away, because they still cannot decide whether or not they want to be in the European Union, and the hottest topic of debate in the Labour party is what job the right hon. Gentleman should have in the shadow Cabinet after the leadership election. They are engaging themselves in narcissistic debate about the Labour party. We are getting on in delivering on the people’s priorities.

Q5. The Prime Minister will be aware of the concern in settled rural communities such as those in my constituency because of the intentional unauthorised development of Traveller sites. That leads to large numbers of lorries and caravans coming on to land where there is no planning permission and, subsequently, the ignoring of enforcement when the local authority tries to intervene. The Government have said that they will bring forward measures to try to tackle these planning issues. Will the Prime Minister put his authority behind this and get it sorted out? (900850)

I take that issue very seriously, and I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for raising it. We are giving local authorities more powers to reject intentional unauthorised development, and we will consulting on the details of those proposals in a forthcoming White Paper. I hope he will contribute to those consultations.

This week, we learned that 40% of small businesses in Scotland employ more than one EU national. Immigration is crucial for Scotland’s economy, so it is no wonder that the Scottish Government’s proposals for a Scottish visa system have been universally welcomed by businesses and charities alike—even the Scottish Tories think it is a good idea. The Prime Minister rejected these proposals within a few short hours. Does he now admit that that was a mistake?

It was not only I who rejected the proposals, but, of course, the Migration Advisory Committee. That is because we are bringing forward a very sensible proposal, which the people of this country have long desired, whereby we take back control of our immigration system with a points-based system. The right hon. Gentleman has important concerns to raise, and we will ensure that everywhere in this country—all businesses, all agricultural sectors and all the fishing communities of this country—will be able to access the labour and the workforce that are needed, under our points-based system. But what would be the height of insanity would be to proceed with the Scottish National party’s solution of a border at Berwick between England and Scotland.

Once again, the Prime Minister shows that he is utterly delusional. Let us look at the reality: Scottish Care has said that the Prime Minister’s damaging immigration plans “shut the door” on enabling people to be cared for in their own home. The general secretary of the GMB union says that the plans

“could genuinely tip some businesses over the edge.”

Scotland’s National Farmers Union says that its evidence has been “disregarded” by the UK Government. The Scottish Tourism Alliance says that the plans will have a devastating impact on Scotland’s workforce. Senior figures in the UK Government have said that what the Scottish Parliament decides “doesn’t matter one jot”; if the Prime Minister thinks that the Scottish Parliament does not matter, do Scottish businesses matter?

Of course Scottish businesses matter, and the way to do well by them would not be to tax them with the highest tax rates in the UK; it would be to run a sound economy in Scotland and to have an educational system that does not leave Scottish children lagging behind through no fault of their own. This Government will get on and deliver a working immigration system for the whole of this country. [Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman shouts at me from a sedentary position, but he would be better off getting on with delivering for the people of Scotland, rather than continuing with his ceaseless and vain quest to break up the United Kingdom, because he will not succeed.

Q7. This is a Government who are delivering for the people, so I am sure the Prime Minister shares my concerns about the delay in the delivery of the Maidstone East line, which runs through my constituency and others. Will he intervene to ensure that there are no further delays on this vital railway line? (900852)

I thank my hon. Friend for rightly raising the issue of rail connections between Maidstone East and the City. In addition to the £48 billion we are putting into the railways, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has just indicated to me that those connections are his highest priority.

Q2.   Graham was born with cerebral palsy, unable to talk, walk or feed himself. He brought joy and love to all who knew him. Last week, one of the Prime Minister’s advisers resigned when a basic check of their internet history revealed that they had promoted eugenicist policies—the sort that would have ended my brother Graham Docherty’s life before it began. Will the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom advise the House and every disabled person on this island why Andrew Sabisky remained at the heart of his Government and was not removed from their position immediately when their abhorrent views became apparent? (900847)

Let us be absolutely clear that I certainly do not share those views, and nor are they the views of anybody in this Government. That individual no longer works for the Government.

Q9. Does the Prime Minister agree that through the establishment of the Office for Environmental Protection, which will hold this and future Governments to their environmental commitments, it is the Conservatives who are driving the environmental agenda? Will he join me in commending the Conservative-led Solihull Borough Council for its commitment to be carbon neutral by 2030? (900854)

It of course brings me great joy to congratulate Solihull Borough Council on its path-breaking leadership. The council is of course following in the footsteps of the national Government and my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), who led the way in setting a target for carbon zero by 2050. This Conservative Government are going to leave our country and our environment in a better state for the next generation.

Q3. I have a pregnant constituent with her due date in the next couple of weeks. She is currently on universal credit, and after deductions, including for an advance, she is left with the grand sum of £111 a month to feed herself, heat her home and prepare for her child. I know that the Prime Minister will likely want more details about this case, and we will be happy to help, but I want to ask him whether, in principle, as the Prime Minister, he thinks that £111 a month is enough for anyone to live on. (900848)

I am of course very happy indeed to look at that case and for us to do whatever we can to help with that individual case, but I must say to the hon. Lady that, in the round, universal credit has helped and is helping 200,000 people into work. An estimated 1 million disabled households will get around £100 more per month as a result of universal credit. I am proud to stand by our record of helping people into work and off welfare. As I said before, I am more than happy to look at the case—

Q11. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the people of Mansfield who, like many millions across the country, previously voted Labour but have now put their faith in a Conservative Government to deliver are not, in fact, traitors, as they were branded by members of the Opposition this week? In fact, this Government and Conservative Members respect these hard-working people and their communities and respect their choices and we will deliver for them. (900856)

I am not going to comment on the vituperation that is meted out by the Opposition party, but what I will say is that all voters should be treated with respect and with humility. I congratulate my hon. Friend on the hard work that he is doing for the people of Mansfield: £10 million for West Nottinghamshire College; £20 million for road improvements; £5 million for proactive lung health screenings; and up to £50 million in a new town deal and future high streets fund. In my view, the people of Mansfield are well served by him.

Q4. Like many other sub-postmasters, my constituent Chris Head was victim to the Post Office Horizon IT system scandal. These errors have resulted in bankruptcies, imprisonment and even suicide. Will the Prime Minister today assure Chris and others that he will commit to launching an independent inquiry? (900849)

I am indeed aware of the scandal to which the hon. Lady alludes and the disaster that has befallen many Post Office workers—I have met some of them myself. I am happy to commit to getting to the bottom of the matter in the way that she recommends.

Q13. For someone living in one of the rural villages in my constituency, it can take a whole day to travel to and from a hospital appointment, because bus services are so few and far between. As a fellow bus enthusiast, will my right hon. Friend assure me that some of the £5 billion in the pipeline for bus services will go towards improving routes in Penistone and Stocksbridge? (900858)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the vital importance of buses and their transformative power, but as for the detail about what will happen in Penistone and Stocksbridge, she will have to await the upcoming national bus strategy, which will be along very shortly.

Q6. Before the previous successful climate change talks in 2015 in Paris, I led the British preparations, including the delegations, for the three preceding UN climate talks. Global action on climate change only happens when the host nation engages with the world’s largest nations in advance at the highest political level. As the host of the 2020 climate talks, will the Prime Minister today publicly commit himself to meeting President Xi of China, Prime Minister Modi of India and US President Trump to secure for the Glasgow talks global action on the climate emergency? (900851)

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his question. I can tell him and the House that, of course, I have engaged—just last week—with President Xi of China, repeatedly with Prime Minister Modi of India and also, of course, with President Trump on this subject, but there will be an intensifying drumbeat of activity in the run-up to Glasgow.

My right hon. Friend will no doubt remember with the same fondness the conversations that we had when he was outlining his plan for global Britain. I welcome very much what he has been saying about the defence review that is now planned and his priority on having a strategy first foreign policy-led review. Will he please make a statement to this House so that the views of this House can be heard, bringing together trade, aid, foreign affairs and, of course, defence?

Q8. The Prime Minister has a laundry list of climate promises. No doubt he will read them out shortly, but he cannot escape the fact that, on current rate of progress, net zero will not be reached until 2099—not the 2050 that he claims, let alone the 2030 that we probably need. Even J. P. Morgan says that human life, as we know it, is under threat. The Prime Minister cannot be a climate denier, can he, so when will he take climate crisis seriously? (900853)

These are not promises: these are what we have already done. It is thanks to Conservative action on climate change that we have reduced CO2 output by 43% on 1990 levels since 2010, and the economy has grown by 73%. Some 99% of all the solar panels installed in this country have happened under this Conservative Government. In 1990, this country was 70% dependent on coal: today, it is 3%—and Labour would reopen the coalmines.

John Downey, the IRA terrorist responsible for the Hyde Park bombing in 1982, which killed 11 soldiers, received a letter of comfort from the Government and his trial collapsed. Corporal Dennis Hutchings received a letter in 1974 saying that he would not be prosecuted in connection with a shooting incident that took place in Northern Ireland. He was then investigated again in 2011 and told there were no further grounds for taking any action. Does the Prime Minister accept that if Dennis Hutchings goes to trial on 9 March, all the assurances, promises and manifesto commitments will amount to nothing more than meaningless empty platitudes?

It is to rectify matters such as the one to which my hon. Friend draws the House’s attention that this Government are finally bringing in a law to prevent the vexatious prosecution of our hard-working, hard-serving veterans when no new evidence has been produced.

Q10. Yesterday’s press showed the widening health inequalities between the richest and poorest. The money promised to Epsom and St Helier trust could have addressed that issue in my area, but instead the NHS is removing services from the poorest areas and sending them to leafy Belmont, which has the longest life expectancy. St Helier Hospital will become a glorified walk-in centre—no A&E, no maternity unit, no children’s services and 62% of beds gone. Will the Prime Minister reassure me that he will look at this to show that much does not have to always get more? (900855)

In addition to the 40 new hospitals that we are building—[Interruption.] Yes. As part of the £33.9 billion initial investment that we are making—the record investment that we are making in the NHS—I can tell the hon. Lady that Epsom and St Helier University Hospitals NHS Trust will receive £500 million to redevelop its estate and world-class facilities on that site.

Will the Prime Minister promise to resist in all circumstances the sell-out of our fishing communities, so that we can ensure that on 1 January next year we take back control of our fishing waters and become an independent coastal state once again?

I will indeed, and I hope that my right hon. Friend’s words were listened to very carefully by members of the Scottish National party, because they would hand back control of our fishing to Brussels.

Q12. There are families and businesses in my constituency who have been left devastated after Storm Dennis tore through their properties. The strength of our Union is based on sharing resources at people’s time of need, but so far not a penny announced by the United Kingdom Government would benefit Wales, where the cost of repair will be hundreds of millions of pounds. The Prime Minister talks the talk on the Union, but will he today give a cast-iron guarantee that he will provide the major new funding that Wales needs to recover from the floods? (900857)

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue of flooding in Wales. Of course it is a devolved matter, but none the less the Government are committed to working flat out with the Welsh Administration to ensure that everybody gets the flood relief that they need. Yes, of course, that cash certainly will be passported through.

Dudley is set to receive £25 million investment via the Government’s towns fund, and we are looking to use the money to secure a university campus near the town centre. Will the Prime Minister lend his support to this scheme in order to level up and generate greater opportunity for Dudley people and the greater Black Country?

I thank my hon. Friend for what he is doing to champion Dudley and the Black Country, and I will certainly look at what I can do—is it to be there in person? Is that what he is asking for?

Be careful what you wish for! I will look at what I can do to be there in person and support what sounds like an excellent scheme.

Q14. As we have seen today, religious intolerance in India is on the rise—whether through the anti-Muslim citizenship laws, or Christians whose prayer meetings are disturbed and who are then subjected to brutal beatings. Will the Prime Minister agree to meet me and representatives from Christian Solidarity Worldwide to look more closely at the issue and ensure that India upholds freedom of religion or belief? (900859)

The hon. Gentleman raises a crucial issue that I am particularly concerned to defend and advance. That is why I was pleased to appoint my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) as our special envoy for freedom of religion or belief. I would be more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss protecting those of a Christian faith in India and around the world.

The Prime Minister will know of the appalling misery that the residents of Shrewsbury are facing, with the deluge of floods that have affected our town. I am pleased that the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), who is the Minister for flooding, is visiting Shrewsbury tomorrow; she is doing an excellent job. Will the Prime Minister ensure that the proposals put forward to the Government for a more holistic approach to managing the River Severn are looked at seriously because Shrewsbury cannot continue to suffer this level of economic damage, with repeated floods?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the concerns of the people of Shrewsbury. Everybody can see how serious the problem now is with the Severn. I will ensure that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, working with the Environment Agency, takes the necessary steps.

Q15. Sir Michael Marmot’s damning findings outline the devastating impact that a decade of this Government’s cuts has had on a constituency such as mine in Gateshead. Since 2010, Gateshead Council’s spending power has been cut in real terms by around 50%, or £160 million a year. Our local safety net has been removed. What does the Prime Minister intend to do as a matter of urgency to reduce the stark and worsening health and life expectancy inequality between north and south, rich and poor, so that people in the poorest areas of my constituency can expect to live as healthily and as long as those in the most affluent areas of his constituency? (900860)

Actually, I have the highest respect for Professor Marmot and did a lot of work with him in London—we did a huge amount there to reduce health inequalities and inequalities in life expectancy—but I do not deny that there is more to be done. That is why this Government are absolutely committed to uniting and levelling up across our country, with the biggest ever investments in the NHS and massive investments in education and early years provision. I make absolutely no apology for the campaign for levelling up that we are about to undertake. Let me repeat this point to the House: there is only one way we can fund and achieve this aim, and that is to have a strong and dynamic economy. I would rather have a country and a society where we believed in hope, opportunity and the importance of work, rather than welfare and benefits, and that is our approach.