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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 690: debated on Wednesday 10 March 2021

Scotland

The Secretary of State was asked—

New Free Trade Agreements

What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the potential opportunities for Scotland arising from new free trade agreements. (913074)

I regularly discuss with my Cabinet colleagues opportunities for Scotland arising from the signing of trade deals. This Government have already struck deals with more than 65 countries around the world worth £217 billion a year, including with Canada, Japan and Singapore, with many more to come. This will create new markets for Scotland’s exporters, including for our world-leading food and drink sector.

I congratulate the Government on the recent agreement with the US Administration on suspending tariffs on a number of key quality UK goods, in particular Scotch. May I ask the Secretary of State how much that will be worth to the Scottish economy, and will he confirm that this benefit for Scotland would not have happened if the UK were still in the EU or a customs union, as the SNP has advocated, rather than having become an independent trading nation?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is brilliant news for the Scotch whisky industry, in the same week that the Chancellor announced a freeze on alcohol duty. The UK Government have fought incredibly hard on this issue, petitioning the highest levels of the US Administration to remove these tariffs, which were harming our Scottish exports.

During the comprehensive economic and trade agreement talks between the EU and Canada, little Wallonia, as part of Belgium, managed to block the agreement until the concerns of its Parliament were resolved. Meanwhile, the Canadian state legislatures were in the next room to the Canadian federal delegation during those negotiations, putting their case. Will Scotland, with the most powerful Parliament in the world, as we are always told by the Secretary of State, have similar powers? If not, what will be the role of the Scottish Government in these trade talks?

It is a pity that the hon. Gentleman could not bring himself to welcome the suspension of the US tariffs, in the same way that the Scottish National party has not welcomed any of our trade deals, but maybe he and his colleagues have other things on their mind at the moment. I also noticed that he did not raise separation, for the first time in my almost two years at the Dispatch Box—always separation, but not today. I think he has finally thrown that broken record away. We consult the Scottish Government on these trade deals, but they are a reserved matter and they are for the whole United Kingdom. As I stressed in my earlier answer, they will be very beneficial for the Scottish agrifoods industry.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend and, particularly, the Secretary of State for International Trade on their relentless efforts to remove the unjustified and penal US tariffs on whisky and cashmere, which have been so damaging. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, whatever now happens in relation to the Airbus-Boeing dispute, there can be no return to arbitrary retaliatory tariffs on unrelated industries, and that the decoupling of whisky and other products from that dispute must be permanent?

I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend. The UK Government will continue to engage with the US to agree a fair settlement to the dispute and permanently remove these punitive tariffs, and that will be a deal that works for the whole United Kingdom. This agreement just shows that the UK and the US are determined to work together, and I look forward to seeing us strengthen that partnership.

The Secretary of State knows how welcome the suspension of tariffs has been in Moray, with its many malt whisky distilleries and, of course, Johnstons of Elgin, which produces outstanding cashmere products. Will he outline what the Scotland Office and, indeed, the whole UK Government will do to ensure that this four-month suspension becomes a permanent removal of those damaging tariffs?

I know that my hon. Friend has more distilleries in his constituency than any other Member of Parliament—47, I think—and I also know that he has been a great champion for the industry and has pressed very hard for the removal of the 25% tariff. We are very pleased to have negotiated an agreement that suspends the tariffs. We now have a space of four months to find a resolution on what has been a 16-year-long dispute. The Secretary of State for International Trade is ready to engage with the US trade representative, Katherine Tai, to agree something that is fair and balanced just as soon as the Senate confirms her appointment.

As a proud Scot and one of the Prime Minister’s trade envoys, I was delighted by last week’s announcement that the Secretary of State and the Department for International Trade have secured a deal to remove export tariffs on Scotch whisky and a whole number of other products for sale to the United States. What estimate does my right hon. Friend make of the trade and investment benefits resulting from Scotland’s continued membership of the Union?

This deal will be welcomed by businesses on both sides of the Atlantic because it will hopefully bring an end to harmful tit-for-tat tariffs. I agree with my hon. Friend, but to add to the point, the rest of the United Kingdom continues to be Scotland’s largest market for exports. It accounts for more than 60% of all Scotland’s trade.

COP26

What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the potential opportunities for Scotland arising from COP26. (913075)

What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the potential opportunities for Scotland arising from COP26. (913082)

The Secretary of State has regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues on the opportunities COP26 offers Scotland, including through the COP26 Devolved Administrations Ministerial Group. The group brings together the COP President, territorial Secretaries of State and Ministers from the devolved Administrations to support the delivery of an inclusive and welcoming COP26 summit in Glasgow.

Over the past year, many of our national celebrations have been curtailed due to covid. Companies that have accrued decades of specialist event management skills have been severely compromised and risk collapse. However, COP26, with its opening and closing ceremonies, offers the opportunity to showcase the splendour, heritage and culture of our four nations, our one Union. Does my hon. Friend agree that events companies and charities, such as the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, have all that is required to show the world what a good Scottish hooley looks like?

I completely agree with that last point. Certainly, the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, if you have not seen it yourself, Mr Speaker, is a sight to behold. We are working closely in partnership with the Scottish Government and a range of partners to assess the implications of covid-19 for COP26. We want to showcase the best of the UK at COP26 and have recently concluded a process for stakeholders to express their interest in being involved in UK Government-managed spaces to support our objective of making COP26 inclusive and representative of the whole United Kingdom.

Last week’s Budget showed how we will build back greener from this pandemic, delivering a green industrial revolution that benefits every single corner of every single nation in our awesome foursome of the United Kingdom, including millions to transform Scotland into a green energy hub. Does my hon. Friend agree that COP26 is the ideal opportunity for the Government of the UK and the Government of Scotland to work together to showcase our green credentials?

Of course I agree with my hon. Friend. COP26 will be the moment that we secure our path to global net zero emissions by 2050 and define the next decade of tackling climate change. We are working with the Scottish Government and other devolved Administrations to ensure an inclusive and ambitious summit for the whole of the UK. All parts of the UK will have important roles to play in ensuring the summit’s success: not just the devolved Administrations and the constituent nations, but my hon. Friend’s constituency; the town of Milton Keynes has the largest number of electric vehicle charging points, if I am not mistaken. So it is truly a UK-wide initiative.

Dear me, Mr Speaker. Scotland is already a world leader in climate change policy, be it with renewables providing over 90% of supply, home energy efficiency, take-up of electric cars and an impressive charging network, or continuous investment in electric buses and rail electrification. In fact, the RAIL magazine editor said:

“Scotland’s admirable rolling programme of electrification rolls on…well done Scotland. DfT please note this is how it’s done.”

Does the Minister not therefore agree that Scottish representatives should be given a key place at COP26 to share our experience, or are they just too embarrassed by UK policies by comparison?

I agree that Scottish stakeholders, Scottish businesses and a lot of the renewable energies being developed in Scotland are world-leading. I could not possibly disagree with that, but it is important to recognise as well that all parts of the United Kingdom have an important role to play in ensuring the success of the summit. I am sure the hon. Gentleman is as delighted as I am that the summit is to be held in Glasgow, representing the whole of the UK around the world.

Covid-19: Support for Scottish Businesses

What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of economic support for Scottish businesses during the covid-19 outbreak. (913076)

Last week’s Budget provides continued UK-wide support and security to manage the ongoing impacts of covid-19. One in three jobs in Scotland have been supported by the UK Government’s unprecedented employment support package. Scottish businesses have benefited from more than £3.5 billion of loans and support, driven by UK Government schemes. We have also provided a much-needed boost by extending the reduction of VAT for our tourism and hospitality sectors.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the benefits of the Union of four nations have really come to the fore over the last 12 months, in that the strength of the UK Government’s balance sheet has meant not only that families, businesses and individuals in all parts of the UK have been able to benefit from that strength, but that the devolved Administrations have received the resources that they need to support people in all parts of the country?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely correct and, more importantly, the majority of people in Scotland agree with him. Not only did they emphatically reject independence in 2014, but the most recent opinion polls show that they have realised that neither the Scottish National party nor its leader can be trusted, and that independence would make everyone in Scotland significantly worse off.

I am sure that the Secretary of State would like to join me—I am sure he accidentally omitted it—in congratulating Anas Sarwar on becoming leader of the Scottish Labour party, the very first ethnic minority leader of any UK political party. I am sure that his positivity and optimism will transform Scotland when compared with what we have at the moment.

Business covid support in Scotland has been sporadic at best, and I hope that the Government will tell us how we will get a full transparent audit from the Scottish Government, following the Audit Scotland report last week that estimated that £2.7 billion was unspent, not including the £1.2 billion from last week’s Budget. Every penny needs to be spent now.

This Government talk a lot, as we have heard already, about a post-covid levelling-up green agenda, yet they are pursuing a policy in offshore renewables that benefits its business solely in the south-east of England. The Government’s fourth contracts for difference auction at the end of this year actively disadvantages viable Scottish offshore renewable projects, as the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy includes out-of-date and expensive transmission charges in auction bids. What is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that the Government ditch this unfair renewables policy that advantages south-east England at the expense and detriment of perfectly viable offshore renewables projects off our Scottish coasts?

May I begin by agreeing with the hon. Gentleman in welcoming Anas Sarwar as leader of the Scottish Labour party? I also completely agree with the hon. Gentleman that we need more transparency on the spending of the £9.6 billion of covid support and business support that the Scottish Government have received. On the transmission issue, as he will know, by law, transmission charging is a matter for Ofgem, which is an independent regulator. However, Ofgem is currently considering some aspects of the transmission charging arrangements through its access and forward-looking charges review, and I encourage all Scottish generators to engage with that review at the earliest opportunity.

I accept the Secretary of State’s answer, but it will disadvantage projects. BEIS has said that it will not change the auction requirements and, therefore, unless the wind blows in the south-east estuary of England, renewables, including in Scotland, will be significantly disadvantaged.

Given the mess that the Scottish Government are making of business and industry in Scotland, from steel to airports, to ferries, to aluminium smelters, I hope that the UK Government deliver on their promise to protect the Scottish financial services sector post-covid and post-Brexit. Financial services have done very well from Brexit, as long as they are in Amsterdam or Frankfurt. In Scotland, the sector employs 162,000 people and is nearly 10% of the Scottish economy, but despite its importance, it was not included in the Brexit deal at all. Will the Secretary of State guarantee today that the sector will get a much needed post-covid boost by ensuring that the memorandum of understanding on financial services, which is due to be signed in a matter of days with the EU, gives this critical industry the equivalence and access to EU markets that it was promised by this Government?

The UK and the EU have agreed in a joint declaration to establish structured regulatory co-operation for the financial services industry. A memorandum of undertaking will be agreed in discussions between us and the EU to establish a framework. Those discussions are currently ongoing at official level, but as with the Brexit negotiations, we cannot give a running commentary.

Union Connectivity Review

I have regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues on transport connectivity in Scotland and throughout the United Kingdom. I welcome Sir Peter’s interim report and I look forward to his final report in the summer.

As connectivity and transport infrastructure are of vital importance not only for business but for the UK’s tourism industry, does my right hon. Friend agree that taking steps such as electrifying the north Wales coast line and improving links with north-west England will not only enable my constituents in Delyn to enjoy the delights of Scotland more easily but allow our Scottish cousins to have greater access to the beauties and wonders of our fantastic north Wales area?

Mr Speaker, why should I not just completely agree? Improving connectivity across the entire United Kingdom, including through the north-west of England, will boost tourism opportunities for both Scotland and Wales.

The Minister will know that cross-border transport routes are vital for my constituents, for educational and career opportunities as well as many other day-to-day tasks. That is why I want to see the Borders Railway extended and to see improvements to the A1; these are both vital routes for the Scottish borders. Does he share my frustration and shock that the SNP Scottish Government are failing to engage with and support the connectivity review, which could be an opportunity to accelerate these two projects?

I share my hon. Friend’s frustration, I really do. This review is part of our levelling-up agenda to improve the national infrastructure and create jobs and prosperity, and I think it is pathetic of the Scottish nationalist Government not to have engaged just because it is a “Union” connectivity review.

As an MP for a borderlands region, I know that strengthening and enhancing our Union is of huge importance to my constituency of Penrith and The Border. Does my right hon. Friend agree that projects such as extending the Borders Railway down to Carlisle are a clear example of how the UK and Scottish Governments can work together to improve transport links in the region? Does he also agree that this would be a great boost to the economies of both the north of England and the south of Scotland, and provide a gateway to unlocking the potential of both regions?

I agree with my hon. Friend, and I hope he will be aware that next week we are signing the full borderlands growth deal, which will include funding for the feasibility study into reopening the Borders Railway link between Carlisle and Tweedbank.

Public Spending: Budget 2021

The Budget confirmed an additional £1.2 billion for the Scottish Government in the next financial year. Taken together with the allocation at the last spending review, it means the Scottish Government will receive an additional £3.6 billion of funding in 2021-22 through the Barnett formula, on top of the baseline of £35 billion.

The A1, the east coast main line and the national grid all run through East Lothian, but as this virtual call shows, broadband is as vital as older forms of infrastructure. East Lothian has lower than average download speeds and less gigabyte capacity than many parts of the worst 10% of areas in the UK. Is this a Brexit bonus or the price of the Union? What is the Minister doing to ensure that adequate spending is there to provide the connectivity that East Lothian and Scotland require?

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has mentioned in his answers to previous questions, we have just published the interim report on the Union connectivity review, which emphasises the need for better connectivity across all transport modes between Scotland, England and the rest of the United Kingdom. On the question of broadband speeds, of course the recent pandemic has underlined the importance of having good digital connectivity, and this Government are investing substantially in improving broadband speeds right across the United Kingdom.

Scotland is delivering a pay rise for public sector workers while the UK Government are instituting a real-terms pay cut for their public sector staff. Does the Minister not appreciate that, as well as being unjust and a real failure to recognise the hard work of the public sector, this decision also harms the Scottish Government’s ability to pay our Scottish public sector staff adequately?

I should point out that I am not responsible for public sector pay, either in Scotland or England, but I will relay the hon. Lady’s points to my colleagues who decide these matters. We will want to be as generous as we can be, while also keeping one eye on the overall state of the public finances. We have to keep that under control. As the Chancellor announced last week, if the international financial markets take fright at the state of our public finances, we will end up in a far worse financial position than we are currently in. Of course, if the Scottish Government wish to increase public sector pay more than in England, they have the fiscal powers at their disposal to do so.

The United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 grants UK Ministers the ability to provide financial assistance, particularly from the shared prosperity fund, to any person for purposes that are outlined in the Act. However, there is still no detail as to how this will work in practice or what conditions will have to be met to qualify for such funding. Last month, a Scotland Office Minister told the Scottish Affairs Committee that further details on this matter would be provided in the now published Budget, so could the Minister outline those details for us, please?

I point the hon. Lady to the prospectuses for the first stages of the community renewal fund and the levelling-up fund, which were published alongside the Budget last week. This is about real devolution. This is about empowering local communities, local authorities and other stakeholders to come forward with the schemes that they think are best for their local areas, to help bounce back after the coronavirus pandemic and put in place the innovation and investment that will help economies grow and secure the jobs of the future.

That Scotland Office Minister also told the Scottish Affairs Committee that there will be an opportunity to engage with stakeholders on a lot of the concerns that still exist, so could the Minister tell us what those opportunities are? When will they be made available to us?

The work we are doing will build on the very strong relationships that already exist, such as through the city region and growth deal programmes. Shortly after this session, I will be speaking to the Glasgow area policy conference on these matters. When I spoke to them a few weeks ago, the SNP leader of Glasgow City Council told me that they have developed a very effective network with the local authorities in the Greater Glasgow area, with universities and with the private sector and are putting forward exciting bids for their future growth. It is those community-led, area-led projects that we want to encourage through our different funding streams.

Last week, we finally saw the Chancellor move the cliff edge for the most vulnerable by announcing that the £20 a week cut to universal credit for millions of families will be moved by just six months. Citizens Advice Scotland has shared that removing the increase will result in nearly 60% of CAB complex debt clients being unable to meet their living costs. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that the least well-off in Scotland are not impacted by the Chancellor’s constant dither and delay on ensuring that universal credit is high enough to support all people across Scotland and the United Kingdom?

Before I answer the hon. Gentleman’s question, may I, through him, extend my congratulations to Anas Sarwar on his election as leader of the Scottish Labour party? It is a significant moment, and he will be a doughty fighter in the upcoming Holyrood elections.

On universal credit and our route map, although all the indications are that the economy will be back up and running by the end of June, we have taken the prudent step of extending not just universal credit but furlough and some of the other support schemes to the end of September, just in case there is a delay in getting things up and running. The uplift to universal credit was always designed to be temporary, to help families through the pandemic, and the system has worked well. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to all the civil servants who have administered universal credit at a time of unprecedented demand in a very effective way.

The long-term arrangements for social security payments will be determined at the forthcoming spending review in the normal way. Of course, the Scottish Government also have the opportunity to supplement those payments with their own welfare powers.

While the UK Government are extending rates relief for only three months in England, the Scottish Government are doing so for the whole year, helping the retail, hospitality, leisure and aviation sectors. The Scottish Government want to go further still, so will the Minister support Scottish businesses by calling for the full devolution of financial powers to Scotland?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. It is not correct to say that the business rates holiday is only being extended for three months; a period beyond that is specially targeted at businesses in the tourism, hospitality and entertainment sector. In addition, for England substantial restart grants are available, the money for which is Barnettised to the Scottish Government, who are able to spend that as they see fit.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

The whole House can be proud of the UK’s vaccination programme, with more than 22.5 million people now having received their first dose across the UK. We can also be proud of the support the UK has given to the international covid response, including the £548 million we have donated to COVAX. I therefore wish to correct the suggestion from the European Council President that the UK has blocked vaccine exports. Let me be clear: we have not blocked the export of a single covid-19 vaccine or vaccine components. This pandemic has put us all on the same side in the battle for global health. We oppose vaccine nationalism in all its forms. I trust that Members in all parts of the House will join me in rejecting this suggestion and in calling on all our partners to work together to tackle this pandemic.

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.

The Government are throwing a staggering £37 billion at a test and trace system that we know has made barely any difference, yet they say they cannot afford to give more than a pitiful 1% pay rise to NHS workers. The Prime Minister has said that he owes his life to them. He stood on the steps of No. 10 and applauded them. So will the Prime Minister do more than pay lip service? Will he pay them the wage that they deserve?

The hon. Lady is indeed right that we owe a huge amount to our nurses—an incalculable debt—which is why I am proud that we have delivered a 12.8% increase in the starting salary of nurses and are asking the pay review body to look at increasing their pay, exceptionally of all the professions in the public sector. As for test and trace, it is thanks to NHS Test and Trace that we are able to send kids back to school and to begin cautiously and irreversibly to reopen our economy and restart our lives.

I recently visited Long Marston, Bovingdon, Rickmansworth and Berkhamsted to see the damage that flooding caused to our communities at first hand. Will the Prime Minister assure this House that as the weather gets better we will not lose the momentum of finding long-term, sustainable solutions to prevent flooding in the future and to give residents the security they deserve all year round, irrespective of the weather outside? (913215)

I thank my hon. Friend for what he is doing to campaign for his local area on flood defences. I thank the Environment Agency for the tireless, imaginative and creative work it does to find solutions, and we are investing £5.2 billion to build 2,000 new flood defences over the next six years.

As I told the hon. Member for St Albans (Daisy Cooper) earlier on, we owe a massive debt as a society, and I do personally, to the nurses of our NHS. That is why we have asked the public sector pay review body, exceptionally, to look at their pay. I want to stress, however, that, as the House knows, starting salaries for nurses have gone up by 12.8% over the last three years, and it is thanks to the package that this Government have put in place that we now have 10,600 more nurses in our NHS than there were one year ago and 60,000 more in training.

The Prime Minister says nurses’ pay has gone up; I know he is desperate to distance himself from the Conservatives’ record over the last decade, but as he well knows, since 2010 nurses’ pay has fallen in real terms by more than £800. And he did not answer my question—it was a very simple question. The Prime Minister has been talking about affordability; he could afford to give Dominic Cummings a 40% pay rise. He could afford that; now, he is asking NHS nurses to take a real-terms pay cut. How on earth does he justify that?

I repeat the point that I have made: I believe that we all owe a massive debt to our nurses and, indeed, all our healthcare workers and social care workers. One of the things that they tell me when I go to hospitals, as I know the right hon. and learned Gentleman does too, is that in addition to pay one of their top concerns is to have more colleagues on the wards to help them with the undoubted stress and strains of the pandemic. That is why we have provided another £5,000 in bursaries for nurses and another £3,000 to help with the particular costs of training and with childcare. It is because of that package that this year we are seeing another 34% increase in applications for nurses. This Government of this party of the NHS are on target to deliver 50,000 more nurses in our NHS.

The Prime Minister talks about recruitment; there are currently 40,000 nursing vacancies and 7,000 doctors’ vacancies. How on earth does he think a pay cut is going to help to solve that? Frankly, I would take the Prime Minister a bit more seriously if he had not spent £2.6 million of taxpayers’ money on a Downing Street TV studio, or £200,000 on new wallpaper for his flat. They say that charity starts at home, but I think the Prime Minister is taking it a bit too literally.

Let me try something very simple: does the Prime Minister accept that NHS staff will be hundreds of pounds worse off a year because of last week’s Budget?

No. Of course, we will look at what the independent pay review body has to say, exceptionally, about the nursing profession, whom we particularly value, but the right hon. and learned Gentleman should also know, and reflect to the House, that under this Government we not only began with a record increase in NHS funding of £33.9 billion, but because of the pandemic we have put another £63 billion into supporting our NHS, on top of the £140 billion of in-year spending. It is because of this Government that in one year alone there are another 49,000 people working in our NHS. That is something that is of massive benefit not just to patients but to hard-pressed nurses as well.

My mum was a nurse; my sister was a nurse; my wife works in the NHS—I know what it means to work for the NHS. When I clapped for carers, I meant it; the Prime Minister clapped for carers, then he shut the door in their face at the first opportunity.

The more you look at the Prime Minister’s decision, the worse it gets, because it is not just a pay cut; it is a broken promise, too. Time and time again he said that the NHS would not pay the price for this pandemic. Two years ago, he made a promise to the NHS in black and white: his document commits to a minimum pay rise of 2.1%. It has been budgeted for, and now it is being taken away. [Interruption.] The Prime Minister shakes his head. His MPs voted for it, so why, after everything the NHS has done for us, is he now breaking promise after promise?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman voted against the document in question, which just crowns the absurdity of his point. Under this Government we have massively increased funding for our amazing NHS, with the result that, as I say, there are 6,500 more doctors this year than there were last year, 18,000 more healthcare workers and 10,600 more nurses. We are going to deliver our promises—I can tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman that—and we are going to go on and build 40 more hospitals and recruit 50,000 more nurses, and we are going to get on and deliver on our pledges to the British people. We are going to do that because of our sound management of the economy and the fastest vaccine roll-out programme of any comparable country which, frankly, if we had followed his precept and his ideas, we would certainly not have been able to achieve.

The Prime Minister says that he voted for it; he did. Now he has ripped it up—2.1% ripped up. If he will not listen to me, he should listen to what his own Conservative MPs are saying about this. This is from his own side. This is what they say—behind you, Prime Minister. “It’s inept.” “It’s unacceptable.” “It’s pathetic.” These are Conservative MPs talking about the Prime Minister’s pay cut for nurses, and that was before his answers today. Perhaps the most telling of all the comments came from another MP, sitting behind him, who said:

“The public just hear ‘1 per cent’ and think how mean we are.”

Even his own MPs know that he has got this wrong. Why is he going ahead with it?

What the public know is that we have increased starting pay for nurses by 12.8% over the past three years. They know that, in the past year, this Government have put another £5,000 bursary into the pockets of nurses, because we support them, as well as the £3,000 extra for training. It is very important that the public sector pay review body should come back with its proposals, and we will, of course, study them. As I say, it is thanks to the investment made by this Government that there are 49,000 more people in the NHS this year than last year. That means that there are 10,600 more nurses helping to relieve the burden on our hard-pressed nurses. That is what this Government are investing in.

The Prime Minister says, “We support them. We’ll reward them.” He is cutting their pay. [Interruption.] “Not true”, he says. Prime Minister, a 1% rise versus a 1.7% inflation rise is a real-terms cut. If he does not understand that, we really are in trouble.

Mr Speaker, the Government promised honesty, but the truth is that they can afford to give Dominic Cummings a 40% pay rise, and they cannot afford to reward the NHS properly. The mask really is slipping, and we can see what the Conservative party now stands for: cutting pay for nurses; putting taxes up on families. He has had the opportunity to change course, but he has refused to do so. If he so determined to cut NHS pay, will he at least show some courage and put it to a vote in this Parliament?

The last time that we put this to a vote, the right hon. and learned Gentleman voted against it, as I said before. We are increasing pay for nurses. We are massively increasing our investment in the NHS. We are steering a steady course, whereas he weaves and wobbles from one week to the next. One week he is attacking us and saying that we should be doing more testing, and the next week he is denouncing us for spending money on testing. One week he calls for a faster roll-out of PPE, and the next week he is saying that we spent too much. He has to make up his mind. One week, he calls for a faster vaccination roll-out when he actually voted—although he claims to have forgotten it—to stay in the European Medicines Agency. Perhaps he would like to confirm that he voted to stay in the European Medicines Agency, which would have made that vaccine roll-out impossible. We vaccinate and get on with delivering for the people of this country. We vaccinate, he vacillates, and that is the difference.

The incredible success of our vaccination programme, for which the Prime Minister and this Government deserve immense credit, now means that tourism businesses in Blackpool can look forward to a successful summer season when the economy reopens. When the time is right, will the Prime Minister support a campaign encouraging people to holiday here in the UK this summer, and will he join me in Blackpool to launch that campaign and to showcase everything that we have to offer? (913216)

I will look very carefully at my diary to see whether I can actually get up to Blackpool. I have many happy memories of joyful evenings spectating at the illuminations of Blackpool. I know that Blackpool will play an important part in the tourism recovery that we hope to see this summer if we continue on our road map.

Yesterday, the Prime Minister published his plans for an Erasmus replacement, without any consultation or discussion with the devolved Governments. The replacement scheme offers lower living support, no travel support and no tuition fee support. Why are this Tory Government taking opportunities away from our young people?

That was a delightfully concise question, but the hon. Member is wrong about the difference between Erasmus and the Turing project. Unlike the Erasmus scheme, which overwhelmingly went to kids from better-off homes, the Turing project is designed to help kids across the country, of all income groups, get to fantastic universities around the world.

That is just not the case. We know that we cannot trust a word that the Prime Minister says on this. He told us that there was no threat to the Erasmus scheme, but he clearly will not match EU levels of support. And it is not just us saying it; his own Scottish colleague, the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie), told the BBC last week that young people will not benefit from Brexit. The Government have saddled a generation with tuition fee debt, and are now closing the door on Erasmus. It is no wonder that students are choosing the SNP and independence for a prosperous future. Prime Minister, will you think again, do the right thing, engage with our EU friends and rejoin Erasmus?

I think students should choose the Turing project because it is fantastic and reaches out across the whole country. I believe, by the way, that they should reject the SNP—a Scottish nationalist party, Mr Speaker—because it is failing the people of Scotland, failing to deliver on education, failing on crime and failing on the economy. I hope very much that the people of Scotland will go for common sense. Instead of endlessly going on about constitutional issues and endlessly campaigning for a referendum, which is the last thing the people of this country need right now, I think people want a Government who focus on the issues that matter to them, including a fantastic international education scheme like Turing.

My right hon. Friend will recognise that while covid restrictions have been in place, children have not only had to learn online rather than in the classroom, but have also missed out on cultural, artistic and sporting activities with their peers. At the same time, cultural, artistic and sporting organisations have remained restricted in what they can do, and, despite the considerable help offered to them, are still in need of Government support. Will he consider how we might put those two things together and provide for enrichment activities that are available to all young people over the coming months, funded by the Government and provided not by hard-pressed teachers, but by our outstanding culture and sport sectors while they are unable to reopen to the wider public? (913217)

My right hon. and learned Friend has been a great champion of the arts and culture sectors, and he is completely right about the role that they can play for young people in the recovery. That is why we hope that the massive £2 billion recovery fund that we have given to thousands of theatres, orchestras, choirs, music venues and others will be used for the benefit and the cultural enrichment of young people up and down the country.

The Prime Minister’s fantasy bridge to Northern Ireland could cost £33 billion—this, while our road and rail networks have been absolutely decimated from decades of underinvestment. The Conservative party got a grand total of 2,399 votes at the last Assembly election. What mandate does he think he has to override the democratically elected people of Northern Ireland to impose a bridge that goes through miles of unexploded munitions and radioactive waste?

If the hon. Member had read the article I wrote this morning in The Daily Telegraph, he would have seen that the things that we have set out in the Hendy review will be of massive benefit to Northern Ireland. That includes upgrading the A75, which is the single biggest thing that people in Northern Ireland wanted, by the way, and which the Scottish nationalists—the Scottish National party—have totally failed to do. The review also includes better connections east-west within Northern Ireland, which we should be doing, and better connections north-south within the island of Ireland. It is a fantastic Union connectivity review. The hon. Member should appreciate it; it is the way forward. I am amazed, frankly, by his negativity.

Despite the claims of Eastleigh Liberal Democrats, my constituents will be delighted to know that the concrete section of the M27 will start to be resurfaced this summer. Does the Prime Minister agree that this shows that it is Conservative Governments who invest in infrastructure and that if elected in May Conservative candidates like Jerry Hall will deliver for the people of Eastleigh, Hedge End and West End? (913220)

That is absolutely true. It is Conservative Governments who invest in Eastleigh; it is Conservative Governments putting £640 billion into an infrastructure revolution. I congratulate Jerry Hall on what he is doing to resurface the road and to make it quieter, and I hope that he will be duly elected in May.

In extending the £20 uplift to universal credit, which we welcomed at the beginning of the pandemic, the Prime Minister was clearly conceding that social security support in the UK is inadequate, so while I welcome the fact that it has been extended for six months, I would like to see it being made permanent. But can he tell the House why, if it was so inadequate, it was not extended to those on legacy benefits, such as disabled people? (913218)

Throughout the pandemic we have done whatever we can to look after people throughout the country, whether those on benefits or those who have lost their jobs, sadly, because of the pandemic. I am very proud of what universal credit has been able to achieve, and I think that the hon. Gentleman should perhaps take it up with his friends in the Labour party who actually want to abolish universal credit.

Last week Grimsby celebrated the Chancellor’s announcements of the towns fund and the Humber freeport, and it is clear to the people of Grimsby that this Government are determined not to neglect the town like Labour predecessors. Our next challenge is to raise skills and educational achievements in the town. Will the Prime Minister outline how people can take advantage of the new lifetime skills guarantee that he is launching next month? (913221)

The fantastic thing about the lifetime skills guarantee is that in very, very tough circumstances, with many people having, I am afraid inevitably, to seek new jobs and to find ways of retraining, as will happen in a changing economy, it offers everybody—adults over 23—the opportunity of £3,000 for an A-level-equivalent qualification. I think it will be absolutely instrumental in helping young people of beyond school age to retrain and get the jobs they need. The lifetime skills guarantee: it is the first time it has been done.

It takes 16,000 dedicated nurses to staff Northern Ireland’s health service, costing around £380 million per year. That is less than 2% of UK sales for just one internet giant, Amazon, whose revenues doubled during lockdown. What possible reason can the Prime Minister and his Chancellor, who both talked about the need to pay for this pandemic, have to not apply a modest windfall tax on those businesses who have benefited so much from the pandemic, in order to properly pay those staff who worked so hard to bring us through the pandemic? (913219)

Actually I think that the hon. Lady is making an important point about the discrepancy in the tax paid by some online businesses and some concrete businesses. That is an issue that the Chancellor is trying to address in an equitable way, working with colleagues in the G7 and around the world.

We have seen the disgraceful way the EU has responded to UK fish exports. Part of the answer is for UK consumers to buy British fish. As chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on fisheries, could I invite the Prime Minister to join a fantastic British chef to show us how easy it is to prepare and cook a dish using British-caught fish? (913222)

I am very happy to take up my hon. Friend’s suggestion. I am not the greatest chef myself, but I have made, and can make, from memory, a fish pie with haddock and prawns, which I undertake to do.

People like my constituent, Tessa Stevens, have had to keep their salons shut despite shrinking Government support, unchanged overheads and decreased profits. I am urgently seeking the Prime Minister’s support to protect the immediate and long-term recovery of beauty businesses and the jobs they support. Will the Prime Minister explain why his Government refuse to listen to the beauty industry, which is calling for VAT to be temporarily reduced to 5% for hair and beauty businesses, similar to what has happened to businesses in other sectors such as hospitality, tourism and culture?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right in what she says about the importance of beauty businesses. They do an amazing job, and we want them to bounce back very strongly from the pandemic. I want high-street beauty salons to be opening up in the way that they were in the past, rather than people going round and giving services and cutting hair at home. It is very important that we revive high-street salons, and that is why we are continuing with the cautious, but irreversible road map out of this, which will enable a full recovery for the entire sector. In the meantime, as she knows, the Chancellor has extended furlough and all the other provisions that are necessary.

May I warmly welcome the Union connectivity review that has been announced this morning? It is brilliant news to connect the whole of the UK, but in West Dorset, we have single-track railway lines. We have a three-hourly rail frequency, yet we have the highest level of roadside pollution anywhere in the UK. Will my right hon. Friend kindly support a levelling up rail proposal that will not only look to support West Dorset, but also some of the most deprived areas in the south-west? (913223)

My hon. Friend knows whereof he speaks. He is probably one of the greatest experts on railways in this House, and we are certainly determined to follow his lead and to upgrade services in the west country and in Dorset. He knows what is happening at Dawlish and elsewhere. Network Rail has identified proposals, including the improvement of the performance of the west of England line, which is currently being assessed. He is knocking at an open door.

Back in 2012, commissioning for alcohol and drug addiction treatment was taken out of the NHS and handed to local authorities, and those services are now overwhelmed after a decade of cuts and fragmentation. Last year, the UK recorded the highest number of alcohol-specific deaths since records began. Addiction is an illness that can be treated, so will the Prime Minister urgently investigate the rise in deaths and bring addiction treatment back into the NHS within mental health services and give it the funding it requires?

The hon. Gentleman is entirely right to draw attention to the importance of addiction treatment and its relationship to mental health, and that is why the Government are investing record sums in mental health—£13.3 billion—and treatment for alcoholism is of course part of that.

I have seen first-hand, visiting both St George’s Hospital and County Hospital in Stafford, the great work being done to support people, including veterans, with their mental health. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, sadly, the covid-19 pandemic is likely to have had a negative impact on people’s mental health, and will he commit to working with me and the Stafford mental health network to improve and increase mental health provision in Stafford? (913224)

Yes, I am certainly very happy to discuss that with my hon. Friend, or to make sure she gets access to the relevant ministerial authority. What we are doing, in addition to the £13.3 billion I spoke of, is supporting mental health charities throughout the pandemic, and in particular focusing on the mental health needs of children and young people. That is why I appointed Dr Alex George to be our youth mental health ambassador.

This Government are failing young people. Before the pandemic, apprenticeship starts were down by 28% for under-19s and £330 million of unspent levy went back to the Treasury, falling short by 81% in creating the promised 100,000 new apprenticeships. This month, I will be holding my fifth apprenticeships and jobs fair in Bristol South. Will the Prime Minister join me in urging all young people to support that fair, and will he apologise to them for failing them so far?

I think that jobs fairs are an important thing, and I know that colleagues across the House do them, but I also think that the Government can be proud of our record in getting record numbers of young people into employment. We now face a very severe problem caused by the pandemic, which we are addressing not just with the lifetime skills guarantee that I mentioned earlier with but the kickstart funds and the restart funds, with £2 billion going into kickstart alone, to help young people into the jobs that they need.

After putting in a fantastic bid, Southport last week got a £37.5 million town deal. That will be transformational and represents the levelling-up agenda of the Prime Minister and this Conservative Government. When his diary allows, will he come to Southport to see these projects as they unfold and the impact they will have on the lives of my constituents? (913225)

Yes, indeed. I am told that the boulevard of light on Lord Street rivals the Champs-Élysées itself, and I will certainly keep my hon. Friend’s invitation in mind.

In this House, we all know the importance of the people who have looked after our vulnerable loved ones over the past year when we have been unable to do so, so will the Prime Minister explain to me why in this country we have 375,000 care workers on zero-hours contracts?

I am proud of what the Government have done to increase the wages of care workers across the country, with record increases in the living wage. This country is unlike most other countries in the world in the speed with which we have vaccinated care home workers and their elderly charges.

I thank the Prime Minister for his commitment to levelling up the north, the benefits of which we are already beginning to see, with a £15 million allocation from the Government’s transforming cities fund enabling the plans to reopen Golborne station in my constituency to progress. Will the Prime Minister not only welcome that progress but back my campaign to reopen Kenyon Junction railway station, which will help unlock the potential of Leigh, provide my constituents with a vital rail connection between Liverpool and Manchester, and ensure that Leigh is no longer one of the largest towns in the UK without a railway station? (913226)

I am very happy to support my hon. Friend’s initiative, and I understand that Golborne, which he represents, was the sight of the world’s first railway junction.

Anthony Jones, a ferociously bright student at Stirling University, was looking to do a master’s degree in Amsterdam. Pre- Brexit, the course fees were £2,168. Post Brexit, the fees are £14,600. The Turing scheme will not touch the sides of what is necessary. Would the Prime Minister like to apologise to Anthony and countless hundreds of thousands of students like him for limiting their life horizons against their will?

No, because I think that the Turing scheme is fairer and will enable students on lower incomes to have access to great courses around the world. I believe it is a highly beneficial reform of the way we do this, and it is truly global in its ambitions.

With a new station at Meir, investment in Longton station and restoration of the Stoke to Leek line, does my right hon. Friend agree that investment from this Government has the potential to reverse the Beeching cuts, restore our local railways in Stoke-on-Trent and cement our position as one of the best-connected places in the whole UK? (913227)

Yes. I thank my hon. Friend; I know that he supported the bid for the reinstatement of the Stoke to Leek line. That is currently being assessed by the Department for Transport as one of the Beeching reversals, which are so popular around the country and so right, and he can expect an outcome in the summer.

If the Prime Minister is serious about levelling up the country, does he honestly think that favouring the Chancellor’s Richmondshire constituency over Barnsley for financial support is the best way to do it?

We are devoted to levelling up across the entire country, and that goes for Barnsley as well as everywhere else.

I know that the Prime Minister shares my commitment to conservation around the world, and I am sure he agrees that we have to reverse the tide of deforestation. Will he ask Ministers in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to look seriously at my proposals for a kitemark scheme for food products in the UK, so that consumers can see clearly whether the products they buy come from sustainable sources or from producers who are doing further damage to our environment? (913228)

I am very happy to look at my right hon. Friend’s interesting suggestion for a kitemark scheme. In the meantime, this Government are leading the world in tackling deforestation, with a £3 billion investment being led across Whitehall.

It is indeed, Mr Speaker. The Prime Minister has twice, from that Dispatch Box, said that the Labour Opposition voted against the NHS Funding Bill and the 2.1% increase for NHS staff. This is not the case. Indeed, in the debate, as Hansard will show, I was explicit that we would not divide the House. Can you, Mr Speaker, use your good offices to get the Prime Minister to return to the House to correct the record? And do you agree that if the Prime Minister wants to cut nurses’ pay, he should have the courage of his convictions and bring a vote back to the House?

May I just say that that is not a point of order? It is certainly a point of clarification, and that part has been achieved. But I am certainly not going to be drawn into a debate, as the shadow Secretary of State well knows.

I will now suspend the House for three minutes to enable the necessary arrangements for the next business to be made.

Sitting suspended.