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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 700: debated on Wednesday 8 September 2021


The Secretary of State was asked—

Ferry Services: Scotland to Europe

1. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the potential merits of creating direct ferry services from Scotland to mainland Europe. [R] (903220)

Let me start by saying that the Scottish athletes of Team GB have returned triumphant from the Tokyo 2020 Olympic games with a record total of 14 medals, surpassing the 13 medals won by Scottish athletes at both the London and Rio Olympics. At the Paralympic games, the Scots of ParalympicsGB won an impressive 21 medals. I congratulate every athlete who competed. I also congratulate the Scottish football team on their victory in Vienna last night.

I regularly discuss a wide range of topics with Cabinet colleagues, including transport and the Union connectivity review. There are of course merits to any direct ferry services from Scotland. I understand that discussions for a new service to mainland Europe have been taking place for some time.

I endorse the comments of the Secretary of State on the Olympic and Paralympic teams, and the tartan army result last night; I am absolutely delighted with second place in the group at the moment, but let us go on to be first and get qualification.

The Secretary of State will be aware of recent dismal export figures in the wake of Brexit, the need to reduce lorry miles to help us get to net zero and the current HGV driver crisis that make up the hat-trick of events that would seem to make the need for a ferry service from Scotland to mainland Europe almost self-evident. However, there are barriers, including the commitment of Border Force to provide the resources and personnel to support that new route. Next week, we celebrate London International Shipping Week—

Order. I am sorry, but we have to get through the list of questions. The Secretary of State is going to have to answer the hon. Gentleman as best he can. [Interruption.]

I think the hon. Gentleman is requesting a meeting, and I would be happy to meet him. As he knows, the ferry service between Rosyth and Zeebrugge ran from 2002 to 2018, but from 2010 was not a passenger service. We would want any service that comes forward to be economically viable.

Misuse of Drugs Act and Health Outcomes

2. What recent assessment his Department has made of the effect of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 on health outcomes in Scotland. (903221)

9. What recent assessment his Department has made of the effect of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 on health outcomes in Scotland. (903228)

The recent drug deaths in Scotland are an absolute tragedy. The majority of the levers to tackle drug misuse are devolved to the Scottish Government, including health, education, housing and the criminal justice system. We are keen to work with the Scottish Government to tackle this tragic issue and to share lessons throughout the United Kingdom.

I wonder why the Minister and the Government refuse to base their policy on evidence such as that from Portugal, Canada and Switzerland, where drug consumption rooms save lives. We cannot help people when they are dead; DCRs save lives.

There is not a unanimous view on the efficacy of drug consumption rooms. The Minister for Crime and Policing, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse), recently had discussions with his counterpart in the Scottish Government and it was made clear that we are open to any new evidence about drug consumption rooms, but they are not the single solution to the problem. This requires a holistic approach. We are very happy to work with the Scottish Government to explore all the different options.

There is plenty of evidence on the efficacy of drug consumption rooms. I am sure that my colleagues who have worked on the issue would be happy to discuss it with the Minister. Portugal faced some of the highest rates of drug deaths in Europe at the turn of the century, but it radically reversed the situation through decriminalisation and a public health approach. The Scottish Government have used their powers to commit to the public health approach. The question for the Minister is whether his Government will use their reserved powers to amend the Misuse of Drugs Act and enable the measures that worked in Portugal, such as drug consumption rooms, to happen. The Scottish Government have done their bit. Will his Government do theirs?

I have discussed the specific matter of drug consumption rooms at some length with the hon. and learned Lady’s colleague, the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), so I am well aware of the arguments for them, but there are arguments against them. As I said in response to the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes), we are happy to look at new evidence. In England and Wales, we have Project ADDER, which is showing some promising early signs of being effective in combating drug misuse. I strongly urge the hon. and learned Lady’s colleagues in the Scottish Government to take up our offer to extend that to Scotland.

In the last year for which figures are available, 1,339 lives were lost in Scotland as a result of drug misuse, the worst number since records began in 1996, yet we got no solutions from the SNP or from Nicola Sturgeon in her programme for government yesterday. Scottish Conservatives have put forward plans for a right to recovery Bill. Does the Minister agree that the Scottish Government should engage with us to bring forward these proposals?

I absolutely agree. My hon. Friend and his colleagues have come up with an excellent policy in this area, and it would be to the great advantage of people in Scotland that the Scottish Government take up the proposals that it contains.

The Scottish Affairs Committee conducted the most extensive inquiry ever undertaken into drug use in Scotland, taking evidence from practically everybody with an interest and a stake in this issue. We concluded that we need every tool in the kitbag to address the scale of this problem, from an increased resources position to adopting evidence-based solutions with best practice from international examples that have worked, such as drug consumption facilities and decriminalisation. Why did the UK Government reject nearly all of our conclusions and recommendations?

I understand that the report from that Committee, which I think was done in 2018, was not a unanimous one and the Committee divided on it, which illustrates the fact that there is not the unanimity of view on the proposals to which the hon. Gentleman refers. As I say, we keep an open mind on this as regards fresh evidence that shows that policies work. My colleagues in the Home Office have discussed this with their counterparts in the Scottish Government and those discussions will continue.

My hon. Friend may be aware of the sterling work done by my friend—albeit not an hon. Friend—the Mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street, on the misuse of drugs and controlling it. To what degree does the Scottish Office liaise with the regions of England to communicate with Scotland about best practice?

I am happy to say to my hon. Friend that I discuss matters throughout the United Kingdom, and if there are good, innovative practices in a particular area it is of course wise to share that and encourage other parts of the United Kingdom to follow suit.

The Minister says that there is no consensus as to drug consumption rooms, but, as has already been said, every country that has trialled safe consumption rooms has a positive story to tell about them. The other thing that he failed to mention is that the legislation that makes drug use a crime often traps vulnerable people in a vicious cycle of poverty and crime. With that in mind, will this Government finally commit to reviewing the 50-year-old legislation that is the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971?

As I said to the hon. Lady’s colleagues, we constantly discuss these matters with our counterparts in Scotland. We have made very serious offers, as I say, to extend Project ADDER, which looks at drugs misuse in a holistic way. There is evidence to show that that is working. I strongly urge the Scottish Government to take up that offer. Particularly on drug consumption rooms, as I say, if there is new evidence there, we will consider it.

In what world do you get to claim to be taking an issue seriously while in the same breath commit to change absolutely nothing? If the logical arguments will not convince, then maybe the financial ones will. Crimes linked to drugs in Scotland cost £750 million a year to investigate and prosecute. Experts tell us that that money could be better spent. If the experts, the Scottish Government and even the Scottish Conservatives can now agree that health needs to be the main approach, why not the Minister?

I think the hon. Lady takes a very partisan view on this. We have put forward some very concrete suggestions. I remind her that the vast majority of powers in this area lie with the Scottish Government, and her Government have been in power for 14 years, so perhaps they should spend a little bit more effort focusing on tackling some of these social issues rather than obsessing about independence, which no one wants.

Strength of the Union

My assessment continues to be that the United Kingdom is the most successful political and economic union that the world has ever seen. It is the foundation on which all our citizens and businesses are able to thrive. The United Kingdom Government are committed to protecting and promoting the strengths of our United Kingdom.

The helping hand of the Union has left Scotland with no oil fund. It sees our renewables projects pay the highest grid charging levies in the entirety of Europe. In 2015, we saw the scrapping of plans for a carbon capture and underground storage plant in Peterhead, so I am simply seeking reassurance from the Secretary of State that the Acorn project will be one of two clusters to receive backing from his Government next month.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, that is under review. We want Acorn to be one of the tier 1 projects, and we are pressing for that. I think he should press for his colleagues and his Government in Scotland to support the oil and gas industry.

How is the Union strengthened by the increasingly divergent franchises on these islands? Scotland’s Parliament was elected in May with an electorate including 16 and 17-year-olds, refugees and EU nationals, while his Government’s Trumpian Elections Bill wants to suppress and restrict voter turnout. Surely that only increases the legitimacy and mandate of the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government, and makes this place even more detached from voters in Scotland.

I think the coalition with the Greens shows very clearly to everyone that one thing that the SNP failed to achieve in May was an outright majority.

“Shameful” and “disgrace” are words that Nicola Sturgeon likes to bandy at her opponents, but they truly apply to her announcement yesterday that while Scotland continues to have some of the worst covid rates in Europe, she is diverting resources into another divisive independence referendum. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the focus of this Government will be to work constructively across the United Kingdom to defeat covid, save jobs and restore our economy?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Our focus is on rebuilding our economy. Our focus is on restoring our NHS. I think most right-minded Scots would agree that using civil service resources to design a prospectus for independence is the wrong thing to be doing at this time.

Over the summer, new data published by the SNP Scottish Government showed the Union dividend to be worth £2,210 a person in Scotland. Does the Minister agree that those figures simply confirm the benefit of Scotland remaining at the heart of a strong United Kingdom?

I absolutely would agree with my hon. Friend. I would add that the recent “Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland” reports in August showed that the deficit last year for the Scottish budget was £36.3 billion. That is more than the Scottish Government spend on education, housing, transport, culture and health.

We know that for the past two years, the Government have been spending taxpayers’ money researching public opinion in Scotland on the state of the Union. For two years, I have been trying to get answers as to what that research says. For two years, the Cabinet Office has refused, including appealing to the court of law and bringing in outside consultants to fund its case. Is it not time, if the Secretary of State believes so much that the Union is such a wonderful thing, for him to tell us what he has found out about what Scottish people think about the state of the Union and publish this research?

As I have said before at this Dispatch Box, that is a matter for the Cabinet Office, and I suggest the hon. Gentleman raises it at Cabinet Office questions.

Will the Secretary of State update the House on the scale of the additional financial resource that Scotland received as a result of the covid pandemic? Does he agree that it is the strength of the UK balance sheet that allows the UK Government to support every part of the United Kingdom in times of crisis?

I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend. The strength of support was over £14 billion during the covid crisis, and the furlough support helped 900,000 jobs in Scotland at the height of the pandemic, which is nearly a third of the Scottish workforce.

May I join the Secretary of State in congratulating our Olympians and Paralympians on their wonderful medals haul in Tokyo? May I also congratulate the Scottish football team on a marvellous result last night? However, he knows, as all Scots do, that it is the hope that kills you, so let us not celebrate too much.

Our shared social security system is vital to underpinning our Union, but by the next Scotland questions the Government will have made the largest ever overnight cut to social security for those in work by removing the £20 from universal credit. Citizens Advice Scotland says that more than half those people are worried about being able to buy food. At the same time, the Government have broken another promise and want to increase national insurance with the highest tax rise in 40 years. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation says that about 150,000 working families on low incomes in Scotland will pay an average of £100 extra in tax while losing £1,000. What advice does the Secretary of State give those families on low incomes on where they should cut £1,100 from their family budgets?

The uplift in universal credit was always intended to be temporary—it was to help claimants through the economic shock and financial disruption of the pandemic—and we now have the kickstart programme and a multibillion-pound plan for jobs. I understand it is difficult to break a manifesto promise, and the Prime Minister was clear that he was doing that in raising national insurance, but he also had a manifesto promise to address social care, which, since Tony Blair said he would address it in 1997, has not been done.

There is no money going into social care, but we will leave that for a different time. Last week, Labour’s shadow team visited Orkney and its European Marine Energy Centre. It has facilities such as the most powerful tidal turbine in the world, which results in its having excess energy that it cannot get back to the mainland. At the same time, the Scottish and UK Governments are backing the Cambo oilfield. With COP26 coming to Scotland, should the Secretary of State not lead by example, refuse Cambo and reform the outdated transmission charge regime while providing funding for a new large-capacity interconnector between Orkney and Shetland and the mainland? That would bring huge benefits and innovation to the islands and power large parts of Scotland from renewable resources.

On Cambo, all our North sea oil licences are factored into the 2050 net zero plan. Discussions are ongoing on the interconnector. It is partly devolved, with Ofgem and others involved. However, leaving that to one side, I take the overall view that there will be multiple uses for oil and gas for years to come—people must understand that—and we may as well get oil domestically rather than import it.

Transport Connections: Scotland and Rest of UK

5. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on improving transport connections between Scotland and the rest of the UK. (903224)

I have regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues who are as excited as I am to ensure that we strengthen transport connections across the United Kingdom. We recognise the importance of transport and how it is vital to economic growth, job creation and social cohesion. That is why the Union connectivity review was commissioned. I look forward to the publication of the final report later this year.

The family, business and cultural links between Harrogate and Knaresborough and Scotland are growing, but, for them to grow further, they will need better connectivity. The east coast main line is at the heart of that. Will my right hon. Friend therefore welcome the investments being made in that line and highlight its importance in the Union connectivity review that he just mentioned?

Yes. The Government are determined to level up every corner of the United Kingdom, bringing communities across the country closer together. We recognise that infrastructure projects are important to growing our economy, because wherever we create connectivity, we create economic growth.

Which high-speed rail line does the hon. Member have in mind—High Speed 2 going north or Galashiels coming south? He should wait for the outcome of the connectivity review—which I must say the SNP did not engage in. Not only that; the SNP Government’s Transport Minister, rather irresponsibly, told his civil servant officials that they could not engage with Sir Peter Hendy or give him any data. When we then offered £20 million for feasibility studies, they declined it.

Public Inquiry: Handling of Covid-19 in Scotland

6. What recent discussions he has had with Scottish Ministers on the public inquiry into the handling of covid-19 in Scotland. (903225)

An inquiry into the devolved aspects of the covid-19 response was an SNP manifesto commitment, and the Scottish Government have now set out their next steps. The UK Government have committed to a statutory inquiry into all key aspects of the UK’s response to the pandemic. As the Prime Minister has stated, we will consult the devolved Administrations before finalising the scope of that inquiry.

Throughout the pandemic, one of the most dangerous impacts has been not just that of the virus itself, but the impact it has had on our NHS in preventing life-saving operations from taking place. In Scotland, the situation has been made even worse through the Scottish SNP Government’s under-investment in the NHS, with over 450,000 people languishing on waiting lists prior to the pandemic, and that figure has now risen to more than 600,000. Will the Minister work to ensure that the covid public inquiry in Scotland will look into other aspects of the NHS?

The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight that the impacts of the pandemic are felt in many areas and in other parts of the health service, and there is a need to catch up with that backlog of missed operations and treatments. I am absolutely delighted that, yesterday, the Prime Minister set out very real progress and steps to make that happen, with additional spending in the NHS right across the United Kingdom.

I am very sorry to tell the House that Scotland now has one of the highest covid rates in all of Europe, with eight out of 20 hotspots across Europe being in Scotland, according to the World Health Organisation. Instead of learning the lessons of the last year, the SNP Government have wasted the summer months with the virus spiralling out of control. While the covid rate soars, the First Minister announced this week that Scottish civil servants will be tasked with drawing up arguments for Scottish independence. In the Minister’s discussions with the Scottish Government, has he discussed the issue of Scottish civil servants being diverted from crucial covid-19 response work to plans for another independence referendum, and can he confirm that this will form part of the covid-19 inquiry into the Scottish Government’s failures?

I am very happy to agree with the hon. Gentleman. Whether it is on learning the lessons from covid and making sure that our public services can catch up or whether it is on tackling drug abuse and a whole range of other public service and social issues, that should be the primary focus of the Scottish Government, not obsessing with another divisive referendum.

Free Trade Agreements: Opportunities for Scotland

7. What recent assessment he has made of the effect of new free trade agreements on trading opportunities for Scotland. (903226)

10. What recent assessment he has made of the effect of new free trade agreements on trading opportunities for Scotland. (903229)

This Government have already struck trade deals with more than 68 countries as well as the EU worth £744 billion a year. This will create new markets for Scotland’s exporters, including our world-leading food and drinks sector. The Department for International Trade team based in Edinburgh is also helping Scottish businesses thrive and grow internationally. Last week, I was delighted to meet the new DIT director for Scotland heading up this team, and I look forward to planning further engagement with her and her team.

Scotland’s businesses will be among the main beneficiaries of the trade deals we have already secured around the world, with our historic agreement with Japan boosting trading opportunities for over 500 Scottish businesses alone. Does my hon. Friend agree with me that we will now be able to use our new status as an independent trading nation to promote the very best that Scottish industries have to offer to the world?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend: he is absolutely right. This Government are working hard to strike new trade deals around the world that will benefit key business sectors and consumers across Scotland and across the whole of the UK. We are opening new opportunities for iconic Scottish and British industries to thrive overseas.

As the Government negotiate new free trade deals around the world as global Britain, and the new agreement with Australia removes the 5% tariff on the export of whisky to Australia hot on the heels of the tariff-free period of five years with the United States, does my hon. Friend agree that the advantage to Scotland of negotiating together with the United Kingdom for free trade deals makes the case for the United Kingdom to be together as one country?

On that final point, I could not agree more. It is hugely welcome to see the removal of the 5% tariff on Scotch whisky in the agreement in principle between the UK and Australia. That will help Scottish whisky distillers to continue to expand exports to Australia, which have almost doubled over the last decade, making Australia our eighth largest market by value.

With all these free trade deals, I wonder whether the Minister can detail what the losses are to the seafood industry through Brexit, and what compensation it has received through the UK Government. What are the current losses to the hospitality industry because it cannot access EU labour, and what are the total losses to the Scottish Food and Drink Federation because of shortages caused by the HGV lorry driver crisis?

I did not quite catch all of that, but I did catch the words “fishing” and “HGV drivers”. On fishing, I would not be surprised if I talk to many more people in the fishing industry than the hon. Gentleman does, and I will take my advice on the situation in the fishing industry from them, rather than from Opposition Members, or indeed Twitter and the rest of social media. On HGV drivers, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already said, we recognise this issue. This is not a Brexit issue, otherwise we would not be seeing the exact same problem right across Europe, and in fact right across the world. The UK Government have already put measures in place to help increase, improve and speed up the recruitment of HGV drivers in this country.

Order. Before we come to Prime Minister’s questions, I point out that the British Sign Language interpretation of proceedings is available to watch on Parliament Live TV.

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.

In the run-up to the last election, the Prime Minister said that “clearly it is wrong” that hundreds of thousands of people are forced to rely on food banks to survive. Research released by the Trussell Trust today shows that one in six people fear that they will almost certainly have to use a food bank in just four weeks’ time as a result of the Government’s decision to axe the £20 uplift to universal credit. That is more than 500 families and 1,000 children being forced into food poverty in my constituency of Birkenhead alone. Will the Prime Minister concede that the cut to universal credit is wrong, and will he change course?

Of course I am very grateful to everybody who helps with food banks, and they do a fantastic job. What this Government have done throughout the pandemic is to put the most protection for those who need it most across society, and I am proud of what we have done by uplifting the living wage, and proud of the arm that we put around the whole of the British people.

Q7. Will my right hon. Friend offer me an answer for my constituents of the future, as they sit around a tepid radiator powered by an inefficient and expensive air source heating unit, worrying about the payments on the electric car that they did not want either, while they watch the growing economies of the world going hell for leather building new gas and coal-powered stations? They will be asking me, “Why?” Will the Prime Minister please commit to solutions that are technologically possible to reduce Britain’s CO2, rather than uncosted commitments that—I am sorry—we will be hearing a lot of at COP26? (903346)

Not only has the price of batteries fallen vertiginously, as has the cost of solar power, but I can tell my hon. Friend and the people of Thanet South that they have huge opportunities. The cost of wind power in this country has fallen by 70% just in the last 10 years. What I think the people of Thanet want to see, and I am sure my hon. Friend exemplifies it, is a spirit of Promethean technological optimism.

I want to ask the Prime Minister about the promise he made to the British people to

“guarantee that no one needing care has to sell their home to pay for it.”

Does that guarantee still stand?

What this plan for health and social care does is deal, after decades, with the catastrophic costs faced by millions of people up and down the country, and the risk that they could face the loss of their home, their possessions and their ability to pass on anything to their children. This Government are not only dealing with that problem but understand that in order to deal with the problems of the NHS backlogs, you also have to fix social care. We are taking the tough decisions that the country wants to see. We are putting another £36 billion in. What I would like to know from the leader of the Labour party is: what is he going to do tonight? Silence from mission control and his—[Interruption.]

Order. If you do not want to hear the Prime Minister, I certainly do, and I cannot hear him. It is not acceptable. Prime Minister, have you finished?

I just want to ask the Leader of the Opposition whether he is going to vote for our measures tonight.

I noticed that the Prime Minister did not stand by his guarantee that no one will need to sell their house to pay for care. Let me explain why he did not. Under the Prime Minister’s plan, someone with £186,000 including the value of their home—that is not untypical for constituents across the country—who is facing large costs because they have to go into care will have to pay £86,000. That is before living costs. Where does the Prime Minister think they are going to get that £86,000 without selling their home?

As I think everybody understood in the long statement yesterday, this is the first time that the state has come in to deal with the threat of these catastrophic costs, thereby enabling the private sector—the financial services industry—to supply the insurance products that people need to guarantee themselves against the cost of care. What we are doing is lifting the floor—lifting the guarantee—up to £100,000, whereby nobody has to pay anything, across the entire country. We still have to hear from the Opposition what they would do to fix the backlogs in the NHS and fix social care after decades of inertia and inactivity. What would the Leader of the Opposition do?

The Prime Minister’s plan is to impose an unfair tax on working people. My plan is to ensure—[Interruption.] My plan is to ensure that those with the broadest shoulders pay their fair share. That is the difference. [Interruption.]

Order. I say to both sides that I need to hear the question. I also need to hear the answer. If there are some Members who do not want to hear it, I am sure that their constituents want to hear it. It is not good to shout down either side when they are either asking or answering a question. Please, our constituents are interested. I want to hear, and they will want to hear. Keir Starmer.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. The Prime Minister’s plan is to impose unfair taxes on working people; my plan is to ensure those with the broadest shoulders pay their fair share. I know Conservative Members do not like that. The truth is that the Prime Minister’s plans do not do what he claims. People will still face huge bills. Many homeowners will need to sell their homes. He is not denying it, when he could have done. The Prime Minister has failed the only test he set for himself for social care. It was in the manifesto—another manifesto promise, Prime Minister.

It is no good shaking your head. And who is going to pay for the cost of this failure? Working people. Under the Prime Minister’s plan, a landlord renting out dozens of properties will not pay a penny more, but their tenants in work will face tax rises of hundreds of pounds a year. A care worker earning the minimum wage does not get a pay rise under this plan, but does get a tax rise. In what world is that fair?

Actually, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has confirmed that this is a broad-based and progressive measure. The top 20% of households by income will pay 40 times what the poorest 20% pay; the top 14% will pay half of the entire levy. The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about his plan. Well, I have been scouring the records for evidence of the Labour plan, and I have found it. In 2018, the current shadow Minister for Social Care, the hon. Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall), joined forces with Nick Boles and Norman Lamb to promote a new dedicated health and social care tax based on national insurance. Where is she? I can’t see her in her place, Mr Speaker. She said that this was to be the country’s “Beveridge moment”. Is the Labour party really going to vote against the new Beveridge moment tonight?

Mr Speaker, let me tell you what an ambitious young Member for Henley said in 2002 in this House:

“national insurance increases are regressive”—[Official Report, 17 April 2002; Vol. 383, c. 667.]

I wonder what happened to him. If the Prime Minister is going ahead with this unfair tax, can he at least tell us this: will his plan clear the NHS waiting list backlog by the end of this Parliament—yes or no?

I think the whole House, indeed the whole country, can appreciate that we at least have a plan to fix the backlogs and we at least understand that the only way to fix the long-term underlying problems in the NHS and the problem of delayed discharges is to fix the crisis in social care as well, which Labour failed to address for decades. We are going ahead and doing it. What I have just understood from the right hon. and learned Gentleman—out of that minestrone of nonsense has floated a crouton of fact—is that he is going to vote against the measures tonight. They are going to vote against plans to fix the backlogs and to fix social care. Vote Labour, Mr Speaker, wait longer.

It was a yes/no question. You either clear the backlog or you don’t. The Prime Minister cannot even say that he will do that. So there we have it: working people will pay higher tax, those in need will still lose their homes to pay for care and he cannot even say if the NHS backlog will be cleared. [Interruption.] He gesticulates, but they are all breaking their manifesto promises and putting up taxes for their working constituents for this? Tax rises are not the only way he is making working people worse off. Some 2.5 million working families will face a doubly whammy: a national insurance tax rise and a £1,000 a year universal credit cut. They are getting hit from both sides. Of all the ways to raise public funds, why is the Prime Minister insisting on hammering working people?

We are proud of what we have been doing throughout the pandemic to look after working people. We are proud of the extra £9 billion we put in through universal credit. I think people in this House and across the country should know that Labour wants to scrap universal credit all together. We believe in higher wages and better skills, and it is working. That is why we are investing in 13,500 work coaches and £3,000 a year for 11 million adults across this country to train under the lifetime skills guarantee, and it is working. For the first time since 2019, after years and years of stagnation, wages are rising for the lower paid. Labour believes in welfare; we believe in higher wages and higher skills and better jobs.

Higher wages and higher skills, the Prime Minister says. How out of touch he is! [Interruption.] Conservative Members laugh. What do they say to Rosie, because Rosie is the sort of person that this impacts on? Laugh away. A single mother working on the minimum wage in a nursing home, she got in touch with me. She will lose £87 a month due to the universal credit cut—a huge amount to her. She will now also be hit with a national insurance tax rise. She has asked for more shifts and she cannot get them. She is unable to get further help with childcare. What does the Prime Minister—what does the laughter—say to Rosie?

This is a Government who underfunded the NHS for a decade before the pandemic, took £8 billion out of social care before the pandemic, and then wasted billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money on dodgy contracts, vanity projects and giveaways to their mates. They cut stamp duty on second home owners, gave super tax deductions for the biggest companies and now they are telling millions of working people that they must cough up more tax. Is this not the same old Tory party, always putting their rich mates and donors before working people?

Very sadly, Mr Speaker, what you are hearing is the same old nonsense from Labour, because they want to scrap universal credit. I have every sympathy for Rosie and I admire her and families up and down the land, but the best thing we can do for them is have a strong and dynamic economy. As I speak, our economy is the fastest growing in the G7, because we have had the fastest vaccine roll-out and the fastest opening up of any comparable country. Never forget that the right hon. and learned Gentleman would have kept us in the European Medicines Agency; he attacked the Vaccine Taskforce; and if we had listened to Captain Hindsight in July, we would not have the fastest growing economy in the G7—we would still be in lockdown. [Interruption.] It is true. If we listened to him today, we would not be trying to fix the NHS backlogs and we would not finally be dealing with social care. This is the Government who take the tough decisions to take this country forward.

Q8. Does my right hon. Friend agree that while the recent extension of the grace periods for the movement of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland is welcome, it does not yet amount to a permanent fix of the Northern Ireland protocol, which Lord Trimble suggests is inimical to the Belfast agreement? Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, in the continuing negotiations, the Government will draw the attention of the EU to the positive advantages of mutual enforcement, as advocated in the recent excellent paper by the Centre for Brexit Policy? (903347)

Yes, and I thank both my right hon. Friend and the Centre for Brexit Policy for their analysis. It is good that the interim period has been extended, because clearly, the protocol, as it is being applied by our friends in the EU, is not, in my view, protecting the Belfast/Good Friday agreement as it should in all its aspects. We must sort it out.

Yesterday, without consultation, the Prime Minister announced plans to impose a regressive Tory poll tax on millions of Scottish workers. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimates that around 2 million families on low incomes will now pay an average of an extra £100 a year because of the Prime Minister’s tax hike. Yet again, the Tories are fleecing Scottish families, hitting low and middle-income workers and penalising the young. A former Tory Work and Pensions Secretary called it a “sham”. A former Tory Chancellor has said this is the poor subsidising the rich. A former Tory Prime Minister has called this “regressive”. Prime Minister, is it not the case that this Tory tax hike is once again balancing the books on the backs of the poor and the young?

The right hon. Gentleman says there was no consultation. Actually, I much enjoy my conversations with representatives of the Scottish Administration. One thing they said to me was that they wanted more funding for the NHS. I am delighted that we are putting another £1.1 billion into the NHS in Scotland, while all they can talk about is another referendum. That is a clear distinction between us and the Scottish nationalist party—about what are the real priorities of the people of this country.

That was no answer to the question, because the facts are that this is a tax hike on the poor and on the young. You should be ashamed of yourself, Prime Minister.

We now know the economic direction of this toxic Tory Government: we are going to see furlough scrapped, universal credit cut and more tax hikes for the low-paid. Let us be in no doubt: this is the return of the Tories’ austerity agenda. It is austerity 2.0. On this Prime Minister’s watch, the United Kingdom now has the worst levels of poverty and inequality anywhere in north-west Europe, and in-work poverty has risen to record levels this century. More Tory austerity cuts will make this even worse.

Scotland deserves better. There is clearly no chance of a fair covid recovery under this Prime Minister and under this Westminster Government. Is it not the case that the only way to protect Scotland from Tory cuts and the regressive tax hikes is for it to become an independent country, with the full powers needed to build a fair, strong and equal recovery for the people of Scotland?

Well, I do not think that that is the right priority for this country or for the people of Scotland. I will just remind the right hon. Gentleman of the words of the deputy leader of the Scottish Government, who welcomed it when the Labour Government put up NI by 1p to pay for the national health service. He—this is a guy called John Swinney—said:

“I am absolutely delighted that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has now accepted that progressive taxation is required to invest in the health service in Scotland”.—[Scottish Parliament Official Report, 18 April 2002; c. 8005.]

I mean, get your story straight! This is more cash for people in Scotland; it is more investment for families in Scotland; it is good for Scotland and good for the whole of the United Kingdom.

Q9. The growing populations of Grantham and Stamford require a long-term integrated healthcare strategy. Can the Prime Minister confirm what action the Government are taking to implement regular reviews of healthcare provision to meet the future needs of my constituency? (903348)

My hon. Friend is quite right; he is a great advocate for the people of Grantham and Stamford. The Health and Care Bill will ensure that there are integrated healthcare partnerships, bringing together local authorities and local healthcare, but there is more to be done, and that will be done in the forthcoming White Paper.

Yesterday’s social care plan forgot family carers, yet we are the millions wiping bottoms and washing and dressing our loved ones, whether they are elderly or disabled, ill or dying. We carers just want a fair deal, so will the Prime Minister raise the carer’s allowance? Will he guarantee proper breaks for carers? Will he change employment law so that we can balance caring with work? Will he ensure that there are enough professional carers to help, starting with a new visa for carers? We carers have a lifetime of ideas to improve our loved ones’ care, so why does the Prime Minister keep ignoring us and taking carers for granted?

I certainly acknowledge, and I think the whole House acknowledges, the massive debt that we owe to unpaid carers such as the right hon. Gentleman. Up and down the country, we thank them for what they are doing. What the plan means is that there will be a huge injection of support, both from the private sector and from the Government, into caring across the board. I believe that that will support unpaid carers as well, since they will no longer have the anxiety, for instance, that their elderly loved ones could see the loss of all their possessions. What we are also doing for carers is making sure that we invest, now, half a billion pounds in their training, in their profession to make sure that they have the dignity and progression in their jobs that they deserve.

Q11. Einion and Elliw Jones from Mynydd Mostyn dairy in my constituency have created a real buzz by offering a self-serve milk facility on their farm for the local community. Sadly, the local council has served them with an enforcement notice, which has led to almost 9,000 locals signing a petition in support of them. Does my right hon. Friend agree that businesses that have done their best to survive and diversify over this horrendous last year should be supported and not threatened by the local authority as they do all they can to grow their business? (903350)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, planning is a devolved matter, but what I can tell him and the House is that we have provided business with over £100 billion of support throughout the pandemic, including 1.5 million bounce back loans to small and medium-sized enterprises such as the one that he describes.

Q2. At a time of widespread concern about the HGV driver crisis, I have been contacted by a number of drivers from Ceredigion who believe that the decision to increase their hours will fail to solve the problem. It is clear to them that a long-term solution requires improved working conditions, action on the 2018 Government report on parking spaces and driver facilities, and measures to reduce waiting times at distribution centres. Will the Prime Minister consider those proposals, and to what timescale are his Government working to fix the crisis? (903341)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of his question. We are working with industry to get more people into HGV driving, which is a great and well-remunerated profession, by, for instance, ramping up vocational test capacity and funding apprenticeships for people training to be lorry drivers. As the House heard earlier, the career structure of HGV drivers is affecting countries throughout the European Union. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman take up his proposals directly with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport.

Infrastructure for Businesses: Weymouth

Q15. What steps he is taking to improve infrastructure in order to attract more businesses to Weymouth. (903354)

This Government are committed to levelling up the whole country, and Dorset is no exception. I am delighted that the local growth fund in Dorset has contributed £98.4 million to 54 projects since 2015, and I understand that Dorset Council has also made a bid through the levelling-up fund to improve access at Weymouth station.

As a former soldier, I know that time is never wasted on reconnaissance. May I ask my right hon. Friend to come and get some good Dorset sea air, visit Weymouth and see the infrastructure for himself? Until we improve it, we cannot attract the investment, jobs and prosperity that we so desperately need, in an ancient seaside resort that needs a bit of love, attention and Government money.

I can think of nothing nicer than a trip to Weymouth, which I think was the favourite watering hole of George III—or so I am told by the Lord Chancellor. I will do my utmost to oblige my hon. Friend.

Q3. A constituent of mine spent hours waiting to get through to someone on the Government-issued telephone number for non-British nationals in Afghanistan. Distressed and fearful for his family, he was relieved when he eventually spoke to someone. However, when the person he spoke to thought he had hung up, he overheard them laughing and saying to a colleague, “We are having to lie to people; we are giving them false hope; the whole thing is a complete scam.” Is it the Foreign Secretary, the Defence Secretary, the Home Secretary or the Prime Minister who is responsible for this scam? (903342)

I think the whole country should be proud of what we have done to welcome people from Afghanistan. Operation Warm Welcome continues, and as I speak, we have already received more than 15,000 people from the Kabul airlift, the biggest exercise that this country has undertaken. However, I am sorry to hear about the particular case that the hon. Lady has raised. May I ask her to send it directly to me, and I will take it up?

We have thousands of illegal immigrants arriving on our shores every single month. When are we going to take some direct action, and send the boats straight back?

I share the indignation and the frustration of my hon. Friend at the cruel behaviour of the gangsters, the criminal masterminds, who are taking money from desperate, frightened people to help them undertake a very, very dangerous journey across the channel. This is a perennial problem, but my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is dealing with it in the best possible way, which is to make sure that they do not leave those French shores. We depend to a large extent on what the French are doing, but clearly, as time goes on and this problem continues, we are going to have to make sure that we use every possible tactic at our disposal to stop what I think is a vile trade and a manipulation of people’s hopes.

Q4. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, my constituency is the fourth most affected by the cut in working tax credit and universal credit. It is impacting on families who are working in multiple jobs. A thousand pounds may only just cover the cost of a single roll of wallpaper in the Prime Minister’s flat, so will he please set out his understanding of the plight of the working poor, and explain what he meant when he said that they should “see their wages rise by their own efforts”? (903343)

I think everybody sympathises with people who are on low incomes, whom we have tried to protect throughout the pandemic. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor brought forward a package that was recognised around the world as being almost uniquely progressive in the way it directed funding and support to the lowest paid and the neediest. That was quite right, but we are also now trying to ensure that we have a high-wage and high-skilled jobs-led recovery, and that is what is happening. I am proud to be a Conservative Prime Minister who is seeing wages for the lowest paid rising at their fastest rate for many years.

This is, I think, the first opportunity for the whole House to thank all those who have played a role in rolling out the superb vaccine programme over the past six months or so, ranging from the whole of the national health service to the military. If I may, I should like to make particular mention of the Order of St John—St John Ambulance—of which I have the honour to be an honorary commander. All parties in the House with an interest in St John will have an opportunity to thank its volunteers personally if they would like to do so at a reception that I am hosting on the Terrace straight after PMQs today. Perhaps you, Mr Speaker—and the Prime Minister and others—will honour us with your presence to thank the thousands of volunteers who have done such superb work over the last six months.

I will indeed join my hon. Friend in thanking St John Ambulance for everything it has done. The volunteers have been fantastic and I have met many of them over the past 18 months who have done an absolutely astonishing job. I do not think that I can come to his reception, but I am sure it will be very well attended. May I also take this opportunity to urge everybody in the country who has not yet had a vaccination and who is eligible for one to get it as soon as they can?

Q5.   Given the Education Secretary’s net approval rating among Tory supporters of minus 53, can the Prime Minister get to his feet, put his hand on his heart and promise the country, this House and his own supporters that his Education Secretary is the right person for the job and is up to the job? (903344)

I think the whole House will recognise that the Education Secretary has done a heroic job in dealing with very difficult circumstances in which we had to close schools during the pandemic. Never forget that the job of teachers and parents up and down the land would have been made much easier if Labour, and the Labour leadership in particular, had had the guts—and if the hon. Gentleman had had the guts—to say that schools were safe.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that our constituents, including mine in Hertford and Stortford, should come forward and see their GP if they have concerns about their health, and that his statement yesterday should give them assurance and confidence that this Government are there for the NHS and that the NHS will be there for them in their time of need?

Yes. That is why we are putting in another £36 billion under the measures we are putting forward tonight, and I am absolutely astonished that the party of Nye Bevan has confirmed today that it is not going to vote for that. We want GPs to be seeing the right people at the right time, and we want to fix the waiting lists. That is the objective of the measures that we are bringing forward.

Q6. Funding for organisations helping vulnerable or hard-to-reach citizens with the EU resettlement scheme is due to end at the end of this month. My own constituent tried to get assistance from the local citizens advice bureau in March, but the funding cuts meant that it could not help him. He has been unable to get support from the resolution centre either, and has now been refused settled status. Can I ask the Prime Minister what practical support will be provided to EU citizens still navigating this system, and what he would advise my constituent to do to ensure that he has the right to stay in his home of 47 years? (903345)

I am of course sorry to hear about the troubles that the hon. Lady’s constituent is experiencing, but I remind her that under the EU settlement scheme we have helped almost 6 million people to settle in this country, which is double the number that was expected at the time of the Brexit referendum. That is a tribute to the compassion of this country and its willingness to help those who come here and make their lives here.

St Francis tower in Ipswich has been a beneficiary of the building safety fund. However, Oander and Block Management, which manage the building, have shrink wrapped the entire tower and it will be on the building for up to 12 months. Many desperate tenants are living in darkness for 12 months, and bars have been put on the windows so that they can barely be opened.

Does the Prime Minister agree that, yes, this vital work needs to take place but that we need balance and that we need to do this quickly for the lives and mental health of the desperate people in that tower right now?

My hon. Friend raises a very important point. I will study the detail and ask the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government to take up the matter directly.

Q10. A working graduate who earns the average wage or under, such as a newly qualified nurse, will face a marginal tax rate of almost 50% under the plans the Prime Minister is bringing in today. Is this not yet another example of the Conservative party asking those on lower incomes to pay more so that his privileged friends have to pay less? (903349)

No. As I have said, households in the top 20% of income pay 40 times more than the poorest. And pay for nurses is exactly what this measure funds, which is why it is so astonishing that the hon. Gentleman and his party are determined to vote against it tonight.

This Friday my private Member’s Bill, the Asylum Seekers (Return to Safe Countries) Bill, will have its Second Reading. The intention is that an asylum seeker who comes to this country from a safe country will be returned to that country. The Bill would end the problem of people coming across the channel. Will the Prime Minister urge his colleagues to vote for the Bill on Friday?

We have introduced the Nationality and Borders Bill, which will make it no longer possible for the law to treat somebody who has come here illegally in the same way as someone who has come here legally. It is high time that distinction was made, and that people understand there is a price to pay if they come to this country in an illegal fashion.

Order. Can I just say that there is some disappointment that we did not get through the list? I appeal to the party leaders to see whether we can speed up so that we can hear from those Members who might otherwise miss out.

No. Points of order do not come now, they normally come after the urgent question. You know that better than anybody. You are the expert. You are Mr Protocol. You know better than me.