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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 705: debated on Wednesday 8 December 2021

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Northern Ireland’s Place in the UK

In the year of Northern Ireland’s centenary, the Government have delivered the largest funding settlement to Northern Ireland since devolution, record investment in public services and vaccines at a rate possible only because of our great NHS. We are boosting local economies through city and growth deals and providing, along with the Northern Ireland Executive, a UK contribution of more than £730 million to the Peace Plus programme to contribute to a more prosperous and stable Northern Ireland. This is a Government working for Northern Ireland, and Northern Ireland is stronger for being part of the UK, just as much as our United Kingdom is stronger for having Northern Ireland as an integral part of it.

Internal trade is one of the key strengths and benefits of being part of our United Kingdom. Irish Government statistics, however, suggest a 60% increase in north-south trade with the United Kingdom. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the diversion of trade is clear evidence of the need to invoke article 16?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, highlighting one of the reasons why, when we published our Command Paper in the summer, we said that, as of then, the conditions to trigger article 16 had been met. We are very clear that we do not rule that out. If we have to use article 16, we will, but we are in negotiations with the European Union. The ideal solution for us would be to come to an agreement with the EU, but that has to be one that delivers on the needs of the people of Northern Ireland.

A great strength of being an integral part of the UK is being able to benefit from the excellent trade deals being agreed around the world now that we have left the EU. Clearly, different regions and nations will have different needs from those deals, so what steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that Northern Ireland’s voice is heard in trade negotiations as a means of strengthening its place in the Union?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: as a Government of the whole United Kingdom, we are committed to ensuring that Northern Ireland’s businesses and consumers have access to and benefit from new trade deals. The Department for International Trade now has an office in Belfast and, just last month, I hosted, with the Secretary of State for International Trade, the Board of Trade in Derry/Londonderry. I look forward to doing more on that. We work with businesses in Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Executive to make sure that we can deliver and involve them in these opportunities.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that every UK citizen and resident should have access to a similar level of healthcare? Will he guarantee that nothing in the negotiations on the Northern Ireland protocol will put at risk access to medicines and covid vaccines for residents and citizens of Northern Ireland?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is because of our UK-wide NHS that everyone in our country can expect to receive quality health services, regardless of where they live. Currently, because of unnecessary regulatory and trade barriers in the UK internal market, we have seen difficulty in safeguarding medicine supplies. Unlike the EU, which some in this House will remember attempted to trigger article 16 earlier this year, with the intent of putting a hard border for vaccines on the island of Ireland between Northern Ireland and Ireland, this Government would never do anything that jeopardises access to medicines or covid vaccines for the residents of Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland shares many of the same traits as our great county of Lancashire, Mr Speaker, including world-class expertise in aerospace and cyber-security. Does the Secretary of State agree that we can and should do much more to join up Lancashire and Northern Ireland, so that we can do even more together?

I agree with my hon. Friend. This relates to a range of areas, including the strategic transport network, which will bring people and businesses across the UK closer together and which is helping us to build back better. It is also important to look at the business and general communication links that mean that all parts of the UK and businesses in it can work together to develop the economy for the benefit of people across the United Kingdom, including in his constituency.

A prosperous Northern Ireland is a force for democracy in Northern Ireland, so what role does my right hon. Friend see the levelling-up fund having in strengthening the economy in Northern Ireland and therefore strengthening its democracy?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: prosperity is an important part of peace and is what has led to the peace that we have seen over the past 23 years. Northern Ireland is benefiting from being part of the fifth largest economy in the world. In addition, it is receiving its largest funding settlement since devolution. We are investing to ensure that we level up in Northern Ireland, with £60 million this year from the levelling-up fund, the community renewal fund and the community ownership fund, as well as £400 million from the new deal for Northern Ireland and more than £600 million in city and growth deal investment to drive growth. We will continue to build back better and level up in Northern Ireland through the upcoming UK shared prosperity fund, as well as the global Britain investment fund.

The Downing Street declaration states,

“on the behalf of the British Government, that they have no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland.”

That is a direct quote from the declaration—signed, of course, by a Conservative Prime Minister. Does this British Government still agree with that principle, or are they going to abandon the consent principle that means the people of Ireland, north and south, will decide the constitutional future of our island, not the British Government or anybody else?

We are absolutely clear, as we have been consistently, about our dedication to and determination to continue to deliver on the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, which includes the principle of consent. This Government understand the difference between consent and impartiality and make no apologies, just as I make no apologies for being a Conservative and a unionist who believes in the Union and that the Union is stronger for Northern Ireland’s being in it. That does not detract from the reality that the future of Northern Ireland is a matter for the people of Northern Ireland.

Much to the Prime Minister’s presumed disappointment, his proposed bridge between Northern Ireland and Scotland has been rejected as “impossible to justify” by his own advisers, as it would cost £300 billion, 22 times more than the Prime Minister’s estimates. Does the Secretary of State agree that that flight of fancy is a perfect example of why Westminster should leave devolved matters such as transport to devolved nations? They know what is needed, and it is not impossible projects such as that, based on ideology.

I feel sorry for the hon. Lady; she should think bigger and better and be more optimistic about the future of the United Kingdom. It is absolutely right that we look at the things we can do to improve our country. If we do not look at those things, we will never achieve anything exciting that can drive our economy. It is absolutely right that we look at how we ensure that the connectivity of the whole UK is working for the benefit of the UK. Scotland is able to continue as a strong economy as part of the United Kingdom because it benefits from its links with the rest of the United Kingdom.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the best way to secure the Union is to ensure that Northern Ireland works, that we build a shared and integrated society and that all traditions in Northern Ireland are equally respected?

Yes, absolutely. An important part of that is looking at how we deliver on areas of the Good Friday agreement that have not yet been delivered on, including things such as integrated education. I think it is still shameful that only 7% of the population benefit from integrated education. There is always more to do, and we can do that working together for the benefit of the whole community of Northern Ireland.

There are many in Northern Ireland, myself included, who believe that the protocol represents the greatest threat to the Union at this time. Recalling the commitment made by the Government in the New Decade, New Approach agreement to protect and strengthen Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market, what urgent steps do the Government intend to take to deliver on that commitment and to safeguard the political institutions in Northern Ireland?

The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I want to be clear: the Northern Ireland protocol is not working for the people of Northern Ireland. Societal and economic difficulties have been faced across both unionist and nationalist communities and by the business community, who are very clear about that. There is also a sense that identity is being eroded and east-west links weakened. That is compounded by the very real issue of trade diversion, which has already been mentioned this morning. The European Union and the Irish Government need to recognise that the lack of movement on the Northern Ireland protocol is leading to a loss of confidence in the institutions established under the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.

Restoring the balance between east-west and north-south is vital. That is why we continue to press through negotiations for a new balance to the protocol, but we are clear that all options remain on the table. We will do what we need to do to correct the situation for the UK internal market and Northern Ireland’s place within it. This Government will not allow the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, of which we are co-guarantors, to be put at risk.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Another commitment made in New Decade, New Approach was the establishment of the Castlereagh Foundation to promote and to undertake proper research into the benefits of the Union to Northern Ireland. Can the Secretary of State update the House on progress made in establishing the Castlereagh Foundation?

In July, I appointed an advisory committee to provide advice on appropriate delivery partners to establish the Castlereagh Foundation, the legal form it should take, the role of the foundation and the cost to establish it. I thank the committee for its work; it is putting forward a proposal that I expect to have on my desk to look at and consider, to be able to make some decisions on the appropriate next steps, in the imminent future.

Consultations on Addressing Legacy of Northern Ireland's Past: Victims Groups

2. What recent representations he has received from victims groups on consultations on addressing the legacy of Northern Ireland's past. (904548)

Since publishing the Command Paper, the Government have engaged with a range of stakeholders, including victims groups, who we have always said must be central to discussions on legacy. Victims groups have provided evidence at sessions that the Government have convened with Northern Ireland parties and in partnership with the Irish Government, in addition to the Government’s own bilateral engagement. The process has been hugely valuable and we are all grateful to those who shared their views on this important and sensitive issue.

The Secretary of State has said that the victims groups are central to all he is doing in this regard, but now that there appears to be total unanimity in opposition to the Government’s amnesty proposals among the people most directly affected in Northern Ireland, how will he reconcile their opinion with his desire to proceed in the face of such opposition?

As I have said before, we are working through the feedback that we received over the summer and autumn following the engagement that we had with a range of parties with an interest in this matter: victims groups, political parties and other stakeholder groups in civic society. We need to be honest about what is achievable, and about the reality that the current system is not working for people. It is not providing the information and it is not getting to the truth. Our focus is on ensuring that we are able to deliver a package that can get to the truth for families who have waited for far too long.

My right hon. Friend is right to say that the current position is not working, and I think we should all congratulate him on trying to grapple once again with an issue that has been left lying there for too long. However, if his proposals are to secure any traction, they will have to be compliant with article 2, and we will have to see a fully fleshed out plan for truth and reconciliation. Can he give me assurances on both points?

Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the key points that we made in the Command Paper—we will be setting out a lot of the work we are doing on this—was about ensuring that people can see that investigations will continue. There will be an information recovery body that will be able to get to the truth and will have access to information in a way that we have not seen before. We are determined to deliver on that, and we are determined to ensure that what we deliver is article 2 compliant.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

The Command Paper was published back in July, and since that time there have been two pauses, or perhaps more. That implies quite directly that the Secretary of State’s thinking is evolving. Can he tell the House, with as much precision as possible: what is the difference between his thinking as it currently stands and his thinking in the paper that was published in July?

I, too, welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new position. I look forward not just to sparring with him at the Dispatch Box, but to working with him for the benefit of Northern Ireland in the period ahead. I am sure we will be able to ensure that, on a range of matters, we are delivering for the people of Northern Ireland, along with his team.

We have not had pauses as such. We said when we published the Command Paper that we wanted to engage with parties, and we agreed at the summer British-Irish intergovernmental conference with the Irish Government to do that in partnership. That work continued over the summer and autumn and just last week we had a meeting of the British-Irish intergovernmental conference which is developing that work. This is a very complicated, complex area, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare). We want to bring forward this package of work and legislate for it to ensure that we deliver for people in Northern Ireland—for victims who have waited too long for information. So there have not been pauses; the work continued throughout the summer and autumn.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his kind comments. I am also grateful for the messages and exchanges that we have had in the run-up to today.

In the spirit of constructive relations, let me share with the Secretary of State a bit of advice that comes from my experience. My last job was as the shadow Victims Minister, and when I was drafting the Victims of Crime and Anti-social Behaviour, Etc (Rights, Entitlements and Related Matters) Bill, I learnt that offering support only works when the victims are in the driving seat. According to the proposals that are currently on the table, the victims are not even in the car. Rather than delaying—the Secretary of State did promise it in the autumn and he did promise it before Christmas, and it has not emerged—can he give a clear assurance, on behalf of the victims, that he has gone back to the drawing board and will only return with proposals once victims are front and centre and in the driving seat? That is what they deserve, and that is what Governments should deliver for them.

Order. I know that the hon. Gentleman is new to this, but we must hear from some other Front Benchers, and I am not going to make it if we do not have shorter questions and answers.

I appreciate that this is a complex issue, and I will be very clear about this. We want to ensure that we are delivering for the people and the whole of Northern Ireland, for the victims, and obviously for all those who served in Northern Ireland as well. This is a complex area, and our programme and the work we are seeking to deliver will deliver for victims. Victims are consistently saying that they want to get to the truth of what happened. The current system is not delivering that. Our Command Paper sets out a plan for a way to do that. We need to be honest about the current system’s failures and look at a new way forward. The Command Paper sets that out. We will look into the feedback we had over the summer and autumn, and we will do that very soon.

On the weekend, I received another call from the media with a briefing from the Northern Ireland Office saying that legislation and a statement would be coming out this week, and so on. This is the seventh deadline to produce this legislation—self-set by the Secretary of State—that he has missed. Does he have any intention at all of honouring his word?

I do not recognise what my hon. Friend just outlined. I said that I would set out to Parliament our intended direction of travel and what we wanted to do before the summer recess, and we did that with the Command Paper. We did have an ambition to legislate this autumn, and I was determined to do that, but we have to ensure that we are delivering and focusing on the work that we have seen over the summer and autumn in the ongoing conversations with victims groups and veterans groups, the Irish Government and the parties in Northern Ireland. This is a complex area, and we have to make sure that when we deliver legislation on this, it is legislation that works for the people of Northern Ireland and for those who served in Northern Ireland as well.

Northern Ireland Protocol Negotiations

8. What assessment he has made of the progress of the negotiations with the EU on the Northern Ireland protocol. (904554)

The status quo cannot continue. Nearly six months ago we presented a Command Paper outlining how we thought we could resolve the serious issues within the Northern Ireland protocol. The EU brought forward its own proposals, but these do not have the support of businesses or society and do not remove the need for unnecessary checks on goods that will remain in Northern Ireland and the UK internal market. We want a negotiated solution and we are engaging constructively but the gap between us is still large. We will do what we need to do to deliver for Northern Ireland.

Members of this House have said on the record that the Prime Minister personally told them that the Northern Ireland protocol was being agreed with the specific intention to renege on it in the future, so how can any future trade or negotiating partner trust the UK when it is clearly acting in bad faith?

The UK Government have been very clear and transparent about our intentions all the way through, as we were when we launched the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill last year, as we were when we took action back in March, and as we were when we published the Command Paper. The current situation with the Northern Ireland protocol is not working for the United Kingdom internal market and it is not working for anybody or any business in Northern Ireland. That is not sustainable and it needs to be corrected.

The Secretary of State has said today that the Northern Ireland protocol is not working for the people of Northern Ireland, but it was his Government who negotiated the protocol and voted for the exit from the EU. Is he not embarrassed to stand here as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in a Government who have effectively thrown Northern Ireland under the bus in the name of Brexit?

The objectives the Northern Ireland protocol include ensuring that the everyday lives of people and their communities are not disrupted, that the UK internal market is respected and that all three strands of the Good Friday agreement are respected. The EU’s implementation of the protocol is breaching those issues and we will not tolerate that. It is abhorrent to be in a situation in which members of the Jewish community in Northern Ireland cannot practise their religion under the EU’s requirements. That should not be tolerated by anybody in this House.

I welcome the Government’s dialling down of the rhetoric on the protocol, but may I urge them to speed things up? This issue and these negotiations are affecting our international relationships in steel and other matters, and the very fragile ecology in Northern Ireland. May I also urge the Secretary of State to assist my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) on his need for a negotiated settlement on the Irish sea checks and regulations?

My right hon. Friend is right: we need to see this resolved quickly, but that obviously requires the European Union to recognise the very real issues on the ground in Northern Ireland and the fact that we need to see movement from the EU to get to a resolution that can work for businesses in Great Britain supplying Northern Ireland, and for Northern Ireland’s citizens.

It is almost 12 months since the Northern Ireland protocol was agreed and concluded yet, despite all the talk and all the bluster from Lord Frost, the UK Government have still not reached an agreement on the transporting of medicines to Northern Ireland. This is a matter of life or death. Will the Secretary of State please give a concrete guarantee to the House now that an agreement on medicines will be reached before Christmas?

That is very much at the heart of the discussions that Lord Frost is continuing to have with the EU. The hon. Lady highlights a clear problem. The EU needs to come to the table with proposals to resolve these issues so that people can have confidence in having access to medicines, rather than having that access prohibited by the way in which the EU wants to implement the protocol.

The Secretary of State keeps threatening to invoke article 16, but he never quite gets round to doing it, does he? There is a pattern of behaviour here: the Secretary of State talks a great game but he never plays one. Where is your Bill, Brandon?

My right hon. Friend is right that we have not yet triggered article 16. As we said, the conditions have been met, but article 16 is not the solution in and of itself; it is the start of a process. It is right that we strain every sinew to reach an agreement with the EU, because that is what gives certainty for businesses and citizens in Northern Ireland. It is a reality that if we are not able to secure an agreement with the EU, and if the EU is not able to move in a way that delivers for Northern Ireland, we do not take anything off the table.

The Secretary of State will be aware of recent Office for National Statistics data indicating that Northern Ireland is faring the best of all UK regions due to the protection and dual market access of the protocol. He will also be aware of the BBC “Spotlight” investigation into very murky goings on at Mid and East Antrim Borough Council, showing that loyalist threats to the protocol were confected for and by political actors. Will he acknowledge that there has been a year-long campaign of reality distortion to mask the fact that the protocol, which has majority and growing support in Northern Ireland, is required by the people of Northern Ireland?

We have always been clear that we want to ensure the protocol works for people in Northern Ireland, and at the moment it does not. In my engagement with business representative groups across Northern Ireland last week, they were very clear that the status quo does not work for businesses in Northern Ireland and the EU’s offer does not deliver a solution.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Government’s legal representatives are now telling the courts that the Northern Ireland protocol represents a temporary suspension of parts of the Act of Union. When will this temporary suspension come to an end?

My hon. Friend will appreciate that it would be inappropriate for me to comment on an open court case, but we are determined to ensure we resolve the issues for the people and businesses of Northern Ireland and for the UK internal market.

Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission: Core Functions

6. If he will make an assessment of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission’s ability to carry out its core functions. (904552)

We value the important work of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission in championing human rights in Northern Ireland. We are committed to ensuring the commission has the resources and the ability to carry out its functions, and we remain in close contact with the chief executive and their staff.

One of the many risks of activating article 16 is the chance that human rights safeguards secured under article 2 and relied on by organisations such as the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission will fall by the wayside. Will the Minister confirm that any negotiations involving the protocol will not lead to the unravelling of article 2 commitments?

I am happy to confirm to the hon. Lady that the provisions of article 2 are unconnected to any triggering of article 16. We are absolutely committed to seeing no diminution of human rights in Northern Ireland.

Exports to Northern Ireland: Businesses in Great Britain

9. What steps his Department is taking to support businesses in Great Britain which export to Northern Ireland. (904555)

International trade is vital to boosting prosperity for this country, and trade within the United Kingdom is essential for our sense of connectivity and belonging, which is a priority for this Government.

I thank the Minister for his answer and for the steps he is taking to support trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. [Interruption.]

Order. We should know better. When a Member is asking a question, you should not be walking in front of him. That is just not fair.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

Despite these measures, east-west trade remains disrupted because of the EU’s application of elements within the protocol. I wholeheartedly support the Minister’s efforts to remedy the situation, but if those efforts are unsuccessful, will he confirm that all measures, including invoking article 16, remain on the table?

The Government have been absolutely clear that we want to find a sustainable and durable solution to the problems created by the protocol. Under the strong leadership of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and Lord Frost’s unrivalled grasp of the protocol, we are determined to reach that solution.

Would not the best way by far to support east-west trade, and to overcome the entirely self-inflicted wounds that this Government have created with the protocol, be simply to realign with the single market and the customs union?

That is so 2016, is it not? SNP Members are still not reconciled to the democratic decision that the British people took to control their own destiny and leave the European Union. We are determined to find a sustainable and durable solution to the protocol, but my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, Lord Frost and the Secretary of State are all clear that if that cannot be achieved, we will take whatever actions are necessary to secure the interests of the whole United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland.

The Irish Times carries a piece that states that the Republic of Ireland now has the highest debt in all of Europe and 20% higher costs of living than Northern Ireland, and it now requires a multibillion-pound bailout from Europe to deal with the consequences of Brexit. Is it not the case that, by contrast, Northern Ireland is part of the fifth largest economy in the world, and that not only is it part of a strong and growing economy, but it requires the friction that exists between businesses in Northern Ireland and GB to be removed? Invoking article 16 will allow that friction to be removed.

We do not need any international comparisons to sell the benefits of Northern Ireland being an integral part of our United Kingdom. It is good for jobs, it is good for health and it is good for prosperity. We are definitely better together.

Before we come to Prime Minister’s questions—[Interruption.] Mr MacNeil, I do not need any help from you. This is an important message to those people who are watching. Before I come to Prime Minister’s questions, I would like to point out that the British Sign Language interpretation of proceedings is available to watch on

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


May I begin by saying that I understand and share the anger up and down the country at seeing No. 10 staff seeming to make light of lockdown measures? I can understand how infuriating it must be to think that the people who have been setting the rules have not been following the rules, because I was also furious to see that clip. I apologise unreservedly for the offence that it has caused up and down the country, and I apologise for the impression that it gives.

I repeat that I have been repeatedly assured since these allegations emerged that there was no party and that no covid rules were broken. That is what I have been repeatedly assured. But I have asked the Cabinet Secretary to establish all the facts and to report back as soon as possible. It goes without saying that if those rules were broken, there will be disciplinary action for all those involved.

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others, and in addition to my duties in this House I shall have further such meetings later today.

Bins left uncollected, council tenants being forced to live in damp and cold homes, £22 million lost on the Providence Place land deal and a £10 million overspend on special educational needs and disability transport contracts that were almost awarded to Labour councillors’ friends—today, our council’s external auditors released a damning report that surprises none of us. Does the Prime Minister agree with me that 47 years of Labour control in Sandwell has done nothing but level down my constituency of West Bromwich East, and that my constituents in West Bromwich, Friar Park and Great Barr deserve better?

Yes, I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend, because the instinct of Labour councillors up and down this country is, yet again, to level down rather than to level up. I encourage her constituents to install a Labour council there—[Interruption]—a Conservative council there as soon as possible.

I heard what the Prime Minister said at the beginning of this session, but frankly it raises more questions than answers. Last week, I asked the Prime Minister: was there

“a Christmas party…in Downing Street for dozens of people on 18 December?”—[Official Report, 1 December 2021; Vol. 704, c. 909.]

The Prime Minister and the Government spent the week telling the British public that there was no party and that all guidance was followed completely. Millions of people now think the Prime Minister was taking them for fools and that they were lied to; they are right, aren’t they?

I think the right hon. and learned Gentleman probably missed what I said at the beginning, but I apologise for the impression that has been given that staff in Downing Street take this less than seriously. I am sickened myself and furious about that, but I repeat what I have said to him: I have been repeatedly assured that the rules were not broken—[Interruption.]

I have asked the Cabinet Secretary to investigate exactly what happened, and I repeat that there will be consequences for those involved if the rules were broken.

An internal investigation into what happened? The situation is as clear as day. I thought last week was bad enough; surely the Prime Minister is not now going to start pretending that the first he knew about this was last night—surely.

We have all watched the video of the Prime Minister’s staff, including his personal spokesperson. They knew there was a party, they knew it was against the rules, they knew they could not admit it and they thought it was funny. It is obvious what happened—Ant and Dec are ahead of the Prime Minister on this. The Prime Minister has been caught red-handed; why does he not end the investigation right now by just admitting it?

Because I have been repeatedly assured that no rules were broken. I understand public anxiety about this and I understand public indignation, but there is a risk of doing a grave injustice to people who were, frankly, obeying the rules. That is why the Cabinet Secretary will be conducting an investigation and that is why there will be the requisite disciplinary action if necessary.

This pretence that further information has come to light—give me a break! The Prime Minister is still taking the public for fools.

On the day of the Downing Street party, Trisha Greenhalgh’s mum phoned her; she was “breathless and feverish”—[Interruption.] You might want to listen. Trisha followed the rules and did not visit her mum. Listening? Four days later, on the day the Prime Minister’s staff laughed about covering up the party, Trisha’s mum was admitted to hospital. Trisha followed the rules and did not visit. Trisha’s mum spent Christmas day in hospital; Trisha followed the rules and did not visit. Two days later, Trisha’s mum died. What Trisha wants to know is: why did the Prime Minister expect her to accept that the rules allowed a Downing Street party but did not allow her to visit her dying mother?

The first thing to say is that, in common with everybody in this House, I extend my sympathies to Trisha and her family. I understand the pain of everybody who has suffered throughout this pandemic.

I know the implication that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is trying to draw: that the case that we are now investigating should somehow undermine public confidence in the measures that we are taking. I think that is the point he is trying to make, but I say to him that I think it is a great mistake to try to play politics with this issue, and I think that is what he is doing. I do not think the public do want to see confidence in the measures undermined. We are taking—[Interruption.] I think they can see the difference. We are taking the steps necessary to protect the public, above all by rolling out the vaccinations. Rather than focusing on the events of a year ago, that is what we are focusing on and that is what I think the public will understand.

But it is not just the events of a year ago, is it? We are facing a new variant. We may well be in plan B this afternoon. Even the Prime Minister must understand the damage that he has done to his credibility in enforcing the rules now and in the future. Trisha made an enormous personal sacrifice to do the right thing—to follow the rules and help defeat the virus. That is what she was asked to do. Most people were just like Trisha last Christmas. No one was dreaming of a Zoom Christmas, turkey dinners for one, and gifts exchanged at service stations, but the virus was out of control. Four hundred and eighty nine people died of covid on the day of the Downing Street party. The British people put the health of others above themselves and followed the rules. Is the Prime Minister not ashamed that his Downing Street could not do the same?

I have said what I have said about the events on 18 December. They will be properly investigated, Mr Speaker, and I will place a copy of the Cabinet Secretary’s report in the Library of the House of Commons. What people should not do is lose focus on what we are trying to do now. Of course we will deal with what may or may not have taken place on 18 December last year, but what we need to focus on today is what we are doing to roll out the vaccinations across the country and what we are doing to protect the public. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is indeed right that we now have, in the omicron variant, a variant that is spreading much faster than any that we have seen before, and, with great respect to him, that is what we need to focus on. That is why I ask everybody to go to get their booster jab as soon as they are called to come forward.

The Prime Minister apparently wants us to focus on what is happening today. There were no Government spokespersons on the media this morning—I see that the Health Secretary has made it to the Chamber. That is the point: this virus is not defeated. We will face other tests where the British people may be asked by their leaders to make further sacrifices for the greater good. Her Majesty the Queen sat alone when she marked the passing of the man whom she had been married to for 73 years. Leadership, sacrifice—that is what gives leaders the moral authority to lead. Does the Prime Minister think that he has the moral authority to lead and to ask the British people to stick to the rules?

Not only that, but the Labour party, and the Labour leader in particular, have played politics throughout this pandemic—[Interruption.]

Order. I must hear what the Prime Minister is saying, because I need to know what is being said.

Yes, Mr Speaker. Throughout this pandemic, the Leader of the Opposition in particular has done nothing but play politics to try to muddy the waters, to confuse the public and to cause needless confusion about the guidance. The public have not been so confused and they have not been fooled. They have got on with implementing the guidance, and, in particular, they have got on with showing great commitment to the health of this country by going forward to get vaccinated—[Interruption.]

Order. Mr Streeting, we had this the week before. I will not have this every week. If you want to be on the Front Bench, behave like you are meant to be there.

At every stage, the Labour leadership and the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), have tried to muddy the waters and play politics, but the people of this country have not been fooled. In particular, they have come forward to get vaccinated faster than any other country in Europe. We have now done 20 million boosters; that is the single best thing that we can do. I encourage everybody to keep going and get their booster jab.

That is so desperate, and even the Prime Minister’s own side can see it. Last week, the Prime Minister told us there was no party. Now he thinks that there is something to investigate. The Justice Secretary thinks that the police do not investigate crimes from a year ago. Well, I ran the Crown Prosecution Service and I can tell him that that is total nonsense. At Westminster magistrates court right now, the CPS is prosecuting more than a dozen breaches of covid restrictions last December—including those, Prime Minister, who hosted parties. The CPS is doing its job, enforcing the law set in Downing Street. Will the Prime Minister support the police and the CPS by handing over everything that the Government know about parties in Downing Street to the Metropolitan police?

Of course we will do that, and we will get on with the investigation by the Cabinet Secretary. The right hon. and learned Gentleman continually wants to play politics with this issue. We want to get on with our job of protecting this country during the pandemic, delivering the fastest vaccine roll-out in Europe, fighting the drugs gangs when the Labour party wants to decriminalise class A drugs, and backing our Nationality and Borders Bill. The Opposition have an opportunity to focus on that tonight; why not back our borders Bill and have life sentences for people traffickers? That is what the Leader of the Opposition should be doing and that is what I urge him to do, rather than playing politics.

Q2.   As we celebrate the advent of Christmas, I thank the Prime Minister for his support for Christians, and those of other faiths and beliefs, who face persecution across the world. We here stand with them. The Government have talked about the gift of resettlement for Afghans who are members of religious minorities—those who are at risk of persecution, targeted for their beliefs. Will this gift of resettlement be available by the end of Christmas? (904644)

I thank my hon. Friend for everything that she does, particularly as special envoy for freedom of religion or belief. As she rightly says, we have an Afghan citizens resettlement scheme coming. We have already taken 15,000, but it is important that we get that scheme right. Further details, including the eligibility criteria, will be announced by the Home Office in due course.

We are standing on the cliff edge of yet another challenging moment in this pandemic. Omicron cases are rising at a rapid rate, and over the coming weeks tough decisions will again have to be made to save lives and protect our NHS. Trust in leadership is a matter of life and death. Downing Street wilfully broke the rules and mocked the sacrifices that we have all made, shattering the public’s trust. The Prime Minister is responsible for losing the trust of the people. He can no longer lead on the most pressing issue facing these islands. The Prime Minister has a duty: the only right and moral choice left to him is his resignation. When can we expect it?

The SNP and the Labour party are going to continue to play politics. I am going to get on with the job.

No dignity from a Prime Minister who quite simply just does not get it. People across these islands have followed the rules, even when it meant missing friends and family, missing births, missing funerals, missing the chance to be beside a loved one in their dying moments. People have sacrificed, at times to the point of breaking, while the UK Government have laughed in our faces.

It is clear that the Prime Minister has lost the support of the public and now even his own Benches. This is not a grin-and-bear-it moment; this is a moment of moral reckoning. Every Member on the Conservative Benches must now decide: is this the man to lead these islands when lives are at stake? It is clear that this Prime Minister intends desperately to cling on to power, and I have nothing left to say to a man whose answers we simply cannot trust, so Mr Speaker—[Interruption.]

Order. I will hear this question whether the Front Bench like it or not. I am expecting better behaviour. The public out there are questioning this Parliament—do not add to that question.

They are questioning this Parliament and questioning this Prime Minister that we cannot trust.

It is clear that the Prime Minister is desperately clinging on to power, and I have got nothing left to say to a man who we simply cannot trust. It is time for Members in this House to act. If he does not resign, he must be removed.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his vote of confidence, but I can tell him that I am going to get on with the job. I believe that that is the right thing to do. I think it is very, very sad that when the public need to hear clarity from their officials and from politicians, the Opposition parties are trying to muddy the waters about events, or non-events, of a year ago. That is what they are doing today.

Island Deal for Isle of Wight

Q5.   What recent progress he has made on bringing forward proposals for an Island deal for the Isle of Wight; and if he will make a statement. (904647)

I thank my hon. Friend, who is an excellent champion for the Isle of Wight. I know there is ongoing discussion between the Isle of Wight and the Department for Levelling Up about the unique circumstances of the Island, including the discussions about the possibility of a county deal.

I thank the Prime Minister for his response. Will the Government accept the findings of the independent study that they themselves commissioned this summer into a long-term fair funding settlement for the Island, the final calculations of which are due imminently? In doing so, will he help me to right a wrong that has now been ongoing for the Island—for my constituents—for some six decades?

I thank my hon. Friend very much. He will understand that it is not easy to break down the costs that apply to the service delivery on the Island, but I know the Department is carefully considering the details of the study he mentions, and I am sure the relevant Minister will keep him updated.


In view of the harm caused to political stability in Northern Ireland and to our economy by the Northern Ireland protocol, noting the lack of progress in removing the Irish Sea border, and recognising that Unionist consent for the protocol is not forthcoming, what urgent steps do the Prime Minister and his Government intend to take to honour his commitment to restore Northern Ireland’s place fully within the UK internal market and to safeguard the political institutions in Northern Ireland?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman. He and I have discussed this extensively, and he knows that we share a view that the protocol is not working in the way that it needs to in order to guarantee the Belfast-Good Friday agreement. I do not believe things need to be that way. I think it could be worked differently. We want our EU friends and partners to understand that and we will continue to work with them to get them to see things in the way that people on both sides of the Irish sea see them. In the meantime, we do not remove the possibility of invoking article 16 to protect trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Q7. This week thousands of my Hindu constituents and millions worldwide start the celebrations of the birth centenary of His Holiness Pramukh Swami Maharaj. His life was given over to people of all castes, races and religions. He was of course the inspiration behind the world-renowned Neasden temple and hundreds of other temples. Will my right hon. Friend join me in that celebration and in giving good wishes to all Hindus across the world? (904649)

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this, and I thank the Hindu community for their amazing contribution to this country. I was delighted to visit the Neasden temple last month to hear about all they have done during the pandemic. I wish everybody in that community and all those celebrating all the very best.

Q3. The chaos of this Government is a distraction from the serious decisions they should be taking. We all know that the Chinese Government deny basic human rights to China’s minority religious communities. The repression of the predominantly Muslim Uyghur population in Xinjiang has been condemned as an act of genocide. In the face of these abuses, President Biden has decided that US diplomats will boycott the Beijing Olympics. New Zealand and Australia have followed suit. It is international Human Rights Day on Friday, so will the Prime Minister raise his eyes from his chaos and commit the UK to joining the diplomatic boycott, or does his desperation for trade deals trump human rights? (904645)

No, because we make all those points regularly to the Chinese. Indeed, I did to President Xi when I talked to him recently. As I have said before, we do not support sporting boycotts, but there are certainly no plans for Ministers to attend the winter Olympics.

Q9. Many of my constituents in Sleaford and North Hykeham are struggling to access an NHS dentist, leading to pain and suffering, in particular for children, military families and veterans. My right hon. Friend has invested a record amount of money in the NHS. Does he agree that some of this money must be used to level up dental care provision? Does he share my surprise that there is no dental school in the east midlands, and will he back my campaign for a dental school in Lincolnshire? (904651)

Health Education England is working extensively in Lincolnshire to improve the recruitment and retention of dentists. I understand that it agrees with her about the uneven distribution of dental schools throughout the country, and I am sure that as it considers its next steps, it will have heard her appeal.

Q4. Storm Arwen left thousands of people in Bearpark, Ludworth, Sherburn and Waterhouses without heating or electricity, yet it took five days for a ministerial statement to be made and a week to send in the Army. My constituents were not just left without power; they were left without a Government who care. Can the Prime Minister look me in the eye and honestly say that he did everything he could, as soon as he could, to help the people of Durham? (904646)

Yes, I can. I can tell the hon. Lady that I was in contact with representatives of the local authorities, of the Army, of Northern Powergrid and others to see what more we could do to assist them in restoring power. I sympathise very much with the families who lost power for an unconscionably long period, and the House will have heard the explanation of the various electricity companies about why that is so. We must learn the lessons from Storms Arwen and Barra and ensure nothing like that happens again.

Q10. I know we all agree that our vaccination programme has been a tremendous success. Vaccinations are the frontline of defence against all variants of covid, and the booster jab is a vital component of that, but in rural areas like mine, our booster centres are often few and very far between, and two thirds of housebound people—those perhaps most vulnerable, most susceptible and most in need—have not yet received their booster. Can I ask my right hon. Friend what steps the Government are taking to ensure that more centres are available, particularly in rural areas? Will he ask the Health Secretary to meet me with some urgency to ensure that my constituents can get their boosters and stay protected this winter? (904652)

Among the heroes of the vaccine roll-out are pharmacists up and down the country, as my hon. Friend rightly says. We have 1,500 community pharmacies vaccinating people near where they live. I know that the NHS is considering the need to support more pop-up clinics where there is a need. I am happy to arrange a meeting with him and the vaccines Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup), to discuss this further.

No, but I am sure that whatever happened, the guidance was followed and the rules were followed at all times.

Q14. We know that booster vaccines are essential in our fight against covid. Speaking to clinical colleagues, one of the biggest hindrances is the 15 minutes that people have to wait post-Pfizer. If we could reduce that or take that away, it could release thousands of hours of clinicians’ time. Will the Prime Minister ask the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency and the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation to look to see whether it is safe to do so, particularly for those receiving their third Pfizer booster? (904656)

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I can tell him that we are in the process of reviewing the 15-minute waiting requirement for both booster doses. We continue to be guided by the JCVI and the MHRA.

Q8. My constituents are having to resort to performing DIY dentistry, including on their children. In the catch-up money, nothing has been allocated to NHS dentistry, so can the Prime Minister explain why my constituents cannot access an NHS dentist? (904650)

We are putting record funding into the NHS, including NHS dentistry. If the hon. Lady would like to write to me with the cases that she has mentioned, I would be happy to take them up with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care.

Q15. On many occasions, the Prime Minister has spoken to primary age children about careers and the opportunities ahead of them. Does he agree that every child should have the chance to meet adults from different professions and backgrounds to be inspired for the future? That could play a major part in delivering the levelling-up agenda. (904657)

I thank my hon. Friend. It is absolutely true that, through our careers strategy, we have so far invested £2 million to support career-related learning in primary schools. As Members of the House will know, we get the most extraordinary questions from primary school children and they are often very ambitious for their futures.

Q11. The father of Jane Roche from Erdington, Vince, died of covid. Five days later, her sister died of covid. She is devastated and appalled by the recent revelations as to what has gone on in Downing Street. She asks this question of the Prime Minister: does trust in British politics matter? (904653)

Yes, it does. That is why it is absolutely vital that we should get to the bottom of whatever may or may not have taken place on 18 December last year, but we need to focus on what is happening this year. I urge the hon. Gentleman’s constituent and everybody else to get their booster jab and to look after themselves.

At the moment, indecent exposure or flashing is illegal offline but not online. I welcome the Prime Minister’s support for that to change when he spoke to the Liaison Committee in November. Will he support outlawing cyber-flashing and other forms of sexual image abuse online when the forthcoming Online Safety Bill comes to the House?

My right hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the phenomenon of cyber-flashing. It is one of the issues being addressed by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary in the online harms Bill.

Q12. Last year, I asked the Prime Minister what progress had been made on delivering his pledge to buy 4,000 zero-emission buses by 2024. The Budget and the spending review confirmed that the UK Government’s planned investment will not reach that target. As vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for the bus and coach industry, I tell him that bus manufacturers have no orders from the ZEBRA—zero emission bus regional areas—scheme. Production lines in Falkirk, Ballymena and Scarborough are desperate to start orders and deserve better. Why are the Government failing to deliver those orders and that pledge? (904654)

We are absolutely committed to delivering 4,000 zero-emission buses and we are also committed to supporting UK bus manufacturing.

The Prime Minister has already been asked about the winter Olympics, but having listened to his answer, I have to say that, sadly, it was not strong enough. I support the request that the UK Government now act against the dictatorial brutal Chinese regime that is persecuting everybody from Christians to Tibetans and terrorising the Uyghurs. Will they follow the suit of the Americans, the Australians and even the Lithuanians and please—I beg of him—give a lead to human rights and make a diplomatic boycott of the winter Olympic games?

It is clear from what I said earlier on that the Government have no hesitation in raising these issues with China, as I did with President Xi the last time I talked to him. There will be effectively a diplomatic boycott of the winter Olympics in Beijing. No Ministers are expected to attend, and no officials, but what I can tell the House is that I do not think that sporting boycotts are sensible, and that remains the policy of the Government.

Q13. The Prime Minister will be aware of the recent National Audit Office report on bounce back loans and the eye-watering levels of fraud and criminality uncovered. In the interests of the taxpayer, will the Prime Minister initiate a great British bounce back fraud squad to recover this public money and prosecute where appropriate, even if the crime was committed more than a year ago? (904655)

Of course, we will take action against anybody who has defrauded any of the covid loans, bounce back loans or otherwise.

There are media reports of a Cabinet meeting and press conference this afternoon to initiate covid winter plan B without reference to this House. Covid passes will not increase uptake of the vaccine but will create a segregated society. Is my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister aware that very few will be convinced by this diversionary tactic?

This country is angry, and understandably so. Last Christmas, while we were in lockdown, millions of people were unable to be with their families; thousands of people waved through their care home windows at the loved ones wishing them a merry Christmas from the side of the road; people died without that last touch from their daughters, their sons, their wives; working in intensive care, I wept behind my mask as three children talking to their dying mother on an iPad begged her to wake up; and countless children are now growing up without parents—while parties were held at No. 10. This is disgraceful. This is an insult to everyone who followed the rules. It is an insult to everyone who was not allowed to say their final goodbye. This happened on the Prime Minister’s watch, so my question is very simple: how does the Prime Minister sleep at night?

I want first of all to repeat what I said earlier on about what happened a year ago, or what may not have happened. I share and understand the hon. Member’s grief and her feelings. I thank her for her service in the NHS. I know how much this country has been through and I know how difficult it has been. If you ask me how I sleep at night, the answer is that of course I take full responsibility and personal responsibility for everything that this Government have done, but I must say to you, Mr Speaker, and to the House that the way forward for this country now is to focus on the position we are in and, above all, to get our vaccinations as fast as we possibly can. We are in a much better position this year than we were last year, and that is thanks to the vaccination roll-out. I urge every Member of this House to join that campaign and that great British vaccination effort.

Order. There are lots of points of order, but I will take the parliamentary leader of the SNP first.