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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 706: debated on Wednesday 5 January 2022


The Secretary of State was asked—

Rail Infrastructure

May I wish you, Mr Speaker, and of course House staff and Members a very happy 2022? May I also take the opportunity to acknowledge some fantastic news for Welsh sheep farmers? As many in this House will be aware, the US ban on the import of UK lamb has been lifted as of 3 January, which brings Welsh farmers one step closer to putting their first-class lamb in front of more than 300 million US consumers for the first time in 20 years.

More than £340 million has been provided for enhancements to Welsh rail, including investing in the core valley lines, Cardiff Central station and the electrification of the Severn tunnel.

Happy new year to you, Mr Speaker, and to all those involved with the House.

You will know, Mr Speaker, that the north Wales economy is massively integrated with the economy of the north-west. We have been promised, although it is very slow in coming, the northern powerhouse, because of the very poor infrastructure and very poor journey times across the north of England. Why have Welsh Ministers not demanded that north Wales be included in that northern powerhouse structure, and why are Welsh Ministers letting down north Wales so badly?

I disagree with the hon. Member’s comments about infrastructure. As he knows, we introduced the Union connectivity review; its proposals have just been published and we are working through them as we speak. We have spent a huge amount of money on road and rail infrastructure throughout Wales—and, for that matter, the rest of the Union—so he should not take such a gloomy view of things. I absolutely endorse his comments, however, about the fact that north Wales and the north-west of England—and, indeed, the rest of the UK—are integrated economies, and we need to look at them holistically.

Blwyddyn newydd dda—happy new year—Mr Speaker.

The Secretary of State knows that HS2 will halve the time it takes to get from London to Manchester from two hours and 10 minutes to one hour and 10 minutes, but it will still be three hours to get to Swansea. Will he be taking forward the Welsh Affairs Committee’s proposal to give Wales its fair share of HS2 funding on the same basis as Scotland, which would give us an extra £4.6 billion for levelling up, net zero and connecting the Union? Will he meet me and Professor Mark Barry to help prepare to make the case to the Treasury to take this forward?

I am always happy to meet the hon. Gentleman. He is nothing if not persistent and consistent in his campaigning. I should remind him—I suspect I do not need to—of the significant rail funding that has already come into Wales, but if it helps, I am always keen to look at new, innovative ways that will encourage investment and create jobs. I am very happy to do that.

May I welcome the new shadow Secretary of State, Jo Stevens, to her new position, and thank her for what she did previously?

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker; happy new year to you, and, if I may, blwyddyn newydd dda i chi i gyd—happy new year to all.

I am afraid I was a bit disappointed with the Secretary of State’s answer to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) about HS2 reclassification as an England-only rail project, because it is utterly illogical to designate it an England and Wales project. Crossrail has an England-only classification; HS2 should as well. In addition to that missing £4.6 billion of rail funding for Wales, the analysis of his own Treasury colleagues confirms that HS2 will result in an economic disadvantage to Wales estimated at £150 million every year. Levelling up will remain an empty Government slogan unless he persuades his Cabinet colleagues to cough up, so will he do that?

May I also welcome the hon. Lady to her place? I much enjoyed our time on the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee where we worked in harmony on many different subjects for quite a long time, and I was hoping we might be able to continue that habit across the Dispatch Box; things are starting quite well, I think. However, I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s question and look forward to further discussions. I would just point out that there has been more than £430 million of rail funding so far, including £125 million for the core valley lines and £58 million for Cardiff Central station; I could go through the list but I think Mr Speaker would stop me. This constant refrain, and going over old ground, about whether HS2 has any benefits for Wales is an overused cliché; we all know there are significant direct and indirect benefits to Wales from the HS2 project and that will continue to be the case.

There is another conversation the Secretary of State should be having with Cabinet colleagues about HS2 and Wales. Ministers have previously confirmed that around 2 million tonnes of steel will be used across HS2, but I am going to upset him again by mentioning that £4.6 billion that the Government are cutting from Wales. The Transport Minister has just confirmed that there is no target for the use of UK or Welsh steel in HS2 construction, so will the Secretary of State commit today to making the case in Cabinet for a Welsh steel target for HS2 construction to protect Welsh steel jobs, and will he come back to the House to confirm that he has done that?

I am very happy, as ever, to make the case for Welsh steel; indeed, we have done so on numerous occasions, and if the hon. Lady is in any doubt about our commitment to it she need only turn her mind back to the beginning of the pandemic when nearly 1,000 steelworkers in her own city were saved as a result of Government intervention. Our commitment to Welsh steel, and in particular its being used strategically and extensively in UK infrastructure projects, is completely undiminished, and I am always happy to join forces with her to make that case.

Renewable Energy Generation: North Wales

2. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the development of large-scale renewable energy generation in north Wales. (904896)

We recently opened the contracts for difference renewable energy support scheme, with £285 million per year available for projects in Wales, Scotland and England. Nuclear will also play an important role as a low-carbon source of electricity and we continue to explore how we might support a nuclear project at Wylfa.

If we are to achieve net zero while maintaining economic growth, we need more large-scale low-carbon generating projects of the sort represented by the tidal lagoon proposed for Colwyn bay in my constituency. That would have an in-store capacity of over 2 GW and make a huge contribution to national energy security, so is my right hon. Friend prepared to meet me and my hon. Friends the Members for Aberconwy (Robin Millar) and for Vale of Clwyd (Dr Davies), who also have a constituency interest, to discuss this project and see what the Government can do to help move it forward?

I can definitely give my right hon. Friend that commitment, and I would be more than happy if he wanted to bring additional stakeholders from the area into that meeting because there is not only huge potential for nuclear; he mentioned a tidal lagoon and there is also the commitment already made around the Holyhead hydrogen hub; and of course there is almost limitless potential in the Celtic sea for floating offshore wind. I would like to discuss with him and others exactly what opportunities they present.

Blwyddyn newydd dda, Mr Llefarydd—I wish you a wonderful new year. A National Trust-run hydro scheme with eight sites in Eryri has reached its target of producing 20 million kW of energy within eight years; that is enough electricity to power 5,300 homes for one year. The scheme has helped local communities to develop their own community hydro schemes but technical issues in connecting to the grid make that no easy task. What is the Secretary of State’s Government doing to upgrade the electricity grid in rural Wales to enable more such schemes?

The right hon. Lady has raised this issue with me a few times and her point about that initiative is really well made. I am very happy to go with her and talk about particular infrastructure requirements. These things are not straightforward, as she knows, but if there are sensible proposals that we can discuss with not only the relevant Department, but the Welsh Government, who will have a role in this, I would be very happy to do that.

I have heard the Secretary of State mention the offshore wind potential of the Celtic sea. He will know that, as part of Plaid Cymru’s co-operation agreement with the Welsh Government, both parties agree that further powers are needed to support our path to net zero—specifically on the management of the Crown Estate and its assets in Wales. Two months ago, the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), said that he would look with interest at my Crown Estate (Devolution to Wales) Bill. Given that there is now a clear majority in the Senedd to support the principle of Wales having the same powers, remember, as there are regarding the Crown Estate of Scotland, will the Minister also support my Bill to ensure that the profits of offshore wind go to the people of Wales?

The Under-Secretary of State for Wales, my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), was very disappointed not to be here to answer this question in person; he is diligently following Welsh Government regulations on covid isolation and sends his apologies. That said, the relationship that the Crown Estate enjoys with the UK Government, the Welsh Government and stakeholders works very well. I do not think there is any public interest or appetite for altering the terms of that arrangement. Frankly, it is a case of, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, but I am always happy to listen to the right hon. Lady’s arguments.

Covid-19 Booster Vaccinations

3. What steps the Government are taking to support the roll-out of covid-19 booster vaccinations in Wales. (904897)

Booster vaccinations are absolutely critical in strengthening our defences. That is why I and the Secretary of State for Defence have made an additional 98 armed forces personnel available to support the vaccination programme in Wales. We have confirmed an additional £270 million that the Welsh Government can spend in advance of budgets being finalised at supplementary estimates.

Blwyddyn newydd dda, Mr Speaker. The personnel that the Secretary of State mentioned have been brilliantly organised from Army HQ Wales, which is based in Brecon barracks in my constituency, and I put on record again my thanks that the plans to close the barracks have been scrapped. The Army has been brought in three times to help us in Wales, most recently during the booster programme. The fact that we have a military assistance programme ready to support us in times of need is a strength of our Union, so will he continue to liaise with the Welsh Government to ensure that they have all they need to manage the pandemic?

Absolutely. My hon. Friend is right, and I cannot begin to tell the House how many times I have met members of the public in the past few months who have been filled with confidence and pride when they have arrived at a vaccination or testing centre to see representatives of the armed forces there to greet and look after them through that often quite difficult process. The comments that she makes are well received, and will be by the number of servicemen in her area. The answer to her question is emphatically yes. I note that the Welsh footprint of the MOD—the number of MOD personnel in Wales—has now increased as a result of recent MOD announcements, and that will make this job that much easier.

Over 75% of eligible adults in Wales have already had their booster, thanks in no small part to the fact that the Welsh Government have earned the respect and trust of the people of Wales due to the clear and consistent messaging throughout the pandemic. What lessons does the Secretary of State think that the Prime Minister and his Government could learn from the example set by the Labour Government in Wales?

That is a slightly cheap shot, especially in a week when, under Welsh Government guidelines, it seems that it is all right for people to go to a pub but not to their office. They can watch the rugby from the clubhouse but not from the touchline. They can go to a gym but they cannot partake in an outdoor activity such as parkrun. There is a huge number of mystifying and contradictory positions—the hon. Gentleman goaded me into that. The vaccine programme has to be one of the best examples ever of co-operation, not competition, between Governments. That has been absolutely essential and it has been done in a good spirit, with professionalism, and has been an enormous success.

Support for Businesses

4. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on support for businesses in Wales. (904898)

I am pleased that the Welsh Government have followed the lead of the UK Government in offering business rate relief to support the hospitality sector. The UK Government have supported Welsh businesses through £2.4 billion of coronavirus-related loans, £3.5 billion to the self-employment income support scheme and other measures.

The Federation of Small Businesses has warned that only a quarter of its members are ready for the new Brexit import controls, and that many will simply abandon trading with the EU if they are unable to receive support. What plans do this Government have to support businesses in Wales and the other countries of the United Kingdom in bearing the costs of their failed Brexit policies?

The hon. Gentleman’s comments are not reflected by the businesses that I speak to in Wales. They are looking forward in an optimistic and positive way as we climb our way out of covid. They accept the decision in Wales where, unlike his, nearly 55% of our nation voted in favour of leaving the European Union, so they are simply reflecting the views of the majority. They are confident that there is a healthy future to be had, and what is more, there are more people in work now than there were before the pandemic.

With the Prime Minister promising to take advantage of the freedoms of Brexit, further divergence from EU standards and rules appears to be likely. That will amplify trade disruption and increase costs for businesses, so can the Minister explain exactly how trade disruptions and barriers will be advantageous to businesses and whether the UK Government will provide any support to ameliorate the cost of these benefits?

The UK Government have been doing everything they can, including providing substantial investments in Wales under my jurisdiction, to address a number of the challenges that have been presented. As I said before, there is no appetite whatsoever in Welsh businesses and communities to keep trying to go back four or five years and pretend that the referendum result did not happen. It did happen, it happened in Wales and it got a resounding majority. Those businesses are reflecting that position.

Having spent Boxing day and new year’s in Wales, the home of my beloved mother, I met a number of business people in the evening who said that Mark Drakeford’s plans for covid restrictions were nothing but political posturing and that they were damaging their economy. Have they got it wrong?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. There has been a huge effort on the part of the UK Government and the Welsh Government to maintain public confidence through what has been an incredibly trying period, and a number of people in Wales were happy to give the First Minister the benefit of the doubt. However, the recent raft of announcements, including the confusing examples that I gave the House a moment ago, have got even the most loyal people doubting whether he is still making the right decisions.

Strengthening the Union

Wales is a strong believer in the Union, with three in four voters opting for Unionist parties in the 2021 Senedd elections. The overwhelming majority of people in Wales are passionate about their national identity and proud supporters of the Union. The two things are not exclusive.

I am sure you would agree, Mr Speaker, that parkruns are fantastic for people’s physical and emotional health. I am sure you enjoyed many of them yourself over the Christmas recess. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Welsh Government’s decision to prevent people from taking part in parkruns—not just Welsh citizens but those from the English side taking part in Welsh parkruns—has meant that those people have been significantly detrimentally affected by such a bonkers decision?

I know that it might not look like it, but I am a veteran of 175 parkruns myself, and I absolutely endorse my right hon. Friend’s position. It seems mystifying and bizarre, when we talk about covid regulations needing to be clear and concise in order to command public confidence, that people in Wales can go to the pub but be fined if they go to their office, that they can watch rugby in a crowded club room but not from the touchline, and that they can have a gym session in their own property but not go and do a parkrun, which is known to have enormous health and mental health benefits.

Baglan Energy Park: Power Supply

6. If he will take steps with the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to help ensure ongoing power supply for Baglan energy park until a permanent connection to the grid is secured. (904900)

Contingency planning for Baglan and support for businesses once the official receiver has carried out its duties is the responsibility of the Welsh Government. Along with the Business Secretary, I will continue to work closely with the Welsh Government to support this work.

In just nine days’ time the supply of power to Baglan energy park will be cut off by the official receiver. Not only will this leave businesses in the area in a completely untenable position but the power supply also feeds the energy park’s waste water pumps, which could have a massive and catastrophic effect on businesses and homes in the area. The UK Government are in a position to work with the official receiver to keep the power supply on. Will the Secretary of State engage with the official receiver and with his colleague, the Business Secretary, to avert potential catastrophe for my constituents and businesses on the Baglan energy park?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. He and I have been following this saga closely, and the exact position is that the UK Government provided funding indemnity to the official receiver on 24 March 2021 to enable it to carry out its duties as liquidator of the Baglan group. The official receiver has temporarily maintained power to Baglan energy park while developing its plan to disclaim the site.

Transport Connections

7. What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on improving transport connections between Wales and the rest of the UK. (904901)

Effective and resilient cross-border transport links are vital for levelling up every part of Wales and the rest of the UK, which is why we commissioned Sir Peter Hendy to lead the Union connectivity review. Notably his review recognised the importance of the north and south Wales transport corridors.

The Secretary of State will know that certain roads, such as the M4 and the A55 in north Wales, connect our great Union and are therefore the property of the whole Union. Does he agree that these roads should be treated as pan-UK roads and should be overseen in a similar way to how the European Union oversees the trans-European transport network?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. He will have heard me refer to the M4 on many occasions as a vital asset that joins the European mainland to the Republic of Ireland. It is not just a Welsh road; it is of economic significance to the UK and more widely, and it plays a strategic role. That, combined with the slightly mysterious position that the Welsh Government have adopted on a moratorium on road building, leads me to the conclusion that he has reached, which is that there are better ways of maintaining and improving the UK-wide network, including roads that are exclusively in Wales.

Omicron Covid-19 Variant

10. What recent discussions he has had with the Welsh Government on the impact on Wales of the omicron covid-19 variant. (904904)

The UK Government have worked closely with the Welsh Government throughout the pandemic. We continue to do so in tackling the omicron variant, and Ministers in both Governments are in regular discussions.

With Labour Welsh Government Ministers now introducing fines to try to stop people going to their workplaces, with the crazy decision to prohibit parkruns at this time and with the Welsh hospitality sector effectively under lockdown through new year, does my right hon. Friend share my deep concern that, yet again, Wales faces the most burdensome and most intrusive restrictions in any part of the United Kingdom? Does he agree that these measures are driven more by fear and pessimism than by good science?

My right hon. Friend and constituency neighbour makes a good point. I might have found myself disagreeing with him if it could be demonstrated that the results of covid controls in Wales are in some way better than the results in the rest of the UK, but they are not. It is absurd that the popular parkrun in his own town of Haverfordwest cannot take place and that people cannot watch rugby from the touchline, but they can cram into a club where they ought not to be. That is nonsense. It is throttling the recovery and it is throttling economic activity.

Transport Connectivity and Infrastructure

11. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Transport on connectivity and infrastructure in (a) Wales and (b) between Wales and the rest of the UK. (904905)

The Union connectivity review recommended a multimodal review of the north Wales transport corridor, including the A55 and the north Wales main line. We are considering this and the other recommendations in the review.

We received the Union connectivity review five months later than scheduled; will my right hon. Friend indicate when its recommendations will be implemented? Will he throw the weight of his office behind the proposals for the new station in Greenfield, which is vital to connectivity in the region?

The hon. Member raises a good point. We do not have a precise date as yet, but there is some imminence to it. I ask him to bear in mind the fact that, thanks to interventions and recommendations by the Treasury, other funding models are also available. He should not overlook the work that he can do in future with his local authority in respect of things such as the levelling-up fund and the shared prosperity fund.

Before we 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 BSL interpretation will also be available for the Prime Minister’s statement following PMQs.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


May I start by wishing you, Mr Speaker, and all Members a happy new year?

Thanks to the heroic efforts of our vaccination programme and people coming forward up and down the country, we managed to ensure that families could still celebrate Christmas. With more than 34 million people now boosted, I want to take this opportunity to say that anybody who has not yet done so should come forward and get boosted now.

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.

With Sadiq Khan’s Transport for London in tatters and the Welsh Labour-nationalist coalition in Cardiff Bay an unfunded devolved disaster, does the Prime Minister agree that the great British public do not need to look back at the last UK Labour Government to see what the Opposition’s answer to all our problems is? It is to bang at the doors of the Treasury and demand that the taxpayer bail them out of their own ineptitude and incompetence.

It is not just Labour’s record in London or in Wales: every Labour Government in history since the second world war has left office with unemployment higher than when they came in. That is because only Conservatives can be trusted to deliver on the economy and on the people’s priorities, which is why, thanks to the policies that we have pursued, this country now has the fastest economic growth in the G7.

A happy new year to you, Mr Speaker, and to the rest of the House.

Over the Christmas break, the world lost a giant in the fight for equality and human rights: the great Desmond Tutu. I offer my condolences to his family and to the people of South Africa.

I thank all the key workers who have kept our essential services running over the festive period. In particular, I thank all the staff and volunteers working at vaccination sites and our amazing NHS staff, who are working incredibly hard in incredibly stretched circumstances. We will come to that after Prime Minister’s questions, with the Prime Minister’s statement. I also thank the formidable Sue Gray, who has been busier than Santa over the festive period.

In October, the Prime Minister said that fears about inflation were “unfounded”, but working people across the country are starting the new year facing rising bills and ballooning prices, so how did he get it so wrong?

Of course, I said no such thing, because inflation is always something that we have to be careful about. We are making sure that we protect the people of this country throughout what is unquestionably going to be a difficult period, which is why we have lifted the living wage by record sums and why we make sure that people have cold weather payments, the warm home discount and all the other protections, including the £500 million fund we have put in to help local councils look after people through what will be a difficult period. The most important thing we can do to look after people during this very difficult time is to ensure that we take the balanced and proportionate approach that we are taking to ensure that we are able to keep our country and our society going, which is exactly what we are doing. That is why we have doubled down on the booster programme and why we are sticking with plan B. That is the right approach for the country.

Inflation is about to hit 6%. That is the highest rate since the early ‘90s, when the Conservatives had been in power for more than a decade—when they were mired in sleaze, with a divided party and a Prime Minister losing the support of his Back Benchers and governing shambolically, and a Labour party ready to take over and provide Britain with a better future. Familiar stuff, Mr Speaker? The Prime Minister promised that wage rises would offset inflation. They have not and they will not. Millions of British workers now face a further pay cut and the Chancellor is handing them a tax hike. What will the Prime Minister do to get a grip of this?

It is great to be here with the right hon. Lady, the shadow Secretary of State for the Future of Work—we know the future job that she has in mind. I wish her well. What we are focused on is delivering jobs for the British people. It is a quite extraordinary thing that there are now record numbers of people in work—420,000 more than there were before the pandemic began. We have youth unemployment at a record low. Never let it be forgotten that when omicron hit this country, what was the instinctive response of Labour Members? [Interruption.] That is right, Mr Speaker. They said that we needed a road map to lock down. If we had listened to them, we would not have anybody working at all.

I have heard on the grapevine that there might be a vacancy for Prime Minister soon, so perhaps I should have aspirations.

The Prime Minister pretends that it is not his fault. He blames the global forces. He blames the markets. We are an aspirational party. Perhaps the Prime Minister needs to be more aspirational for this country. The Prime Minister has made political choices that have led us to this place. His Government have failed to invest in long-term energy security. His Government decided to let gas storages collapse. His Government let the energy market run out of control: 27 energy companies have gone bust in the past year, and now household bills are going through the roof, or, as the Money Saving Expert Martin Lewis put it, there will be a “seismic” hit to energy bills. Cannot the Prime Minister see what is happening? Yet again, working families are picking up the tab for his incompetence.

The right hon. Lady talks about energy. I think the House would agree that she has a lot more energy than the current Leader of the Opposition. I welcome her point, because what the Government are doing is supporting people throughout the pandemic: 2.2 million people supported with the warm home discount, worth £140 per week, which we introduced; pensioners supported with the £300 winter fuel payments; and there are cold weather payments worth £25 a week for 4 million people up and down the country. That is what we are doing, and that is on top of everything that we are doing to support people on low incomes. We are cutting taxes for those on universal credit and increasing the living wage—£1,000 more for everybody on the living wage. These are record sums. Let me remind the House of the fundamental difference between that Labour party and this Government. Labour Members would have kept us in lockdown in July. When omicron hit, they were calling for further restrictions. [Interruption.] That is right, Mr Speaker. We have been able to keep this country moving, keep the economy growing, and keep the money going into people’s pockets.

I will tell you what this Prime Minister is doing, Mr Speaker. He is increasing taxes for the hard-working people of this country. That is what he is doing. That is what he did not promise to do in his manifesto, but that is what he is doing to the people.

“The poorest households spend three times more of their income on household energy bills than the richest households spend”,


“VAT on…energy bills…makes gas and electricity…more expensive.”

Those are not my words, but the words of the Prime Minister himself. When energy bills are to be hiked again in April, any decent Government would find a way to help British families. Even Tory Back Benchers have finally accepted Labour’s call for a cut in VAT on energy bills, so will the Prime Minister finally stand up to his Chancellor and do the same?

The right hon. Lady obviously did not listen to my previous answer. Let me remind her that the warm home discount already supports 2.2 million people to the tune of £140 a week. Pensioners are supported with £300 through the winter fuel payment, and there are cold weather payments for 4 million people. The Opposition now have the effrontery, having campaigned to remain in the European Union—and she did too, did she not? [Hon. Members: “Yes!”] Oh yes, she campaigned to remain in the EU. [Interruption.] Oh yes she did—and they now have the barefaced cheek to come to this House of Commons and say that they want to cut VAT on fuel—[Interruption]—and so did the shadow Foreign Secretary—when everyone knows full well that that would be absolutely impossible if we were to do what Labour would do, go back into the EU and remain aligned with the EU single market. That is the objective of the Labour party. It cannot be trusted on Brexit, and it cannot be trusted on the economy.

Prime Minister, how’s it going? Are you okay?

The Prime Minister and his Chancellor have presided over economic mismanagement, low growth, and neglect of our public services, and what is their solution to fix that? Whacking more taxes on to working people. When the tax rises are combined with soaring energy prices, the average family faces a £1,200 hit. This is an iceberg, right ahead of us, so will the Prime Minister finally stop and change course—[Interruption.]

Order. We did not start the new year in the way we left the last one. I was given an assurance that we would try to calm down, so if we could, it would be helpful.

Given that hit of £1,200, will the Prime Minister finally stop and change course, or will he plough on towards what will be a disaster for thousands of families?

As a direct result of what we have already done on universal credit, a single mother with two kids is £1,200 better off. As a result of what we have done with the living wage—introduced by this Conservative Government, never let it be forgotten—everyone on that living wage has seen another £1,000 of income every year. But that is not the point. We will continue to look after people throughout the pandemic, but the fundamental point is that because of the steps that the Government have taken—because of the tough decisions we have taken, and because of our balanced and proportionate approach to covid—we have been able to keep this country open and keep our economy moving. We have kept our economy more open than any comparable economy in Europe, and the Opposition know it, although they opposed it on every step of the way. That is why people are seeing increases in employment, and increases in their pay packets as well.

The Prime Minister always gives with one hand and takes away more with the other. Under this Prime Minister, the country is worse off. Prices of everyday goods are soaring out of control. Hard-earned savings will be hit, and the wages of working people will not go as far. Inflation is not an economic theory; it has serious consequences for people’s lives. We need serious solutions to stop people falling into poverty or debt, but instead we have this Prime Minister and his incompetent leadership.

Every time we are faced with a challenge, he denies that there is a problem. He tries to laugh it off. He looks for someone else to blame. May I suggest to the Prime Minister that this is not about brushing his hair, but about brushing up his act? Does he accept that his incompetence is taking our country backwards and costing our country dear?

No—what I would tell the House and the country is that Labour incompetence has ruined this country time and time again. There has never been a Labour Government that have left office with unemployment lower than when they came in. And what is the right hon. Lady’s answer to the energy crisis? It is to nationalise our energy.

It was in fact Labour’s failure to invest in supply over a decade or more that reduced our ability to have cheaper, cleaner energy. We are rectifying that. We are taking the tough decisions that this country needs for the long term. It is because we have taken those tough decisions—because we have taken the balanced and proportionate approach we have that they opposed every step of the way—that we have youth unemployment at a record low. We have 420,000 more people in jobs now than there were before the pandemic began, and we have not only the most open society and economy in Europe but the fast economic growth in the G7. That is completely contrary to what the right hon. Lady has just said, and it is because of our stable, balanced and proportionate approach. Never let it be forgotten that when omicron presented itself, what did they vote for? They reached for the lever of more restrictions. They said lockdown; we said boosters. They carp from the sidelines; we get on with the job.

You want more? You won’t get more at this rate, will you? Mr Penrose has been waiting patiently. Why do you not want to hear him? I do.

2. The biggest factor driving up our fuel bills and cost of living is the sky-rocketing international price of gas, which is currently dancing to a tune set in Moscow. Does the Prime Minister agree that Labour’s short-term proposals to shift the burden from bill payers to taxpayers will not address the fundamental underlying problem at all, and that the crisis demands structural reforms to the energy price cap, rather than just resetting it to later this year, as well as energy self-sufficiency to uncouple us from Russian gas? (904883)

Yes. I thank my hon. Friend, who is completely right. That is why this Government are taking the tough decision to invest in the long-term future of our energy supply, investing in massively increasing our supply of renewables but nuclear as well. That is the right way forward for this country. It was Labour, of course, who completely failed to take those decisions, with the result that nuclear, in particular, fell away dramatically. It is absolutely farcical that Labour’s answer today to the energy price rises that my hon. Friend correctly diagnoses is to nationalise our energy—[Interruption.] Yes it is. Is it? Well, maybe they have changed their minds now, but it was. Maybe they have had second thoughts. But their answer was to nationalise our energy sector and to send bills even higher, and that is not the way forward.

I wish you, Mr Speaker, colleagues and all staff a guid new year.

Over the last few weeks, serious warnings have grown over the Tory cost of living crisis, which will hit the majority of families over the coming months. New research from the Resolution Foundation has found that, on average, families will be £1,200 worse off from April as a result of Tory cuts, tax hikes and soaring energy bills. For members of the Tory Government, £1,200 might not seem very much. For the Foreign Secretary it is just another taxpayer-funded lunch in Mayfair. For the Prime Minister it is just a roll of fancy wallpaper for his taxpayer-funded flat. But for the vast majority of families, losing £1,200 a year will be catastrophic. For some it will mean that they cannot afford to pay their rent and bills, to heat their homes or to put food on the table. So will the Prime Minister apologise for leaving millions of families worse off, and will he commit to an emergency financial package to reverse his Tory cost of living crisis?

I find that criticism hard to take from the humble crofter, if I may say so—with whom, I stress, I normally have very good relations off the pitch. What we are doing is helping families up and down the country with the taper rate, ensuring that a single mother with two kids gets £1,200 more on universal credit, £1,000 more as a result of the increase to the living wage. The crucial thing I am trying to get over this afternoon is that we, unlike virtually any other European economy, have been able to keep going and keep people in work. We now have more people in work than there were before the pandemic began. That is because of the balanced and proportionate approach we have taken, and the right hon. Gentleman’s support would be welcome and deserved.

My goodness, Mr Speaker—we are talking about a Tory cost of living crisis. So much for a new year, a new start: it is the same nonsense from this failing Prime Minister. We have had the year of Tory sleaze, but now we have the year of Tory squeeze for family budgets. Economists have warned that UK living standards will worsen in 2022, with the poorest households hit hardest by Tory cuts, tax hikes and soaring inflation driven by his Government’s policy. Under this Prime Minister, the UK already has the worst levels of poverty and inequality in north-west Europe. Now the Tories are making millions of families poorer. In Scotland, the SNP Government are mitigating this Tory poverty crisis by doubling the Scottish child payment to £20 per week. I ask the Prime Minister this: will he match the Scottish Government and introduce a £20 child payment across the UK, or will the Tories push hundreds of thousands of children into poverty as a direct result of his policies?

The right hon. Gentleman is talking, I am afraid, total nonsense. This Government are absolutely determined, as I have said throughout this pandemic, to look after particularly the poorest and the neediest. That is what the Chancellor did: all his packages were extremely progressive in their effect. When I came in to office, we ensured that we uprated the local housing allowance, because I understand the importance of that allowance for families on low incomes. We are supporting vulnerable renters. That is why we are putting money into local authorities to help families up and down the country who are facing tough times. The right hon. Gentleman’s fundamental point is wrong. He is just wrong about what is happening in this country. If we look at the statistics, we see that economic inequality is down in this country. Income inequality is down and poverty is down, and I will tell you why—because we get people in to work. We get people in to jobs. That is our answer.

3. The London Borough of Bromley has achieved the fastest and most significant improvement in children’s services of any local authority in England. Much of the credit is due to its exceptional chief executive, Mr Ade Adetosoye. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Mr Adetosoye on his appointment as a Commander of the British Empire in the new year honours list, and congratulate the Conservative majority on the council on delivering the only debt-free council in London? (904884)

I cannot believe that Hillingdon is not included in that list, but it is no surprise to me that Bromley runs such a tight ship; I have been familiar with Bromley over many years and my hon. Friend and I have campaigned there together. I commend particularly Ade Adetosoye CBE on his achievement.

Happy new year, Mr Speaker! I am sure the Prime Minister will want to join me and my Liberal Democrat colleagues in welcoming my hon. Friend the new Member for North Shropshire (Helen Morgan).

People’s already high heating bills are about to jump by more than 50%, with average energy bills rising by nearly £700 a year. Gas price rises will push millions more families into fuel poverty, when we know many are already afraid even to open their heating bills. Does the Prime Minister accept that he could be doing much more than he is to prevent millions of people from going hungry and cold this year while he remains—for now at least—in the warmth and comfort of No. 10?

Of course I welcome the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Helen Morgan) to her place; but as for the rest of what the right hon. Gentleman had to say, I think balls was the word—you were right first time, Mr Speaker. Your word, Mr Speaker, not mine. I simply advise the House to go back over what I have just said about all the protections that we are putting in place—the winter fuel payments, the warm home allowance, what we are doing to support pensioners, the £650 million we are putting in to support local councils. He talks about long-term energy solutions; is this the same Ed Balls/Davey who was an Energy Minister?

4. Hospitalisations in London have peaked, so the Prime Minister was absolutely right to hold his nerve on new restrictions in the last few weeks, but does he agree that the NHS faces not just omicron staffing absences, but permanent and dangerous staffing shortfalls in nearly every specialty? Will he end the cycle whereby those shortfalls continually threaten not just patient care, but sometimes even our freedoms, by overhauling workforce planning by backing Baroness Cumberlege’s amendment to the Health and Care Bill in the House of Lords, having a word with his neighbour in Downing Street and making 2022 the year we finally solve this problem? (904886)

I think my right hon. Friend’s amendment may have re-emerged in another place, and I thank him. He knows a great deal about the issue and I understand what he is trying to do. We are taking, for the time being, a different approach, and that is having record numbers of people working in our NHS—more than ever before, with 5,000 more doctors this year than last year, and 10,000 more nurses. That is thanks to the investment that this House voted through, and that that Opposition, unbelievably, opposed.

6. Diolch yn fawr iawn, Lefarydd. My mother, Dr Nancy Saville, was diagnosed with dementia just before Christmas. She had a stroke a year ago. I was called to sit with her in hospital on Monday because of a covid staff shortage but I fear that, like many of our constituents in similar circumstances, we are likely to be separated indefinitely when she is moved into an EMI, or elderly mentally infirm, nursing home. John’s Campaign has successfully campaigned in every UK nation that people disabled by dementia have a special need for person-centred care—under the Equality Act 2010—but in reality there remain many care homes and hospitals where even the most minimal visits can be denied, leading to isolation and separation, which cause irreversible damage to wellbeing. Does he agree that the human rights of disabled people, sick people and the elderly are not fair-weather luxuries, and that everyone with dementia, wherever they live, has the right to family life? (904889)

May I extend my deepest sympathies to the right hon. Lady? I am sure the whole House, and everybody who has listened, will have shared her feelings and will simply wish to extend their condolences in view of her mother’s condition. I know how her feelings must be exacerbated by the difficulties that so many people up and down the country are facing because of the restrictions that we are having to put on care homes, and I sympathise deeply. We do have to try to strike a balance and to keep home care residents safe and to do what we can to prevent the epidemic from taking hold in care homes. We continue to allow three nominated visitors to care homes, and there should be no limit to the duration of those visits. I understand the particular distress and anxiety that the right hon. Lady’s circumstances are causing. May I suggest that she has a meeting, as soon as it can be arranged, with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care?

5. Many of my constituents have contacted me with their concerns about rising utility bills and the high cost of fuel for their cars. People in rural constituencies such as Sleaford and North Hykeham are particularly affected by this, because rural areas are colder in the winter, many homes are not on the gas grid, rural people are much more reliant on their cars, and public services are very much further from home. I therefore ask my right hon. Friend what more he can do, particularly in rural communities, to ensure that my constituents have a reliable and affordable source of energy and fuel. (904887)

My hon. Friend has drawn attention to a very important consideration as we try to abate the increases in the costs of gas and of energy. For people in rural constituencies such as her own, it will be important that we have frozen fuel duty for the 12th year in a row, that the energy price cap itself remains in place, and that we are doing everything we can to help people with the energy efficiency of their homes. We are also taking all the other measures that I have explained to the House, but the most important thing that we can do to help people in her constituency and across the country is to have sustainable, clean, cheaper forms of energy, and that is what this Government are investing in now. We are taking the tough decisions necessary.

8. Statutory sick pay is worth £3 a week less in real terms compared with the start of the pandemic, and millions of workers are being forced to choose between isolating and putting food on their table. In Germany, 100% of workers’ salaries is covered by sick pay, whereas in the UK, the figure is a pitiful 19%. If the Prime Minister thought earning £250,000 from his second job was “chicken feed”, how on earth does he expect working people to survive on £96 a week when they get sick? If he agrees that many lives and livelihoods could be saved by increasing sick pay, will he commit here and now to raising it to the level of the real living wage? (904892)

Of course, as the hon. Gentleman knows, one of the first things we did when covid struck was make sure that statutory sick pay was payable from day one, so it is up to 75% more generous if a person needs to self-isolate. The current statutory sick pay is, of course, a minimum—more than half of employees get contractual sick pay from their employer—but the most important thing we can do is ensure that we continue to keep people in work and in higher-wage, higher-skilled jobs, and that is what we are doing.

7. Later today, I will present a Bill to extend auto-enrolment in pensions to everyone aged over 18, including part-time workers. That would see trillions of pounds in long-term savings levelling up the retirements of workers, especially women, in the towns and villages of North West Durham and across the country. As the Prime Minister seeks to build back better from the global pandemic, will he throw his weight behind these important changes that would benefit workers across our United Kingdom? (904890)

Over 10 million people have been automatically enrolled into workplace pensions already: that has put another £28.4 billion into pensions, so it is a great success. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will be listening closely to what my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden) has said.

9. We know the Prime Minister is happiest at Peppa Pig World, but in the real world, people in Southwark face rising energy bills, rising shopping costs, and a new Tory tax. Leaseholders also face huge costs for fire safety works post Grenfell required by his Government, so will the Prime Minister try to keep just one promise in 2022 and protect all leaseholders from those costs, and will he back the cross-party campaign to make those works exempt from VAT in order to add £1 billion to the building safety fund? (904893)

Actually, in my experience, what most Londoners want is protection from high-taxing Labour councils, but what they will also get is that we will deliver on our pledge to protect residents from serious fire safety risks, and also to manage the injustice that leaseholders face. The House can look forward to being updated shortly.

10. The very best of British science has been on display over the past 18 months, being responsible for the design and manufacture of many of the vaccines that have kept us safe during this pandemic. The focus of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on making the UK the best place to practise life sciences and to innovate is therefore welcome, as is its cluster strategy. With that in mind, will my right hon. Friend back Ulverston as the pioneer place for the cluster strategy to be rolled out, enabling high-wage and high-growth jobs to be based in my constituency? (904894)

Yes, because we are going to get on with our job of levelling up across the whole of the UK, making sure that every part of this United Kingdom shares in our ambition to be a science superpower, which is what we are and what we will be. Ulverston has a rich history in the life sciences, and we are in regular consultation—not just officials in BEIS—with my hon. Friend and with officials in the sector to see what more we can do to further investment in the area.

A number of people in my constituency have contacted me about the lack of NHS dentists and the prohibitive cost of private dental treatment. Just a few weeks ago one constituent contacted me and said:

“I work full-time as a mental health support worker, I am on minimum wage and can barely afford the reduced NHS dental costs. In the past three months I have had to go to the emergency dentist three times for the same tooth, with the infection initially getting so bad I collapsed at work. The problem is not being dealt with because you need a second appointment which isn’t classed as an emergency and thus needs your ‘regular’ dentist.”

Does the Prime Minister agree that such stories amount to nothing less than a national scandal? What steps will he take to reduce the backlog of NHS dental appointments, and will he commit to increasing the number of NHS dentists across England?

I thank the hon. Gentleman, but that goes to show why it is so important to keep this country going and to keep people going to the dentist. One of the troubles we have had during lockdown is that people have not been going—there are 10 million unfilled fillings, I am told. That is why we are putting record investment into dentistry and into the NHS—£36 billion. [Interruption.] For all their caterwauling, the Opposition opposed that investment.

Can we remedy the current flawed budgetary process whereby it is possible to build 14,000 new homes in my constituency without any commensurate increase in general practice capacity? As we house the next generation, we must make sure that the infrastructure goes in at the same time.

Yes. I thank my hon. Friend, and he is completely right: we cannot build new homes without putting in the infrastructure to go with it. That is why we have a colossal programme of infrastructure investment—the biggest for a century. That is why we are not only investing in more GPs but investing another £250 million into more GP practices—[Interruption.] The Opposition are cachinnating away as usual. They voted against that spending.

Millions across the United Kingdom are facing great difficulty with their energy bills. Some 30% of those bills is actually driven by the Government, in the form of VAT and various green levies. Now that we have left the EU, can we use our Brexit freedom to at least review the VAT on those bills? Given that some of the green levies are spent on madcap ideas, such as subsidising Drax B power station to the tune of £1 billion a year and bringing in wood chips from America when there is fuel down the road, can we have a review of the green levies as well so that people are not faced with the burden of unsustainable fuel bills?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman. I can tell him that we are addressing the issue of fuel. We should not forget that the cap is still in place, and all the mitigations that I have talked about are there, but we are determined to do what we can to help people through this pandemic. What we must do above all is make sure this country has a better supply of cheap and affordable energy, which the Opposition hopelessly refused to institute during their 13 wasted years in government.

Last week my constituent Edna Constable turned 100 years old. She lived through the second world war, and now she is living through a pandemic. Will my right hon. Friend join me in wishing her a belated happy birthday, and will he pay tribute not just to the care workers taking care of her in Fountains care home but to care workers across my constituency and across the rest of the country, who go over and above to protect the most vulnerable in our society?

I thank my hon. Friend very much. I want to thank all the staff at Fountains care home for everything they have been doing to look after people throughout the pandemic. In particular, I want to join my hon. Friend in wishing the centenarian Edna a very happy 100th birthday.

Groundbreaking research published yesterday in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, from King’s College London in partnership with Compass Pathways, has now established that psilocybin can be safely administered and may have significant therapeutic benefit in treatment-resistant depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. As someone who knows first-hand how debilitating PTSD is, as well as hearing from many constituents who have developed the condition as a result of sexual assault or their experience serving in our armed forces, I ask the Prime Minister to commit today to a review of the regulatory regime that would allow further and more rapid research in this vital area of mental health support, for which current treatment options are sorely lacking.

I thank the hon. Lady for her question, and I appreciate the personal experience that makes her interested in psilocybin. I am aware of interest in the area and it has been talked about several times. I propose that she has a meeting, as soon as it can be arranged, with the relevant Minister in the Department of Health and Social Care.

Apparently the Government are thinking of relaxing visa controls for India in order to get a free trade deal. While a free trade deal is valuable in itself, we should not be held to ransom. Does the Prime Minister agree that our new working-class voters who voted for Brexit did not vote to replace immigration from Europe with more immigration from the rest of the world, any more than that when they were told that we would take back control, we would lose control of the channel? Will he convince us that he is determined to connect to our supporters and control immigration?

Yes. I do not recognise the account that my right hon. Friend has given: we do not do free trade deals on that basis. Indeed, I can tell him that since we took back control, net immigration has gone down—[Interruption.] That is all the Opposition want—their answer is, everywhere and always, uncontrolled immigration. That is their approach to the economy, and it is not the right way forward. That is why our Nationality and Borders Bill, currently in the House of Lords, is so important—it will enable us to take back control of our borders properly and to tackle illegal immigration. What would be good would be to hear some support from the Labour Benches.

Five years ago, when the Prime Minister was Foreign Secretary, my constituent Luke Symons was taken captive by the Houthis in Yemen. Fortunately, the Prime Minister has a former Foreign Secretary sat next to him and another behind him, both of whom served in the last five years. Luke Symons is still in captivity in Sanaa, even though other nations—including the Americans—have managed to get their citizens released. Will the Prime Minister pledge that his Government will do everything they can to get Luke released from captivity in Yemen and arrange for the Foreign Secretary to meet my constituent, Mr Robert Cummings, who is Luke’s grandfather, to discuss how to go about doing that?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this case again. I remember it, and it is very sad. I know that our staff in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office work hard to try to release people from the positions they find themselves in around the world. Luke Symons is no exception, but I will certainly make sure that the hon. Gentleman has a meeting with the relevant Minister to report on the progress we are making.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Nobody wants to mislead the House, and I am sure that the Prime Minister would not wish to do so. I quoted the Prime Minister saying that fears about inflation were “unfounded”, and he said that he did not say that. However, the Sky journalist Beth Rigby has now put the clip on social media. I wonder whether the Prime Minister would like to correct the record.

If the Prime Minister wants to come back, he can do. If he does not, what I would say is that it is not a point of order.

Sorry, Prime Minister. I am not going to extend the debate. It is a point of clarification, and that has been achieved.