The Secretary of State was asked—
Inflation: Households and Businesses
The Chancellor announced a £9.1 billion energy bills rebate last week. This includes a £200 energy bill discount for households across the UK, including Wales, as well as an additional £175 million to the Welsh Government.
On Monday, this Conservative Government imposed a real-terms cut to social security benefits and pensions of approximately 4%. This is on top of the hike in national insurance contributions, the rise in the energy price cap and cuts to universal credit and working tax credit, which the Bevan Foundation in Wales has estimated will take approximately £286 million out of the Welsh economy. People in Wales are genuinely fearful of the impact that these cuts are going to have on living standards, so I ask the Secretary of State: how can he justify voting for these measures, which will not only exacerbate existing poverty but drive more and more people into hardship and poverty?
The hon. Lady has constituents, as we all do, who are of course concerned about the cost of living challenges ahead, but I hope I can reassure her by naming, as I have already done, a few of the measures we are putting in place. They include the substantial additional money via the Barnett formula for the Welsh Government, but also the universal credit taper is worth £1,000 per household, the increase in the living wage is also worth £1,000 a year for those in receipt of it and there are the warm home discounts. Of course, the main thrust of what we are trying to do is create the right circumstances for a jobs-led recovery.
I can only refer the hon. Member to my earlier comments. We want to be extremely sure, just like him, because Conservative Members have a similar dynamic in our own constituencies, that we are putting in place everything we can, whether that is the universal credit taper, the increase in the living wage, an increase in the tax threshold, or indeed the jobs-led recovery I have mentioned. The fact is that the economic prospects for the UK, including Wales, are actually growing at a reasonable pace, although it can always be faster and greater. I am hoping I can reassure his constituents, just as I am attempting to reassure mine, that we have their best interests at heart when it comes to food poverty.
People do understand the need to provide more money for health and social care, but Welsh businesses and workers—they now face rampant inflation, bringing escalating costs and reduced consumer spending power—are angry that the UK Government are hitting them with the national insurance rise while the Chancellor has simply written off billions. What talks has the Secretary of State had with Cabinet colleagues about implementing concerted efforts to recover the £5 billion of taxpayers’ money taken fraudulently by criminals in covid support, and about engaging with companies that were vastly overpaid by the UK Government for personal protective equipment contracts on recognising their corporate social responsibility and returning excess profits, rather than hitting workers and businesses across Wales with this national insurance rise?
The hon. Lady raises an important point about fraud. All I can tell her is that the Treasury is a world leader in tracking down, eliminating and reducing the risk of fraud, and I think she should give it some credit for the remarkable work that it has already done in that respect.
An 80-year-old constituent of mine has contacted me to say that he and his 78-year-old wife currently pay £68 a month on energy bills and they just about manage, but they have been told that that will go up to nearly £3,000 for the year. Meanwhile, BP has announced its highest profits in years. The Government’s answer is to hand out loans, but Labour has a plan to make energy companies pay. My constituent is worried and angry, and he wrote to me asking me to shout and scream at the Secretary of State. I do not think that will work, but what does he expect me to say to my constituent?
What I hope I could pass on to the hon. Lady’s constituent is that deploying the usual Labour response to pretty well every problem in the world, which is to find somebody and tax them, is not the right answer, because that would have a knock-on cost that would then be picked up by the very constituent she mentioned. The idea that tax is anything other than a disincentive in this particular instance is a myth. Much more important are our attempts to make sure that families in the position her constituent points out are looked after to the best of our ability.
As my right hon. Friend has mentioned, the Chancellor has announced that 80% of English households will receive a £150 council tax rebate with effect from April this year. As a consequence, the Welsh Government have received an additional £175 million under the Barnett formula. Is it a matter of regret to him, as it is to me, that the Welsh Government have not yet announced that that money will be passed on to Welsh council tax payers, who are entitled to precisely the same benefits as their English counterparts?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. The Treasury was explicit in what the Barnett consequentials were for the Welsh Government, and I agree with him. I do not understand why families and businesses in Wales are still unclear about how that money will be used.
People in rural areas will be at a particular disadvantage during the upcoming energy price crisis. About two thirds of my constituents are not connected to the gas grid and are therefore not covered by the protection of the energy price cap. Does my right hon. Friend agree that as rural areas will experience particular hardship, the Welsh Government have a responsibility to act fast to get the £175 million that they have just received out the door as quickly as possible?
Absolutely. I refer to my earlier answer. That is critical, because we probably have a higher proportion of people in Wales in that position than almost anywhere else in the UK. So this is urgent, and I urge Labour Members to put as much pressure as they can on their colleagues in Cardiff to make it happen.
I certainly will. There is a contrast worth highlighting, as the Government’s solutions to these problems are to provide direct and positive interventions for families across Wales rather than defaulting to the lazy position of finding an energy producer and taxing it, as if that would resolve the problem.
It is not just record inflation that is hitting Welsh households hard. Rents in Wales have increased by nearly 10% in the last year, the third highest rate in the United Kingdom outside London and Northern Ireland. When it comes to paying bills, the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Secretary thinks that a monthly saving on the BBC licence fee of 87p over two years is
“one of the few direct levers we have in our control as a Government.”—[Official Report, 17 January 2022; Vol. 707, c. 39.]
Is that really the extent of the Government’s ambition to help people in Wales cope with a Conservative cost of living crisis?
I am grateful—I think—for the hon. Lady’s question, but she seems to overlook the numerous examples that I have already given, and I have an even longer list of ways in which the UK Government have stepped in, during covid in particular. We have helped protect 470,000 jobs and 60,000 Welsh businesses, dished out £2.4 billion in business loans, increased the living wage and adapted the universal credit taper—I could go on, if only you would allow me, Mr Speaker. She needs to reflect on the long list of positive things to which Labour has contributed almost nothing by way of assistance.
Well, people across Wales are facing the biggest drop in living standards in 30 years under the Secretary of State’s watch. Inflation is at a 10-year high and rising, national insurance levels are increasing by more than 10%—another Tory broken manifesto promise—energy bills are up 54% and rents in Wales are up 10%. Wales is bearing the brunt of the incompetence and chaos not just at No. 10 but at No. 11, while the Secretary of State sits at the Cabinet table and lets it all happen, does he not?
No. The hon. Lady seems to have forgotten that there has been something called a pandemic in the last two years, and that has had a significant effect on the global economy. She also seems to have forgotten that her party is responsible for a number of the standard of living issues in Wales, yet we never hear so much as a squeak of criticism about Welsh Labour’s performance in Cardiff. I urge her again to reflect—perhaps through Hansard tomorrow—on the comments that I have made and the numerous ways in which the Government have intervened in some of these economic challenges, the result of which is that more people are now on the payroll than before the pandemic began and the UK economy is the fastest growing in the G7. Perhaps she should reflect on those facts before raising the issues that she has.
I certainly can. In answering that question, it is also worth reflecting on the fact that the Labour solution around VAT—an interesting recognition of a Brexit dividend—would not have that effect. The Treasury analysis is that Labour’s proposal would unduly hit the families our proposals are designed to help.
Young Audiences Content Fund
There will be a full evaluation of the fund’s impact on the provision of public service broadcasting for young people, including Welsh language content. The Government are committed to Welsh language broadcasting. S4C will receive £88.8 million a year for the first two years of the licence fee settlement, rising in line with inflation thereafter.
Diolch, Mr Speaker. The fund’s 5% target for content in the indigenous languages has been invaluable to producers of Welsh language children’s programmes such as an upcoming drama series about children’s mental health and, of course, the production of new episodes of “Sali Mali”. Mike Young, the producer of “Sam Tan” and the creator of “SuperTed”, has previously stated that those much-loved favourites would not have been made without state support. Will the Minister agree to meet me to discuss the impact of the fund’s closure and ways we can secure the future of original children’s content in the Welsh language?
I would be delighted to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss that issue. I would approach it with an open mind. I will perhaps remind the hon. Gentleman that it was a Conservative Government who established S4C. It was also a Conservative Government who introduced the Welsh Language Act 1993. He may also know that it was a Conservative Chairman of the Welsh Affairs Committee who allowed Welsh to be spoken for the first time in Select Committee hearings. Modesty prevents me from saying any more on that, but I can assure him that we will always want to support the Welsh language.
Broadband Coverage and Speeds
The Secretary of State recently met the Culture Secretary to discuss the delivery of the UK Government’s £5 billion Project Gigabit, which will deliver gigabit connections to the hardest to reach 20% of the UK. Up to 234,000 homes and businesses in Wales should benefit from this investment.
Diolch, Mr Speaker. According to the House of Commons Library, 17.4% of lines in my constituency receive less than 10 megabits per second, one of the worst records in the British state. It is clear, therefore, that the UK Government and Welsh Government broadband strategies are failing large parts of Carmarthenshire. Will the Wales Office emphasise that mission 4 of the levelling-up White Paper published last week prioritises areas that have been neglected so far?
Those figures are concerning, and I agree that that connectivity needs to become a priority. However, the statistics will also show that the number of homes connected to fast broadband in Wales has risen from just 11% in 2019 to 47% in 2022. That number continues to rise and later this week—in fact, tomorrow—I shall be visiting the Swansea Bay growth deal to look at a project that will further increase connectivity in Wales.
Bore da and diolch, Mr Speaker. Following on from that question about speed and infrastructure in Wales, my hon. Friend may be aware that back in the ’80s and ’90s I travelled quite quickly with my fellow students on the train from Lampeter to Aberystwyth. Will he provide an update on the likelihood of bringing back the train line between Carmarthen, Lampeter and Aberystwyth, especially in the 200th anniversary year of the setting up of St David’s University College in Lampeter?
That is an exciting and interesting suggestion, and one of a number that will be looked at. What I am doing, with the Secretary of State for Wales and the Secretary of State for Transport, is looking at projects already under way, such as the improvements to the north Wales coast line and to the south Wales relief line.
The Conservative manifesto promised gigabit-capable broadband to every home and business across Wales, and across the UK, by 2025. How does the Minister justify the levelling down in his Government’s so-called levelling-up White Paper, which now only states targeting 70% to 80% by 2025?
I hope the hon. Gentleman will agree that we have set some very ambitious targets. I certainly hope we are going to meet them, but I just point out once again that the number of homes connected to fast broadband has risen from just 11% to 47% in three years. I think that is an exceptionally good outcome. I can assure him that we want to see that figure continue to rise.
Diolch, Mr Speaker. The hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) is absolutely right to raise this issue, because broadband speeds in urban areas—not only in Wales, but in England—are not always up to the mark. At the same time, will the Minister praise, for example, Openreach, which provides fibre to the premises in very rural areas of Wales such as the Dysynni valley in southern Snowdonia?
I am not sure whether my hon. Friend wants to declare a particular interest. Obviously we support Openreach in delivering fibre to the hardest-to-reach areas, but I take him back to the whole purpose of Project Gigabit—to deliver to the hardest-to-reach 20%. The figures already show that we are being very successful in achieving that greater connectivity in rural Wales.
Crown Estate: Devolution
The Scottish Government have awarded 25 GW of offshore wind development rights through Crown Estate Scotland to 17 projects, which has put Scotland at the forefront of global offshore wind development. It is more than double the UK’s existing offshore wind capacity and it will create high-quality jobs and significant local investment. Why does the Secretary of State not think that devolving the Crown Estate to Wales would benefit the people of Wales in the way that it is benefitting the people of Scotland?
I have spoken on this subject recently to port authorities, investors, councils, employees and, most importantly, the public. Not a single person—not one—has suggested to me that the future of floating offshore or, indeed, any other renewables will benefit from the devolution of the Crown Estate. This is an international opportunity for Wales. The supply chain benefits are huge and, actually, the Scottish National party’s ambitions are far too modest in this respect.
The recent devolution of the Crown Estate seabed is predicted to enable Scotland’s offshore wind farms to reliably power around 30 million homes across the United Kingdom. Has the Secretary of State assessed how many millions of homes could be powered by Welsh offshore generation?
I think I caught the majority of the hon. Gentleman’s question. Yes, we have undertaken significant analysis of the potential, but the potential is massively enhanced by this being a UK-wide—an international—approach. It is not enhanced—indeed, it is jeopardised—by constant reference to devolution of the Crown Estate, which seems to be almost off-putting to future investors in this particular sector.
Well, it has not put off investment in Scotland, certainly.
The Crown Estate portfolio in Wales, with its marine assets, has risen in value from £49 million in 2020 to its current value of £603 million. The evidence from Scotland is that it is hugely beneficial for the devolved Government to be handling that and maximising the supply chain opportunities. Why is the Minister not open to the idea of devolving it, or is the message to the people of Wales that when it comes to governance in Wales, Westminster still knows best?
Absolutely not. I made it clear earlier that where I take my advice from and listen the most intently is the views of port authorities, councils, investors, employees and the public. That is what really matters to me. This is about job creation and sustaining jobs and not about looking at every single issue through the prism of independence and what works for the Scottish Government. This is about making this work for the people of Wales, and that is what is important to us.
Devolution of the Crown Estate is a total red herring, and it so cynical of nationalists to turn every issue into an anti-United Kingdom process row. Does my right hon. Friend agree that floating offshore wind represents a hugely important opportunity for Wales, particularly for the port of Milford Haven in my constituency—Milford Haven is shared by his constituency—and will he assure the House that he and his colleagues at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy are doing everything to ensure that Wales and Pembrokeshire benefit from the opportunities of renewable marine energy?
My right hon. Friend is right; I met the Crown Estate last week and had exactly that conversation. I have to say that it was an exciting, interesting, innovative conversation about all the possibilities that he mentions, which exist across the whole UK but particularly in the Celtic sea. I repeat what I said earlier: the emphasis and impetus come from investors, members of the public and port authorities, not from nationalists who just wish to look at everything through the prism of their own power base.
The Secretary of State has just said that there is no public interest or appetite at all, and that not one person is saying that devolving the Crown Estate is a good idea. By this morning, 10,000 people had already signed a petition asserting Wales’s right to reap the benefits of our own national resources.
The ScotWind auction raised almost £700 million for Scotland’s public finances. To reassure the Secretary of State, this is not a new tax. In the heat of the cost of living crisis, Scottish renewable natural resources generate revenue for the benefit of the Scottish people, providing a better welfare service than in Wales. Is it not clear that devolving the Crown Estate in Scotland has improved the Government’s ability to respond to the cost of living crisis, and so it would in Wales?
Shock, horror—the hon. Gentleman raises that petition. Of course, it represents a tiny, tiny, tiny proportion of the population of Wales, even assuming that everybody who signed it is resident in Wales.
I chose my words carefully earlier. The people I want to listen to most intently are the people who will do the work and benefit from the work: port authorities, councils, employees, the public and investors. Every single person I have spoken to about the issue concludes that devolving the Crown Estate is nothing more than a distraction that would actually damage the prospects of its being the success story it deserves to be.
Connectivity and Infrastructure
The Government are committed to levelling up across the whole United Kingdom, including Wales. Better connectivity and infrastructure are key to that, which is why we asked Sir Peter Hendy to conduct the Union connectivity review.
Does my hon. Friend agree that in addition to the actions that he has announced, the Union connectivity review pledges to do much more, including reducing journey times on the east coast rail line and protecting important domestic routes between London and Aberdeen, for example? It shows levelling up in action and is a demonstration of this Government working for the entire United Kingdom, including Wales.
To draw on the link between Wales and Scotland, I congratulate Loganair, which flies between Cardiff and Edinburgh and will no doubt benefit from the cut in air passenger duty for regional airports. As a result, we can expect to see an increase in demand for flights, which is good news for Cardiff airport, good news for travellers and good news for the Union.
Cross-Border Transport Connectivity
Cross-border links are vital to achieving levelling up in every part of the United Kingdom, including Wales. Last week, I met the Welsh Government’s Transport Minister to discuss how our Governments can work together to improve those vital links, including through the recommendations in the Union connectivity review.
If you go by train to north Wales, Mr Speaker, the chances are that you will go through Chester. We have plans ready to go to increase capacity at Chester station, but we are being held up because the Minister’s colleagues in the Westminster Department for Transport will not agree on Union connectivity grants for Network Rail and Transport for Wales. Will he please have a word and tell them to get a move on?
I am sure that my colleagues in Westminster will be doing absolutely everything they can to improve connectivity links between Wales and England, but perhaps the hon. Gentleman could have a word with his colleagues in the Welsh Labour Government, who have decided to abandon road building in Wales. Traffic congestion is bad for the environment, and a good road network is good for a flourishing economy.
The Llanymynech-Pant bypass proposal is the most important connection for my constituency, although it is 90% in England. I welcome the Treasury Bench’s commitment of £45 million to get it to the next stage, but will the Minister meet with me to ensure that the Welsh Government, with their road blocking and lack of vision on Union connectivity, deliver this road?
The Prime Minister was asked—
I can tell the House today that it is my intention to return on the first day after the half-term recess to present our strategy for living with covid. Provided that the current encouraging trends in the data continue, it is my expectation that we will be able to end the last domestic restrictions, including the legal requirement to self-isolate following a positive test, a full month early.
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
The Northern Ireland protocol frustrates business, undermines the Belfast agreement, and restricts the free movement of goods and people within our United Kingdom. What action will my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Union take to reunite the UK and uphold the interests of all its residents, including those living in Northern Ireland?
My hon. Friend is quite right. The protocol does not require, contrary to how it is being applied by our friends, all foods, all medicines and all plants to be systematically checked in the way that they are. We must fix it, and with good will and common sense I believe we can. However, if our friends do not show the requisite common sense, we will of course trigger article 60.
Of course, this Government and this country despise those who defraud people, and that is why we crack down on fraudsters. We have strengthened our anti-fraud taskforce and we are bringing forward an economic crime Bill. We also attach huge importance to tackling neighbourhood crime and crimes of violence, and I am pleased that those crimes are down 17%.
The Prime Minister’s answer has a big hole in it. We have had lockdowns for the past two years; two crimes that people could commit were online fraud and throwing parties. So far as I can see, the numbers for both have gone through the roof.
However, I was asking the Prime Minister about the 14,000 cases of fraud a day. Many older people have been duped out of hard-earned savings, but the Business Secretary casually suggests on TV, “Don’t worry; it’s not real crime.” There is a crime gang in Manchester nicking cars and shipping them around the world, all financed by covid loans from the taxpayer. What is the Chancellor’s response? Write off £4 billion in losses, and block an investigation by the National Crime Agency. The Prime Minister’s Cabinet is turning a blind eye to scammers. Is it any wonder that his anti-fraud Minister realised that no one in Government seemed to care and threw in the towel?
No, because what we are doing is tackling crime across the board. That is why we are investing more in tackling fraud, but we are also tackling the neighbourhood crime that does such massive psychological damage to people in this country. We are tackling knife crime, burglary and crimes of violence in the street with tougher sentences—which Labour voted against, by the way—and putting more police out on the street. And we are able to afford it because we have a strong economy and we are coming back strongly from covid, and that is thanks to the big calls that this Government got right.
The Prime Minister’s anti-fraud Minister quit, saying that the failure of Government to tackle fraud was “so egregious” that he had to
“smash some crockery to get people to take notice.”
It seems that the Prime Minister has not noticed the broken plates and shattered glass all around him. It is almost as if he has been completely distracted for weeks.
Talking of scams, households are going to have to fork out an extra £19 billion on their energy bills. The Government are insulting people’s intelligence by pretending they are giving them a discount. It is not; it is a con. It is a buy now, pay later scheme. A dodgy loan, not a proper plan. [Interruption.] He shakes his head, so let me put this in language he might understand. When his donors give him cash to fund his lifestyle and tell him he has to pay it all back later, are they giving him a loan or a discount?
Our plan to tackle the cost of living is faster, more efficient and more generous than anything that Labour has set out. We have lifted the living wage by record amounts, we have cut the effective tax for people on universal credit and we are now setting out a fantastic plan to help people with the cost of energy. It is more generous and more effective than anything Labour has set out. It is £9.1 billion—it is huge sums that we are using to help people across the country—and the only reason we can afford it is that we have a strong economy, the fastest growing in the G7— as I think I may have pointed out to the right hon. and learned Gentleman last week—not just last year but this year as well.
The Prime Minister clearly hasn’t got the first clue what the Chancellor has signed him up to, so let me help him out. His plan is to hand billions of pounds of taxpayers’ cash to energy companies and then force families to pay it off in instalments for years to come. If it sounds like he is forcing people to take out a loan, and it looks like he is forcing people to take out a loan, is it not just forcing people to take out a loan?
We are giving people in bands A to D council tax valuations across the country—27 million homes—the equivalent of a £150 rebate off their council tax. Labour’s offer is £89. Ours is faster, more generous and more effective. This is a global problem, caused by the spike in gas prices, but what Labour would do is clobber the oil and gas companies right now—[Interruption.] Yes they would—with a tax that would deter investment in gas, just when this country needs gas as we transition to green fuel. It would be totally ridiculous, and it would raise prices for consumers.
There is an alternative. The Prime Minister can stand up to his Chancellor and tell him to support families rather than loading them with debt. He can tell him to look at those bumper profits of the oil and gas giants. Shell’s profits are up £14 billion this year. BP’s profits are up £9.5 billion this year. Every second of the day, they have made £750 extra profit from rising prices. At the same time, households are facing an extra £700 a year on their bills. Why on earth are this Government forcing loans on British families when they should be asking those with an unexpected windfall to pay a little more to keep household bills down?
The Labour plan would clobber suppliers. It is an improvement on what I thought the right hon. Gentleman stood for, which was nationalising the energy companies. Maybe he has dropped that one now. I cannot tell whether he has dropped that one; maybe he has. What he would be doing is hitting the energy companies at precisely the moment when we need to encourage them to go for more gas, because we need to transition now to cleaner fuels, and this Government are providing £9.1 billion of support. It is more generous than anything Labour is offering.
I repeat my point: the only reason we can do it is that we kept our economy moving in those hard times, when Labour took the wrong decisions. We came out of lockdown in July last year when the Leader of the Opposition opposed it, and we kept going over Christmas and new year when they opposed it, and that is why we have the fastest-growing economy in the G7, not just last year but this year as well, as I never tire of saying.
The Prime Minister can bluff and bluster all he likes. The reality is this. On top of the Tory tax rises, on top of the soaring prices, the loan shark Chancellor and his unwitting sidekick have now cooked up a buy-now, pay-later scheme. It leaves taxpayers in debt, while oil and gas companies say that they have more money than they know what to do with. It is the same old story with this Government: get in a mess, protect their mates and ask working people to pick up the bill. But is the Prime Minister not worried that everyone can now see that with this Prime Minister and this Chancellor it is all one big scam, and people across the country are paying the price?
What they can see is a Government who are absolutely committed to doing the right thing for the people of this country and taking the tough decisions, when Labour is calling for us to take the easy way out and spend more taxpayers’ money. It was this Government who decided to keep going in July, when the Leader of the Opposition wanted to stay in lockdown. We kept going over Christmas and new year.
By the way, it occurs to me that we were also able to use those Brexit freedoms to deliver the fastest booster roll-out and the fastest vaccine roll-out—[Interruption.] Yes, when the Leader of the Opposition not only voted 48 times to go back into the EU—yes he did—but he also voted to stay in the European Medicines Agency.
Our plan for jobs is working. We have record low youth unemployment. Our plan for the NHS and care is working. Labour has no plan at all. Our plan for the country is working. We have a great vision to unite and level up across our country. Labour has no plan whatever. I say to him: plan beats no plan. We have a great plan for our country; they play politics.
Yes. I think it was only last week that I was congratulating my hon. Friend on her fantastic advocacy for nuclear in Ynys Môn. Do not forget, Mr Speaker, that Labour allowed nuclear capacity to decline by 11% on their watch; I do not think my hon. Friend has forgotten that. We want to get back up there, and that is why there will be at least one big nuclear project this Parliament—at least one—and our Nuclear Energy (Financing) Bill will support that objective.
Mr Speaker, I am sure that you and the entire House will want to join me in welcoming the Remembering Srebrenica campaign, that launched our yearly events in Parliament last night. We must all continue to strive for ongoing peace in Bosnia.
The flurry of changes in Downing Street over the last few days is a sight to behold. It is amazing how much energy this Prime Minister can sum up when it comes to saving his own skin. But while he has been busy rearranging the deckchairs, in the real world people continue to be punished by the Tory cost of living crisis. Yesterday, openDemocracy found that as a direct result of the Chancellor’s national insurance hike nurses will, on average, take a £275-a-year pay cut in April. That pay cut will hit at the very same moment that soaring energy bills land—bills that have shot up £1,000 in the space of a year.
It is a bill day and the rest of the public simply cannot afford it. So, rather than the Prime Minister and the Chancellor scrapping over the Tory leadership, will they do something useful and scrap their regressive hike in national insurance?
It was interesting that the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) did not mention that, because I think everybody can see how vital this is. We have to clear our covid backlogs; we have 6 million people already on the waiting lists; I am afraid that will go up, and we need to be recruiting the staff now. That is why we are recruiting 50,000 more nurses. There are 11,000 more this year than there were last year. To the point made by the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), let me say that we have increased the starting salary for nurses by 12.8%, in addition to the bursaries and other help that we give them. We value our nurses, we love our NHS and we are paying for it.
Actions speak louder than words and if the Prime Minister wants to reward nurses, he needs to pay them. They are the very backbone of the national health service—the very people he is hitting with a pay cut in April. I should not have to remind the Prime Minister that at the same time as those nurses were going into work every day to fight a pandemic, 16 different parties were happening in his Government. The public know what nurses sacrificed during the pandemic, and they know exactly what this rule-breaking Prime Minister and his Government were up to. So are the Prime Minister and his Chancellor seriously telling those nurses that their reward for seeing us through the pandemic is a £270 wage cut?
What we are telling the people of this country now is that we back our fantastic nurses all the way. What they want is more nurses, which is why record numbers are in training and why we had 11,000 more in the NHS this year than there were last year. Those are fantastic investments in our country and in our society, and I must say that it is peculiar that, as I understand it, the Scottish nationalist party’s approach to healthcare is now to cut off the bottom of doors in schools in Scotland in order to improve ventilation.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton North East (Jane Stevenson), who is truly a modern-day Lady Wulfruna. She is completely right; Wolverhampton and the Black Country were at the heart of the first industrial revolution and they are at the heart of the current 21st-century green industrial revolution. I am very glad that since April 2020 we have seen 125,000 starts for the sector-based work academy programme, partly at least thanks to her lobbying and support, and wild horses will not keep me away from Wolverhampton.
Seventy-four-year-old Janet had £25,000 stolen by fraudsters. She told the BBC:
“The money was my mum and dad’s and I just felt I let them down.”
For Janet, and for the 4 million people who fell victim to fraudsters and online scammers last year, fraud is a crime. So does the Prime Minister understand the hurt that he and his Ministers cause fraud victims such as Janet when they write them out of the crime figures and dismiss fraud as something that people do not experience in their day-to-day lives? Will the Prime Minister correct the record on crime figures, and apologise?
I direct the House to what I have already said to my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Jill Mortimer). The right hon. Gentleman knows very well that this Government hate fraud and online fraud. We are tackling the scammers by helping people to come forward when they get an email—when they get duped. We are of course helping them in any way that we can, but we are also cutting the crime that affects people up and down our country—the neighbourhood crime—and dealing with the county lines drugs gangs, and the right hon. Gentleman should support that as well. I am proud that those numbers have come down by 17%.
I thank my hon. Friend very much for everything she does to support education for girls. Twelve years of quality education for every girl in the world is probably the single most transformative thing we can do to improve the world. I remember working with my friend Uhuru Kenyatta on that declaration and we will certainly ensure that everybody at the Commonwealth meeting signs up to it.
Yes, I agree completely that there must be a solution that commands cross-community support. At the moment, there is no doubt that the balance of the Good Friday agreement is being upset by the way that the protocol is being operated, and we need to fix that. That is what we will do, and, if our friends will not agree, we will, as I said earlier, implement article 16.
I thank my hon. Friend for that suggestion, which is both interesting and ingenious. The oil and gas companies create hundreds of thousands of jobs in the UK, and they are very important to our economy. I will do what I can to take forward his request for a meeting with them, but I remind him and the House that we have frozen fuel duty for 12 years in a row, saving people £15 in the cost of filling up their tanks, compared with 2010.
I do not think that the hon. Lady should let the thugs and yobs who bullied and harassed the right hon. and learned Gentleman off the hook, because they are culpable, any more than she should let the Iranian Government off the hook, because they are culpable.
Since 2017, referrals for children’s mental health have gone up by 60%. Eating disorders among young girls have gone up by 400% since lockdown, and we know that social media companies play a huge part in that. Given that social media platforms such as TikTok are providing “crack for kids” in terms of adult content, negative imagery and addictive algorithms, will my right hon. Friend consider implementing a 2% levy on social media companies, which would raise £100 million to fund mental health resilience programmes for children?
I know that my right hon. Friend has campaigned on this issue assiduously, and he is quite right about the psychological damage that social media can do. I have heard what he has had to say recently about TikTok. We will see what we can do to address all these issues in the forthcoming online harms Bill.
I am afraid that the hon. Lady is wrong in what she says, because we are investing massively in Yorkshire—investing in 640 more police in Yorkshire and investing in education in Yorkshire—but she has misunderstood what we said at the time of the £96 billion integrated rail plan. What we are saying is that we will look at ways in which we can ensure that we protract the eastern leg of High Speed Rail from north of Birmingham to Bradford. What we are not doing is coming up with a scheme before we have decided exactly what to do and how to fund it, but we are not ruling it out.
I served my country with pride in the Royal Green Jackets. I will always be a rifleman and a veteran. I welcome the veterans’ strategy that the Prime Minister has just brought out, but I ask him whether veterans will always be at the heart of this Government’s strategy and whether everything will be done to see that they always get what they need and are honoured?
Yes, that is why we have set up an Office for Veterans’ Affairs and have ensured that veterans get preferential treatment on public transport, which was one of the first things I did when I became Prime Minister. It is why we ensure that veterans receive particular support and encouragement in employment, and we encourage employers to take on veterans as well.
That is a curious question to come from a Member on the Benches that contain someone who took, I think, £586,000 from the Chinese Government to support his office. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that this Government took the brave and necessary step of making sure that we excluded Huawei from our critical national infrastructure, and that was the right thing to do, whatever he says.
May I ask the Prime Minister a question about Sue Gray’s report—[Interruption.] Colleagues may groan, but I am only asking it because I asked the Prime Minister this question last week and did not get a straight answer. It is important, because it is about those who make the law obeying the law. The Prime Minister wants to be judged on the facts, and that is right, so may I ask him for a commitment at the Dispatch Box? On conclusion of the Metropolitan police investigation, will he ensure that Sue Gray’s final report is published immediately and in full?
With the greatest respect to my right hon. Friend, I believe that I did answer that question last Monday, or whenever it was—possibly last Wednesday as well. I will repeat for the benefit of the House that as soon as all the inquiries are concluded I will immediately publish in full whatever Sue Gray gives me.
I thank the hon. Lady for that question and for all the hard work she does on behalf of Nazanin. We remain committed to securing the release of Nazanin and all the very difficult consular cases that we have in Iran. As the hon. Lady knows, the International Military Services, or IMS, debt is difficult to settle and square away for all sorts of reasons to do with sanctions, but we will continue to work on it and I will certainly make sure that we have another meeting with Richard Ratcliffe in due course.
Dover is once again beset by miles of traffic jams along the motorways, affecting residents and local businesses alike—not because of Brexit but because of Brussels bureaucracy and red tape. Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister meet me to discuss how we can invest in our local roads, the M2, the M20 and the Dover traffic assessment project to unclog those roads once and for all, and how we can get rid of the unnecessary red tape for a trading global Britain?