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Volume 708: debated on Wednesday 9 February 2022

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.

Was the Business Secretary right to say that fraud is not something that people experience in their day-to-day lives?

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.

I was always worried that the Prime Minister wasn’t one for reading terms and conditions and that he didn’t understand what the Chancellor had signed him up to. He has just confirmed my worst fears. There is an alternative—[Interruption.]

Order. If you want to carry on, carry on outside: I am not having this perpetual noise coming from the Front Bench. Secretaries of State should know better. I expect better. I certainly do not need to put up with it any more.

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.

Q3. The Government’s £9 billion support to help with rising energy bills is most welcome; but will the Prime Minister assure the people of Anglesey and beyond that it is full steam ahead for new nuclear, like Wylfa Newydd, and that this Government are moving at pace on the future nuclear enabling fund, so that the UK has energy security, jobs and investment right here on these shores? (905533)

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.

Q5. As a proud Wulfrunian, I am thrilled that my city is at the front and centre of the Government’s levelling up White Paper. Getting jobseekers of all ages the skills they need to get into work will be vital to levelling up in Wolverhampton, and the City of Wolverhampton College is already doing this at its brand-new facility at Bentley Bridge, in my constituency. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating the college? Will he also meet me and my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West (Stuart Anderson), preferably at the college, so that we can discuss how more jobseekers can get access to skills, potentially through the City Learning Quarter and that final bit of funding that we need? (905535)

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%.

Q9. Wednesday 9 February. It is wonderful news that the first in-person Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting for four years will take place during Her Majesty’s platinum jubilee year. Will the Prime Minister ensure that the global learning crisis is high on the agenda? Will he ask his amazing diplomats to ensure that every leader in the Commonwealth signs up to the Kenyatta declaration on education? (905540)

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.

Q2. At the height of the lockdown restrictions in 2020, my constituent, who has worked for the NHS for over 30 years, was diagnosed with a tumour on her spine. While she was in hospital undergoing painful surgery, her family obeyed the rules and did not visit her. In the last few minutes, a photo has emerged of the Prime Minister in Downing Street, on 15 December 2020, surrounded by alcohol, food and people wearing tinsel. It looks a lot like one of the Christmas parties that he told us never happened. For the sake of my constituent and the sacrifices she made, will the Prime Minister be referring that party to the police, as it is not one of those already being investigated? (905532)

First, I am very sorry about the hon. Gentleman’s constituent and for the difficulties she has been through. I understand very much her feelings, but in what the hon. Gentleman has just said I am afraid he is completely in error.

Q10. On 30 September 2020, the Prime Minister joined me on a building site in Dudley that is now the new Institute of Technology, delivering on skills for future jobs and creating opportunities across the Black Country. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating the delivery team—including stakeholders such as Thomas Dudley and Dudley College—that delivered on this amazing project? Will he join me to do so in person at the nearest opportunity? (905542)

My hon. Friend is a great champion for Dudley and for the Black Country. I am delighted to hear that the Black Country & Marches Institute of Technology is now open and will certainly keep his kind invitation in mind.

Q4. The film “Belfast” contains the immortal words: “If you’re not listening, you probably don’t understand us, and if you don’t understand us, you’re probably not listening.” The fact of the matter is that the protocol has zero support from Unionists. The fact of the matter is—I hope the Prime Minister is listening—that in a divided society a solution that attracts the support of only one section of the community will never stand. Will the Prime Minister therefore take the opportunity to speak to the Irish Government, whose ambassador, Daniel Mulhall, is running around Washington demanding further implementation of the protocol on the basis that it will bring further checks on the people of Northern Ireland? Does the Prime Minister accept that he now has the responsibility to bring forward a solution that unites the people of Northern Ireland and that saves the Union that is being undermined by the protocol? (905534)

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.

11. Rather than a compulsory windfall tax so favoured by the Opposition, will my right hon. Friend take an alternative view: summon a high-level meeting with the oil and gas companies with the aim of a voluntary agreement to bring more oil and gas on to the wholesale market to reduce oil and gas prices to help hard-pressed people deal with the cost of living problems? (905543)

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.

6. I understand that the Prime Minister has been heard singing “I will survive” in recent days. I suggest that he would be better off singing “Careless Whisper” instead, because, in 2017, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was condemned to an extended prison sentence in Iran because of the careless words of this Prime Minister. Now, in 2022, this week, my friend, the Leader of the Opposition, was hounded by thugs outside this Parliament because of the careless, disgraceful words of this Prime Minister. Will the Prime Minister do the decent thing? Will he reconsider his words, repent and resign? (905537)

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.

7. Bradford is the UK’s youngest city and has the 10th largest city economy, with a GDP of £11.6 billion, and is bidding to be the city of culture. Now, it comes out that no detailed analysis of the long-term economic benefits of investing in Bradford and the north through the integrated rail plan was carried out. This Government’s failure has robbed Bradford of £30 billion-worth of growth over the next 10 years. When will the Prime Minister match action to rhetoric on levelling up and give Bradford the investment that it deserves? (905538)

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.

Q8.   In the panicked Downing Street staffing reshuffle at the weekend, the Prime Minister appointed to a senior role a man who recently lobbied the Government on behalf of Huawei Technologies, a hostile state vendor that this House legislated to exclude entirely from this country’s 5G networks. Given that the No. 10 director of communications has by definition access to some of the most sensitive Government information, will the Prime Minister tell the House whether Mr Harri’s present role requires enhanced developed vetting and STRAP clearance and whether he went through the necessary checks to provide that level of clearance before he took up his post? (905539)

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.

Q12. I understand that the UK Government signed an agreement with the Iranian authorities last summer that would have resulted in the payment of the £400 million that we owe Iran and the release of my constituent Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. That agreement fell through and the debt still has not been paid. The case urgently needs the Prime Minister’s attention and personal intervention, so may I ask the Prime Minister to meet personally with me and Richard Ratcliffe? I do not want to meet his colleagues; I want to meet him personally to find out why the agreement fell through and why Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is still not home after six long years. (905544)

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?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right in what she says. As the economy rebounds, we are seeing all sorts of pressures. We need to ensure that we clear bottlenecks everywhere in our system and that is what we will do.

Q13. I would like to refer to the Prime Minister’s answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton). The photograph referred to is all over social media; everybody can see the photo; the Prime Minister is in the photo. Can I ask him again, will he refer the matter to the police, because it is not one of the parties that are already being investigated by the Metropolitan police? (905545)

That is precisely the point—it already has been. That event already has been submitted for investigation.