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Business of the House

Volume 711: debated on Thursday 24 March 2022

I wish the best of health to the shadow Leader of the House, and welcome her replacement today, Jessica Morden.

It would be a pleasure. I join you, Mr Speaker, in wishing the shadow Leader of the House all the best for a speedy recovery, and welcoming the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) to her place.

The business for the week commencing 28 March will include:

Monday 28 March—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [Lords]; followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill; followed by debate on a motion on war pensions and armed forces compensation scheme payments. The subject for that debate was determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Tuesday 29 March—Debate on a motion to approve the Coronavirus Act 2020 (Delay in Expiry: Inquests, Courts and Tribunals, and Statutory Sick Pay) (England And Wales and Northern Ireland) Regulations 2022 and a motion under the Coronavirus Act 2020 relating to the renewal of temporary provisions; followed by Opposition day (18th allotted day, first part). There will be a debate on a motion in the name of the official Opposition, subject to be announced.

Wednesday 30 March—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Health and Care Bill, followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments.

Thursday 31 March—If necessary, consideration of Lords amendments; followed by a general debate on the impact of long covid on the UK workforce; followed by a debate on matters to be raised before the forthcoming Adjournment. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

At the conclusion of business on Thursday 31 March, the House will rise for the Easter recess and return on Tuesday 19 April.

The provisional business for the week commencing 18 April will include:

Tuesday 19 April—Second Reading of the Online Safety Bill.

I can also confirm to the House that the state opening of Parliament will take place on Tuesday 10 May and the current Session of Parliament will be prorogued ahead of the Queen’s Speech. The date of Prorogation will be confirmed in due course.

I thank the Leader of the House for the forthcoming business. You beat me to it, Mr Speaker, but eagle-eyed fans of business questions will, I am sure, notice that I am not my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire), the shadow Leader of the House. Like so many up and down the country, she is suffering from covid, so I wish her and others a very speedy recovery.

Tuesday marked five years since the Westminster terror attack, and we remembered those who tragically lost their lives, including PC Keith Palmer. We are forever indebted to him and to his family for their sacrifice. Today I would also like to take the opportunity to thank all those who are continuing to keep us safe.

Today marks one month since Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, with more and more war crimes being committed each day. The Labour party stands with our allies, including NATO and our other partners, in complete solidarity with the Ukrainian people. However, this devastating situation is also having implications for our own security situation. In yesterday’s spring statement there was no mention of stopping cuts to our armed forces. Other European Governments have already acted to reboot their plans and review defence spending, but the Chancellor has not announced any halt to Army cuts. There was no review of defence spending, no reform of military procurement, and no change to the real cut in day-to-day Ministry of Defence spending. This means less money for forces recruitment, training, pay and families. Can we have a statement from the Defence Secretary on how he plans to keep Britain safe if these cuts go ahead?

The Chancellor has been responsible for 15 tax rises in the past two years, and even though he proclaims that he believes in low tax, the Office for Budget Responsibility has confirmed that he has reversed only about a sixth of the tax rises he has announced since he took the job. The national insurance threshold rise is nothing more than a cynical attempt to distract from the fact that for every £6 this Chancellor takes away from people he has given them back just £1. Can we have a statement from the Chancellor on when it became Government policy to turn Britain into a country of high tax and low growth?

Families are facing the biggest fall in living standards since records began in the 1950s. The majority of households will see, on average, a £1,300 increase in year-on-year bills by October. Some 6.5 million households across the country will be facing fuel poverty next week. Our proposal for a one-off windfall tax on oil and gas producers would cut household energy bills by £600, helping those who need it most. As a Member for a Welsh constituency, I am proud that the Welsh Labour Government have again put in a more generous package of support for those who need it. Why are this Government not doing the same? Can the Leader of the House explain why this Government are happy to raise taxes on hard-working people but will not do the same for oil and gas companies?

Yesterday the Prime Minister said that he was taking legal action against P&O Ferries, but his officials are now saying that he overstepped the mark. Can the Leader of the House explain whether the Business Secretary has issued proceedings against P&O, and if not, why, a week on from these shameful sackings, the Government have done absolutely nothing to help these British workers? In fact, this Government have consistently voted to continue to allow bullying tactics from a few bad employers, and on Monday Conservative Members were whipped to abstain on our motion to outlaw fire and rehire. Can we have a statement on why this Government have let British businesses be undercut and let British workers down for the past decade?

I welcome the hon. Lady to her place. She is as enthusiastic as the shadow Leader of the House in the number of questions that she asks.

First, I join the hon. Lady in paying tribute to Keith Palmer and recognising the enormous sacrifice that many in our security services make in keeping us safe and defending us. There were a number of services to recognise the fifth anniversary, but it is important that we never forget the sacrifices that those individuals have made. I thank her for drawing the House’s attention to that.

The hon. Lady went on to talk about the Russian invasion. Again, I thank her. The House’s unity on this matter is exemplary. It is vital that we stick together and continue to send strong messages. Working with our international colleagues, this House will continue to send a robust message to the Putin regime.

The hon. Lady went on to pivot to funding of our armed services and a request for a debate. She will be aware that next week we have Defence questions, so she will have the opportunity to question the Secretary of State for Defence himself as he stands at the Dispatch Box. I am sure that when she does so, she will hear, once again, that we are the largest spenders on defence in the EU. We are already funding one of the best armed services in the world, and we continue to do that. That funding and that professionalism in our armed services is one reason why the people of Ukraine can defend themselves against Russian aggression with the weapons and technical support that we are supplying. We should be enormously proud of that. We have great armed services and we will continue to fund them properly.

The only way that we can do that, however, is though sound economic management and the hon. Lady went on to talk about the spring statement. Yesterday, the Chancellor of the Exchequer set out his tax plan. He certainly has a plan to deliver for the United Kingdom, to continue to keep us on the straight and narrow and to plot a path through the enormous economic challenge that the world is facing. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has sent ripples around the world through the energy and food markets—it will have an impact on the whole world.

In the UK, we have a plan to deal with that. Inflation is actually lower than in the US. Yesterday, the Chancellor cut fuel duty to help people who are struggling to fill up their car, which is a £5-billion tax cut for motorists in the UK, and cut national insurance now, which is a £6-billion tax cut for people. Instead of the Labour party’s policy of a windfall tax on energy companies, which is a broadbrush approach, the Chancellor is targeting the hard-working families who need support so that the people with the broadest shoulders bear the burden of taxation. That is the fair and right way to approach our taxation system.

The hon. Lady concluded by mentioning P&O Ferries. I join her in condemning its action. The way in which it treated its staff is abhorrent and it should be held to account. She will have heard the Prime Minister’s comments yesterday that it will be held to account in terms of the employment laws of the United Kingdom. I hope that P&O will reflect on the way it conducted itself and will find a way to reinstate and support its staff.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Nik Allen and his team at My Local News on the 2,000th edition of their magazine, which reaches households across most of my constituency, including Abbots Langley and Garston; provides important local news and community information; and promotes local businesses? Will he advise me on how I can best help to promote the important role of vital local journalism in the House and celebrate such magazines in Watford and across the UK?

In asking the question, my hon. Friend has achieved that. I join him in congratulating the team at My Local News. Local newspapers and magazines play an important role in our communities and I encourage him to apply for an Adjournment debate or a Westminster Hall debate to highlight that.

I echo the comments of the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) in sending my best wishes to the shadow Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire), and in remembering Keith Palmer and all those who keep us safe. The Facebook memories from five years ago that I saw a few days ago were quite something. I also echo the comments about on the ongoing tragedies in Ukraine.

The cost of living crisis is fast becoming a catastrophe for millions of families. The Resolution Foundation has found that the number of people in absolute poverty in the UK is expected to rise by 1.3 million next year. Having heard the Chancellor’s leadership pitch yesterday, can we now have a statement that actually details a financial package to offer meaningful support to pensioners, the disabled, people on benefits and those struggling on lower incomes who currently have to choose between heating and eating?

It is nine months since the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman confirmed the WASPI women’s claim that the Department for Work and Pensions was guilty of maladministration, yet nothing has happened. Can we have a debate in Government time to detail a timetable to properly compensate the women affected? We have also heard reports that there are plans for further aid cuts through the international development strategy, so I would be grateful if the Leader of the House arranged for a statement to be made to clarify that position.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) has been heavily involved in securing the safe passage of the Dnipro kids, who have gratefully made their way here, but many others have not been as helpfully supported. When can we have a statement from the Home Office to outline a change of direction that shows a generosity of spirit similar to that it managed to find with the Dnipro kids, so we can finally end the requirement for visas and make it far, far easier for others fleeing Ukraine, as has happened in other European countries?

Finally, with the change to Monday’s business, I am very grateful personally to the Leader of the House and to the Backbench Business Committee for the rescheduled debate on the armed forces compensation scheme war pension. It is indeed my own debate and I take this opportunity to encourage all Members to take part in it.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his place. It is a pleasure to be able to accommodate him on Monday. He is twice the man of the usual SNP spokesman, I think the House will agree. I am grateful to him for his comments about Keith Palmer and for once again expressing the unity across the House in our response to Russia.

The hon. Gentleman talks about the Government’s approach to tackling poverty and he is right to do that. I hope he recognises that the best way out of poverty is through work and for that work to pay, and for those people who are in employment to pay as little tax as possible. That is what the Chancellor set out yesterday when he reduced the amount of tax for those in the lowest paid employment. In previous Budgets, he set out a reduction in the taper levels for universal credit, so people retain more of their income. That is the right approach to fiscal responsibility and to ensuring the economy continues to grow, so that we can afford to pay people who are in employment more money and they can retain more of their wages. That is the right way to approach people working their way out of poverty and we are making great progress in that direction.

The hon. Gentleman went on to talk about refugees and made reference to the airplane with the children on, which I hope has now landed. I congratulate him on his role in securing that safe flight for those individuals. Of course, there is more we can do and we continue to do more. We in the United Kingdom are actually one of the most generous nations in the world when it comes to supporting refugees. We have an excellent programme, which is available to support as many people as possible coming here. We are opening up to nearly 100,000 school- children, who will receive support through the education system. At the same time, we also have a great package of humanitarian support, as well as military support, going to Ukraine, and I think that is the right balance. We are playing our part and we are leading the international community in doing that.

The hon. Gentleman made reference to a debate on the armed forces on Monday, which I think we have granted. I thank him for his questions.

The Leader of the House will be aware that the joint Commissions—the House of Lords Commission and the House of Commons Commission—in their meeting on 17 March on restoration and renewal, decided yet again to employ more consultants. Surely, whether one wants to decant or not, what we ought to do in this House is make up our mind what we want to do. It is costing us £100 million every year we delay and it is costing us £130 million every year in maintenance. Will the Leader of the House please provide for a debate in Government time, so that we can debate the whole matter of this huge project and try to find a sensible way forward?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. Restoration and renewal has always been a parliamentary programme and it remains so. It is for Parliament to decide how the programme evolves. We have stressed throughout that there can be no blank cheque for this work. That is why the Commission was concerned when in January it considered estimates ranging from £7 billion to £13 billion and decanting for between 12 years and 20 years. Both Commissions have therefore taken an initial decision to change the sponsor function. This is, of course, a House matter and the Government will seek to facilitate bringing that and other related decisions to the House for consideration once the Commission has completed further work on the proposed approach.

I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the business for next week. Given that we have had this afternoon’s business so cruelly snatched from us at the eleventh hour, I appreciate him announcing the Backbench Business debates for Monday and Thursday next week. Will the Leader of the House confirm whether there will be some measure of protected time for the Backbench Business Committee debate on war pensions and armed forces compensation scheme payments on Monday? That may not be a problem, but one never knows what can arise in the parliamentary agenda on the day. I thank him for announcing the date of the state opening on 10 May. Given that there is no general election or change to the membership of the House, could some preparatory work be done prior to prorogation so that the Backbench Business Committee can be re-established as soon as possible after the Queen’s Speech? That should not be beyond the wit of man.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, and I confirm that he will get two hours of protected time on Monday. Subject to progress in the House, he may of course get more time if other business progresses more quickly. I hope that will satisfy him, and I hear his plea about the re-establishment of the Backbench Business Committee after the Queen’s Speech. I am sure the Chief Whip, who is in his place, has also heard it.

The University of Nottingham recently decided to withdraw the honorary degree of Dr Tony Sewell, who spent decades of his career combating racial inequality in this country, because it found his recent report on race, which was thoughtful, detailed and rooted in evidence and data, too controversial. Does my right hon. Friend agree that free speech and the free exchange of ideas is the foundation of social progress in this country, and that rather than penalise contributors to that important debate, universities should be encouraging them? Will he make time for a debate on that important topic?

I join my hon. Friend in thanking Tony Sewell for his dedication to public service. She is right to raise this issue, and I was disappointed to see Nottingham University endorsing cancel culture. Those sorts of actions prevent ethnic minorities from participating in public life.

As we know, asbestos in school buildings is still a real problem, and something that we ought to be much more concerned about. Asbestos more generally is an issue, and if we could have a debate on that in Government time, we might also have the opportunity to discuss the asbestos leak that took place in this building but was not notified to most people, except through HuffPost’s good journalism, with about 170 people now on 40-year health watches as a result. Will the Leader of the House consider a debate in Government time on the vital issue of asbestos and health?

The hon. Lady is right to say that this is an important issue. She will be aware that the case to which she refers within the House of Commons is currently subject to a Health and Safety Executive investigation, and I expect the result of that to be made public once it has concluded. I assure her that House of Commons teams working in those areas take such matters seriously, and a number of procedures are in place to try to prevent such a leak again. Once that investigation has concluded, I am sure that any recommendations will be fully implemented, and we can be assured that those working and operating as contractors in this building are safe.

Yesterday, I was pleased to hear the Chancellor commit to reforming and reducing tax, and to sharing the proceeds of growth more fairly around the country. One of the least fair taxes has to be council tax, which is based on the wrong criteria and out-of-date figures. Many of the lowest paying areas for council tax are in central London, where very often people pay less than half of what those in two-tier county or shire areas might pay. Some of that might be to do with Nottinghamshire having had wasteful Labour administrations for 32 out of 40 years, but it is also due to structures and the way such things are set up. May we have a debate in the House to seek to inform the Chancellor’s review of local government fair funding and council tax, to help him to simplify and reform that system?

My hon. Friend is a keen advocate and champion for local council tax in Nottinghamshire, and his leadership of Nottinghamshire County Council is exemplary. I know that he will bring fairness to those people in Nottinghamshire through his office, as well as his leadership of that council, and I am sure he will continue to hold the Government to account. There will be opportunities for him to debate such matters either via a Backbench Business Committee debate, or an Adjournment debate.

The Government have chosen not to waive visas, and a constituent of mine has said:

“My mother is still in Poland waiting for the decision on her visa application. I submitted it on her behalf on 15th March, and only today I got a confirmation from UKVI that her documents have been received. Depending on the priority of application, the time for decision is between 24 hours and 5 working days, and there is no way find out either the priority category, or to track the application.”

May we have a statement to give some clarity on the processes so that our constituents can plan for family members coming to the UK?

If the hon. Lady sends me the details of the constituency case that she is talking about, I will ensure that Foreign Office or other Ministers respond to her in a timely way.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree that the Prime Minister has shown exceptional leadership during the war in Europe and that the extra missiles being provided by the United Kingdom are an example of help to the beleaguered country of Ukraine. I am also sure that he will welcome the unity of the House in the fight on Ukraine’s side. I hope he will be able to announce today that the Prime Minister will give a statement to the House on Monday to update us on what happened at NATO. I look forward to my right hon. Friend’s response.

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question. I am not one who often understands subtlety, and yesterday I may have inadvertently referred to my hon. Friend as “the hon. Gentleman” rather than “my hon. Friend”. I hope I did not cause him any offence. He should be assured that nobody believed that he was an hon. Gentleman when I made that inadvertent error yesterday.

My hon. Friend is a huge champion of parliamentary democracy. He is right to continue to ask for the House to be updated on a regular basis. I know he will continue to do that and I hope he will recognise that the Government have been responding from the Dispatch Box to keep this House informed.

All partially sighted people and people with sight loss should have the confidence to use trains safely, but that was not the situation for my blind constituent who, two years ago, tragically died by walking in front of a train. The station lacked audio announcements and tactile paving. Will the Leader of the House join me in paying tribute to my late constituent’s partner, Mr Hall? Next week, we will hear whether he has won the Royal National Institute of Blind People “See Differently” award for his campaigning on behalf of people with sight loss. Will the right hon. Gentleman also press his Cabinet colleagues to ensure that all stations have tactile paving? Many still do not, and tactile paving saves lives.

I am truly sorry to hear about the hon. Lady’s constituent’s plight. That truly is a terrible story. The Secretary of State for Transport is committed to trying to improve disability access to all our stations and public transport. The hon. Lady will understand that an enormous amount of capital investment is going into those services, but I will make sure that the Secretary of State for Transport is aware of her question and that we do all we can to prevent such a tragedy from happening again.

This week, the Royal Gibraltar Regiment has been mounting guard at the royal palaces and the Tower of London; I refer Members to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the regiment on that honour and in paying tribute to its work as an integrated part of the British armed forces? Will he find time for a debate on the value of Gibraltar to the United Kingdom and the British family, and on the links that bind us together?

My hon. Friend is right to draw the House’s attention to not just Gibraltar but many nations around the world that co-operate with our armed services. The regiment has received an honour. I thank him for putting it on the public record and congratulate all those involved.

I was grateful that the Leader of the House seemed to suggest last week that there would be regular updates on the tragic situation in Ukraine, and I hope that we will have an update soon. Last week, I asked about a Huddersfield resident, Richard Dass, who is ferrying people to the border and ferrying supplies in his camper van. He wants to know which medical devices we can get over to him from this country, and I would appreciate some help on that.

Perhaps I can ask one more question. Did the Leader of the House see the pictures of the young girls in Afghanistan who were turned away from their education when they turned up for the first day of term? That is a disgrace. May we have a debate soon on what is happening to women and girls worldwide who are being deprived of education?

The hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to raise that matter at Women and Equalities questions next Thursday, and he would be right to do so. We have a proud record on women’s education around the world and the Prime Minister is a huge champion of that. We in the UK are leading on it and will continue to do so.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to Ukraine and the situation with Russia, and I will try to assist him with that. His other point was that it is important to recognise that there are other challenges around the world. A lot of our focus at the moment appears to be on Ukraine, but we must not forget other parts of the world that have challenges with which we can help and assist.

Two and a half weeks ago, the Independent Expert Panel produced a report on the activities of John Bercow in which more than 21 incidents of bullying of staff members of this House were proven. For eight years that cast a dark shadow over this place, and when whistleblowers, including myself, tried to raise it in the Chamber, we were shouted down. Indeed, on one occasion, a former Labour Leader of the House came up to me and told me that it was inappropriate even to mention the subject in this Chamber.

I am slightly disappointed that since the report came out we have not had a statement on it from the Leader of the House and, in particular, about what future safeguards we can put in for after you have left, Mr Speaker. I hope you stay for a long time—[Interruption.] I do! However, if another unscrupulous Speaker—a serial liar, a serial bully—were to replace you, something must be put in place to stop what happened last time. When will we hear about some initiatives from our Leader of the House?

The answer is: right now. To be clear, there is no place for bullying or harassment in Parliament and MPs should be held to the highest standards. That is why the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme was set up to improve the working culture in Parliament. I hope that the decision of the ICGS gives all people in Westminster the confidence that if they come forward their cases will be heard fairly and that those who commit such actions will be held to account.

The Chancellor’s spring statement yesterday had little in the way of support for those struggling with rising food costs and other essentials. In a recent survey in my constituency, 90% of households said that they have experienced an increase in the cost of groceries. We have had a number of Opposition day debates from the Scottish National party on the cost of living, but will the Leader of the House provide Government time for a debate on the damaging effects of the cost of living crisis?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. She will recognise that the Chancellor was here answering questions for two and a half hours yesterday. To say that he did nothing to help with the cost of living crisis is slightly misleading. A £5 billion tax cut to the cost of fuel is a huge contribution to people who are struggling to fill up their cars to get to work. We recognise the challenge that the rising cost of food also brings, which is why he introduced the tax cut. As for energy costs, he is cutting VAT on energy-saving materials, such as solar panels. He has also doubled the household support fund to £1 billion so that councils in her local area and others can support the most vulnerable.

Yesterday the Chancellor made a historic cut in fuel duty which will be welcomed by millions of motorists and businesses throughout the country, and which will reduce prices across the board because it will reduce the cost of transportation. However, greedy and racketeering oil companies put up prices at some petrol stations yesterday. Furthermore, when the international oil price rises, the pump prices go up immediately, but when it is falling, as it is at present, there is a “feather approach” before it reaches the motorist. Will my right hon. Friend make a statement on this, and will he work with me and with FairFuelUK to persuade the Government to create a “PumpWatch” consumer watchdog to ensure that motorists pay fair prices at the pumps?

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend, who is a long-term campaigner on this issue. I know that a series of Chancellors of the Exchequer have done battle with him on it, and I think he should take some credit for yesterday’s 5p cut. The Chancellor has written to fuel companies to ensure that they pass on the cut, but my right hon. Friend will have an opportunity to raise the matter with the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy at Question Time next week.

As the House will know, illegal and unlicensed quad bikes are an increasing menace on our streets. My recent ten-minute rule Bill made provision for the police to seize and destroy quad bikes through a registration scheme, to make the wearing of helmets on public land compulsory and to compel manufacturers of these vehicles to fit immobilisers to prevent theft. Does the Leader of the House agree that this growing problem needs to be tackled, and may we have a debate on it in Government time?

These motorbikes can be a huge menace to communities. They race up and down pathways and through gitties, they injure pedestrians, and they are a huge source of antisocial behaviour. I know that the police have powers to seize them and have them crushed if they are not properly insured or licensed, and I urge the hon. Lady to raise the matter with the Home Secretary when she is next at the Dispatch Box to ensure that the police have the full powers they need in order to continue to clamp down on such antisocial behaviour.

Whether we are talking about universities, jobcentres, local authorities, the national health service, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency or passport offices—and the list goes on—students, consumers and taxpayers are still getting a raw deal from the continued “working from home” malaise. Will the Leader of the House agree to a debate or a statement on what role the Government might play in getting people back into their offices?

As my hon. Friend will know, the Cabinet Office is leading the way on this. There is an enthusiastic move to get people back to work and back into the office, led by the Minister for Brexit Opportunities, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg). My hon. Friend is right to draw the House’s attention to this issue: getting people back into the office and working to deliver the services that our constituents deserve is the right thing to do.

Yesterday, as Conservative Members callously cheered on the Chancellor, millions of people felt that they had been punched in the gut. The Chancellor’s plans to plunge a further 1.3 million people into poverty is causing untold distress and worry throughout the country. Will the Leader of the House allocate time in the Chamber, as a matter of urgency, for the Chancellor to do better, come back and deliver a statement that works for everyone?

The hon. Lady alludes to the Chancellor’s presence in the Chamber for two and a half hours yesterday, when he announced a tax cut for 70% of workers in the United Kingdom that means that those with the broadest shoulders can bear the burden of taxation, while a huge chunk of the wages of the hardest working on the lowest pay is taken completely out of tax. That is the right approach, as opposed to the scattergun approach that the hon. Lady seems to advocate from the Labour Benches.

Six West Yorkshire fire appliances, supported by six pumps from the Greater Manchester fire service, were tackling a raging moorland fire last night at Cupwith reservoir near Marsden in Scammonden in my constituency. Fires, barbecues and fireworks are already banned on the moors, but these devastating fires keep happening. I know that the Leader of the House is a farmer and that he will understand the devastation that these moorland fires cause not only to the environment but to wildlife. Can we have an urgent debate on what more can be done to prevent these devastating fires, particularly as we head towards the summer?

I am sorry to hear about that fire, and I pay tribute to those who are working hard to put it out. We have a fantastic fire service whose members put themselves in danger to put such fires out. My hon. Friend has contributed, via his question today, to drawing attention to the fact that people should be careful with barbecues, cigarettes and other things that can start what might seem to be insignificant fires that can soon take hold and cause huge devastation.

The Leader of the House has been waxing lyrical about the spring statement, so I refer him to page 31 of the book on it, which shows that the Government intend to spend 3.5 times less on chasing tax avoidance and evasion than they intend to spend on so-called social security fraud and error, and that they are projected to bring in less income through tackling tax avoidance and evasion than through tackling so-called social security fraud and error. Can we have a statement from the Treasury and/or a debate on the tax gap, which is estimated at £78 billion, or is this just another case of the Government punishing the poor at the expense of the super-rich?

The hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to debate taxation today as we discuss the Bill that will deliver a tax cut to 70% of workers in the UK. What the Chancellor announced yesterday was a system of taxation that allows those people with the broadest shoulders to bear the burden, which means that work will pay. That is the best way to tackle poverty and the best way to enable people to work their way and keep their wages so that they can aspire to a great career. That is the approach that we will continue to take.

Thank you, Mr Speaker —[Interruption.] Oh—I think I felt a kick there!

The damage to children from sustained parental conflict can be devastating. Last night I spoke at an event for the Family Solutions Group alongside the president of the family division and leading lights in the family law world. We all know that we in this place need to do more on family breakdown. The Ministry of Justice is working really hard on this and we need other Government Departments to row in behind it. Will my right hon. Friend grant time for a debate about separating families and the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2020, which comes into force in April?

My hon. Friend is probably not the first person to get a kicking in this place, but probably the first to get one internally. She brings an enormous amount of expertise to this place from her former career. I know that a lot of MPs have cases in which divorce is causing challenges for their constituents, and she is right to draw attention to that. The Ministry of Justice is bringing forward legislation, but 280,000 children are caught in the middle of family breakdowns and I commend her for her work on this matter. I am sure that she will continue to draw it to the House’s attention.

Could the Leader of the House arrange for a debate in Government time on ensuring that there are sufficient staff to cover the UK Visas and Immigration MPs’ hotline? Earlier this week, my team spent at least three hours trying to contact a member of staff on an urgent passport issue, and that was not a one-off occurrence. I know there is high demand, but I am keen to hear what additional support the Home Office is providing to ensure that Members can raise urgent queries on behalf of their constituents in a timely manner. If this is the service that MPs are receiving, I dread to think what individual constituents are facing.

If the hon. Gentleman wants to supply me with details of the specific case he is talking about, I will of course take it up with the Immigration Minister on his behalf and ensure that he gets a rapid response to assist his constituents.

Gedling borough residents are opening their council tax bills to find enclosed a letter signed by the council’s leader and deputy leader criticising the Government, including a statement that the borough had not received levelling-up funding. However, at a meeting I had with officials in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities this week, I learned that Gedling’s levelling-up fund bid had been described by them as disparate and insufficiently compelling. The council would have had that feedback when it prepared that letter. Can my right hon. Friend advise me on how best to raise this issue in the House, and does he agree that Gedling Borough Council’s leaders’ time would be better spent working on better bids than on churning out taxpayer-funded propaganda?

I share my hon. Friend’s pain, because Gedling Borough Council covers part of my constituency, too. He is right to draw the House’s attention to this. The good news is that the second round opens to bids soon and will close on, I think, 6 July. I know he will continue to press Gedling Borough Council to improve its bid so that his constituents can feel the benefit of Government support.

Will the Government make time to debate the national planning policy framework, focusing especially on decisions that directly contravene our binding net zero targets such as the decisions on the expansion of Bristol airport or new fossil fuel extraction at Horse Hill and in Cumbria?

I hope the hon. Lady recognises that we need a balanced approach to our energy sources. The Government are committed to moving in the direction of renewable energy, and this important matter is worthy of debate in the House. We have to go at the speed our constituents and taxpayers can afford, and we need a balanced approach to our energy sources.

Energy-intensive industries such as steel and ceramics are struggling with the soaring cost of energy, and we cannot afford to lose critical producers such as Stocksbridge Speciality Steel or Naylor Industries in my constituency. I was delighted that, yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister recommitted to bringing forward a British energy security strategy to provide relief to these industries. Will the Leader of the House commit to a debate or a statement in Government time when this strategy is announced so that hon. Members can scrutinise it on behalf of the industries we represent?

My hon. Friend will have an opportunity to raise this again at Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy questions next week. We will shortly set out the British energy security strategy to bolster our energy security. Ministers have been making every effort to keep the House updated on the Government’s response to the war in Ukraine, and I am sure the House will be kept updated on this important issue, too.

The House is united in its condemnation of P&O’s actions in sacking 800 British workers, but this is only the latest in a long line of such incidents, and it will not be the last unless the Government introduce legislation to ban fire and rehire. What are the Government’s plans to introduce legislation to make sure this is the last scandal and to give British workers the support they deserve?

The House will recognise the irony of a Labour Member talking about banning fire and rehire, a practice that the Labour party used as recently as last year. Fire and rehire should be an absolutely last-case scenario when a company is in difficulty and wants to secure as many jobs as possible in order to survive. What P&O did last week was, frankly, a complete abhorrence. Its actions cannot be defended by anyone and should be condemned. We have employment laws to protect people, and we will make sure P&O follows the law.

Will my right hon. Friend commend the work of my constituent Chris Truett to clear sand from the seawall path and to plant thousands of flowers at his own expense? And will my right hon. Friend therefore condemn Labour-controlled Sefton Council, which reportedly dumped the sand back on to the seawall and mowed down all of Chris’s flowers? Volunteers in our communities should be celebrated, so can we have a debate in Government time to do so?

I pay tribute to Chris and the work of volunteers in my hon. Friend’s constituency. Sefton Council should be supporting their valuable work. Volunteers and community groups work incredibly hard to improve parks and green spaces, including the botanic gardens, Lord Street, Bedford park and Ainsdale village. Volunteers deserve to be celebrated for their work in the community, so I encourage my hon. Friend to apply for an Adjournment debate or a Backbench Business debate.

I think that the Leader of the House meant to say to my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) that we now have the highest tax burden in modern history, even after the Chancellor’s plan yesterday. People are really struggling. They are engulfed in a cost of living crisis, yet the Chancellor has written off £4.3 billion of covid loans to fraudsters and wasted £8.7 billion on duff personal protective equipment that was so useless it had to be burnt. So may we have a debate on fraud and waste in the public finances?

As I recall it, when the Government were securing PPE the Labour party was screaming like mad for the Government to take PPE from anywhere and anybody. It is all well and good to sit in judgment in hindsight and to criticise those decisions, but the Government were trying to secure PPE to protect frontline workers in the middle of a global pandemic. I am fairly confident that I was right in what I said in answering the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck), as opposed to how the hon. Gentleman framed it. What the Chancellor set out yesterday with his tax plan delivers the biggest net cut in personal taxes in more than a quarter of a century.

A newspaper report today suggests that 45 streets and statues in London could be cancelled. In Peterborough, the Labour opposition has already toyed with renaming streets, including the iconic Gladstone Street in the heart of my city—not for anything that great Liberal Prime Minister did, but for the sins of his father decades earlier. Now these student union historians want to take control of the city council. May we have an appropriate Gladstonian statement from the Government opposing taxpayers’ money being spent on this woke nonsense and letting my constituents know what they can do?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this matter, although it is unsurprising to hear that the Labour party in Peterborough is focusing on revising history rather than supporting residents. I know from my own experience that most residents are concerned about the provision of high-quality services and good value for their council tax, and I have no doubt that his constituents understand that they will get that only from a Conservative administration and will reject Labour’s student politics at the elections in May.

I am proud to support the five steps put forward by the all-party group on nuclear energy to supercharge nuclear delivery in the UK. It is fantastic to see the Wylfa site in my constituency getting the recognition it deserves; the Prime Minister recently visited and there is continued interest from multiple developers. Now is the time to turn plans into action, guarantee our energy security and meet our climate change commitments. Will the Leader of the House agree to set aside Government time to debate the all-party group’s five-point plan?

My hon. Friend will be aware that Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy questions will take place next week, but we will shortly be setting out our British energy security strategy and the Prime Minister has been clear that nuclear is crucial to boosting UK energy security and independence. That is why we have been revising 30 years of inaction on nuclear energy. We will invest £210 million to develop small modular reactors, and we are investing £100 million on the progress and development of Sizewell C, and bringing forward a nuclear Bill to unlock the financial obstacles. My hon. Friend displays considerable knowledge and determination in her campaign for the nuclear plant at Wylfa. I am sure that nuclear has a significant role to play in the future of our energy security and I commend her for her work.

Organisations across my constituency, such as St NicNac’s in Dunston, Feeding Families, the Gateshead food bank at Birtley and Blaydon, the Blaydon Community Larder, the Pickle Palace, the Winlaton Centre and the Birtley Hub, are all doing an incredible job supporting so many in our communities in an increasingly difficult financial, cost of living crisis. Yesterday’s statement from the Chancellor barely scratched the surface of tackling those inequalities and the unfairness. May we have a debate in Government time on how we can take these families out of poverty?

I join the hon. Lady in paying tribute to those volunteers and charities that are assisting in that way. She will not be the only Member who has such charities in their constituency doing great work to support people. The Government recognise the challenge, which is why we have put £500 million into the household support fund, which is doubling to £1 billion in April and benefits 4 million low-income households. We have expanded free school meals for five to seven-year-olds, boosted the value of Healthy Start vouchers by more than a third and introduced and retained the £200 million holiday activities and food programme.

This weekend, Bolsover Drama Group will host a celebration and performance to celebrate its 40th anniversary. The group gives a huge amount to the community and in particular provides opportunities for young people. In congratulating Mick Whitehouse, Chris Peck and all the members of the group on their landmark celebration, may I ask the Leader of the House for a debate in Government time on the important role that the arts play in local communities? Will he also apologise to my husband, because I am here on our wedding anniversary?

I congratulate Bolsover Drama Group on its 40th anniversary. It really is a fantastic landmark to have reached, and I am sure it would not have been possible without the hard work of so many people, including Mick Whitehouse and Chris Peck. The arts play a vital role in bring local communities together, especially since the pandemic. I encourage my hon. Friend to apply for a Westminster Hall debate, and hope that today’s business concludes early enough for him to get home to Bolsover to be with his husband.

I heard yesterday from the Bank of Scotland that it plans shortly to close its Clarkston branch, among a number of others. It will be the last bank branch in town—a situation faced by so many other East Renfrewshire communities. Our communities, and particularly those who are elderly or more vulnerable, need bank branches. May we have a debate in Government time about what the Government can do to support that need, support our local high streets and make sure that banking and access to cash are at the heart of our communities?

The Government recognise the importance of our high streets, which is why we have the levelling-up fund for colleagues to bid into. I recognise the challenge that people in rural communities face if their local banks disappear, and I encourage the hon. Lady to apply for either a Backbench Business debate or an Adjournment debate to continue to highlight that challenge.

The Government published their response to the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission 14 months ago—a year after the commission reported. Although the House united against those proposals, nothing else has come forward. My constituency is now experiencing a housing crisis that is completely off the scale and we are in a desperate situation. May we have an urgent debate about the state of housing poverty in our country and how the Government are going to address it?

The hon. Lady is of course right to highlight the challenges that face some communities. It is a Government priority to increase the housing supply. Since 2010, more than 2 million additional homes have been delivered. We have put an extra £10 billion of investment into housing supply and will unlock more than 1 million homes. Our £12 billion of investment in affordable housing will deliver up to 180,000 homes. The Government continue to be committed to supporting people to get on to the housing ladder and to aspire to own their own home.

The Leader of the House will be aware that England is a frontrunner to host the Euros, with Ireland, in 2028. I was horrified yesterday to find out that the Russian Football Union has put in a bid—which has been accepted and is currently being looked at—to compete with us to host Euro 2028. I find that completely appalling. Also, it is shocking that there is still a Russian representative on the UEFA committee. Will the Leader of the House find Government time for the House to debate how we can continue to ensure that, for as long as Putin reigns in Russia, it is a pariah in everything to do with sport?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight this matter. Frankly, it is almost laughable that Russia even thinks it would have the remotest chance of hosting an event of that nature while it is committing such actions in Ukraine. I know that FA representatives will be making the strongest representations to UEFA to make sure that that does not happen, but I am sure that my hon. Friend will find other opportunities to continue to raise the matter in the House.

Can we have an urgent debate or statement on the future of the aid budget? Yesterday, the Chancellor could not confirm whether humanitarian aid for Ukraine would be counted towards the official development assistance total, which would squeeze spending plans elsewhere in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. Our responsibility to people in need should not be an either/or choice. The resources desperately needed in Ukraine should not be at the expense of existing FCDO aid plans. Can an FCDO Minister come to the House as a matter of urgency and explain exactly what is happening to the international aid budget?

The Government remain committed to 0.7% of GNI for foreign aid, but we continue to do a lot more than that. We are sending humanitarian aid to Ukraine, and the UK also contributed £548 million to the COVAX vaccination programme. The Government are delivering on overseas development aid. We are one of the world leaders in this area.

I have been working with Nottinghamshire County Council and other agencies to address causes of flooding in Rushcliffe. In some cases, we have been met by a lack of action and a complex web of responsibilities. For example, in the village of Cropwell Butler, in a flood event, water flows from the A46 into the village and into people’s homes, but National Highways says that its only responsibility is to get the water off the road. Will my right hon. Friend allow us a debate in Government time on how we can improve responses to flooding and how the powers of lead flood authorities can be strengthened to properly hold other agencies to account on behalf of our residents?

I understand the devastation that flood damage can cause. The Flood and Water Management Act 2010 gave local flood authorities lead responsibility to manage surface water run-off, groundwater and flooding from ordinary watercourses, and provided them with additional funding to undertake those duties. At local level, lead local flood authorities work in partnership with other relevant organisations, such as highways authorities and water companies, to effectively manage and, where possible, mitigate the impacts of local flooding through the development of a local flood risk management strategy. We have Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions on 28 April. I encourage my hon. Friend to be present and to make sure that the Secretary of State hears her concerns for the people of Cropwell Bishop.

For the third time in the last nine months, the trams operated by West Midlands Metro have been suspended, this time indefinitely. Tens of thousands of people across the region depend on those trams, including my constituents who commute to Birmingham and beyond. It seems there have been issues with the quality of the trams purchased, and there is also a colossal cost. Can we have a debate about the situation, including the role of the West Midlands Combined Authority?

I am aware of the challenges that the tram system in the west midlands has faced. I will draw the issue to the attention of the Secretary of State for Transport on the hon. Gentleman’s behalf and will make sure he gets an answer in due course.

It was great to welcome my right hon. Friend to West Bromwich a few weeks ago, in his first outing in his new role. In a written ministerial statement on Tuesday it was announced that, after years of campaigning by residents and community groups, commissioners would be sent in to Labour-led Sandwell council to root out the corruption that has been at the heart of that local authority for some 50 years. Can I ask my right hon. Friend to use his good office to ensure that we have a debate on the Floor of this House about that corruption and its impact on residents? Will he also reaffirm the commitment made by his predecessor that, if the Labour administration frustrates the process in any way, it will be held to account?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and also for his hospitality in Sandwell when I visited. He is a huge advocate and champion for his area. I know he will continue to hold the people on Sandwell council to account in this House. He is a very effective advocate for his constituents, and I know they are better off for having his representation in this place.

The UK Government shamefully withdrew from Scotland the publicly announced Barnett consequentials of £290 million, in order to fund the £150 council tax rebate for property bands A to D, after the funds had been incorporated into the Scottish Parliament’s fixed budget. The Scottish Government now have to find that £290 million from elsewhere. Will the Leader of the House make a statement on why the funding was withdrawn from Scotland and why his Government are playing daft political games and selling Scotland short?

The hon. Lady will be aware that there is a system of Barnett consequentials, which will be delivered upon, but I also encourage her to speak to her colleagues in the SNP Government to make sure that they use taxpayers’ money efficiently. There are a number of areas that they need to get right. The challenge of CalMac ferries is a very good example of where the SNP Government have wasted taxpayers’ money and not delivered for their constituents. I think she needs to look closer to home. Of course, the Scottish Government also have tax responsibilities. They could raise taxes if they wanted to, but they choose not to use those powers that are available to them.

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will be aware that my Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Bill will have its Second Reading in the other place next Friday, 1 April. As I said on Third Reading in this House last month, one of the crucial times for children at risk of child marriage is the summer holidays, when they are taken abroad and married. Please may we have a debate about informing children of their rights before the summer holidays and raising awareness of the dangers of child marriage?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on her tireless campaigning. It is vital that the Bill becomes law very soon. As so often with hidden crimes, raising awareness will be a key part of the implementation activities for her Bill. I encourage her to apply for a Westminster Hall or Backbench Business debate to highlight that.

May I thank the Leader of the House for all the help he gives right hon. and hon. Members to secure helpful debates and statements?

Last month church leaders in Sudan were detained and their church building closed and locked by Islamic extremists. Will the Leader of the House provide a statement of solidarity with Christian churches in Sudan and oppose the land grabs and arbitrary arrests enacted against the Christian community? I believe that they need help, and this House can do that.

I am more than happy to pledge from this Dispatch Box my solidarity with those people who are fighting the closure of their churches. The hon. Gentleman is a huge champion in this House of religious freedom around the world, and I know that he will continue to be. He should be commended for the work he does not only in this place but around the world on the promotion of religious freedom.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it may be helpful to provide specific guidance for the good people of Don Valley and the UK who want to house Ukrainian refugees in dealing with and supporting people who have fled a war zone, may struggle with the English language and are adjusting to a new way of life separated from loved ones?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the fact that the UK is welcoming many refugees from Ukraine who will, of course, come with their own challenges. There will be support from the Government on how to respond to that, but I will make sure that my noble Friend Lord Harrington is aware of his concerns and give him some guidance.

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a statement, debate or more guidance on the Homes for Ukraine scheme? I have a constituent in Southend West who has already brought back Ukrainian family members from the terrible conflict in Ukraine and is housing them in his own home. He has applied under the Homes for Ukraine scheme for the £350 support, but he and we have been told that he is not eligible because he has already brought the family members back. It is an excellent scheme, but surely people who have acted swiftly and already brought family back should not be treated any differently from those applying to the scheme now.

I thank my hon. Friend for her question, but also her constituents for their support. Home Office and Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities officials are providing a service for Members and their caseworkers on these very matters at the Portcullis House customer service hub. I encourage my hon. Friend to take this matter up with them.

Darlington is the birthplace of the modern railway, and I am of the view that Darlington is the best place for the new headquarters of Great British Railways. It just makes sense—it is where it all began. Given that there is huge interest across the House, from 42 locations across the United Kingdom, to be the home of Great British Railways, and given that many MPs representing those constituencies have already held Adjournment debates and Westminster Hall debates, may I ask my right hon. Friend to find Government time for a debate on all those amazing locations, so that we can extol the virtues of our respective bids?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He is a strong champion for Darlington and I commend him for his campaigning, which is building up quite a head of steam. [Hon. Members: “Groan!”] Oh, there is more to come! Indeed, I have been told that he has mentioned Darlington’s bid for the HQ to be sited in his constituency more than any other Member has referenced theirs. I am sure that his efforts are going a long way to keeping the bid on track, and that such a debate would be heavily subscribed by Members from across the House.

Many hon. Members have constituents who have travelled to the Polish-Ukraine border as part of the humanitarian efforts to support refugees fleeing Putin’s brutal illegal war. Those with whom I have had the opportunity to speak identified real concerns regarding the safeguarding processes in place to protect vulnerable refugees. I have been told of reports of women in particular being brutalised and attacked by criminals and, horrifyingly, being the victims of sex trafficking. Will my right hon. Friend make time for a debate to allow Members the opportunity to discuss how the international community can work together to find solutions to this horrifying problem?

I had not heard those reports myself, but what my hon. Friend has raised is extremely disturbing. I thank him for his question and I will bring this to the attention of the Home Secretary and raise it with her on his behalf.