The whole House will have read the statement today from my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Dr Wallis)—I know that the House stands with you and will give you the support you need to live freely as yourself.
I thank Donna Ockenden and her whole team for the compassionate approach she has taken throughout the distressing review of maternity care at Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS Trust. Every woman who gives birth has the right to a safe birth, and my heart therefore goes out to the families for the distress and suffering they have endured. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care will make an oral statement this afternoon to set out the Government’s response.
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.
While our focus is rightly on Ukraine, the Prime Minister will be aware of the great concern of many people across the Baltic states. Will he outline the role that the joint expeditionary force can play in countering Russian aggression and improving the defensive posture for our allies in the Baltics?
The joint expeditionary force, or the JEF, is an increasingly important grouping of the Nordic countries, the Baltic countries, the Dutch and ourselves, and we are committed to working together in an active way to counter Russian aggression and support our Ukrainian friends. We had a successful meeting a couple of weeks ago and will have further such meetings in the course of the next few weeks.
We now come to the Leader of the Opposition.
May I start by joining the Prime Minister in his remarks in relation to the hon. Member for Bridgend (Dr Wallis)?
Does the Prime Minister still think that he and the Chancellor are tax-cutting Conservatives?
Yes, I certainly do, because this Government have just introduced not only the biggest cut in fuel duty ever but the biggest cut in tax for working people in the last 10 years. Seventy per cent. of the population paying national insurance contributions will have a substantial tax cut as a result of what the Chancellor did, and if we take together—[Interruption.] The Opposition do not like it, Mr Speaker, but it is true. They always put up taxes; that is why. We cut taxes. They love putting up taxes. If we take together what we are doing with income tax and national insurance, it is the biggest tax cut for 25 years, proposed by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor.
Cut the nonsense and treat the British people with a bit of respect. Let me take the Prime Minister through this slowly: 15 tax rises and the highest tax burden for 70 years. For every £6 the Government are taking in tax rises, they are handing only £1 back. Prime Minister, is that cutting taxes or is that raising taxes?
I do not know where the right hon. and learned Gentleman has been for the past two years, but even by the standards—[Interruption.] Yes, he has. Even by the standards of Captain Hindsight, to obliterate the biggest pandemic for the past century from his memory and to obliterate the £408 billion that we have had to spend to look after people up and down the country is quite extraordinary. This is a Government who are getting on with reducing the tax burden wherever we can. There is one measure that I think the right hon. and learned Gentleman should support, and that is the health and care levy to fund our NHS. That is the one that the Opposition oppose. They are all in favour of every other tax rise.
I can only hope that the Prime Minister’s police questionnaire was a bit more convincing than that.
This year, the British people face the worst fall in living standards on record. While they are counting every penny, the Prime Minister is hitting them with higher taxes, but in 2024, when there just so happens to be a general election, the Government will introduce a small tax cut. That is not taking difficult decisions; that is putting the Tory re-election campaign over and above helping people pay their bills. How did he find a Chancellor as utterly cynical as he is?
What we have is a Chancellor who took the tough decisions to look after the UK economy throughout the pandemic, and who protected people up and down the land with £408 billion-worth of support. By the way, if we had listened to Captain Hindsight—and this is the truth—we would not have come out of lockdown in July last year. We would have stayed in lockdown over Christmas and new year, with the result that the UK economy would not be growing in the way that it is, so we would not be able to make the investments that we are now making. Under Labour, we would have to tax more and borrow more. It cannot be trusted with the economy.
The tough decisions—give me a break! We know who those two always ask to pay: income stealth tax—a tax on working people; the tuition fee raid—a tax on working people; the national insurance hike—a tax on working people. All of this while oil and gas companies see unexpected bumper profits. A windfall tax would raise billions and ease the burden on working people. The former chief executive office of BP, Lord John Browne, says a windfall tax is “justifiable”. The current CEO says that BP has, in his words,
“more cash than we know what to do with.”
Why is the Prime Minister more interested in shielding oil and gas profits than supporting working people?
That is a classic example of what Labour got wrong during its period in office. The oil and gas companies are now investing £20 billion in ensuring that we have long-term energy supplies. I remember that the 1997 Labour manifesto actually said that there was “no economic case” for more nuclear power. We are now having to make good the historic mistakes of the Labour party by investing in our long-term energy supply. That is what we are doing. Everything that Labour is proposing would deter investment, meaning higher prices for consumers and households up and down the land being worse off.
There we have it: the Conservatives are the party of excess oil and gas profits; we are the party of working people.
Talking of parties, the Prime Minister told the House that no rules were broken in Downing Street during lockdown. The police have now concluded that there was widespread criminality. The “Ministerial Code” says that Ministers who “knowingly” mislead the House should resign. Why is he still here?
Hang on a minute. The right hon. and learned Gentleman has just changed his position. We do at least expect some consistency from this human weather vane. It was only a week or so ago when he said that I should not resign. What is his position, Mr Speaker? Of course the investigators must get on with their job, but, in the meantime, we will get on with our job. We are focusing on tackling the cost of living, and helping people through the spike in fuel prices—the £9.1 billion that the Chancellor has set out. I have mentioned nuclear power and I have mentioned tackling our energy supplies, which Labour totally failed to do, but, far more important perhaps even than that, we are tackling illiteracy and innumeracy in our schools. We are investing billions in tutoring. That is what we are focusing on, and that is what the people of this country want us to focus on.
There are only two possible explanations. Either the Prime Minister is trashing the ministerial code, or he is claiming he was repeatedly lied to by his own advisers and did not know what was going on in his own house and his own office. Come off it! He really does think it is one rule for him and another rule for everyone else—that he can pass off criminality in his office and ask others to follow the law, that he can keep raising taxes and call himself a tax cutter, and that he can hike tax during a cost of living crisis and get credit for giving a bit back just before an election. When is he going to stop taking the British public for fools?
This is the Leader of the Opposition who would have kept this country in lockdown and made it absolutely impossible. He has zero consistency on any issue, but one thing we know is that he would like to take us back into the European Union and take us back into lockdown if he possibly could. Thanks to what this Government have done, we have unemployment back down to the levels it was before the pandemic, the economy bigger than it was and record vacancies. The difference between the Opposition and us is that they want to keep people on benefits and we want to help people into work. That is what we are doing, in record numbers. They want to raise taxes; we want to cut taxes, and that is what we are doing. We are tackling illiteracy; they did not give a damn.
We are getting on with making this country the best place to invest. The last time I updated the House on the number of unicorns in this country—that is, tech companies worth more than $1 billion—I said we had 100. I can inform you now, Mr Speaker, that we have 120. The Opposition do not want to hear it, but let me tell you: that is more than France. It is more than Germany. It is more than Israel. It is more than France, Germany and Israel combined. That is what is happening under this Government. That is what is happening because of the tough decisions we have taken. We take the tough decisions. We deliver; they play politics.
Yes. We are spending £69 million already to support the roll-out of superfast broadband in Wales. I wish the Welsh Government had not withdrawn their broadband scheme, but we will do our best to make up the difference as fast as possible.
We now come to SNP leader Ian Blackford.
It is good to see the hon. Member for Bridgend (Dr Wallis) in the Chamber, and I commend him for his statement earlier today.
Last night, millions of families will have been desperately trying to figure out how they will possibly afford the £700 energy price hike that will hit them this Friday. At the very same time, Tory MPs were gathering across the street for a champagne bash in the Park Plaza. We all know that the Tories partied during lockdown, and now they are—[Interruption.]
Order. Mr Fabricant, Easter is upon us. I do not need you to ruin your Easter. Let us hear—[Interruption.] Order, all of you. Let us hear SNP leader Ian Blackford.
They shout and scream when we are raising the Tory cost of living crisis. We all know that the Tories partied during lockdown and now they are partying through the cost of living emergency.
Last week the Chancellor got it badly, badly wrong with the spring statement, and ever since the Prime Minister has been busy briefing against him, saying that more needs to be done. For once I agree with the Prime Minister. So if he really believes that more needs to be done, can he tell us exactly what he will order his Chancellor to do to help the millions of families who are facing a £700 price hike this Friday?
I think the right hon. Gentleman is in error in what he says about events last night, but he is, like me, a living testament to the benefits of moderation in all things. To get to his point, this week, for instance, the living wage is going up again by record amounts, and thanks to what the Chancellor has done we are putting £9.1 billion into helping people up and down the country. I might respectfully suggest that the thing the Scottish nationalist Government—with whom, as I say, we work increasingly well—could focus on for the long-term prosperity of Scotland is the educational system, where I am sad to see Scotland’s once-glorious record falling behind.
What a load of absolute baloney. The Prime Minister is dangerously out of touch. Food banks are warning that people are having to choose their food based on whether they can afford the gas to boil it. Families are having to choose what rooms to heat or whether they can turn on the heating at all. Some in the Tory Cabinet clearly believe that better weather means that they can happily sit on their hands and do nothing until next winter. They obviously do not get, or do not care, that in many parts of Scotland the weather will barely reach above freezing over the next week. The Chancellor thinks his £200 loan, which is forcing people into energy debt, is somehow a solution, but it clearly is not. So before the Prime Minister and his Chancellor go off on their Easter holidays, will they, at the very least, turn this loan into a grant and finally put some cash into people’s pockets when they need it, right now?
Of course we are doing everything that we can, with the £9.1 billion and the cold weather payments. The right hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the problem, and we are making huge investments in supporting people right now, with another £1 billion, by the way, through the household support fund to help vulnerable families. But when he talks about the cost of energy in Scotland, how absolutely preposterous it is that the Scottish nationalist party should still be opposed to the use of any of our native hydrocarbons in this country, with the result that the Europeans are importing oil and gas from Putin’s Russia. It is totally absurd.
Just for the record, it is the Scottish national party.
I thank my hon. Friend, who is a great champion for Bolsover and for his constituents. Free and subsidised travel is provided to Bolsover students travelling, so far, to two of the three excellent colleges that are going to be offering T-levels from 2023, but I will make sure that he gets a meeting with my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary to discuss further what we can do.
During the second world war, my grandmother, like countless other people across our country, opened her home to evacuees, including two German Jewish boys. Over 70 years later, the British people want to shelter desperate refugees again. Two weeks ago, I was speaking to refugee families on the Ukrainian-Polish border at Medyka. Some desperately wanted to come to our country. One elderly couple told me that they had been told that it was just too complicated, and now the Government’s own figures say the same. Paperwork is being put ahead of people. When wealthy businessmen from more than 50 countries can come to the UK visa-free, why does the Prime Minister insist that a traumatised Ukrainian mother and child must first fill out a visa form?
The right hon. Gentleman is right about the generosity of his country, and he is right to draw attention to his family’s own generosity in this matter. Everyone is pulling together. The number of people who have come forward to offer their home is incredible, but I really do not think he should deprecate what the UK is offering. Some 25,000 people have already got visas. We are processing 1,000 a day. There is no upper limit to the number we can take. This is a country that has already been the most generous in taking people from Afghanistan, with 15,000 under Operation Pitting. We have 104,000 applications from the Hong Kong Chinese. This is a country that is overwhelmingly generous to people coming in fear of their lives. [Interruption.] Yes it is, and so are this Government.
I do not think anyone involved in partnering operations over the past 10 or 20 years could fail to be humbled by the extraordinary courage and commitment of the Ukrainian people in defending their country, aided and abetted by the lethal aid from this country. They are all appreciative of this Government and this Prime Minister being first out the door to deliver that. Does the Prime Minister agree that while others may now begin to tire, now is the time to double down on the aid we give to Ukraine? Actually, we might end up breaking a pretty poor Russian army and bringing peace to that part of the world, while consigning the likes of Vladimir Putin to the dustbin of history, where he belongs.
That is absolutely right, and I thank my hon. Friend very much for his bravery in going to see for himself only the other day. It is right that we should double down on military defensive support in the way that we are. By the way, can anyone imagine a Labour Government, eight of whose Front Benchers voted to get rid of our nuclear deterrent—[Interruption.] Yes, they did, and recently. Can anyone imagine them doing the same? We will go on with that. What we will also do, and I hope we have the support of the Opposition in this, is ensure there is no backsliding on sanctions by any of our friends and partners around the world. In fact, we need now to ratchet up the economic pressure on Vladimir Putin, and it is certainly inconceivable that any sanctions could be taken off simply because there was a ceasefire. That would be absolutely unthinkable, in my view.
Scotland’s renewables sector is leading the world. I am grateful to the Scottish Government for all the help and support they are giving in developing that incredible resource in the North sea. By the way, I think there is also a role for hydrocarbons as we transition. We need to ensure that we have a grid that enables us to take that electricity onshore and transmit it around the country, and that is what I will be setting out in the British energy security strategy—the long-term investment that this country needs and that the parties opposite completely fail to address.
Last week, following a huge resident and parish council-led campaign, the planning application for a new mega-prison in my constituency was refused. Does my right hon. Friend agree that with the proposals for that site being close to where HS2 and East West Rail cross, it is a matter of fairness that communities already suffering at the hands of the construction of big state infrastructure should not be asked to take more? Will he instruct the Ministry of Justice not to appeal that planning decision?
My hon. Friend is a doughty campaigner for his constituency. He has made an important point about a planning matter about which I do not think I should really comment, but I am sure that the relevant Ministers will have heard him loud and clear.
If the hon. Lady is really saying that we should not have rolled out the furlough scheme at the speed that we did, I think everybody in this country understands that it was a heroic thing. I remember that, two years ago, the Opposition were yammering and clamouring for us to go faster—and we did; we produced a fantastic scheme. And yes, fraudsters will be hunted down: we have put another £100 million into tracking down fraud in this country. Some £23 billion a year was lost under Labour in fraud.
I was delighted to learn this week that 37 of the 39 state schools in the Bracknell constituency are now graded good or outstanding. Will the Prime Minister join me in thanking our fantastic teachers, staff, governors and pupils? Does he agree that the new education White Paper offers a blueprint for our schools that we can all be proud of?
Yes, I do. I think it is a fantastic White Paper.
I thank the hon. Gentleman very much. I think he is referring to the strategy that we have for food waste. As far as I know, we continue to support it, but I would be happy to update him by letter.
I thank the Prime Minister for his earlier remarks concerning the Donna Ockenden report into avoidable maternity deaths and injuries at the Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS Trust. The report makes for devastating reading, the more so because women’s voices were ignored. My constituent Hayley Matthews begged staff for a C-section throughout her 36-hour labour, but was forced into a natural birth. Her son Jack arrived blue and floppy and, within hours of his birth, he tragically died. Will the Prime Minister join me in offering heartfelt sympathies to all the families affected and grateful thanks to the 1,862 women who shared their experiences with the Ockenden review to ensure that maternity care is safer, kinder and more compassionate for the women who come after them?
I thank my hon. Friend for her question. I think everybody will thank the women concerned for taking up the issue in the way that they have and we extend our heartfelt sympathies to the victims and their families for what they have suffered. It is very important that people get the answers that they deserve and that we have the right approach to the issue in the future. That is why we are investing very substantially in maternity services and also, of course, very substantially in midwives and in our NHS altogether.
I do agree that people are facing a very tough time at the moment, and we have to do everything we can. I do not agree with the hon. Member’s analysis, but I think that the causes are certainly to do with the inflationary impact of the world coming out of covid, and the energy price spike is at the root of it. What we are doing is to help people with universal credit, which we have lifted by £1,000. We have helped people with the living wage, which is going up now by a record amount, and cutting taxes on working people in the way that we are. But of course we cannot do everything right now, and what we will do is ensure that we have a stronger economic performance and we have people in work. The most important thing is that we have people getting into work now in a way that was not possible—certainly would not have been possible—if we had stuck to the policies that were proposed by the Labour Opposition. That is why we have a strong economy, and that is the best recipe. It is better to be off benefits and into work, and that is what we are doing.
One of my earliest campaigns was to reopen Stafford’s Shire Hall, so I am delighted that this iconic building is finally set to reopen this summer. Can I thank the Government for providing £1.6 million in funding to create a hub for small businesses in Shire Hall, but can I also ask my right hon. Friend to help regenerate the rest of Stafford town centre and our high streets to help level up the west midlands and support our local businesses?
I thank my hon. Friend for her fantastic work to reopen Shire Hall—she is a passionate campaigner for Stafford—and Stafford was awarded over £14 million lately through the future high streets fund.
No, we are absolutely dedicated to levelling up across our entire country and making sure that we reduce poverty. That is why I am proud that there are now half a million fewer kids actually in workless households, 200,000 fewer kids—200,000 fewer—in poverty and 1.3 million fewer in absolute poverty. The way we have done that is by helping people into work, and we are going to go further—investing in more work coaches, and massively increasing our training budget so that people get the skills that they need. That is our approach—helping people by getting them into work.
Today’s announcement by our serving United Kingdom judges of their withdrawal from the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal is now the right decision, and I support it, as does my right hon. Friend. Does he agree with me that, on this sad day for the people of Hong Kong and at a time when the international rule of law is under unprecedented challenge, it is for us here in Britain to stand up for what is right, to be resolute in the face of tyranny and to make sure that the international rules-based order is defended at every opportunity?
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend. I know how passionately he has campaigned on this issue. I also thank the judges in Hong Kong’s court for everything that they have been doing. Evidently, they have concluded that the constraints of the national security law make it impossible for them to continue to serve in the way they would want. I appreciate and understand their decision. It is vital that we all continue to make our points to the Chinese, as I did in my conversation with President Xi the other day, about freedom in Hong Kong and the treatment of the Uyghurs. We will continue to do that.
I understand the pressure that people are under, but the best thing we can do, rather than endlessly taxing more and borrowing more, is make sure that we support people through this tough time, which we are doing, and ensure that we have a strong and growing economy in which we get people into work. We are cutting the cost of energy, but we are also taking the long-term decisions that the Labour party failed to take to invest in our energy for the future.
Today’s updated Government figures show that of 28,300 applications submitted under the sponsorship scheme by people displaced in Putin’s war, just 2,700 have been processed. Can my right hon. Friend tell the House how many to date of those people have actually arrived in the United Kingdom? Will he give his support to my noble Friend Lord Harrington to cut through the Home Office red tape, simplify the application process and get people into the country?
We are processing 1,000 a day. Twenty-five thousand visas have already been issued; as I just told the House, almost 200,000 families have opened their homes and their arms to Ukrainians coming in fear of their lives, and there is no limit on the scheme. I think we can be incredibly proud of what the UK is doing.
Actually, what we have done is protected pensioners so that, as a result of the triple lock, their incomes are £720 higher than they would have been had we just relied on inflation. As it is, their incomes continue to increase with inflation, and they have gone up faster and further than those of people in work. We look after elderly people and we always will.
On Monday, the Foreign Secretary agreed that in these uncertain times we need to expand our soft power capabilities, yet the Government are imminently to make a funding decision that may result in the closure of British Council country operations and a reduction in its international footprint. Will the Prime Minister intervene to ensure that that does not happen, given how much I know he understands and appreciates the important work the British Council does?
I am very happy to meet my hon. Friend to talk about this issue, which he has campaigned on many times, but I can tell him that the British Council, for which I have huge regard, has received a massive grant and loans to allow it to continue its activities.
Order. You will sit down, please. I hope that we have come to the end of the question.
The Chancellor is so out of touch, he is contactless. The public believe that the—[Interruption.]
Order. Shut up and be quiet—behave yourselves.
I hope that is the end of the question. I think the Prime Minister has got the gist of it, because I certainly have.
Much as I admire the hon. Gentleman’s style, I think it would be better in a light essay in The Guardian. What we are doing is tackling the cost of living by dealing with the spike in energy prices and making sure that we take the right long-term decisions to take this country forward—decisions that Labour completely shirked.
I welcome what the Government are doing to help, where they can, with the cost of living crisis, but in North Devon and across the south-west we have a housing crisis that needs urgent action. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to better understand the severity and complexity of our housing shortage and steps that the Government may take?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the need to provide local homes for local people. We totally understand that—by the way, we are building a record number of homes in spite of all the difficulties that we have faced—and that is why we have introduced higher rates of stamp duty on second homes, removed the second home discount and are using £11.5 billion to build 180,000 affordable homes across the country. It is always the Conservatives who build affordable homes—that is true—and Labour who talk about it.
Final question: Sarah Olney.
I know what is behind the hon. Member’s question: a desire to return to the jurisdiction of the European Union. We want to ensure that we use our landmark Environment Act 2021 to continue to improve the quality of our rivers, and that is what we are doing.
Order. We will let the Chamber clear before we start the statement.