House of Commons
Wednesday 25 May 2022
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
I remind Members that the ballot for the election of the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee is currently taking place in the Aye Lobby. The ballot will be open until 2.30 pm. The side door between the Chamber and the Aye Lobby will be locked until the ballot has concluded.
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
I am sure the whole House will want to join me in sending love and best wishes to parents, teachers, and the village of Llanfair Caereinion in Powys following the traumatic incident involving their school on Monday. I hope very much that my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Craig Williams) will be able to pass on the House’s very best wishes.
I regularly discuss rail infrastructure in Wales with the Secretary of State for Transport. More than £340 million has already been provided for rail enhancements in Wales, including the core valley lines and Cardiff Central station.
From the Queen’s Speech, we learned of a new public sector body to oversee Britain’s railways. Given the importance of the railway infrastructure and the benefits of linking north Wales to HS2, and in view of the problems, delays and cuts in services that we are seeing in Scotland owing to the mismanagement of ScotRail by the SNP—[Interruption.] Have Scottish National party Members tried taking a train this week?
Given those factors, can the Secretary of State tell us what discussions the Government have had with devolved Administrations to boost connectivity across the United Kingdom, and to ensure that lines are properly funded and appropriately managed?
I do not know why some Members on the Opposition Benches were being so derogatory during the hon. Lady’s extremely valid question. It was perfectly reasonable for her to highlight the fact that transport infrastructure in the UK is in the UK, and that any suggestion that it should in some way be devolved underestimates completely the economic value that it provides.
I agree with the general comments that the hon. Lady made, but the UK Government have been working alongside the Welsh Government where they can on infrastructure projects, particularly those involving rail, and the record reinforces that. We are also spending many millions of pounds on infrastructure more broadly, and I think she will support that—along with, I hope, others on the Opposition Benches.
As my right hon. Friend will know, there is considerable and long-standing support in north Wales for the electrification of the line between Wrexham and Bidston, which would link two important enterprise zones and put Wrexham and the whole of north-east Wales in commuting reach of Liverpool, and would be generally welcomed by the local business community. What discussions has he had with colleagues in the Department for Transport about advancing this project?
My right hon. Friend has made a good point. The Government recognise the importance of the line to which he has referred, and I know that Liverpool City Region Combined Authority and Transport for Wales have been discussing the opportunities presented by battery-powered trains.
My right hon. Friend also made a good point about cross-border connectivity and the need for us to view these areas as economic regions and not be disrupted in any way by the artificial boundaries that devolution sometimes creates. I assure him that we will have further meetings with the Department for Transport about this issue.
This Government cancelled Labour’s plans for electrification of the line to Swansea, citing the pretext that it would not speed up journeys. However, there is an urgent need for electrification to combat climate change and decrease reliance on imported fossil fuels. Will the Secretary of State talk to his colleagues about reinstating the plans for electrification of that line, extending electrification further west through my constituency to the Pembrokeshire ports, and supporting these moves through increased investment in renewable forms of electricity generation?
The hon. Lady has raised, quite reasonably, a point that she has raised before. I agree with her on most of the issues that she has raised, apart from the background to the cancellation of electrification, a decision which, as she knows, was taken in the context of bimodal trains as an equally beneficial alternative. However, her general views about rail infrastructure and net zero are entirely shared by the Government. I hope that she might be able to make the same compelling case to her colleagues in Cardiff as she makes to us.
Wales contains 11% of the UK’s railway infrastructure, but in recent years has received only 1% of the Government’s investment. As if that were not bad enough, classifying HS2 as an England and Wales project is denying Wales nearly £5 billion of investment. I know that the Secretary of State does not like it when we remind the Welsh public that his Government is short-changing Wales, but now the leader of the Welsh Conservatives agrees with us, as does the Welsh Affairs Committee. Perhaps if the Government had given Wales a fair settlement to upgrade its railways, the Chancellor would not have had to fork out £10,000 for a helicopter to make a round trip from London to Powys. When will the Secretary of State use his position at the Cabinet table to ensure that his Government cough up?
A good question interspersed with some slightly trite comments; the hon. Gentleman might have done better had he avoided them. He overlooks the fact we have invested £340 million so far, with £125 million for the core valley lines, £58 million for Cardiff Central station, £76 million for the electrification of the Severn tunnel, £4.7 million for St Clears station in my own constituency, £4 million for Bow Street station—I could go on forever. He underestimates and undervalues the investments we have already made.
Having represented a border community for the last 17 years, one is cognisant of the interdependence we have in Shropshire with Wales, with our friends across the border, with my right hon. Friend’s Department and with the Senedd. We are campaigning in Shropshire for the electrification of the line from Birmingham to Shrewsbury, which will help passengers going on to mid-Wales. Will he take an interest in that scheme to ensure that the people of mid-Wales can benefit from quicker times to Birmingham via this electrification process?
Costs of Living: Households and Businesses
To alleviate the immediate impacts of this global crisis, we have injected support worth over £22 billion in 2023. For businesses, we have cut fuel duty and provided help to high energy-using businesses. In the longer term, our Plan for Jobs will ensure long-term prosperity for Wales, including the development of the Wylfa nuclear power station.
The Scottish Government introduced the Scottish child payment to tackle child poverty head on. That payment doubled to £20 and is set to increase further and be extended to children under the age of 15, resulting in 50,000 children being taken out of relative poverty. Given that Wales has persistently had the highest child poverty rate in the UK, does the Secretary of State not agree that welfare powers should now be devolved to Wales so that the Welsh Government can introduce a targeted child payment of their own?
Even the Welsh Government have not made that argument to me. I think they fully recognise that the proper and fair distribution of welfare is done most effectively and cost-effectively on a UK-wide basis, but I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman has raised this issue because the money that the Scottish Government are using is available as a consequence of the Barnett formula, and the situation is the same in Wales.
In relation to the cost of living crisis faced by people in Wales and across the United Kingdom, the Prime Minister told the Welsh Tory party conference that the UK Government would
“put our arms around the British people again as we did during covid”.
Based on the evidence of the Sue Gray report, they are more likely to be linking arms in a conga line. Can the Secretary of State for Wales tell me what discussions he has had with the Chancellor on an emergency Budget to help the poorest households in Wales and across the United Kingdom?
The hon. and learned Lady rightly refers to the fact that the Chancellor may yet be making further comments about this particular issue, just as he did throughout the pandemic. For those who think that the Treasury is neither flexible nor conscious of these challenges, the fact is that there was ample evidence during the pandemic—and now, of course, during the current challenges we face—to disprove that theory. I can tell her, and everyone else in the House, that I have really regular conversations with Treasury Ministers and with the Chancellor himself about exactly these challenges.
Would my right hon. Friend agree that one of the best ways to help people during the cost of living crisis is to make sure that we have a vibrant economy and a low rate of unemployment? Would he also agree that having the lowest rate of unemployment since 1974 is helping many families across Wales and the rest of the UK at the moment?
Absolutely. I think most people believe that growing our way out of a cost of living challenge is infinitely preferable to spending our way out of a cost of living challenge. My hon. Friend is right to point out that we want to be flexible, rapid and generous. When there are occasions, as there inevitably will be for Members across the House, where individual constituents somehow do not fit the solutions we have, there are other measures that I hope local authorities will be able to deploy to assist them.
We now know that the energy price cap is expected to rise to £2,800 a year in October, which means that typical household bills in Wales, having already gone up by £700, will go up by another £800.
It is now 138 days since Labour proposed a windfall tax on oil and gas producer profits so that people across Wales can get help right now. Every day the Government delay is another day they are letting down people in Wales and across the United Kingdom. The Secretary of State voted against a windfall tax last week. What is his alternative to help the people of Wales, and where is it?
I suspect the hon. Lady reads the same news channels I read, so she will be aware that the Treasury will make a further announcement imminently. [Interruption.] She may be annoyed by my answer, but it is only reasonable that I suggest she waits until the Chancellor sets out precisely what his plans are.
May I suggest that the hon. Lady applies equal pressure to her colleagues in Cardiff? They have the power to intervene on things like business rates, council tax and income tax, which they have not done. In the meantime, however, they are thinking of imposing a tourism tax, costing Welsh taxpayers £100 million in the process. They are buying a farm that nobody wants and providing free musical instruments to young people under the age of 16.
Welsh voters gave their verdict on the Welsh Government in the election the week before last, and there is not a single Tory council left in the whole of Wales. The Secretary of State’s party was wiped out.
As the Secretary of State’s answer demonstrates, he does not have a plan and we have not had a plan from the Chancellor. Does he think that buying value supermarket brands, getting a better-paid job or riding around on the buses all day to keep warm is the Government’s answer to the cost of living crisis?
The hon. Lady clearly did not listen, or did not want to listen, to my previous answer. When we know the Chancellor is about to make a statement in the Chamber on all these issues, would it not be more sensible to allow the Treasury to spell out exactly what its plans are and how they will benefit businesses and individual families in Wales before making such highly politicised comments?
I add my party’s commiserations to everybody affected by the bus accident in Llanfair Caereinion.
The Oakeley Arms in my constituency is a superb inn located in a grade II listed building at the heart of Snowdonia national park. It is off grid, it is limited by regulations on energy efficiency measures and its owners now face a quadrupling in energy bills. Does the Secretary of State agree that small businesses need more support? Will he speak to the Chancellor about extending the price cap to our hard-pressed small and medium-sized businesses?
I will definitely speak to the Chancellor, as I often do about these things. Perhaps I could suggest a deal to the right hon. Lady: I will speak to the Chancellor to get further information if she will speak to her leader in Cardiff to get him to call off the dogs by cancelling the tourism tax that the Welsh Government want to impose on businesses, causing further hardship for people in her constituency.
If the Secretary of State kept to the powers he has in Westminster, perhaps he would have better support. There are now no Tory councillors in any of the Plaid-held councils along the west coast of Wales.
Rumours of an economic package are rife, not because the Government care about struggling households and businesses but because, of course, they want to distract from their own lawbreaking. Household energy bills will likely increase to £2,800 in the autumn, yet the Chancellor is sitting on his hands until it proves politically convenient. Is the Secretary of State not ashamed of his Government’s behaviour?
I despair sometimes, with the greatest respect. I urge the right hon. Lady to wait, for what should not be a great deal more time, to hear precisely what we have in store on the cost of living challenges. I remind her that, throughout the pandemic and the cost of living challenges, the Treasury has been unbelievably flexible, unbelievably adaptable and, in some respects, unbelievably generous. To try to pre-empt the Chancellor by making cheap political points undermines the value of what those contributions may be, and it does a disservice to the businesses and individuals that the right hon. Lady purports to support.
The Wales Office has worked tirelessly to ensure there will be a freeport, which will deliver jobs and investment into Wales. As announced earlier this month, an agreement has now been reached between the UK and Welsh Governments to deliver that freeport, and this agreement will be backed by millions of pounds of Government funding.
I welcome the Government’s decision to have at least one freeport in Wales like the Solent freeport, which covers part of my constituency. Does my hon. Friend agree that, as well as bringing jobs and trade to Wales, it will bring mutual benefits to other freeports, it will be vibrant, and it is a stark reminder of why the Union between Wales and England is so important?
I agree with both of those excellent points. We have already seen that the Thames freeport has suggested that there will be 21,000 jobs directly and indirectly created, so we know that the Welsh freeport will deliver jobs. I also agree that it is going to be good for the Union and good for Wales to have vessels of all kinds coming from all over the world, bringing their jobs and investment with them, including perhaps from across the Union—we may even look forward to seeing a few ferries from Scotland, if the SNP Government can actually get around to building them.
Cost of Living: Households in Newport West
My ministerial colleagues and I fully acknowledge that there is a cost of living challenge, which has been caused by a combination of the covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine. That is why we are providing £22 billion for households across the UK to try to get through this crisis.
The people of Newport West are facing the harsh effects of this Government’s failure to tackle the cost of living crisis. My constituent Hettie contacted my office because she is a single mum of two and must choose between food and heating. Both her cooker and her hot water are gas, so as the prices rise so do her bills. She works, in her words, “Every hour possible”. She is scared for her and her children’s future, and she is not alone. Local people need to see real action. If Tory Ministers will not take any fiscal steps, will the Minister do what many people in Newport West want and back a windfall tax on oil and gas companies?
Taxes are a matter for the Chancellor, but what I can say is that I absolutely acknowledge that there is a challenge at the moment, which has been brought about by the international situation. That is why the Government are putting £22 billion aside. It is why they have changed universal credit to help people such as the hon. Lady’s constituent who are out working, and why we have increased the minimum wage. It is why national insurance contributions are going to fall, we have extended the warm home discount and put in place a whole package of other measures. While we are spending money helping people get through the cost of living challenge, the Welsh Government are spending money buying up farms in mid-Wales and increasing the number of Senedd Members.
Trade and Foreign Direct Investment
The Wales Office works closely with the Department for International Trade to promote the excellent opportunities that there are to invest in Wales. Wales is an attractive destination for foreign companies to come to, to invest in and to create jobs in, as we have seen with the continued support from companies such as Airbus, which only recently announced plans to increase wing production in Broughton.
As the trade envoy to Brazil, I see the huge economic growth opportunities for both the UK and Brazil in the post-Brexit and post-pandemic environment. Does my hon. Friend agree that, like Dudley North, Wales plays a huge part in UK plc and that therefore we want to see the Welsh dragon flying just as proudly as the Black Country flag?
I am delighted to say that Wales has an excellent trading relationship with Brazil. In 2021, we exported nearly £85 million-worth of goods to the country, while importing £165 million-worth of goods. Wales has good trade and investment with countries across the world. We have seen 72 direct investments in the last financial year, with 1,500 jobs created. Only last week, the Secretary of State for Wales and I were with the Member for the Vale of Glamorgan looking at the new Aston Martin supercar factory in the Vale of Glamorgan.
Free Trade Agreements with Australia and New Zealand: Welsh Farmers
The Secretary of State for Wales and I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues on free trade arrangements. The Wales Office works closely with the Department for International Trade to ensure that Wales will enjoy the benefits that will flood in both directions from free trade deals with Australia and New Zealand.
The Government’s own impact assessment states that the Australia and New Zealand FTAs will see a reduction in gross value added in agriculture of more than £142 million. The measures are likely to have a disproportionate impact on Welsh agriculture because of its reliance on livestock and dairy farming. NFU Cymru is calling for Wales-specific impact assessments, so will the Minister ensure that they are delivered and that he starts working for Welsh farmers, rather than undercutting them and destroying the industry?
I cannot really accept what the hon. Gentleman says. We were able to import lamb, beef and other kinds of food from Australia and New Zealand when we were members of the European Union. Both countries had an agreement that allowed them to export goods to us without paying tariffs, up to a certain quota, and the fact of the matter is that they never met that quota. It is a bit of a myth that there is cheap beef and lamb in Australia and New Zealand; anyone who wants to look at a website can see what people pay for those goods in Australian and New Zealand supermarkets. They have no plans to increase their flocks or herds. The trade deals that have been agreed are going to be good for farmers and for industry more widely throughout Wales.
Senedd Representation and Levelling-up Agenda
It is mystifying that this proposal was announced on the same day as the Queen’s Speech. It will impose a £100 million burden on Welsh taxpayers and demolish a voting system that has served us well for years, and there has been no consultation with any voters at all. Even the Lib Dems describe it as a stitch-up.
The Welsh Government have decided that they want to increase the size of the Senedd, but there are real concerns that that will lead to a lack of proportionality in representation. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the money would be much better spent on public services?
Indeed, I do. I have to say that if this Government were making suggestions of that nature that involved the constitution and voting measures, pretty well all Opposition Members would be saying that that should be subject to a public referendum at the very least. I suggest that the proper course of action for the Welsh Government is to seek the approval of their voters before they proceed with any of the extremely costly measures proposed.
My colleagues and I are aware that the number of people on universal credit has fallen both in Rhondda and across Wales over the past year. We will continue delivering for residents through schemes such as in-work progression, kickstart and our plan for jobs.
The thing is, 6,320 households in the Rhondda are in receipt of universal credit, and when the Government cut universal credit by £20 a week last year, that took £6.5 million out of the Rhondda economy. That is one reason why the food bank in Tylorstown—ironically, it is in the old Conservative club—now has to provide food to the tune of 3 tonnes a month, although families are not able to contribute so much. When will the Secretary of State restore the extra £20 a week in universal credit?
The Chancellor will make interventions clear in due course. The context to the hon. Gentleman’s perfectly reasonable question is that there has been a 7% increase in the number of people in work in Rhondda and the number of people who are unemployed in Wales is down 23,000 in the past year—he did not mention that. I very much hope that the increases in the national living wage and the national minimum wage will help to offset some of the issues he has raised.
The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant)—who is my occasional friend, when he is not slagging me off on Twitter—is right to talk about the Rhondda, because there are areas of real poverty, as there are in parts in Lichfield. Does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State agree that there are many ways to help people, some of which he has named, that there is an urgent need to address food and fuel inflation, and that that can be done in other ways, which the Treasury may well talk about, and not just by raising universal credit?
On that particular point, I agree with my hon. Friend—I would probably describe him as my permanent friend. It is perfectly right that we wait and see what the Chancellor says. We have tried to set out short, medium and long-term measures that will help with the current challenge and we will of course hear more in due course.
Shared Prosperity Fund
Unsurprisingly, I contest the hon. Gentleman’s assertion. I would just say this: by 2024-25, the annual funding from the shared prosperity fund will match the average annual funding that Wales would have received from the European Regional Development Fund after adjusting for inflation. If he does not take that from me, or does not believe me, I can tell him that it is from Guto Ifan, research associate at the Welsh Governance Centre. That indicates that we are going in the right direction with the shared prosperity fund. Would it not be good, just for a moment, if the Welsh Government supported those very ambitious opportunities?
Order. I know the whole House will want to join me in expressing our outrage and deep sorrow following the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Texas. I know that our thoughts and prayers are with those affected and all of the families who have lost loved ones.
Before we come to Prime Minister’s questions, I want to welcome Nick Munting and his family to the Gallery. Nick has worked in Parliament for over 30 years, primarily as a sous chef but also as an Associate Serjeant at Arms. Unfortunately, Nick has had to leave his role because of ill health and he is much missed by his colleagues. I know that all Members, particularly the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones), Nick’s constituency MP, will wish to join me in thanking Nick for his long service to the House and in sending good wishes to Nick and his family.
I would like to point out that a British Sign Language interpretation of proceedings is available to watch on parliamentlive.tv.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Mr Speaker, I want to begin by echoing what you have just said about the reports of the fatal shooting in a Texan primary school. Our thoughts are with all those affected by this horrific attack.
Yesterday, I welcomed the Emir of Qatar to Downing Street. It is excellent news that Qatar announced that it will invest up to £10 billion in the UK through our new strategic investment partnership. Not only will that boost local economies and support jobs; it will support our green economy and decarbonisation.
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.
Cambridge is one of the most expensive places in the country to live, but unlike many cheaper places, NHS workers in the city get no high cost of living supplement. NHS workers in Cambridge pay higher rents than NHS workers in outer-London boroughs, such as Redbridge, Croydon, Bexley and Barking, and yet they get paid 15% less. That makes it very difficult for the NHS in Cambridge, including Addenbrooke’s Hospital, to retain and recruit staff. Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister work with me to make sure that NHS workers in South Cambridgeshire and Cambridge get paid fairly?
My hon. Friend is a fantastic champion for his constituents and for Addenbrooke’s. We are very proud of our NHS, which is why we are putting in record investment. I hope that the independent NHS Pay Review Body will listen carefully to what he has just said.
My thoughts and, I know, the thoughts of the whole House are with the families of the victims of yesterday’s school shooting in Texas. Nineteen children have died, some as young as seven, as well as two adults believed to be teachers. It is an unspeakable tragedy, and our hearts are with the American people.
Last weekend marked the anniversary of both the Manchester bombing and the murder of Lee Rigby, and we remember them this year as we do every year. Today is also the anniversary of the killing of George Floyd, a reminder that we must all tackle the racism that is still experienced by so many in our country and beyond.
The Sue Gray report was published this morning and I look forward to discussing that during this afternoon’s statement with the Prime Minister. For now, I want to focus on the cost of living affecting the whole country.
Since we stood here last week and I asked the Prime Minister yet again to back Labour’s plans for a windfall tax to reduce energy bills, hundreds of millions of pounds have been added to the bills of families across the country, and hundreds of millions of pounds have landed in the bank accounts of energy companies. It sounds like he has finally seen sense and the inevitable U-turn may finally have arrived, so when can people across the country expect him to use those oil and gas profits to bring down their bills?
There is nothing original about a Labour plan to tax business. Labour wants to tax business the whole time. Every day, the party wants to put up taxes on business. What we are doing is helping people. The right hon. and learned Gentleman asks when we are going to help people. We are helping people now. We are putting £22 billion into people’s pockets already, cutting council tax by £150, cutting fuel duty, and cutting national insurance contributions by an average of £330 for people who pay NICs. How can we afford that? We can because we have a strong economy, because we came out of covid fast, which would not have been possible if we had listened to Labour.
Fifteen tax rises and the Prime Minister pretends they are a low-tax Government. It has been four and a half months since Labour first called for a windfall tax on oil and gas profits. I have raised it week in, week out, and every week he has a new reason for not doing it. The Business Secretary said it is “bad”, the Justice Secretary called it disastrous, and even this weekend the Health Secretary and the Northern Ireland Secretary opposed it. The Prime Minister ordered all his MPs to vote against it last week, and now—surprise, surprise—he is backing it. Prime Minister, I am told that hindsight is a wonderful thing! [Laughter.] But while he dithered and delayed, households across the country suffered when they did not need to.
There is no surprise about Labour’s lust to put up taxes; there is nothing original about that thought. Labour Members get off on it; they absolutely love to confiscate other people’s assets. What we prefer to do is make sure that we have the measures in place to drive investment in our country and drive jobs, and it is thanks to the steps that we took and thanks to the fact that we came out of covid faster than any other European country, which would not have been possible had we listened to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, that we now have unemployment at the lowest—[Interruption.] Listen to this—Labour used to care about this, Mr Speaker. We now have unemployment at the lowest level since 1974. Put that in your pipe.
I actually thought that, with this U-turn, the Prime Minister might get his head out of the sand, but obviously not. The reality is that every day of his dithering and his delay, £53 million has been added to Britain’s household bills. While he is distracted by trying to save his own job, the country has been counting the cost. But complacency is nothing new for this Government: back in October, the Chancellor delivered a mini-Budget that has to be reread to be believed. With inflation already climbing, he said that he understood people were concerned about it, and that the Government were “ready…to act”. Since then, inflation has risen to a 40-year high—the highest rate of any G7 country. If the Government were so ready to act six months ago, why have they not done so?
The Government have acted, and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor continues to act. This is the Government who not only put in the living wage—it was a Conservative institution—but have now raised it by £1,000, a record amount. Families on universal credit have another £1,000. Thanks to the £9.1 billion that we have already put in to support people’s cost of heating, we are abating the costs of fuel for people up and down the country, and of course we are going to do more. We are going to put our arms around the people of this country, just as we did throughout the covid pandemic. We can do that because we took the tough decisions to drive the fastest vaccine roll-out in Europe, which would not have been possible if we had listened to the right hon. and learned Gentleman. Let me take another statistic: youth unemployment—Labour used to care about it—is at or near a record low.
It was not just the Chancellor back in September—the Prime Minister called fears about inflation “unfounded”. He was the last person to spot the cost of living crisis, just as he is the last person to back Labour’s plan to help people through it. It was not just on inflation that they got it badly wrong. In the same speech, the Chancellor boasted about growth, as the Prime Minister does today, and how we would do better than all our major competitors. It was obvious that he was being complacent. Lo and behold, Britain is set to have the lowest growth of any major country except Russia, despite our brilliant businesses and all we have to offer. Why has his Government inflicted on Britain the twin-headed Hydra of the highest inflation and the lowest growth?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman loves running this country down. [Interruption.] How many times did he come to this place and say that the United Kingdom had the highest covid death rate in Europe? How many times? He was proved completely wrong. Did he ever apologise? Absolutely not. Did he ever take it back? Absolutely not. Actually, because of the steps we took, last year we had the fastest growth in the G7, and we will return to the fastest growth by 2024-25, thanks to the decisions that this Government took. [Interruption.] Labour does not care about getting people into jobs. We care about the working people of this country and making sure we have a high-wage, high-skill, high-employment economy, and that is what we are delivering.
The Prime Minister talks about running this country down; he is running this country down! It was not just complacency on Labour’s windfall tax, which he is now backing; it was not just complacency on inflation, which is now through the roof; and it was not just complacency on growth, which is now spluttering along at the back of the pack, because his Chancellor also claimed that people should
“keep more of the rewards of those efforts.”—[Official Report, 27 October 2021; Vol. 702, c. 286.]
Then he put their taxes up. Does the Prime Minister want to explain to hard-working people, whose wages are running out sooner and sooner each month and who are facing astronomical bills and prices, just how his 15 tax rises since taking office have helped them to keep more of their rewards in their pocket?
First of all, what we are doing is making sure that after a huge pandemic we are funding our vital public services, which we can because of the steps that we took. What we are also doing is making sure that we put more money back into people’s pockets through the measures I have outlined today, whether through cutting national insurance contributions, lifting the living wage or lifting universal credit. All that is made possible because we took the responsible and sensible steps to protect our economy throughout covid and then to come out strongly. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is completely wrong about this country’s growth performance. He runs it down. He was proved wrong about covid, and he is going to be proved wrong again.
Last week, I raised the case of Phoenix Halliwell, whose kidney condition means he needs daily dialysis and whose energy bill has gone through the roof as a result. I am glad that as a result, Government officials got in touch with Phoenix yesterday, and I hope that will result in more support for people who are vulnerable, but it should not be left to Labour to turn up week after week to make the Prime Minister aware of the consequences of his dither and delay.
I want to raise another issue where the Government are sleepwalking into disaster. With the summer holidays looming, there are reports that the Home Office already has a backlog of 500,000 passports to issue. That is potentially more than half a million people worrying whether they will get away this summer. Can the Prime Minister reassure people that they will not miss out on their holidays due to the failures of his Home Office?
I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman very much, but I can tell him, actually, that what we are doing is massively increasing the speed with which the Passport Office delivers. To the best of my knowledge, everybody is getting their passport within four to six weeks. That is because we are driving the leadership of this country and we are getting things done that would never have been possible if we had listened to the Opposition. We got Brexit done when he voted 48 times—48 times—to undo the will of the people. We got the vaccine roll-out done when he would have kept us in the European Medicines Agency. We were the first European country to help the Ukrainians resist Vladimir Putin. Does anybody seriously believe for a second that the Opposition would have done it? [Interruption.]
Let me say very plainly: does anybody seriously think for a second that the Labour party would have done that when eight of the shadow Front Bench, including the shadow Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), who is mysteriously not in his place, voted recently to get rid of this country’s independent nuclear deterrent, and when the Leader of the Opposition campaigned to put Vladimir Corbyn—I mean, sorry, Jeremy Corbyn—in Downing Street?
We get on. We do the difficult things. We take the tough decisions. Social care: we are fixing it. We deliver; they dither. [Interruption.]
As my hon. Friend, who I know has taken a keen interest in this for a while, Evusheld has the potential to reduce the risk of infection. We must look at the evidence before we can make a decision about whether it should be available, but I will make sure that the Department of Health and Social Care keeps him updated on the progress we are making.
I want to join others today in expressing my deepest sorrow at the horrific events in Texas yesterday. Some 19 children and two teachers have needlessly lost their lives. Many of us in Scotland will be remembering the tragic events that took place in Dunblane 26 years ago. The thoughts and prayers of the SNP are with the families suffering today, but we also hope that lawmakers will finally act to bring to an end the scourge of gun violence that plagues the United States.
The reports of the Prime Minister’s and Downing Street’s lawbreaking have been damning: empty bottles littering offices; rooms so crowded people were sitting on each other’s laps; and security forced to intervene because parties were so outrageous. At the centre was the Prime Minister orchestrating it and grabbing a glass for himself to toast the partygoers. For eight months, we have heard every excuse under the sun, but now we have all seen the damning photo evidence. While people stayed at home to protect the NHS, the Prime Minister was engaging in drinking and debauchery that makes a mockery of the gut-wrenching sacrifices that each and every person made. Will the Prime Minister now take the opportunity and resign?
I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that, much as I appreciate his advice, he will have a further opportunity, which I am sure he will take with his customary length, to debate that matter in the course of the statement that will follow directly after PMQs.
These are serious matters, but it is all a joke to the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister has lost the trust of the public. He has lost what little moral authority he had left. The Prime Minister has apologised many times, but not because he feels any genuine remorse. He still refuses to even admit that there were parties and that he presided over them. He apologised for one simple reason: he got caught. The reality is that no apology will ever be enough for the families of people who lost loved ones—the families who followed the rules, who stayed at home while their nearest and dearest were dying, and who are now forced to look at photographs of the Prime Minister, surrounded by drink, toasting to a party in the middle of a lockdown.
If the Prime Minister will not accept that he must resign, those on the Tory Benches must act. This Prime Minister, who has broken the law and shown a cavalier attitude to the truth, cannot be allowed to remain in office. Time is up, Prime Minister. Resign! Resign before this House is forced to remove you!
Hear, hear, Mr Speaker—up the Vale!
I thank my hon. Friend for his campaign, and I think he is entirely right. We have adopted the measures that he proposes in the Bill so that those who leave properties derelict unreasonably could face an unlimited fine.
I was pleased to meet the Prime Minister last week in Royal Hillsborough in my constituency. We welcome his commitment to introduce legislation to deal with the protocol and the Irish sea border, and to protect the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. That will take some time. In the meantime, as in the rest of the United Kingdom, hard-pressed households in Northern Ireland are suffering from the cost of living crisis. Will the Prime Minister give me an assurance that any measures that are brought forward by the Chancellor in the near future to help hard-pressed households will apply to Northern Ireland, and that the protocol will not be allowed to prevent Northern Ireland citizens receiving the support they need from the Government at this time?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman very much. As he knows, I have already detailed to the House a package of measures to support families across the whole of the UK. I may say that I also think it would be an advantage to the people of Northern Ireland, in tackling the issues that we all face across the UK, if Stormont were to be restored.
I thank the hon. Member for his excellent question. Rural fuel duty relief is there to compensate motorists by helping retailers in some more remote rural areas where pump prices can be significantly higher. It currently operates on a geographical basis, but I am happy to ensure that he gets a meeting with the relevant Minister as fast as possible.
Yes, I can. I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is absolutely right that Labour’s instinct everywhere and always is to put up tax, with all its—[Interruption.] Well, Labour Members are bragging about it today—it is ludicrous. What we are doing is not only cutting people’s contributions under national insurance but helping businesses to invest with the 130% super deduction that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor put in. That is helping us to have a high-wage, high-skill economy, with unemployment—yes, I have said this before, Mr Speaker—at its lowest since 1974.
Shockingly, the party has failed to act on the report and still will not explain why. That is why Rotherham child sexual exploitation survivor Sammy Woodhouse has called for an independent investigation into the failure, warning that the Conservative party has
“broken the trust of victims”.
Will the Prime Minister personally back that call and launch an independent investigation into the failure to act so that victims can have confidence that his party will never again turn a blind eye?
Yes. I thank my hon. Friend very much. She and I have talked about this. This is a subject in which I take a direct personal interest. There are things we can do to make childcare more affordable. One issue is that not enough people take up tax-free childcare, so we need to have more take-up of what is on offer. We can also look at ways in which we can reform and improve the system.
Let us be clear: if there is an issue with fire safety in a building, extra steps should be taken and remediation should be made. When it comes to self-evacuation, the Home Office has launched a new consultation to support the fire safety of residents who are unable to self-evacuate, but if the hon. Lady has further representations to make on that point, I will be very happy to ensure she gets a meeting with a Minister in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.
What we are doing for the people of Putney, and indeed the people throughout the country, is making sure that we invest now in protecting them, as I have said to the House and I have said repeatedly, not just with the increases in universal credit, the living wage and the warm home discount and cutting fuel bills, but with the £330 cut in NICs. The reason we can do that is that we have a robust economic position and strong employment. That is giving us the revenue to pay and to cushion people at this difficult time. It would not have been possible if we had listened to the Labour party during covid.
This weekend tens of thousands of Huddersfield sports fans are coming down to London. On Saturday, Huddersfield Giants are in their first rugby league challenge cup final for over a decade, and, on Sunday, it is Huddersfield Town in the championship play-off final for a place in the premier league. As well as wishing the best of luck to both Huddersfield teams, will the Prime Minister, agree with me that the best way that Labour-run Kirklees Council can honour the sporting tradition of Huddersfield is by following through with its pledge to house the new national rugby league museum in its birthplace, the George Hotel in Huddersfield, and not pull out of that deal, as it has indicated it wants to do?
Is that the Labour council pulling out of its deal? I am not surprised. All I can say is that I congratulate my hon. Friend on his campaign for a national rugby league museum and I urge him to take it up with the Arts Council or other relevant bodies.
From furlough onwards everything we have done since the pandemic began has been to get money into the pockets of the working people of this country; those are the people who time and again we have prioritised. I do not for a moment doubt that things are tough—I do not doubt it for a moment—but it is our intention to get this country through it, and we will get through it very well by putting our arms around people as we can, and as we will because of the fiscal firepower we have, but also by making sure that we continue with the high wage, high skill, high employment economy that we have. The best way to get money into people’s pockets is for them to have a job.
Does the Prime Minister agree that when the Leader of the Opposition spins his myth of a low tax Labour party, he clearly needs a memory jog? [Interruption.] May I remind Labour Members that in 2019 they all stood on a manifesto that would have inflicted the highest tax burden on the people of this country in peacetime—and that is probably why there are so few of them over there on the Labour Benches?
Yes, Labour campaigned to put up taxes on business to the highest level this country has ever seen; that was the Leader of the Opposition’s ambition, and that is what they would do again. Be in no doubt, that is what they love to do—we can feel the lust for tax rising off those Opposition Benches—and that is why there has never been a Labour Government who left office with unemployment lower than when they came in.
The Prime Minister will recall that I previously raised with him the plight of 170 British Council contractors who remain in Afghanistan in fear of their lives, 85 of whom are deemed to be at very high risk. I had a positive meeting with the refugee Minister, Lord Harrington, last week, but we face bureaucracy that is preventing the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office from helping these people now courtesy of the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme. Will the Prime Minister help us cut through that red tape and help these people, as we owe them a debt of obligation and time is running out?
I will see what we can do to help those particular people but I just remind the House that we not only evacuated 25,000 people under Op Pitting, which was a great credit to this country, but since then have supported 4,600 more to come to this country, and we will do what we can to help the people my hon. Friend mentions.
Everybody in work—30 million workers—will get a tax cut in July, on top of everything that we are already doing, but that is not the end of what this Government are going to do to look after people. I told the House before this afternoon that we will continue to use our fiscal firepower to look after the British people through the covid aftershocks and beyond.
On Monday at 3.25 pm, a school bus crashed into a group of schoolchildren in Llanfair Caereinion. Three children were airlifted to hospital, with another child and the bus driver taken by ambulance, and a fifth child was discharged at the scene. Everyone is in a stable condition. Clearly, this is a tragic accident that will stay with the community for some time. Will the Prime Minister join me and, I am sure, the whole House in sending our love and prayers to those in hospital? Will he also praise the teaching staff of both the primary and the high school, Wales Air Ambulance and Dyfed-Powys police for their heroic and continuing response to the community?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this very sad incident. I am sure that the thoughts of the whole House will be with those who have been affected. I want to join him, in particular, in paying tribute to the emergency services and, of course, the teachers and staff at the school, who did so much to help.
I begin by saying how grateful I am to the hon. Member for raising that case. I am afraid that I do not know directly about the events that she describes. What she says is very concerning and I will make sure that she gets a meeting with the relevant Minister as soon as possible.
Sue Gray Report
With permission, I will make a statement, Mr Speaker. I am grateful to Sue Gray for her report today, and I want to thank her for the work that she has done. I also thank the Metropolitan police for completing its investigation.
I want to begin today by renewing my apology to the House and to the whole country for the short lunchtime gathering on 19 June 2020 in the Cabinet Room, during which I stood at my place at the Cabinet table and for which I received a fixed penalty notice. I also want to say, above all, that I take full responsibility for everything that took place on my watch. Sue Gray’s report has emphasised that it is up to the political leadership in No. 10 to take ultimate responsibility, and, of course, I do. But since these investigations have now come to an end, this is my first opportunity to set out some of the context, and to explain both my understanding of what happened and what I have previously said to the House.
It is important to set out that over a period of about 600 days, gatherings on a total of eight dates have been found to be in breach of the regulations in a building that is 5,300 metres square across five floors, excluding the flats—[Interruption.] Mr Speaker, I do think this is important, because it is the first chance I have had to set out the context. Hundreds of staff are entitled to work there, and the Cabinet Office, which has thousands of officials, is now the biggest that it has been at any point in its 100-year history. That is, in itself, one of the reasons why the Government are now looking for change and reform.
Those staff working in Downing Street were permitted to continue attending their office for the purpose of work, and the exemption under the regulations applied to their work because of the nature of their jobs, reporting directly to the Prime Minister. These people were working extremely long hours, doing their best to give this country the ability to fight the pandemic during—[Interruption.] Mr Speaker, I appreciate that this is no mitigation, but it is important to set out the context.
Order. I appeal to the House: I expect the statement to be heard, and I want everybody to hear it. I want the same respect to be shown to the Leader of the Opposition afterwards. Please: this is a very important statement. The country wants to hear it as well.
Mr Speaker, I am trying to set out the context, not to mitigate or to absolve myself in any way.
The exemption under which those staff were present in Downing Street includes circumstances where officials and advisers were leaving the Government, and it was appropriate to recognise them and to thank them for the work that they have done. [Interruption.] Let me come to that, Mr Speaker. I briefly attended such gatherings to thank them for their service—which I believe is one of the essential duties of leadership, and is particularly important when people need to feel that their contributions have been appreciated—and to keep morale as high as possible. [Interruption.] I am trying to explain the reasons why I was there, Mr Speaker.
It is clear from what Sue Gray has had to say that some of these gatherings then went on far longer than was necessary. They were clearly in breach of the rules, and they fell foul of the rules. I have to tell the House, because the House will need to know this—again, this is not to mitigate or to extenuate—that I had no knowledge of subsequent proceedings, because I simply was not there, and I have been as surprised and disappointed as anyone else in this House as the revelations have unfolded. Frankly, I have been appalled by some of the behaviour, particularly in the treatment of the security and the cleaning staff. I would like to apologise to those members of staff, and I expect anyone who behaved in that way to apologise to them as well.
I am happy to set on the record now that when I came to this House and said in all sincerity that the rules and guidance had been followed at all times, it was what I believed to be true. It was certainly the case when I was present at gatherings to wish staff farewell—the House will note that my attendance at these moments, brief as it was, has not been found to be outside the rules—but clearly this was not the case for some of those gatherings after I had left, and at other gatherings when I was not even in the building. So I would like to correct the record—to take this opportunity, not in any sense to absolve myself of responsibility, which I take and have always taken, but simply to explain why I spoke as I did in this House.
In response to her interim report, Sue Gray acknowledges that very significant changes have already been enacted. She writes:
“I am pleased progress is being made in addressing the issues I raised.”
“Since my update there have been changes to the organisation and management of Downing Street and the Cabinet Office with the aim of creating clearer lines of leadership and accountability and now these need the chance and time to bed in.”
No. 10 now has its own permanent secretary, charged with applying the highest standards of governance. There are now easier ways for staff to voice any worries, and Sue Gray welcomes the fact that
“steps have since been taken to introduce more easily accessible means by which to raise concerns electronically, in person or online, including directly with the Permanent Secretary”.
The entire senior management has changed. There is a new chief of staff, an elected Member of this House who commands the status of a Cabinet Minister. There is a new director of communications, a new principal private secretary and a number of other key appointments in my office. I am confident, with the changes and new structures that are now in place, that we are humbled by the experience and we have learned our lesson.
I want to conclude by saying that I am humbled, and I have learned a lesson. Whatever the failings—[Interruption.] We will come to that. Whatever the failings of No. 10 and the Cabinet Office throughout this very difficult period—[Interruption.] And my own, for which I take full responsibility. I continue to believe that the civil servants and advisers in question—hundreds of them, thousands of them, some of whom are the very people who have received fines—are good, hard-working people, motivated by the highest calling to do the very best for our country. I will always be proud of what they achieved, including procuring essential life-saving personal protective equipment, creating the biggest testing programme in Europe and helping to enable the development and distribution of the vaccine that got this country through the worst pandemic of a century.
Now we must get our country through the aftershocks of covid with every ounce of ingenuity, compassion and hard work. I hope that today, as well as learning the lessons from Sue Gray’s report, which I am glad I commissioned—I am grateful to her—we will be able to move on and focus on the priorities of the British people: standing firm against Russian aggression; easing the hardship caused by the rising costs that people are facing; and fulfilling our pledges to generate a high-wage, high-skill, high-employment economy that will unite and level up across the whole of our United Kingdom. That is my mission, that is our mission, that is the mission of the whole Government, and we will work day and night to deliver it. I commend this statement to the House.
The door of No. 10 Downing Street is one of the great symbols of our democracy. Those who live behind it exercise great power, but they do so knowing that their stay is temporary. Long after they have gone, that door and the democracy it represents will remain firm and unyielding. But Britain’s constitution is fragile. It relies on Members of this House and the custodians of No. 10 behaving responsibly, honestly and in the interests of the British people. When our leaders fall short of those standards, this House has to act.
For months, Conservative Members have asked the country to wait—first for the police investigation, which concluded that this Prime Minister is the first in our country’s history to have broken the law in office, and then for the Sue Gray report. They need wait no longer. That report lays bare the rot that, under this Prime Minister, has spread in No. 10, and it provides definitive proof of how those within the building treated the sacrifices of the British people with utter contempt. When the dust settles and the anger subsides, this report will stand as a monument to the hubris and arrogance of a Government who believed it was one rule for them, and another rule for everyone else.
The details are stark. Five months ago, the Prime Minister told this House that all guidance was completely followed in No. 10, yet we now know he attended events on 17 December. At least one of those attending has received a fine for it, deeming it illegal. We know that on 18 December, an event was held in which staff “drank excessively”, which others in the building described as a “party”, and that cleaners were left to mop up the red wine the next day. On 20 May, as a covid press conference was taking place, one of the Prime Minister’s senior officials was told, “Be mindful; cameras are leaving. Don’t walk about waving bottles.”
It is now impossible to defend the Prime Minister’s words to this House. This is about trust. During that 20 May press conference, the British public were told that normal life as we know it was a long way off, but that was not the case in No. 10. Even now, after 126 fines, they think it is everyone else’s fault but theirs. They expect others to take the blame while they cling on. They pretend that the Prime Minister has somehow been exonerated, as if the fact that he only broke the law once is worthy of praise. The truth is that they set the bar for his conduct lower than a snake’s belly, and now they expect the rest of us to congratulate him as he stumbles over it.
No. 10 symbolises the principles of public life in this country: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. But who could read this report and honestly believe that the Prime Minister has upheld those standards? The reason the British public have had to endure this farce was his refusal to admit the truth or do the decent thing when he was found to have broken the law. This report was necessary because of what Sue Gray describes as
“failures of leadership and judgment”,
for which senior political leadership “must bear responsibility”. It is that failure of leadership that has now left his Government paralysed in the middle of a cost of living crisis. The Prime Minister has turned the focus of his Government to saving his own skin. It is utterly shameful. It is precisely because he cannot lead that it falls to others to do so. I have been clear what leadership looks like. [Interruption.] I have not broken any rules, and any attempt—[Interruption.]
I have been clear what leadership looks like. I have not broken any rules, and any attempt to compare a perfectly legal takeaway while working to this catalogue of criminality looks even more ridiculous today, but if the police decide otherwise, I will do the decent thing and step down. The public need to know that not all politicians are the same—that not all politicians put themselves above their country—and that honesty, integrity and accountability matter.
Conservative Members now also need to show leadership. This Prime Minister is steering the country in the wrong direction. Conservative Members can hide in the back seat, eyes covered, praying for a miracle, or they can act to stop this out-of-touch, out-of-control Prime Minister driving Britain towards disaster. We waited for the Sue Gray report. The country cannot wait any longer. The values symbolised by the door of No. 10 must be restored. Conservative Members must finally do their bit. They must tell the current inhabitant, their leader, that this has gone on too long. The game is up. You cannot be a lawmaker and a lawbreaker, and it is time to pack his bags. Only then can the Government function again. Only then can the rot be carved out. Only then can we restore the dignity of that great office and the democracy that it represents.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about what went on in No. 10 Downing Street and the events behind that black door, and about the number of events. All I will say to him is that he, throughout the pandemic, was not leading many thousands of people in the fight against coronavirus. He was sniping from the sidelines and veering from one position to the next, and today he has done it again. Week after week, he could have come to this House and talked about the economy, about Ukraine, about the cost of living—but no, Mr Speaker: time after time, he chose to focus on this issue. He could have shown some common sense, and recognised that when people are working very hard together, day in day out, it can be difficult to draw the boundary between work and socialising. And yet, after months of his frankly sanctimonious obsession, the great gaseous zeppelin of his pomposity has been permanently and irretrievably punctured by the revelation that—he did not mention this— he is himself under investigation by the police.
I am not going to mince my words. I have got to say this. Sir Beer Korma is currently failing to hold himself to the same high standards that he demanded of me. It is true. He called for me to resign when the investigation began. Why is he in his place? Why—[Interruption.]
The right hon. and learned Gentleman should at least be consistent, and hold himself to the same standards. He is still there, and so is the deputy Leader of the Opposition.
I apologised when the revelations emerged, and I continue to apologise. I repeat that I am humbled by what has happened, and we have instituted profound changes throughout No. 10, but in view of the mess in which the right hon. and learned Gentleman has found himself, it would now be sensible for him, too, to apologise, so that we can all collectively move on. That, I think, is what the people of this country want to see above all. They want to see leadership from this House of Commons, and leadership from both parties, in dealing with their priorities. That is why we are focused on getting through the aftershocks of covid, that is why I am proud of what we did to roll out the fastest vaccine campaign in Europe, and that is why I am proud that we now have the lowest unemployment in this country for 50 years. That is what the people of this country want. I appreciate that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has his points to make, but I think that, overwhelmingly, the will of this country is for us now to say thank you to Sue Gray and for us collectively to move on.
My right hon. Friend well knows that the rules apply to him as much as to all of us, and the rules of this House make clear that anyone who comes here and deliberately lies and misleads the House should leave their position, resign or apologise. My right hon. Friend has been asked many times about specific incidents and events that Sue Gray has outlined. Has he on any occasion come to the House in response to specific questions about specific events, and deliberately lied to us?
No, Mr Speaker, for the reason I have given: that at the time when I spoke to this House, I believed that what I was doing was attending work events, and, with the exception of the event in the Cabinet Room, that is a view that has been vindicated by the investigation.
As I speak, the public are poring over the sordid detail of what went on—out of the public eye, behind the high gates and walls of the Prime Minister’s residence. The report is damning. It concludes that many gatherings and many individuals did not adhere to covid guidance; that
“events…were attended by leaders in government”
“should not have been allowed to happen”;
“junior civil servants believed that their involvement…was permitted given the attendance of senior leaders”;
that there was an “unacceptable”
“lack of respect and poor treatment of security and cleaning staff”;
and, crucially, that:
“The senior leadership at the centre, both political and official, must bear responsibility for this culture.”
That leadership came from the top, and the Prime Minister—in the words of the report—must bear responsibility for the culture. A fish rots from the head.
The Prime Minister’s Dispatch Box denial of a party taking place on 13 November is now proven to be untrue. He was there on 13 November, photographed, raising a toast, surrounded by gin, wine, and other revellers. The charge of misleading Parliament is a resignation matter; will the Prime Minister now finally resign?
This Prime Minister has adopted a systematic, concerted and sinister pattern of evasion. Truthfulness, honesty and transparency do not enter his vocabulary. That is just not part of his way of being, and it speaks for the type of man that he is. Credibility, truth and morality all matter, and the Prime Minister has been found lacking, time and again.
The Prime Minister can shake his head, but that is the reality. Ethics have to be part of our public life, and ethical behaviour has to be at the core of the demeanour and the response of any Prime Minister.
The Prime Minister brings shame on the office, and has displayed contempt, not only to the Members of this House but to every single person who followed the rules —those who stayed away from family, those who missed funerals, those who lost someone they loved. So I hope that when Tory Members retire to the 1922 Committee this evening, they will bear in mind the now infamous Government advertisement featuring a desperately ill covid patient. It says:
“Look her in the eyes and tell her you never bend the rules.”
If those Tory Members do not submit a letter—if they do not remove this Prime Minister—how will they ever look their constituents in the eye again?
I think that the right hon. Gentleman should look closely at Sue Gray’s report, and I repeat my thanks to her. I stress that the nature and length of my involvement in these events is very clear from what she says, and I take full responsibility for what happened. That is why we have taken the steps that we have to reform and improve the way in which No. 10 works. We are humbled by what has happened, and we have changed it.
Since my election to the House, I have been running a campaign called “Listening to Wellingborough and Rushden”. Members may recall that on one occasion members of that group asked me to present a letter at Prime Minister’s Question Time calling for a previous Prime Minister to resign. What they are telling me today is that their concerns are the terrible war in Ukraine, illegal immigrants crossing the channel, and the economy, and their message to the Prime Minister is, “Get on with the job”. Does the Prime Minister agree with the “Listening to Wellingborough and Rushden” campaign?
The Prime Minister said that on 13 November 2020, he attended the “Abba party” briefly. His defence was a job interview. Can he confirm that he was only in his flat, and that he met Henry Newman to discuss a job, and can he tell us what the other special advisers were doing? Were they part of the job interview as well?
This is a damning report about the absence of leadership, focus and discipline in No. 10, the one place where we expect to find those attributes in abundance. I have made my position very clear to the Prime Minister: he does not have my support. A question I humbly put to my colleagues is: are you willing, day in day out, to defend this behaviour publicly? Can we continue to govern without distraction, given the erosion of the trust of the British people? And can we win a general election on this trajectory?
The question I place to the Prime Minister now—[Interruption.] I am being heckled by my own people. If we cannot work out what we are going to do, the broad church of the Conservative party will lose the next general election. My question to the Prime Minister is very clear: on the question of leadership, can he think of any other Prime Minister who would have allowed such a culture of indiscipline to take place on their watch? And if they did, would they not have resigned?
The Prime Minister says he is sorry, but he is only sorry he got caught. He did not care then, as he partied during lockdown, when people could not see their dying loved ones. He did not care last year when he insisted that no rules had been broken. And he does not care now, when families across our country are struggling to heat their homes, fill their cars, and put food on the table, with a cost of living crisis that has only deepened while the Prime Minister has been scrambling to save his own skin. Can the Prime Minister look the British people in the eye and name one person, just one person, he cares about more than himself?
I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that there are people in No. 10 Downing Street, including me, who cared passionately about making sure that we had the PPE we needed, that we had the fastest vaccine roll-out in Europe, and that we protected this country from covid. That is what people were doing, and I may say that the abuse that has been directed at civil servants and officials is wholly unwarranted.
When I think of civil servants and advisers during that period, I think of the brilliant civil servants who helped move mountains to create the shielding programme within a matter of days and the brilliant civil servants and advisers who got 90% of homeless people off the streets within days. Does my right hon. Friend agree that these achievements and others should mean that nothing in this report is a stain upon the character of the thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of civil servants, whether in No. 10, other Departments or across the country who helped to steer this country through the pandemic? Secondly—difficult though this is for many to say—with a war in Europe, an economic crisis and the challenges this country faces, is it not true that it is now time to turn a page, and for this country, our politics and this House to move forwards?
We all understand, and the Prime Minister understands, that not being truthful on the Floor of this House requires a resignation. My hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) asked the Prime Minister a point-blank question on the Floor of this House when he was at the Dispatch Box. She asked him if he had been to a party on 13 November in 10 Downing Street. He said he had not and that no party had happened. There are four pictures of it featured in the Sue Gray report. Will the Prime Minister account now, on the Floor of the House, for his answer to that very specific question?
Yes of course, and I tried to do it in what I said earlier. The answer is that it is part of my job to say thank you to people who work in Government, and that is what I was doing. I believed it was a work event and, indeed, there has been no fine issued to me as a result of my attendance at that event, because that is what I was doing.
I commend Sue Gray for the report and I understand why people are angry. Having looked at the pictures of the birthday party in the Cabinet Office, I think the Opposition are going to be quite hard pressed to explain why they have such moral outrage about that but not about the late-night beers that happened in Durham. However, one of the things I was very troubled by was the language used towards the custodian. Will the Prime Minister join me now—I am sure the whole House would agree—in expressing the level of respect and gratitude we have to every single cleaner and worker, including all the people in the Tea Room, who work in this place?
I feel as if I have completely let down those who showered me with so much love. Why wasn’t I by the bedside of my lovely grandmother during her final few days? Why did I let her die alone in that hospital? Why did I not attend the funeral of my uncle? It was because of worries about Government restrictions on numbers. And why did I not go to comfort my brother- in-law’s father as he was dying in a Slough care home? With all of this context, it is utterly hypocritical for those very individuals who were preaching to us ad nauseam about patriotism, the flag and the Queen to be having late-night parties, including two on the night before the Queen had to sit all alone during her husband’s funeral when the country was in a state of national mourning. Absolutely shameless. Given that the Prime Minister is not going to do the right and honourable thing, does he agree that it is not the support and sympathy of the British people that are keeping him in power, the majority of whom want him to resign, but the support and sympathy of those—
I believe both leaders have a lot to answer for with regard to this issue. The British Army teaches us, or certainly believes at its very core, that we serve to lead and we lead by example. Given the extent of rule breaking in No. 10, does my right hon. Friend believe that what he has said to the House since about there being no rule breaking passes the test of reasonableness?
My hon. Friend is asking exactly the right question and I understand why he asks it. But I have tried to give my answer to him and to the House, which is that I believed that I was attending work events—those are the ones of which I had knowledge—and with the exception of what took place in the Cabinet room in June 2020, that view has been sustained by the investigation.
Neither I nor my Edinburgh South West constituents would wish to live in a state where the Government of the day can influence the police in the exercise of their duty to investigate without fear or favour, so we are puzzled as to why the Prime Minister did not receive questionnaires in respect of three gatherings for which other people in No. 10 received questionnaires. We are also puzzled as to why the ABBA party in the Prime Minister’s flat has never been investigated by either Sue Gray or the Metropolitan police. What can be done by way of an independent investigation to assure me and my constituents that the Metropolitan police have not been nobbled?
I understand the outrage of people in Lichfield and Burntwood, and indeed the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi), who have lost loved ones, but I also understand, having been an employer, that attending a leaving event is considered to be a work event. My right hon. Friend clearly had guidance that turned out to be wrong, so can he now explain how the appointment of a new permanent secretary at No. 10 will make a difference?
The structure of No. 10 has changed. There is more direct command and control of the whole building, which was a little unclear, and there is a new permanent secretary with direct responsibility for the whole office—hundreds and hundreds of people—as opposed to that function nominally being addressed by the principal private secretary. As Sue Gray says, the lines of command were not clear.
After months of shuffling around, prevarication and buck passing, this report makes it absolutely clear that, when the British public were taking the restrictions seriously, the Prime Minister was taking the British public for fools. That is why the Prime Minister and his Government cannot be taken seriously. Is it not time he said goodbye so that the rest of us can say good riddance?
When I asked the Prime Minister about Sue Gray’s interim findings on 31 January, he asked me to wait for the inquiry report—he asked many hon. Members that day to do the same. Subsequently, he has asked the media to wait for the findings of the inquiry report, and he knows that many Conservative colleagues have told their constituents that they are waiting for the inquiry report. So I was very surprised to read an intimation in The Times that he may have asked Sue Gray not to publish the report at all. Is there any truth to that suggestion?
The last time I asked the Prime Minister a question on this subject, I said that the problem with him—and I have got on with him over the years—is that he is a serial offender. Even serial offenders, if they confess to doing wrong and repent for what they have done, can be forgiven because they are mending their ways. I am sorry, but his performance today shows no real remorse. He is trying to pass the buck to other people. Like many I see on the Conservative Benches, I believe he should now resign.
I have apologised and, as I said, I am deeply contrite about what happened. I take responsibility. We have already made a huge amount of change in No. 10, and it is my judgment that the best thing for the country is now to move on from this issue and to learn the lessons.
We were dealing with an unprecedented pandemic, and we did not have any immediate tools to control it, short of a vaccine, without asking people to restrict their behaviour. I am sure there are plenty of lessons we can learn for the future about how to do it better, and that will be a matter for the inquiry.
Although the Prime Minister is still, unwittingly, a great asset for Scottish independence, the question everywhere is this: how to goodness is he still the Prime Minister of this current United Kingdom?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his further apology and explanation today, which is important to many of my constituents. Does he note that paragraph 4 on page 36 of the Sue Gray report says
“there have been changes to the organisation and management of Downing Street and the Cabinet Office with the aim of creating clearer lines of leadership and accountability”?
Does he agree with Sue Gray that these changes need to bed in, that the focus of our Government must be laser-like in tackling the cost of living crisis that has come about as a result of the covid pandemic and Ukraine, and that, over and above everything else, this is the concern of my constituents?
What a load of baloney. Excuse after excuse after excuse, and it simply does not wash with the British public, who are sick and tired of being taken for fools. The truth is that the Prime Minister encouraged the gatherings, he attended the gatherings, he poured the drinks at the gatherings and he even raised a toast at the gatherings, so he knew perfectly well that these gatherings had taken place. The most despicable thing of all is that Sue Gray says she saw
“multiple examples of a lack of respect and poor treatment of security and cleaning staff.”
They knew what the rules meant, even if nobody else did. Does the Prime Minister show no contrition, no sense of shame, that Downing Street, under him, has been a cesspit full of arrogant, entitled narcissists?
As I have already said to the House, it is absolutely disgraceful, in any circumstances, to be rude to the people who help us—the staff and custodians. It is intolerable, and I will make sure that those who are guilty of it apologise or are otherwise disciplined.
Does the Prime Minister not agree that we should focus on the real issues that matter to the British people: the cost of living and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? Given what happened in Durham, the only people left to apologise in this Chamber are on the Labour Front Bench.
To call this a damning report for the Prime Minister is an understatement. It states:
“The senior leadership at the centre, both political and official, must bear responsibility for this culture.”
For 168 days, the Prime Minister has used Sue Gray as a human shield against this duty. In this farce of a parliamentary system, it is now all down to Tory MPs—and there are not many of them left in the Chamber—to grow a backbone and oust this moral vacuum of a Prime Minister. Will he spare them the trouble and resign?
I thank Sue Gray for her report and, of course, the Metropolitan police for concluding their inquiry. Does the Prime Minister agree that investigations should be carried out without outside interference or statements towards the police or others? Will he now urge the Leader of the Opposition to respect this, too, with regards to Durham constabulary?
My mother, my father-in-law and my mother-in-law are just three of the nearly 180,000 people who have died from covid-19 in Britain. Laws were broken by the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and others, and these were not victimless crimes; these were not silly rules and meaningless red tape—they were designed to protect lives. The doctors and nurses who cared for my relatives at North Manchester General Hospital were not clocking off for “wine time Friday”. So for the first time in his life, will the Prime Minister do the right thing, and resign?
No, but I want to assure the hon. Gentleman that I understand the reasons why he feels as he does. I also want to say that everybody in No. 10 took the pandemic with the utmost seriousness. I grieve for his loss. We were doing our best to contain a very, very difficult situation.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that I voted against much of the covid legislation over the past couple of years, because I felt that a lot of it was pettifogging, ridiculous and unnecessary. I think this entire House should apologise to the British people for allowing a lot of this nonsense legislation to be in place. Whereas I take great comfort in and have respect for the fact that the courts tend to come to the same conclusion for the same offences, it would seem that the legislation we passed allowed an individual police force to come to different conclusions and certainly allowed different police forces to do so. From the photos I have seen, I would much rather have been at the curry and beer than the birthday party the Prime Minister had in the Cabinet room.
I do not believe that the Prime Minister has any credibility left, because my constituents tell me that they do not believe what he says. So I want to ask the Prime Minister about what I think is the bare minimum in this situation: cleaning staff and security staff in No. 10 were treated with a lack of respect, so has he personally apologised to them?
Rarely in my 21 years in this House have I heard such utter drivel as we have been presented with today. I have tried to find words to capture what the Prime Minister said: disingenuous, delusional, slippery, self-serving—I know that I cannot say “dishonest” in this place. There has been no attempt at remorse; it is all somebody else’s fault. Surely if he was half the man he thinks he is, he would summon that self-respect and just go.
I want to quote the following to the Prime Minister and all those on his side—we have just heard one of them—who suggest that the covid rules did not matter. It is from palliative care doctor, Dr Rachel Clarke:
“To NHS staff, it was always abundantly clear that the way you survive a pandemic is together.”
She goes on to say that, in 2020,
“Collective compliance…was really all our patients had”
to protect them, and “basic, selfless, public decency” mattered. Rules were
“Hated yet obeyed, because we care about each other... And that glass of wine in the prime minister’s hand? It’s been thrown into the faces of us all.”
How does he reply to that?
I wish things could have been handled better and I wish we had got things right in No. 10 in the way we did not. I apologise again for things that we got wrong, but we have already changed the way we work and I really think it is time that the country moved on.