House of Commons
Wednesday 13 July 2022
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Order. Before we start today’s business, I must inform the House that I have received a letter from the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), indicating that he wishes to resign as Chair of the Science and Technology Committee. I therefore must declare the chair vacant. I will make an announcement about the date and arrangements for the election of a successor next week.
Oral Answers to Questions
Women and Equalities
The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—
Gender Pension Gap
The Government are committed to addressing the gender pension gap. Automatic enrolment and the new state pension are already enabling more women to build up retirement provision. Recognising that this issue derives primarily from differences in work and pay, we continue to work across Government with employers and partners to address inequalities relating to the labour market.
My constituents in Swinton regularly tell me that the gender pensions gap is exacerbated as a result of a lack of ambition on the part of the Government regarding auto-enrolment. Will the Minister meet me to hear those concerns from constituents in Swinton, and see how we can change that to ensure we close the gender pensions gap?
Whether it is the menopause, child rearing, or caring for elderly relatives, women are impacted across their careers in the contributions that they make to their pensions. Most of all, they need better work opportunities, and for the DWP to be championing them into better paid work. What work is the Minister doing with the Minister for Employment to ensure that women’s careers are at the forefront of the Government’s efforts?
Sexual Harassment against Women in the Military
We are doing a huge range of work right across defence, both institutional and cultural, to ensure that sexual harassment is not an issue. We have taken the complaints procedure out of the chain of command, and established the Defence Serious Crime Unit to tackle any criminal wrongdoing. We will introduce training right across defence to ensure that we generate a military culture that respects women. That is all the more important because women can now serve in every single role.
If the Minister has not already done so, I recommend that he make contact with the excellent organisation Salute Her, which I visited in North Tyneside. It supports women veterans, many of whom suffered sexual abuse in the armed forces, and their stories are harrowing. I remind the Minister that, shockingly, a recent Ministry of Defence survey showed that one in seven women in the armed forces has been subject to sexual harassment in the past 12 months alone. What more can he do to work with colleagues throughout the armed forces to root out that dreadful culture?
I have met Salute Her, and we pay attention to its recommendations. The work being done following the Wigston review is hugely important, and I commend the work done by my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton). That body of work, and the recommendations that we have overwhelmingly accepted, will be carried out at pace across defence.
I remain extremely concerned about the plight of LGBTQ+ service people who before 2001 were routinely court-martialled,
dismissed, or lost their pensions or the right to wear their medals and so on. That is bad enough, but it remains the case today. What more can the Minister do to put that demonstrable injustice right? It is no good setting up a committee—we want it sorted.
Careers in STEM Subjects: Women and Girls
The increasing number of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics has been a huge asset to our country. Look at Sarah Gilbert, creator of the covid vaccine. Around 35% of the wage gap can be overcome if we get more women into high paid occupations, and that is exactly what we are working on.
Lack of diversity in science academia is an obstacle that must be overcome to maximise creativity and scientific innovation. Among the findings on diversity data and grant funding from Cancer Research UK was the fact that female and ethnic minority researchers hold fewer programme awards than their white and male colleagues. How can the Government level the playing field for women and ethnic minorities who are applying for research grants in those essential areas?
I am pleased to say that we are now seeing more women enter undergraduate courses in universities: 42% of undergraduate STEM students in the United Kingdom are women. What we need to do is open up all those research opportunities—those more senior opportunities—in our universities.
The good news, of course, is that young women are taking up and studying STEM subjects, but there is a drop-off when it comes to those people going into good, well-paid jobs. What more can my right hon. Friend do to make sure that people not only continue their STEM studies, but continue into good careers?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that girls and women are moving through the STEM pipeline. There has been a 31% increase in girls studying STEM subjects since 2010, and more employers are opening up opportunities around the country. We have the STEM boot camps to help people mid-career with STEM training. As my hon. Friend says, that is the way in which we will unleash talent in our country and make sure we are leading in the industries of the future.
Cost of Living: People with Protected Characteristics
The Treasury carefully considers the equalities impacts of policy on those with protected characteristics, in line with both its strong commitment to promoting fairness and its legal obligations under the public sector equality duty. In May, the Government announced over £15 billion of additional support targeted at those with the greatest need.
Single parents—nine in 10 of whom are mothers—are among those most exposed to the cost of living crisis, particularly those aged 25 and under, who get a reduced rate of universal credit. What are the Government doing to evaluate the impact of soaring prices on that group, and why have they not taken steps such as ending the age-related universal credit limit?
The Government’s support package targets the most vulnerable households, including single parents, providing a £650 cost of living payment. I would certainly urge her constituents to contact the local council to see whether the household support fund can also be of assistance.
Today’s report from the Resolution Foundation shows that our economy is over a decade into a period of stagnation after 12 years of Tory rule, yet all we see from the Government Benches is a chaotic Tory tombola of tax cuts, and no plan for the more secure economy that women need. The impact on women has been stark, with 115,000 fewer women in employment now than before the pandemic. Does the Minister have any plans to halt that fall?
The Resolution Foundation has actually praised this Government’s handling of the cost of living pressures. The cost of living support package, totalling £37 billion this year, is in line with our international competitors and more generous than France, Germany and Japan.
There we have it: there is no Conservative plan to support women’s employment. Women are being hammered by the Conservative cost of living crisis, which is getting worse by the day. After 12 years of economic failure, it is little wonder that Tory leadership candidates are trashing their own record. How else can the Minister explain the fact that by next April, average real pay for full-time women workers will have fallen by £670 since the Tories came to power?
There are more people in employment and on payrolls than pre-pandemic levels, and women are driving that growth in our economy. The support programme this Government have introduced is helping women back into work, and I hope that will benefit the hon. Lady’s constituents as well as mine.
According to the Women’s Budget Group, the UK Government’s erosion of the social security system is a key contributor to the current Tory cost of living crisis. Women—particularly those with disabilities or caring responsibilities and those from ethnic minority backgrounds—are disproportionately impacted by that crisis, which is a crisis unlike anything most of us have ever experienced. Knowing that, what specific steps has the Minister taken to make sure those equalities impacts are properly taken into account in the UK Government’s response to the cost of living crisis?
As part of our cost of living support package, we have introduced a very specific disability cost of living payment, worth £150 per person. I would add that in the spending review, the UK Government gave the Scottish Government £41 billion a year as part of its settlement: the biggest since devolution, and a 26% increase compared with the average across the UK.
We set up a taskforce on women-led high growth enterprise, which met for the first time this month. It will use its convening power to influence high growth investors and the business community, and to raise aspiration of the next generation of female entrepreneurs right across the country.
I thank the Minister for that answer, but the fact is that if women were starting and scaling businesses at the same rate as men it would add a staggering £250 billion to the UK economy. We need to turbocharge the investment and support we are giving to female entrepreneurship. What thought has been given to pivoting some of the existing financial packages, such as the enterprise investment scheme, to better support women-led enterprises?
The enterprise investment scheme has specific objectives. It is designed to encourage investment in higher risk early stage companies. However, the Government are committed to supporting women entrepreneurs in a range of ways, as highlighted by the implementation of recommendations from the Rose review. I would be happy to ask a colleague of mine to discuss the issue further with my right hon. Friend.
The hon. Member for Gosport (Dame Caroline Dinenage) rightly points out some problems with the Government’s schemes, but the Minister, who works within the Department for Work and Pensions, should know that the way that childcare functions within universal credit does not help women become entrepreneurs either. What conversations has she had with the other Ministers in that Department and civil servants on reform to childcare?
The Government are committed to a range of ways to help families—not just women, but parents—with childcare. There is a set of messages we could let go out from this exchange today, which includes encouraging families to take up the childcare options that are available. There will be more that we can do to continue to encourage people to take the work that is right for them and to support them as they do so.
Women in the Workplace
Continuing the previous theme, we are committed to helping women in every workplace and we have announced new initiatives to do that. For example, we have called on all employers to provide salary information in job adverts. As the Minister for Women and Equalities, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) has already articulated, we are helping women to return to STEM roles where their talents are most needed, and, as already touched on, a new taskforce will increase the number of women-led high growth businesses.
I thank the Minister for her answer. Will she join me in welcoming the unequivocal judgment of the employment appeal tribunal and the employment tribunal in the case of Maya Forstater v. the Centre for Global Development, to the effect that gender-critical beliefs are protected under the Equality Act 2010 and that women, and indeed men, must not be discriminated against, harassed or victimised for either holding those beliefs or stating them? Does she agree with me that all employers will require to review their workplace practices in human resources and their equality, diversity and inclusion policies to ensure that they comply with the law as stated in that judgment? Can she tell me what steps she will take to ensure that that happens?
I thank the hon. and learned Lady for that question. She is, as we all know, very thoughtful on these issues and looks very carefully at the important consequences of the issues at hand. The rulings in that case and others reflect the important balances that the Equality Act already provides for. I think the key point to make in response to her is that we agree that we must protect free speech and allow open discussion. It is, of course, the responsibility of all employers to ensure that they comply with the law as set out in legislation, such as the Equality Act 2010, and interpreted by the courts.
In March, the UK Government ratified the International Labour Organisation convention outlawing violence and harassment in the workplace, something that still disproportionately affects women at work. In ratifying that convention, the UK Government need to have in place a programme of work to prevent and enforce the law around those issues. Will the Minister outline how the Government will make sure that they live up to the important provisions in that convention?
My right hon. Friend, as always, makes vital points and I am very pleased that she does. I will ask the Minister for Women and Equalities to write to her with a fuller update so that she can be assured of the Government’s commitment to these vital matters.
Gender Inequalities: Armed Forces
Women are an integral part of our armed forces and have thriving careers, as my hon. Friend will know from her report, which contained a number of important recommendations. Having tested those with the Army Servicewomen’s Network, we are adopting almost all of them. We have a target of a 30% in-flow of women into the armed forces by 2030. We have improved equipment and uniforms and wraparound childcare. Most importantly, we want to generate a military culture that respects women.
Since the Defence Committee’s report that highlighted inequalities for women in the military, the Ministry of Defence has made good, if not excellent, progress and change is being felt on the ground. The MOD went further and committed to hosting an international Five Eyes conference to share best practice. Will the Minister commit to attending with me?
Following the report from the Defence Sub-Committee, which was chaired by the hon. Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton), may I ask the Minister why, if the Government are taking gender equality in the armed forces seriously, they do not learn from the report from the Sub-Committee and make sure that rape goes into civilian courts and does not remain on an unequal basis in the court martial system?
When the hon. Member sees the formal response to the report, he will have no doubt that we are taking note of these recommendations in absolute earnest. The feedback that I get from young women serving in all roles right across defence is that women should really look forward to service life. There are terrific role models that they can be very proud of.
Transgender Conversion Therapy
As we prepare legislation to ban conversion practices, we continue to assess equality impacts in relation to all protected characteristics, including gender reassignment. We intend to introduce a ban that protects everyone who attempts to change their sexual orientation. There are different considerations for transgender conversion practices and the Government remain committed to exploring them.
There is a respectful debate to be had on single-sex spaces and on trans people in sport, but the Government’s failure on their promise of a full ban on conversion therapy, which caused one equalities Minister to resign last week, is not it. Eight royal colleges and the British Medical Association want this. When will the Government act?
We want to ensure that everyone is protected from the extensive harm that conversion practices cause. It is not unreasonable to take some extra time to avoid an unintended consequence and to build a consensus, so that, together, we can make our legislation as inclusive as possible.
I acknowledge all the work that my hon. Friend has done on this subject. I absolutely agree that the legislation to ban conversion practices is fundamentally about protecting LGBT people from harm. The experience of victims needs to continue to be at the heart of all considerations, as I know they were when my hon. Friend was the Minister.
Transferring Asylum Seekers to Rwanda: Government’s Equalities Policy
Rwanda is a safe and secure country with respect for the rule of law. We would only ever work with countries that we know are safe, and we will treat asylum seekers in accordance with the relevant international human rights laws. Furthermore, Rwanda’s constitution includes a broad prohibition on discrimination.
The United Nations said that the UK Government’s cruel Rwanda policy breaches international law. The Home Office’s equalities impact assessment of the policy clearly states the dangers for LGBTQI+ people and the UK Government’s website advises against travel to Rwanda for LGBTQI+ people. Women for Refugee Women stated that threatening the removal to Rwanda of women fleeing gender-based violence
“exposes them to further risk of violence and harm”.
How can the UK Government justify this cruel policy?
The use of rape and sexual violence by Russian forces in Ukraine is central to their appalling war tactics. We are campaigning internationally for sexual violence to be treated as a red line in war, akin to the use of chemical weapons. We have sent a team of experts to the region to collect evidence so that those who commit these appalling war crimes can be held to account.
Sadly, Lib Dem-run City of York Council is continuing with its restrictions, which have an impact on blue badge holders, and is dodging decisions on city centre parking. This is causing a huge disadvantage to rural communities in my constituency who have poor transport links. Does the Minister agree that city centres should be accessible to all?
Yes, passionately, and the Equality Act 2010 sets out ways in which local authorities should ensure that. I will make sure that departmental colleagues know of my hon. Friend’s concerns.
I welcome the Minister for Equalities to her place. She sure has a lot to catch up on, whether that is finally addressing LGBT+ hate crime or finally publishing a women’s health strategy. She will be aware that her predecessor resigned last week because of the Conservative party
“creating an atmosphere of hostility for LGBT+ people”.
That is a damning charge from a sitting Conservative MP. Does the Minister agree with her predecessor?
The Government take all hate crimes seriously, and we have robust laws to respond to them. While police have recorded an increase in hate crimes targeting LGBT communities, the biggest drivers for this are an improvement in police recording and the increased willingness of victims to come forward. It is taken very seriously by the Home Office, and we are working with the police on it.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: one of the biggest issues that we face in this country is geographical inequality. That is why we have appointed Katharine Birbalsingh as head of the Social Mobility Commission. Her school, Michaela Community School in Brent, is fantastic at helping to level up among all groups of people. We want to see more of those types of schools all around our country.
I am pleased to say that I have been to the Holkham estate and seen her fantastic business operating in rural Norfolk. We need to turbocharge rural economies, and we need to get more women into business; we know that if women set up businesses at the same rate as men, it would add £250 billion to our economy. She is a fantastic businesswoman.
I first got involved in politics when I was 16. One of my many motivations for joining David Cameron’s Conservatives was his socially liberal stance on LGBT+ issues. One of our party’s proudest achievements, in my view, is introducing same-sex marriage. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, whatever the outcome of the leadership election is over the next few weeks, she and her Department will continue to prove that the Conservative Government are on the side of LGBT people?
The Prime Minister was asked—
Order. [Interruption.] Shut up a minute. [Interruption.] Order! I say to the hon. Member for East Lothian (Kenny MacAskill) that I will not tolerate such behaviour. If you want to go out, go out now, but if you stand up again, I will order you out. Make your mind up. Either shut up or get out. [Interruption.] I warned the hon. Gentleman—[Interruption.] Shut up a minute. [Interruption.] Two at once! [Interruption.] Order! Sit down.
I now warn the hon. Members for East Lothian and for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Neale Hanvey) that if they persist in refusing to comply with my order to withdraw, I shall be compelled to name both of them, which may lead to their being suspended from the House. [Interruption.] Order. I am now naming you, Neale Hanvey and Kenny MacAskill, and I ask you to leave the Chamber. Serjeant, deal with them. Out—now. Serjeant at Arms, escort them out. Take them out. Serjeant, get them out!
Now then, let us just see if we can—[Interruption.] Mr Costa, you do not want to want to escort them to the Tea Room, do you? I suggest not. I think you are better behaved than that.
The Speaker directed Neale Hanvey and Kenny MacAskill to withdraw from the House, and the Members withdrew accordingly.
From tomorrow, the first instalment of the cost of living payment will start landing in the bank accounts of 8 million households across the country. This is a much-needed £326 cash boost for families, which forms part of the £1,200 in direct support that we are giving the most vulnerable households this year.
I am sure the whole House was appalled and saddened, as I was, to hear about the despicable attack on Shinzo Abe. Our thoughts are with his family and loved ones, and with the people of Japan, at this dark and sad time.
This week we remember the genocide in Srebrenica and the victims of those appalling events. We must learn the lessons of history, and do all in our power to prevent such a thing from happening again. We will continue to combat war crime deniers, both in Bosnia and Herzegovina and elsewhere.
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
I thank the Prime Minister for his personal interest in Aberconwy. Whether he has been eating ice cream on the pier in Llandudno, sampling Welsh Penderyn whisky or standing in the granite quarry in Penmaenmawr, he has seen why people love this constituency. He has also heard from them their gratitude for the vaccine and furlough programmes that this UK Government delivered. Will my right hon. Friend now support our plan to level up Aberconwy and our bid for almost £20 million of funding to invest in community and cultural programmes, and give us the opportunity to match our potential?
I thank my hon. Friend; he is a great champion for Aberconwy. I much enjoyed the Penderyn whisky that we sampled together, although I ignored the Revolver, as some of you may have noticed. We are committed to uniting and levelling up the UK, and as for the second round of the levelling up fund announcements, it will be coming this autumn.
I join the Prime Minister in his comments about the former Prime Minister of Japan—a deeply shocking moment—and of course in his comments about genocide.
May I welcome the new Cabinet to their places? We have a new Chancellor who accepted a job from the Prime Minister on Wednesday afternoon and then told him to quit on Thursday morning, a new Northern Ireland Secretary who once asked if you needed a passport to get to Derry, and a new Education Secretary whose junior Ministers have literally been giving the middle finger to the public. It is truly the country’s loss that they will only be in post for a few weeks.
The Prime Minister must be feeling demob happy since he was pushed out of office. Finally he can throw off the shackles, say what he really thinks and forget about following the rules! So does he agree that it is time to scrap the absurd non-dom status that allows the super-rich to dodge tax in this country?
It is perfectly true that I am grateful for the ability to speak my mind, which I never really lost, but what I am focusing on is continuing the government of the country. As I have just said, from tomorrow £326 is arriving—[Interruption.] Never mind non-doms. Doms or non-doms, I don’t mind. From tomorrow £326 is arriving in the bank accounts of 8 million vulnerable people. And how can we do that? Because we took the decisions to get the strong economy that we currently have, which I am afraid were resisted by—[Interruption.] Growth in May was at 0.5%, which the Opposition were not expecting. As I have said before, 620,000 more people are in payroll employment than before the pandemic began, and one of the consolations of leaving office at this particular time is that vacancies are at an all-time high.
Cut him some slack—faced with an uncertain future and a mortgage-sized decorator’s bill for what will soon be somebody else’s flat, I am not surprised the Prime Minister is careful not to upset any future employers. So here is an even simpler one: does he agree that offshore schemes can pose a risk because some people use them to avoid tax that they owe here?
I am proud of the investment this country attracts from around the world. The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about people from offshore investing in the UK, and I am absolutely thrilled to see we have had £12 billion of tech investment alone coming in over the last couple of months. It is possible that he is referring not to me but to some of the eight brilliant candidates who are currently vying for my job. Let me just tell him that any one of them would wipe the floor—[Interruption.]
The Prime Minister has been saying all week that he wants revenge on those who have wronged him. Here is an idea: if he really wants to hit them where it hurts, he should tighten the rules on tax avoidance. At the very least, does he agree that anyone running to be Prime Minister should declare where they and their family have been domiciled for tax purposes, and whether they have ever been a beneficiary of an offshore tax scheme?
To the best of my knowledge, everybody in this Parliament and everybody in this House pays their full whack of tax in this country. Members across the House should cease this constant vilification of each other. I think people pay their fair share of taxes, and quite right.
Thanks to the tax yield we have had, we are able to support the people of this country in the way we are. We have been able to increase universal credit by £1,000, and from tomorrow we are putting £326 into the bank accounts of those who need it most. Thanks to the policies we have pursued, as I have just told the House, we have unemployment at or near record lows. That is what counts.
The Opposition are very happy to see people languish on benefits. We believe in getting people into good jobs, and I am looking for one.
I am not sure the Prime Minister has been keeping up with what has happened in the last few days. Over the weekend, the candidates to replace him have promised £330 billion in giveaways, which is roughly double the annual budget of the NHS. Sadly, they have not found time to explain how they are paying for it, even though one of them is the Chancellor and another was Chancellor until a week ago. They all backed 15 tax rises, and now they are acting as if they have just arrived from the moon and saying it should never have happened.
Does the Prime Minister agree that, rather than desperately rewriting history, they should at least explain exactly where they are getting all this cash from?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman is completely wrong. I have been listening very carefully, and all the commitments I have heard are very clear. Whoever is elected will continue to put more police out on the street, exactly as we promised. There are already 13,576 more police, and it will go up to 20,000. The Opposition always complain about this, but whoever takes over will build the 40 new hospitals. [Interruption.] They do not like it because they voted against the funding that makes it possible. During the time for which the Leader of the Opposition has been in office, they have made extra public spending commitments worth £94 billion, which would be thousands of pounds of extra taxation for every family in the country. That is the difference between them and us.
To be fair to the new Chancellor, he has at least attempted to spell it out. He has promised tens of billions in tax cuts and confirmed that he would cut the NHS, the police and school budgets by 20% to fund it. [Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon and Gibraltar is complaining, but he said it on TV. And yesterday he said:
“It is simply not right that families are seeing their bills skyrocket and we do nothing.”
Was the Chancellor speaking on behalf of the Government when he promised huge spending cuts and when he said they are doing nothing on the cost of living crisis?
This is really pitiful stuff from the party that voted against the £39 billion, which is necessary to pay for those 50,000 nurses—who we are recruiting and will recruit by 2024—and which is necessary to pay for those hospitals, those doctors, those scans and that treatment. Labour Members do not have a leg to stand on. I can tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman something else: the reason we have growth at 0.5% in May is that we took the tough decisions to come out of lockdown on 19 July last year, which he said was “reckless”. Never forget that he said it was reckless. Without that, our economy would not be strong enough now to make the payments that we are making to our fantastic NHS, and they know it.
I really am going to miss this weekly nonsense from the right hon. Gentleman. Let us move on from his current Chancellor to his former Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak). Last week, he resigned, accusing the Prime Minister of not conducting government “properly”, “competently” or “seriously”. He suggested that the Prime Minister is not prepared to work hard or take difficult decisions, and implied that the Prime Minister cannot tell the public the truth. Yesterday, he claimed that his big plan is to “rebuild” the economy. Even the Prime Minister must be impressed by that Johnsonian brass-neckery. Can the Prime Minister think of any jobs that his former Chancellor may have had that mean he bears some responsibility for an economy that he now claims is broken?
I think everybody who has played a part in the last three years has done a remarkable job in helping this country through very difficult times. I just want to say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that the next leader of my party may be elected by acclamation, so it is possible that this will be our last confrontation over this Dispatch Box. [Interruption.] It is possible. So I want to thank him for the style in which he has conducted himself. It would be fair to say that he has been considerably less lethal than many other Members of this House, Mr Speaker, and I will tell you why that is. He has not come up—[Interruption.]
As I was saying, there is a reason for that: over three years, in spite of every opportunity, the right hon. and learned Gentleman has never really come up with an idea, a plan or a vision for this country. At the end of three years, we got Brexit done, which he voted against 48 times; we delivered the first vaccine in the world and rolled it out faster than any other European country, which would never have been possible if we had listened to him; and we played a decisive role in helping to protect the people of Ukraine from the brutal invasion by Vladimir Putin—it helped to save Ukraine.
I am proud to say that we are continuing, and every one of the eight candidates will continue, with the biggest ever programme of infrastructure, skills and technology across this country, to level up in a way that will benefit the constituents of every Member of this House. It is perfectly true that I leave not at a time of my choosing—[Interruption.] That is absolutely true. But I am proud of the fantastic teamwork that has been involved in all of those projects, both nationally and internationally. I am also proud of the leadership that I have given. [Interruption.] I will be leaving, soon, with my head held high.
I thank my hon. Friend for his campaign. Our thoughts are of course with the friends and family of Pitchfork’s victims, Lynda and Dawn. The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab), will be submitting his views on the Pitchfork case to the Parole Board before Pitchfork’s hearing. As the House will know, a root-and-branch review of the parole system is currently under way, and that includes plans for greater ministerial oversight for the most serious offenders. We will bring that forward as soon as parliamentary time allows.
I associate myself with the remarks of the Prime Minister on the murder of Shinzo Abe—a dreadful event that took place last weekend.
I thank you, Mr Speaker, for last night hosting the charity Remembering Srebrenica. We should all take time this week, on the 27th anniversary of the genocide that took place there, to think of the circumstances, and the shame that we were not able to step in and stop the murder of so many innocent boys and men, and the rape of so many women. We must learn the lessons from that—of course, at this time we think very much of those in Ukraine who are facing a war criminal—and make sure that those responsible are ultimately held to account for crimes against humanity.
The Tory leadership contest is quickly descending into a toxic race to the right, and it is clear that whoever wins that race, Scotland loses. The former Chancellor has pledged to govern like Margaret Thatcher; the current Chancellor is threatening 20% cuts to the NHS and public services; and they are all trying to outdo each other on an extreme Brexit that will cost the economy billions. Is the real reason the Prime Minister will not endorse any of these awful candidates that whoever becomes the next Tory leader will make Genghis Khan look like a moderate?
I feel a real twinge that this may be virtually the last time that I will have the opportunity to answer a question from the right hon. Gentleman— whether it is because he is going or because I am going, I do not know. All I would say to him is that the next leader of my party will want to ensure that we do everything we can to work with the Scottish Government—in the way that I have been able to do, and am proud to have done, over the last few years—to protect and secure our Union. My strong view, having listened to the right hon. Gentleman carefully for years and years, is that we are much, much better together.
I can say with all sincerity that I hope that whoever is the next Tory leader will be as popular in Scotland as the Prime Minister has been.
For people in Scotland, Westminster has never looked so out of touch. We have right-wing Tory contenders prioritising tax cuts for the rich, and a zombie UK Government failing to tackle the cost of living crisis. While the Tories are busy tearing lumps out of each other, MoneySavingExpert’s Martin Lewis has warned that the energy price cap could rise by a sickening 65% in October—to £3,244 a year. After a decade of Tory cuts and Brexit price rises, that will mean that many families simply cannot afford to put food on the table and heat their homes. Scotland literally cannot afford the cost of living with Westminster. Does the Prime Minister not get that people in Scotland do not just want rid of him—they want rid of the whole rotten Westminster system?
What is actually happening in this country is that we are using the fiscal firepower that we have built up to cut taxes for working people and cut taxes for those on low incomes—we saw that last week with an average tax cut on national insurance of £330. We are increasing support for those vulnerable households, with another £326 going in from tomorrow. It is thanks to our Union that we were able to deliver the furlough scheme, which helped the entire country, and to make the massive transfers that boost the whole of the UK economy. The last thing that the people of Scotland need now is more constitutional wrangling when we need to fix the economy.
It is thanks to the massive exertions of this Government in levelling up, with the £650 billion investment in infrastructure, that we have a new railway station in Cheadle. I know that the bids that my hon. Friend has just mentioned are now being actively studied by those at the Department for Transport, and she should feed in more to them.
In a recent opinion poll, conducted by LucidTalk for Queen’s University, only 5% of the people of Northern Ireland expressed any trust whatsoever in this Government. As the Prime Minister prepares to leave office shortly, will he apologise for his legacy in Northern Ireland, where power sharing has collapsed, the Good Friday agreement has been undermined, an unwanted protocol Bill has been imposed on the people and businesses of Northern Ireland, and Anglo-Irish relations are in their worst state for 40 years?
I say to my hon. Friend that, if anything, I am even more optimistic. I have only one anxiety. We all know that there are people around the world who hope that this will be the end of Brexit. [Interruption.] I can see them all! Look at them! Did my hon. Friend notice those on the Labour Front Bench? That is them. They are wrong, Mr Speaker, and we will show that they are wrong.
As I continually advise the members of the Scottish National party—or nationalist party, I should say—they should look at what is happening to educational standards in Scotland, which they are responsible for, instead of endlessly asking for a repeat of a constitutional event that we had in 2014. We had a vote, and they lost.
It is possibly fair to say that I am responsible for building more river crossings and bridges than anybody else in this House, including the Suggitts Lane crossing, which I delivered for my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers). At this stage in my political career, I could not in all honesty promise that I will deliver this bridge, but my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Katherine Fletcher) has eight people to whom she can direct that request right now, and she is in a strong bargaining position.
Of course the Labour Government in Wales is responsible for schools, but what we have been doing is not only increasing the living wage by £1,000 and providing the £37 billion-worth of financial support that I mentioned, but helping councils with a £1.5 billion household support fund to get families such as those the right hon. Lady mentions through the tough times. We will come out very strongly the other side.
West Hertfordshire Teaching Hospitals Trust: New Acute Hospital
I am delighted that there will be a new hospital scheme in this area. I am told the local hospital trust has considered a full range of options and that it considers that new hospital builds at Watford General, alongside further investment at Hemel Hempstead and St Albans City hospitals, represent the best option for the health services in the area.
I thank the Prime Minister for delivering Brexit and the fantastic vaccine roll-out programme, which I was proud to be involved with and which saved so many lives in my constituency and around the country. Sadly, the trust has not considered all options—I know my constituents would be astonished by what it has said. It now wants £1.2 billion for the refurbished tower block situation in Watford. Can the Prime Minister do me a great favour before he leaves? Can he put a little note in the drawer of No. 10 for when the new incumbent comes in, saying, “Penning needs a new hospital on a greenfield site”?
The hon. Gentleman talks about staffing levels: the NHS now has a record number of people working in it, with 10,900 more nurses this year than there were last year and 6,000 more doctors. On ambulances, and he is right that this is absolutely critical, the crucial thing is to help the hospital staff to move patients through the system. Too often, I am afraid, it is impossible because a proportion of the patients sadly are in delayed discharge and that is making life very difficult for the ambulances as they come up to hospital. That is why it is so crucial that this Government, in addition to everything else we have done, are fixing social care and helping patients out of hospital. That is why we put in the £39 billion, which unfortunately his party voted against.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Leader of the Opposition knows a lot more about Stoke Newington than he knows about Stoke. [Interruption.] That is absolutely true. I am proud that we are getting young people into work up and down the country. I was at an event last night to celebrate the 163,000 kickstarters who we have helped into work. That is our ambition—to help people into good jobs. I am proud to say that I leave office with unemployment at roughly 3.8%; when Labour last left office it was at 8%. That is the difference between them and us.
It is a long-standing practice, I think accepted on both sides of the House, that we do not comment on special forces. That does not mean that we in any way accept the factual accuracy of the claims to which the hon. Gentleman has alluded; nor does it mean that anybody who serves in Her Majesty’s armed forces is above the law.
As I mentioned earlier, we are engaged in a massive programme of improvements and building and rebuilding in our NHS estate. With great respect to my hon. Friend, he is going to have to continue to lobby for this decision. The local NHS bodies will have to make up their minds on it, but I am sure he will continue to make lively representations.
I know from my own experience of running the city the anguish that that particular tragedy caused and the deep feeling that surrounds it, and I thank my hon. Friend for raising it. Whatever my own views, this is a matter for the independent Metropolitan Police Service, and I am sure that the new commissioner will consider what he has just said.
May I say to the hon. Gentleman that after three years of listening to this delirium of monotony from the Scottish nationalists, I really think they need to change the record? What the people of this country want is a focus on the cost of living, on the economy, on schools and on standards in schools—those are the things he should fix, and that is to say nothing of the tragedy of drug deaths in Scotland, which the SNP still has not done anything to address. Everything I have seen has taught me that whether it is Ukraine, covid or furlough, there is absolutely no doubt that we are better off working together.
On behalf of the Ukrainian community that is at the heart of Kensington, I send huge thanks to the Prime Minister for his support for Ukraine.
Yesterday was the first anniversary of the devastating flooding that affected more than 1,000 homes in my constituency. People in basement flats lost all their belongings and many people are still in temporary accommodation. Will my right hon. Friend back my fight to ensure that we get serious investment in infrastructure in west London from Thames Water?
I know the problem of which my hon. Friend speaks very well. There is no single solution to tackling surface water flooding, but she is absolutely right in wanting to put more pressure on Thames Water to try to come up with sustainable solutions. That has to be done working with partners and councils, and with developers as well.
A few short weeks ago, Zara Aleena was walking home through Ilford. She was dragged off the street and brutally murdered. Zara’s family made a touching tribute to her life. They said:
“She was authentic and refused to try and impress anyone, but she impressed us. She was the rock of our family.”
Last week, on 8 July, another woman was stabbed in St Johns Road, just yards from my family’s church that I have attended for 15 years, so I know the area like the back of my hand. Women in Ilford should not have to police themselves or impose curfews on their behaviour when they just want to go about their daily business. Will the Prime Minister commit to a greater allocation of policing funding targeted on specialist knife crime into Ilford and across all that part of north-east London? In addition, what measures will the Government take that will make a difference to the lives of women? Will they toughen sentences for rape, stalking and domestic violence and put in place proper police support to end the epidemic of violence in this country against women and girls?
Before the Prime Minister answers, let me say to Members that, although I have allowed the matter to be raised, we should be careful about going into detail on the first person because the case is sub judice. I am sure the Prime Minister can answer the question in general terms.
I thank you for your guidance, Mr Speaker. I think we can safely say how much we sympathise with the victim and her family. Knife crime is a scourge, and I believe there are many different solutions, but one of them unquestionably is allowing the police to do more stop and search and making sure we have more police out on the street. That is why we have made the massive investments we have, and I hope that those investments will continue. I am sure that they will.
Rape and serious sexual offences—offences particularly against women—are a matter that is incredibly important to the whole House, and they are something we have worked on very hard over the past three years. We have done everything we can; not only have we introduced more streetlights, but we have invested more in independent sexual violence advisers and domestic violence advisers and all the people we need to give victims the confidence they need to get cases to trial, which is such a problem. In addition to putting more police out on the streets and specialist units to tackle—[Interruption.] Yes, we have. We have also introduced tougher sentences for rape and serious sexual violence. I have to say I am amazed that it is still the case that the party of the Leader of the Opposition voted against those tougher sentences. That was a great mistake, and I think they should take it back.
Order. At the start of Prime Minister’s questions, the hon. Members for East Lothian (Kenny MacAskill) and for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Neale Hanvey) persistently denied the authority of the Chair. In their absence, I wish to proceed to name them, and I call on the Leader of the House to move the relevant motion.
Kenny MacAskill, Member for East Lothian, and Neale Hanvey, Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, were named by the Speaker for wilfully disregarding the authority of the Chair (Standing Order No. 44).
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 44), That Kenny MacAskill and Neale Hanvey be suspended from the service of the House.—(Mark Spencer.)
Question agreed to.
As a former Minister, I am very aware of the information that is given to Ministers and Prime Ministers when they are going to be answering questions, especially when they are pre-informed of a question. The information the Prime Minister was given was that my hospitals trust had looked at all options for the decision on a new hospital in my part of the world. That is not correct, and I want to put it on the record that the Prime Minister has been misled by my trust. It is not the Prime Minister’s fault that he had that information.
Ambulance Services and National Heatwave Emergency
Our ambulance service performs heroics every single day, and I put on the record my thanks to every single one of its staff for their dedication and hard work. We have a duty to support this vital service and give it the resources it needs.
The latest figures from the NHS in England show that ambulance service response time performance has improved month on month, and that ambulance hours lost are also improving month on month. However, we fully acknowledge the rising pressures facing the service, and there are three significant factors influencing the situation. First, bed occupancy is currently around 93%, which we would normally see during winter. Secondly, there are high rates of hospital covid admissions—whether “with covid” or “because of covid”—and that puts pressure on A&Es’ ability to admit patients. Thirdly, void beds are running at roughly 1,200, partly due to a 16% increase in the length of stays. Delayed discharges are another significant influence, but they remain flat. We also have record numbers of calls to the ambulance service—100,000 more compared with May last year. There is therefore significant pressure on the system.
We also have to be mindful of the weather in the coming days. We do have a heatwave plan for England, which was published earlier this year—I am sure the hon. Gentleman has read it—and we also have the hot weather plans that NHS trusts have put in place. In addition, we are providing sector-specific guidance setting out the best way to protect people who may be at risk. We are also supporting the service more widely to make sure it has the resilience it needs. We have allocated £150 million of extra funding for the ambulance service this year, and we are boosting the workforce too. The number of national 999 call handlers had risen to nearly 2,300 at the start of June, which is a considerable increase on the previous September, and we are on track to train 3,000 paramedic graduates a year nationally every year until 2024. On top of this, we have invested £50 million in NHS 111 to help give extra capacity to the service.
I will be meeting all 11 ambulance trusts over the coming days to make sure that they have the capacity and the resilience they need not just to deal with the pressures now, including with the warm weather, but to prepare for the forthcoming winter pressures that we know are inevitable. This is an important issue that I take extremely seriously, and I will keep the House updated as the situation develops.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question, but what a disgrace that the Secretary of State is not here. Our NHS is going through the biggest crisis in its history, every ambulance service is on the highest level of alert, patients are forced to wait hours in pain and discomfort, and he is yet to say a word about any of it. The Home Secretary was not at the Home Affairs Committee this morning, and the Health and Social Care Secretary is not here this afternoon. This is not even a Government in office, let alone in power.
One person who is still in office, however, is the Minister. Her boss resigned saying he could not put loyalty above integrity any longer. Well, the Minister obviously made a different choice. Can she say whether any further meetings of Cobra are scheduled beyond the meeting held on Monday? As we saw during the pandemic, public health emergencies require clear communication from Government. Can she tell the House what the consequences of a national heatwave emergency would be for schools, public transport services and other public services, and what guidance will be provided to the general public? What assessment has she made of the suitability of care homes to protect residents from the extreme heat, and what contingencies are in place should further measures be necessary?
Every ambulance service is now on the highest level of alert, so what is the Secretary of State doing about it? The Minister talks about targeted help for ambulance services—she is going to be hitting the phones this week; presumably the Secretary of State is too busy—but, as I think she acknowledged, this is a crisis across the health service. Last month, a crew in the west midlands waited 26 hours outside A&E because clinical staff were not available to hand over to. What are the Government doing to provide additional support to A&Es during this heatwave? These pressures are not new. Average waiting times for stroke and heart attack victims are one hour. Patients in the north-east were told to phone a friend or call a cab rather than rely on emergency services. Is it not the case that, although extreme weather is of course putting further pressure on our emergency services, it is 12 years of Conservative underfunding that has left them unable to cope?
In conclusion, if people such as the Home Secretary and the Health Secretary cannot be bothered to turn up to do their jobs and are not interested in the business of running this country because they are too busy making endorsements for fantasy candidates with far-fetched promises, perhaps it is time they step aside so that Labour can give Britain the fresh start it needs.
Can I say how disappointed I am at the shadow Secretary of State’s response? If he is not happy that a female Minister with over 20 years’ experience in the NHS is able to answer a question on NHS waiting times, I find that very disappointing.
As I said in the debate a few weeks ago, I do not want to bring politics into health because I think it is too important, but if the shadow Secretary of State wants to play politics, I will give him politics. If we look at Wales, where Labour runs the NHS service, we see that the ambulance service and A&E departments are facing exactly the same pressures. Only 51% of red calls in Wales are being seen in eight minutes; the target is 65%. If he looks at the call time for strokes, he will see that only 17% of those people are being seen in time. Those numbers are falling month on month, whereas in England our responses are improving month on month. On the four-hour wait in A&E in Wales, 34.9% of people have been seen within four hours.
The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but he stood at the Dispatch Box just now and said that Labour would do better. It is not doing better in Labour-run Wales; it actually has either similar response times or worse response times.
I have set out a plan. It is clear that the hon. Gentleman has not read the heatwave plan for England, which was published earlier this year, because he would have the answers there. We are making sure that all NHS trusts are prepared. I am happy to work with each and every Member across this House to make sure that the ambulance service, our A&Es and hospital trusts have the support that they need, but if all he wants to do is play politics, I think that is extremely sad.
Would the Minister like to put on record her thanks to all the hard-working ambulance crews of the West Midlands Ambulance Service, particularly those working throughout the county of Shropshire? Does she agree with me that this is not just about ambulances, but about local authorities—in my case, Shropshire Council and the borough of Telford and Wrekin—working alongside acute trusts such as the Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS Trust? A collective effort is required, not a single effort by a single ambulance service.
I thank my right hon. Friend, who is absolutely right, because a number of factors are influencing the wait times at A&E. While delayed discharges are not increasing, there are still a significant number of them, which means that the NHS and local authorities have to be working together. That is why we have created the integrated care boards, which Opposition Members voted against, to better co-ordinate care between health and social care so that we can have better systems in place to discharge patients sooner. As I have said, we have 1,200 void beds, which is either due to infection control measures because of covid rates increasing or because patients cannot be discharged. I will be meeting every single ICB in the coming days, because as part of our winter preparation, we need to improve co-ordination in those areas.
Last October, I revealed through a parliamentary written question that every ambulance service in England was at the highest alert level. We are now nine months on, and we are in that situation again. We are facing warnings of extreme weather this weekend. The Government need to reinstate the funding for discharge packages into social care homes. We need primary care to be used to stabilise people in communities, and we must be using first responders from the fire service. Will the Minister agree to convene an urgent meeting of Cobra today to protect patients and paramedics, who are really operating at the brink?
I say to the hon. Lady that we have put additional investment this year—over £150 million of extra funding—into ambulance services to help them meet demand, because they do have significant demand. The rates we are seeing at this time of year are the sorts of rates we would normally see in winter, and we are doing exactly as we would then. We have our heatwave plan, which was published earlier this year, and we are confident that we are working with all NHS trusts, and all the ambulance trusts too, to make sure they have the support they need. Can I gently say to her that this is not just about funding? This is about bringing care together to ensure that hospital beds are freed up so that when ambulances arrive at A&E they can unload their patients. As I said to the shadow Secretary of State—I am not sure if he is going to take me up on this—I am happy to work with every single Member across this House to make sure that we support our emergency services.
I welcome the reassurance the Minister has provided regarding capacity and resilience planning over the coming weeks. A&E services at Blackpool Victoria Hospital have been under significant pressure of late, and the planned £15 million Government-funded improvements to increase capacity there frankly cannot come soon enough. Will the Minister meet me to discuss the progress of these plans to ensure that patients can see the benefits as soon as possible?
I thank my hon. Friend, who has been campaigning vigorously for better healthcare provision in his local area. I am very happy to meet him to discuss those plans, and I recognise that there is an urgency about that. I can reassure him that six areas of the country account for about a third of the handover delays, and we are specifically focusing our efforts on them. This is about relieving the pressures in the system, whether through more capacity at A&E so that patients can be seen more quickly once they arrive by ambulance, or support for the ambulance service itself. I am very happy to meet him to discuss the problems in his local area.
Despite the promises and assurances that the Minister set out in the heatwave plan and in her response, I am very disappointed that previous promises made in the House by the Minister, that she would speak with North East Ambulance Service whistleblower Paul Calvert, my constituent, have not been honoured. If Ministers will not engage with those who identify ongoing problems and learn lessons to fix our failing ambulance service, how can we expect the ambulance service to respond to an acute crisis such as the current heatwave?
The North East Ambulance Service is one of three areas of concern in terms of performance. I reassure the hon. Member that I have met the families, and offered other families a meeting, to discuss the matter. In relation to his constituent, there is a tribunal ongoing. It is difficult for me to meet him while that is ongoing. Once that is over, however, I would be happy to meet his constituent to discuss the issues that he raised as a whistleblower.
The Minister will be aware that the chances of recovery for those who suffer a stroke are greatly improved if they get specialist care within the first half hour, 45 minutes or so. So will she do everything she can to address administrative blockages and other delays, to ensure that people get the chance of life-saving treatment at the earliest possible stage?
Yes, and I thank my right hon. Friend for raising that point. Different response times are required, depending on the reason for the call. Strokes would be a C2 emergency, for which the target is 18 minutes. The latest figures we have are from May, when we were performing better than in April. The figures are not where we want them to be, but we are seeing month-on-month improvements. For C1 and C2 cases, which need urgent treatment as soon as possible, particularly for strokes, every minute counts and we want to see further improvements in those times.
The Manchester Evening News is reporting that the North West Ambulance Service has raised its operational pressure level to “critical incident” level, which indicates a potential for failures as ambulance services try to cope with extreme pressure. A&E departments at the Royal Bolton and Stepping Hill Hospitals have admitted that they are extremely busy, with long queues of ambulances at some times. The Minister did not even mention social care in her response, which we know is so broken that it adds to delays and discharges. Twelve years of Conservative mismanagement and neglect have left those services, on which my constituents rely, so vulnerable. What does the Minister have to say to the patients suffering as a result?
I am sorry that the hon. Lady did not hear my response. I specifically mentioned social care as well as the integrated care boards that we have set up to bring health and social care together—I think Labour Members voted against that. As I said, one factor affecting ambulance delays is the bed occupancy issue. Part of that—not all of it—is about delayed discharges and lengths of stay are 16% higher. We have a plan for fixing social care and it is unfortunate that Labour Members voted against it.
Cheltenham General Hospital’s A&E was saved from a trust plan to close it, thanks to the fantastic support of more than 20,000 of my constituents. Does my hon. Friend agree that, in addressing the enormous challenge of the demands we face, capacity is important as well as flow through the system? In the light of that demand, the decision of the trust, and indeed the Government, to keep Cheltenham’s A&E open has been vindicated.
I am pleased that my hon. and learned Friend is already seeing the benefits of the A&E in Cheltenham staying open. He is very modest—I am sure he played a significant part in ensuring that it stayed open. This is absolutely about capacity and there is no magic bullet that will make the pressures on the ambulance and emergency services any easier. This is multi-faceted and capacity at A&E is crucial. I am meeting the ambulance trusts to find out where good practice is making a difference, so we can help to share that across the country.
In June, a 59-year-old man collapsed in the west midlands, going into cardiac arrest. Neighbours called an ambulance, but it took 90 minutes for one to arrive—six times longer than it should have taken. Sadly, the man soon passed away. We see this time and again across my region, where ambulance waiting times are among the worst in the country. When will the Government provide the much needed extra support to stop horrific incidents such as that reoccurring?
I am sorry to hear about the sad death of the hon. Member’s constituent. Her region is one of the six areas that have the worst handover times and at which we are targeting support. I would be happy to meet her and update her on the specific support that we are offering her region.
When discussing ambulance response and waiting times, the Minister kept using the phrase “month-on-month” improvements. Can she specify which months? She will know that it depends on which month you choose as your baseline—if it was the worst month in recorded history, it is not difficult to show month-on-month improvements.
When we look at our figures, of course we look month on month, but we also compare them with previous years. As I said in my opening remarks, we are seeing an increase in calls—over 100,000 more compared with May 2019. The hon. Member shakes his head, but those are the facts. We are comparing month on month, and comparing with previous years. We are seeing an improvement in response times and in the amount of ambulance hours lost to ambulances queuing at A and E.
Of the 22,000 people who visited Newcastle’s Royal Victoria Infirmary A&E in May, 13%—more than 3,000 people—faced a wait of more than four hours. In the last month, people were facing waits of seven hours, and constituents with rapid heart fluctuations were told that they faced a wait of 11 hours for an ambulance and that they needed to get a cab. Is not it negligent of the hon. Lady’s Government to leave our NHS unable to protect my constituents, particularly facing a heatwave, and what is she going to do to ensure that they have the resources necessary?
As I explained in answer to the shadow Secretary of State, these are problems facing all devolved nations. I highlighted the four-hour waits in Wales, but in Scotland there are similar pressures—in Ayrshire there is a three-hour wait. These problems are not specific to any one Government. I have set out what we are doing to help all ambulance trusts and regions of the country. We have put in funding to support the ambulance service and to support NHS 111 to try to take some pressure off the ambulance service. We are looking at the novel approaches that in some parts of the country are working well—whether that is having GPs in A&E to try to take pressure off people who are waiting a long time, or having paramedics in GP surgeries. Whatever works we will look at, to help to take pressure off the system.
Rochdale is especially vulnerable because its A&E was closed many years ago. It means people are dependent on an ambulance service that is not in crisis because of the heatwave; it has been in crisis for some considerable time. We do not need blandishments. Why does it take a crisis for the Minister to come before the House to explain what has not yet happened?
We are not waiting for a crisis. I have set out the funding that we have put in place this year—£150 million extra funding for the ambulance service—and highlighted how we are boosting the workforce. In case the hon. Gentleman did not hear my opening remarks, there were nearly 2,300 more 999 call handlers at the start of June, and we have invested £50 million in NHS 111 capacity, to help us reduce demand. We have been doing this. There will be pressures on the ambulance service and our emergency services at times. We saw that with covid and the heatwave this week will put pressure on the NHS. There will also be pressures in winter. Opposition Members may think there is some magical way to avoid pressures, but there is not. We need to provide resources and capacity to ensure that the service can meet that demand.
Further to the question about strokes, as we know, every minute counts. The Minister just told the House that in not every case is the ambulance response meeting the 18-minute time that she said is the target. Given that, what advice would she give to members of the public who think that a loved one has had a stroke? Should they ring 999 and hope that the ambulance will turn up within the 18 minutes? If not, should they put the person in a car or taxi and take them to A&E? When they arrive at A&E and say, “I think my loved one has had a stroke”, what confidence might they have that they will be seen quickly, given that time is of the essence?
As someone who has suffered a stroke myself, I am very aware of the urgency of seeing stroke patients on time. I am not going to give clinical advice at the Dispatch Box. It is important that, if a person suspects a stroke is occurring, they dial 999 immediately. The ambulance callers will normally stay on the line with that person, advise them on what to do, depending on their symptoms, and get an ambulance to them as quickly as possible. Once they arrive in hospital, if a stroke is suspected, they will be seen immediately—we are not seeing reports of stroke patients being delayed once they are in hospital. It is crucial that those patients are seen urgently, and the advice is to dial 999 and clinical advice will be given to them over the phone.
The West Midlands Ambulance Service says that it has been at resource escalation action plan 4—the highest level of alert—for several months now, which is almost unprecedented. Has the new Secretary of State spoken to the chief ambulance officer for the west midlands yet about that terrible situation?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: ambulance trusts are under record pressures, the sorts of pressures that we would normally expect in winter. We are seeing them in the summer months, which is usually their down time, a fact that is extremely concerning for the months ahead as we head into winter.
As I said, I will meet all 11 ambulance trusts over the coming days. In the first few days of his appointment, the Secretary of State has already been out with ambulance crews to hear from them directly about the pressures they are facing. I hope the hon. Gentleman is reassured that we are both taking the issue extremely seriously.
This is a situation that my constituents are desperately worried about. We know that ambulance waiting times were not being met before the pandemic, so this problem has a long background to it, as the Minister knows. We also know that there has been a crisis in A&E waiting times, and in my own hospital of Arrowe Park—a hospital in my constituency—in May this year, almost half of patients had to wait more than four hours.
Given that this problem has been a long time in the making, that the Government have known about it, and that one senior leader in the north of the country who does not want to be named has described the situation as “dire” for staff and patients, can the Minister tell us what the Government are going to do as a matter of urgency to sort it? My constituents are desperately worried about this issue. I have constituents who have lost people because of—well, we cannot say “because of”, but in circumstances that have involved very long ambulance waits, so this issue could not be more important to them. I would like an answer about what the Government are going to do urgently.
There are two aspects to that question. In terms of urgency, we have procured a contract with a total value of £30 million for an auxiliary ambulance service, which will provide national surge capacity if needed to support the ambulance response during periods of increased pressure. That capacity is there, should we need it.
The hon. Lady also talked about long-term plans. We have been investing in the ambulance service since 2010. I talked about the extra paramedics: we are training 3,000 graduates every year to 2024 in order to increase our capacity. We have also made significant investments in the workforce, with an almost 40% increase since February 2010, so we are improving. Sometimes, those changes take time to come through, but we are investing in the workforce, providing more funding and training more paramedics, and we also have an auxiliary ambulance service procured should we need it.
“24 Hours in A&E” used to be a reality TV programme; now, it is Government policy. Can the Minister tell me why this Government have presided over a watering down of standards that will see the zero tolerance for 12-hour waits in A&E and the 30-minute standard for ambulance handover delays scrapped?
The reason I am standing at this Dispatch Box is my experience of working as a nurse in A&E under the last Labour Government. I believe it was them who introduced the four-hour target. [Interruption.] Does the hon. Lady want to listen to my response? Those targets looked good on paper, but were very often just driven as tick-box exercises.
I used to look after patients. I remember an elderly gentleman who was waiting for over four hours on a hospital corridor when I was a nurse under the last Labour Government. He was lying there on his trolley, wanting to go to the toilet, and all we could do was wheel a curtain around him on a busy hospital corridor so that he could do so. That was the experience under the last Labour Government, so I will not take any lectures from Opposition Members about performance.
I urge the Minister to consider the position again, and consider declaring an emergency. I especially want to draw her attention to issues in the South Central Ambulance Service area, where there are long-standing, severe pressures, particularly around recruitment and retention of staff—linked to the high cost of living in central and southern England—and areas of very high house prices where NHS staff pay has not kept up with the local labour market. In particular, I draw her attention to the additional enormous pressure of the heatwave in the south of England and London, where temperatures are particularly high. I hope she will look at this issue on a national basis, but also consider the particular problems that exist in our parts of England.
I have set out to hon. Members the work we are doing to increase capacity in the ambulance service, including £150 million in funding, training more paramedics, and increasing the workforce by 40%. We published the heatwave plan for England earlier this year—the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting), was not sure whether he had read it, but I urge all Members to do so. We are watching this issue on a daily basis. It is not just about the heatwave; it is about covid pressures, enabling hospitals to discharge patients, the winter pressures that will come later this year, and making sure we have resilience in the system.
I have heard from one of my constituents who suffered a stroke and was left to wait for nearly two hours for an ambulance, and is now severely disabled. That issue is being seen repeatedly across the country, so can the Minister tell me what she is doing now, urgently, to make sure that when my constituents in Durham need an ambulance urgently, they get one? The plans she has outlined and the investment she has spoken about are obviously not good enough.
We are working urgently on this issue—as, I am sure, are the health services in Wales and Scotland, which are facing the same problems. We are all working hard to address them. As I have said, we have procured a contract with a value of £30 million for an auxiliary ambulance service to increase capacity, should we need it. I will be meeting all ambulance trusts in the coming days to make sure we have the resilience we need, not just to catch up with some of the pressures that existed before covid or to deal with the pressures that those trusts are facing now, but to future-proof them for the coming winter months.
Joyce, a 96-year-old survivor of the Coventry blitz, sadly fell in her care home back in April, and lay in agony screaming for 10 hours. At the time of the 999 call, there were 63 people awaiting ambulances, and on that day, over 1,100 hours were lost due to hospital handover delays. Clearly, a major factor in those delays is the handover capacity in our A&E services and in wards. The Government have had 12 years to sort out the issue of social care, so does the Minister support the calls from various leadership candidates to make tax cuts and remove the national insurance increase that was supposed to support social care?
I am not sure whether that means the hon. Gentleman is now supportive of the social care levy, which is there to pay for improvements to social care. This Government are making those changes and bringing forward the integrated care boards that are bringing health and social care together to deliver on those delayed discharges. I have been very honest: delayed discharges are having an impact on bed capacity and a knock-on effect on our ambulance services. If the hon. Gentleman has changed his mind and now supports the social care levy, I welcome that news.
With the greatest of respect to the Minister, I cannot fathom why the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care is not at the Dispatch Box when we are facing such a perfect storm. Given that the Home Secretary failed to turn up to the Select Committee on Home Affairs this morning, may I ask the Minister whether this is the Government’s new approach: that members of the Cabinet no longer turn up to be accountable and so that scrutiny can happen in this House?
I can reassure the right hon. Lady that I am the Minister responsible for ambulances, which is why I am standing here at the Dispatch Box. The Secretary of State has been out on visits this morning, meeting clinical teams; it is important that he hears at first hand from those who are on the frontline. I got into politics to make sure that those of us who work on the frontline—[Interruption.] The right hon. Lady rolls her eyes; maybe she does not have much respect for those of us who worked on the frontline. We are dealing with this situation, and will be supporting the ambulance service over the coming months. The right hon. Lady’s response is extremely disappointing.
I granted the urgent question because the shadow Secretary of State tabled it and normally we would expect a Secretary of State to come. I recognise that they may be busy in other areas, but it is something we ought to be aware of. More and more, we are seeing fewer Secretaries of State across all Departments, not just this one.
Last Friday, I passed by Royal Shrewsbury Hospital. It is in a neighbouring constituency, but it serves my constituents. It was not a particularly bad day, but there were eight ambulances with their doors open in the heat, waiting to transfer patients. This is not a new situation and I have repeatedly raised the issue in this place: on my first day in Parliament with the Prime Minister; with the Secretary of State for Health in an Adjournment debate; and in a Westminster Hall debate with the hon. Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar). All those people have now resigned. Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital Trust has declared its fifth critical incident this year. When will the Government end the chaos and infighting, and start taking steps to prevent avoidable deaths in Shropshire and across the country?
The Minister and the Government were able to respond to the covid-19 pandemic and showed that resources could be made available. Can I ask the Minister this question in a positive fashion? Is it possible to use some of the very successful covid-resourced helplines for people to contact to provide short-term advice on heat-related issues, rather than perhaps ringing, as they often do, the GP out of hours? What else can the Minister’s Department do to take pressure off A&E and out-of-hours GP surgeries?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very constructive suggestion—one of the first of the afternoon, if I may say so. There were lessons during covid that are being rolled out across emergency services. We are looking at best practice in those parts of the country where response times are better to see if we can share it. I am very keen to look at any option that relieves the pressure. We are investing in 111, which enables people to have alternative ways of getting urgent care directed to them. We are looking at 111 being able to make direct referrals as well, so there are a number of options. I am happy to take suggestions from any hon. Member if they are keen to see those happening in practice.
We are closely monitoring the fast-moving and fluid political, economic and security situation in Sri Lanka. The Minister of State with responsibility for south Asia, Lord Ahmad, has engaged directly with our high commissioner and team on the ground. We encourage all sides to find a peaceful, democratic and inclusive approach to resolving the current political and economic challenges. Sri Lanka’s political and economic challenges should be resolved through an inclusive and cross-party process. Any transition of power should be peaceful, constitutional and democratic. I call on all parties to exercise restraint and refrain from violence.
A state of emergency has been declared in Sri Lanka by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe after President Rajapaksa fled the country last night. That follows weeks of protests on the island, with inflation running at more than 50%, rocketing the price of everyday goods. The health system is on the verge of collapse due to a lack of medicine. There is no fuel for essential transport services and medical vehicles. There have been power cuts, school closures and we woke this morning to protestors overtaking the Prime Minister’s office, tear gas fired by police, a curfew imposed on the capital and the national TV broadcast suspended.
This is a crisis in democracy decades in the making. The world turned away when the Rajapaksa Government cluster bombed their own people committing genocide, murdered their journalists and enriched a small group led by one family. Their malign, dynastic control has stripped the country bare, leaving behind a broken nation on the brink of economic collapse. Sri Lanka is unable to buy essential goods from abroad and for the first time in its history it failed to make a payment on its foreign debt, a consequence of swingeing populist tax cuts at a time of economic instability—Tory leadership candidates beware.
An International Monetary Fund bailout is essential, but does the Minister agree that any financial assistance must go hand in hand with democratic and human rights reforms, in particular for the Tamil community which continues to fight for truth, justice and accountability as a result of the human rights abuses perpetrated at the end of the civil war by the outgoing Rajapaksa regime?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. As I say, we have been monitoring this very fast-moving and fluid political, economic and security situation. As she did, we urge a peaceful and democratic transition in line with the constitution and the rule of law. The Minister with responsibility for south Asia has been thoroughly engaged with the team on the ground in the high commission. I stress that he visited Sri Lanka earlier this year and met a range of civil society groups specifically to discuss the human rights situation. At that time, he met Ministers, including the President and the Foreign Minister, and urged them to take steps to improve human rights, and to deliver justice and accountability following the conflict. I reassure the House that we are closely monitoring the situation on the ground, which is very fast moving and fluid.
I find it a pity that some people are seeking to use this urgent question to criticise the current Government in Sri Lanka. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) can chunter from a sedentary position, but the elephant in the room is not the governance of Sri Lanka; it is the decision in 2019 to become an organic country within 10 years. That has led to food shortages and overseas remittances not being returned. The problem in Sri Lanka is that there is no food for people to eat. The UK Government need to assist Sri Lanka and agencies to ensure that food, fuel and other supplies are provided. We need to come to a Commonwealth country in its time of great crisis, not make silly political statements.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. As I say, we are monitoring the situation very closely. In answer to one of the points both he and the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) made, economic support from the UK is forthcoming through multilateral institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank. The UK is the joint fifth-largest shareholder in the IMF and is a major contributor to the UN and the World Bank.