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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 724: debated on Wednesday 7 December 2022

Attorney General

The Attorney General was asked—

Violence against Women and Girls: Prosecution Rates

1. What steps she is taking to increase the proportion of cases relating to violence against women and girls that are prosecuted. (902642)

8. What steps she is taking to increase the proportion of cases relating to violence against women and girls that are prosecuted. (902650)

10. What steps she is taking to increase the proportion of cases relating to violence against women and girls that are prosecuted. (902653)

The Government are committed to tackling violence against women and girls, and we have enacted a multitude of new offences designed to target predatory behaviour and to ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice. That includes stalking, coercive and controlling behaviour and upskirting. Further, in the year ending June 2022, prosecutions for rape offences were 49% higher compared with pre-covid levels.

Lewisham has some of the highest domestic abuse-related crime levels in London and that appears to be increasing. One of the main challenges in capturing accurate pictures of the levels of violence against women and girls in Lewisham is due to under-reporting by victims. A critical issue for my constituents remains the lack of trust in the system, so what are Ministers doing to restore public trust and increase prosecution rates? The low levels of prosecutions cannot continue.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question, and she is right that we need to see an increase in prosecution rates. The rape review action plan is looking at three key metrics: referrals, charge volumes and Crown court receipts. In each case, she will be pleased to know that the figures are up and moving in a positive direction. She is also right about the issue in relation to victims, and independent sexual violence advisers will help in that regard.

The commitment to introducing specialist rape courts has not been met. Instead, there is a pilot scheme in just four locations, yet survivors cannot select where their cases are heard. Each day in the UK, there are around 300 rapes, of which around 190 are reported. Of those, only three rapists will see the inside of a courtroom, never mind a prison cell, and the rest will be free to abuse and rape again. Over the Christmas period, the number of rapes rises, so will resources be put in place to ensure that cases reported to the Government’s new 24-hour hotline are actually prosecuted?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for mentioning the new hotline. It is right that, overall, prosecutions are up 49% and convictions for rape are up 41%, but she is right in what she says. There are three pilot areas for rape courts, but each and every Crown court can take on rape cases, and I am determined to see prosecutions and convictions rise.

For women who have been raped, the time that that takes to come to court, when it does come to court, is too often long and traumatic. What is my hon. Friend doing to ensure that the time is shorter for all concerned?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue. Timeliness is clearly important in ensuring that victims stay with and continue to support prosecutions—she is absolutely right. As for the number of days between police referral and Crown Prosecution Service charge, that has been moving in the right direction and was 29 days faster in the last quarter. However, to strike a note of caution, it is important to ensure that the evidence is right and, on occasions, that can take time.

I acknowledge the progress that the Government are making on this issue, but at the heart of the matter is the lack of referrals from the police to the CPS, especially in rape cases. At present, we have a charge-out rate of around 1.7%, and that has to change.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who brings considerable experience to the Chamber and to the Justice Committee. As he will have heard, charge rates are one of the key metrics. The overall figure is 72.8%. In comparison, the figure for all crime is 78.8%, which is not that far off. He will be pleased to know that, in his local area, the charge rate is increasing.

Although I welcome the absolute increase in the number of rape prosecutions in Essex, the percentage of prosecutions is still pitifully low. What more can the Attorney General do to help excellent police and crime commissioners such as Roger Hirst and Members of Parliament across Essex to improve the situation?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and for championing his local area, and he is right. One thing that we can do is to support victims, and we are doing that, not least through the ISVAs. When victims have that help and support, they are 49% more likely to stay with the programme and to continue to support and progress through the criminal justice system.

I believe that the Solicitor General is now an old hand at this, but may I welcome the new Attorney General to her place?

As the Solicitor General will know, an estimated one in five women in this country have experienced the daily misery of being stalked and the constant fear that their stalker may one day attack them. In the year ending March 2022, almost 120,000 stalking offences were reported to the police, but less than 6,000 of those reports resulted in a charge. That is a charge rate of just 5%, compared with 7% the year before. Does the Solicitor General think that is good enough?

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for her warm welcome to me and to the Attorney General. She is right to raise the issue. I would gently point out that stalking was created an offence under this Government; I pay tribute to my predecessor, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), for all his work in the area.

The right hon. Lady is right to highlight that prosecution rates and charge rates are not high enough. She will have seen from the action plan that I have referred to that we are determined to see them increase. The Attorney General and I keep a very close eye on the matter.

I appreciate the seriousness with which the Solicitor General approaches these issues but, as he will know, a formal complaint has been submitted by the Suzy Lamplugh Trust and 20 other members of the National Stalking Consortium, asking for an investigation into the overall handling of stalking cases. Whatever the outcome of that process, may I ask him to take on board the recommendations that the consortium has submitted alongside its complaint and to ensure that, at every level of the criminal justice system, stalking is treated with the seriousness it deserves?

I pay tribute to the right hon. Lady for the tone that she is striking. She is absolutely right to highlight this issue. The Attorney General and I will look at it incredibly closely, of course, and we will do exactly as the right hon. Lady says.

May I also take the opportunity to welcome the Attorney General to her place? A commitment to protecting women and girls should mean protecting all women and girls. Safeguards protecting against gender-based violence must be extended to migrant women. What representations has the Attorney General made to the Home Office to ensure that migrant women are offered the same protections as other women in the UK, and to ratify the Istanbul convention fully and without reservation?

I know that my right hon. Friend the Attorney General will be very grateful for the hon. Lady’s welcome. The Attorney General works incredibly closely with the Home Office on the issue; more broadly, in relation to victims, she works incredibly closely with the Home Office and with the Ministry of Justice. It is not in isolation, but with our three Departments, that we can make progress.

People Traffickers: Prosecution Rates

2. What steps she is taking to increase prosecution rates for (a) small boat gangs and (b) other people traffickers. (902643)

3. What steps she is taking to increase prosecution rates for (a) small boat gangs and (b) other people traffickers. (902644)

12. What steps she is taking to increase prosecution rates for (a) small boat gangs and (b) other people traffickers. (902655)

Since we enacted the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 at the end of June, prosecutions for illegal entry and facilitating illegal entry have increased by 250%. We are working across Government to ensure that we can stop the life-threatening crossings and prosecute the gangs behind them.

Organised illegal immigration crime is transnational, making collaboration across Europe vital to tackling people-smuggling from source to transit to destination. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to work with partners across Europe to share intelligence and resources, to ensure that more prosecutions are successfully brought against these reprehensible criminals?

My hon. Friend is a great champion for beautiful Hastings and Rye. The Government routinely work with international partners to disrupt organised crime groups. The CPS has deployed a criminal justice adviser in France who supports prosecutions on both sides of the channel. We also collaborate with other jurisdictions, for example through Eurojust—the European Union Agency for Criminal Justice Cooperation—on sharing evidence-gathering where that is appropriate.

To protect increasingly stretched capacity in places such as Northampton for genuine asylum seekers, what steps is the Attorney General taking to increase prosecution rates for those behind the exploitative people-trafficking in relation to migration from high-volume but safe countries in particular?

The rate of prosecutions for people trafficking has increased enormously: in 2021-22 it rose by 48%, owing to intensive collaboration between the police and prosecutors.

I share the anger and frustration felt by many people in Gedling about the small boats issue and the traffickers behind it. What assurance can my right hon. Friend give me that frontline operatives are collaborating on the investigation and prosecution of pilots of small boats?

My hon. Friend has asked an excellent question, but I hope I can reassure him by saying that the Crown Prosecution Service is working closely with Border Force and immigration colleagues to tackle this dangerous offending. The Solicitor General, the Immigration Minister and I recently met a group of those colleagues, and were very impressed by their determination to work together.

A few weeks ago, I received an answer to a parliamentary question which indicated that over the past seven years we had paid the French authorities £300 million to try to stop people coming from France to this country illegally. Does the Attorney General think that that was value for money?

As I said earlier, it is important that we work closely with the French authorities to ensure that prosecutions can take place on both sides of the channel, and that we stamp out this illegal activity.

In November, the Police Service of Northern Ireland raided 27 brothels in Northern Ireland in what it described as the biggest operation against people trafficking that it had carried out so far. An organised crime group was smuggling people into both Northern Ireland and the Republic. What discussions has the Minister had with the PSNI about trafficking in Northern Ireland, and will she devote time to tackling this UK-wide problem with the PSNI?

The hon. Gentleman always asks important questions, as he has done on this occasion. The prosecutors have been working closely with all law enforcement agencies to provide early advice in modern slavery cases, which has itself led to an increase in evidence-led prosecutions, and I look forward to working more closely on this issue with the hon. Gentleman in the future.

Criminal Justice Backlog: CPS Effectiveness

4. What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the Crown Prosecution Service in reducing the backlog of cases in the criminal justice system. (902645)

I recently met frontline prosecutors in Bristol, Devon and London to see at first hand the work being undertaken to tackle the backlog. The CPS has created a national surge team that could be deployed to any region in England and Wales to relieve casework pressures.

I welcome the new Attorney General to her position. However, the backlog is still going up. Last week a solicitor was jailed for 12 years for a £10 million fraud after a private prosecution that was brought because the CPS had taken no action. Last year the prosecution rate for fraud, the most commonly experienced crime, was 0.5%, and for the past five years the average number of prosecutions initiated by the Serious Fraud Office has been four. Is the Attorney General’s solution to the backlog not to prosecute cases at all, and is this not a pathetic record of inaction by a Government who have gone soft on crime?

I disagree with the hon. Gentleman’s last two points. We all want to see the backlog reduced as quickly as possible, and the Ministry of Justice is leading the development of a cross-Government Crown court recovery plan. It is through, for instance, technology, sentencing blitzes and pre-trial case resolution hearings that we can help to reduce the backlog.

The police in Cambridge have raised with me the time that they spend on preparing cases for the CPS, but it has also been suggested that simple tweaks to data protection laws and the information recorded on the Registry of Judgments, Orders and Fines could make a real difference. Has the Attorney General considered any of these simple steps?

I have had several meetings with both the CPS and the police. It is important for them to work together. When it comes to, for example, prosecutions for rape and serious sexual offences, it is important for early advice to be sought and for co-operation to be seen between the police and the CPS. As for disclosure issues more widely, the Attorney General and I are looking at those very closely.

May I, both personally and on behalf of the Committee, warmly welcome the Attorney General to her place? Everyone who saw her sworn in will know how positive the reaction of Bar and Bench was to the appointment of someone who takes her responsibilities so seriously, and we look forward to working with her.

When the Director of Public Prosecutions gave evidence to the Justice Committee last month, she stressed that the pressures on the CPS must be seen in the context of the justice system as a whole, and that the solution to those pressures required consistent support for the system, but in particular support for CPS staff—

That pleasure falls to me, Mr Speaker. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind words, as I know the Attorney General is. He is right to highlight the words of the Director of Public Prosecutions, and he will know that the Attorney General and I work closely with the director and listen carefully to what he says.

Unduly Lenient Sentencing Scheme

In the vast majority of cases, judges get sentencing right. The Court of Appeal grants permission to refer a sentence only in exceptional circumstances, and over the last five years the Court of Appeal has increased the sentence in around 70% of cases.

My hon. Friend will be aware that the recent publication of statistics regarding the operation of the unduly lenient sentencing scheme during 2021 indicated 151 referrals to the Court of Appeal. How many of those referrals under the scheme followed representations from the victim of a crime to the Attorney General’s Office about the sentence given, and what is being done to ensure that victims are aware of their ability to do that?

My hon. Friend knows a lot about the scheme and has long-term interest in it. Of those 151 cases, only eight were referred by victims and a further nine by a member of a victim’s family, and that is not just an aberration for that year; it is a consistent trend. We regularly publish updates on the outcome of these sentences, and the revised victims code includes details of the ULS scheme.[Official Report, 17 May 2023, Vol. 732, c. 2MC.]

Would the Solicitor General recognise that whenever people in this country try to have a debate around mandatory minimum sentences there is an automatic superficial reaction that talks about the need for judicial discretion, yet there are crimes for which we as a Parliament should be clear as to the appropriate sentence that people ought to expect? [Interruption.]

Order. I just want to remind Members not to walk in front of other Members—[Interruption.] Mary Kelly Foy, you walked right in front of the Member who was asking the Minister a question. Please can we all wait, to help each other?

The hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) always raises a serious point in relation to these issues. It is right to acknowledge that in the vast majority of cases the sentencing judges get it right, but when Parliament sets down the guidelines and the ambits, they should be followed closely.

Supreme Court Judgment: Scottish Independence Referendum

6. Whether she has made an assessment of the implications for her policies of the findings of the Supreme Court on the reference by the Lord Advocate of devolution issues under paragraph 34 of schedule 6 to the Scotland Act 1998. (902648)

7. Whether she has made an assessment of the implications for her policies of the findings of the Supreme Court on the reference by the Lord Advocate of devolution issues under paragraph 34 of schedule 6 to the Scotland Act 1998. (902649)

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Opposition Front Bench and the Chairman of the Justice Committee for their extremely kind comments. I welcome the ruling of the Supreme Court. The Court was very clear—it was a unanimous decision—that a Bill legislating for a referendum on Scottish independence is not within the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament.

That might be the case in the Supreme Court, but if we look back, we see that John Major said of Scotland that

“no nation could be held irrevocably in a Union against its will”,

so will the Attorney General confirm that Scotland is in a voluntary Union, and if so, what is the legal mechanism to affirm that or, more importantly, the legal means by which Scotland can voluntarily leave the Union?

The UK Supreme Court was very clear that an independence referendum was related to reserved matters, and the Government welcome the Court’s confirmation of this point. What the people of Scotland want is to see the Government working with them to solve the issues that matter to them.

Following the recent Supreme Court judgment, the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Scotland have been asked on numerous occasions what is the democratic route available to Scotland to leave the Union. Neither has been able to provide an answer. If the people of England wanted to leave this alleged voluntary Union of equals, what democratic process would be available to them?

I believe that I have answered this question already, and I have heard the Prime Minister answer it several times in the course of Prime Minister’s questions. The Supreme Court rejected the Lord Advocate’s submission that an advisory referendum would have only an indirect and consequential effect on the reserved matter. This matter is reserved.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Supreme Court’s judgment will also have an unexpected side effect in that it will force the Scottish Government to concentrate on domestic policy for once?

I agree that the people of Scotland want us to work together to fix the challenges we face collectively. Now is the time to make sure we work together, and that is what this Government will do.

Ukraine: War Crimes Investigation

The Government stand with Ukraine as it defends itself against Russia’s invasion. I am personally extremely committed to this and, frankly, my home life would not be worth living if I were not. We are working closely with the Ukrainian prosecutor general, Andriy Kostin, as he prosecutes Russia’s crimes in the Ukrainian courts. The UK, US and EU Atrocity Crimes Advisory Group is helping him, as is Sir Howard Morrison. We have provided a package of financial support for the International Criminal Court, and we stand ready to do whatever else is required.

I join others in welcoming my right hon. Friend to her post. What is her assessment of the international community’s response to the alleged war crimes being committed in Ukraine?

The international community is determined to support Ukraine’s search for justice. Last week I attended a meeting of G7 Justice Ministers in Berlin, which focused on this. These are difficult issues to address, and it will take time and careful international working to overcome the perspectives and preferences of individual states.

It is clearly hugely important that those who commit war crimes are brought to justice. Does the Attorney General agree it is hugely important that maximum publicity is given, perhaps via social media, to shame those who have committed these crimes?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and this is a very unusual situation. The Ukrainians are prosecuting war crimes in real time, and we hope the news of those prosecutions, and of the 13 Russian soldiers who have already been convicted and imprisoned as a result, will permeate through the Russian ranks and stop them committing war crimes in this terrible war.

Economic Crime: Serious Fraud Office and CPS Effectiveness

11. What steps she is taking to improve the effectiveness of the (a) Serious Fraud Office and (b) Crown Prosecution Service in prosecuting cases of fraud and economic crime. (902654)

13. What steps she is taking to improve the effectiveness of the (a) Serious Fraud Office and (b) Crown Prosecution Service in prosecuting cases of fraud and economic crime. (902656)

Last year the Crown Prosecution Service prosecuted 7,200 defendants where fraud and forgery were the principal offence, and the conviction rate was 84.1%. This financial year, the Serious Fraud Office has successfully prosecuted four fraudsters, as well as Glencore, which resulted in the highest ever order in a corporate criminal conviction in the UK.

There were almost 940,000 fraud offences in the latest Home Office data, but only around 4,800 of those offences resulted in charges or summonses. The exact charge rate was just 0.51%, which is even lower than the rate of the previous year. Why does the Attorney General think the charge rate for fraud is so abysmally low? What does she plan to do about it?

The figures show that, last year, the CPS prosecuted 7,200 defendants where fraud and forgery were the principal offence, and the conviction rate was 84.1%. In April 2022, the CPS launched a united team, and a new serious economic, organised crime and international directorate has been set up to help in that regard.

It is a simple fact of life that we cannot tackle a problem if we do not know the scale and nature of that problem. Does the Attorney General agree that the Government need urgent answers to three basic questions, “What is the total scale of fraud in the UK? How much of it is perpetrated from overseas? And how much of it is perpetrated by organised crime?”? Can we have an answer to any of those questions today?

Both the CPS and the SFO play a significant role in tackling fraud and economic crime, and we should not gloss over the successes that there have been. Once again, I pay tribute to the SFO for its successful prosecution of Glencore, which resulted in a £280 million total payment, the highest ever that has been ordered in a corporate criminal conviction in the United Kingdom.

His Majesty the King is visiting Parliament next Wednesday. Between 3.15 pm and 3.45 pm, the sitting of both Houses will be temporarily suspended. His Majesty will be unveiling a plaque in Westminster Hall, and then unveiling and switching on the platinum jubilee gift from Members of both Houses in New Palace Yard. Members wishing to attend either location should email Black Rod’s office by 4 pm tomorrow.

Before we come to Prime Minister’s questions, I would like to point out that the British Sign Language interpretation of proceedings is available to watch on

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


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.

Yesterday, the United Kingdom in its current form turned 100 years old, but neither the Prime Minister nor the leader of the Labour party seemed to recognise the challenge of the Supreme Court ruling as to the very nature of the Union. The Prime Minister did not answer me two weeks ago, so will he clarify whether he still believes the UK is a voluntary Union? If so, can he explain the democratic route by which the people of Scotland can choose whether to stay in it or not?

We fully respect the decision of the Supreme Court and believe strongly in the United Kingdom. As I said to the hon. Lady last time, we will work constructively with the Scottish Government to deliver for the people of Scotland.

Q2. Financial scams are the most common form of crime, causing immense emotional and financial distress to millions of people. Government efforts in this matter have tended to focus on making sure that scammers cannot launder their proceeds of crime and that victims get compensation. Both of those things are really important, but they are acting after the scam has happened. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Departments, regulators and industry, perhaps guided by an anti-scams taskforce, could do far more to prevent scams from happening in the first place? Will he meet me to talk about this? (902693)

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the hurt that scammers and fraudsters can cause. We are working closely with industry to block more fraudulent calls from reaching the public and, importantly, our new Online Safety Bill will place duties on the largest internet companies to tackle scam ads. I would be happy to meet him to discuss this further.

Let me start by welcoming the new Member of Parliament for the City of Chester, my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Samantha Dixon), to her place in this House. This was the best result for Labour in the 105 years we have been fighting that seat, and I look forward to working with her to build a better future for the people of Chester.

The Conservative party promised the country that it would build 300,000 houses a year. This week, without asking a single voter, the Prime Minister broke that promise by scrapping mandatory targets. What changed?

Let me start by also welcoming the hon. Member for City of Chester (Samantha Dixon) to her place. The right hon. and learned Gentleman comes here every week, and I know he is focused on the process and the politics, but I do not think he has actually taken the time to read the detail of what we are doing to improve our planning system. So let me just explain what we are doing. We are protecting the green belt, we are investing millions to develop brownfield sites, and we are providing support and protection for local neighbourhood plans. Just this morning, the shadow Housing Secretary said, “Communities should have control over where homes are built and what sort of homes are built.” That is my position and that is her position. What is his position?

Does the Prime Minister really expect us to believe that the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) and the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) are cheering him on because he is going to build more homes? Pull the other one! I shall tell him what changed: his Back Benchers threatened him and, as always, the blancmange Prime Minister wobbled. He did a grubby deal with a handful of his MPs and sold out the aspirations of those who want to own their own home. Was it worth it?

As ever, the right hon. and learned Gentleman is engaging in petty personality politics, not focused on the substance. Again, let me explain what we are doing. We are delivering what I said we would do: we are protecting the character of local communities, we are cracking down on land banking and irresponsible developers, and we are giving people a greater say in their decisions. Just this week, on Monday, the right hon. and learned Gentleman said that the Government should be giving people more power and control. Now he seems to be opposing that policy. It is only Wednesday. I know that he flip-flops, but even for him that is pretty quick.

The Prime Minister has forgotten, but last week I offered him Labour votes to pass these housing targets, because this is bigger than politics. A former Housing Secretary on the Conservative Benches said that scrapping mandatory targets would be

“a colossal failure of political leadership.”

Those were his words. No wonder he does not want to fight the next election. The author of the manifesto on which Conservative Members all stood said that this would cut building by 40%, perhaps even more. Why would the Prime Minister rather cripple house building than work with us to get those targets through?

We are not going to work with the Labour party on housing. You know why, Mr Speaker? We will have a look at Labour’s record on housing. In London, the former Conservative Mayor, in five years, built 60,000 affordable homes. The current Labour Mayor—he has built half of that amount. In Wales, we want to build 12,000 homes. What is Labour delivering? Half of that, Mr Speaker. The Labour party talks, the Conservatives deliver.

As ever, the Prime Minister is too weak to stand up to his own side on behalf of the country.

I noticed that there was another U-turn last night; this time on wind farms. Actually, I agree with that one, but is there no issue on which the Prime Minister will not give in to his Back Benchers?

Now, Mr Speaker, how did his colleague, Baroness Mone, end up with nearly £30 million of taxpayers’ money in her bank account?

Like everyone else, I was absolutely shocked to read about the allegations. It is absolutely right that the baroness is no longer attending the House of Lords and therefore no longer has the Conservative Whip. The one thing that we know about the right hon. and learned Gentleman is that he is a lawyer and should know that there is a process in place. It is right that that process concludes; I hope that it is resolved promptly. I shall tell him what is weak, and that is not being able to stand up to people. I know that he has taken some advice from Gordon Brown lately. Why does he not listen to a former Minister in Gordon Brown’s Government, who just said, “Why does the Labour party refuse to stand up for workers in businesses like pubs and restaurants who will lose business as a result of the train strikes?” Labour should stand up for working people. If he is strong, that is what he should do.

It may not seem like it, but he is supposed to be the Prime Minister. This morning, his Transport Secretary said that his flagship legislation on strikes—[Interruption]—this is what he said this morning; they might want to listen to this—is

“clearly not going to…help with the industrial action”

we are facing. He should stop grandstanding, stop sitting on his hands, get round the table and resolve these issues.

Everyone can see what is happening here: a Tory politician got their hands on hundreds of millions in taxpayers’ money and then provided duff PPE, and the Prime Minister says that he was shocked. He was the Chancellor. He signed the cheques. How much is he going to get back?

It is right that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has brought up legislation with regard to strikes; I am very happy to address that. Hard-working families in this country are facing challenges. The Government have been reasonable. We have accepted the recommendations of an independent pay body, giving pay rises, in many cases, higher than the private sector. But if the union leaders continue to be unreasonable, it is my duty to take action to protect the lives and livelihoods of the British public. That is why, since I became Prime Minister, I have been working for new, tough laws to protect people from that disruption. That is the legislation he is asking about. Will he now confirm that he will stand up for working people and that he and his party will back that legislation?

The Prime Minister has obviously not heard what his Transport Secretary said about that legislation this morning. It is obvious why the Government are so opposed to Labour’s plans to clean up Westminster: they all voted for tax rises for working people while one of their unelected peers pocketed millions flogging dodgy personal protective equipment.

I want to raise something that is worrying parents across the country. Our hearts go out to the families of the children who have tragically died from the outbreak of strep A in recent weeks. I am very happy to work with the Government on this, so can the Prime Minister take the opportunity to update the country on the measures being taken to keep children safe this winter?

My thoughts are of course with the families of the children who have sadly lost their lives. We are seeing a higher than usual number of cases of strep A this year. The NHS, which I have sat down with to talk about this, is working very hard to make sure parents are aware of the symptoms they should be looking out for, because strep A can be treated appropriately with antibiotics. There are no current shortages of drugs available to treat it and there are well-established procedures in place to ensure that that remains the case. The UK Health Security Agency is monitoring the situation at pace and has confirmed that this is not a new strain of strep A, so people should be reassured that there is no reason to believe it has become more lethal or more resistant to antibiotics. The most important thing for parents to do is to look out for the symptoms and get the treatment that is available for them.

Q4.   Airbnb-type short-term lets provide a positive experience for many holidaymakers, but too many cause real issues for local communities. In Westminster we have 13,000 Airbnb properties alone. Does my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister agree that it is now time to consider a registration scheme, managed by local authorities, so that councils can properly manage this growing sector? (902695)

My right hon. Friend the Levelling Up Secretary has indeed said that we will deliver a new tourist accommodation registration scheme, something I know my hon. Friend has asked for. That will increase appropriate regulation of the sector and better understand and monitor the impact on local communities. We will also consult on whether planning permissions should be required for new short-term holiday lets, especially in tourist hot spots.

I welcome the new leader of the SNP at Westminster and thank Ian Blackford, the previous leader.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I begin by paying tribute to my colleague and right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), who has served us with diligence and duty for the last five years. He is a giant of the Scottish independence movement and has seen off not one, not two, but three consecutive Tory Prime Ministers—indeed, he was on to his fourth in recent weeks. To that latest Prime Minister, I have a very simple question. What does he consider to be the greatest achievement of the Conservative party in Government since 2019: leaving the single market and customs union, ending freedom of movement, denying Scotland her democracy or getting the Labour party to agree with all the above?

Can I start by offering my genuine, warm and heartfelt best wishes to the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford)? I know the whole House will miss his weekly contributions. May I also join the First Minister in congratulating the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Stephen Flynn) on his appointment as Westminster leader of the SNP? I look forward to constructive debate with him across the Dispatch Box. The answer to his question is actually very simple. The thing we are most proud of in the last couple of years is making sure that we protected this country through the pandemic with furlough and the fastest vaccine roll-out.

Far be it from me to offer advice to a near billionaire, but he is going to have to up his game. Here is why: in the last 15 minutes, a poll has landed showing that support for Scottish independence has now hit 56% and support for the Scottish National party sits north of 50%. In that context, does the Prime Minister consider that increasing energy bills for households in energy-rich Scotland by a further £500 will cause those poll numbers to rise or fall?

What we are delivering for households across the United Kingdom, including those in Scotland, is £55 billion of support with energy bills—that will save a typical homeowner about £900 on their bills this winter—with extra support for the most vulnerable. That is an example of the United Kingdom and the Union delivering for people in Scotland.

Q7. Eden Project North is now getting right to the end of the process. It has gone through right to round 2 of the levelling-up fund, it has planning permission, it has land allocation, and it has everything that it is going to offer to north of England. Prime Minister, when are we going to get Eden Project North? (902698)

I think the whole House knows that my hon. Friend has been a passionate campaigner for Eden Project North for some time. I was pleased to work with him in my previous role. He knows I cannot comment on any specific bid, but I know that the Secretary of State will be making those decisions by the end of the year, and I wish my hon. Friend and everyone involved in the project every success.

Most people and businesses in Northern Ireland accept the need for the protocol and want to see negotiated, pragmatic solutions to the various challenges. Although there has been a clear improvement in the mood music between the UK and the European Union over recent weeks, there is growing frustration and concern about the slow rate of actual progress in those talks. What steps can the Prime Minister take to inject some momentum into those negotiations? Indeed, can I encourage him to visit Northern Ireland as soon as possible—preferably before Christmas—to engage with local stakeholders on the protocol and to hear views on how the Assembly can be restored via reform?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question—I enjoyed meeting him recently to discuss these issues. Let me give him and the people of Northern Ireland my assurance that I want to see the issues with the protocol resolved as quickly as possible. I believe that if people enter into the talks that we are having in a spirit of good will and pragmatism, we can indeed find a way through. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and Vice-President Šefčovič are in regular dialogue. I will take on board the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion to visit Northern Ireland to discuss these things in person.

Q9. We have just had Small Business Saturday, when we marked the important impact small businesses have on our local communities. I, like many of my colleagues, have spoken to such businesses and heard just how great their concerns for their future are. Earlier this year, when the Prime Minister was Chancellor, he went with me to Fred Hallam in Beeston, a business established in 1908. Small and medium enterprises such as this faced the pandemic and now face rising energy costs. Can the Prime Minister lay out how he will ensure that businesses such as Fred Hallam will be supported in the coming months so that they may thrive and continue to provide vital goods and services to my Broxtowe constituents? (902700)

I know my hon. Friend is a fantastic champion of his local businesses. It was a privilege to visit Beeston and Hallam’s earlier this year with him. I remember that we discussed then some of the things we were planning to do, which are now going to make a big difference: saving businesses hundreds or thousands of pounds in their energy bills through our relief scheme this winter; our business rates tax cuts package worth over £13 billion, impacting retail businesses in particular; and, with initiatives such as the annual investment allowance and Help to Grow, we can take his small businesses to a whole new level. I look forward to working with him on that.

Q3. At a recent Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee session, the author of the Government’s own national food strategy and the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food called for universal free school meals to address the issue of the 4 million children hungry in the UK. Will the Prime Minister meet me to discuss how investment in universal free school meals will benefit children and their families in Liverpool, West Derby and the country, and at no extra cost to the taxpayer? (902694)

I know this is an issue on which the hon. Gentleman has campaigned for some time, and he is right to highlight the importance of making sure that our children have access to food. That is why I am proud that we introduced not just an expansion of free school meals, but the holiday activities and food programme. I am always interested in more ideas of where we can go further, and I look forward to hearing from him.

Q11. Whether on defence with AUKUS, trade with the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership or diplomacy with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, I know that this Government recognise the importance of the Indo-Pacific to the UK’s security and prosperity, but the challenges that exist, whether ballistic missile tests or belt and road, are deeply interconnected. Can the Prime Minister confirm that the Indo-Pacific remains a UK priority and that he will take a holistic approach within Government to meet the challenges and capture the opportunities that exist in the region? (902702)

Last year’s integrated review set out our Indo-Pacific tilt on foreign policy. I reaffirmed this Government’s commitment to that tilt in a speech at the Lord Mayor’s dinner just the other week, and my hon. Friend is right to highlight both the economic and security importance of the region. He should be reassured that we are pursuing not just free trade agreements bilaterally, but also CPTPP, the AUKUS partnership and hopefully a new partnership with our future combat air system—all evidence that we are delivering on the tilt.

Q5. Members across this House know the devastating impact of bank branch closures on our communities, but as banks flee the high streets, our free cash machines disappear with them, hitting the most vulnerable hardest. Surely it cannot be right that a quarter of ATMs charge people to access their own money. Will the Prime Minister join dozens of his own Back Benchers today in backing my cross-party amendment and ensure that everyone has free access to their hard-earned money? (902696)

This Government are legislating to safeguard access to cash, and that is what the Financial Services and Markets Bill, which we will debate this afternoon, will do through a very significant intervention. I also am pleased that we have put in place initiatives with the industry to subsidise free-to-use ATMs in deprived areas, and that almost 50 communities are benefiting from our new shared cash facilities, because access to cash is important, and that is what our new Bill will deliver.

Q12. I very much welcome the Government’s commitment to their hospital buildings programme. Can the Prime Minister clarify what criteria will be applied for the allocation of those new hospitals? Will it be done in line with the Prime Minister’s personal commitment to a merit-based system of government? My hospital in Medway serves half a million people, is the busiest hospital A&E in Kent and we have some of the highest health inequalities in the country. Medway was one of the hardest-hit areas during covid-19. We need our fair-share allocation of resources in Medway. Will the Prime Minister visit Medway Maritime Hospital with me and fellow local MPs to look at our urgent need? (902703)

My hon. Friend is a fantastic champion for his local area, but especially for his local hospital. He will know that I cannot comment on any specific scheme, but I can tell him that submissions to be one of the new hospitals are being reviewed in the Department and an announcement will be made shortly.

Q6. On Small Business Saturday, I was delighted to name Daisy Rose Coffee House as the City of Durham’s small business of the year 2022 after a public vote in my inaugural award. Like so many small businesses, Daisy Rose Coffee House is the beating heart of the local community and the cornerstone of the high street. So many business owners I meet feel utterly ignored by the Government as they are clobbered by outdated business rates year after year. The Government must pick a side: are they going to continue to back the online giants, or will they join the Labour party in backing small business and scrap and replace the outdated business rates? (902697)

I congratulate Daisy Rose on winning its award and being the beating heart of its high street. I very much hope that it will benefit—I am almost certain that it will—from our discounts on business rates. Our retail, hospitality and leisure relief gives a 75% discount on business rates in the next financial year, and that comes on top of the support that we will be providing Daisy Rose and others with their energy bills, with bills being about half of what they would have otherwise been without our support.

Mr Speaker, can I thank you and colleagues across the House for your kindness and encouragement in recent weeks?

I ask my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister this afternoon to recommit the Government he leads to our ambition of levelling up communities in every part of our great United Kingdom. To that end, I invite him to visit my Bournemouth West constituency to see the latest school rebuild, the multimillion-pound rebuild of Oak Academy, which will stand as a lasting tribute to opportunity for the people I have the privilege of serving in this House.

It is very nice to hear from my right hon. Friend today. He is absolutely right: there is no better way to spread opportunity around the country than by investing in our children’s future. I am absolutely delighted that Oak Academy in his constituency is benefiting from our school rebuilding programme, and I will certainly ask my office to keep his kind invitation in mind.

Q8. I have raised this matter before, but despite meeting with a previous Prime Minister in 2020 the matter has not progressed. In 1984, I was a serving police officer in the Metropolitan Police when, on 17 April, WPC Yvonne Fletcher was shot in the back and killed while policing a political demonstration outside the Libyan Embassy. No one has ever been charged in connection with her murder. In November last year, delivering his judgment in a civil case, a senior High Court justice, Mr Justice Spencer, said:“I am satisfied that on the balance of probabilities the defendant”—Saleh Mabrouk—“is jointly liable for the shooting of WPC Yvonne Fletcher on the doctrine of common design.”Will the Prime Minister meet with me to see how this case may be taken forward, to finally bring those responsible for the murder of Yvonne to justice in a criminal court? (902699)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his continued work on this case. As he said, it is something that he has raised before. He will appreciate that, while I cannot speak in detail on any particular case, there are differences in the standard of proof required for civil and criminal proceedings. That said, the Crown Prosecution Service will consider any new information that is referred to it by the police in relation to this case. Of course, I would be very happy to meet with him.

Returning to the theme of communities being able to decide where to build, in Thurrock we embrace our obligations to deliver more new homes. At Arena Essex, we have an application to deliver 2,500 new homes ready to go; however, there is a standing objection to any development of over 300 homes from National Highways because of the impact on junction 30 of the M25. What advice will my right hon. Friend give to Thurrock Council on how it can deliver its housing obligations with that national constraint?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. She highlights a great example of a council that is trying to do the right thing and put the right homes in the right places. It should have our support. I ask her please to write to my right hon. Friend the Levelling Up Secretary with the details of the issues so that we can give her a full response, but I praise her council for trying to make sure that we can build homes where we need them.

Q10. Why can the Government not process asylum claims within six months, thereby saving £5.6 million a day on asylum seekers’ accommodation, granting asylum to those who need it quickly, and stopping the abuse of the system, which currently has a backlog of 147,000 asylum claims? (902701)

What we are doing is significantly increasing the number of caseworkers. We are on course to double it by next spring, with several hundred already in place. The right hon. Lady is right that the process takes longer than it should. Often that is because people are able to exploit some of the rules in our system and make sequential claims. That is exactly the type of thing that the Home Secretary and I are working on fixing, and I look forward to having the Labour party’s support when we do.

There have been more reported deaths and adverse reactions following mRNA vaccinations in 18 months than there have been following every conventional vaccine administered worldwide in the last 50 years. Given that mRNA vaccines are not recommended for pregnant women or those who are breastfeeding, would my right hon. Friend overturn the big pharma-funded Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency’s recent recommendation that those experimental vaccines be administered to children as young as six months of age?

First, I believe that covid vaccines are safe and effective. No vaccine—covid or otherwise—will be approved unless it meets the UK regulator’s standards of safety, quality and effectiveness. An independent body, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, determines in which age groups the vaccine is recommended for use as part of the vaccination programme. Of course, the ultimate decision lies with parents.

Q13. During covid, we all applauded our NHS nurses, who put their lives on the line to help millions of our constituents and loved ones. We know now that, at the same time, Tory spivs were helping themselves—using their connections and covid—to millions of pounds of public money. Why is the Prime Minister on the side of the spivs and not on the side of the nurses? (902704)

What everyone was doing at the time was working as hard and as quickly as they could to get the PPE needed for our frontline workers, including our nurses. There was an independent procurement process; Ministers were not involved in the decision making. It was right, however, that people gave their ideas about where to get PPE from. Indeed, the shadow Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves), suggested that we should get it from a law firm and ventilators from a football agent. Everyone was trying as hard as they could. We should remember the context and stop playing politics.

Two weeks ago, more than 350 people attended a meeting in Skegness to discuss the use of five seafront hotels to house asylum seekers. They were united in their view that there was a long-term economic impact and pressure on public services. They told me loud and clear that they think, as the Prime Minister does, that hotels are the wrong place for asylum seekers. Does he agree that the Government urgently need to lay out a plan that moves beyond the use of hotels and puts asylum seekers in the right place for them and for coastal communities such as Skegness?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. We are now spending £6 million a day housing asylum seekers—hotels are incredibly expensive. We will urgently bring forward proposals to reduce the pressure but, as he and I know, the best way to solve the problem sustainably is to reduce the number of illegal migrants coming to the United Kingdom, and that is what the Government will deliver.

Q14. Audit Wales has confirmed that the Welsh Labour Government responded well and got on with the job of delivering value for taxpayers’ money. Can the Prime Minister tell the House what first attracted him to awarding billions of pounds-worth of covid contracts to Tory donors and supporters? What is he doing to claw back taxpayers’ money? (902705)

Again, we delivered 32 billion pieces of PPE to the frontline at a time when there was a global shortage. As I have already said, everyone tried to do their bit. We heard recommendations from the shadow Chancellor, but it was right that her suggestions, and everyone else’s, went through an independent process where Ministers were not involved in the decisions.

Josh MacAlister’s independent review of children’s social care has been with the Government since May. I understand that there has been some disappointment that the response to it will not be published before Christmas. Can the Prime Minister ensure that, given its important recommendations about some of the most vulnerable children in our society and the families and people who support them, there will be a strong and robust Government response as early in the new year as possible?

Yes, my hon. Friend obviously knows the subject area well. He is right to highlight the importance of making sure that we provide good quality support for vulnerable children. The report has a lot of interesting suggestions in it and he is right. I can commit to him that we will respond in due course.

Q15. Over 70% of Northern Ireland’s international tourists arrive in Dublin and travel across the land border, and the UK Government’s proposed electronic travel authorisation is likely to mean the north being struck off the itinerary of operators and many independent travellers. The last thing we need is a barrier to one of our biggest economic drivers, to say nothing of the impact on non-Irish and British people living in Ireland. Members from across the House have acknowledged that our border is not a normal one. Will the Prime Minister commit to scrapping this unworkable proposal? (902706)

I can give the hon. Lady my assurance that we remain very committed to the common travel area, and indeed do not want to see any checks on the island of Ireland. That is why we are working very hard to resolve the issues with the protocol and ensure Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom.