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Volume 724: debated on Wednesday 7 December 2022

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.