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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 724: debated on Wednesday 14 December 2022

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Trade with Rest of UK

1. What steps his Department is taking to help businesses in Northern Ireland trade with the rest of the UK. (902742)

The Government have committed to ensuring unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses to the rest of the United Kingdom market. We have therefore not implemented export declarations on goods moving from Northern Ireland to Great Britain, which has been subject to infraction proceedings by the European Union.

Under the protocol, by the end of the year we will, unfortunately, have spent £340 million helping traders to process 2.3 million customs declarations through the trader support service. That really highlights the need to get on with a sustainable negotiated solution.

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. He will be aware that seed potato imports to Northern Ireland from Scotland are deeply impacted by the protocol. The European Union is being hugely intransigent on the issue, despite high demand from the EU and Northern Ireland for the fantastic seed potato product that Scotland has to provide. What are the Northern Ireland Office and other UK Government Departments doing to address the issue?

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend. It is, of course, unacceptable that essential goods such as seed potatoes, used successfully in Northern Ireland for generations, can no longer reach people in Northern Ireland. That is why I recently met representatives of Wilson’s Country in Craigavon to discuss the issue. [Interruption.] I cannot quite make out what Scottish National party Members are saying, Mr Speaker, but I do think it is in the interests of Scotland, Ireland and the wider European Union, as well as Northern Ireland, that this issue should be resolved.

The idea that it should be difficult to get seed potatoes into Ireland is quite absurd. Of course, the quality of potatoes will diminish across the European Union if we do not resolve the issue, which we would like to do by negotiation.

Of course we all agree that there needs to be a deal with the European Union to resolve some of the outstanding issues. Would the Minister care to comment on the data released just this morning that states that trade from GB to Northern Ireland is up by 7% since the protocol was implemented?

I am sorry to say that I have not seen that data this morning. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for highlighting it; I shall be certain to look it up and reflect on it. I am delighted by any increase in trade. As he knows, I am an old liberal free trader, so I think any increase in trade in any direction will suit all of us very well.

The reality is that, notwithstanding any data, many businesses in Northern Ireland are experiencing serious problems as a result of the protocol. The cost of the trader support scheme, as the Minister has acknowledged, is now well over £300 million—the equivalent of almost half a million pounds every single day. That money could be spent on public services in Northern Ireland. What are the Minister and the Government doing to address the issue?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the clear stance he has taken on the protocol—no one, including across the European Union, can mistake it. It has become clear that unless there is a resolution on the protocol that he and his colleagues in the Democratic Unionist party can accept, there will not be an Executive in Northern Ireland. We continue to make that clear to our partners. We continue talks with the European Union, and I very much hope that we will reach a solution that is acceptable to us and to him, and will remove the burdens on his constituents and on businesses, individuals and families across Northern Ireland.

I appreciate the comments that the Minister has made. We share the same objective, which is to fully restore Northern Ireland’s place within the UK internal market. That means that in the future the default regulatory position for trade within the UK internal market should be British law; that British trading regulations and standards should apply across all the United Kingdom; and that EU law and regulations should apply only when goods are moving into the European Union—in any event, businesses are required to meet EU standards if they want to trade within the EU single market. Does the Minister agree that the restoration of our place within the UK internal market is our absolute priority?

The Secretary of State and I agree that that is what we are trying to negotiate. If we are not able to negotiate it, it will be what we seek to deliver through our Bill, which continues to be before Parliament.

Northern Ireland Executive

9. What steps his Department is taking to support the establishment of a Northern Ireland Executive. (902751)

The Government remain committed to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and will continue to work with the Northern Ireland political parties to restore power sharing. One of the things we have done recently is pass the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019. That provides a window, until 19 January 2023, for the parties to form an Executive. I encourage the parties to use that time productively to restore the devolved institutions and get back to tackling the issues affecting the people who elected them.

Devolution was created to give the people of Northern Ireland, of both traditions, a voice on regional matters that affect them. However, local politicians are failing people in their Province by refusing to return to Stormont. Now, more than ever, in difficult times, local leadership is needed in Northern Ireland. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that politicians in Northern Ireland are incentivised to retore power sharing? Will he update the House on the progress of talks to that end?

It is essential that the devolved institutions are restored as soon as possible, and that is what the people of Northern Ireland need and deserve. As my hon. Friend the Minister of State mentioned, the process also requires an extra dimension of trying to get a negotiated settlement on the Northern Ireland protocol. I remain in close contact with all the leaders in the political parties in Northern Ireland, and indeed I am meeting them all this week as part of the efforts to try to make sure we can have a constructive dialogue that means that the institutions can reform.

The Stormont Assembly has been recalled five times since the last election but has failed to elect a new Speaker. It is clear that the Democratic Unionist party will not re-enter power sharing until the Northern Ireland protocol is significantly changed. So does my right hon. Friend agree that the Government must find a balanced solution to the protocol, one that recognises the aspirations of all communities in Northern Ireland, including those of the Unionists? That approach is set out and enshrined in the Good Friday agreement.

I know my hon. Friend’s interest in this is well founded. I am well aware of his strong interest in these matters because I recall that his father was one of the longest serving Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland, having served for a whole Parliament between 1992 and 1997, with his tenure having included the Downing Street declaration. We are nearly at its anniversary, as it took place on 15 December 1993 and paved the way for the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, which we have talked about. Clearly, the protocol has created issues, which we are working urgently to resolve as soon as possible. That is why we created the legislative window until 19 January for talks between the UK and the European Union to develop and for the Northern Ireland parties to work together to restore the devolved institutions. However, we remain of the view that there is no excuse for the Northern Ireland parties not to be in government as soon as possible.

As some Members know, not least the Northern Ireland Members behind me, my wife hails from Northern Ireland. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I thank them. Having had recent experience of accident and emergency in Northern Ireland, it was evident to me that, notwithstanding the finest efforts of doctors and nurses, the NHS there needs ministerial guidance. For that reason, we must all strive to see the Executive restored.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and his point, which is absolutely correct. May I also thank those working in the health service in Northern Ireland for the services they are providing at this time, because they are working extremely hard in trying conditions? He is absolutely right; there are issues within the NHS in Northern Ireland, and they are best solved by ministerial guidance from directly elected, locally elected decision makers who are working for the people there—from the Executive.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I thank the Secretary of State for that response. On behalf of my constituents, some of whom are sitting in cold houses today and not receiving the energy help that the rest of the UK is receiving from Government, I encourage him and the Government on the establishment of the Northern Ireland Executive. Vulnerable people need the energy help and the aid now, and I urge him to bring that forward. May I also ask him to bring forward and enact the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which the people of Northern Ireland want to see, with no more delays?

Based on the questions before us, I am sure we will talk a great deal about the protocol in this questions session. On the hon. Gentleman’s point about people sitting in cold homes in Northern Ireland at this point in time without the energy support they deserve, energy policy is a devolved matter, with responsibility normally resting with the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly. These matters would have been best sorted and more quickly sorted had that been in operation now. However, yesterday I met the energy companies. There are significant difficulties in how they could possibly deliver this support, and the Government are now examining other options as well to try to get this money out the door as quickly as we possibly can.

Nurses across Northern Ireland, England and Wales are planning to take strike action tomorrow. That situation has been averted in Scotland because of the active involvement of the Scottish Government in negotiating an acceptable pay deal. What role is the Secretary of State and his Ministers playing in trying to bring a resolution to this situation in Northern Ireland, and what assurances can he give that he and his ministerial team are adopting a more constructive approach to these pay negotiations than appears to be the case elsewhere on these islands?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, we recently set a budget for Northern Ireland, because it had not been set at the beginning of the year, to make sure that the money could be spent. No budget had been set by the Executive, and the projected black hole, as estimated by the Minister of Finance when he was sitting, was £660 million. The negotiations are being facilitated by British Government Ministers of the type the hon. Gentleman mentions, but at the end of the day it is the employers in Northern Ireland who will be making those final negotiations.

At the time of a cost of living crisis, clearly, too many people are feeling the adverse effect of the absence of Stormont. If my right hon. Friend has not seen it, could he look at the BBC’s “Spotlight” programme on Northern Ireland produced by Mandy McAuley? It shows the pernicious activities of loan sharks and the paramilitaries and the effect on the most vulnerable people in Northern Irish society, as they await their money to help with their fuel. I echo the comments of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and urge my right hon. Friend to give peace of mind to those who are most in need and sort out this pressing issue by Christmas, so that people have that peace of mind and can try to enjoy the festive period.

I thank my hon. Friend, the Chair of the Select Committee, for his question. I am fully aware of the activities of paramilitary lenders. I know of the programme that he mentioned. I did not see it last night, but I was in a meeting last week, or the week before, with the head of Women’s Aid in Northern Ireland who mentioned this very fact to me. There have been dozens of meetings, if not more, between various Secretaries of State, including the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and myself, Ministers of State, energy companies and a whole of host of others to try to get this matter solved. I guarantee that the energy of the whole British Government is concentrating on this one issue. We want to crack this nut in the timeframe that my hon. Friend suggests, but it is way more difficult than it should be.

Northern Ireland Protocol

3. What recent discussions he has had with representatives of political parties in Northern Ireland on the progress of negotiations on the Northern Ireland protocol. (902744)

I have regular discussions with Northern Ireland political leaders on Northern Ireland matters, including the protocol. The Government are engaging in constructive dialogue with the European Union to find solutions to the problems that the protocol is causing. We are also proceeding with legislation that aims to fix these problems in the event that we cannot reach a negotiated solution.

The Northern Ireland Protocol Bill takes a wrecking ball to the deal that the Conservatives negotiated, signed and campaigned on. It breaks international law and risks new trade barriers in the middle of a cost of living crisis. Political parties in Northern Ireland have been left in limbo—they have been left out in the cold—by this Government. Given that it was a previous Conservative Prime Minister who negotiated the protocol, why has the current Prime Minister not even visited Northern Ireland yet to see how it is working, and how he will sort out this self-created Government mess?

As I have said, I meet regularly with the Northern Ireland parties. One issue that always comes up is the Northern Ireland protocol. I believe that it was negotiated in very good faith between the two parties. However, its practical application is demonstrating on a daily basis to the people in Northern Ireland that it is not working. It is not fully implemented by a long way yet, which is why the Government are in talks with the European Union and have their protocol Bill running at the same time.

Can the Secretary of State update us on those talks with the European Union? Are they still at the stage of discussing technical details, or are they actually discussing more substantial issues?

The one thing that I am quite confident that I will not do is give a running commentary on the state of the negotiations or talks between the European Union and the UK Government. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary did update the House a bit yesterday, but I think that he maintains that position as well.

It is good news that the Prime Minister has paused the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill. Can the Secretary of State confirm that negotiations are on track to deliver an agreement that all communities can support by 19 January?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I am a “glass half full” man, and I truly believe that a landing zone has been identified by all parties to aim for. Can I confirm a date? No. Can I give a running commentary? I am afraid that I cannot do so.

The intended purpose of the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill is divergence from the single market. To avoid repeating the political fallout over the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, the Government should be engaging with all communities in Northern Ireland right now, based on a detailed impact assessment. Is that happening?

Electronic Travel Authorisation: Impact on Travel

4. What discussions he has had with organisations and businesses in Northern Ireland on the potential impact of electronic travel authorisation on travel on the island of Ireland. (902745)

We speak regularly with a spectrum of businesses and organisations in Northern Ireland, and I would like to repeat the assurances that we have given about electronic travel authorisation. The scheme will not apply to citizens of Ireland or the United Kingdom, and I can confirm that we fully intend to work with all relevant stakeholders to ensure that ETA requirements are communicated effectively to everyone.

Last week I asked the Prime Minister about the impact of electronic travel authorisation on Northern Irish tourism, and his answer indicated that he did not understand the topic at all. This rang true with people who believe that this Government do not engage with the impact of their decisions on our region and our economy. Will the Secretary of State please bring the Prime Minister up to speed and push to scrap this unworkable proposal, which tourism chiefs from hotels and attractions across Northern Ireland have indicated would massively undermine our potential?

We have been engaging with Tourism Northern Ireland. Home Office colleagues have begun that engagement, and of course we will engage widely with everybody who is interested in that issue. There is evidence from schemes in other countries that tourism will not be adversely affected. What we need to do is ensure that we communicate widely what the requirements will be to enter the UK. I hope the hon. Lady will not mind me saying that, having listened carefully to stakeholders in Northern Ireland, we will be working constructively with the Irish Government to ensure that we are supporting people who have a legitimate reason to live in Ireland to get across the border as conveniently as possible.

The Minister will be aware that for decades we have co-operated and worked with the Republic of Ireland—particularly, for example, with the Republic not joining Schengen—to facilitate movement across the island of Ireland. Does he agree that it is perfectly possible to get the benefits of the ETA system in terms of security, ease of travel and e-visas, while working with the Republic of Ireland’s Government to make sure there are appropriate provisions for people who are residents of the island of Ireland?

I agree with my hon. Friend, and I pay tribute to him as an outstanding former Immigration Minister. Of course, we will be respecting the common travel area. There will be no immigration controls on the border on the island of Ireland, and we will seek to ensure that this scheme works well.

The Minister just said that there will be no detrimental impact on the Northern Ireland tourism sector, despite 70% of overseas visitors to Northern Ireland arriving via Dublin and the chief executive of the Northern Ireland Tourism Alliance saying this morning that she fears that the new system puts around 25% of tourism business at risk. What discussions has the Minister been having in Government to champion tourism in Northern Ireland and address the devastating impact of this additional bureaucracy?

We will continue discussions with Tourism Northern Ireland, but as I said, clear communication is what is needed to make sure that people meet the requirements to enter the UK. We will continue to work with tourism operators and the Government of Ireland to make sure that that communication takes place. The evidence from elsewhere is that legitimate tourism is not likely to be heavily impacted by this scheme. Of course, all of us want to promote tourism in Northern Ireland and, indeed, more widely.

Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill

6. What steps his Department is taking to engage with stakeholders on the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill. (902747)

10. What steps his Department is taking to engage with stakeholders on the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill. (902752)

14. What recent discussions he has had with (a) victims of Troubles-related offences and (b) community leaders on the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill. (902756)

On the Bill’s Second Reading in the other place, the Government announced their intention to introduce amendments in a number of key areas. These proposed changes reflect what we have heard from the significant engagement that has taken place with victims and survivors and their representatives, as well as community leaders and other stakeholders. As the Bill continues its passage, the Government will continue to engage constructively with all interested parties on their concerns, and how they might be addressed.

Can the Secretary of State please confirm that the legacy Bill will be tightened up before it returns to this place, notably in respect of making sure that protagonists engage fully with the truth and reconciliation process, not assuming moral equivalence and the language of glorification?

I can give my hon. Friend assurances of that type. That is why we proposed the changes set out by my ministerial colleague on Second Reading in the other place, which include sanctions for those who refuse to co-operate with or wilfully mislead the information recovery process. We will continue to engage on those and other potential changes, and I assure him that we will do that before the Bill returns to the House.

My constituent Edward Vaughan-Jones’s brother Robert, 2 Para, died at Warrenpoint in 1979. Some 43 years later, the family’s wounds have not healed due to repeated investigations and a lack of conclusion. Can my right hon. Friend outline when Mr Vaughan-Jones will receive a conclusive report on what happened to his brother so that he can finally have closure?

What my hon. Friend has identified in this very sad case is that the current mechanisms for addressing the past in Northern Ireland are providing positive outcomes for very few people, with many, including the Vaughan-Jones family, waiting decades for answers about what happened to their loved ones and not getting anything. The Bill’s information recovery process will be supported by comprehensive investigative powers and full state disclosure, providing families with a fast route to as full an account as possible about what happened to their loved ones and, as she mentioned, closure, as far as that is possible, because that is what they deserve.

It was good to see the Secretary of State visit the Omagh bombing memorial garden recently. Despite his intention to want to work closely with victims, he will know that there are still concerns being expressed by a range of victims’ representative groups and the victims’ and survivors’ commissioners, as well as by Jon Boutcher. Accepting the difficulties and complexities of this, can the Secretary of State say what he will do now to ensure he brings victims with him on this Bill?

First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his continued interest. This is my third question time as the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and each time he has asked sensible and realistic questions on legacy. I will deal with the question, but any time he wants to have a briefing in the Department to get clarity on some of these things between question times, he would be more than welcome, because I know he cares a great deal about this particular subject. I can confirm that we are continuing to talk to all sorts of groups and individuals. Government amendments will be tabled in the other place that will confirm that the independent commission will be established by legislation to conduct criminal investigations, where it judges those appropriate, to ensure that individuals who knowingly or recklessly provide false information to the commission can be prosecuted and have their immunity revoked. That is among other such areas where we are trying to improve the Bill.

Northern Ireland Protocol: Assembly Elections

7. What recent discussions he has had with representatives of (a) EU member states and (b) political parties in Northern Ireland on the potential impact of the Northern Ireland Protocol on the upcoming Northern Ireland Assembly election. (902749)

8. What recent discussions he has had with representatives of (a) EU member states and (b) political parties in Northern Ireland on the potential impact of the Northern Ireland Protocol on the upcoming Northern Ireland Assembly election. (902750)

12. What recent discussions he has had with representatives of (a) EU member states and (b) political parties in Northern Ireland on the potential impact of the Northern Ireland Protocol on the upcoming Northern Ireland Assembly election. (902754)

Since being appointed in October, I have met a lot of representatives from European states, and the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) holds several good relationships with similar.

There will clearly be a range of views on the protocol going forward, and in any election to the Northern Ireland Assembly, those views will need to be outlined clearly. We know that the Government do not respect mandates they see coming forward from devolved Assemblies, so can the Secretary of State give an assurance that he will respect the mandates coming forward from any Northern Ireland Assembly election?

I think there is one group of people who should not lecture about not respecting democratic votes. However, this Government and, I believe, all parties in this place want to see the Executive and the Assembly restored, and should there be another election, that result will be respected as the last result should be respected.

The Prime Minister has put the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill on ice to allow time for a UK-EU deal to be struck. Can the Minister commit to the House that a deal will be struck before April next year and that this pro-Brexit dispute will not hamper the Good Friday agreement celebrations and the UK’s international relations with America and the EU?

I think—[Interruption.] I genuinely did not think the hon. Gentleman’s question was that good. He should maybe imbibe a bit of the Christmas festivities, because I think we should be more glass-half-full about the opportunities of a negotiated settlement to the protocol issue, which will benefit everybody and all parties in Northern Ireland.

The Vice-President of the European Commission has said that

“if there is political will”,

issues around the Northern Ireland protocol could be resolved

“within a couple of weeks.”

Will the Minister find the will to reach a solution and commit to a timeline for a deal, perhaps before the end of the six-week extension to form an Executive in January?

I can genuinely say to the hon. Lady that the atmosphere in the relationships between the European Union and the United Kingdom Government has changed dramatically in recent weeks and months, and that is the basis for all good things.

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—


I am sure the whole House will share my sorrow at the capsizing of a small boat in the channel in the early hours of this morning, and the tragic loss of human life. Our hearts go out to all those affected, and our tributes to those involved in the extensive rescue operation.

This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others, in addition to my duties in this House, including the visit of His Majesty the King. I shall have further such meetings later today.

A three and a half hour journey takes six hours; a straight journey ends up with two changes and a diversion; a train is cancelled at short notice. This has become the experience of a west coast rail passenger. If Avanti does not get its act together, will the Government cancel its franchise?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this question, and I share the frustration that this is causing to many in his community and other communities. Our immediate priority is to support the restoration of services before making any long-term decisions on the operation of the west coast franchise, but we will be closely monitoring Avanti’s roll-out of its recovery plan and holding it to account for delivering for passengers.

I join the Prime Minister: our prayers go out to those who capsized in the freezing waters of the channel last night. It is a reminder that the criminal gangs running those routes put the lives of the desperate at risk, and profit from their misery. They must be broken up and brought to justice.

Tomorrow will be the first ever nationwide nurses’ strike. All the Prime Minister has to do to stop that is to open the door and discuss pay with them. If he did, the whole country would breathe a sigh of relief. Why won’t he?

We have consistently spoken to all the unions involved in all the pay disputes that there are, but I am glad the right hon. and learned Gentleman has raised our nurses, because they do incredible work. It is worth putting on record exactly what we have done for our nurses: last year, when everyone else in the public sector had a public sector pay freeze, the nurses received a 3% pay rise. When the Royal College of Nursing asked for more in-work training, we gave every nurse and midwife a £1,000 training budget, and when they asked for nurses’ bursaries, we made sure that every nursing student received a £5,000 grant. That is because we do work constructively, and we will continue to back our nurses.

Nurses going on strike is a badge of shame for this Government. Instead of showing leadership, the Prime Minister is playing games with people’s health, and there is a human cost: Alex from Chester has been waiting for a gallbladder operation for nearly six months. He is in so much pain that he has been off school since then. His operation has already been cancelled twice. His mum, who I spoke to this morning, is worried sick. When she heard that the strikes could be called off, she was massively relieved; she is desperate for the Prime Minister to resolve this. All he needs to do is simply meet the nurses. Alex’s mum is listening to this. She does not want to hear the Prime Minister blaming everybody else; she does not want his usual ducking of the question. She is tuned in now because she wants him to explain: what is he going to do to resolve the nursing strike?

It is not just Alex; there are millions of others across this country who will have their healthcare disrupted because of the strike. The right hon. and learned Gentleman says that we should get round the table, but we all know what that means—that is simply a political formula for avoiding taking a position on this issue. If he thinks the strikes are wrong, he should say so. If he thinks it is right that pay demands of 19% are met, he should say so. What is weak is that he is not strong enough to stand up to the unions. [Interruption.]

In 12 hours’ time, there is a nurses strike. All the Prime Minister needs to do is meet the nurses. His inaction speaks volumes. As ever with this Prime Minister, it is Tory politics first, patients second. We have never seen a nurses strike like this before. They have been forced into it, because the Government have broken the health system. Ask anyone in the NHS, and they will tell you that they do not have enough staff—133,000 vacancies—and there is an obvious solution: scrap the non-dom status and use the money to bring through the next generation of doctors and nurses. That is what Labour would do. Why has he not got the guts to do it?

We are already investing billions more in the NHS. We are already hiring thousands more doctors and nurses. The right hon. and learned Gentleman asks about the backlogs and the waiting times in the NHS, but what he always fails to acknowledge is the impact of covid: that is why we are facing pressures. We do have a plan: not just more money, not just more doctors and nurses, but new diagnostic centres carrying out millions of checks and scans and new surgical hubs delivering more elective surgery. If we had listened to him, the backlog would still be growing, because we would still be in lockdown.

As usual, the Prime Minister tries to blame everyone else. His Department commissioned a report into the NHS that reported on Monday. It said:

“We have…had 10 years of managed decline.”

It was not covid; responsibility is sitting right there. The reason that he cannot choose nurses over non-doms is because he is too weak to stand up to the tax avoiders. For 12 years, Conservative Governments have not trained enough doctors and nurses, so we have the absurd situation of the NHS spending billions on agency workers to fill the gap. Why should the country have to put up with money that should be spent treating patients being wasted plugging gaps instead?

Let me tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman what we are doing. We are actually listening to the independent pay review bodies; the Opposition want to undermine them. We have offered a fair pay deal; they cannot even decide on a number among themselves. We are actually protecting the public; they are protecting their paymasters. For working people in this country, it is Labour’s nightmare before Christmas.

There the Prime Minister goes again, pretending everything is fine. Try telling that to those on waiting lists or those who cannot afford to pay for a next day GP appointment. After 12 years of Tory failure, winter has arrived for our public services, and we have a Prime Minister who has curled up in a ball and gone into hibernation. If he cannot act on behalf of patients or nurses, or everyone who wants these strikes called off, then surely the whole country is entitled to ask: what is the point of him and what is the point of the Government he is supposed to be leading?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about covid not having an impact. Ambulance waiting times for category 1—[Interruption.] Category 1 ambulance waiting times in February 2020 were actually completely on target. Covid has had an impact, and that is why, as the chief executive of the NHS has acknowledged, this Government are

“serious about its commitment to prioritise the NHS.”

But let us have a look at the NHS in Labour-run Wales, shall we? The worst A&E times in the country!

Under the last Labour Government, we had fair pay for nurses and no strikes, so I will not be taking lectures from the Prime Minister about that. [Interruption.]

Order. Mr Bowie, you promised to behave. Don’t make me give you a Christmas present you won’t want.

Mr Speaker, this is our final PMQs of the year, so I hope—[Interruption.] Oh, really. Mr Speaker, what I was going to say is that I hope you will pass on all our thanks, at least from those of us on the Labour Benches, to all those who have kept our House and our democracy working.

I want to finish this year thinking about our friends in Ukraine. As a result of Putin’s barbaric assault on their freedom, millions will spend Christmas in sub-zero temperatures, without heating, electricity or hot water. Their suffering is unimaginable, but their bravery is awe-inspiring, so will the Prime Minister join me in saying that, whatever other difficulties and disagreements we have across the Dispatch Box, we are and will remain united in our unwavering support for Ukraine’s freedom, its liberty and its victory?

I join the right hon. and learned Gentleman in thanking and paying tribute to all the staff of the House for the fantastic work that they do to support all of us.

I appreciate the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s comments on Ukraine. It has been a point of incredible unity across this House and, indeed, the country. It is something we can all be proud of in our country—that we have stood behind Ukraine in its hour of need. As I said yesterday, this Christmas many families will be laying an extra place at their Christmas table. That speaks to the generosity and compassion of our nation, and long may that continue.

Q2. The A3 connects London to Portsmouth through Guildford, and I was delighted to see the new Solent freeport announced last week, which will increase traffic flows. As the A3 narrows through Guildford, it is sadly the most polluted road in the strategic road network. Short-term sticking plasters such as putting up 9-metre-high air pollution barriers that will entrench divisions in Guildford is not acceptable to me or my constituents. Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that it is time to think big, it is time to think long term and it is time to tunnel the A3 under Guildford? (902828)

I thank my hon. Friend for the question. I know this is an issue that she has long championed. I am told that National Highways is developing a range of different possibilities and solutions for the A3 through Guildford, and I know the Department for Transport will consider the case as it plans its future infrastructure investments.

I wish to join the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in extending my party’s thoughts to all those involved in the terrible tragedy in the channel this morning.

Thanks to positive and proactive negotiations between the Scottish Government and the Unite and Unison health unions, a pay settlement has been reached and strike action averted. By stark contrast, the UK Health Secretary appears completely unwilling to negotiate with unions on pay, and strike action is very much still on the table. So may I ask the Prime Minister: when will he see the error of his ways, and follow the Scottish Government’s lead?

I am glad the UK Government were able to provide £1.5 billion in extra funding to the Scottish Government for public services. The Health Secretary and other Ministers have engaged fully not just with the unions, but with an independent pay-setting process, which takes the politics out of the process and ensures that we can meet those independent requirements with a fair pay deal.

Let us be clear: those words will ring hollow in the ears of people who, unlike the Prime Minister, cannae nip into Waitrose for their shopping, or even turn on their heating at this moment in time. That is particularly true of people in Scotland because, as we know, average energy bills in Scotland are anticipated to be not £2,500 per year, but £3,300 per year. People are genuinely terrified, and that is despite the fact that Scotland produces six times more gas than it consumes, with some 80% of our electricity coming from low-carbon sources. Decades of failed UK energy and regulatory policy are coming home to roost. Is it not the case that Scotland has the energy; we just need the power?

I am glad the hon. Gentleman has raised the question of energy support. It is because of the actions of this Government that we are providing every household in this country with about £900 of support with their energy bills this winter—£55 billion-worth of support. On top of that, next year there will be extra cost of living payments worth up to £1,200 for the most vulnerable, whether that be those on means-tested benefits, pensioners or the disabled. This is a Government who will always look after the most vulnerable in our society.

Q3. As my right hon. Friend will know, the Mayor of London has decided, despite objections, to expand the ultra-low emission zone across all London boroughs. That will massively impact my constituents and those who share a border with London. Will my right hon. Friend urgently speak to the Secretary of State for Transport and encourage him to use the powers at his disposal to reverse this disastrous decision? (902829)

My hon. Friend will know that transport in London is devolved to the Labour Mayor of London. It is disappointing that the Mayor, backed by the Leader of the Opposition, is choosing not to listen to the public. The zone is being expanded against the overwhelming views of residents and businesses. I urge the Mayor and the Leader of the Opposition to be on the side of hard-working Londoners.

I associate myself and my party with the comments of others on the tragedy in the channel. Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims’ families.

Forty per cent. of cancer patients now wait more than two months for treatment after an urgent referral from a GP. That is the highest proportion on record and way above the Government’s own cancer waiting target. I lost both my parents to cancer as a child, so like many people across the country and in this House, I know the devastating impact of treatment delays on cancer patients and their families. I ask the Prime Minister two questions. First, can he give a cast-iron guarantee that the dreadful cancer backlog will not get any worse? Secondly, when will the Government meet their own cancer target?

I am very sorry to hear about the right hon. Gentleman’s parents. I am sure many of us across this House have families that have been tragically affected by what cancer does. He is right to raise the importance of meeting our targets. We are experiencing very high numbers of cancer referrals following the pandemic, as he will be aware, but thanks to the brilliant work of our NHS staff, cancer treatment rates in the most recent month for which we have data are back at pre-pandemic levels, with a plan for them to increase further. Recently, the NHS also announced plans to fast-track patients direct to cancer tests, rather than having to wait for specialist consultation first. Those measures will make a difference, and I look forward to updating him on them in the new year.

Q4. With the closure of the last bank in Cheadle, yet another of my local communities has been left bereft of a high street banking service. I was therefore pleased when I heard the announcement that Cheadle was to get a banking hub. Unfortunately, my delight was short lived, because on closer inspection I saw that it was Cheadle in Staffordshire. Although I remain pleased for the other Cheadle, does my right hon. Friend agree that my constituents also need access to cash and banking facilities to protect businesses and support our high street? Will he support local calls for post office banking hubs? (902830)

My hon. Friend is a fantastic champion for Cheadle in Greater Manchester. She will know that the Financial Services and Markets Bill will establish a legislative framework for protecting access to cash. Alongside that, as she mentioned, firms are already working to provide shared services such as bank hubs. I encourage her to contact Link, which can make an independent assessment of a community’s cash access needs and determine if shared facilities are appropriate.

Q5. My constituent Sharon has an 11-year-old daughter who suffers from eating disorders and severe anorexia. She was forced to spend a year in hospital in Sheffield, 40 miles away, because there were no beds in Leeds for children with those eating disorders. That is completely unacceptable. Will the Prime Minister now commit to ensuring that NHS mental health provision for young people is dramatically improved so that no family ever again has to endure a similar trauma? (902831)

First of all, I say to Sharon and her family that I am sorry about what they have experienced. The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. Mental health funding, as he knows, is increasing so we can ensure parity of service. He is also right to raise the issue of eating disorders, for which provision is currently expanding. I think 2,000 more children were given the treatment, advice and support they needed last year, and there are plans to go further because it is an issue that needs tackling.

Q7.   Police Constable Nicola Hughes and PC Fiona Bone were savagely murdered in Manchester while on duty a decade ago. Nicola’s dad Bryn is my constituent—he lives in Marsden—and last week he was in Parliament again continuing his campaign for emergency service workers and police officers who die while on duty to be awarded the Elizabeth medal posthumously. Does my right hon. Friend agree with me and Bryn that now is the time to commemorate and honour our brave police officers and emergency service workers who make the ultimate sacrifice, by awarding the Elizabeth medal posthumously? (902833)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and his constituent Bryn for his campaigning. Every life lost in the line of duty is a tragedy, and we remember the lives and service of PCs Nicola Hughes and Fiona Bone. We are determined to ensure that the sacrifice that police officers and other public service officers make is recognised, and we are carefully considering the best and most appropriate ways to do that.

Q6. Across these islands, people are suffering because of the woefully inadequate policies of the UK Tory Government. They have crashed the economy, left millions in fear of the cold this winter and are stoking division over striking workers rather than negotiating fair pay deals. Why is it that the only people who can rely on this Prime Minister are questionable personal protective equipment suppliers in the House of Lords, bankers and former Prime Ministers who are getting taxpayer-funded handouts to defend their partying through covid? (902832)

West Midlands Economy

Q12. What recent discussions he has had with the Mayor of the West Midlands on the economy of that region. (902838)

Our priorities are growth, investing in public services and giving businesses the confidence that they need to invest. I look forward to discussing that with the Mayor of the West Midlands.

When my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister recently visited the National Memorial Arboretum, he was slightly late, but I do not blame him because he had to come by road. My friend the Mayor of the West Midlands is supporting an extension to the cross-city line from Birmingham using an existing freight line to make it into a rail service to the National Memorial Arboretum and beyond. Will my right hon. Friend revisit the National Memorial Arboretum, see the armed forces memorial, and come to Lichfield to see why we need a leisure centre?

I would be delighted to visit the National Memorial Arboretum again, and to see my hon. Friend and the fantastic Mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street, to discuss his plans to drive growth and opportunity in the region.

It is now well over three years since the Conservatives promised the end of no-fault evictions. Enfield has the highest rate of section 21 evictions in London. Thirty families in my constituency in the past month alone were made homeless as a result of section 21. I have families sitting in my office trying to keep warm as we try to find them emergency accommodation. Will the Prime Minister scrap this shameful legislation, and if so, when?

The hon. Lady will know that we have announced plans to do that and we await parliamentary time, but it is not the only thing we are doing to protect renters. We have passed legislation already to protect tenants from rip-off fees and we have capped holding deposits, because we want to make sure that renters have the protections they require and decent homes to rent.

Small modular reactors are a hugely important part of our future energy mix. This Conservative Government realised that when they awarded Rolls-Royce’s nuclear section, based in my constituency, a grant of £210 million for development, but there is still no clarity or plan for moving from development to deployment. Will the Prime Minister come with me to meet Rolls-Royce to discuss how to move things forward and ensure that the UK benefits from this exciting opportunity?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I am delighted that the Government awarded £210 million to Rolls-Royce SMR last year for research and development. This has the potential to benefit the UK and to support our energy security and climate goals. I look forward to getting updates and to working with my hon. Friend to see this fantastic new technology come to life.

When my constituent who has dementia was taken ill recently, it took three hours for an ambulance to arrive. He then spent 10 hours in the back of an ambulance outside A&E queueing to get in. The doctor said to him, “I’m so sorry we are treating you out of the back of a truck.” But as we have heard, the King’s Fund has said that the Government have presided over a decade of neglect and managed decline in the NHS. So, should it not be the Prime Minister, and not that doctor, who should be apologising?

That same King’s Fund report also acknowledged that there was 40% more funding going into the NHS under this Conservative Government. We need to make sure that that funding makes a difference. That is why this winter half a billion pounds is being deployed to move people out of hospital beds into social care and to speed up those discharges specifically so that ambulances will not be queueing as much as they currently are. That money is already making a difference on the ground.

The community in Kingshurst, which I represent, suffered an unimaginable tragedy earlier this week when four children fell through the ice at Babbs Mill Lake. Sadly, three of the children did not survive and one, a six-year-old, is fighting for his life. They and their families are in my thoughts and prayers. Will my right hon. Friend pay tribute to the community in Kingshurst, who have come together and are supporting each other to get through this tragedy? Will he recognise the heroic efforts of the emergency services, including the police officer who used his bare hands to try to break through the ice and then jumped in the water without personal protective equipment, and fire service personnel, risking their own lives to save the young children?

I thank my hon. Friend, and send my condolences to the families and friends of all those who have lost their lives. I join him in paying tribute to our emergency services for, as he said, their incredibly selfless actions. This whole event has completely shocked the local community and I know that my hon. Friend will continue to do all he can to support his constituents at this difficult time.

This year, the Tory party has given us five Education Secretaries, four Chancellors, three Prime Ministers, two leadership coups—[Interruption.] And, Mr Speaker, the partridge has had to sell the pear tree to pay the gas bill. [Laughter.] Is it not the case that, after a year of Tory chaos, incompetence and self-indulgence, the best Christmas present the Prime Minister could give to the British people is a general election?

Labour Members are happier with that than they were earlier. All I would say when it comes to what the British people need this Christmas is that to ease the disruption on their lives the best thing that Labour Members could do is tell their union bosses to call off the damaging strikes.

After the second world war, Winston Churchill sent British Conservative lawyers to help to draft the European convention on human rights. That is something that we can be proud of in this country, but in an age of mass migration the ECHR is now limiting our ability to control our borders. In the light of the tragedy in the channel this morning, does the Prime Minister agree that he should do as Churchill did and draw up a new framework for refugees and human rights, including legal routes, but that, one way or another, and if necessary alone, we must be prepared to leave the ECHR?

As I told the House yesterday, our new legislation will deliver a system whereby a person who comes here illegally will have no right to stay and will be removed to their own country or a safe third-country alternative. That is the system that the British people want to see and that is the system that we will deliver. I look forward to hearing whether the Labour party will support it.

Q11. As temperatures are plummeting and the cost of living crisis is deepening, ordinary families throughout the country face a Dickensian nightmare this Christmas. Mortgage bills are soaring, household repossessions are up and nearly half a million tenants face the threat of eviction after falling behind on their rent. Too many people are worrying about where they and their children will wake up on Christmas morning, so will the Prime Minister agree to a temporary ban on repossessions and evictions over the festive period so that nobody has to live in fear of losing their home this Christmas? (902837)

We provide a range of support to homeowners and tenants who are in difficulty already, but the most important thing that we are doing to support them financially during the winter is providing almost £900 of support with their energy bills. On top of all the additional support for those who are most vulnerable, including pensioners, that demonstrates the actions of this Government to help the country to get through what we acknowledge is a challenging time.

Tomorrow, Mr Speaker, at 9.30 am you will lead this House in a one-minute silence to mark 80 years since the British Government recognised that the holocaust was taking place in Nazi-occupied Europe. As we come together to mark that moment, will the Prime Minister join me in praising the Holocaust Educational Trust and the extraordinary survivors who continue to do amazing work to ensure that the next generation understands and learns the lessons from the past?

Eighty years ago, Parliament listened in stunned silence as the truth of the holocaust was spoken in this House for the very first time, so it is absolutely right that you, Mr Speaker, lead a moment of silence in which we will stand together to remember and reaffirm that truth. I join my right hon. Friend in paying tribute to the work of the Holocaust Educational Trust. It could not be more fitting that Britain’s holocaust memorial and learning centre should be built right next door to Parliament. We must never forget the holocaust and we must stamp out antisemitism and prejudice in all its forms wherever we find it.

Q14. Caerphilly County Borough Council recently announced a £3 million cost of living hardship fund to help those most in need in Islwyn and across our county borough. Does the Prime Minister think it is right that local authorities are forced to cover the costs of 12 years of economic mismanagement by this Tory Government? (902840)

The hon. Gentleman fails to acknowledge that because of the actions of the UK Government not only are we supporting people in Wales and across the United Kingdom with help with their energy bills, but we have provided £1.2 billion of extra funding for the Welsh Government to use to give to local authorities to support their constituents. The hon. Gentleman would do well to acknowledge the benefits of the United Kingdom and the actions of the UK Government.

It is excellent that a record 4,000 newly qualified doctors are training to be GPs, but we have an issue with retention, which is made even worse in areas like mine that have extremely high housing growth. As the son of a GP, what will the Prime Minister do to fix this?

My hon. Friend has talked about and championed this issue for a long time, and he is right to do so. We do have record numbers of GPs in training at the moment, and we are also making sure that we support primary care appointments and access. My right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care and the Chancellor are looking at how best we can increase retention, particularly with regard to pensions, and I look forward to getting their suggestions.

Q15.   In a written response from the Department for Work and Pensions, it was confirmed to me that an unpaid carer earning more than £132 a week from their job is classed as being in gainful employment and as a result loses their carer’s allowance of £69.70 a week. Caring never stops, so can the Prime Minister explain to me the rationale behind that decision, given that we are trying to get economically inactive people back into work? Can he explain why it is his Government’s position that £132 is enough for people to live on? (902841)

I start by paying tribute to those up and down the country who give up so much of their time to care for others. I am delighted that the Government are supporting the hon. Lady’s Bill, which will give a week of highly flexible paid leave to unemployed carers. That is the right thing to do and I am grateful to her for taking it forward. Carer’s allowance is a means-tested benefit, and is part of many other benefits that are available to support people. As I have said, significant support for energy bills is in place right now for people through Christmas.