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Volume 727: debated on Wednesday 8 February 2023

I am delighted that President Zelensky is here in the United Kingdom today. It is testimony to the unbreakable friendship between our two countries, and I am proud that we are expanding the training for Ukrainian forces to include jet pilots and marines, and ensure that Ukraine has a military able to defend its interests today and into the future.

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.

Slava Ukraini! President Zelensky, we salute you.

This year a start will be made on the rebuilding of Kettering General Hospital; the strength of Northamptonshire police will reach 1,500 officers, the highest number in its history; and Kettering is set to become one of the best-connected towns for ultrafast broadband in the country, thanks to CityFibre’s investment. Given those developments and given the Prime Minister’s pledge to halve inflation and tackle the NHS backlogs, is it not time also to tackle head-on the doom and gloom peddled by those who want this country to fail, and to be far more optimistic about the many good things that are happening in Kettering and across the country?

I am glad to hear of all the successes in my hon. Friend’s constituency, especially the redevelopment of Kettering General Hospital, for which I know he has been campaigning tirelessly for years. He is absolutely right: this Government will continue to focus on delivering the country’s priorities.

More than 11,000 people have died as a result of the devastating earthquake in Turkey and Syria, and the number is sadly rising. I know that many families here in the UK will be anxiously awaiting news. I am sure I speak for the whole House in saying that our hearts go out to each and every victim and their families, and we must do all we can to support the rescue and recovery effort.

The House is honoured to be addressed today by President Zelensky. From the outset of the war he has symbolised the heroism, the resolve, and the bravery of his people. The Prime Minister and I joined the House together in 2015, and we have lived through important moments in our domestic and international politics, but none of those experiences compares to the pain and suffering of the people of Ukraine. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is vital for all of us, throughout the House, to continue to stand together in full support of Ukraine?

Let me first join the hon. Member in paying our respects and conveying our thoughts to the people of Turkey and Syria, particularly those affected by the earthquake, and to the first responders who are doing such a valiant job. The House will be reassured to know that we are in touch with the Turkish and Syrian authorities and are providing all the assistance that they have required of us, including the 77 search and rescue responders who arrived yesterday and have already begun work. I spoke to the President yesterday to ensure that we are in close communication.

Let me also thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments on Ukraine. Not only the whole country but the entire House can be proud that we came together to stand by Ukraine when the moment mattered, and that we will continue to stand with it, united as one Parliament and one United Kingdom.

I thank the Prime Minister for that answer. Every time Putin has been appeased, he has been back for more. Does the Prime Minister agree that, across this House, we must speak with one voice and say that this terrible conflict must end with the defeat of Putin in Ukraine?

Our objective remains to ensure a Ukrainian victory in this conflict. Vladimir Putin’s aggression cannot be seen in any way to have been successful. That is why we have accelerated and increased our military support for Ukraine this year—a decision that I took as Prime Minister. Today we are going even further, not just having provided Challenger tanks and being one of the first countries to do so, which catalysed the provision of tanks from other nations, but moving to start training Ukrainian marines in the advanced capabilities that they will need to mount further offensives, and to train their pilots in advanced combat aircraft. The House can be reassured that we will continue to support Ukraine to ensure decisive military victory on the battlefield this year.

I welcome the additional support that the Prime Minister has outlined today. I have had the privilege, as I am sure he has, of seeing at first hand the brilliant work our military is doing in Salisbury to train Ukrainians in defending themselves. We all support this work and the UK’s role in the international drive to ensure that Ukraine has the weapons and the technology required to defend herself. Does the Prime Minister agree that continuing this international effort is the only way to ensure Putin’s defeat?

The House may not be aware that we have continued to train Ukrainian soldiers, which is something we have done for years, before the conflict started, and something that we should be very proud of. Obviously, we have intensified those efforts. Last year we trained 10,000 Ukrainian soldiers through Operation Interflex. The Defence Secretary has announced that we will train 20,000 Ukrainian soldiers this year, in addition to the marines and air force pilots that I mentioned earlier.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is right to highlight that this has been an international effort. A mark of UK leadership in this area is that around a dozen other countries have all come to the UK to take part in our training programmes to support Ukrainian soldiers. Many Members of this House will have visited that effort in their constituencies. It is making an incredible difference on the ground, and is something I know President Zelensky is incredibly grateful for.

I think the whole House would like to thank those involved in the incredible training that is going on.

Before I entered this House, I had responsibility for fighting for justice in The Hague for victims of Serbian aggression. Does the Prime Minister agree that when the war in Ukraine is over, Putin and all his cronies must stand at The Hague and face justice?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is absolutely right that we must hold them to account for the horrific crimes that they have committed. I am proud that the United Kingdom has, again, played a leadership role in this regard, being one of the first countries to provide financial and technical support, putting investigators on the ground. We are shortly to host a conference together with the Dutch. Also, one of the things I discussed with President Zelensky this morning is our support for the work of the International Criminal Court, where, thanks to the efforts of UK members, I am hopeful we will see the first indictments very shortly.

Across this House we do not just hope for Ukraine’s victory; we believe in it. Part of that victory must be Ukraine’s reconstruction. Does the Prime Minister agree that Russia should pay for the destruction it has caused through the wealth lying dormant in blocked Russian Government assets?

We are the third largest humanitarian and economic donor to Ukraine, having provided £1.4 billion of support through direct grant assistance and guarantees at multilateral lending organisations. Again, the House will remember that we took a lead in imposing economic sanctions on Russian entities, including individuals and state-sanctioned assets. We have ensured that the provision of funds here will be put in a foundation for reconstruction in Ukraine, and we are currently working with international partners, through the legal process, to use those assets to fund Ukrainian reconstruction. That is of course something that we all want to see, and we are working with partners to achieve that.

As a country, we have always been at our best when we stand up to tyrannical aggressors threatening their neighbours and peace on our continent. That is why the Labour party helped to found NATO and why our commitment to NATO is as unshakeable today as it was back then. Does the Prime Minister agree that whatever differences we may have and no matter what difficulties we face as a country, we in this House have a duty to stand on the shoulders of the giants who came before us and support Ukraine’s fight for freedom, liberty and victory?

We remain the leading European ally in NATO, as we always have done. We continue to increase funding in our armed forces, by £24 billion at the last spending review, to ensure not only that we maintain our NATO obligation to spend 2% of our GDP on defence but that we participate in every NATO operation and remain the leading nation when it comes to contributions to NATO’s rapid response force and the NATO readiness initiative. I join the right hon. and learned Gentleman in saying that this House and this country will stand united with Ukraine until we ensure the defeat of Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked, unsanctioned aggression and that we will ensure not only that Ukraine is victorious but that we bring peace to its people.

Q8. The global combat air programme, including Team Tempest, is vital for UK national security and for the world-class aerospace cluster we have in Lancashire, with many businesses in Burnley and Padiham. This aircraft will protect the UK skies, give the RAF the tools it needs for the future and deepen our relationship with allies such as Japan and Italy. Can I ask the Prime Minister, with a refresh of the integrated review taking place, to commit not only to the design and development of this aircraft but to its production in Lancashire too, providing skilled jobs for generations to come for my constituents and residents all across the county of Lancashire? (903555)

I was delighted to announce this landmark international partnership with Japan and Italy in December. Team Tempest partners already employ 2,500 people in the UK with more than 1,200 in the north-west, and as we are making more progress, we will continue to invest in skills and technology at the BAE Systems factory of the future in Lancashire.

On behalf of my party I would like to send our condolences to all those impacted by the devastating earthquake in Turkey and Syria. I also welcome the exchange between the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister in respect of Ukraine. We in this House are all united our condemnation of Vladimir Putin and in our hope for a better future for Ukraine. It will be an honour for all of us to listen to President Zelensky this afternoon.

In recent days, the former Prime Minister said that she did not regret her time in office. Does the Prime Minister regret her time in office?

I am grateful to all my predecessors for the contribution that they make to public life, and I join the hon. Gentleman in saying that I know the whole House will be looking forward to hearing from President Zelensky at the conclusion of PMQs.

Hold on a minute; let us reflect on the damage that was caused: £30 billion wiped off the UK economy, pension funds brought to the brink of collapse, the pound reaching parity with the dollar and interest rates for mortgage holders right across these isles soaring. The former Prime Minister will not apologise for the damage that she has caused, so on behalf of the Tory party, will the right hon. Gentleman apologise for her?

On the first day that I took office, I said that mistakes had been made, but what we have done is to ensure that right now the pound is at a multi-month high, borrowing costs are restored back to where they should be, the economy has stabilised and there is a clear plan to halve inflation and grow the economy. That is what the Conservatives are delivering in government and we continue to deliver it as well for the people of Scotland.

Q14. Burghley House in my constituency is bidding to host the world eventing championships in 2026. This event is one of the pinnacles of the sport and, if we are successful in our bid, it will provide a massive boost to the local economy and massive coverage for the UK on the global scene. Burghley has a formidable track record of success, having previously hosted two world championships and six European championships. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Burghley would make a fantastic venue, and will he lend us his support so that we can be successful with our bid? (903561)

We are committed to building on our fantastic track record of hosting events such as the Commonwealth games, the women’s Euros and the rugby league world cup. I understand that the relevant UK sporting authorities are looking at the location, and I am sure they will be considering Burghley, in my right hon. Friend’s constituency, in the near future.

I associate my party with the comments on the unfolding human tragedy in Turkey and Syria and with the warm words to welcome our ally President Zelensky. He will know that this country and this House totally support Ukraine’s resistance to Vladimir Putin’s illegal invasion, and it is a source of great pride that the British people have stood firm, united and unwavering in supporting the brave heroes of Ukraine.

When President Zelensky addressed this House last year, he asked that we treat Russia as a terrorist state. Since then, the Liberal Democrats have urged the Government to fulfil that request by proscribing the mercenary Wagner Group, which is doing Putin’s bidding and carrying out atrocities against Ukrainians daily. On this symbolic day, will the Prime Minister finally commit to proscribing the Wagner Group, which would be a crucial part of treating Russia as the rogue state it is?

We have taken a lead from the beginning of this conflict in sanctioning and taking action against those entities connected with the war effort in Russia and beyond. The right hon. Gentleman will know that we have already sanctioned the Wagner Group in its entirety, as well as taking specific action against particular leaders. Proscriptions are not something on which we routinely comment in public, but rest assured that we continue to keep all our proscriptions under review.

Twenty-two years ago this month, a good friend of mine died from AIDS. Had he been tested for HIV, I am confident that, with the medical advances we have made, he would still be alive today. As my right hon. Friend will know, this week is HIV Testing Week. I welcome the Government’s ambition to end new infections by 2030. Will he thank the Terrence Higgins Trust for its incredible work? And will he look to extend opt-out HIV testing to more areas of high prevalence so that we can help to discover more undiagnosed cases?

I thank my hon. Friend for his incredibly thoughtful question, express my sympathies to him on the loss of his friend and join him in paying tribute to the work of the Terrence Higgins Trust, as I know the whole House will. The Terrence Higgins Trust does fantastic work and I look forward to talking to my hon. Friend about what more we can do to spread HIV testing and prevent more people from needlessly suffering.

Q2.   The UK Government’s fiscally illiterate electricity generator levy will choke off billions from future investments in the kind of renewable energy projects that my Angus constituency excels at delivering. This investment will find its way to more favourable jurisdictions, putting thousands of green jobs in Scotland and our energy transition at risk. Will the Prime Minister commit to scrapping this environmentally and economically damaging tax, or will he instead confirm that he and the latest Chancellor know the price of everything and the value of nothing? (903549)

I do not think it is right that, when energy companies are making windfall profits because of a war, those profits should go untaxed. This is what our levy does: it is right that we recover energy companies’ excess profits that result from the war and give the money back to the country in the form of support for energy bills. What is economically damaging for Scotland is the SNP’s refusal to acknowledge the need for a transition to support the North sea oil and gas industry, which we are proud to do.

Human trafficking is when people are moved legally from one place to another, often with the promise of a job, and are then forced into prostitution or labour exploitation. It has nothing to do with people who come illegally here on small boats. That is smuggling. A third of all human trafficking in the United Kingdom occurs wholly within its borders. When I was chairman of the all-party group against human trafficking, we campaigned for an independent commissioner. One was appointed in 2014, but since April last year we have not had one. That is unacceptable. Will the Prime Minister use his good offices to get one appointed urgently?

I thank my hon. Friend for all his work in this important area and I am happy to look into the particular position that he mentions. I know he is proud, as I am, of our modern slavery legislation, which is world leading, thanks to the former Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May). We are an example in how to tackle this, but I will make sure that we have someone in place to do the job.

Q3. We now have more than 50% more social care staff vacancies than last year. People are stuck in hospital beds with nowhere to go. In my constituency, the Liberal Democrat council and our local hospital, the Royal United Hospital, are trying their level best and trying innovative solutions to tackle the social care backlog, but the Prime Minister knows that this is a workforce crisis. We must recruit and retain social care staff. So I ask him: will he support the Liberal Democrat proposal to pay a higher minimum wage to social care workers to tackle the social care shortages that underpin the NHS crisis? (903550)

We recently announced £14 billion more for health and social care. Part of that money will go to a new discharge fund to speed the discharge of people from hospital back into their homes and communities. That money is already making a difference on the ground. We can see the numbers of people unnecessarily in hospitals are already reducing, easing the burdens in our accident and emergency departments. That comes on top of the money we have invested to improve the training, recruitment and development of our valued social care staff, and that will make sure that we can reduce vacancy rates, increase retention and get the workforce that we know we need.

Last month, together with fellow north Staffordshire MPs, I hosted an event, a tea party, to welcome Ukrainian refugees living in north Staffordshire. Will the Prime Minister join me in thanking the sponsors, particularly Alton Towers, which hosted the event, the host families and all the people of north Staffordshire, who have made our Ukrainian friends so very welcome?

I join my right hon. Friend in thanking Alton Towers, the other sponsors and all the families involved in putting on that tea party. I know that many Members from across the House will have done something similar; it is a wonderful way to show our support for the families who have come here. Again, the President mentioned to me this morning how grateful he is to the United Kingdom that we have opened up our hearts and our homes to help those in his country who need our security and sanctuary.

Q5. Big Brother Watch recently released a report on unaccountable government bodies such as the Counter Disinformation Unit, the Rapid Response Unit and the British Army’s 77th Brigade. Huge swathes of public money are being spent on recording political dissent on social media, under the guise of tackling misinformation. Politicians, including myself and the Leader of the Opposition, academics, activists, journalists and even members of the public have been subjected to monitoring by Whitehall officials. This is happening at the same time as we await the report of the Pitchford inquiry into the questionable state surveillance of campaigns such as the Stephen Lawrence campaign. So can the Prime Minister tell us how much public money is spent on these units and whether he thinks spending public money in this manner is a justifiable thing to do in our democracy? Could he also update the House on the progress of the Pitchford inquiry? (903552)

I will have to get back to the hon. Lady on the Pitchford inquiry and give her an exact figure. However, in general, certainly I and those on this side of the House believe very strongly in free speech and will make sure that we continue to protect it wherever we can.

Friday 24 February will mark one year of Russia’s barbaric war in Ukraine. Thousands of people have been killed. More than 1,000 children have been killed or injured. So will my right hon. Friend call for a national minute of silence on that day, so that all across the United Kingdom the people here can show their unending support for the people of Ukraine?

I thank my right hon. Friend for all the work she has done in her previous roles to ensure that we provide appropriate support to those in Ukraine. I thank her very much for her suggestion. I am sure it is something we are considering as we speak, and there will be many other ways in which we can mark that moment, not least as an international community continuing to show united condemnation and isolation of Russia.

Q6. This week is Children’s Mental Health Week. We know that adverse childhood experiences—whether that be growing up in poverty in the UK, or, indeed, living through the horrors of war in Ukraine—can have a lifelong impact on mental health. With the number of children in mental health crisis increasing year on year in the UK, does the Prime Minister believe that he is doing enough to address the causes of childhood trauma? (903553)

I thank the hon. Member for her question. We are doing more to make sure that the extra money that we are putting into tackling mental health is particularly focused on young people. We have seen a startling increase in the number of young people presenting with mental health conditions, which we would all like to arrest and reduce. That is why we are putting more mental health community support into schools and colleges across the country—that is being rolled out as we speak. Just the other week, we announced more money for crisis centres and urgent treatment centres in the mental health space in 100 different communities around the country, which will make a difference.

This country’s military and diplomatic support for Ukraine is strong and has strong support across the country. Less well known is a programme that has gone on for a decade led by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy to support the Verkhovna Rada, or Ukrainian Parliament. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, should this country host a reconstruction conference with the Ukrainians to discuss how Ukraine can win the peace, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and other bodies can come together to see how we can help President Zelensky in the next stage of his country’s development?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. As we look forward to hosting the reconstruction conference for Ukraine later this year, I shall make sure to take up his suggestion and involve all those organisations that can provide support to us and, ultimately, make sure that we can rebuild Ukraine in the way that it deserves.

Q7. The Government will want to help to maintain popular backing in the UK for our support to Ukraine, including by helping people with their energy bills. More than 40,000 people across Devon live in homes that are off the gas grid; they are on the rural equivalent of pre-payment meters. They need the money upfront to pay for their heating oil and alternative fuels. The Government announced an alternative fuel payment last September, but people in Devon are still waiting. What will the Prime Minister say to people who are off the gas grid and waiting for their alternative fuel payment five months later? (903554)

We specifically considered people who are off the gas grid when designing the energy support schemes that we have put in place, which is why the bulk of the support was delivered to those who had electricity meters to ensure that it reached people such as those the hon. Member mentioned, including many of my own rural constituents as well. That money should be getting to them. I shall make sure that it moves as quickly as possible. We also put in place the local household support fund to provide discretionary funding that local councils can give to those households most in need.

There is no doubt that the NHS is under enormous pressure across the UK and, despite record numbers of nurses and doctors, the workforce remains a challenge. So I welcome the fact that, for the first time, the NHS will get an independently verified workforce plan. But we have to think long term on buildings, too. In that regard, can the Prime Minister look closely at proposals to rebuild Leighton Hospital, which is a campaign that has the support of thousands of residents in south Cheshire?

I know that Leighton Hospital has been allocated more than £44 million to address some of the immediate issues at that site. I also know that my hon. Friend is keen to ensure continued investment in his local hospital. The Department for Health and Social Care is looking at more hospitals to join the new hospital programme, and I am sure that it will have heard what he said and, indeed, the voices of his constituents, too.

Q9. Bus services are vital to our communities for work, for health, for school and for socialising but, in a matter of days, the buses that millions depend on will face another crisis with the ending of the bus recovery grant, and predicted cuts of 15% to 20% in mileage will be devastating for people across my constituency and others. Will the Prime Minister commit to extending the bus recovery grant so that communities in my constituency and many others are not left isolated? Will he ask the Transport Secretary to meet me to discuss this issue? (903556)

We recognise the vital importance of buses in our local communities, which is why we are well on the way to fulfilling our commitment to invest £3 billion over this Parliament in our bus transformation. That includes funding for local councils to subsidise unprofitable routes through the bus services’ operators grant and recent money to help cap operator fares at £2 through the spring. We always continue to see how we can support bus services in the long term.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that apprenticeships such as those offered by the excellent South Essex College in Leigh-on-Sea, which I visited on Monday for National Apprenticeship Week, are a great pathway into work?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend and pay tribute to her local college, particularly in National Apprenticeship Week—something that we discussed in Cabinet just yesterday. We also have the country’s first Education Secretary who was an apprentice herself and that is something we are proud of.

Q10. I join the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in their condolences to the victims of the devastating earthquake in Turkey and Syria. I reiterate my thanks to the Foreign Secretary for the speed of the UK’s initial response. But as we enter the third day of the earthquake, the bitter cold and unforgiving weather mean that pulling more survivors from the rubble becomes less and less likely, and the immediate humanitarian impact is devastating. When can we expect an announcement on what further aid the Prime Minister’s Government will commit to relief efforts? What discussions is he having with his international counterparts to ensure our response meets the scale of the crisis? (903557)

I thank the hon. Lady for her question and join her in paying tribute to the Foreign Secretary for the work he is doing. I spoke to President Erdoğan yesterday to reiterate our commitment to provide Turkey with what support it needs. Right now, that is search and rescue. She is right that we are in that vital window at the beginning of a situation like this, which is why our search and rescue teams are on the ground providing that assistance. The Foreign Secretary is also speaking to his counterpart at the United Nations to ensure that the humanitarian support that we can provide is well targeted, including in Syria, where we fund the White Helmets, which are on the ground doing work. We continue to be in touch with everyone that we need to be, and I assure the hon. Lady that we will continue to provide all the support that is asked of us.