The Secretary of State was asked—
Digital Connectivity: Rural Wales
Diolch yn fawr, Mr Llefarydd, and a happy St David’s Day—dydd gŵyl Dewi hapus.
The Government are committed to improving digital connectivity as demonstrated by our commitment to Project Gigabit, the shared rural network and, most recently, the new very hard-to-reach pilots, two of which are located in Wales.
Ofcom reports that some 30,000 premises across the UK have no access to decent broadband or to a decent 4G signal, including rural areas of Ceredigion, such as Lledrod, Pennant, Talgarreg, Cribyn, Sarnau, Abermeurig and Coed-y-bryn to name but a few. Will the Minister make representations to colleagues in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to ensure that those areas are prioritised in the next iteration of Project Gigabit?
The hon. Member is right to raise that issue. Let me reiterate that we have Project Gigabit, which is an ambitious £5 billion project to reach the hardest-to-reach areas outside of the commercial scope, and also the Alpha trials using satellites, two of which are in Snowdonia National Park. There are, as he will be aware, also opportunities through the Mid Wales growth deal. I would be happy to meet him to discuss what more we can do. With regard to mobile networks, there is the shared rural network, alongside the use of the Home Office’s extended area service infrastructure.
The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake) is absolutely right to raise the issues that he has—he is often right, actually. I declare an interest here, Mr Speaker. In the Dysynni valley, in Gwynedd, broadband fibre was connected to premises after being a complete non-spot for so many years. Can my hon. Friend the Minister carry on with the hard work to ensure that there is gigabit connection within Cymru—Wales?
Happy St David’s Day, Mr Speaker. I thank London Welsh School for such a lovely flag-raising ceremony this morning.
On the subject of digital connectivity, EU structural funds have helped our universities to deliver research, innovation and skills development across areas that the Minister’s Government consider a priority, including digital transformation. Many of these projects now face a cliff-edge as EU structural funds finish, with 60 projects in Wales due to end this year, putting around 1,000 skilled jobs at risk. What conversations has he and the Secretary of State had with Cabinet colleagues to protect those valuable skilled jobs?
I thank the hon. Lady for that question. She is right that academic institutions have been reliant on EU structural funding in the past. There is, of course, the shared prosperity fund coming forward, which universities will need to apply to. I know that my colleague the Secretary of State is visiting all universities across Wales. I have accompanied him to Bangor University and I have also visited Wrexham University very recently, and both are adjusting to the new landscape.
Going back to the subject of gigabit, the Government’s Project Gigabit boasts that it will deliver lightning-fast reliable broadband to every corner of the UK, but the project update that was published this week by the Minister’s Government shows that Wales has the lowest coverage of any of the home nations—just 57% compared with, for example, 73% in England and 89% in Northern Ireland. Does that not represent yet another broken promise by the Tories to Wales?
The hon. Lady is aware that the geography and topography of Wales make digital connections more tricky than in some other areas. She is also aware that it is the Welsh Government who have been leading on the roll-out of broadband in Wales in conjunction with Building Digital UK, and I agree that more work needs to be done to improve those figures.
Diolch yn fawr iawn, Lefarydd, a dydd gŵyl Dewi hapus i chithau ac i bawb—happy St. David’s Day to everybody.
Although the Minister might blame the mountains, it is evident that poor connectivity in rural areas is clearly one of the factors holding businesses back. Another is trade barriers, particularly for Holyhead. Pre-Brexit, about 30% of all trade through the port went on to Northern Ireland from Dublin. That trade has collapsed and it is not protected by green lanes. Stena Line says that there needs to be a solution to this disparity. Can he come up with a solution to protect Holyhead from his Government’s policy?
The right hon. Lady recently attended a debate that I responded to in Westminster Hall, where she was making the case for a freeport in Holyhead. She knows that there are opportunities, through freeports, to boost the trade through Holyhead and other ports in Wales that are seeking the same designation. I urge her to continue that fight.
I urge his Government to come forward with news, because Wales desperately needs two freeports at least.
The Prime Minister said yesterday that Northern Ireland is in the “unbelievably special position” of having privileged access not just to the UK market, but hey, to the EU single market. That is an excellent argument for Plaid Cymru’s policy to rejoin the single market. Why is it not good enough for Wales?
Wales voted to leave the EU quite decisively. The right hon. Lady knows that the situation in Northern Ireland is really quite different from that in Wales, and this is a carefully put together deal to accommodate that situation. I feel quite sure that the EU is not in the business of allowing what she suggests.
A gaf i hefyd ddymuno dydd gŵyl Dewi hapus i bawb?—[Translation: May I also wish everyone a happy St David’s day?]
Health is a devolved matter and we therefore have no control over how the National Health Service is delivered in Wales—that is a matter for the Welsh Labour Government—but improving health outcomes for people across the UK is, of course, a priority for this Government, and we have made sure that the devolved Administrations have the funding to enable them to deliver the same high standards of care that have been delivered in England by this Conservative Government.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that a top priority for the Welsh Government should be helping the 45,000 people who are currently waiting more than two years for treatment in the NHS in Wales, rather than focusing on things such as banning meal deals and axing road improvement schemes?
I agree completely with my right hon. Friend. Figures from the Office for National Statistics this week suggest that around 1 in 5 people in Wales is now on a waiting list as opposed to just 1 in 18 people in England. As she has just pointed out, 50,000 people have been waiting more than two years for healthcare in Wales. I would far rather see the money that will be spent on creating extra Senedd Members spent on delivering healthcare in Wales.
Despite the Welsh Government receiving £1.20 for every £1 spent on public services in England, they spend only £1.05 of that money. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Welsh Government should spend less time and money on expanding the Senedd and putting tampons in men’s toilets, and focus on delivering a proper service for the people of Wales?
I agree completely with my hon. Friend. I am sure that the 50,000 people who are in pain and on waiting lists at the moment would far rather see the £100 million that will be spent on expanding the Senedd being spent on delivering healthcare and reducing waiting lists in Wales.
The Secretary of State will be aware that higher levels of poverty give rise to higher healthcare costs and higher absolute numbers of people needing healthcare, so how can he justify the fact that Wales does not get its 5% share of High Speed 2—£5 billion—and is losing enormous amounts of money from EU funding, which he promised would be provided, and thousands of jobs in Welsh universities? We need that productivity to alleviate poverty and to put less pressure on the NHS. It is his fault that those waiting lists are growing.
I certainly do not recognise the figures that the hon. Gentleman has come up with on HS2. The fact is that the UK Government have replaced EU funding in full through the shared prosperity fund, the community ownership fund, the community renewal fund, levelling-up funds and much else besides. The UK Government have also made certain that £1.20 is delivered per head of population for NHS care in Wales, as opposed to £1 in England. It is very hard for him to explain why Wales receives more money to deliver healthcare and yet delivers lower standards.
If the UK Government were to uplift NHS and social care pay in England to the level in Scotland, it would unlock funding for all the devolved nations to support their national health services through the cost of living crisis. Will the Secretary of State discuss the possibility of a pay uplift and its impact on Wales with Cabinet colleagues?
The hon. Lady is right that Scotland is very generously funded. She seems to be making an argument that Wales and England should receive more money per head than Scotland does at the moment and that she would be happy with that: I doubt it very much. The reality is that despite the generous funding that the Scottish Government receive, they have very poor outcomes, and some of their own members have said that health care in Scotland is close to collapse.
The UK Government are committed to supporting renewable energy generation in Wales, including for innovative tidal stream technologies at Morlais through our flagship contracts for difference scheme. I will continue to work across Government to ensure that we can capitalise on the huge renewable energy opportunities Wales has to offer.
The best way to bring down bills for Welsh businesses long term is to help to transition away from fossil fuels. That is why Labour is calling for a national wealth fund, so we can help industries such as Welsh steel win the race in the future. What comparable steps will the Government take to help heavy industry decarbonise?
The Government have an ambitious programme to decarbonise the country by 2050, and we have provided £21.5 million to the south Wales industrial cluster to decarbonise heavy industry and support the transition to net zero. Of course, the opportunities for floating offshore wind in that region could be critical too.
A Labour Government will more than quadruple offshore wind to make the UK a clean energy superpower, making the most of the fantastic natural resources in Wales. When will the Government match that ambition so that sectors such as Welsh offshore wind can achieve their full potential?
As I mentioned in my previous answer, there is an ambitious programme for offshore wind, including floating offshore wind in south-west Wales and south-west England. There is an intention for 4 GW of power to be provided through the Celtic sea by 2035 and many more gigawatts in the future.
On this St David’s Day there are many reasons to be positive about the Welsh economy, not least the role that Wales will play in delivering greater energy security for the UK and helping move us to net zero. On that theme, would the Minister agree that we have a brilliant opportunity with the deployment of floating offshore wind in the Celtic sea, but we need the Government to go ahead and give us the Celtic freeport for south Wales? We also have a huge opportunity on Ynys Môn with the development of new gigawatt-scale nuclear power there.
Does the Minister agree that over recent months we have seen better co-operation between the European Union and the UK over energy? Does he agree that the Windsor framework will mean that we can go much further? That co-operation will release the potential for energy security and hopefully see prices come down, which will help Wales.
My right hon. and learned Friend is of course right that co-operation is always a good thing, and in fact interconnectors are critical to our energy security. Only last week I met a company proposing to connect mainland Great Britain with the Republic of Ireland through a second interconnector.
We know that oil and gas producers have been making record profits for more than 18 months, but the Government’s paltry windfall tax began in May last year. How can the Government justify leaving billions of pounds of excess profits untouched while so many people across Wales are struggling with household bills and the rising cost of living crisis?
Mercifully, energy costs now appear to be on a downward trajectory, but the hon. Gentleman will be aware that up to 70% in tax has been taken from energy producers through the windfall tax, which is bringing a great deal of money into the Treasury to help to fund the support packages that people are relying on.
Governance of Elite Rugby Union
I share the concerns of all hon. Members about the grave allegations of misogyny that have been made about the Welsh Rugby Union, and the recent contract negotiations with players have also been a matter of concern. Rugby has always been at the heart of Welsh culture and, as such, I was pleased to meet the acting chief executive officer Nigel Walker recently. He is an honourable man and well thought of. I am sure that he takes the allegations seriously and will be dealing with them.
Being half Welsh and half English, the game at the weekend can often be difficult, but I am united in being a rugby fan. In England, I have met the CEOs of premiership rugby and of the Rugby Football Union, and the Minister, to ensure good governance. What conversations has the Secretary of State had with the Welsh Labour Government to ensure that the players, fans and good governance secure rugby union and its elite stars in Wales?
Obviously, sport is a devolved matter, but I have had conversations with Nigel Walker and other members of the WRU informally. The UK Government, and I am sure the Welsh Government, were appalled by the allegations. I would be happy to work with the Welsh Government, the WRU or any other body, including the external body that has been set up to look at the issue, to ensure that the allegations are properly dealt with.
Dydd gŵyl Dewi Sant hapus, Mr Speaker. I am sure that all hon. Members are concerned about the allegations of discrimination and misogyny within the WRU that victims have come forward and said they have faced. What conversations is the Secretary of State having with his colleagues in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport about the matter and the pressure that they can put on the WRU to address these serious allegations?
The hon. Lady will be aware that sport is a devolved matter, but those concerns will be shared in DCMS. Those sorts of allegations have been made about not just rugby, but other sports, so there is a nationwide problem. My colleagues in DCMS will be doing everything they can to deal with such allegations in England. I would honestly be happy to work with her, the WRU and the Welsh Government—or any other body that has some means of dealing with the issue. We must absolutely ensure that sport is safe for women, minorities and everyone to take part in without any form of discrimination.
Levelling-Up Fund: Welsh Communities
I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues about how the £330 million allocated to Wales so far through the levelling-up fund is supporting communities, creating jobs, driving up economic growth and keeping the Government’s commitment to ensure that Wales does not lose a penny as a result of coming out of the European Union.
The Labour Welsh Government have badly let down Clywd South and Wrexham by scrapping the A483 junction upgrade, which would have unlocked substantial investment and jobs in our community. Does my right hon. Friend agree that they need to support and maximise the benefits of the UK Government’s Welsh levelling-up fund projects by investing in road upgrades across Wales?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. The Welsh Government’s response to the roads review gives the impression that Wales is closed for business by determining that no further road-building projects will take place. I urge them to consider the impact of not building roads on the economy and the long-term prosperity of Wales. They should consider how they might build on the record support that Wales has received through the levelling-up fund and city and growth deals by rebuilding roads and improving connectivity across Wales.
Dydd gŵyl Dewi hapus, Mr Speaker. The levelling-up fund offered prospects for communities such as Barry that had been ignored by the Welsh Labour Government for many years. In the last levelling-up fund round, however, Cardiff bay, which has received billions of pounds for regeneration in recent decades, received a further £50 million, but Barry Making Waves, which is delivering a marina project, was ignored. What hope, prospect and opportunity can I offer people in Barry for the next round of levelling-up funding?
I fully understand my right hon. Friend’s disappointment that the bid was not successful on this occasion, and I pay tribute to him for being such a champion for that particular bid and for his constituency. I suggest to him that there is going to be a third round of levelling-up funding, and I hope that local authorities that have not thus far been successful will apply.
Dydd gŵyl Dewi hapus i bawb. Will the Minister please join me in congratulating Mountain Ash in my constituency on being shortlisted for the Let’s Celebrate Towns competition, which is being announced here in Parliament this evening? On this St David’s Day, will he also now join me in urging the UK Government to restore the £1.1 billion missing in Wales, and allow the Welsh Government to administer those funds to enable every community in Wales, including Cynon Valley, to thrive?
First, Mr Speaker, I would like to say llongfyfarchiadau mawr to the constituents of the hon. Lady. I do not recognise the figure that she has just quoted: the UK Government have made sure that record funding has flowed through to the Welsh Government, and in replacing the funds that we used to receive from the European Union we have made sure that Wales has not lost out by one penny. The UK Government have been working directly with the 22 local authorities across Wales, including the hon. Lady’s, to ensure that we can continue to deliver jobs, prosperity and growth in Wales.
The Minister says that he does not recognise the figure of £1.1 billion—well, the people and communities of Wales will recognise that £1.1 billion when it fails to materialise any significant improvement in their communities and healthcare outcomes, or in business investment. What will he do to compensate the people of Wales for the paltry levelling-up funding that is no match for European funding?
The hon. Gentleman will know perfectly well that it is not just levelling-up funding that is replacing EU funds: it is levelling-up funds, community ownership funds, community renewal funds and shared prosperity funds. On top of that, the Government are delivering nearly £790 million in growth deals. Wales has not lost out by one penny as a result of the UK Government’s implementing the result of the referendum, in which the people of Wales voted to leave the European Union.
Cost of Living Crisis: Impact on Businesses
This Government have provided an unprecedented package for non-domestic energy users through this winter, worth £18 billion, and our new energy bills discount scheme will provide a discount on high energy costs to give businesses certainty while limiting taxpayers’ exposure to volatile energy markets.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s support running up to April, but he must accept that the changes that the Government are introducing from April are also bringing about huge amounts of uncertainty for many businesses, including in my constituency of Ogmore. One business is looking at potentially making several hundred of its workforce redundant because it is unable to get guarantees on funding beyond April. Will the Secretary of State meet me to see what work we can do to try to ensure that business is secured, and convince the Chancellor that more support is needed in the Budget for businesses in Wales and across the UK?
I certainly know that the Chancellor and the Treasury have been having discussions with businesses in Wales about what support can be given, but I would be perfectly happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and that business in his constituency to see what further support can be given.
Dydd gŵyl Dewi hapus. Businesses on Ynys Môn have been impacted by the cost of living crisis, compounded by a lack of investment in key infrastructure. With the cancellation of plans for a third Menai bridge, it is clear that Labour and its Plaid chums in Cardiff would rather Anglesey was on a road to nowhere. Does the Secretary of State agree that a freeport on Anglesey would demonstrate that my constituency is on a superhighway to the future?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who has been a doughty champion for not only a freeport, but a nuclear power station and a third Menai bridge, in her constituency of Ynys Môn. She must have been as disappointed as I was that the Welsh Labour Government have decided that they will build no more roads in Wales, meaning that her constituents will lose out as a result of not being able to have that vital road connection.
Public Services: Government Support
This Government are committed to delivering high-quality public services. For instance, by next month, there will be a record number of police officers serving communities across Wales, and we have seen crime decrease by 10% across England and Wales between 2021 and 2022. As the hon. Lady is aware, many public services, including health and education, are devolved in Wales.
Will the Minister urge his colleagues to accept the Welsh Affairs Committee’s recommendation that HS2 be reclassified as an England-only project? Wales will then receive Barnett consequentials estimated at £5 billion, allowing the Welsh Labour Government to continue to expand public transport services, and people in Wales can then receive the same benefits from HS2 as those in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
The hon. Lady knows that HS2 is an England and Wales project and is an important backbone of Britain’s rail infrastructure, and the important thing for Wales is to be able to plug in to it and take advantage of it. We also need to see the roads review that the Welsh Government have brought forward scrapped. We need to see investment in our roads.
Before we come to Prime Minister’s questions, I would like to inform Members that a book of condolence for Baroness Boothroyd has been placed outside the Library.
I point out that live subtitles and British Sign Language interpretation of proceedings are available to watch on parliamentlive.tv.
The Prime Minister was asked—
May I wish everyone, but in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Craig Williams), a very happy St David’s Day?
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.
The Prime Minister understands the importance of NHS staff, because he was out there every Thursday night clapping for them during the pandemic. He must therefore also surely know that he has not got a hope of dealing with the NHS crisis if he does not invest in its workforce. We have a plan to double medical school places and end the scandal of straight-A students being denied the chance to become a doctor. Patients support our plan, the NHS supports our plan, and even his Chancellor supports our plan. Why doesn’t he?
The hon. Gentleman needs to keep up—we are doing a workforce plan for the NHS. There are tens of thousands more doctors, more nurses in the NHS, a record number of GPs and record investment in the NHS. That is what we get with a Conservative Government delivering.
I join my hon. Friend in thanking everyone at Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust for their fantastic work, and I can confirm that we are committed to a new hospital scheme at the Queen’s Medical Centre and City Hospital as part of our new hospital programme. I know that progress is being made, and I look forward to seeing the project come to completion.
Can I join the Prime Minister in wishing everybody a happy St David’s Day?
After 13 years of Tory failure, the average family in Britain will be poorer than the average family in Poland by 2030. That is a shocking state of affairs. If the Tories limp on in government, we are going to see a generation of young people learning to say “auf Wiedersehen, pet” in Polish, aren’t we?
It is clear to everyone that the biggest impact on household living standards is the energy prices we are suffering as a result of an illegal war in Ukraine, and I would just remind the right hon. and learned Gentleman what we are doing to ease people through that. Because of our energy price guarantee, the Government are paying more than half of a typical household energy bill, saving households right now £1,000. It is one of the most generous support schemes globally. He knows that future decisions to support the cost of living are for the Budget, but if he is concerned about the cost of living, what he should do is stop making inflationary, unfunded spending commitments and back our plan to halve inflation.
The dictionary definition of unfunded commitments is last year’s kamikaze Budget. We are the only country in the G7 that is still poorer than it was before the pandemic, and the Prime Minister stands there pretending that it is all fine—total denial about the damage and decline that he is presiding over. Delivering growth and tackling the cost of living crisis will mean standing up to vested interests. Energy bills will go up by £900 in April. He knows he will have to act, but who is going to pay? Hard-working families through higher taxes and more borrowing, or the oil and gas giants celebrating record profits?
I know the right hon. and learned Gentleman recently made a rare trip out of north London to visit Davos. Perhaps while he was there, he missed the survey of 4,000 global CEOs from 100 different countries who ranked the United Kingdom as their No. 1 European investment destination. If he is serious about getting the economy growing, he should stand up to the vested interests in the unions and back our minimum service levels.
Here is the thing: all CEOs of businesses are saying there is only one party with a plan for growth, and it is this party here. There is one party that broke the economy, and its Members are sitting on the Government Benches. On energy bills, it is not as complicated as the Prime Minister pretends. Oil and gas companies are making vast, unexpected profits while working people face the misery of higher bills. He can boast all he likes, but companies like Shell did not pay a penny in windfall tax last year, and they are still not paying their fair share now. Why does he not admit his mistake, get rid of the loopholes in his botched windfall tax and finally choose family finances over oil profits?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman seems to forget that, as Chancellor, I introduced a new tax on energy companies. Energy companies will pay a 75% tax rate on extraordinary profits comparable to—indeed, higher than—other North sea nations. That is what his shadow Levelling Up Secretary recently called for, but I have good news for them: we did it a year ago. They have to keep up. I know they claim to support levelling up, but they really need to keep up.
The Prime Minister introduced a tax on Shell and it has not paid a penny—fantastic work! If he were serious about investing in the future of the country, he would start with housing. A few months ago, his Back Benchers forced him to scrap house building targets. At the time, he stood there and said it would mean the Government would build more homes. Well, would you believe it? A few months later, the Home Builders Federation say house building will fall to its lowest level in 75 years. He can change course on this. He can bring back targets and planning reforms, or he can duck that fight and let a generation down. Which is it?
Actually, we have had record high numbers on house building and, indeed, the highest number of first-time buyers in around 20 years under this Government. The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about investing for the long term of our country, and that is important when it comes to energy security, but Labour’s policy is to oppose any new oil and gas licences in the North sea. It is an absurd policy that would see us paying billions to countries abroad for our energy, while shipping it here with twice the carbon emissions. It is typical political posturing. It is bad for the economy; it is bad for our security—just like the Labour party.
House building is at the lowest level for 75 years. A whole generation of people are desperate to get on the housing ladder. Thirteen years in power, and all the Prime Minister has to say to them is, “It’s somebody else’s fault—let me deflect.” No wonder they are furious with his Government.
It is not just bills or housing. Families are paying over £1,000 a month just to send their child to nursery. If the Prime Minister scrapped his non-dom status, he could start to fund better childcare, put money back into people’s pockets and get parents back to work. It seems a pretty simple choice to me. Which is he going to choose: wealthy tax avoiders or hard-working parents?
If we want to see what happens with house building under a Labour Government, we just need to look at what is going on in London—and when it comes to the facts, they do not suit the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s argument. Let us just go over them: the wealthiest pay more tax and the poorest pay less tax than under any year of the last Labour Government. As for his plans, he has already spent the money he claims he would raise from his policy on five different things. It is the same old Labour party: always running out of other people’s money.
The Prime Minister is never happier than when he is pretending that everything is fine or blaming someone else—and didn’t we just see it there? He is choosing tax avoiders over hard-working parents.
I do not want to finish this session without asking about the covid disclosures in today’s Daily Telegraph. We do not know the truth of what happened yet—there are too many messages and too many unknowns—but families across the country will look at this, and the sight of politicians writing books portraying themselves as heroes or selectively leaking messages will be an insulting and ghoulish spectacle for them. At the heart of this is every family who made enormous sacrifices for the good of the country or who tragically lost loved ones.
The country deserves better. The covid inquiry has already cost the taxpayer £85 million and has not heard from a single Government Minister yet. Can the Prime Minister assure the House that there will be no more delays and that the inquiry will have whatever support it needs to report by the end of this year?
The past couple of years were an incredibly difficult time for everyone involved in the health service. I pay tribute to all their hard work, and I know that the House will join me in that regard.
Rather than comment on piecemeal bits of information, I am sure the right hon. and learned Gentleman will agree that the right way for these things to be looked at is through the covid inquiry; that is why we have established the covid inquiry. He will know—he has mentioned once or twice before that he was a lawyer in a previous life—that there is a proper process for these things. It is an independent inquiry. It has the resources it needs, it has the powers it needs, and what we should all do in this House is let it get on and do its job.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his support for the Windsor framework. He is right about the benefits that it can bring. I also join him in paying tribute to our incredible research community, who do a fantastic job. I can assure him that we will continue to work with the EU in a range of areas—not just research collaboration, but strengthening our sanctions against Russia, energy security and, crucially, illegal migration. I look forward to those discussions and hope we can conclude them productively on a range of different areas.
It is disappointing that the hon. Gentleman is seeking to play politics with the situation in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland, as he well knows, has a unique place in the United Kingdom. What we are trying to do is restore the balance inherent in the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, and he would do well to acknowledge that.
Let us be clear: what the Prime Minister said yesterday was that EU single market access will be a good thing for business. Of course, that is in contrast to the leader of the Labour party, who said in December that EU single market access would not boost economic growth. Does it hurt the Prime Minister to know that the Labour party believes in Brexit more than he does?
With regard to Northern Ireland, the important thing is to avoid a land border on the island of Ireland between north and south. That is what it is crucial to achieve in getting the right framework for the arrangements in Northern Ireland, and the businesses there that trade across that border on a daily basis, with complex supply chains need, and value that access. That is something that the Windsor framework has sought to achieve and, I believe, delivers. It is not about the macro issue of membership of the European Union; it is about getting the right mechanisms in place to support businesses and communities in Northern Ireland. I would say to the hon. Gentleman that he knows better than that: he knows that this is about Northern Ireland, and I hope that he can support what we have agreed.
When it comes to our energy policy, the important thing is to focus on our long-term energy security. That means more renewables, more offshore wind, hydrogen, carbon capture and storage and, indeed, more nuclear. Wylfa remains one of the best nuclear sites in the UK, and the strong support from the local community, and indeed my hon. Friend, makes it an attractive site for the UK’s nuclear revival. I know that Great British Nuclear, when that body is up and running, will be taking a very close look at it.
Well, I have to say it is great to hear of the conversion that the Prime Minister has had on the benefits of the single market. Given Northern Ireland’s access to the dual market—both markets—and the benefits that that brings, will his Government commit to investing in infrastructure and higher education provision to maximise that benefit?
I thank my hon. Friend for his engagement and support in developing the Windsor framework. I think it delivers on what he wanted, which was to ensure that we protect Northern Ireland’s businesses and the supply chains that they have, and I can give him that commitment. He and I both want to see more investment in Northern Ireland not just from the Government, but from the private sector. This agreement will unlock that investment, but, critically, a step on that journey is to have a reformed Executive, something I know everyone in this House would like to see.
I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend. I am delighted that Lithuania and the city of Vilnius will host the NATO leaders summit in July, and the UK does have a strong and growing relationship with Lithuania. It was just yesterday that its Defence Minister was here supporting our efforts, together with Lithuania, to train Ukrainian soldiers. At the summit, we will work together to ensure we can deter and defend against Russian aggression by making sure that we implement the next phase of the most radical military transformation since the 1960s.
Safety on our roads is our absolute priority, and we will do everything we can to make sure drivers do feel safe. Last year, we in fact paused the roll-out of smart motorways not already in construction while we consider the data and next steps. In the meantime, we have committed almost £900 million for safety improvements across the entire network.
I join my hon. Friend in congratulating Zero Carbon Guildford on receiving the Climate Coalition’s Innovative UK Community Project award. She is absolutely right that community empower-ment, engagement and action can play a role in supporting the UK’s transition to net zero, enabling communities to access the benefits that it brings, from greener jobs to improved health.
We are investing record sums in the hospital capital upgrade programme across the country. I am very happy to make sure that we are making progress on the scheme that she mentioned and that she gets the detail of that. It is not just the 40 hospitals but the 90 upgrades around the country, and up to 300 community diagnostic centres and elective surgical hubs. This is a Government who are backing the NHS with the resources it needs.
My hon. Friend is right that the tragic incident near Italy at the weekend demonstrates only too well how illegal crossings put lives at risk. That is why last year the Home Secretary and I last year announced five new measures to tackle the problem of small boat crossings, including the largest ever boats deal with France and a landmark deal with Albania. But we must do more, and as soon as the legislation is ready it will be brought to this House to ensure that if you arrive in this country illegally, you will not be able to stay. You will be swiftly detained and removed to your own country or a safe third-country alternative. That is the right and responsible way to tackle this problem.
The Prime Minister will know that Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board has yet again been put in special measures. The chairman and the whole board resigned en masse, as they no longer have faith in the Welsh Labour Government. Yet on a call earlier this week, the Welsh Health Minister told me that it was not the Welsh Labour Government’s fault that healthcare has collapsed in north Wales. Given that Labour runs the NHS in north Wales, can my right hon. Friend suggest to the people of north Wales whose fault it is and who should put it right?
I share my hon. Friend’s concern. The House will know that health is a devolved matter for the Labour-run Government in Wales, where one in five people in the entire country are now on a waiting list. The Government there should focus on the people’s priorities and start cutting waiting lists, as we are doing here in England.
The Liberal Democrats’ shadow Energy Secretary said that there was no role for nuclear power in our future energy industry, which is not something that we need to listen to. As for helping people with their energy bills, as I said earlier, because of the energy price guarantee we are paying, typically, about half a family’s energy bill at the moment, which is worth £1,000. However, the support does not end there: over the next year there will be about £1,000 of direct support for the most vulnerable families in the nation.
I agree with the hon. Lady about energy efficiency. It is important, which is why the Government have allocated more than £6 billion over the current Parliament, and the new schemes that we have just introduced will help hundreds of thousands of households across the country, saving them about £300 on their bills through improvements in their energy efficiency—and the hon. Lady is right: it should be available everywhere, including Scotland.
As chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for Greece, may I put on record how sad we all are about the tragic train accident and loss of life there?
The double child rapist and killer Colin Pitchfork is once again up for parole next month. I know that the Prime Minister has no part in any decision-making process in terms of the independent Parole Board, but can he organise an urgent meeting with the Secretary of State for Justice, so that I can refer my constituents’ views about this dangerous man and he can take them into account in his submissions to the board?
Pitchfork’s crimes were heinous, and our thoughts remain with Lynda and Dawn’s friends and families. My hon. Friend knows that it is for the Parole Board to make these decisions, but my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister will be submitting his views on the Pitchford case to the board before the oral hearing and will be happy to meet my hon. Friend again. We recently published a root-and-branch review of the Parole Board system that outlined our plans to introduce greater ministerial oversight, and I look forward to my hon. Friend’s contributions and thoughts on that.
Rough sleeping levels have been 35% lower this year than the peak, partly as a result of our £2 billion of extra investment over the last three years to tackle rough sleeping. We still have one of the lowest rates in the world, according to when it was last measured, but we will continue to do more. We do not want anyone to have to sleep rough. Because of the innovations that we have made we are taking more and more people off the streets, and we will keep delivering more.
Last month The Pines Primary School in my constituency achieved a “good” rating in its Ofsted inspection. That in itself is laudable, but what is particularly significant is that The Pines is now the 40th of 40 eligible schools in Bracknell to be rated “good” or “outstanding”. This clean sweep is itself an outstanding achievement, and I am very proud of everyone locally. Will the Prime Minister please join me in congratulating our fantastic teachers, staff, governors and pupils, as well as Councillor Gareth Barnard and the entire education team in Conservative-run Bracknell Forest Council?
Education is the closest thing we have to a silver bullet for transforming people’s lives, so I am delighted to join my hon. Friend in praising everyone involved, from the councillor to the teachers to the staff to the governors, for delivering such fantastic results. They are in the business of providing tremendous opportunities for the children in their care, and we all owe them an enormous debt of gratitude.
We are helping people now. We are helping people with the energy price guarantee, which is ensuring they have a £1,000 saving on their energy bills right now, and we are providing further support over the coming year for the most vulnerable with direct cost of living support of up to £1,000. There is also a record increase in pensions, a record increase in benefits and a record increase in the national living wage, because that is what Conservative Governments do.
Some 97% of ceramics businesses are small and medium-sized enterprises, which means that they have not received the level of support that many other energy-intensive sectors have, so will my right hon. Friend look at what more support, particularly financial support, can be offered to help this sector to decarbonise and invest in energy efficiency measures?
My hon. Friend is a powerful advocate for his ceramics industry, and rightly so. It has been a pleasure to meet him and his businesses in the past. He will know that our energy bills discount scheme will support businesses with their energy bills through to March next year, and we have a range of other funds to support energy-intensive industries. There is the scheme that he mentioned, and also the industrial energy transformation fund, which provides capital grants to businesses such as his to help them decarbonise. I look forward to discussing this with him and his businesses in the near future.
It is amazing, when we have had a question about the awful tragedy of illegal migration that happened recently, that the hon. Gentleman cannot accept that there is absolutely nothing compassionate about tolerating illegal migration when people are dying. That is why the Government will bring forward legislation to improve the system here. It is absolutely right that if people come here illegally, they should be sent to a safe alternative, because that is the only way we will break the cycle of these criminal gangs and stop people dying needlessly.
A school in my constituency was complaining that it could not afford to turn the heating on, yet that school and others are spending money on PSHE materials from organisations such as Stonewall and Jigsaw that are educating our boys and girls that they may not have been born in the right body or that they may have an inner gender identity. Will the PM meet me to see how we can stop this unscientific, ideological education being taught in our schools and get our children learning where they should be learning—in a warm, safe place?
We have boosted school funding by around £2 billion in each of the next two years, which will help schools to manage their energy costs, but we do expect schools to take responsible and sensible decisions on their RHSE materials and make sure that those materials are age-appropriate, suitable, politically impartial and value for money. I look forward to discussing this matter with my hon. Friend, and I will make sure that he gets a meeting with the relevant Minister.
The Prime Minister may be aware of Sky News’s investigation and report today on the over-the-counter sale of nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, to children and young teenagers. One alarming aspect is the change in the size of canisters from 8 grams to 620 grams, and ambulance call-outs related to overuse have tripled. Instead of criminalising the young people who buy nitrous oxide, is it not time to take urgent action against those knowingly selling this harmful and potentially life-changing substance to children under age?
I share the hon. Lady’s concern and that of Members across the House about nitrous oxide’s detrimental impact on communities and its contribution to antisocial behaviour. Indeed, I mentioned it specifically in a speech I made at the beginning of this year. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs is conducting a review of nitrous oxide and looking at this question in particular. The Home Secretary has asked it to expedite that review and we will consider its advice carefully when it is received.