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Volume 737: debated on Wednesday 13 September 2023

I start by paying tribute to the Clerk of the House, Sir John Benger, and thank him for his many years of distinguished service. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]

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

The wealth of billionaires has skyrocketed over the past decade, while average working households in the UK have the lowest living standards since the 1950s. While hard-working families are struggling to make ends meet, the wealthy are playing by a different set of rules, with reports that even Members of the House of Lords are trying to exploit the non-dom status loophole to avoid paying their fair share. Does the Prime Minister agree that whether it is the wife of the most powerful man in the country or the host of “The Apprentice”, no billionaire should qualify for special tax treatment while my constituents face soaring levels of inequality and poverty?

The facts tell a very different story from what the hon. Gentleman said. He mentioned inequality; inequality today is lower than it was in 2010. He mentioned the number of people in poverty. Again, I am pleased to say that 1.7 million fewer people are in poverty today than in 2010, including many in Scotland. Of course we understand that things are challenging right now with the cost of living. That is why we have put in place record support to help families, particularly with their energy bills and particularly for the most vulnerable in our society, with record amounts of cost of living payments going to millions across the country, including in Scotland, showing the power of the United Kingdom Government.

Q2.   Thanks to this Conservative Government, we have the opportunity to be the first country in the world to end new cases of HIV by 2030. That is partially down to our world-leading opt-out HIV testing programme that has been rolled out in very high prevalence areas. To reach this goal and to make this progress, we must roll out opt-out testing to other high prevalence areas, such as the west midlands, including my constituency of West Bromwich East. Will the Prime Minister commit to meeting me and the incredible Terrence Higgins Trust to hear more about the merits of opt-out testing? (906399)

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this important issue and thank her for her work in this area. We remain absolutely committed to ending new HIV transmissions within England by 2030, and I am pleased that she highlighted that the provisional data from NHS England indicates that the opt-out testing programme has been highly successful. The Department of Health and Social Care is currently evaluating the impact of the programme with a view to deciding whether it should be expanded to additional areas, and I know Ministers will keep her and the House updated.

I join the Prime Minister in his words about the Clerk of the House.

I pay tribute to the police who tracked down the escaped terror suspect from Wandsworth prison last week. Despite being charged with terrorism, and despite being a flight risk, he was not held in a category A prison. Why not?

I thank the police and their partners for their efforts to find and arrest Daniel Khalife. There is now an ongoing legal process that must be allowed to take its course, but I would like to reassure the public that while these cases are extremely rare, the Justice Secretary has launched an internal investigation about how this could happen, as well as an independent investigation of the incident so that we can learn the lessons from this case and ensure that it never happens again.

The truth is, the Government are presiding over mayhem in the criminal justice system. Only a few short months ago, Zara Aleena’s family said that Ministers had—these are their words—“blood on their hands” after probation failures that led to her murder, so it beggars belief that we are back here once again. The chief inspector of prisons said that conditions in Wandsworth were so bad that it should be shut down. The Chancellor is telling anyone who will listen that he raised concerns months ago. Probation, school buildings, and now prisons—why does the Prime Minister keep ignoring the warnings until it is too late?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman, with his background, should know better. Because of the wide variety and considerable difference in severity of people charged under that Act, it is not, and has never been, the policy that they are all held in category A prisons. It should not need me to point that out to him, given his experience.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about resourcing. I am happy to tell him that, over the last few years, we have delivered an extra 4,000 new prison officers. Staffing levels at Wandsworth in particular are up by 25% in the past six years and, because we are boosting prison pay, we are also improving retention. At the same time, we are investing £100 million to improve prison security with new measures such as X-ray body scanners. If he wanted to have a truly honest debate about this, perhaps he would acknowledge that prison escapes were almost 10 times higher under the Labour Government than under the Conservatives. [Interruption.]

Order. I did say this last week, and it will continue this week: anyone who wants to start the session by leaving, please do so. I am happy to help you on your way.

Every week, whatever the topic, the Prime Minister paints this picture as if everything is great and fine out there. It is so at odds with the lived experience in the real world.

Let me turn to another serious security concern. Some in this House face sanction, intimidation and threats from the Chinese state. When I asked the Prime Minister on Monday whether the Foreign Secretary raised the specific issue of the alleged spy arrested in March when he visited China a few weeks ago, he would only say that he raised that “type of activity”, but avoided specifics. I ask the Prime Minister again: did the Foreign Secretary raise this specific case when he visited China—yes or no?

I refer the right hon. and learned Gentleman to my previous answer, where I said clearly that the Foreign Secretary raised these issues with the Chinese Foreign Minister, whom he met, as did I when I had my meeting with Premier Li over the weekend. When it comes to China, the Government have put in place the most robust policy that has ever existed in our country’s foreign policy. It is to protect our country and the values and interests we stand up for; it is to align our approach with our closest allies, including those in the G7 and Five Eyes; and it is to engage—where it makes sense—either to advance our interests or, as I did at the weekend, to raise our very significant concerns. That is the right approach to China. It is one that is welcomed by each and every one of our allies. I would be interested to know what he thinks he would do differently.

That certainly was not a yes. What the Prime Minister says now is totally at odds with the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament report of July. That set out that the Government have no clear strategy when it comes to China, have failed to support the intelligence agencies, and are leaving the UK “severely handicapped” in managing our future security. This has been raised time and again but, yet again, the Prime Minister fails to heed the warnings and is now desperately playing catch-up. Will he finally commit to the full audit of UK-China relations that so many in this House have so long demanded?

As always, the Leader of the Opposition is just playing catch-up, but he has not caught up with the reality of what is actually happening. He talks about the ISC report. If he actually went through it, he would realise that it related to a period of investigations in 2019 and 2020. Since then, we have launched a whole new integrated review refresh of our China strategy, which is published. We have put in place a range of new measures, including the National Security Protective Authority, which is staffed out of MI5 and supports businesses and organisations to be alert to the risks from cyber and from China.

If the right hon. and learned Gentleman wants to talk about foreign policy, he should perhaps reflect on his own record. This is the man who said he was 100% behind the former Labour leader—a person who wanted to abolish the Army, scrap Trident and withdraw from NATO. It is clear what he did: he put his own political interests ahead of Britain’s.

Probation, prisons, schools, China—yet again, inaction man fails to heed the warnings and then blames everyone else for the consequences. On Sunday, the Home Secretary celebrated her first anniversary in post—that is, if we overlook the six days she missed when she was deemed a national security risk. In that year, 40,000 people have crossed the channel on a small boat, and the taxpayer is now spending £6 million a day on hotel bills. The Prime Minister is failing to stop terrorists strolling out of prison, failing to guard Britain against hostile actors, and he is completely failing to stop the boats. How can anyone trust him to protect the country?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about trust and about action, but just today, this Government are taking action to reform defective EU laws to unlock over 100,000 homes, boosting our economy, supporting jobs and ensuring that we can realise the aspirations of homeowners. He talks about trust; he tried in this House to talk the talk on house building, but at the first sign of a cheap political hit, what did he do? He caved in. Rather than make the right long-term decisions for the country, he has taken the easy way out. It is typical of the principle-free, conviction-free type of leadership that he offers, flip-flopping from being a builder to a blocker. The British public cannot trust a word he says.

Every week the Prime Minister comes here, protesting that nothing is his fault and trying to convince anyone who is still listening that everything is great. The truth is that the floor fell in for millions of families because of the Government’s economic mayhem; the classroom ceilings collapsed because he cut vital school budgets; and now the walls of our national security have been breached because they have ignored repeated warnings. No one voted for this shambles. No one voted for him. How much more damage do the British public have to put up with before he finally finds the stomach to give them a say?

We are getting on for the British public. Just in the last week we have announced a new landmark deal for British scientists and attracted £600 million of new investment for our world-leading auto industry, and wages are now rising at the fastest rate on record. And where has the right hon. and learned Gentleman been this week? Locked away with Labour’s union paymasters, promising to give them more power and to scrap the laws that protect British families and their access to public services. It is clear that it is only the Conservatives who are on the side of the hard-working British public.

Q4.   Last week, with Yorkshire colleagues, I met our local integrated care board to discuss plans for improving dentistry provision. When surgeries suddenly close to NHS patients without notice, as one in Harrogate did very recently, an immediate strain is put on local provision. Will the Prime Minister look at what can be done in those circumstances to ensure no one is left without access to an NHS dentist? (906401)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that, and we will look into the issue. He will be reassured to know that we are investing £3 billion a year in dentistry. There is no geographical restriction on which dental practice a patient may attend and practices should keep all their records up to date, including whether they are accepting new patients. Typically, where a practice ends a contract, NHS England and ICBs should work together to ensure that funding is reallocated and patients continue to have access to NHS dental care.

As someone who spends more money heating their swimming pool than the total value of the UK state pension, the Prime Minister—I think it is safe to say—might not be as invested in this topic as some others, but let us afford him the opportunity to clear up any confusion. Will he commit his party, the Conservative party, to maintaining the state pension triple lock beyond the next general election—yes or no?

This is the party that introduced the triple lock. This is the party that has delivered a £3,000 increase in the state pension since 2010. It is also the party that has ensured that there are 200,000 fewer pensioners living in poverty today and that this winter pensioners will get an extra £300 alongside their winter fuel payment to support them through the challenging times with inflation. Our track record is clear. There is one party in this House that has always stood up for our pensioners and that is the Conservative party.

I do not think we heard a yes there, Mr Speaker. You will imagine my shock—my utter surprise—that we appear to have consensus once again between the Conservative party and the Labour party on this most important of issues, despite the promises that were made to the people of Scotland in 2014 and despite clear statements from the likes of Gordon Brown that the only way to protect pensions was to remain within the UK. How hollow those words are now. Who does the Prime Minister think will scrap the state pension triple lock first, his Government or the Labour party’s Government?

Thanks to the actions of this Government, pensioners in Scotland are receiving record increases in their state pension—£870 this year—and extra support with the cost of living this winter. This is the Government who introduced and remain committed to the triple lock, but the hon. Gentleman raises a good point. Pensioners in Scotland should know that the reason they can rely on the state pension, not just today but for years to come, is the strength of our Union and the strength of our United Kingdom Government.

Q5.   Beautiful Eastbourne is perhaps best known as a top visitor destination, but there is important work being done to put us on the digital map. DigiFest, the first local event of its kind, is coming to the Welcome Building next week. It will showcase some pretty stellar local tech talent and open doors of opportunity, with an ambition to create 10,000 local jobs in this sector. Will the Prime Minister applaud event organisers Chalk Eastbourne and Switchplane, and lay out what the Government are doing to ensure Great Britain—and Eastbourne—is one of the best places in the world to be involved in this continually groundbreaking sector? (906402)

The Government have a mission to make the UK the most innovative economy in the world and the growth of our tech industry is one of the key ways we will achieve that. I am delighted to join my hon. Friend in thanking and paying tribute to Chalk Eastbourne for its terrific organisation of DigiFest. This is a great example of how, in local areas, we can bring together people to create jobs and opportunity, and ultimately drive the growth that our country wants to see.

Last year, after being referred by their GP, 22,000 people waited more than four months to start urgent treatment for cancer—a terrible wait that is twice as long as the Government’s maximum 62-day pledge; a cancer target they have not met once since 2015. We all have loved ones whose lives have been turned upside down by cancer and we all know that every day counts. Waiting reduces the chances of survival. Will the Prime Minister tell people waiting anxiously to start their cancer treatment when this cancer target will be met?

It is absolutely right that we do everything we can to speed up cancer diagnosis. The pandemic has had a significant impact on cancer recovery: as the right hon. Gentleman will know, before the pandemic there were about 200,000 cancer referrals a month, but during the pandemic the figure dropped to about 80,000, and now, as those referrals come through, that is having an impact. However, we are ensuring that there are hundreds more oncologists and radiologists working this year than last year, and rolling out more than 160 community diagnostic centres. As the right hon. Gentleman says, early diagnosis is key, which is why, although there is work to do, cancer treatment today is at record levels. We are making progress, and the 62-day backlog is now falling. Recently the NHS wrote to all trusts, streamlining our targets, clinically advised, and now all the focus is on meeting them as quickly as possible.

Q6. In 2017, the Bolton police station custody suite was closed by the police and crime commissioner and the then chief constable, because they had given up on arresting criminals. The new chief constable is delivering on the people’s priorities, so that emergency calls are answered promptly, crimes are investigated and arrests are made, which means that the newly reopened custody suite is always full. Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking Greater Manchester police? Does he think that that approach ought to catch on throughout the country? (906403)

I am delighted with the improvements that have been made by Greater Manchester police; the Home Secretary met the chief constable recently. They have made significant improvements in, for example, answering 999 calls, and have seen almost a 50% year on year increase in the number of charges recorded. I very much welcome the force’s focus on getting the basics on crime and antisocial behaviour right. It is a model for police forces across the country.

Q3. I thank the Prime Minister for his response to the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Stephen Flynn), but I am still confused on this matter. Just yesterday, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions said that the pensions triple lock was not sustainable, and the Chancellor’s economic advisers have suggested that it is time to review the policy, but those at No. 10, when questioned, have said that they are committed to it. Which is it? (906400)

This Government are committed to the triple lock; it was this Government who introduced the triple lock. The hon. Lady might want to have a word with her own deputy leader, who did not provide much clarity on the matter. What we all remember, when it came to pensions, is Gordon Brown’s 75p a week increase.

Q7.   Week in week out, as I meet businesses in my constituency, I hear about how artificial intelligence is transforming the way we work in sectors such as life sciences, automotives and financial services. Does my right hon. Friend agree that artificial intelligence will transform the way in which humanity will live in the 21st century? Through his upcoming global AI summit, will he ensure that appropriate guardrails are put in place to protect society as we become world leaders in this technology? (906404)

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the incredible power of AI to transform not just businesses and our productivity, but public services such as health and education. However, we do need guardrails to allow us to make the most of the opportunities of AI, and to address risks. We have a responsible, proportionate regulatory approach that balances risk with innovation, and I look forward to working with international partners at our upcoming AI safety summit on how we do that at a global level.

Q10. Luton airport is trying to expand its capacity massively, from 18 million passengers per year to a whopping 32 million. That will blight the lives of thousands of residents across Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire—especially those in north St Albans, who live under the flightpaths—but it will also fly in the face of advice from the Government’s own climate advisers. It has been reported that the Prime Minister is getting ready to ignore his climate advisers. Is that true? (906407)

No; but I would say that my approach to reaching net zero is not one that requires people to give up doing the things that they want to do and enjoy, such as flying. The right thing to be doing is as we are doing: investing in and funding new technologies, such as sustainable aviation fuel, because that is how we will decarbonise aviation during the transition to net zero, rather than forcing people to give everything up.

Q8. When the Prime Minster was Chancellor of the Exchequer, he put the full might of the Treasury behind the 10-year drug strategy, which, with its Adder Project, is now turning lives around across England and Wales. A key part of that strategy was developing a new approach to possession. He will know from his own constituency that in towns such as Andover in mine, possession is a huge concern, particularly to the parents of young people who spend time in the town centre. The Home Office issued a White Paper on this over a year ago, and the consultation closed in October last year. Will the Prime Minister commit in the forthcoming King’s Speech to legislation that will deal finally with this pernicious problem? (906405)

I thank my right hon. Friend for all of his work and attention in this area; it was good to work with him on Project Adder in particular. He is right to highlight the fact that drugs destroy lives and families, hitting the most vulnerable in our society the hardest. The 10-year drug strategy, which he helped put in place, is ambitious and backed with a record £3 billion of funding. As he highlighted, we have consulted on a new drug possession offences framework, and I assure him that Ministers will keep him and this House updated on future plans.

In the last few hours I have been contacted by the headteacher of St James’s Church of England Primary School in Blackburn, who is desperately seeking help after a reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete survey conducted on 7 September was inconclusive. The urgent intrusive inspection that was supposed to follow has not been arranged by the Department for Education. The potentially affected part of the building has been closed off, with children crammed into the dining room and learning at the tables. Staff are unable to access facilities and the whole school is hugely inconvenienced. The headteacher has been unable to meet the Department for Education, so can I implore the Prime Minister to get the Secretary of State for Education to investigate this urgently?

Of course I am sorry for the disruption at schools as we work hard to identify those affected, but the DFE is fully funding the inspection process, ensuring that we are now rapidly inspecting and surveying all potentially affected schools and paying for that work. Also, with the increase of up to 80 dedicated caseworkers, St James’s Primary School, like others, should have a dedicated point of contact to work through those issues. I will ensure that the Secretary of State and the Department are in touch with the school and the hon. Member for an update.

Q9.   Personally, I know the stark impact of dementia and the effect that it has on the families of our 1 million citizens who live with it. It was my honour last week to sponsor Alzheimer’s Research UK to highlight the recent progress on a new diagnostic test and new drugs that could be available as early as next January. I welcome the inclusion of dementia in the Government’s major conditions strategy, but will my right hon. Friend ask his Secretary of State to convene a dementia medicines taskforce so that we can take advantage of this progress in research? Will he consider Alzheimer’s Research UK’s request for a dementia champion? (906406)

I start by thanking my hon. Friend for his work in this important area. Regulators are working closely with industry to evaluate new dementia medicines, because of course we want patients to benefit from rapid access to safe and effective treatments. We are also strongly committed to funding dementia research, including doubling the amount allocated to £160 million a year by next year, and last year we launched the Dame Barbara Windsor dementia mission, backed up with new funding, which will work with industry to develop biomarkers and data and digital science innovations and to strengthen our trials in dementia. I look forward to hearing more suggestions from my hon. Friend on that.

In the 1990s, under the Conservative Government, people were dying because of the length of time they were on NHS waiting lists. In 2023, we are seeing an increasing number of people dying while they are on NHS waiting lists before getting treatment. Is the Prime Minister ashamed that people are dying needlessly on his watch?

Of course, the number on waiting lists has been impacted significantly by the pandemic, but that is why we have put record funding in place to help to address that, including innovations such as surgical hubs, same-day emergency care, virtual wards and such like. I would gently point out to the hon. Gentleman that, in England, part of the reason that waiting lists are not coming down as fast we would like is the strike action by doctors—something that is supported by him and his colleagues, who have stood on the picket lines ensuring that patients cannot get access to care. It is also him and his party who are saying that they will repeal the laws we have put in place that will guarantee patients safe access to medical treatment in the event of industrial action. If he wants to make this issue emotional, he should tell people why he believes that patients should be deprived of access to lifesaving care because of industrial action.