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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 738: debated on Wednesday 25 October 2023

Women and Equalities

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Single-sex Spaces

We are committed to maintaining the safeguards that allow organisations to provide single-sex services. The Equality Act 2010 sets out that providers have the right to restrict use of services on the basis of sex where there is justified and proportionate reason.

A number of Members of the House have relatives or family members who are trans, and we will all have constituents who are members of the trans community. Does the Minister agree that trans people need safe spaces, too?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the tone in which the debate should take place. Just a few weeks ago, we had a debate in Westminster Hall where I absolutely made that point. This is not about pitting women against the trans community. Gender reassignment is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act, but it is important that biological women have the ability to access single-sex spaces, too.

Candidate Diversity: Democratic Process

2. What steps the Government are taking to help increase the participation of minority ethnic groups in the democratic process. (906692)

15. Whether she has had discussions with stakeholders on improving the diversity of parliamentary candidates. (906705)

The Government have worked hard to remove any material obstacles to democratic participation for all eligible groups. Registering to vote is quick and easy, taking as little as five minutes. Any elector without an accepted form of photographic identification can apply for a voter authority certificate from their local authority free of charge, or alternatively they could vote by post or proxy.

I have a thriving British-Albanian community in my Chipping Barnet constituency, making a really positive contribution to our culture and economy. What more can the Government do to encourage them to be involved in campaigning at elections, voting in elections and standing as candidates in elections?

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s efforts in ensuring that everyone participates in the democratic process. I agree with her, but it is ultimately for local registration teams to ensure as best they can that all eligible electors in their area are correctly registered to vote. We want to ensure that all parts of the UK are equally represented in politics and the democratic system where they are eligible.

With almost a quarter of the UK’s population registered as disabled, does the Minister agree that all political parties need to try harder in the run-up to the next general election in selecting a diverse group of candidates, with perhaps slightly less emphasis on nepotism and more on the representation of ordinary voters, including those from all ethnic minority backgrounds?

The hon. Lady asks an excellent question, and I thank her for all the work she does campaigning for women’s rights. She has been at the vanguard of some contentious issues. She is quite right to raise candidate selection. All political parties have to make the very best of efforts in ensuring that a meritocracy exists and helping those including disabled people who might need additional assistance in participating through some of the difficult selection processes. I highlight again how diverse the Conservative party is, and the Cabinet in particular. That is testament to the fact that meritocracy works. We hope that others will learn from our example.

The Labour party has more women and ethnic minority MPs than the rest of the political parties put together. We know that that leads to better outcomes for British people, but there is always further to go. That is why we have committed to enacting section 106 of the Equality Act so that all political parties would be required to be transparent about the diversity of their candidates. Why will the Government not do the same?

At the end of the day, it is the electorate who decide who gets to represent them. The hon. Member might be cherry-picking statistics on which party is the most diverse. We can do the same and talk about how the Conservatives have had three female Prime Ministers when Labour has not had even a single leader. If she wants to dive deep down and be granular, we have more black men in our party than in all the other parties combined. This splitting hairs is not helpful; what we need to do is ensure that the process is as meritocratic as possible.

Women in STEM Jobs

We have made great progress in increasing the number of girls studying STEM—science, technology, engineering and maths—subjects. Our challenge now is to do more to get them into STEM jobs. To support that, we launched a scheme called STEM returners, as one of our programmes to grow the skills of people who have taken a career break. We have so far had 42 women in our first cohort and 54 have signed up for our second cohort, getting women with experience and skills back into STEM jobs.

While the UK-wide responsibility in areas such as energy and defence among others is reserved to this Parliament, education, skills, universities, colleges and apprenticeships among others are devolved. What discussions has my hon. Friend the Minister had with other UK Government Ministers and devolved Administrations to ensure that the opportunity for women to get their STEM education and skills, and to maintain their careers, is maximised across the United Kingdom?

I thank my hon. Friend for his work, particularly around promoting the energy sector across the United Kingdom. We are making progress on trying to get women and girls into that vital sector. One of our Build Back Better campaigns is seeking to inspire women from all walks of life to work in the green energy economy and raise awareness of green education, training and careers. My colleague the Minister with responsibility for employment and I regularly meet devolved colleagues to discuss how we can have a United Kingdom approach to this issue.

Last week I met a group of life science apprentices, young women and young men, who have taken up some great opportunities with STEM employers. One issue they raised with me was the lack of information about non-trade apprenticeships when they were considering their career options. What more can my hon. Friend do to promote STEM apprenticeships for the 16 to 18-year-olds who may not want to pursue the university route?

My hon. Friend is a shining example of how women can lead in the STEM sector, with her own experience in clinical care before she came to this place. We are trying to drive forward apprenticeships, particularly in STEM subjects. Since May 2010, over 5 million apprenticeship starts have happened and our apprenticeship diversity champions are helping those aged 16 and over to get into apprenticeships, particularly in STEM subjects. Organisations such as UCAS and Young Women’s Trust are also doing that specific work.

The Scottish Government have a number of ambitions to address the lack of women in STEM occupations and settings such as schools. Those ambitions start early. The gender pay gap action plan examines how schools have a key role in helping young women make transitions into broader occupations, as well as setting out measures that address occupation segregation, leading to more women accessing STEM careers. What are the Government doing to provide that kind of support?

One key route is through apprenticeships. For many young women, being able to earn while you learn and getting that work experience is vital for them to progress through the STEM sector. We have 22,000 degree apprenticeships and seven masters degree apprenticeships. That is an increase of 14%. In STEM subjects in particular, we have 360 employer design apprenticeships, including level 3 cyber-security, level 4 software development and level 6 civil engineering. We believe apprenticeships are the way forward to drive more women into STEM areas.

I thank the Minister for that answer. In Northern Ireland, women are under-represented in STEM industries. Only 15% of women in Northern Ireland study core STEM subjects, compared to 36% of men. That is a clear anomaly that needs to be addressed. May I encourage the Minister to use her office to engage with the Department for the Economy to encourage more uptake in university STEM subjects? Women can do the job every bit as well as a man given that opportunity.

I thank the hon. Member for that question. That goes to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (David Duguid). We need a UK approach. Across the Government, whether in the Department for Work and Pensions or the Department for Education, we focus on trying to improve all avenues for those, particularly women, who want to go into STEM areas.

LGBT People

The UK has a proud history of LGBT rights, and one of the world’s most comprehensive and robust legislative protection frameworks for LGBT people. We have taken great strides as a country over the last couple of decades and it is my job to continue that journey.

The Minister is absolutely right: great things have been done for LGBT+ people in the last 13 years, including blood donation changes, the PrEP—pre-exposure prophylaxis—roll-out, and of course same-sex marriage. However, hate crime against LGBT+ people is on the up, conversion therapy still has not been banned and the UK has slipped down the ranking for LGBT+ equality. I know that this Minister takes these issues incredibly seriously, but how can he assure me that the Government take them seriously and that they will tackle them as a matter of urgency?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the issue of all forms of anti-LGBT hate crimes. They are utterly unacceptable, and we have a robust legislative framework to respond to that. I met representatives of the Metropolitan police and other stakeholders just last week to ensure that everything possible was being done to crack down on such crimes. There will be further questions later about conversion practices, and we are considering all those issues. This is a complex area of work, but I give my hon. Friend a personal commitment that anything to do with LGBT rights and improving the lives of LGBT people will be high on my agenda.

A Bill banning the psychological abuse that some people call conversion therapy has been promised repeatedly in this Session from that Dispatch Box. Where is it?

I accept that, and I apologise for the fact that it has taken so long, but, as I have said, it is a complex issue. I have been personally campaigning for this for many years, but even I recognise there are deep complexities. It is right that we take the time to consider each of the issues carefully, so that what we have in place is consistent, robust and up to date, and tackles these appalling practices.

Almost 2,000 days have passed since the Government first promised to ban conversion therapy, and 533 days have passed since a conversion therapy Bill was promised in the last Queen’s Speech. The delays are not this Minister’s responsibility; according to the press, they are a result of differing views on the Government Front Bench, but because of that there is still no Bill. Can the Minister tell the House whether the next King’s Speech will include a commitment to a full, loophole-free ban on LGBT conversion therapy—yes or no?

I should have thought the hon. Lady would know that no one ever makes announcements about what is in the King’s Speech ahead of His Majesty’s delivery of that speech. Let me also say to her, respectfully, that she should not believe everything she reads in the press. As for the rest of her question, I refer her to the answer I gave a few moments ago.

I would therefore counsel the Minister to advise his colleagues to stop briefing the press on these issues and get on with delivering, because there are failures when it comes to delivery for LGBT+ people. Yesterday I met Michael Smith, who was viciously attacked at a bus stop simply for being with his partner. Police-recorded sexual orientation hate crime has increased by more than 70% in the last five years, and more than a third of all hate crimes are now “violence against the person” offences. I know that the Minister cares deeply about this subject, so can he please explain why his Government do not agree with Labour or with the Law Commission that every violent act of hatred should be punished in the same way—as an aggravated offence?

Let me say to the hon. Lady that as someone who was hospitalised after being attacked because of my sexuality, I know how difficult that is. It is not just the attack that is painful but what is left afterwards.

I will continue to raise each of these issues, but I want to make this point. I keep hearing that we do not care about LGBT issues. It was this Government who introduced same-sex marriage, and it was this Government who introduced it in Northern Ireland. It was this Government who introduced Turing’s law in 2017. We have modernised gender recognition certificates and made them affordable. We have removed self-funding for fertility treatment for same sex-couples, lifted the ban on blood donation, and tackled LGBT-related bullying in schools. We have apologised for the way in which LGBT people were treated in the armed forces, and we have provided funding to ensure that LGBT rights across the Commonwealth are protected.[Official Report, 7 November 2023, Vol. 740, c. 4MC.]

Pay Inequalities

Owing to my joint roles—I am also Secretary of State for Business and Trade—I have a unique understanding of unjust pay disparities, and I am proud of the steps that this Government have taken to tackle them. We will publish new guidance in April to help employers to measure, report on and address unfair ethnicity pay differences, and it was a Conservative Government who introduced gender pay gap reporting in 2017.

Nineteen US states have banned employers from asking prospective employees about their salary history, meaning that people are paid what the job is worth and not just what the bosses can get away with. This has had a massive impact on tackling unequal pay for women and black workers in particular. Having talked about piloting a similar salary history measure, why have the Government appeared to stall on what would be a really positive policy?

We are not stalling. Our pilot will support employers to take steps towards transparency in their own organisations, to see the impact for themselves. We know that this is not straightforward, which is why we will ensure that employers looking to implement greater transparency in their recruitment processes are able to access best practice and learn from each other.

The UK Government’s “Inclusive Britain update report” acknowledges the value of measuring the ethnicity pay gap and the Government have published guidance for employers noting that employers can use ethnicity pay gap calculations to consider evidence-based actions to address any unfair disparities. Despite that, the UK Government will not legislate to mandate reporting. Since employment law is a reserved matter, will the Minister urge her Government to do the right thing and mandate ethnicity pay gap reporting, or urge the devolution of employment law to Scotland so that the Scottish Government can?

Absolutely not. This is something that we will not be devolving and it absolutely should not be mandatory. Ethnicity pay gaps cannot be measured in the same way as gender pay gaps. I have said this to the hon. Lady at this Dispatch Box multiple times. We can measure a pay gap where a population is binary male and female but we cannot do it across a broad spectrum of ethnicity. We have published guidance for those employers who want to do this, but it would be absolutely wrong to mandate.

Disabled People: Additional Costs

6. What recent estimate she has made of the level of additional costs affecting households with disabled people. (906696)

We will spend around £78.6 billion this year on benefits to support disabled people and people with health conditions. No such estimate has been made but as a Government we are providing total support of more than £94 billion from 2022 to 2024 and we are determined to help all households and individuals with the rising cost of bills. This includes an additional £150 for more than 6 million disabled people.

That is great, but back in the real world the Minister really does know that the rising cost of living is having a disproportionately negative impact on disabled people. They face higher living costs as a consequence and they still face barriers to employment. Does she accept that targeted action, including disability pay gap reporting, is now needed to support disabled people?

If the hon. Gentleman is concerned about his disabled constituents, I can point him to the household support fund, which is also helping those constituents and their carers. In his constituency—in his real world—an additional £4.4 million has landed to support him. This is not a matter for the Department for Work and Pensions, but I am sure that it will have been heard.

My hon. Friend will be aware that funds are made available to get disabled people into employment via Access to Work. However, there are significant delays in those funds being made available, once granted. Additional costs to disabled people—for example, their paying £6,000 for powered wheels—come at more of a cost when they are obliged to pay for them on their credit card because they cannot access the funds in time. Will she please work with colleagues across the DWP to ensure that there are no delays in getting access to the funds that will help disabled people into work?

I thank my right hon. Friend for her point, which gives me the opportunity to say that from next Tuesday an additional £300 will be paid in cost of living payments to those who are eligible. Regarding access to work, there is a continuing focus on improving waiting times for customers and we are streamlining and digitising the process. Indeed, I spoke to the Minister for Disabled People this week on exactly this matter in relation to one of my own constituents, and I will see that he hears it again from my right hon. Friend.

Topical Questions

As the Minister for Women and Equalities, it would be remiss of me not to reflect on the way religious communities in the UK have been impacted by the terrible events in the middle east. All our citizens have a right to feel secure and at peace in Britain. One of the reasons we have been able to integrate people from all over the world is an unwritten rule that people with roots elsewhere do not play out foreign conflicts on the streets of this country. We owe a duty of care and civility to our neighbours, whatever their ethnicity, religion or background. All of us are free to practise our faiths and celebrate our cultures, but we must do so in a positive way, consistent with fundamental values that are the bedrock of Britain.

I am afraid to say that in recent days we have seen that social contract being breached. In particular, I believe that the hostility directed towards our Jewish communities, the calls for jihad, the ostentatious indifference to the victims of terrorism, the aggressive chanting by mobs brandishing placards of hate, and the odious people ripping down posters of missing children do not reflect our values as a nation.

We must all stand firm on the boundaries of acceptable behaviour, particularly in the public space that we all share. That is why today I am reminding public sector organisations that they have a legal obligation, as part of the equality duty, to consider how they contribute to the advancement of good relations in communities as they deliver public services. Where organisations are having difficulty doing that, I urge them to write to me as soon as possible for advice on how they can fulfil their legal obligations.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. There should be no place for hatred in our communities.

As a woman in her 50s—[Hon. Members: “No!”]—I know how challenging the menopause can be, especially when you have a busy job. What support is there for working women with the menopause?

I hope that my right hon. Friend feels that she is supported by all of her colleagues. I am delighted to let her know that there will be a full debate on menopause tomorrow, led by the Minister for Social Mobility. I am proud of the great strides that Helen Tomlinson has made since her appointment as the Department for Work and Pensions menopause employment champion. The report “No Time to Step Back” details this progress and looks forward to the next six months, including the sector-specific workshops.

T2. In less than a decade, the proportion of female pensioners in the UK living in poverty has risen by 6%, which means that one in every five female pensioners are below the breadline, despite the fact that the number of female pensioners has fallen due to the rise in state pension age, which disadvantaged tens of thousands of older women. Does the Minister for Equalities share my concern that in the UK today 20% of female pensioners are living in poverty, and what action will she take to address that? (906707)

I thank the hon. Lady for her point. In 2021-22, there were 200,000 fewer female pensioners in absolute poverty than in 2009-10, after housing costs. I point the hon. Lady to the Barnett consequentials of the household support fund in Scotland, which is there to be distributed by her Government to those in need.

T3. As you will know, Mr Speaker, Watford is a thriving multi-faith community, and it is a privilege to take part in so many celebrations and learn about the history of each culture that makes Watford unique and amazing. Will the Minister join me in encouraging colleagues to attend the event that I will be hosting with the Inter Faith Network on 14 November to promote a national organisation to understand how we can all engage better with the different faiths in our communities, and will he please also consider attending the event, if diaries permit? (906708)

Faith is a vital part of people’s identities and of their communities. We fully support the invaluable work being done by people around the country who are inspired by their faith. My hon. Friend is a great advocate for the work that goes on in his own constituency. I certainly encourage people to attend that event, and I will do everything I can to pop in myself.

T5. A year ago, the Public Order Bill was passed in this House, and with it my new clause, which was overwhelmingly supported in a free vote by MPs on both sides of the House, to stop women being deterred from using and entering the doors of abortion clinics by protests outside. A year on, intimidation is worse than ever, because the legislation is not being enacted. Will the Minister look into why that is and fix this now? (906710)

If the hon. Lady has a specific example of where that is happening, I will be happy to look at it if she raises it with me.

T4. In its 2021 census, the Office for National Statistics estimated that there are 260,000 transgender people in the UK. Does the Minister agree with the separate Office for Statistics Regulation that, due to skewed methodology, this number is likely to have been a huge overestimate? (906709)

I share the concerns that the Office for Statistics Regulation has raised and, in February, I asked my officials to explore with the ONS whether because of a lack of understanding of the question the census had the number right. We need to be very careful about language. People do not often understand what we mean when we use terms such as transgender and gender identity. We have to make sure that they understand them. The ONS will be conducting and reporting on research to explore that issue, and it should publish the results by the end of the year and will monitor them going forward.

T6.   Some years ago, the United Nations found that disabled people’s rights were being systematically violated by Conservative Ministers. Recently, the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that nothing at all had changed. Is the Minister not ashamed? (906711)

I thank the hon. Lady for raising that matter. The point regarding the EHRC is that it is an independent and public body, but I do not think that any Member comes to this House to erode anybody’s rights whether they are disabled or have a health issue. I absolutely refute what the hon. Lady says. She should look at our actions and our record of the work that we have done around British Sign Language and more widely. We stand by all constituents whatever their needs.

Just before we come to Prime Minister’s questions, I would like to welcome to this Chamber the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


I know that the sympathies of the whole House are with all those affected by Storm Babet and in particular the friends and families of those who lost their lives.

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.

I join the Prime Minister in expressing my sympathies to all those affected by the recent storms.

Two million people just cannot be sustained from 20-odd aid lorries. Utter catastrophe is being unleashed in Gaza. Does the Prime Minister not now see that only a humanitarian ceasefire can bring about the scale of emergency aid that is needed? Of course Israel has a right to defend itself in line with international and humanitarian laws, but we must also speak out when those laws are breached. Surely he agrees that depriving 2 million civilians—a million of them children—of food, water, medicines and fuel is not in accordance with international law. Will he press Israel to restore the supply of these essentials for the sake of innocent civilians and the future of the entire region?

It is important that we do everything we can to get humanitarian aid to those who need it in Gaza, which is why, on Monday, we announced a doubling of our international aid to the region and why the Development Minister is actively engaged with our partners on the ground to ensure that that aid gets to those people as quickly as possible.

Q3. Double child rapist and murderer Colin Pitchfork had yet another parole review hearing only a few weeks ago. I thank the Justice Secretary for having listened to me and engaging the reconsideration mechanism rule. I know that the Prime Minister does not have any decision-making role on the independent Parole Board. It is independent of Government, but it is a wing of the Executive; it is not the judiciary. Does the Prime Minister agree that, generally, as a point of principle, men—sexual offenders—who rape and brutally murder young women, as Mr Pitchfork did to Dawn Ashworth and Lynda Mann in my constituency, should remain in prison for most of their natural lives? (906716)

I agree with my hon. Friend that the public should be confident that murderers and rapists will be kept behind bars for as long as is necessary to keep the public safe. That is why we are reforming the parole system. Our Victims and Prisoners Bill will mean that minimising risk and protecting the public are the sole considerations in Parole Board decisions. It will also give the Justice Secretary the power to step in on behalf of the public and take a second look at decisions to release the most serious offenders, including murderers and rapists. Last week, we announced that we will be introducing longer sentences for dangerous criminals. For the most heinous crimes, life will mean life.

I join the Prime Minister in his comments about all those affected by the storms.

I start by welcoming my hon. Friend the new Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Alistair Strathern)—the first Labour MP ever to represent those beautiful towns and villages. He defied the odds, history and of course the fantasy Lib Dem bar charts. I also welcome my hon. Friend the new Member for Tamworth (Sarah Edwards). She will be a powerful representative for her constituents. Is the Prime Minister as relieved as I am that those constituents are not burdened with his defeated candidate, who told them—do not worry, Mr Speaker; I am going to sanitise this—to eff off if they are struggling with the cost of living?

I am proud of what this Government have been doing to support the most vulnerable over the past year. In fact I join the right hon. and learned Gentleman in welcoming the new Members to their places. After all, I suspect that the new Member for Mid Beds may actually support me a little more than the last one—[Laughter.] I did notice that the new Member said that they will be opposing new housing in their local area, while the new Member for Tamworth claimed that they will protect green spaces. I urge them to have a word with their leader, because that is not exactly his position—although with his track record of U-turns, who knows what his housing policy will be next week?

So much for being the change candidate! The Prime Minister cannot even distance himself from those appalling comments. I have to ask him, where on earth does he think his candidate got the idea in the first place that throwing expletives at struggling families was his Government’s official position?

Let us just look at the record of what this Government are doing to help those people: paying for around half of a typical family’s energy bill over the last year, support worth over £1,500; the most vulnerable in our society receiving £900 in direct cost of living support; record increases in the national living wage; record increases in welfare; and this winter, pensioners to receive an extra £200 or £300 alongside their winter fuel payment to help them through what we know is a tough time. All of that significant support, funded by this Government, would be put at risk by Labour’s reckless plans to borrow £28 billion a year.

The Prime Minister keeps boasting about how great things are; the voters keep telling him that he has got it wrong. I can see why the Tamworth candidate thought that he was just following Government lines. Annalisa and her two children lived in their home for eight years. In May, they were kicked out with a no-fault eviction notice. Despite his Government’s pledge to scrap no-fault evictions, this week the Prime Minister crumbled to the landlords on his own Back Benches and killed the policy. What message, other than the message delivered by his candidate in Tamworth, could Annalisa possibly take from that?

We have taken significant action to help renters like Annalisa and others. We have capped holding deposits at one week. We have protected tenants from rip-off tenancy fees, delivered almost half a million affordable homes for rent, halved the percentage of substandard homes in the private rented sector, and strengthened local authority enforcement powers, because the Government are delivering for renters. We are also trying to ensure that the new generation can buy their own home, so perhaps the Leader of the Opposition can explain to Annalisa and millions of others why when we brought forward plans to unlock 100,000 new homes, he stood in the way of that? [Interruption.]

Order. Just to say, it is Prime Minister’s questions, not Opposition’s questions. [Interruption.] I am sorry, Prime Minister; it is Prime Minister’s questions. I do not need you nodding against my decision.

I am sure that Annalisa and her children, who have now been evicted, will take great comfort from that non-answer.

Emma and her teenage son saw their mortgage go up by more than a quarter—[Interruption.] Government Members may think this is funny, but this is real life. After 16 years of dutifully paying the mortgage, for the first time she is having to choose between new shoes for her son and putting the heating on—all because the Prime Minister’s party crashed the economy, pushing mortgage rates to their highest levels in decades. He says, “Ignore all that”—ignore the fact that the guilty men and women responsible are standing again as his candidates and still setting his policy. Can he not see why Emma might think that his party is telling them exactly where to go?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman keeps talking about the mini-Budget; I will not ask him a question, Mr Speaker, but I will just point out that he actually supported 95% of the things in that mini-Budget, which I did not. He has had a whole summer to get on top of the details, but he is still ignoring the fact that rising interest rates are a global challenge. They are at their highest level in America and Europe for more than 20 or 30 years. Mortgage rates have doubled in America and trebled in Europe.

To help mortgage holders, we want to ensure that they can use the mortgage charter we have agreed with the banks. Thanks to the steps we have taken, someone with a £200,000 property with about £100,000 left on their mortgage could save more than £350 a month and lock in a new deal six months before theirs ended, and repossessions will be prohibited for 12 months from the first missed payment. The right hon. and learned Gentleman might have missed that that policy is twice as generous as Labour’s.

Absolutely tone deaf. In every caff, pub and supermarket in Britain, people are having the same conversation: “We can’t afford that—put it back on the shelf. It’s too expensive.” The Prime Minister is completely oblivious, just patting himself on the back.

Emily and Jamie have worked hard and been saving to buy their own home. They were nearly there last year, but he scrapped house building targets because his Back Benchers pushed him around. House building has fallen off a cliff, shattering the simple dream of home ownership for people like Emily and Jamie. Can the Prime Minister now see that, actually, his candidate in Tamworth was just loyally following the party line?

These prepared lines really are not working for him any more. The right hon. and learned Gentleman literally asked me a question about the support we are providing for mortgage holders; I gave him the answer to that question and then he read from his script that I had not answered the question. We are providing significant help for all these people.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman has moved on to housing targets. Here is the record: 2.5 million additional homes; housing starts double what we inherited from the Labour party; housing supply up 10%; on track to deliver a million new homes; and a record number of first-time buyers. He brought up his candidates in Tamworth and Mid Beds as we opened this session, and he is now saying he wants to build homes; well, both of those candidates say that they want to block new homes in their constituencies.

Across our country the British people are rolling up their sleeves and getting on with it, doing their best in the face of a punishing cost of living crisis and a Government who have abandoned them—abandoned renters at risk of being kicked out, abandoned mortgage payers struggling to make ends meet, and abandoned people who dream of owning their own house. The truth is that the Prime Minister’s candidate in Tamworth summed up perfectly just how he and his Tories are treating the British public, so will he just call a general election and give the British public the chance to respond, as they did in Selby, Mid Beds and Tamworth? They have heard the Government telling them to eff off, and they want the chance to return the compliment.

As we saw with the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s recent decisions on building new houses, politicians like him always take the easy way out, whereas we are getting on with making the right long-term decisions to change this country for the better—on net zero, on High Speed 2, on a smoke-free generation, on education and on energy security. Contrast that with his leadership: too cautious to say anything and hoping that nobody notices. Let me tell him: come that general election, the British people will.

Q5. That is the first time I have been confused with the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Speaker. (906718)

And of all them are true, Mr Speaker.

Like me, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has the honour and privilege of representing a rural constituency. I am sure that he, like I, occasionally feels a certain degree of frustration that although progress has been made in this area, the rubric of funding formulae for things such as the Environment Agency, local government, the police and education still fails to adequately reflect the difficulties and challenges of delivering public services in rural areas. Will my right hon. Friend the Chancellor and the wider Government use the opportunities of the autumn statement and the forthcoming Budget to explore those issues further and make the delivery of services better for the Prime Minister’s constituents and mine?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that important issue on behalf of his and my constituents. It is vital that we have the same high-quality services in rural areas as in our towns and cities. I am pleased to tell him that we are providing £95 million through the rural services delivery grant to help rural councils achieve exactly that. We are currently reviewing the police funding formula. I remember working with him to ensure that the national funding formula for schools takes account of the different characteristics of schools and their pupils. We will continue to keep all those things under review. I agree with him entirely: our rural communities must be given the same funding and public services as everyone else in our country.

Yesterday, the UN warned that hospitals in Gaza had just 48 hours of fuel left to keep their electricity going. That was 28 hours ago; the electricity runs out tonight. We have a human responsibility to all the people in Gaza, but we have a particular responsibility for UK citizens, some of whom are in those hospitals, with no food, no water, no medicine and no way out. How much worse does the situation have to get before the Prime Minister will join us in calling for a humanitarian ceasefire?

From the start, we have said that the first and most important principle is that Israel has the right to defend itself under international law—our support for that position is absolute and unchanged—but we have also said from the start that we want British nationals to be able to leave Gaza, hostages to be released, and humanitarian aid to get in. We recognise that, for all that to happen, there has to be a safer environment, which of course necessitates specific pauses, as distinct from a ceasefire. We discussed that with partners yesterday evening at the United Nations, and we have been consistently clear that everything must be done to protect civilians in line with international law and to continue getting more aid flowing into Gaza.

The growing calls for a ceasefire are also about calming the situation in the broader region, especially the west bank. UNICEF has reported over 2,000 fatalities and over 5,000 injured children since the conflict began, due to unrelenting attacks. If we ignore that, we risk pouring petrol on a fire in a place that only requires a spark to ignite. Can the Prime Minister understand that joining calls for a ceasefire is now the best—and maybe the only—way to stop this conflict escalating beyond all control?

We have to remember that Israel has suffered a shockingly brutal terrorist attack. Hamas are responsible for this conflict, and Israel has the right to protect itself in line with international law, as the UN charter makes clear. We will continue to urge the Israelis to follow international law, but we also have to remember that Hamas cruelly embed themselves in civilian populations.

We are doing everything we can to get aid into the region. I am pleased to say that an RAF flight left the UK for Egypt this morning carrying 21 tonnes of aid for Gaza. The relief supplies include more than 75,000 medical kits, solar lights and water filters for families, and warehousing equipment. Our team are on the ground, ready to receive. We will continue to do everything we can to increase the flow of aid, including fuel, into Gaza.

Q6. In the matter of Walleys Quarry, my constituents have been utterly let down and failed by the Environment Agency. Not only has it failed to prosecute a rogue operator for the repeated breaches of its permit; we now learn that for the past seven years, all of its monitoring equipment—including in your constituency, Mr Speaker—has been grossly under-recording levels of hydrogen sulphide by a factor of approximately two or three. That is the monitoring equipment that people have been relying on to tell them that their air is clean and safe to breathe. Given everything that has happened, we really need to see some proper action now. I have had enough of the EA, and my constituents have too, so will the Prime Minister do everything in his power to get a grip on this failing organisation? (906719)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the concerns of his constituents. The Environment Agency’s criminal investigation is ongoing so, as I hope he understands, I cannot comment further on it. However, with regard to his concerns about the measurement inaccuracies, I have been assured—and have checked—that the Environment Agency is working swiftly to understand the scale of the problem. The Environment Secretary is monitoring the situation, and I have asked her to keep my hon. Friend updated regularly.

A few short months ago, the world came to Belfast to celebrate the Good Friday agreement. At the heart of that agreement was the realisation that we could not use violence as a tool for revenge or to achieve our political aims. As 1,400 Israelis and almost 6,000 Palestinians lay dying or dead, when will the Prime Minister say enough is enough? When will he call for a ceasefire? When will he tell Israel to stop meting out collective punishment to the people of Gaza, and when will he and other world leaders insist on a political solution that involves a Palestinian state for the Palestinian people?

As I said, an important principle is that Israel does have the right to defend itself under international law, to ensure that attacks like this one—which was brutal and horrific for its citizens—cannot happen again. We continue to support that position, but, as I said, from the start we have also wanted to ensure that humanitarian aid can go in and hostages and foreign nationals can come out. We recognise that that means there has to be a safer environment, which of course necessitates specific pauses, as distinct from a ceasefire. We discussed exactly this with our international partners yesterday at the United Nations and will continue to do so. As I made clear on Monday, we have doubled down on our efforts to find a better future for the Palestinian people. That has been a feature of all our diplomacy in the region, and we will continue to give all our efforts to making that happen.

Q7.   For too long, Bradford Council has failed to represent the best interests of my constituents, whether in its catastrophic failures on children’s services, its inability to invest our own council tax back into Keighley and Ilkley, or its refusal to instigate a review into child sexual exploitation across the Bradford district. Local residents and I are fed up of being ignored by Bradford Council, and we want out. Will the Prime Minister meet me to discuss my case for leaving Bradford Council and creating our own unitary authority that better represents Keighley and Ilkley, putting our priorities first? (906720)

I know my hon. Friend is a passionate campaigner on this issue, having even introduced a private Member’s Bill on it earlier this year. I agree that his council should be working to ensure that it delivers good services for all its residents, including his constituents, and I will certainly arrange for the relevant Minister to discuss his concerns further with him. As my hon. Friend did not do so, maybe I can plug his event this afternoon in the Jubilee Room—a Keighley and Ilkley showcase. Perhaps the Minister can come to that event and discuss it in person then.

Q2.   Just a year ago, the new Prime Minister promised to unite our country, not with words but with actions. Quite rightly, voters make a judgment on actions, but in my constituency—as in many others—the Prime Minister has not delivered on his promises. Arbroath House in Easington Colliery is a GP practice without the funding to deliver basic community health services. Communities such as Shotton, South Hetton, Haswell and Horden lack the police officers to tackle crime and antisocial behaviour. We see sewage being dumped on our coastline at Seaham and Blackhall without prosecution of the privatised water companies, and we see investment for levelling up blocked for Horden. When will the Prime Minister call a general election and let Labour rise to the task of rebuilding Britain? (906715)

The hon. Gentleman raised crime. I am pleased to say that crime is now down by over 50% since Labour was last in office, and that includes significant reductions in antisocial behaviour, which he mentioned. Indeed, earlier this year not only did we meet our pledge to deliver 20,000 more police officers—a record number on our streets—but our antisocial behaviour plan is already making a difference, delivering immediate justice and clamping down on that type of activity.

Q9.   I support the Government’s plans to build more homes and ease housing shortages. However, I have significant concerns about the impacts of developments on our ageing drainage systems and the potential flooding risk this poses, as we are seeing in places such as the Hazelwalls development in Uttoxeter. What steps will the Government take to ensure that, as more houses are built, existing infrastructure is upgraded and maintained by local authorities to ensure that it is not overwhelmed with additional use and less permeable surfaces? (906722)

As my hon. Friend knows, our traditional drainage systems are under increasing pressure, and that compares with the benefits of sustainable drainage systems, which work in a different way. It was already a requirement that sustainable drainage systems should be given priority in any major new development and developments in flood risk areas, but earlier this year we committed to requiring sustainable drainage systems in all new developments, on top of DEFRA’s plan for water, which puts a statutory duty on water companies to produce plans to set out how they will improve, maintain and extend our robust and resilient waste water systems.

Q4. This morning, I hosted the MS Society and people living with multiple sclerosis to hear about their experiences accessing personal independence payment. Ten years on from its introduction, people with MS and other fluctuating conditions are still too often being denied the support they deserve to manage the extra costs of their condition and to retain their independence for longer. Some 22,524 people with MS have signed a petition calling for a full review of PIP for fluctuating conditions, which is on its way to Downing Street right now. Will the Prime Minister listen to their call? (906717)

I am very sorry to hear about the experiences of those suffering with MS that the hon. Lady mentions, and I will ensure that the Work and Pensions Secretary looks at their concerns and writes to her.

Q10. We know that some duck serious questions today, aiming for electoral advantage in the future. May I note that the Prime Minister prefers to take decisions that will benefit the country now and in the longer term, so that we can have more jobs, better education and a shared prosperity? (906723)

Q8. While the final report of the infected blood inquiry has been postponed until March, Sir Brian Langstaff, the independent chair, has already published his recommendations on compensation for victims of that scandal. Will the Prime Minister explain why his Government insist on postponing their response until after publication of the final report, kicking it into the long grass and delaying justice, once again, for my constituents Justine, Rachel and Paul, whose fathers died as a result of that scandal, as well as thousands of others across these isles? (906721)

As I have said previously from the Dispatch Box, what happened was an appalling tragedy, and my heart goes out to all of those affected and their families. I have given extensive evidence to the inquiry, so my position on this matter is on the record. What I would say is that extensive work has been going on in Government for a long time, co-ordinated by the Minister for the Cabinet Office, as well as interim payments of £100,000 being made to those who were affected.

Q12. The Prime Minister has been a great champion of transport projects on the Welsh borders, including the electrification of the main line in north Wales, the reopening of Corwen station and the Gobowen to Oswestry line, and also substantial levelling-up fund investment in the Llangollen and Montgomery canals. Will the Prime Minister now deliver on the long-awaited Pant-Llanymynech bypass and prioritise the dualling of the A5/A483 in Clwyd South and North Shropshire? (906725)

We are making significant improvements to our cross-border rail services across the Union. Thanks to our decision on HS2, we can now provide an unprecedented £1 billion of investment to fund the electrification of the north Wales main line, which will ensure reliable, punctual journeys between north Wales and multiple cities across the north-west of England. We are also continuing to develop the Pant-Llanymynech bypass scheme in our next round of the road investment plans, and a section of the A5 in England will be considered by National Highways as part of the midlands and Gloucestershire to Wales route strategy.

Q11. It is important that the covid inquiry has all the relevant documents; that is what the public, including thousands of bereaved families, expect and deserve. But despite being a self-described tech bro, the Prime Minister has been unable to locate and provide his WhatsApp messages to the inquiry. Does he agree that devices should be handed over to experts to retrieve this information? (906724)

Both the Government and I have fully co-operated to provide tens of thousands of documents to the covid inquiry, and I look forward to giving evidence later this year.

Q13. With the ongoing national crisis in NHS dentistry being raised here most weeks, can my right hon. Friend advise as to when the dentistry plan produced by the Department of Health and Social Care will be published? Can he ensure that any clawed-back unspent funds are ringfenced for NHS dentistry, so as to deal with emergencies and to help clear the backlog? (906726)

We are investing £3 billion in NHS dentistry, and the reformed dental contract is helping to improve NHS access for patients. I am pleased to say that NHS dental activity in the past year increased by almost a quarter compared with the year before, but the forthcoming dental recovery plan, which will be out shortly, will include action to incentivise dentists to deliver even more NHS care.

Q14. It is an honour to be elected to this place, and the standards by which we are expected to abide matter. Does the Prime Minister therefore accept that it was ill-judged for him to fail to declare to Parliament that companies linked to his wife had benefited to the tune of £2 billion from a fund he had set up as Chancellor? Will he correct the record now? (906727)

It is worth bearing in mind that Labour Front Benchers backed the Future Fund when it was introduced—indeed, they were calling for more funding for it, not less.

The House will be aware of my wife’s shareholdings in various British start-ups. That is her career. Those are on the record, and I am happy to put that on the record again. It is worth bearing in mind that the Future Fund helped more than 1,200 different companies. Neither the Government nor the British Business Bank chose any of those specific investments; it was open to any British firm that met the criteria.

Q15. The UK is at risk of being left behind on hydrogen internal combustion engines. The EU and the USA now recognise hydrogen combustion engines as zero-emission and are supporting those industries, as all viable zero-carbon technologies will be needed—particularly for our HGVs, according to the Renewable Hydrogen Alliance. I am working with BorgWarner, PHINIA and many MPs on HICE, because this issue is crucial for UK jobs, skills and manufacturing. Will my right hon. Friend commit to urgently extending the scope of the automotive transformation fund industrialisation grants to include hydrogen engines, so that we win the HICE race? (906728)

The Government are determined to ensure that the UK remains one of the best locations in the world for automotive manufacturing. Hydrogen fuel cells and their upstream supply chains are already in the scope of the ATF, and support for the fund has enabled Johnson Matthey’s £60 million investment in Hertfordshire to develop hydrogen technologies. I am told by the Secretary of State for Business and Trade that the Department for Business and Trade is continuing to look at the future possibilities for renewable hydrogen and will consider the fund’s eligibility in light of the new developments in this space.

There is an email in my inbox from a constituent who has family in Gaza. It reads:

“My heart can’t handle this anymore. We are being massacred, relentlessly bombed. Homes destroyed. No water, no food, no electricity.”

Save the Children reports that one child is killed every 15 minutes. As I speak, the lives of 130 babies in incubators are in danger if fuel does not reach their hospital in time. This is collective punishment of the Palestinian people in Gaza, for crimes they did not commit. How many more innocent Palestinians must die before the Prime Minister calls for a humanitarian ceasefire?

I welcome the unity across the House on Israel’s right to defend itself in the face of an unspeakable act of terror, but it is also clear that we must support the Palestinian people; they are victims of Hamas, too. Hamas use innocent people as human shields, and we mourn the loss of every innocent life of every people, every faith and every nationality. We are working as hard as we can to get as much humanitarian aid into Gaza as quickly as practically possible.

Last week, Suffolk experienced its worst local floods for over 100 years, with communities in and around Needham Market, Framlingham, Debenham and Wickham Market particularly badly affected. Homes and businesses have been destroyed. In Suffolk, the community has rallied together, in a very stoic and pragmatic way, to support those in need at this very difficult time. What longer-term support can the Prime Minister offer to the people of Suffolk whose businesses and homes have been affected by these floods, to help them to recover and rebuild?

Flooding is a devastating experience, and I extend my sympathies to all those affected, including those in my hon. Friend’s constituency. I am pleased to say that, through the flood recovery framework, we are confirming additional financial support for the most affected households and businesses. This will include a £500 grant for households and council tax discounts and business rates relief of up to 100% for three months. Small and medium-sized businesses will also be eligible for a £2,500 business recovery grant, and there is a grant of up to £5,000 to make flooded homes more resilient to future flooding. We recognise the heroic efforts of local councils like my hon. Friend’s and of emergency responders everywhere who have been working tirelessly in affected areas. They have our thanks, and we stand ready to consider any requests from councils to support their recovery efforts.