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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 745: debated on Wednesday 21 February 2024

Science, Innovation and Technology

The Secretary of State was asked—

Innovation: Co-operation Between Universities and Businesses

1. Whether she has had discussions with Cabinet colleagues on encouraging co-operation between universities and businesses to promote innovation. (901497)

Of course, I speak to colleagues on this important topic all the time. Our science and technology framework is designed to ensure that we do not just challenge university rankings, but translate them into material benefits for the United Kingdom. My Department has a number of programmes breaking down the barriers between universities and businesses, which have contributed to the nearly 90,000 interactions reported between universities and businesses in 2021-22. That is a 5% increase on the previous year.

Since we have had the impact assessment of universities globally, many of the new and more innovative small universities have outstripped the more conventional and better-known universities. Indeed, the Huddersfield health innovation campus is leading in this area. Does the Minister agree that that innovation partnership offers real opportunities for jobs in the future, and should there not be more incentives to make innovations come faster rather than slower?

I agree with the hon. Member about the importance of focusing on innovation and collaboration in this area. The University of Huddersfield received £1.63 million this year through the higher education innovation fund to support knowledge exchange and collaboration with business, and I am sure that we can write to the hon. Member with more details.

On 1 January this year, the UK became an associate member of the Horizon Europe programme and Copernicus. Given our delayed start, could the Secretary of State say what steps she is taking to encourage participation by UK universities and businesses?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I welcome the news shared just last week by Commissioner Ivanova, who said the early signs of uptake are absolutely excellent. Indeed, some programmes are projecting an increase of over 50%. We are not being complacent. We have launched a comprehensive international marketing campaign, introduced a pump-priming scheme with the British Academy and already started on roadshows.

British researchers are among the best in the world. We are not so good at turning our brilliant research into the growth that our economy so desperately needs, which requires collaboration between businesses and universities throughout the long years of discovery, testing, adoption and commercialisation. Funding science in chunks of three years or less does not help, so universities, businesses and researchers have all welcomed Labour’s commitment to set 10-year budgets for funding bodies in key institutions. Does the Secretary of State agree, or is that too much to expect from a short-term, sticking-plaster Government?

While the words sound good, it is this Government who are delivering on our plan. Just a few months ago we published our response to the spin-out review, and we are making record levels of investment—£20 billion in research and development. This is a Government who are not just talking the talk, but actually delivering.

Women in STEM Jobs

2. What steps she is taking with Cabinet colleagues to help support women into science, technology, engineering and mathematics jobs. (901498)

11. What steps she is taking with Cabinet colleagues to help support women into science, technology, engineering and mathematics jobs. (901508)

Our priority is to ensure that everyone, regardless of background, can pursue the exciting opportunities in STEM. That ambition fully extends to the hon. Members’ constituents in Paisley and Renfrewshire North and in Livingston.

New data from Times Higher Education reveals that female science undergraduates are twice as likely to experience sexism as their peers on non-science courses. Many have reported being patronised or belittled by their male classmates, with this behaviour routinely going unchallenged by staff. What steps is the Minister taking to address the pervasive culture of sexism in STEM so that more women can be encouraged to pursue jobs in that important sector?

A key priority for this Government is ensuring that everybody, regardless of background, faces no discrimination and can pursue an occupation in STEM. I am pleased to report that the number of STEM apprenticeship starts by women this year is up by almost 8%, and since 2016 a total of almost £8 million has been awarded to 152 remarkable women role models to help them grow their businesses and innovation.

A vaccine firm in my Livingston constituency, Valneva, does lifesaving and pioneering work, and nearly 50% of its workforce are women. It does brilliant work to encourage women into STEM careers. Would the Minister consider coming to Livingston, visiting Valneva, and meeting the company and me to see at first hand the fantastic work it does?

Yes, and I commend the hon. Lady for having that very successful female-opportunity-giving firm in her constituency. I am in Scotland later this month and I will try to visit her.

There can be no better example of businesses encouraging STEM education right through school and university for both men and women than the James Dyson Foundation in Malmesbury in my constituency. Will the Minister join me in warmly thanking and congratulating Sir James Dyson on his recent contribution of £6 million to Malmesbury Primary School, which will also be available for all children in Malmesbury to promote STEM at the heart of my constituency?

I warmly congratulate the Dyson Foundation on that. It is a fantastic example of philanthropy. As my hon. Friend will know, maths education is a key building block, and we are consulting on establishing a national academy of mathematical science, backed by £6 million of funding. The consultation ends this Sunday and I hope that many hon. Members will respond.

Improving diversity in STEM is not just the right thing to do; it is vital to our future success. Diversity brings new ways of thinking, a better understanding and a new approach. Can the Minister ensure that the Department for Education encourages people to think about STEM careers at the earliest possible level, particularly in primary schools?

My hon. Friend makes an important point about diversity in STEM starting at the earliest possible age. I will of course talk to my colleagues in the Department for Education about doing precisely that.

A number of my constituents who work in STEM areas have expressed concerns about female research partners currently in Gaza. Can the Minister confirm whether any discussions have taken place with colleagues at the Home Office about providing emergency visas to female STEM academics who are currently working in collaboration with UK partners?

I am not aware of that, but I will happily ask the question of Home Office colleagues and write to the hon. Lady.

Space Industry Skills Gap

Delivering a national space strategy is a key priority for me and the Department. I recognise that a strong space workforce is critical to this, and my hon. Friend will be pleased to know that we will be publishing a space workforce action plan later this year.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his answer and for his work on this. He knows, as I do, that the innovation economy in this country is creating hundreds of thousands of new jobs. Indeed, 500,000 are forecast over the next 10 years in space, agritech, cleantech engineering and bio, in clusters all around the country, as the recent cluster map showed. Will he ensure that the excellent Department for Education future skills unit liaises closely with the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology cluster team to make sure that we are properly building the job creation plans into the local skills improvement plans on the ground?

My hon. Friend has done so much to advance the interests of skills in the sector during his many years of public service, and he is quite right to draw attention to the successful cluster map that was launched by the Secretary of State 10 days ago. The development of skills is a shared responsibility between Government and industry and we take our responsibilities in that respect very seriously.

I want to put on record my thanks to the hon. Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman) for having taken the Sutherland spaceport to where it is. It is now well under way. Does the Minister agree that the skills we have at Dounreay and at the nearby Thurso College could play a large part in making this a centre of excellence for space launch?

I do agree with the hon. Gentleman. This is a very exciting moment in UK space, and he has long championed the cause of his own constituents in that respect. I look forward to this year being a very successful year for him and the whole space supply chain, and inspiring a future generation locally.

Rural Connectivity

We have made huge progress in connecting the countryside. In 2019 only 6% of premises had gigabit-capable broadband; now it is 80%, and the UK is building gigabit networks faster than any country in the EU. This month we launched another six Project Gigabit contracts to connect another 690,000 rural homes. The shared rural networks are tackling mobile notspots and we have satellite trials for the very hardest to reach.

I am grateful to the Minister for all the work that her Department is doing, but my constituents in Inkberrow have contacted me because they are really concerned that the infrastructure for their much-needed broadband is being put in using poles in the street rather than underground as they were promised. We must upgrade our infrastructure, but we must not damage our beautiful countryside in the process, so what can she do to support my constituents in Inkberrow to ensure that this much-needed infrastructure is buried underground?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this point, and I agree that we want to build underground where possible. It is important that she is advocating on behalf of her constituents, because we have had issues relating to poles. We encourage sharing, but that is not always happening. It seems to be an issue in particular pockets of the country, and we are talking to Ofcom about this to see what more we can do.

It is brilliant to hear about all of this progress. What assessment has the Minister made of the value for money cap in connecting the hardest-to-reach households and businesses, of which I have many in my very rural, incredibly beautiful but sparsely populated constituency?

My hon. Friend’s constituency has very low gigabit connectivity, partly because its geography makes connections very expensive. That is why we launched one of our very first contracts in Cumbria. Some 15,000 premises are going to be connected across Copeland, and we are trying to stretch the contract as far as it will go. For premises that will not be reached, we will look at other technologies so that we can get to them as quickly as possible.

I work closely with Philip Burrows, Denbighshire’s excellent digital officer. He tells me that Openreach can still impose significant excess charges to connect properties that are declared enabled for fibre. In those instances, people are unable to claim via the gigabit voucher scheme. Will my hon. Friend outline what steps she is taking to address this matter?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising the experience of Mr Burrows, who sounds like a very experienced officer. I would like to hear a bit more detail, because it sounds like the properties he cites have access to a fibre connection and would not be eligible for a voucher. I would like to know a bit more about the excess charges so that we can deal with any problems.

Rossett, outside Wrexham, has little to no connectivity, despite the Ofcom checker predicting that it has a good signal. This significantly limits residents’ lives. Ofcom acknowledges that it is a prediction, but Building Digital UK says that, because the Government rely on this prediction, there is little chance of Rossett receiving any benefit from the shared rural network programme. What would the Minister advise my residents to do?

My hon. Friend highlights the challenge I have had in answering this question. The mobile connectivity figures I have for her constituency are extremely high. This highlights the issue we have with Ofcom’s reporting maps, which are simply not good enough. We have consistently raised this with Ofcom, and we hope to make progress.

There has been significant improvement in rural broadband connectivity in Northern Ireland as a result of our agreement with the previous Government. Will the Minister take steps to ensure that small businesses in rural areas across the country can further develop themselves by maximising this advantage?

The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the fantastic connectivity in Northern Ireland. In fact, I think it has some of the very best connectivity in the entire country. I will look into any spots that are still not covered, and I will happily get back to him.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Will she outline how rural businesses can ensure that they have superfast broadband to secure their viability in an increasingly online market?

I thank the hon. Gentleman, but his businesses no longer want superfast. They want gigabit speeds and, thankfully, Northern Ireland has tremendous gigabit speeds. If there are any issues, particularly with access for small businesses, I am happy to look into them.

Devon County Council is spending its broadband clawback money on anything but broadband. That £7.8 million was intended for improving broadband in rural areas, including in villages such as Northleigh. Residents have encountered numerous pledges on poles, but they still do not have full fibre. Does the Minister think the clawback funding for broadband should have been ringfenced by Devon County Council?

These issues have been highlighted many times by Conservative Members from Devon. We thought we had worked through some of those challenges. The clawback challenge that the hon. Gentleman highlights has not previously been raised with me, and I will happily look into it for him.

Some 4.8 million people live in rural 5G notspots; rural areas are seven times more likely to have broadband speeds worse than those at base camp at Everest; one in five poorer homes have no internet to the home at all; and cardiac arrest phones and medical monitors still rely on analogue telephony. [Interruption.] Why are this Government such an abject failure?

Order. The House could not hear Sir Chris Bryant—[Interruption.] I will have no suggestion that that was deliberate. People may need to speak, but can they do so in a quiet voice and allow Sir Chris to re-ask his question?

I know that the hon. Gentleman loves to stick the boot in, but he has chosen the wrong subject here. In 2019, there was 6% gigabit coverage, whereas the figure now is 80%. This is a massive infrastructure project, and it is one of the biggest successes that we have, so he has chosen the wrong thing to be snipey about.

Medical Technology: Research and Development

5. What steps her Department is taking to support research and development in medical technology. (901501)

The UK has an exceptional record of innovation in medical technology. There could not be a more exciting time for the sector; we are extending the length and quality of human life, and solving rare diseases, with the help of the Medical Research Council’s £650 million grant this year.

The north-east has a fantastic life sciences sector, with 7,000 people working in it and a unique combination of medical and technology assets, networks and academic expertise. However, with business investment at record lows, what are the Government doing to ensure that our brilliant research and development is transferred into real manufacturing jobs?

As the hon. Lady will know, the Government are investing in medical manufacturing. I would be happy to meet her or businesses in her constituency to make sure that they can access those funds. However, it is only the good stewardship of our economy that has allowed us to continue to invest record amounts in research and innovation in the UK.

Artificial Intelligence Regulation

7. What steps she is taking to ensure that regulators have adequate capacity and co-ordination to implement the AI regulatory principles. (901503)

Ensuring that regulators have the right skills and capabilities to regulate in their domains is fundamental to the effective delivery of our approach on artificial intelligence regulation. To support that, we have established a central co-ordination function, which will provide regulators with guidance on implementing the regulatory principles and help them to identify emerging risks and challenges. The £10 million funding we have announced to jump-start regulator capacity and capability will form a crucial element of this work.

AI in the UK still lacks sufficient regulation, despite the pace of change and the risks posed. The Government stated that they expect to introduce

“a statutory duty on regulators requiring them to have due regard”

to the five high-level principles outlined in the AI White Paper. So will the Secretary of State confirm if and when she will legislate for that, and what factors will inform her decision?

The risks of AI are still emerging, so the priority of this Government is keeping pace with those risks, to keep the public safe. That is why we have an agile, sector-specific approach, utilising our world-leading regulators, whereas the Opposition keep calling for legislation on an area they do not understand.

Does the Secretary of State agree that one important thing about the Bletchley conference was that it enabled international co-operation on interoperability and a common approach? Does she also agree that that will enable regulators to co-operate internationally?

I absolutely agree with what my right hon. and learned Friend says, and I call it the “Bletchley effect”; we have seen action taken in other nations across the world since our world-leading first ever AI global summit on safety.

Topical Questions

We have just celebrated one year since my Department was created. In that time, we have pushed research and development funding to record levels. We have secured a bespoke deal on Horizon Europe. We have led the globe when it comes to AI safety, and we have passed the world-leading Online Safety Act 2023 and much more.

We have a plan to go even further. My Department continues to drive innovation, to create better jobs and to push economic growth. This month, we have set out our pro-innovation, pro-safety plans to regulate artificial intelligence, building on the success of the AI safety summit to cement Britain’s position as a global leader in safe and trustworthy AI. We are slashing red tape to free our researchers from pointless paperwork. We have a plan to go even further and become a science and technology superpower, and that plan is working.

Higher salary requirements and visa charges for skilled workers plus impossibly restrictive family visa rules will put the UK out of reach for many early career researchers and scientists. What is the Secretary of State doing to stand up against these crazy Home Office policies, which will make her own Department’s goals for recruiting researchers and technicians virtually impossible to achieve?

The UK has fantastic pull power, with world-leading facilities, four out of the top 10 universities and a range of routes for people to come here, including the very successful global talent visa.

T2. Recently, after some storms, residents in Hanbury and other rural parts of my constituency were without broadband for three weeks. The problem was fixed only when I, the local MP, got involved. What can the Minister do to make sure that these providers restore services much more quickly? Three weeks is a completely unacceptable delay. (901540)

I am sorry to hear of the problems that my hon. Friend’s constituents experienced. Telecommunications companies are under certain obligations to Ofcom to keep networks up and running. We are testing those resilience measures. Thankfully, gigabit broadband is a much more resilient network which, has withstood floods in York recently for example, but we hope to be able to have a much more resilient network in future.

The Government’s AI White Paper says that all jurisdictions will need mandatory reporting of frontier AI. The United States has already done it. The EU has already done it. Why is the Secretary of State waiting for a Labour Government to keep this country safe?

I will not take any lectures from the Opposition when it comes to AI. We have a plan that is working. We are leading the world when it comes to AI safety. I have spoken about the Bletchley effect. We have the world’s first ever institute doing pre-deployment testing.

T4. Parents want their children to be safe. Many parents are deeply concerned about what children are seeing on their phones. Does the Secretary of State agree that sellers of mobile phones should be doing much more to verify the age of the user? If the phone is being bought for a child, the seller should provide the parents with access to and advice on parental controls, so that parents can help to keep their children safe. (901542)

I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend’s passion when it comes to online safety. We are leading the world with our comprehensive Online Safety Act 2023. This is a matter on which we both agree and I am more than happy to discuss it further with her.

T3. The area between Cockshutt and Welshampton in my constituency is one of the many total notspots in North Shropshire. Can the Minister update us on the progress she is making on total notspots? Will she meet me to discuss the progress of the shared rural network in North Shropshire? (901541)

I thank the hon. Lady for raising the issue of total and partial notspots. Our amazing shared rural network programme has £500 million from industry and £500 million from Government. We are going through all of those coverage areas that are shown wanting, and we hope to make progress in her own constituency.

T5. During recess, I took part in a cross-party Inter-Parliamentary Union delegation to the UN summit on conflict and security. One of the seminars was about AI security. I know the UK held the first ever summit on AI safety, with 28 countries coming together to put forward guidelines. What update do we have on bringing more countries on board to ensure that AI can be explored safely? (901543)

There is a lot of ongoing work, including my conversations with G7 partners; I know that the Secretary of State is meeting with international partners. I would welcome a meeting and an update from my hon. Friend on his conversations at the UN and what work is being done there.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


The whole House will join me in sending our deepest condolences to the family of Alexei Navalny. He died for a cause to which he dedicated his whole life: freedom. To return home knowing that Putin had already tried to have him killed was one of the most courageous acts of our time. Together with our allies, we are considering all options to hold Russia and Putin to account, and this morning we sanctioned those running the prison where Alexei Navalny’s body still lies.

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 know that my right hon. Friend will share the horror felt by this House—the oldest people’s assembly in the world—at the acid attack against a woman and two children on the streets of London. Does he share my anger that we would still have been unable to deport the perpetrator had he been found because of the so-called European Court of Human Rights? When will we stop bending the knee to this so-called European court—a travesty of a court?

This was a horrific attack, and my thoughts are with the victims and their family. Obviously, I cannot comment on a live investigation, but speaking more broadly, clearly I do not think that it is right for dangerous foreign criminals to be able to stay in our country. That is why our Nationality and Borders Act 2022 made it clear that anyone who is convicted of a crime and gets a sentence of 12 months or more will not be granted asylum in the United Kingdom. That is the common-sense position, which I believe is supported by the majority of the British public, but one that the Labour party voted against time and time again.

I start by welcoming my hon. Friends the new Members for Kingswood (Damien Egan) and for Wellingborough (Gen Kitchen). I know that they will both be powerful advocates for their constituents.

On a more sombre note, I join with the Prime Minister—I was glad to hear what he just had to say, because I am sure that the whole House will join me—in sharing our disgust at the death of Alexei Navalny, who, as the Prime Minister said, died because of his efforts to expose the corruption of the Putin regime. It is a reminder that Putin has stolen not just the wealth but the future and democracy of the Russian people.

Would the Prime Minister be prepared personally to repeat the allegation made by his Business Secretary that the former chair of the Post Office is “lying” when he says that he was told to “go slow” on compensation for postmasters, and “limp” to the next election?

As the Business Secretary said on Monday, she asked Henry Staunton to step down after serious concerns were raised. She set out the reasons for this, and the full background, in the House earlier this week, but importantly we have taken unprecedented steps to ensure that victims of the Horizon scandal receive compensation as swiftly as possible, and in full. Making sure that victims receive justice and compensation remains our No. 1 priority, and we will shortly bring forward legislation to address this matter.

I am not sure that takes us very much further forward, so let me press on. On Monday, the Business Secretary also confirmed categorically—I will quote this, in fairness to the Prime Minister:

“that the Post Office was at no point told to delay compensation payments by either an official or a Minister from any Government Department, and that at no point was it suggested that a delay would be of benefit to the Treasury”.—[Official Report, 19 February 2024; Vol. 745, c. 476.]

That was on Monday. A note released by the former Post Office chair this morning appears to directly contradict that. I appreciate—[Interruption.] This really matters to the people who have been at the heart of this. I appreciate that the Business Secretary has put the Prime Minister in a tricky position, but will he commit to investigating this matter properly, including whether that categorical statement was correct, and why, rather than taking those accusations seriously, she accused a whistleblower of lying?

It is worth bearing in mind that, as the Business Secretary said on Monday, she asked Henry Staunton to step down after serious concerns were raised. However, this is, on a matter of substance, one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in our nation’s history, because people who were working hard serving their communities had their lives and reputations destroyed. That is why we are working hard to ensure that they get justice and compensation, why we established Sir Wyn Williams’s inquiry, why we have already paid out over £150 million of compensation to almost 3,000 victims, and why we will introduce new legislation shortly to exonerate them. We will ensure that we do what is needed, that the truth comes to light, that we right the wrongs of the past, and, crucially, that victims get the justice that they deserve.

I do hope that the Prime Minister will instigate that investigation into what was said on Monday, because one of the features of this miscarriage is that where concerns have been raised, they have been pushed to one side.

This week, we also learned that a 2016 investigation into whether post office branch accounts could be altered was suddenly stopped before it was completed. Had that investigation revealed that they could be altered, which we now know to be the case, the livelihoods of those wrongly prosecuted could have been saved. What did Government Ministers know about it at the time?

The Leader of the Opposition has picked one particular date, but it is worth bearing in mind that this scandal—[Interruption.] Hang on. This scandal has unfolded over decades, and it was following a landmark 2019 High Court case that the previous Government established a statutory inquiry led by Sir Wyn Williams, which is uncovering exactly what went wrong. It is right that that inquiry is allowed to do its work. Also, following the High Court case, the Government established an independent advisory board and not one but three different compensation schemes. As of now, over two thirds of people have received full and final offers. What we are focused on is ensuring that victims get the justice and compensation that they deserve.

This information about 2016 has come to light just this week, which is precisely why I am asking about it. Considering that the Prime Minister’s Foreign Secretary was running the Government in 2016, and one of the Prime Minister’s current Cabinet Office Ministers was the Post Office Minister, has he thought to ask either of them what they knew in 2016?

No, Mr Speaker—[Interruption.] We did the right thing, which was to set up an independent statutory inquiry. That is the right way to resolve this issue; it is the right way to get victims the truth and the answers that they demand. This Government are getting on with getting them the compensation that they rightly deserve.

As we all know, the Horizon scandal left people isolated, their livelihoods lost, their lives ruined. Some died without ever getting the justice that they deserved. Fears of delay, or of cover up, are causing them anguish. Yesterday, Chris Head, once accused by the Post Office of owing more than £80,000, said this:

“There is a lack of transparency…We need to see the correspondence between [the] Post Office, the department and UKGI because all of this time everything gets shrouded in secrecy”—[Interruption.]

These are his words; have some respect, please. These are victims.

I appreciate that the inquiry is ongoing, but as the Prime Minister knows—as do I and the whole House—that does not provide a reason why he cannot draw a line under this, give postmasters such as Chris the peace of mind that they need, and release all the correspondence that he wants to see. Will he now do so?

As I said, this is one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in our country’s history. I do not think it is one that the Leader of the Opposition ever raised with me during these exchanges over the past year, but we are working hard to get victims not just the answers but the compensation that they deserve. We now have a statutory inquiry led by Sir Wyn Williams, who has the powers to get access to all the documentation that he requires and to speak to everybody that he needs to. That is the right and proper way to get the truth that the victims deserve, but in the meantime, we are not wasting a moment to get victims the compensation they deserve. The legislation will be before the House shortly.

In recent decades, there have been numerous scandals that have left public faith in our institutions shaken, and rebuilding that confidence will require those affected to see that politicians are being honest with them and to believe it. Just like the postmasters, victims of the infected blood scandal have been subject to unimaginable trauma during their search for justice, so can the Prime Minister put their minds at ease and tell the House what undertakings he has given to ensure that the Government are not “limping to the election” on payments that those victims are owed by the British state?

When it comes to the infected blood scandal, as I have said before, I am acutely aware of the strength of feeling on this issue and the suffering of all those who were impacted by that dreadful scandal. I gave evidence to the inquiry myself last year, and as I said then, I recognise that thousands have suffered for decades.

As the Leader of the Opposition knows, there is an independent inquiry. As this is an incredibly complex issue, as he well knows, the Minister for the Cabinet Office updated Parliament with the latest Government position just before the Christmas recess. He announced that the Cabinet Office was appointing an expert group of clinical, legal and social care experts so that it had the relevant expertise to make informed decisions, responding to the inquiry’s recommendations on compensation when they come. He also confirmed that the Department of Health and Social Care will implement a fully bespoke psychological service for people infected and affected. We have also committed to providing an update to Parliament on next steps through an oral statement within 25 sitting days of the publication of the final report. But I will end where I began: this is a deeply awful scandal, and we will do what we need to do to make it right.

Q2. There is a plan for at least 2,000 single young men who have come here illegally soon to be housed just 3 miles from the centre of Lincoln at RAF Scampton, in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh)—if Home Office Ministers have their way. On top of the huge and rising costs and the recent advice from civil servants to Home Office Ministers to can the plan, what reassurance can the Prime Minister and his Home Secretary give that Scampton will not replicate the scandalous incidents that occurred in Cambridge in 2014, when 300 Libyan trainees were housed at RAF Bassingbourn? (901465)

My hon. Friend is right to raise the concerns of his constituents. I assure him that we want asylum accommodation to have as little impact as possible on the local community. I understand that the Home Office has put a number of measures in place, including a specialist security provider working on site 24/7 and CCTV, and it is working with the local police as well. However, I know my hon. Friend agrees with me that the only way to stop this problem fully and ensure that local communities are not seeing the housing of illegal migrants—whether that is on large sites or in hotels—is to have a plan to stop the boats. That is what this party and this Government do, and it is Labour that is blocking us at every step of the way.

I begin by echoing the sentiments of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in relation to the heroic bravery of Alexei Navalny. We must all continue to be united in our opposition to Vladimir Putin.

As it stands, some 60% of the buildings in Gaza are either damaged or destroyed. Much of the farmland is in ruin; some 30,000 people are dead, 70,000 are injured, and 1.4 million are currently sheltering in Rafah, awaiting an imminent Israeli onslaught. Surely the Prime Minister must accept that that does not amount to self-defence.

I share the concern of many Members about the high rate of civilian casualties and, indeed, the growing humanitarian crisis in Gaza. That is why we have called consistently for an immediate humanitarian pause, which would allow for the safe release of hostages and more aid going into Gaza, so that we create the sustainable conditions for a long-term and enduring ceasefire. That is what our diplomatic efforts are focused on, and that is what I impressed upon the Israeli Prime Minister last week when I spoke to him.

Tonight, this House will have the opportunity to join the majority of the international community and say that enough is enough, that the killing in Gaza must stop and that the hostages must be released, and the best way to do that is to send a clear and united message that we back an immediate ceasefire. Surely, all of us, irrespective of our political allegiance, can agree on that very issue?

Of course, we want to see the fighting in Gaza end as soon as possible, and never again allow Hamas to carry out the appalling terrorist attacks that Israel was subject to. The hon. Member talks about the UN resolution, but just calling for an immediate full ceasefire now, which collapses back into fighting within days or weeks, is not in anyone’s interest. We must work towards a permanent ceasefire, and that is why the right approach is the approach that we have set out and the United States has set out in its resolution, which is for an immediate humanitarian pause to get hostages out and aid in, so that we then can create the conditions for a sustainable ceasefire. In the meantime, we are doing everything we can to increase the amount of humanitarian aid that we bring into Gaza—something I discussed with the King of Jordan last week—and we will have more updates in the coming days of more airdrops into Gaza, but also just in the last couple of days, that have managed to deliver family tents into Gaza, which are providing much-needed shelter for very vulnerable people.

Q4. Key to the much-needed regeneration of Aylesbury are new link roads to cut congestion. Money from the cancelled part of HS2 is meant to be paying towards them—that is only right, given the destruction being caused by the construction of the first part of this unwanted railway—but the cash has not arrived yet. Can my right hon. Friend assure my constituents they will get the roads they need, so they can spend less time sitting in traffic jams and more time growing the local economy? (901467)

As my hon. Friend knows, last autumn we announced the Government’s vision to redirect £36 billion of savings from HS2 to invest in hundreds of transport projects across the country, including possible increased funding for two projects that I know my hon. Friend has campaigned on tirelessly—the south-east Aylesbury link road and the Aylesbury eastern link road. I know he has met the relevant Minister on a number of occasions to discuss these proposals, and I can tell him that the details of how these funding uplifts will be allocated will be decided very shortly.

Over 40,000 North sea oil and gas jobs are at risk from an incoming Labour Administration, and neither Labour, the Tories or the SNP have lifted a finger to save Grangemouth oil refinery from closure. With the passing of last night’s Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill, the UK Government gave not one, but two fingers to Scotland’s energy ambitions within the UK. Can the Prime Minister explain: in today’s money, the UK has received over £300 billion in tax receipts from North sea oil and gas, so why cannot the UK Government find £80 million to secure Grangemouth’s future and profitability beyond 2025?

As I have previously told the House, the future of Grangemouth is a commercial decision for its owners. The site will remain operating as a refinery until at least May 2025. The UK and the Scottish Governments are working together to make sure that there are sufficient assurances in place for the support of employees. But when it comes to backing Scottish energy, it is this Government who just this week have ensured that we can support British North sea oil and gas, safeguarding 200,000 jobs and increasing our energy security. It is the SNP and the Labour party that oppose that, but we will always back our fantastic North sea economy.

Q10. Does the Prime Minister agree with me and Welsh farmers such as Gareth Wyn Jones that our farmers and food security are vital and that the agricultural budget should be ringfenced, unlike the Welsh Labour Government, propped up by Plaid, who are determined to force our farmers out of business with their approach to nitrate vulnerable zones, TB and their new sustainable farming scheme, which using the Welsh Government’s own analysis, is forecast to result in 5,500 job losses and a £200 million hit to the Welsh economy? (901473)

My hon. Friend is an excellent campaigner on behalf of her local farming community, and I know she has been working hard with Gareth Wyn Jones to raise its voice, especially where there is so much concern. Conservative Members are supporting farmers with more money to grow more British food, in contrast with the plans she highlighted, which would decimate farming communities in Wales and are the opposite of what is needed. While we will always back our rural communities across the UK, Labour would take them back to square one.

Q3. It is now more than two years since the fan-led review on football governance was produced. Will the Prime Minister commit to setting up an independent regulator, with the up-front power to intervene to achieve a fairer distribution of football’s enormous riches, to ensure that no community in future loses its football club, as happened in Bury? Will he commit to bringing forward legislation urgently, or will he leave it for a future Labour Government to act on behalf of football fans? (901466)

The independent regulator will put fans back at the heart of football and help to deliver a sustainable future for all clubs. That delivers on our manifesto commitment. The Government are engaged in discussions with industry, and that was part of our King’s Speech, as the hon. Gentleman knows. I am glad he brought up Bury football club, because it was my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (James Daly) who ensured £1 million of funding to safeguard that football club, and that is what we are doing to communities up and down the country.

Q12. GP surgeries promised in planning applications take far too long to be built. Can we clear away the obstacles and make it easier for our amazing family doctors to use additional consulting rooms that they are happy with elsewhere in the community, so that GPs, and the many extra prescribing nurses they are now employing, can see more patients now while they wait for bespoke premises to be built? (901475)

I thank my hon. Friend, who speaks from a point of authority. He knows that we have high standards to ensure that GPs provide services from premises that meet all the required criteria, but I understand it is possible for those services to be provided at alternative locations that meet the contract requirements. I will happily ensure that the Health and Social Care Secretary looks into his suggestions about more flexibility. He will also welcome our recent plans to expand the range of services available at pharmacies, saving many people time and hassle to get treatment for seven common ailments at their local pharmacist, easing the pressure on our GPs and speeding up the care that people deserve.

Q5. I was in the House on 18 March 2003 when this House voted to go to war in Iraq on the demands of the then Labour Government. What followed was death, misery, and destruction on an almost unimaginable scale. Voting against the Iraq war is the vote I am most proud of in my time in this House. Today, after 29,000 deaths in Gaza, we face a vote of similar significance. Does the Prime Minister believe that MPs today should look back with that same pride, knowing that they have done everything possible to stop the death, destruction, and misery tonight? (901468)

Nobody wants to see the fighting in Gaza go on for a moment longer than is necessary, and nobody wants to see innocent civilians suffer. That is why we are doing absolutely everything we can to bring about an immediate humanitarian pause, allowing for the safe release of hostages, which the hon. Gentleman failed to mention I believe, and also getting more aid into Gaza to create the conditions for a genuinely sustainable ceasefire. That is the position shared by our allies, that is what our diplomatic efforts are focused on, and that is what our motion tonight will reflect.

I have had the privilege to be spending a lot of time with the law-abiding, tax-paying, hard-working patriotic people of Romford in recent months, and they have been telling me what they think. Does the Prime Minister agree with the people of Romford that we need a radical plan to control immigration and stop illegal immigration, to regain sovereignty over our human rights laws in this country, to tell the Mayor of London that we need more police to stop crime in the London Borough of Havering, and a fair funding settlement for Havering? Will the Prime Minister come with me to Romford market, following the footsteps of Margaret Thatcher, and meet the people of Romford? One thing I can tell him they do not want is to be taken back into the European Union by a socialist Government.

May I welcome my hon. Friend back to his place? I agree with everything he said, and I look forward to visiting him and his Romford constituents at the earliest opportunity.

Q6. At a recent meeting of Warwickshire County Council, children with special educational needs were described by some county councillors as requiring “some form of strict correction”, or were “just really badly behaved”. Other inappropriate language was used. Parents of SEN children across the country have been outraged by this, with some 30,000 of them signing a petition calling for those councillors’ resignations. Will the Prime Minister condemn the Conservative councillors’ language and urge them to do the right thing and resign? (901469)

I have not seen the details of those comments and this issue. More generally, the Government have a strong track record of supporting those with disabilities. It is important that children with special educational needs receive the right support in the right place at the right time. We have seen funding for SEN increase by 60% over this Parliament to more than £10 billion. Most recently, the Department for Education and the Department of Health and Social Care are piloting a new project to improve access to specialty support in mainstream primary schools, because we want to make sure that these children get all the support and opportunities they deserve.

We have legislated to give the public ID verification options on social media, and tech companies know the safety value and popularity of that, because they offer it now, but for a big fee every month—it is not good enough. Bereaved parents are campaigning for more measures to protect kids online, fraudsters are routinely exploiting fake social media accounts to scam, and there are fears of global political interference in elections from faceless, traceless bots. It is creating the perfect cyber-storm. Will my right hon. Friend use his influence to get tech companies to get on with offering robust, visible and free verification measures as soon as possible to keep people safe?

Can I start by commending my hon. Friend on her work on this issue? She is absolutely right that user verification can be a powerful tool to keep people safe online. The Online Safety Act 2023, as she knows, requires companies to offer all adults optional user identity verification. Companies will also need to take firm action to improve safety for children in particular, and Ofcom will be able to monitor tech companies and have strong powers to ensure they comply. I can tell her that the Home Secretary is meeting the industry on Monday next week and will be sure to raise the points she has mentioned today.

Q7. A KPMG study finds a strong economic case to remove power cables over the Tyne. Despite my questions to previous Prime Ministers, we are no further forward. Can this Prime Minister finally secure a commitment from National Grid to implement its clear legal obligation and fund this vital work? This fog on the Tyne is impeding local businesses and risks possible net GVA benefits of up to £1.2 billion. Our great river needs action now. (901470)

I am happy to look into the issue that the hon. Lady raises. What would be damaging to the north-east and the Tyne are her party’s plans to stick with their completely ridiculous 2030 decarbonisation target with absolutely no plan to pay for it, which just means higher taxes for everyone in her constituency and the country.

Britain’s food security, compromised by cheap foreign imports, now faces a parallel threat: all kinds of industrialisation of the countryside, from large solar plants to interconnectors and substations, and now huge pylons covering 87 miles of countryside. These will blot the landscape and use up valuable growing land, filling the fenland big skies. Knowing that the Prime Minister’s bow burns with gold, like my own, will he ensure that he joins my fight for our green and pleasant land and so make sure that food security and energy security are not competitors?

My right hon. Friend raises an excellent point about our food security. The Government have taken steps, which he has supported, to protect prime agricultural land from large-scale solar developments, which I know will be warmly welcomed. Our announcements this week at the National Farmers Union conference also demonstrate our support to increase our country’s food security, backing farmers with more funding and enhancing their productivity to produce great British food. As he knows, all of that, including our green and pleasant land, would be put at risk by the Labour party, which not only does not want to back our farmers but wants to impose top-down planning targets, which would concrete over the countryside that he and I both love.

Q8.   In December, the Cabinet Minister for Women and Equalities told the House that she had engaged “extensively” with LGBT organisations since her appointment 18 months ago. A freedom of information answer published this week reveals that, in fact, the Minister has not met a single LGBT organisation but has met two fringe groups that actively campaign against transgender rights. What is the problem that the Prime Minister and a section of his party have with trans people, and that his Minister has with the truth? (901471)

As I have always said, the Government have a proud track record of supporting those in the LGBT community, and we will continue to do so. I have also always said that those who are questioning their gender and identity should be treated with the utmost dignity, compassion and sensitivity as they consider those questions. But, alongside that, it is completely reasonable to highlight the importance of biological sex when it comes to those questions. Nobody should be stigmatised or demonised for pointing out that fact.

The Education Committee has heard compelling evidence to support the strengthening of guidance to keep mobile phones out of classrooms and break times, but over the course of our screen time inquiry we continue to hear deeply disturbing evidence about the risks to young people from too much exposure to social media too early. May I urge the Prime Minister to seek the swiftest possible implementation of the Online Safety Act 2023 and to consider whether it is time to review the age of digital consent?

I thank my hon. Friend for his work on this issue. He knows that we do have a plan when it comes to education and protecting children online. The Secretary of State is making sure that we can implement the Online Safety Act as quickly as possible with Ofcom, but we have also published new guidance banning mobile phones in schools, to minimise disruption and improve behaviour and educational attainment in the classroom. Crucially, we are going beyond that, because what our children see online is of the utmost importance to us, and we want to make sure that we protect their safety and their mental health.

Q9. When important matters of life and death are voted on in this House, does the Prime Minister think MPs should vote according to their party Whip or according to their conscience? (901472)

This afternoon the House will have an opportunity to consider its approach to the situation in Israel and Gaza. Our position is crystal clear: we have called, and will always call, for an immediate humanitarian pause, which would allow the safe release of hostages and more aid to go into Gaza, to create the conditions for a genuinely sustainable ceasefire. But just calling for an immediate, full ceasefire now, which would collapse back into fighting in days or weeks, would not be in anyone’s interests. We are committed not just to an immediate humanitarian pause, but to finding a lasting resolution to this conflict that delivers on the promise of a two-state solution and ensures that Israelis and Palestinians can live in the future with dignity and security.

It seems that, with the exception of the British Transport police, all other police forces will treat non-contact sex crimes as they would perhaps the theft of a bike, petty retail crime or antisocial behaviour. Will the Prime Minister facilitate a meeting between me, colleagues and the Home Secretary to give priority to these acts of crime, to ensure that women and young girls get the protection they deserve?

Of course we want women and girls to get the protection that they deserve, and I am pleased that our violence against women and girls strategy is showing results, improving the safety on our streets and increasing sentences for rapists. I will make sure that my hon. Friend gets the meeting that he needs with the Home Secretary or relevant policing Ministers to discuss his concerns.

Q11. I heard the Prime Minister’s responses to the Leader of the Opposition. Just like the Business Secretary’s claims that delays on compensation are wild, baseless allegations, his answers are unbelievable. The response from the Government Benches to the quote from my constituent Chris Head was completely disrespectful. The reality is that we would not have any action without the ITV serialisation of the sub-postmaster scandal—[Interruption.] Government Members can shout all they like, but we all know that is the case. The Prime Minister has promised a new law to swiftly exonerate and compensate victims. Today he said “shortly”, so will he commit today to ensuring that it is brought forward before the next general election? (901474)

After Network Rail’s so-called signalling improvement works, there has been traffic chaos and delays at level crossings across Egham. In fact, data analysed by my team shows that in the year to September 2023 there was a 3,967% increase in waits of more than 10 minutes from when the barriers go down. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is unacceptable and that Network Rail needs to sort it out?

I am sorry to hear about the delays faced by my hon. Friend’s constituents, which I know will be disruptive to their lives. It is important that we have proper connectivity in our local areas, and I will ensure that he gets the relevant meeting he needs to put pressure on Network Rail to improve the service it is providing.

Q13. Children and young adults are most likely to be the victims or perpetrators of knife crime. Ava White was 12 years old when she was stabbed and killed by a 14-year-old in Liverpool city centre in 2021. Danny Jamieson was 16 when he died as a result of knife crime. Their mothers, Leann and Mandy, are campaigning for tougher sentences for knife crime. Will the Prime Minister support the Danny and Ava campaign to end the scourge of knife crime on our streets? (901476)

I express my condolences to Danny and Ava’s families, and the families of all the young people whose lives have been so tragically cut short by knife crime. We have plans in place to cut knife crime, and they are working—we have confiscated over 120,000 weapons, we have cut violent crime in half since 2010, and more dangerous criminals are going to jail for longer. We are bringing forward legislation to increase sentences for knife crime and to ban zombie knives, and I very much hope that the hon. Lady and her party will support those proposals when they are put before the House.

After years of campaigning, it is great news that there will be a direct bus link between two of my biggest towns in Rother Valley, Dinnington and Maltby. However, there is still a lack of bus transport to our local hospitals. Does the Prime Minister agree that the South Yorkshire Mayor should use some of his resources to back my plan for transport for the Rother Valley, to ensure that every single village and town has a direct bus link to our local hospitals?

We know how vital bus services are to communities right across the country—indeed, buses are our most popular form of public transportation—which is why we have used some of the savings from HS2 to invest in bus services. We have capped bus fares at £2 right across the country, and we have provided my hon. Friend’s local authority with millions of pounds of more funding specifically to support local bus services. I join him in calling on the Mayor to ensure that there are direct bus routes to hospitals in my hon. Friend’s constituency, and to make sure that people can see their loved ones at a distressing time.

Q14.   At the weekend the people of south Wales marched in support of the steel industry, following the Government’s grubby deal with Tata, which is now placing thousands of jobs at risk in Port Talbot and beyond. The Prime Minister is failing to protect our steel industry because he failed to make protecting jobs at the plant a red line. He now has a choice: work with the unions, Tata and the workforce to protect the industry and the jobs with investment, or walk away and do what Tories always do—abandon the south Wales communities yet again. Which is it, Prime Minister? (901477)

This Government have worked hard to secure a long-term, sustainable future for Welsh steelmaking, and to grow the legacy of that important industry. That is why during the pandemic we stepped in to support Celsa, which, as the hon. Gentleman knows, safeguarded more than 1,000 jobs and ensured that the plant was sustainable. It is why we agreed one of the largest ever cash grants, of half a billion pounds, for Tata Steel to safeguard at least 5,000 jobs that would otherwise have been lost. The hon. Gentleman might want to ask why the Welsh Labour Government did not put in a penny to support that deal.

The Watford area continues to be the proud home of the national lottery, which employs more than 900 people. Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, and the whole Cabinet, join me in celebrating the successful handover from Camelot to Allwyn on 1 February, and also the £48 billion raised by national lottery players, which so far has funded 700,000 projects in, I am sure, every constituency?

I join my hon. Friend in his congratulations and thank everyone involved with the national lottery. We are all seeing, in our constituencies, the incredible benefit from the investments that they are making, and he is absolutely right to ensure that they receive the praise they deserve today in Parliament.

Q15. The Prime Minister has been at it again. In a previous answer, he boasted about transferring investment from the north of England to the south. When he came to Manchester in the autumn to insult the people of the north of England and cancel HS2—proudly cancel it—was he aware then that, because the trains have to split without the HS2 lines and do not tilt, he would be slowing down services and reducing capacity? Did he not know that, or did he not care? (901478)

Let me say a couple of things. First, our plans to continue with phase 1 mean that we can handle triple the capacity that is currently being used on the line. Secondly, every penny of the £19.8 billion from the northern bit of HS2 will stay in the north, being invested in services that people use, such as local buses, and will be delivered quicker. Thirdly, the hon. Gentleman is critical of the decision, but I have still not quite figured out Labour’s position on this. Do they support the redeployment of £36 billion of HS2 savings in transport across the rest of the country, or do they not? As ever, we do not know what they stand for, they cannot say what they would do, and they would just take Britain back to square one.