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Volume 747: debated on Wednesday 20 March 2024

I know the whole House will join me in congratulating Vaughan Gething on his election as Welsh Labour leader and expected election as First Minister of Wales, and also in offering Mark Drakeford our best wishes on his retirement. The Government I lead will always work tirelessly to benefit the lives of people across the United Kingdom, and I look forward to working constructively with the new First Minister to deliver for the people of Wales.

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

The people of Clacton have had a tough time with the cost of living, and I am doing everything I can to support them. With that in mind, does my right hon. Friend agree that cutting inflation is the very best way to do that, and that today’s statistics are very welcome? Can he reassure my constituents that he will continue working hard to get inflation as low as possible, in order to protect their savings, help with their bills and give them the financial security they deserve?

Today’s figures show that our plan is working. Inflation has fallen to 3.4% from its peak of over 11%, down by almost 70%—the steepest fall since the 1980s, and now at the lowest level since September 2021—and people’s pay packets are going further, with real wages growing for eight months in a row and taxes being cut by £900 for the average worker. That is why we need to stick to the plan to deliver a brighter future for our country.

I thank the Prime Minister for his words in welcoming Vaughan Gething to his post as First Minister of Wales. As the first black leader of any European Government, it is a historic moment that speaks to the progress and values of modern-day Wales. I also pay tribute to Mark Drakeford for his long, steady service in Wales.

With violent prisoners released early because the Tories wrecked the criminal justice system, 3,500 small boat arrivals already this year because the Tories lost control of the borders, the NHS struggling to see people because the Tories broke it, millions paying more on their mortgages, a Budget that hit pensioners and a £46 billion hole in his sums, why is the Prime Minister so scared to call an election?

As I said in January, my working assumption is that the election will be in the second half of the year. I must say, I thought that out of everybody, the Leader of the Opposition would be the most grateful, because he has now actually got time to come up with a plan for Britain. We are all looking forward to finally seeing it.

Oh, we are ready—just call it.

Let us just take the Prime Minister’s Rwanda policy. When the Tories first announced this gimmick, they claimed it would settle tens of thousands of people. The Home Office then whittled it down to a mere 300. Four times that number have already arrived this month, and the backlog stands at 130,000. Can the Prime Minister see any flaw in his plan to deport less than 1% of that backlog?

Since I became Prime Minister, the number of small boat crossings is actually down by over a third. That is because we have doubled National Crime Agency funding and we have increased illegal immigration enforcement raids by 70%. We have closed 7,500 bank accounts, deported 24,000 illegal migrants and processed over 112,000 cases—more than at any point in the last two decades. It is crystal clear, as we are seeing from the Labour party’s opposition in this House, that while we are committed to stopping the boats, the Labour party would keep them coming.

The tragedy is we know the Prime Minister does not even believe in the Rwanda gimmick. He tried to stop funding it, but he is now so diminished that his entire focus is stopping his MPs holding the sword of Damocles above his head—perhaps even literally in the case of the Leader of the House. His great hope is to placate those in his party with a couple of empty planes, praying they will not notice when the flights stop going, the boats are still coming and the costs keep mounting. How has he managed to spend £600 million of taxpayer money on a gimmick to deport 300 people?

It is crystal clear that not only does the Labour party not have a plan to fix this issue, but the truth is it does not actually care about fixing this issue. The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about gangs. When we gave the police new powers to crack down on the people-smuggling gangs, he spent months campaigning and voting against it. But thanks to our new laws, 900 criminals have been arrested and 450 have been convicted, serving over 370 years behind bars. If it was up to him, those criminals would still be out on our streets. The truth is that, if he was not the Labour leader, he would still want to be their lawyer. [Hon. Members: “More!]

I have prosecuted more people smugglers than the Prime Minister has had helicopter rides, and that is a lot. [Interruption.] I have done it. This Rwanda gimmick is going to cost the taxpayer £2 million for every one of his 300 people that they deport. I know the Prime Minister likes to spend a lot on jet-setting, but that is some plane ticket. It is the cost of Tory chaos, and it is working people who are paying the price. The man he made his Immigration Minister let the cat out of the bag when he said the Prime Minister’s

“symbolic flights…will not provide a credible…deterrent”.

We know the Prime Minister himself thought it would not work. If the people selling this gimmick do not believe in it, why should the country?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is very keen to talk about who he prosecuted. He is a bit less keen to talk about when he defended Hizb ut-Tahrir. But when it comes to this question of how to deal with people who are here illegally, his values are simply not those of the British people. After all, this is the person who campaigned to stop the deportation of foreign dangerous criminals. A dangerous criminal was jailed for dealing class A drugs after he fought to keep him here. A gangmaster was convicted of carrying a knife after he fought to keep him here. So whether it is representing terrorists or campaigning for criminals, it is clear whose side he is on, and it is not the British people’s.

It is genuinely sad to see the Prime Minister reduced to this nonsense. Let us take another example, which I started with. [Interruption.]

After 14 years of Tory chaos in the prison system, the Justice Secretary was reduced to begging the Prime Minister either to send fewer offenders to prison or to release them even earlier. I must say I have sympathy for anyone trying to get an answer out of the Prime Minister. So what is it going to be: fewer criminals behind bars in the first place, or more released early on to our streets? Which is it?

Thanks to our record and plan, violent crime has fallen by 50%. We have recruited more police officers, given them more powers and kept serious offenders in prison for longer. What is the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s record? He voted against greater protection for our emergency workers, opposed tougher sentences for violent criminals and failed to give police the powers they need. It would be back to square one with Labour—soft on crime and soft on criminals.

You can see why he doesn’t want an election, Mr Speaker, why his party have lost faith in him, and why half his Cabinet are lining up to replace him—no answers, no plan, no clue. The Prime Minister has never had the courage to stand up to his party, so let me help him out and say to them what he wishes he could say: the mortgage mayhem, the waiting lists, the criminals walking free—they are the cost of Tory chaos. And if they cannot bring themselves to stop the endless games and gimmicks, and stop putting themselves before country, they should pack up, go home, and waste somebody else’s time. It wasn’t that difficult, was it, Prime Minister?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about his ideas, but we are two weeks on from the Budget. The shadow Chancellor found time to make a one-hour speech last night, and we still do not know how Labour is going to pay for its £28 billion black hole. But while he tries to talk down Britain and the progress we are making, today’s news shows that the plan is working—inflation down, energy bills down, wages up, pensions up, and taxes cut by £900. That is the choice: higher taxes and back to square one with Labour, or tax cuts and real change with the Conservatives.

Q2. The UK birth rate is falling, the while numbers of those requiring fertility treatment to conceive are rising. There are no employment rights attached to those undertaking fertility treatment, and no paid time off work. Will the Prime Minister join me in encouraging employers, large and small and across the United Kingdom, to sign up to the fertility workplace pledge that I have launched with Fertility Matters at Work, LGBT Mummies, Fertility Network UK and many others, to support those undertaking fertility treatment when they are in work? (902139)

May I start by thanking my hon. Friend for her excellent work campaigning on this issue? She is right: employers should offer their staff understanding, support, and flexibility while they are undergoing fertility treatment. The best way to improve the experience of those undergoing treatment, both women and their partners, is through voluntary approaches. That is why I join my hon. Friend in encouraging all companies to sign up to the fertility workplace pledge.

With his Back Benchers looking for a unity candidate to replace him, which of the now numerous born-again Thatcherites on the Labour Front Bench does the Prime Minister believe best fits the bill?

It was surprising, Mr Speaker, to hear all this talk about the 1970s from the shadow Chancellor in particular, but if you see what is happening in places like Birmingham, where taxes are going up by 21% and services are being cut—whether that is social care, children’s services, or in some streets the lights literally being turned off—it is unsurprising why they are talking about the ’70s. I just say that what they have done to Birmingham, the Conservatives will never let them do to Britain.

Of course there is a serious point to be made here, because the Institute for Fiscal Studies has warned of the conspiracy of silence that exists between the Labour party and the Conservative party when it comes to £18 billion of looming public sector cuts. Indeed, just last night it outlined that the fiscal rules of the Labour party and the Conservative party are, in effect, identical. With such continuity on offer, the public are right to be anti-Westminster, aren’t they?

I am surprised to hear the hon. Gentleman quoting the IFS, because it also described the recent SNP Budget as, in its words, “misleading”, and said that

“pain is almost certainly coming”.

It is a savage tax and axe budget, because here is the reality: while NHS spending in England is going up in real terms, in Scotland it is going down; while taxes are being cut by the UK Government, the SNP Government are putting them up. That is the contrast, and where the SNP or indeed Labour are in charge, it is working people who pay the price.

Q3. The Prime Minister rightly often criticises the Scottish Government for the extra tax they put on residents. In my part of Cornwall, we have an extra tax called the Tamar toll. I have been working on a petition with my constituency neighbour, my right hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer). Will the Prime Minister make our part of the country more competitive by losing this extra tax and helping our community to level up? (902140)

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this important local issue. Any application for a toll revision will be considered by the Transport Secretary at the right opportunity when it has been received, but I am told that there are plans in place to create a new locally led focal group of key stakeholders to ensure that there is a real opportunity for them to make their views about crossings heard, and I know that she will play an active role in that group.

Yesterday saw the Northern Ireland Assembly for the first time in its history exercise its new veto powers to prevent the application of new EU law that would harm our ability to trade with the rest of the United Kingdom. That is something that the DUP campaigned to achieve when others were calling for rigorous implementation of the protocol. To his credit, the Prime Minister was able to work with us to deliver the real changes to the protocol that will help to restore Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom and its internal market.

Will the Prime Minister now assure me that the Government will continue to faithfully implement the measures outlined in the Command Paper, “Safeguarding the Union”, including fully restoring our place within the United Kingdom and its internal market and ending the unnecessary checks on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland?

I want to congratulate my right hon. Friend again on his leadership of Unionism. I agree that it has been an encouraging few weeks, and I salute the work of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister in representing the future of Northern Ireland. I assure him that we will implement our commitments at pace, including further regulations to be laid before this House in the coming days to take power to deliver those commitments on UK internal trade. We are also hosting the first meeting of the UK East-West Council and establishing Intertrade UK, but it comes down to this fundamental point, and I know that he will agree: Northern Ireland’s place is stronger in the Union, with locally elected politicians in place representing the needs of all parts of the community.

4. Noting the National Audit Office report today on the spiralling costs of using ex-military bases for migrants, and noting that the Home Office has announced this week that it is to reduce the projected numbers at RAF Scampton down to 800, will the Prime Minister ensure that an immigration Minister meets West Lindsey District Council and me urgently, so that we can release most of this iconic RAF base— the home of the Red Arrows and the Dambusters—for regeneration? (902141)

I pay tribute to the way that my right hon. Friend has engaged with the Government on this important issue for his local community. As he acknowledged, our plan is working to cut the use of asylum hotels, and we will have closed 100 hotels next week, on top of cutting small boat arrivals. I know that he is talking to the Minister for Legal Migration and the Border, my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Tom Pursglove), about how best to accommodate a smaller number of asylum seekers safely at RAF Scampton, while recognising the council’s ambitious plans for regeneration. I fully support those discussions, and the Government are committed to the site being used for accommodation for the shortest possible time and then released for the benefit of the local community.

Q5. Our NHS is at breaking point. My constituent was told that he needed a gall bladder operation after a visit to accident and emergency. He waited all day in hospital, nil by mouth, and had no operation. He was then told to stay overnight or risk his place on the list, so he sat in a hot, smelly, windowless waiting room for eight hours on a plastic chair. Then a gurney came with no pillow, and that is where he slept. The next day, the nurses said, “No operation. There just aren’t any beds.” His wife told me that the Conservatives are running the NHS into the ground. Given his experience, which so many others across the country share, how can he say otherwise? (902142)

I am very sorry to hear about the experience of the hon. Lady’s constituent, and I am sure she will be raising it with the local NHS trust as well. The NHS is, of course, recovering from a difficult two years, but it has received considerable backing from this Government, including record investment, as was acknowledged by the NHS chief executive officer just the other week, and a plan to improve productivity in the future. We have invested in 5,000 new beds over the last year and more ambulances. All of that is contributing to lower waiting times, waiting lists coming down and an improved A&E performance over the last year.

Q8. The people of the eastern villages of Guildford—the Clandons, the Horsleys, Effingham, Ripley, Send and Ockham—have had enough. Unwanted development and villages taken out of the green belt without promised infrastructure is why I have been calling for an immediate review of the local plan for the last three years. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Labour’s promise of concreting over the green belt, even against the wishes of local MPs, would simply add insult to injury? (902145)

Unlike both the Liberal Democrats and the Labour party, who believe in top-down targets that decimate the green belt, we believe in local people having a say over their local communities. That is why we are committed to protecting and enhancing the green belt. The national planning policy includes strong protections to safeguard this important land. I note that my hon. Friend’s local plan is currently under review by the council, which has indicated that it will be updating it, and I hope my hon. Friend and her constituents engage with that process to help shape Guildford for future generations.

Q6. The EU High Representative for foreign policy, Josep Borrell, said on Monday that Israel is provoking famine in Gaza and using starvation as a weapon of war. President Biden has said that there should be no attack on Rafah without a plan to ensure the safety of the more than 1 million people living there. Does the Prime Minister agree with High Representative Borrell and President Biden? Because I do, and we need a ceasefire. If he does agree, will he say so here in the Chamber today? (902143)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I have explained to the Opposition repeatedly that the findings from the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification initiative are gravely concerning. It is clear that the status quo is unsustainable, and we need urgent action now to avoid a famine. The UK is doing all it can to get more aid in and prevent a worsening crisis. Two thousand tonnes of UK-funded food aid, including flour and hot meals, is being distributed by the World Food Programme in Gaza today, as we speak, and it is enough to feed more than 275,000 people. We will continue to do everything we can to alleviate the suffering that people are experiencing.