All 30 Parliamentary debates in the Commons on 24th Jan 2024

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House of Commons

Wednesday 24th January 2024

(4 months, 4 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Wednesday 24 January 2024
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock

Prayers

Wednesday 24th January 2024

(4 months, 4 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Prayers mark the daily opening of Parliament. The occassion is used by MPs to reserve seats in the Commons Chamber with 'prayer cards'. Prayers are not televised on the official feed.

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Wednesday 24th January 2024

(4 months, 4 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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The Secretary of State was asked—
Mary Glindon Portrait Mary Glindon (North Tyneside) (Lab)
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1. Whether he has had recent discussions with the Advocate General for Scotland on the prosecution of postmasters using evidence from the Horizon IT system.

John Lamont Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (John Lamont)
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As you know, Mr Speaker, the Secretary of State has suffered a family bereavement this week, so will not be with us today. I am sure that the whole House will wish to send him and his family our deepest condolences. Can we also pause to think about the communities, including those in my own area in the Scottish borders, that have been devastated by the recent storms? I know that the emergency services, council and power company workers are supporting them as best they can. Lastly, Mr Speaker, I wish you a happy Burns night, which will be celebrated around the world tomorrow.

The ongoing situation with the Post Office and Horizon is clearly very serious. We need to ensure that all sub-postmasters wrongly prosecuted finally get justice, no matter where they reside in the UK. I assure the hon. Lady that my officials are working at pace with the office of the Advocate General and other key UK Government Departments to consider the issues around wrongful convictions.

Mary Glindon Portrait Mary Glindon
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In Scotland, these prosecutions were carried out by the Crown Office and the procurator fiscal. Ministers of the Crown were made aware of concerns around potentially unsafe prosecutions in 2013. Can the Minister tell the House why it took so long for the prosecutions to be halted and for previous convictions to be reviewed?

John Lamont Portrait John Lamont
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The Horizon scandal is one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in this country’s history, with hundreds of people having their lives ruined and reputations dragged through the mud. The Prime Minister has announced new laws that will be introduced to ensure that those wrongly convicted are exonerated and swiftly compensated here in England. As the hon. Lady will know, the administration of justice is devolved, but the UK Government are in contact with the Scottish Government to explore the most effective way to exonerate and compensate those innocent people.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the shadow Minister.

Michael Shanks Portrait Michael Shanks (Rutherglen and Hamilton West) (Lab)
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I pass the thoughts of the Opposition to the Secretary of State at this difficult time, and join the Minister in his comments about all those affected by flooding.

The scandal of the unjustified prosecution of sub-postmasters the length and breadth of this country is almost beyond words. Although it should not have taken a TV drama to get action, it is good that those found guilty in England will now have their convictions quashed, but meanwhile, in Scotland, we are no clearer on how those wrongly convicted will get justice. The First Minister initially claimed that he would be happy for this Parliament to legislate for every victim across the UK, but his Lord Advocate then said that she does not support blanket exoneration. What is the Minister doing to ensure that those who were wrongly convicted in Scotland finally get the justice they deserve?

John Lamont Portrait John Lamont
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Officials from the UK Government are working with their counterparts from the various devolved Administrations, including the Scottish Government, to fully understand the legislative options that are available across the respective jurisdictions. I reassure the hon. Member that it remains a priority for all concerned to ensure that those sub-postmasters receive justice, and the compensation to which they are entitled, as quickly as possible, irrespective of where they live in the United Kingdom.

Alexander Stafford Portrait Alexander Stafford (Rother Valley) (Con)
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2. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on support for the oil and gas industry in Scotland.

John Lamont Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (John Lamont)
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Oil and gas is, and will remain, a vital sector for the UK. The UK Government are committed to supporting the industry. That is why last week I attended the Grangemouth future industries board with other UK and Scottish Government Ministers on the transformation of the Grangemouth oil refinery. The introduction of the Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill demonstrates our ongoing investment in the industry.

Alexander Stafford Portrait Alexander Stafford
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My hon. Friend knows that Scotland has the potential to be one of the world’s most advanced producers of hydrogen, and oil and gas companies are playing an important role in that transition. What is the Department doing to support oil and gas companies, which employ a huge number of people in Scotland and in my seat of Rother Valley, in building their hydrogen production, transmission and use capabilities, to ramp up the production of hydrogen so that we can get more of the low-carbon energy that we so need?

John Lamont Portrait John Lamont
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We anticipate that by 2030 the UK’s growing hydrogen sector could support more than 12,000 jobs and unlock £11 billion worth of private investment. Our hydrogen production delivery road map sets out proposals for annual hydrogen allocation rounds from 2025 to 2030, helping to provide certainty for the industry. In December, we announced the results of hydrogen allocation round 1, with Scotland fielding two successful projects.

Kirsten Oswald Portrait Kirsten Oswald (East Renfrewshire) (SNP)
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The renewables sector provides the greatest job growth for Scotland’s energy sector, with the number of jobs in the renewables sector in Scotland growing by more than 50% in 2021. The future of Scotland’s job security, energy and economy lies with renewables. When will the UK Government finally match support for the Scottish Government’s £500 million just transition fund?

John Lamont Portrait John Lamont
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The SNP’s position on energy, particularly in relation to oil and gas, is frankly all over the place. We do not know where the First Minister of Scotland stands on this. He described developing Rosebank as “the wrong decision”, but now seems to think that oil reserves can fund capital investment in an independent Scotland. We fully recognise the importance of the energy sector to Scotland. That includes oil and gas and renewables. I will continue to work with all parts of the energy sector to develop that for the Scottish economy.

Chris Law Portrait Chris Law (Dundee West) (SNP)
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3. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the future of levelling up in Scotland.

John Lamont Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (John Lamont)
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The UK Government’s funding for levelling up has now reached more than £2.9 billion in Scotland. That includes almost £900 million of new funding announced last year. That is the equivalent of £535 per person in Scotland, and the total is set to rise with millions of pounds of further investment in 2024.

Chris Law Portrait Chris Law
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The Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, the hon. Member for Redcar (Jacob Young), will meet me on Friday, but sadly that is not a courtesy that has been extended to the leader of Dundee City Council, who has repeatedly invited the Minister to a roundtable in the city to discuss funding that is critical to projects such as the Eden Project, and the life sciences innovation district among others. I have sought to continue the long-term investment and regeneration of the city through those projects in the Tay Cities region deal. Will the Minister assure me that he will urge his colleague to include those in our discussions on Friday and that his dreadful lack of engagement is from a UK Government that are committed to levelling up, not an outgoing Government winding down?

John Lamont Portrait John Lamont
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The UK Government are investing more than £60 million in projects in Dundee, and those projects have been identified as key priorities by Dundee City Council and other local partners. The hon. Member mentions the leader of Dundee City Council. After receiving £20 million for Dundee from UK levelling-up funds, the SNP leader of Dundee council recently said,

“This is just the UK Government element. I’m pursuing the Scottish Government as well, because we need both governments to work with us if we’re to make significant economic inroads into the challenges we face.”

I hope the hon. Member will agree to write a joint letter with me to his SNP colleagues in Holyrood asking, “Where is the money?”

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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We now come to SNP spokesperson.

Tommy Sheppard Portrait Tommy Sheppard (Edinburgh East) (SNP)
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On behalf of myself and my colleagues, I ask the Minister to also convey our condolences to the Secretary of State. We were given assurances prior to Brexit that the structural funds that provide the capital funding for Scotland would be replaced by specific levelling-up and shared prosperity funding after Brexit. Can the Minister say how that funding from those sources compares to what it was prior to leaving the EU?

John Lamont Portrait John Lamont
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Four years since the United Kingdom left the EU, the UK Government have announced more than £1.4 billion for new levelling-up initiatives across Scotland. That exceeds the entire seven-year budget for the EU structural and investment funds for Scotland for 2014 to 2020—roughly £780 million of funding—so I do not accept the analysis the hon. Member presents.

Tommy Sheppard Portrait Tommy Sheppard
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Well, no, it does not actually, because this Government have a tendency to draw all sources of capital funding into its levelling-up myth. I am talking about the specific levelling-up fund and the shared prosperity fund. They have given Scotland £471 million and £212 million respectively. That is exactly £98 million short of the £780 million that came from the EU structural funds, so when can we have the money please?

John Lamont Portrait John Lamont
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The hon. Member is simply not correct: £2.9 billion has been invested by this Government into communities the length and breadth of Scotland. I know that SNP Members have fought tooth and nail to stop that investment being delivered to those local communities, but this Conservative Government will continue to invest directly into Scotland.

Karin Smyth Portrait Karin Smyth (Bristol South) (Lab)
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4. Whether he has had discussions with the Scottish Government on funding for nursing bursaries for those studying in Scotland.

John Lamont Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (John Lamont)
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Funding policies for those studying in Scotland, including nursing students, is a matter for the Scottish Government. The UK Government support collaboration between our nations to share best practice and provide better healthcare services. We would be open to future discussions with the Scottish Government about this matter.

Karin Smyth Portrait Karin Smyth
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My constituent has been denied additional funding for her nursing degree because she is domiciled in England but studying in Scotland, whereas those studying in England can access the funding regardless of where they are domiciled. What advice can the Government give me to help my constituent?

John Lamont Portrait John Lamont
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Nursing bursaries for those wishing to study in Scotland are a matter for the Scottish Government. Unfortunately, the Scottish Government only provide bursary support for Scottish-domiciled nursing students, and only if they are enrolled in a course that leads to a diploma in Scotland. In contrast, the UK Government ensure that the learning support fund is available to all UK students studying at English universities, regardless of where they are domiciled. I will be happy, on behalf of the hon. Lady, to set up a meeting with my colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care to see how we might be able to pursue the matter further.

Douglas Chapman Portrait Douglas Chapman (Dunfermline and West Fife) (SNP)
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5. Whether he has made a recent assessment of the impact of import and export requirements following the UK’s exit from the EU on Scottish businesses. [R]

Carol Monaghan Portrait Carol Monaghan (Glasgow North West) (SNP)
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12. Whether he has made a recent assessment of the impact of import and export requirements following the UK’s exit from the EU on Scottish businesses.

John Lamont Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (John Lamont)
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The latest official figures speak for themselves and show sustained increases in both the import and export of goods between Scotland and the EU, with healthy results for services too.

Douglas Chapman Portrait Douglas Chapman
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The Brexit pain continues, with £140 billion wiped off the UK economy and more regulation making it tough for exporters. Relative to similarly sized countries, Scotland’s exports are under real pressure. Two themes in the First Minister’s industrial strategy were to become an independent nation and to rejoin the EU. All the evidence points to the fact that that is the correct course of action, does it not?

John Lamont Portrait John Lamont
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No, it does not. Scotland continues to punch above its weight in exports, goods and services and foreign direct investment. Trade is now well above pre-Brexit levels.

Carol Monaghan Portrait Carol Monaghan
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According to the Government’s own figures, new Brexit controls will cost the UK £330 million. Businesses in Glasgow are telling me they are already suffering from increased costs and red tape when importing parts and exporting goods. Can the Minister explain to businesses in my Glasgow North West constituency how Brexit is good for them?

John Lamont Portrait John Lamont
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The hon. Lady and the SNP really do have a brass neck speaking about business costs, given their own policy of setting up a hard border at Berwick, next to my constituency. That would risk thousands of jobs and force thousands of companies out of business—it would be a most damaging and reckless economic step. We will work through any short-term issues, but the answer is not the long-term decline proposed by the SNP.

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab)
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6. What recent steps his Department has taken to help support the Scottish economy.

John Lamont Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (John Lamont)
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Supporting economic growth in Scotland remains a core priority of the Scotland Office. We are focused on long-term economic growth, generating more jobs and boosting business investment. That is exemplified by investment of up to £372 million in the Scottish freeport and investment zones programmes, on top of our £1.5 billion-worth of investment into growth deals across the whole of Scotland.

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy
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The former right hon. Member for Kingswood and Government net zero tsar, Chris Skidmore, said that what businesses and investors need from the Government is certainty, clarity, consistency and continuity. Never has that been more true than in Scotland, where there is huge potential for businesses and communities to flourish as a result of the green transition. However, they are not getting the certainty, clarity, consistency and continuity that they need from this Government, are they?

John Lamont Portrait John Lamont
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I do not accept that analysis. For example, the UK has a world-leading ambition to deploy up to 50 GW of offshore wind by the year 2030, with up to 5 GW coming from offshore floating wind. Offshore wind provides secure, domestically generated electricity and will play a key role in decarbonising the UK power system by 2035, achieving net zero by 2050. I do not share the hon. Lady’s analysis of this Government’s focus in that area.

Kevin Foster Portrait Kevin Foster (Torbay) (Con)
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Does the Minister share my frustration that, while his Department is working to support the Scottish economy, the SNP is hitting it with higher taxes and is not supporting vital sectors such as hospitality in the way that is happening in England?

John Lamont Portrait John Lamont
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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Sadly the SNP’s sole focus seems to be independence referendums and making Scotland the part of the United Kingdom with the highest tax. I see that every day of the week in my constituency, as people find it increasingly difficult to justify remaining in Scotland when they are paying so much more tax compared with the rest of the UK while getting less good public services.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the shadow Secretary of State.

Ian Murray Portrait Ian Murray (Edinburgh South) (Lab)
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I join the Minister in passing on our condolences to the Secretary of State and his family on their bereavement. I also wish everyone a happy Burns day for tomorrow. I thank the wonderful Ayrshire musicians in the Public Gallery, who treated us to some entertainment last night.

Since the Government have been in power, working people have paid on average 10p on the pound more in tax. The supposed party of low tax has created the highest tax burden on working people in 70 years, making this the biggest tax-raising Parliament since records began. In Scotland, the SNP has looked at that tax burden and said, “Hold my beer,” as everyone earning more than £28,000 pays even more tax than they would in England. What impact does the Minister think that historically high tax burden has on the Scottish economy?

John Lamont Portrait John Lamont
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The Government remain focused on reducing the tax burden when it is prudent to do so, but as the hon. Gentleman identifies, we have an additional challenge in Scotland in the high tax agenda put forward by the SNP Scottish Government. I share his concerns about the impact that that is having on the ability of the Scottish economy to perform to its full potential.

Ian Murray Portrait Ian Murray
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The Minister seems to think that having your pocket picked for £10 and getting £2 back is something to be grateful for. The fact is that working people all across the country, including in Scotland, are paying for the Tories’ crashing of the economy. We know that the Barnett formula results in an additional £19 billion of public spending in Scotland’s economy, but last week The National reported that the SNP was being encouraged by its sister party in Wales to join the campaign to ditch the funding formula.

Sixteen years of SNP Government have left Scotland’s public finances with a £1 billion black hole. We are in the middle of the worst cost of living crisis in generations, yet historically high taxes are already being imposed on working people to pay for it. Losing the Barnett formula would devastate Scotland’s public finances and economy like nothing we have seen before. Will the Minister join me in demanding that the SNP rule out the policy to bin the Barnett formula?

John Lamont Portrait John Lamont
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The biggest enemy of the Barnett formula and of devolution in Scotland is the SNP. It wants to rip up the devolution settlement and stop the Barnett formula, which results in millions of pounds of extra investment going into Scotland each year. The Conservative Government remain absolutely committed to devolution, the Barnett formula and more investment into Scotland.

Gregory Campbell Portrait Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP)
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7. Whether he is taking steps to promote co-operation between businesses in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

John Lamont Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (John Lamont)
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The United Kingdom Government have taken action to make trade between Scotland and Northern Ireland easier. The UK Government have also committed to providing funding to deliver targeted improvements to the A75. That will provide better links between the Cairnryan ferry terminals serving Northern Ireland and south-west Scotland, benefiting businesses on both sides of the north channel.

Gregory Campbell Portrait Mr Campbell
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The Minister will, like many, understand that the economic powerhouse of the United Kingdom is usually centred in the south-east of England, to the detriment of the south-west of Scotland and Northern Ireland. Will he do more to ensure that that small 12-mile stretch of water between Scotland and Northern Ireland is bridged in business terms by greater co-operation and expansion opportunities for people on either side of it?

John Lamont Portrait John Lamont
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The hon. Member makes an important point. I fully recognise the strong links between south Scotland and Northern Ireland, and the potential to enhance those economic ties is great. Improved transport links, including the A75 and ferry links, are undoubtedly part of that. I look forward to working with him to see how we might be able to enhance and improve those links.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the Chair of the Scottish Affairs Committee.

Pete Wishart Portrait Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP)
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Scottish businesses would give their right arm to have the arrangements that Northern Irish business have, with their access to the single market and all the competitive advantages that that brings. The Prime Minister has described Northern Ireland as one of the

“world’s most exciting economic zones”.

Does the Minister agree with that, and what is he doing to ensure that Scotland gets the same arrangements?

John Lamont Portrait John Lamont
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I thought that the hon. Member was going to stand up and tell me how great the House of Lords is, a bit like his colleague the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), in a sort of pre-emptive job application.

Scotland is not Northern Ireland and does not share a land border with an EU country. It is disappointing that the SNP is seeking to play party politics with the situation in Northern Ireland, which, as the SNP well knows, has a unique place in the United Kingdom, and we will protect that.

Alyn Smith Portrait Alyn Smith (Stirling) (SNP)
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8. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on promoting Scotland overseas.

John Lamont Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (John Lamont)
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The UK Government work tirelessly to promote Scottish interests around the world through our extensive diplomatic network, forging business links and generating trade and investment. Our response to the Scottish Affairs Committee’s recent inquiry on Scotland’s international position highlights the extensive efforts we undertake to achieve this.

Alyn Smith Portrait Alyn Smith
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I am afraid that I do not share the Minister’s Panglossian view of this issue. Does he share my concern about recently published figures that show that, in the years 2019 to 2021, Scottish exports to the EU fell from £16.95 billion to £14.97 billion? Whatever the UK Government are doing, it is not working, so the Scottish Government have a pressing need to promote ourselves overseas for the sake of our economy and our society. Does the Minister agree that now is the time to increase that overseas promotion, not cut it back due to domestic wrangles?

John Lamont Portrait John Lamont
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Given the hon. Member’s interest in this area, perhaps he could speak with his SNP colleagues in the Scottish Parliament. They are cutting funding to South of Scotland Enterprise, which will mean less support for businesses in the south of Scotland to grow, innovate and export. Perhaps he could tell the First Minister of Scotland that promoting Scotland overseas begins with supporting businesses at home in Scotland.

Jamie Stone Portrait Jamie Stone (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD)
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9. What recent discussions he has had with the Scottish Government on ambulance waiting times in Scotland.

John Lamont Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (John Lamont)
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The UK Government recognise the important job that all NHS workers do, including those in the ambulance service. I see that every day of the week in my own constituency in the Scottish Borders. The UK Government would be open to exploring with the Scottish Government how we can work together and share best practice to reduce ambulance waiting times in all parts of the United Kingdom.

Jamie Stone Portrait Jamie Stone
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Last year in Scotland, almost 3,000 people had to wait more than eight hours for an ambulance, but in recent days, women who might have to travel a two and a half hour drive to Raigmore Hospital in Inverness to give birth or for specialist treatment have not been able to travel at all, because the roads have been closed owing to the terrible weather we have had. Does the Minister share my deep anxiety for any woman who lives over 100 miles from Raigmore Hospital?

John Lamont Portrait John Lamont
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I share the hon. Member’s concerns and agree that those long distances are not acceptable, but it tells us all we need to know about the NHS in rural Scotland. NHS Highland has said that it will need to substantially reduce spend following the SNP Government’s budget in December. The SNP Government are taking a slash-and-burn approach to the rural NHS across Scotland.

Douglas Ross Portrait Douglas Ross (Moray) (Con)
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10. What assessment he has made of the impact of the autumn statement 2023 on the Scottish economy.

John Lamont Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (John Lamont)
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The autumn statement supported families and set out measures to grow the Scottish economy. With a stronger fiscal outlook, the Government have the space to cut taxes for hard-working people and businesses. That is highlighted by cuts to national insurance, benefiting 2.4 million people in Scotland, and the extension of full expensing, ensuring that the UK has one of the most competitive business tax regimes in the world.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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Order. Will Members please not walk in front of other Members while they are asking questions?

Douglas Ross Portrait Douglas Ross
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The Minister is correct that the autumn statement from this UK Conservative Government provided tax cuts for millions of Scots, provided support for businesses and invested to grow the economy. That was in stark contrast to the SNP’s budget last month, which hiked taxes on hard-working Scots, failed to pass on support to the hospitality, retail and tourism sectors, and has been widely criticised across Scotland. Does the Minister agree, as I do, with Sir Tom Hunter, who said at the weekend that the business community in Scotland does not believe that the SNP has its back, and does he agree that that must change?

John Lamont Portrait John Lamont
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I agree with my hon. Friend, and Sir Tom is right too. Traders in Scotland have accused the SNP Government of undermining the rejuvenation of high streets across Scotland with their tax hike of 6.7% through business rates. The SNP must stop attacking employers and high-street traders who are already under tremendous financial strain because of the SNP’s mismanagement of Scotland’s economy.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock (Edinburgh North and Leith) (SNP)
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Despite devolution rendering it pointless, the budget of the Scotland Office, along with that of the Attorney General, has jumped by over £3 million since 2018-19—it leapt up by £1.2 million just last year—while the Scottish Government’s budget allocation suffered a real-terms cut. Around 80 people currently work for the Scotland Office in Queen Elizabeth House alone, along with around 30 civil servants from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. What on earth are they doing, and how does the Minister justify that to the Scottish taxpayer?

John Lamont Portrait John Lamont
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The team at the Scotland Office, both in Dover House and in Queen Elizabeth House in Edinburgh, are doing a tremendous job supporting Scotland across the United Kingdom and around the world. I would be very happy to welcome the hon. Lady to meet some of them with me, so that she can understand more clearly the important work that they do on our behalf across the UK.

None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
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Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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Order. That completes Scottish questions. We now come to Prime Minister’s questions, but I just want to announce to the House that we are joined today by the President of the Chamber of Deputies of the Parliament of the Czech Republic—welcome.

None Portrait Hon. Members
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Hear, hear.

The Prime Minister was asked—
Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson (Gordon) (SNP)
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Q1. If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 24 January.

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister (Rishi Sunak)
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I know that Members across the House will want to join me in offering our best wishes to His Majesty the King and Her Royal Highness the Princess of Wales.

This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, this afternoon I shall be meeting the extraordinary 100-year-old holocaust survivor Lily Ebert. Lily promised that, if she survived Auschwitz, she would tell the world the truth of what happened. Never has such a promise been so profoundly fulfilled. As we prepare to mark Holocaust Memorial Day on Saturday, I am sure the whole House will join me in reaffirming our promise to Lily that we will never forget the holocaust and we will carry forward her life’s work for generations to come.

Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson
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Can I echo the Prime Minister’s comments on International Holocaust Memorial Day?

My constituents, like all of our constituents, rely on the Royal Mail to deliver important items of mail and packages, and for people to run their businesses, so they will be very alarmed to learn of the proposal from Ofcom that Royal Mail might be allowed to cut the number of days that it will provide that service. Will the Prime Minister give a commitment to me here today that, on his watch, there will be no reduction in the postal services provided by the Royal Mail in Scotland or anywhere else?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of the Royal Mail’s universal service obligation. As the hon. Member will have heard this morning from the Under-Secretary of State for Business and Trade, my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), we remain absolutely committed to ensuring that it remains as it is.

Paul Holmes Portrait Paul Holmes (Eastleigh) (Con)
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Q3. The Lib Dem-run council in Eastleigh has just received a report from its external auditors warning of the possibility of fraud and ignoring whistleblowers who tried to warn it. Does the Prime Minister agree that Lib Dem leaders who shun accountability, shun transparency and simply say, “Not me, guv,” should start showing some remorse and responsibility, or make way for those who will?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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My—[Interruption.]

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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Order. I want to hear the answer.

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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My hon. Friend raises an important matter to the people of Eastleigh, which I was pleased to discuss with him on my recent visit to his area, and I know that the contents of the report are deeply concerning. It is disappointing to see this Lib Dem-run council rack up debt with absolutely no plan for how to fund it. The council has been issued with a best value notice, and I know that he is talking to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, which will be monitoring this situation closely.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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We now come to the Leader of the Opposition.

Keir Starmer Portrait Keir Starmer (Holborn and St Pancras) (Lab)
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Thank you, Mr Speaker. Can I join the Prime Minster in his comments about His Majesty the King and Her Royal Highness the Princess of Wales, and in his comments about Holocaust Memorial Day? “Never again” must be said more defiantly this year, as it is said every year.

Last week, we lost Sir Tony Lloyd, a true public servant who touched the lives of many people across the House and across the country. I am glad that his family were here yesterday to hear the many tributes to and memories of Tony. He will be greatly missed.

The Prime Minister has had quite a week—from endlessly fighting with his own MPs to collapsing in laughter when he was asked by a member of the public about NHS waiting lists—so I was glad to hear that he managed to take some time off—[Interruption.]

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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Order. I wanted to hear the Prime Minister, and I am certainly going to hear the Leader of the Opposition. Those on the Conservative Benches who do not want to hear him can certainly leave. That is how it is going to be, so get in order. Some of you will be wanting to catch my eye again, and that is not a good way to do it.

Keir Starmer Portrait Keir Starmer
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I love this quaint tradition where the more they slag him off behind his back, the louder they cheer him here.

None Portrait Hon. Members
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More!

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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The same goes for those on the Labour Benches. You can have a joint cup of tea.

Keir Starmer Portrait Keir Starmer
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I was glad to see that the Prime Minister managed to get some time off yesterday afternoon to kick back, relax and accidentally record a candid video for Nigel Farage. The only thing missing from that punishing schedule is any sort of governing or leadership. So was he surprised to see one of his own MPs say,

“He does not get what Britain needs. And he is not listening to what…people want.”?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about what Britain needs, what Britain wants and what Britain values—and that from the man who takes the knee, who wanted to abolish the monarchy, and who still does not know what a woman is. Just this week, one of his Front Benchers said that they backed teaching divisive white privilege in our schools. Looking at his record, it is crystal clear which one of us does not get Britain’s values.

Keir Starmer Portrait Keir Starmer
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The Prime Minister spouts so much nonsense, no wonder they are giving up on him. Even now, as his Government crumble around him and his own MPs point out that he is out of touch and has no plan for growth, crime or building houses, the Prime Minister is sticking to his one-man Pollyanna show—everything is fine; people should be grateful for him! The trouble is that no one is buying it. Does he actually understand why his own MPs say that he does not understand Britain, and that he is an “obstacle to recovery”?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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Again, the right hon. and learned Gentleman calls it nonsense, but these are his positions. He does not want to talk about it, but these are the facts. He chose to represent a now-proscribed terrorist group. He chose to campaign against the deportation of foreign national offenders, just like he chose to serve the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn). That is his record, those are his values, and that is exactly how he should be judged.

Keir Starmer Portrait Keir Starmer
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In 2008, I was the Director of Public Prosecutions, putting terrorists and murderers in jail. The Prime Minister was making millions betting on the misery of working people during the financial crisis. We have seen this story time and again with this lot: party first, country second. Safely ensconced in Westminster, they get down to the real business of fighting each other to death. The country is forced to endure their division and chaos—the longest episode of “EastEnders” ever put to film.

Meanwhile, this week we discover that Britain is going to be the only major economy that no longer makes its own steel, that the Government are handing out £500 million to make 3,000 steelworkers redundant, and that the parents of thousands are being told that his free childcare promise is nothing but a mirage. Is he not embarrassed that the Tory party is yet again entirely focused on itself?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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Yet more sniping from the sidelines, Mr Speaker—you can see exactly why Hizb ut-Tahrir hired him in the first place. The right hon. and learned Gentleman wants to talk about these things, but even members of his own party are now realising that he simply does not have a plan for this country. The hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas) said that it is difficult to “identify the purpose” of his leadership, and long-time celebrity backer Steve Coogan recently said that

“he licks his finger, sticks it up in the air, sees which way the wind is blowing”.

Even the Labour party knows that he is not a leader, he is a human weathervane.

Keir Starmer Portrait Keir Starmer
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It is not the sidelines but from behind him that the fire is coming. The Prime Minister can try to blame the Labour party all he wants, but the difference is that I have changed my party; he is bullied by his party. Has he found time in his busy schedule to work out why thousands of parents are being told by their nurseries that they will not get the free childcare that he promised them?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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Let us see what the Labour party is offering the country. We all know that he does not have many ideas for our country—[Interruption.]

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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Order. I am going to hear the Prime Minister.

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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One thing that we do know—[Interruption.]

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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Order. Members do not want to push it, do they? No.

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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We do know that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is committed to his 2030 decarbonisation promise, which the Opposition say will cost £28 billion. I was reading about it this week. He says that he has changed the party, but one of his team called that promise “an albatross” hanging around their neck—that might have been the shadow Chancellor. But he said they are doubling down on it, and all this is ahead of a crunch meeting this week, we are told, for the Opposition to work out how they will pay for that. I can save them some time, because we all know the answer: higher taxes for the British people.

Keir Starmer Portrait Keir Starmer
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There is only one party that crashed the economy, and they are sitting right there. [Interruption.]

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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Order. Mr Holmes, you have had your question already. Obviously you do not want to remain for the rest of questions.

Keir Starmer Portrait Keir Starmer
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The Prime Minister is Mr 25 Tax Rises, and he has nothing to say on childcare. Millions of families will have been listening for an answer, and they got absolutely nothing. He announced the scheme a year ago, claiming that it would get 60,000 parents back into work. Only on Monday this week did he notice that there were, in his words, “some practical issues” with that. Eight weeks before its launch, parents cannot budget, plan for work or make arrangements with their employers. The Prime Minister’s response is to say, “It’s all fine. It’s the fault of the Labour party.” Is this merely a practical issue, or is it yet another example of him simply not understanding how life works for other people?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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We are delivering the biggest ever expansion of childcare in this country’s history. While millions of parents will benefit from that, it is right that the right hon. and learned Gentleman should come clean with them about the cost that his plans will impose on all of them. He goes on and on about the green promise. He says he wants to keep it, but he does not have a plan to pay for it. What he is really saying is that he will scrap the borrowing associated with it, but he wants to keep the £28 billion of spending. For all those working families who are benefiting from our free childcare, why does he not come clean with them now and be clear that his plans mean it is back to square one and higher taxes for British people?

Keir Starmer Portrait Keir Starmer
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Making steelworkers redundant and failing to provide childcare is not a plan, Prime Minister; it is a farce. He may soon discover that with childcare there is an IT problem, nurseries do not have the spaces, they have not got the staff, there is a black hole in their budgets and there are eight weeks to go. That is not a plan. [Interruption.] Government Members can laugh all they like, but families are making plans now. Families are struggling with the cost of living crisis, trying to work out the household budget, balancing spiralling mortgages, prices and eye-watering bills, and then at the last minute they are thrown into chaos because their nursery says that it cannot deliver the free childcare that he promised. He calls that a practical issue, but I prefer the honesty of whichever of his colleagues briefed The Times that it was, and I quote, a complete “shit show”. [Interruption.] Who was it who briefed that to The Times? Hands up! Will the Prime Minister finally realise—

None Portrait Hon. Members
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Too long!

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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Order. I will decide how long the question goes on for. For those who wish not to hear it, I have told you the answer, and I will help you on the way.

Keir Starmer Portrait Keir Starmer
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When will the Prime Minister finally realise that the biggest practical issue facing Britain is the constant farcical incompetence of the Government he leads?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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Another week with absolutely no ideas for the country and absolutely no plan. The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about the cost of living and the economy, but he never actually brings it up, and we all know why: because things are improving and we are making progress. Wages are now rising, debt is on track to be reduced and inflation has more than halved from 11% to 4%. He knows that our plan is working and that his £28 billion tax grab will take Britain back to square one. That is the choice: it is back to square one and higher taxes with him, or a plan that is delivering a brighter future with the Conservatives.

John Penrose Portrait John Penrose (Weston-super-Mare) (Con)
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Q4. Changing gear, Mr Speaker. Too many oligarchs and kleptocrats are living off ill-gotten gains that are beyond the reach of domestic courts here or in countries such as America. Ever since the 2016 London anti-corruption summit, moves to create an international anti-corruption court have been gathering momentum to plug the gap. It already has support from countries such as Canada, Holland and Nigeria, and it would fund itself from the fines it charged. Will the Government take the lead in getting it under way, ending impunity for those crooks once and for all?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his work on this issue. As I am sure he will appreciate, establishing a new bespoke institution is a significant endeavour, but I know that he has discussed it with the Foreign Secretary, who will look at the proposals in more detail. In the meantime, as he knows, our Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Act 2023 has a raft of new measures to crack down on dirty money, and we will shortly publish our second anti-corruption strategy. We will set out ambitious plans for combating corruption both here at home and internationally.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the SNP leader.

Stephen Flynn Portrait Stephen Flynn (Aberdeen South) (SNP)
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Last night, as Tory MPs were once again fighting among themselves, the public were at home watching John Irvine of ITV News report on footage from Gaza of an unarmed Palestinian man walking under a white flag being shot and killed by the Israel Defence Forces. Such an act constitutes a war crime, does it not?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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We have been absolutely consistent that international humanitarian law should be respected and civilians should be protected. I have made that point expressly to Prime Minister Netanyahu, and the Foreign Secretary is in the region this week making exactly the same point.

Stephen Flynn Portrait Stephen Flynn
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I do not think it is unreasonable to expect the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom to rise to that Dispatch Box and tell the people of these isles and elsewhere that shooting an unarmed man walking under a white flag is a war crime. In recent weeks, the House has acted with urgency and intent following an ITV drama. The question is, will the House now show the same urgency and intent following this ITV News report and finally back a ceasefire in Gaza?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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No one wants to see this conflict go on for a moment longer than necessary. We do want to see an immediate and sustained humanitarian pause to get more aid in and, crucially, the hostages out, helping to create the conditions for a sustainable ceasefire. I have set out the conditions for that in the House. The Foreign Secretary is in the region today, and we will continue to press all our allies and partners to make sure that we can bring about that outcome.

Tom Hunt Portrait Tom Hunt (Ipswich) (Con)
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Q10. Access to NHS dentistry is a key issue in Ipswich and Suffolk. Locally, we have done something about it, and the University of Suffolk and the local NHS deserve great credit for establishing a new dental centre that will carry out 18,000 hours a year of NHS dental appointments. However, a source of great frustration for me and a number of constituents is that many people who train to be a dentist at university for five years and have their training heavily subsidised can immediately go private or go abroad without giving anything back to the NHS. That seems wrong to me. Will the Prime Minister support the view of many of my constituents that those dentists should work in the NHS for, say, five years and give something back? That would make a huge contribution to addressing the problem.

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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My hon. Friend is a long-standing campaigner for better dental access in his constituency. I congratulate him on the new dental centre that is opening, which I know he worked hard to deliver. I agree that it is right and fair that we seek better value for the significant investment that the taxpayer makes in the education and training of the dental workforce. That is why, as our workforce plan outlined, we are exploring whether a tie-in would ensure that dentists spend a better proportion of their time in the NHS. We will launch a consultation on that policy later this year.

Colum Eastwood Portrait Colum Eastwood (Foyle) (SDLP)
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In the week of the anniversary of Bloody Sunday, people in Derry are watching unarmed Palestinians being gunned down by Israeli soldiers. Over 25,000 people have now been slaughtered in Gaza. The Prime Minister has said—he has said it again today—that he wants to see a sustained ceasefire. My question is a very simple one: the next time there is a vote at the UN for a ceasefire, will his representative vote for it?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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Of course we will engage with all UN resolutions on their merits. I have been clear that no one wants to see this conflict go on for a moment longer than is necessary. We want to see an immediate pause so that we can get aid in and hostages out, because the situation is desperate for many people there, but a sustainable, permanent ceasefire needs to fulfil a set of conditions, which include Hamas releasing all the hostages, Hamas no longer being in charge of Gaza with the threat of rocket attacks into Israel, and an agreement in place for the Palestinian Authority to return to Gaza to provide governance and services. The Foreign Secretary is in the region. Those are the principles on which we are working, and I believe that those are shared by all our major allies.

Sheryll Murray Portrait Mrs Sheryll Murray (South East Cornwall) (Con)
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Q11. In 1859, Brunel opened his rail bridge over the River Tamar. In 2022, I met Network Rail and others to celebrate the agreement to build a simple footbridge over the railway line in Lostwithiel. That bridge still does not exist and I have no completion date. Can my right hon. Friend help?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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My hon. Friend is a long-standing campaigner for the footbridge at Lostwithiel station. I recognise her concerns and the pressing need for the construction of the footbridge. I am told that Network Rail is currently working on a funding solution, so that it can take forward this important project in the next financial year. The Rail Minister will keep my hon. Friend updated on progress.

Liz Twist Portrait Liz Twist (Blaydon) (Lab)
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Q2. A report released yesterday by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that one in four people in the north-east are living in poverty; the child poverty rate for every local authority in the region is higher than the UK average. Too many of our people are being hard hit. The Prime Minister says that his plan is beginning to work. Where does rising child poverty fit in his plan?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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In fact, the plan is working because poverty is falling in our country. There are 1.7 million fewer people in poverty than in 2010, including hundreds of thousands of children. Of course there is more to do—there is always more to do—to make sure children do not grow up in poverty, but that absolutely would not be helped by Labour’s £28 billion tax grab on their parents, which would take money out of their family’s bank account.

James Sunderland Portrait  James  Sunderland  (Bracknell) (Con)
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Q13. Bracknell Forest is a place of aspiration, opportunity and enterprise. Business occupancy rates and employment figures are, thankfully, high. Footfall at the Lexicon shopping centre is up and wages are up, but the cost of living continues to bite across the UK. What more can be done to put more money in people’s pockets?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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It is great to see, thanks to my hon. Friend, that Bracknell Forest is thriving, with people in work up and footfall in the town centre up and, as he knows, almost 100% of his schools are now good or outstanding. But he is right that we must do more to relieve the burden on working people, which is why we cut taxes for tens of millions of people in work earlier this year, worth £450 on average. We have to stick to the plan for lower taxes, a strong economy and a brighter future for the people of Bracknell Forest, and absolutely not risk going back to square one with the Labour party.

Debbie Abrahams Portrait  Debbie  Abrahams  (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab)
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Q5. If everyone had the same good health as the least deprived 10% of the population, in England there would have been 1 million fewer deaths between 2012 and 2019, and 28,000 fewer deaths in the first year of covid. Those inequalities are not inevitable. Does the Prime Minister think that cuts in social security to 85,000 low-income households, including people in low-paid work in my constituency, will help to address those health inequalities?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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I can assure the hon. Lady that we are committed to caring for society’s most vulnerable and that is why almost 20 million families will see their benefit payments increase this April. That will bring our total support over these few years to around £3,700 per UK household. The Department for Work and Pensions is looking very closely at how it can target its services precisely on the most vulnerable customers. I know the hon. Lady spoke to the DWP permanent secretary at length about that when he appeared before the Work and Pensions Committee earlier this month. I can assure her that he will be writing to the Committee on exactly that subject shortly.

Jonathan Lord Portrait Mr Jonathan Lord (Woking) (Con)
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Q14. The Post Office scandal has affected so many people, including my constituent Seema Misra, a sub-postmaster from West Byfleet who has an outstanding record of service to her community, and who was wrongfully convicted in 2010 of stealing £75,000 and sentenced to prison on her first son’s birthday while pregnant with her second son. Does the Prime Minister agree with me, and more importantly with Seema Misra herself, who is in the Gallery today with her husband Davinder, that she is due a full apology from the Post Office, a full apology from Fujitsu, and proper compensation as a matter of urgency?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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I know that my hon. Friend has been a great support to his constituents over all these years, and has fought relentlessly for the truth to come out. As I have said, the Horizon scandal is one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in our nation’s history, and, as I said a few weeks ago, we will introduce primary legislation within weeks to ensure that all convictions that were based on erroneous Horizon evidence are quashed. That will clear people’s names, deliver justice and ensure swifter access to compensation. Innocent people such as my hon. Friend’s constituents have waited far too long, and I am determined that they receive compensation as swiftly as possible. We have a clear moral duty to right these wrongs, and that is exactly what we will do.

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris (Nottingham North) (Lab/Co-op)
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Q6. In 2021, 3,527 food parcels were given out by Bestwood & Bulwell Foodbank. Last year that number exploded to 6,500, with nearly half of those parcels going to children. The food bank is now having to buy food to supplement donations, which can only be sustained for a short period. Rather than pretending that things are getting better, will the Prime Minister apologise for the daily chaos in the Government which is leaving widespread destitution unaddressed?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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I do not want to see anyone reliant on food banks, but while they are in place I have nothing but praise and thanks for the people who run them. However, it is wrong to say we are not making progress. When I came into this job, inflation was running at 11%, which has had the single biggest impact on families’ cost of living. Now, thanks to the efforts of this Government—most of them opposed by the hon. Gentleman’s party—inflation has been more than halved, at 4%, and we are combining that with significant tax cuts to put more money into people’s bank accounts at the end of every month. That is the right way to go about supporting people, combined with our extensive cost of living support for the most vulnerable. All the statistics show that that support has helped and has made a difference, and that is what you get with responsible management of the British economy.

Mark Menzies Portrait Mark Menzies (Fylde) (Con)
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Q15. In November I held an Adjournment debate on the south Fylde line and the need for a passing loop to double its hourly service and increase resilience against the delays and cancellations which again caused misery for travellers over Christmas. The assurances that I received from the Rail Minister built on the positivity generated by the reallocation of HS2 funds. Since then progress has been desperately slow, and my efforts to advance this critical piece of infrastructure for the people of Fylde have been frustrated. Will the Prime Minister meet me to discuss how the Government can help to get the south Fylde line back on track?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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My hon. Friend is correct: local transport projects are and must be prioritised, and every region of our country will have more transport investment as a result of the decision that we made on HS2. Work is under way to consider potential upgrades to the west coast main line, including improvements at Preston station which may support additional local services from south Fylde. I know that the Rail Minister is considering these options carefully as we speak, and will update my hon. Friend in due course.

Layla Moran Portrait Layla Moran (Oxford West and Abingdon) (LD)
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Q7. Thames Water is a shambles. During the recent flooding in Oxfordshire, it dumped sewage from 270 sites along the Thames in one week. Waste was backing up into people’s homes because of drains that it had not unblocked, and it could not even refill its own reservoir because the rivers were too dirty. Rather than offering a rebate for this shoddy service, Thames Water is intending to put bills up for everyone by 60%. Will the Prime Minister explain to my constituents why they are being asked to foot the bill for Thames Water’s gross incompetence?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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We have been clear that the volume of sewage discharge by water companies is unacceptable, and that is why we have launched the most ambitious storm overflow discharge reduction plan. We have now achieved the monitoring of nearly every single storm overflow in England—under this and previous Governments—and introduced unlimited penalties on water companies. Where there is evidence of poor performance, the Environment Agency will not hesitate to pursue the water companies concerned, just as it did, I believe, a couple of years ago in the hon. Lady’s constituency, when it specifically fined Thames Water £4 million following a serious incident.

Theresa May Portrait Mrs Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con)
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Yesterday the right hon. Member for Knowsley (Sir George Howarth) and I published our report on T1DE—type 1 diabetes and disordered eating, a condition estimated to affect over a quarter of type 1 diabetics in the UK. It is life-shortening, life-threatening and can lead to death. I am pleased to say that Hampshire integrated care board has already responded positively to the report. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the Government not only look seriously at the recommendations that we have put forward but act on those recommendations, which would improve lives, save lives, and save money for the NHS?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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Can I start by thanking my right hon. Friend, and indeed the right hon. Member for Knowsley (Sir George Howarth), for their important work on this issue? I know that both speak from personal experience. As my right hon. Friend says, it is important that people get the treatment they need. The Health Secretary will of course consider the report, and the NHS has already been piloting services to support those with this condition, as she will be aware. I understand that the NHS is now also expanding pilot sites to every region of the country so that even more people can benefit from the appropriate integrated care.

Anum Qaisar Portrait  Ms Anum Qaisar  (Airdrie and Shotts) (SNP)
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Q8. We entered 2024 with starvation and famine as acute as ever across the globe, much of it caused by the climate crisis, yet at present the world’s worst hunger crisis is in Gaza, created by Israel’s ongoing siege. The integrated food security phase classification has found that of the 600,000 people facing starvation globally, 95% are in Gaza. Starvation used as a weapon of war is a war crime. The Israeli Government have the power to end this starvation crisis by ending the siege of Gaza and opening all crossings—do they not, Prime Minister?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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I have been absolutely clear that we are incredibly concerned about the devastating impact of the situation in Gaza on citizens. That is why we have tripled our humanitarian aid for this financial year to the region and, as I said in the statement yesterday, we are working with partners such as Jordan and the United States to open up new aid corridors so that we can increase the supply of aid getting to those who desperately need it.

Miriam Cates Portrait Miriam Cates (Penistone and Stocksbridge) (Con)
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This morning the press reported the tragic case of a 14-year-old girl who took her own life following horrific social media bullying, including on TikTok and Snapchat. Since 2010, across the English-speaking world, there has been a marked increase in poor teen mental health, teen suicide attempts and children addicted to pornography. The United Kingdom has a strong tradition of legislating to protect children from serious threats to their safety and welfare, so does my right hon. Friend agree that it is time to consider banning social media and perhaps even smartphones for under-16s?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the impact of what happens online on our children, which is why our Online Safety Act 2023 tackles criminal activity online and protects children from harmful or inappropriate content, such as bullying or the promotion of self-harm, and from accessing pornography, and also from exposure to eating disorders. Ofcom is now rightly developing and consulting on the guidance and the codes of practice for how those platforms will meet their duties, and if they do not clean up their act, Ofcom will be able to impose fines of up to 10% of global turnover on the social media firms.

Tahir Ali Portrait Tahir Ali (Birmingham, Hall Green) (Lab)
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Q9. Recently released documents reveal that the Foreign Office had serious concerns about Israel’s compliance with international humanitarian law and its ongoing assault on Gaza. This assessment was hidden from Parliament while the Prime Minister boldly stated his confidence in Israel’s respect for international law. Since then, the scale of Israel’s war crimes in Gaza has been revealed to the world, thanks to South Africa’s case at the International Court of Justice. Therefore, is it not now time for the Prime Minister to admit that he has the blood of thousands of innocent people on his hands, and time for him to commit to demanding an immediate ceasefire and an ending of the UK’s arms trade with Israel?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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That is the face of the changed Labour party.

Nicola Richards Portrait Nicola Richards (West Bromwich East) (Con)
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Mr Speaker, may I start by thanking you for commissioning the Holocaust Educational Trust’s exhibition in Portcullis House, and for your unwavering personal commitment to holocaust remembrance? As we approach Holocaust Memorial Day, will the Prime Minister join me in commending the Holocaust Educational Trust for its important work, particularly its work with holocaust survivors who, despite living through the darkest moment in human history, continue to share their testimony in the hope of ensuring “Never again.” In the face of the appalling rise in antisemitism that we see on the streets of Britain, will my right hon. Friend join me in encouraging all Members to sign the book of commitment and stand up against antisemitism?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the Holocaust Educational Trust for it brilliant work, and I thank her for all her work on this issue. I will be signing the book of commitment this afternoon, during my meeting with Lily Ebert, and I encourage Members on both sides of the House to do the same and to reaffirm our shared determination to ensure that the holocaust is never forgotten, and to defeat the resurgence of antisemitism and all forms of hatred in our country.

Sarah Champion Portrait  Sarah Champion  (Rotherham)  (Lab)
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Q12. I represent a proud steel community in Rotherham that stands with the steelworkers in Port Talbot at this very worrying time. My constituents do not want to see their taxpayers’ money used to make British workers redundant, our primary steelmaking capacity decimated and our national security compromised, so will the Prime Minister change his destructive course, starting by looking at the credible multi-union plan to safeguard our steel industry’s long-term future?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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I know that this is an anxious time for steelworkers in south Wales, but we are committed to working with the steel sector to secure a positive and sustainable future. The hon. Lady will know that, during the pandemic, we provided support to Celsa to safeguard jobs and ensure the sustainability of its steel plant in south Wales. The proposed complete closure of the plant would have seen the loss of 8,000 direct jobs in south Wales, and thousands more across the supply chain. Because of the Government’s investment, support and partnership with Tata, we have safeguarded 5,000 direct jobs and thousands more in the supply chain, and we have ensured the long-term sustainability of the steel plant so that it has a brighter future. Obviously this is difficult, but it is entirely churlish of the hon. Lady not to recognise one of the largest support packages that any Government have provided to any company, safeguarding thousands of jobs in the process.

Extreme Weather Events: Resilience

Wednesday 24th January 2024

(4 months, 4 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Urgent Questions are proposed each morning by backbench MPs, and up to two may be selected each day by the Speaker. Chosen Urgent Questions are announced 30 minutes before Parliament sits each day.

Each Urgent Question requires a Government Minister to give a response on the debate topic.

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

12:37
Pat McFadden Portrait Mr Pat McFadden (Wolverhampton South East) (Lab)
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(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State in the Cabinet Office if he will make a statement on the UK’s resilience to recent extreme weather events, including Storm Isha and Storm Jocelyn.

Alex Burghart Portrait The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Alex Burghart)
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I begin by saying how sorry the Government were to hear that four people—two in this country and two in Ireland—sadly lost their lives due to Storm Isha. I extend my sympathy to their family and friends. At the same time, I praise our emergency and utility workers who worked so hard to help the public in very difficult conditions.

Forecasters at the Met Office raised a rare whole-country weather warning for the wind over the weekend, in preparation for Storm Isha. The warning encompassed even rarer amber and red warnings for wind in the areas forecast to experience the worst of the storm. Indeed, wind gusts reached a peak of 99 mph in Northumberland and 124 mph across the Cairngorms. Although the storm had the potential to be extremely destructive, the vast majority of the transport and power infrastructure stood up well and recovered quickly, which is a credit to the resilience of our critical infrastructure and the response capabilities of our operational partners on the ground.

Storm Isha was closely followed by Storm Jocelyn, which reached a peak of 97 mph. I am informed that it was the 10th named storm to impact our country this season. Again, the impacts of Jocelyn in England were less than feared, with operational partners working around the clock to clear any disruption on our transport and power networks.

There is no doubt that the forecasting capabilities of our experts at the Met Office, and the accuracy and speed at which they can warn and inform the public of incoming severe weather events, saves lives and protects our homes and businesses.

My officials and those across government worked hard last week and over the weekend to co-ordinate the extensive preparation and mitigation measures that were taken. The fact that no escalation to a Cobra-level response was required for either storm is testament to our effective response structures at local and national levels. I am very grateful for the response from colleagues in the devolved Administrations and local resilience forums across the country. Our local authority and agency partners kept public services running and reacted to any local issues that emerged.

We are adapting to weather events not previously experienced in our country, and events such as these come with increasing frequency and severity. The UK is driving forward cross-Government action to respond to climate risks and their impacts on our economy and way of life. Our third national adaptation programme, published in July last year, sets out an ambitious five-year programme of work, driven by three themes: action, information and co-ordination.

We are ensuring a more integrated approach to climate adaptation over the next five years, through stronger Government engagement and co-ordinated policymaking. As part of that, we have established the right Government structures not only to monitor progress, but to tackle strategic cross-cutting challenges that will drive the UK’s resilience to climate change. This is all in line with the Government’s broader strategy, as set out in the resilience framework, which committed us to strengthening the links between our understanding of the risks that the UK faces and the action we take to prevent those risks from materialising. We must continue to drive forward these initiatives, which help us to curb the impacts of climate change, and at the same time build systems that help us to withstand extreme events as they arise.

Pat McFadden Portrait Mr McFadden
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I thank the Minister for his response. Recent days have seen the UK battered by two severe storms, first Storm Isha and then Storm Jocelyn—the 10th named storm of this winter. Liz Bentley, chief executive of the Royal Meteorological Society, has said that these storms are

“some of the worst in the last 10 years”.

Our constituents across the country have been hit by widespread damage, flooding, power outages, and the cancellation of flights, ferries and trains. In the most tragic circumstances, four people are reported to have lost their lives. I want to pay tribute to the emergency service workers, electrical engineers and other response teams who have been working to help people, restore power and get transport moving, often at risk to themselves, in very severe conditions. We owe them all a debt of thanks.

Of course, Ministers cannot control the weather—indeed, ex-Ministers on the Conservative Benches cannot even control themselves—but the greater regularity and severity of extreme weather demands a response from the Government. Let me therefore ask the Minister: given the frequency of extreme weather events, why do the Government not have a standing flood resilience taskforce, as part of the Cobra system, with a specific responsibility for building up long-term protection? Local resilience forums have been neglected since the passing of the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 under the Labour Government. What more can Ministers do to revive them and make sure they are properly supported? Last week, the Public Accounts Committee said the flood protection budget put in place has been underused since it was announced and is now expected to cover 40% fewer properties than was first claimed. That leaves more than 200,000 homes vulnerable to flooding. What is the Government’s plan for them?

Jocelyn may be the latest storm, but it will not be the last. The very least the public have a right to expect is that their Government| understand that, and are focused on the job and not on whatever is the latest episode in the Tory psychodrama that has distracted the governance of the country for far too long.

Alex Burghart Portrait Alex Burghart
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I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his warm words about our emergency services and utility workers. On his specific point about flooding, he will have heard the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which is responsible for this area, comment earlier in the week that, “Flooding resilience in England is a priority for DEFRA, as part of a whole-society approach to resilience outlined in the UK Government resilience framework.” For example, the Government are investing a record £5.2 billion in the flood and coastal erosion risk management capital programme. Since 2021, over £1.5 billion has so far been invested in flood defence projects across England, with over 67,000 properties better protected.

Of course, the response to flooding is just one part of our resilience work that is co-ordinated by the Cabinet Office. Mercifully, very few families were flooded out of their homes in the storms we have just had, but we are absolutely cognisant of the need to prepare. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will have seen the National Audit Office report published late last year, which notes positively that since 2021 the Government have

“strengthened the arrangements to manage national risks”;

that they are

“taking steps to address extreme weather risks as whole-system risks”,

a point to which I will return in a moment; and that they have acquired

“good forecasting data for droughts, heatwaves and storms”.

Over the past few years, we have seen a noticeable improvement in storm preparedness and response. A few years ago, there were still about 40,000 people without power three days after Storm Arwen. The storms we have just had were very powerful and about 400,000 people lost power to their homes, but 99% of them had their power restored within 24 hours as a result of the planning and preparedness that this Government have put in place.

We have learned the lessons. We now have improved public warnings, we have hardened infrastructure and, crucially, we forward deploy repair experts. When we see storms forming over the Atlantic, we signal to local partners in the utilities and the emergency services, and they go out and get ready on the ground, doing everything from clearing storm drains to getting ready to repair infrastructure that might be vulnerable.

We have better public information. The public are much more connected with the activity of storms. Naming storms may seem like a superficial change, but we know that is has improved public awareness of what is going on. We have clearer travel advice and the Department for Transport is doing great work through our operators.

We also have superior forecasting. The Government have invested a great deal in compute capacity and forecasting capacity that enables us to see where storms are coming from. Better co-ordination and deployment of resources from the centre means that we are working better with partners on the ground and getting a better response when extreme events take place.

Mark Pritchard Portrait Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con)
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I thank the Minister for his statement and I thank his officials in the Cabinet Office who do so much that is often unseen. On those with a higher public profile, will he join me in thanking the Environment Agency emergency response teams for the west midlands, the Shropshire fire and rescue teams, who have done such a great job, and all the officials at Severn Trent Water, Shropshire Council and Telford and Wrekin Council?

The Minister mentions national infrastructure; does he agree that highways fall under that? Will he call on Highways England to do more to ensure that the M54, an important road in Shropshire and in connecting Wales and England, has less flooding in future and to put in place more mitigation and investment to do that?

Alex Burghart Portrait Alex Burghart
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I join my hon. Friend in his words of praise for those who have been working in the west midlands. I am sure that my DFT colleagues have heard what he said about the critical road in his constituency.

Kirsty Blackman Portrait Kirsty Blackman (Aberdeen North) (SNP)
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It is a little bit cheeky of the Government to take entire responsibility for the improvements. For example, SSE has put improvements in place and done a huge amount of work, for which it deserves credit, so it is not just about the changes to forecasting. I thank the resilience partnerships that improved the emergency services, the energy companies and all the individuals who stepped up to help others in their local communities. It was truly a community effort and people came together.

I wish the Government would take climate change more seriously, given the incredible amount of extreme weather events we are seeing right now. It is important for the Government both to talk the talk and to walk the walk when it comes to climate change. They should be leading from the front in developing a strategy to help to ensure that we are resilient in the face of climate adaptation and the changes that are happening, and they should put the funding in place to ensure that that strategy can be delivered.

The Scottish Government need funding to make the changes required for resilience. If there are massive geographical disparities in some of the weather events, such as with Storm Arwen, then Barnett may not be the appropriate method to fund some of the required changes. In the upcoming Budget process, it might be sensible for the Government to ensure that resilience funding is spread to the areas that are most likely to be hardest hit, so that rather than Scotland having a percentage share based on our population numbers, that share is based on the likelihood of extreme climate events. That would be most welcome, particularly when it comes to resilience.

Alex Burghart Portrait Alex Burghart
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That is a classic question from the SNP, isn’t it? The hon. Lady did not listen to what I have said and then asked for more money. Central Government are absolutely not taking all the credit for everything that has happened. As she will have just heard me say, it is our partnership with the people who work in the emergency services, local government, utility companies and so on that has made the changes possible.

On climate change, I am sure the hon. Lady will be pleased to discover that, since peak CO2 emissions in the mid-1970s, the UK Government by their actions have helped to reduce CO2 emissions by more than 50%, which is more than any other G7 country. We take these things seriously and we will continue to do so.

Neil Hudson Portrait Dr Neil Hudson (Penrith and The Border) (Con)
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I thank both the Minister for his statement and the Government for their clear actions to strengthen our nation’s resilience. As these extreme storms again unleash damage right across the UK, will my hon. Friend join me in sending our thoughts to the people whose homes, businesses and farms have been affected, and in paying tribute to the Environment Agency staff, emergency services, local authorities, electricity companies and volunteer groups—such as the Appleby Emergency Response Group in my constituency—which do so much to help people and communities through the trauma and aftermath of storms and severe floods?

Alex Burghart Portrait Alex Burghart
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I am very happy to join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the Appleby Emergency Response Group. So often, it is local community organisations, with their connections and awareness of and intelligence about what is taking place on the ground, that make a response possible, so I am very happy to join him in that. I am glad to hear that although his constituency was hit hard by the storms, it has managed to move on quickly.

Karin Smyth Portrait Karin Smyth (Bristol South) (Lab)
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My right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) asked why the Government had neglected local resilience forums and, indeed, the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, which they bypassed during covid. May I ask that question again? What lessons have the Government learned from covid and such issues in order to give greater sustainability to the local resilience forums that need to protect us?

Alex Burghart Portrait Alex Burghart
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We obviously learned a great many lessons from covid. As the hon. Lady will be aware from the documentation that the Government have published over the past couple of years, there has been a great deal of activity to improve our resilience and response to emergencies. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister gave a statement to that effect in this House in December.

The Cabinet Office assigns ownership of acute national risks to lead Government Departments, across risk identification, risk assessment, prevention, resilience, preparation and emergency response and recovery. The lead Government Departments may change between the phases as the impact changes and different competencies are required. None the less, the UK has adopted a bottom-up approach to managing emergencies, as most emergencies affect local areas. We have local responders such as the police, fire and ambulance services, which manage emergencies without direct involvement from the Government. The response to larger-scale emergencies is then led by lead Government Departments. It is only in the most serious cases that the response is escalated to Cabinet Office briefing rooms—known as Cobra—and senior Ministers from across Government are brought in. As the hon. Lady will have heard me say, this is very much about a partnership between centre and locality, and we are starting to see the benefits of that approach.

Heather Wheeler Portrait Mrs Heather Wheeler (South Derbyshire) (Con)
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May I ask my hon. Friend to congratulate the good people of Repton and the other villages that came together to help with all the flooding that has been going on? In particular, they are holding follow-up meetings to get more flood wardens across South Derbyshire. I have never seen anything like the flooding that has taken place in South Derbyshire. We need to get the Environment Agency to move on with plans for installing holding ponds further up the Trent and the Derwent to stop the run-off from the fields that we have had this time round. Anything that my hon. Friend can do to help me to get spades in the ground on those projects would be much appreciated.

Alex Burghart Portrait Alex Burghart
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I very much hear what my hon. Friend says. I know that my colleagues in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will have heard likewise. She will have heard what I had to say earlier about the Department’s position on flooding. On alerts, for instance, normal flood warnings were operated. We did not use the national alert because the situation did not reach that threshold, and our local partners did not ask us to use it. From what we can see at this stage, that local system worked well and helped to protect people and, where possible, property.

Christine Jardine Portrait Christine Jardine (Edinburgh West) (LD)
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The consistent storms we have had this winter have meant that our communities have felt more consistently battered by flooding and winds than ever before. Sadly, as the Minister mentioned, lives were lost at the weekend. Tens of thousands of houses and businesses were left without power. Transport links were halted in my Edinburgh constituency—there were no flights out of the airport, no trains were going anywhere, and roads and bridges were closed. Thousands of homes were flooded, yet the National Audit Office has warned that the Government have not set a long-term target for the level of flood resilience that they expect to achieve, and there are no concrete plans to do so beyond 2026. That means that any investment could be misplaced and inefficient and that homes will not be protected sufficiently. Does the Minister see that this could be a lack of foresight? Will the Government commit to reversing the current cuts to flood protection and do more to ensure that investment is effective?

Alex Burghart Portrait Alex Burghart
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The hon. Lady will have heard me reflect on what DEFRA said earlier in the week about the £5.2 billion of investment in flood and coastal erosion risk management through its capital programme, and the fact that, since 2021, the Government have put £1.5 billion into flood-defence projects across England.

On the hon. Lady’s first point about the level of disruption, we understand and sympathise with people who have been put in such situations. Although we cannot control the weather, we can, by degrees, become better prepared for events, both through the general resilience planning that the Government have been doing and by having better intelligence on storms forming over the Atlantic and making sure we have the right people with the right skills poised to act quickly when those storms strike. That, of course, means that we can minimise disruption to the public, even though we cannot eliminate it altogether.

Darren Henry Portrait Darren Henry (Broxtowe) (Con)
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In my Broxtowe constituency, some businesses and homes that I have visited have been affected by multiple storms and have received the flood recovery grant but, as it stands, those who have been affected by Storm Babet and Storm Henk can claim after only one of the floods. Are the Government looking to put more support in place for individuals who have been flooded multiple times by separate storms?

Alex Burghart Portrait Alex Burghart
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My hon. Friend raises a very important question. We know how awful it can be for families to be flooded out of their homes. There is damage to their property and effects, and sometimes to items with sentimental value. It is important that we have processes and procedures in place to make sure that we can help people out in those circumstances. On my hon. Friend’s specific point, I will make sure that he gets a response from colleagues in DEFRA.

Jamie Stone Portrait Jamie Stone (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD)
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In Scottish questions, I spoke of how Caithness and north Sutherland were completely cut off. All the roads were blocked during the storms, so a pregnant mum whose contractions had started could not even begin her 100-mile journey to Raigmore in Inverness to give birth. People speak of the helicopter ambulance; there is one based in Inverness, but if that has to go to an emergency in Lochaber, on the other side of Scotland, what does the pregnant mum do? To be quite honest, we are faced with a mum and her child dying. When the Minister meets the Scottish Government, will he please point out the utter folly of centralising these services in Inverness, when we have a perfectly good, workable hospital in Wick, which should be upgraded and put into full use?

Alex Burghart Portrait Alex Burghart
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I am happy to communicate that message strongly to the devolved Administration. I have visited Caithness and seen its remote beauty, but yes, one can only imagine what it would be like to be a young woman giving birth and cut off from major services. I feel that the hon. Gentleman’s plea for an upgrade at Wick is very important.

Ben Spencer Portrait Dr Ben Spencer (Runnymede and Weybridge) (Con)
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I thank my hon. Friend for his statement. Two weeks ago, Runnymede and Weybridge was flooded as a result of Storm Henk. When flooding happens locally, my constituents must navigate a host of organisations with different responsibilities, including Surrey Fire and Rescue Service, Surrey County Council, Runnymede Borough Council, Elmbridge Borough Council, Thames Water, Affinity Water, the Environment Agency and Surrey Highways. As part of my campaign to improve flood response and preparedness, and protection from flooding, I have been calling for a local flood control centre to be a single co-ordinated access point for accessible support and advice, and clear and consistent communication. Will the Minister meet me to discuss that?

Alex Burghart Portrait Alex Burghart
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I am glad that my hon. Friend has such a worthy campaign to support his constituents. I will ensure that his request for a meeting goes to the most appropriate Minister, who may be able to advise him on how possible his proposal is.

Seema Malhotra Portrait Seema Malhotra (Feltham and Heston) (Lab/Co-op)
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According to the NAO, since plans were first unveiled in 2020 the Environment Agency has cut by 40% its forecast of the number of additional properties that will be better protected from flooding by 2027. In Feltham and Heston, the level of water on our streets during storms that is unable to drain away is getting higher and higher. I have to push the Minister on this: is he confident that his plans will be sufficient to keep homes and businesses across the country safe from flood-related damage? This is a huge and growing concern.

Alex Burghart Portrait Alex Burghart
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The hon. Lady will have heard me say a moment ago that the NAO was pleased that the Government have taken steps to address extreme weather as part of a whole-system approach, which can have real advantages when floods are coming. For example, it enables appropriately trained emergency workers to be sent out to clear storm drains and ensure that anything that might make the floods worse is cleared out of the way. She will also have heard me say that DEFRA has committed a great deal of money to improving flood defences over the past three or four years, and that tens of thousands of homes are better protected as a result. We are not complacent, and are always looking at ways we can improve that.

Kit Malthouse Portrait Kit Malthouse (North West Hampshire) (Con)
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I welcome the Minister’s statement and the excellent work by the team at the Cabinet Office, who I know work extremely hard on these problems. As he will know, my constituency is home to some of our most precious chalk streams and winterbournes. I am sure that he is aware that water levels in the Bourne Valley and in villages to the west of Andover are perilously high. He will understand the ecological importance of those rivers, and the risk of the sewage system being overwhelmed and leaking into the chalk streams. The Environment Agency and Southern Water are doing great work. There is a huge pumping operation under way to avoid that calamity, but further significant rainfall might overwhelm the entire system. In his post-match analysis, once the weather calms down, will he consider giving special priority to identifying work that is required in areas of particular ecological sensitivity? Significant work has been done up and down my constituency over the past 10 years by the flood resilience group, Southern Water, the EA, and indeed riparian owners, but more could still be done, and it needs a certain amount of concentration.

Alex Burghart Portrait Alex Burghart
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I thank my right hon. Friend for his observations. As a former resident of 70 Whitehall, he understands the problems in great depth, and the chalk streams of Hampshire have no finer defender than his right honourable self. He makes a serious point about ecological sensitivity. It is right that we pay attention not only to the immediate threats to life or property but to our natural environment. As we know, if we do not do so, the damage can be irreparable and long lasting.

Layla Moran Portrait Layla Moran (Oxford West and Abingdon) (LD)
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Barely a part of Oxford West and Abingdon was unaffected by the recent floods, but Abingdon remains unprotected. In 2007, we were promised a plan, which was cut because of a lack of resources for the EA. It is not just the River Thames; it is also the run-off from the new developments, where huge numbers of houses have been built. What is the Cabinet Office doing to connect DEFRA with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities so that the developers, who have promised to clear the culverts, can be forced by the local authorities to do so?

Alex Burghart Portrait Alex Burghart
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As the hon. Lady will have heard me say earlier, the Cabinet Office has a co-ordinating role that brings together lead Government Departments and local responders. It would be under that guise that different Government Departments would meet to discuss issues of the sort that she describes.

Alistair Carmichael Portrait Mr Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)
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Even by the standards of what we are accustomed to in the northern isles, the last week has been exceptionally disruptive. I associate myself with the previous expressions of gratitude to the road staff, electricity engineers and others who have gone about their jobs, and to those who are responding even though it is not part of their job. The response of farmers, who just get on with clearing the snow with a bucket on the front of their tractor, has been phenomenal. Is this not a moment to pause and reflect that some of the changes proposed in other parts of Government could weaken our resilience? The switch-off of the copper wire network for telephones and the proposed increase in the response time of the search and rescue helicopter provided by the coastguard from 15 minutes to 60 minutes will leave us in a worse position if they are allowed to happen. Can the Cabinet Office do something to ensure that they are not?

Alex Burghart Portrait Alex Burghart
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I have landed at Tingwall airport in a storm in the summer, and that was frightening enough.

Alistair Carmichael Portrait Mr Carmichael
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You would not have done that last week!

Alex Burghart Portrait Alex Burghart
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No. One can only imagine what it has felt like in the Shetlands over the past week or so. My sympathies are with the right hon. Gentleman’s constituents. To his point about general resilience, the Government are trying to take a whole-system approach to understand exactly how we can work with emergency responders and those who are responsible for our national infrastructure. We are making progress, but there are always areas in which we can do more work.

Wendy Chamberlain Portrait Wendy Chamberlain (North East Fife) (LD)
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As both the Minister and the shadow Minister, the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden), pointed out, this is the latest in a series of storms that we have faced. In October, St Andrews harbour was significantly damaged as a result of the sea surges following Storm Babet. The harbour is run by a trust that dates from when James VI of Scotland granted the land to the people of the town, but as a result of the community ownership fund that the Government have run, and other funds generally, more and more of our assets are owned and run by local communities, which when faced with this kind of disaster have no source of funding to access support. Do the Government agree that they should be looking at ensuring that funding is in place, because St Andrews is a working harbour that is facing £3 million in costs. Without the repairs being made, there is a risk of other parts of the town being affected in the future.

Alex Burghart Portrait Alex Burghart
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I am pleased to have learned something about St Andrews harbour. I am sure that colleagues in other Government Departments, including DLUHC, are considering those issues. Community-owned assets can be a wonderful thing. It is important that assets such as local ports are governed by people who really understand the towns and cities in which they are based. I am happy to take that forward.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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I thank the Minister for his positive answers to the questions. Farmers in my constituency tell me they cannot recall floods and rain quite like this; indeed, they tell me the volume of rain has been of biblical proportions. I hail from the coastal constituency of Strangford, where storms hit with a fury that is possibly not fully grasped. The coastline defences around Strangford loch and within my constituency have been subjected to a level of onslaught never before seen. Can the Minister confirm what discussions he has had with the Department in Stormont, to which Westminster gave substantial financial help to address coastal erosion? Perhaps the same level of assistance can be offered again.

Alex Burghart Portrait Alex Burghart
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I will ask Ministers from other Departments to come back to the hon. Gentleman on the specifics, but he will know that we are very keen to see a restoration of Stormont, and I believe that the House will hear more about that very soon.

Sarah Dyke Portrait Sarah Dyke (Somerton and Frome) (LD)
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Somerset is so often battered by extreme flooding and, in response, the River Cam flood warning system is being piloted in my constituency. A stretch near North Cadbury will be fitted out tomorrow with laser depth-measuring devices, which will send real-time messages and alerts to residents when the water levels start to rise. Will the Minister join me in congratulating Liberal Democrat councillors and Somerset Rivers Authority for that initiative and agree that we need to fund more extreme weather resilience plans for isolated rural communities?

Alex Burghart Portrait Alex Burghart
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I am delighted to hear about the initiative in Cadbury—I have fond memories as a schoolboy of walking around the hillfort there—and am well aware of the historical threats that Somerset has faced with flooding. I am glad that in recent incidences local government and central Government have been able to work together for the benefit of the people who live in that area.

Point of Order

Wednesday 24th January 2024

(4 months, 4 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text
13:09
Liam Fox Portrait Sir Liam Fox (North Somerset) (Con)
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On a point of order, Sir Roger. An organisation in my constituency where I had grounds to intervene on behalf of a previous pub tenant has issued its current tenant with a gagging order and verbally told them not to contact their MP. What can be done to protect my constituents from such bullying and to ensure that their constitutional rights are respected?

Roger Gale Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Sir Roger Gale)
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First, I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving notice of his point of order. The ability of constituents to communicate with their Members of Parliament is constitutionally important. I am very concerned about the matter he has raised. Constituents must be able to communicate freely with their Members of Parliament, and I trust and hope that urgent action will be taken to clarify that that is understood by all parties in this case. If the matter is not resolved satisfactorily, I trust that the right hon. Gentleman will seek advice from the Clerk of the Journals in the first instance about how this very important issue might be escalated.

Bills Presented

Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill

Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris, supported by the Prime Minister, Secretary Oliver Dowden, Secretary Michael Gove, Secretary Alister Jack, Secretary David T C Davies and Mr Steve Baker, presented a Bill to make provision to extend the period following the Northern Ireland Assembly election of 5 May 2022 during which Ministers may be appointed.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time today, and to be printed (Bill 150), with explanatory notes (Bill 150—EN).

Roger Gale Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Sir Roger Gale)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I advise the House that this is a very narrow Bill. If the House agrees the business of the House motion today, amendments may be tabled before the Bill has been read a Second time. I understand that the Chairman of Ways and Means has indicated that she will make her provisional selection of amendments soon after 2 pm. Members who are considering tabling amendments are asked to contact the Public Bill Office as soon as possible.

Whistleblowing Bill

Mary Robinson presented a Bill to establish an independent Office of the Whistleblower to protect whistleblowers and whistleblowing in accordance with the public interest; to make provision for the Office of the Whistleblower to set, monitor and enforce standards for the management of whistleblowing cases, to provide disclosure and advice services, to direct whistleblowing investigations and to order redress of detriment suffered by whistleblowers; to create offences relating to the treatment of whistleblowers and the handling of whistleblowing cases; to repeal the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 2 February, and to be printed (Bill 151).

Road Traffic and Street Works

A Ten Minute Rule Bill is a First Reading of a Private Members Bill, but with the sponsor permitted to make a ten minute speech outlining the reasons for the proposed legislation.

There is little chance of the Bill proceeding further unless there is unanimous consent for the Bill or the Government elects to support the Bill directly.

For more information see: Ten Minute Bills

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
13:13
Kit Malthouse Portrait Kit Malthouse (North West Hampshire) (Con)
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I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision about speeding offences on roads to which a 20mph limit applies; to make provision about the enforcement of moving traffic offences; to require 24 hour staffing of works on specified public roads; and for connected purposes.

As I am sure you are aware, Mr Deputy Speaker, life as a motorist has changed significantly over the past two decades. Cars have become safer, more efficient, greener and quieter, and yet despite the fact that the motor car is possibly one of the greatest contributors to human wealth, happiness and freedom, it has become seen by many as the root of all evil. Despite the enormous benefits that cars bring to our constituents’ families up and down the land and, indeed, to people across the world, for many motorists, the world seems to be filled with councillors and officials who are dedicated to making their lives more difficult. Driving is becoming a minefield of potential traps and penalties, such that drivers are becoming paranoid and resentful about the entire system. When that happens, order tends to break down, and the time has come for a rebalancing.

In the Bill, I propose three modest measures that would achieve a better balance and would hopefully see better results generally for motorists and members of our communities across the board. First, I propose that anybody caught speeding between 20 mph and 30 mph does not receive penalty points, rather they would be required to attend a speed awareness course. Repeat offences would require repeat attendance at speed awareness courses. I should declare an interest, having been at a speed awareness course recently after I was caught unwittingly doing 24 mph on the Embankment, along with the Archbishop of Canterbury—not at the same time or in the same vehicle, but he was also done for a similar offence.

The roll-out of 20 mph speed limits across the country has brought benefits in terms of road safety, but it has left many thousands of drivers disproportionately punished for straying over the limit. The fact that drivers can receive three penalty points for doing 24 mph in a 20 mph zone and for doing 57 mph in a 50 mph zone seems unfair to many and is in danger of discrediting the system. In addition to penalty points and a fine, drivers so punished would also face higher insurance premiums at a time when premiums are rising significantly in any event. As it stands, it is possible for someone to lose their driving licence by driving at 24 mph four times in three years.

Two years ago, it was revealed that as 20 mph zones were rolled out across London, Transport for London was setting a target of a million speeding fines a year with the Met police. That represents a huge increase in prosecutions and the accumulation of points. Analysis of Department for Transport data by Claims.co.uk confirms that of those speeding in a 20 mph zone, 49% were exceeding the limit by 5 mph or more, and only 19% were driving above 30 mph. Those numbers, of course, imply that 51% of those caught speeding were doing less than 25 mph.

In evaluations, speed awareness courses have proven to be significantly more effective in preventing reoffending than penalty points and a fine. If our objective is to improve road safety, particularly on residential roads, it would be more effective to put people through repeated courses, perhaps with increasing intensity and time required. That would be a more proportionate approach and would achieve better road safety. Points would of course still apply for those who fail to attend courses or, indeed, who fail their courses, which I understand is a possibility.

The second element of the Bill is for non-speeding traffic offences enforced by a local council or body other than the police. A first offence in those circumstances at a particular location should result in a warning letter, rather than a fine. A subsequent offence at the same location would attract a fine in the normal manner. Over the past few years, we have seen a significant increase in the number of traffic enforcement cameras operated by local authorities. In London alone, nearly 3.2 million tickets were issued in 2022-23, extracting about £200 million from motorists. The number of councils approved by the Government to operate enforcement in that way has increased steadily. There are regular reports in the media of the earnings of particular cameras. The most successful camera in Birmingham apparently pulls in £10,000 a day from drivers who stray into bus lanes.

A number of councils that have introduced enforcement cameras have started with a grace period, during which erring drivers have been issued with a warning letter for their first offence at a particular location, recognising that a sudden change may not be immediately appreciated by many. In Liverpool, the city of my birth, when cameras were brought in at one particular location, 1,400 drivers were caught out within the first 24 hours. Happily, they all received a warning letter first. That is a good and civilised principle, and it maintains public support for the enforcement system. It recognises that the vast majority of drivers will have made a genuine error, will learn their lesson and will not make the same mistake again.

This very British sense of giving people the benefit of the doubt should continue, and this Bill would make it a permanent feature. Anyone who commits a moving traffic offence—caught in the yellow box, straying into a bus lane or turning left when they should not—enforced by a local authority with a camera for the first time at a particular location would only receive a warning letter. Subsequent offences at the same location would attract a fine in the normal manner.

Finally, the third element of my Bill says that any roadworks on an A road should not be left unattended at any time. We know, as Members of Parliament travelling around our constituencies and to and from London, that the Government have struggled to control and minimise disruptive roadworks. Anyone who drives in any major city will say that unannounced roadworks with poor traffic management and inconsiderate positioning are a source of huge delay and aggravation—even more so when those works are seemingly abandoned and lifeless, sometimes for days.

Even in the past few days Hyde Park Corner, one of the busiest junctions in the capital, has been beset with works and temporary traffic lights, with not a soul in sight after 5 pm. There is a polite Government consultation out at the moment on increasing fines and tinkering a bit with the current system. My right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) introduced his ten-minute rule Bill, the Roadworks (Regulation) Bill, last year with an imaginative and more radical set of measures to address the same problem, and his “Can the Cones” campaign hit the mark with many.

My proposal is simple. It would require contractors to ensure that no roadworks on any A road can ever be left unattended. Someone must always be on hand to deal with problems, speak to the public, alert authorities to traffic issues and generally manage the site. That obligation would also provide a powerful incentive for the work to be completed quickly and the duty could be satisfied by having at least one person always working on the site—a very efficient use of resources and one that would show the public that contractors are being as diligent as possible and works are being completed as swiftly as possible. Above all, motorists would know that their safe and smooth passage through the works was being supervised at all times.

These three simple measures would improve all our lives, with greater road safety, a greater sense of proportion and civilisation in the enforcement of non-speeding traffic offences and less aggravation for motorists going through abandoned works.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Kit Malthouse, Royston Smith, Will Quince, Nickie Aiken, Sir Desmond Swayne, Philip Davies, Mark Menzies, Shailesh Vara, Julie Marson and Steve Tuckwell present the Bill.

Kit Malthouse accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 19 April, and to be printed (Bill 152).

Mark Francois Portrait Mr Mark Francois (Rayleigh and Wickford) (Con)
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On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker, my right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse) kindly mentioned in his speech that I brought in a similar Bill, or at least a Bill on the same subject, last year. I commend him on what he has done and put on the record that the roads Minister was here to listen. If my right hon. Friend or I put in for an Adjournment debate to give the roads Minister an opportunity to reply on the subject, perhaps the Chair might be prepared in due course to look favourably on such a request?

Roger Gale Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Sir Roger Gale)
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The right hon. Gentleman has been here long enough to know how to apply for an Adjournment debate. However, it is just possible he might find favour with Mr Speaker, as he would probably find favour with me on this subject. Other than that, I do not think it is a matter for the Chair.

Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill (Business of the House)

Ordered,

That the following provisions shall apply to the proceedings on the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill—

Timetable

(1) (a) Proceedings on Second Reading and in Committee of the whole House, any proceedings on Consideration and proceedings on Third Reading shall be taken at today’s sitting in accordance with this Order.

(b) Notices of Amendments, new Clauses or new Schedules to be moved in Committee of the whole House may be accepted by the Clerks at the Table before the Bill has been read a second time.

(c) Proceedings on Second Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion two hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order.

(d) Proceedings in Committee of the whole House, any proceedings on Consideration and proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion three hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order.

Timing of proceedings and Questions to be put

(2) As soon as the proceedings on the Motion for this Order have been concluded, the Order for the Second Reading of the Bill shall be read.

(3) When the Bill has been read a second time:

(a) it shall, despite Standing Order No. 63 (Committal of bills not subject to a programme order), stand committed to a Committee of the whole House without any Question being put;

(b) the Speaker shall leave the chair whether or not notice of an Instruction has been given.

(4) (a) On the conclusion of proceedings in Committee of the whole House, the Chair shall report the Bill to the House without putting any Question.

(b) If the Bill is reported with amendments, the House shall proceed to consider the Bill as amended without any Question being put.

(5) For the purpose of bringing any proceedings to a conclusion in accordance with paragraph (1), the Chair or Speaker shall forthwith put the following Questions in the same order as they would fall to be put if this Order did not apply:

(a) any Question already proposed from the chair;

(b) any Question necessary to bring to a decision a Question so proposed;

(c) the Question on any amendment moved or Motion made by a Minister of the Crown;

(d) the Question on any amendment, new Clause or new Schedule selected by the Chair or Speaker for separate decision;

(e) any other Question necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded; and shall not put any other questions, other than the Question on any motion described in paragraph (16)(a) of this Order.

(6) On a Motion so made for a new Clause or a new Schedule, the Chair or Speaker shall put only the Question that the Clause or Schedule be added to the Bill.

(7) If two or more Questions would fall to be put under paragraph (5)(c) on successive amendments moved or Motions made by a Minister of the Crown, the Chair or Speaker shall instead put a single Question in relation to those amendments or Motions.

(8) If two or more Questions would fall to be put under paragraph (5)(e) in relation to successive provisions of the Bill, the Chair shall instead put a single Question in relation to those provisions, except that the Question shall be put separately on any Clause of or Schedule to the Bill which a Minister of the Crown has signified an intention to leave out.

Consideration of Lords Amendments

(9) (a) Any Lords Amendments to the Bill may be considered forthwith without any Question being put; and any proceedings interrupted for that purpose shall be suspended accordingly.

(b) Proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement; and any proceedings suspended under sub-paragraph (a) shall thereupon be resumed.

(10) Paragraphs (2) to (7) of Standing Order No. 83F (Programme orders: conclusion of proceedings on consideration of Lords amendments) apply for the purposes of bringing any proceedings to a conclusion in accordance with paragraph (9) of this Order.

Subsequent stages

(11) (a) Any further Message from the Lords on the Bill may be considered forthwith without any Question being put; and any proceedings interrupted for that purpose shall be suspended accordingly.

(b) Proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement; and any proceedings suspended under sub-paragraph (a) shall thereupon be resumed.

(12) Paragraphs (2) to (5) of Standing Order No. 83G (Programme orders: conclusion of proceedings on further messages from the Lords) apply for the purposes of bringing any proceedings to a conclusion in accordance with paragraph (11) of this Order.

Reasons Committee

(13) Paragraphs (2) to (6) of Standing Order No. 83H (Programme orders: reasons committee) apply in relation to any committee to be appointed to draw up reasons after proceedings have been brought to a conclusion in accordance with this Order.

Miscellaneous

(14) Standing Order No. 15(1) (Exempted business) shall apply to proceedings on the Bill.

(15) Standing Order No. 82 (Business Committee) shall not apply in relation to any proceedings to which this Order applies.

(16) (a) No Motion shall be made, except by a Minister of the Crown, to alter the order in which any proceedings on the Bill are taken, to recommit the Bill or to vary or supplement the provisions of this Order.

(b) No notice shall be required of such a Motion.

(c) Such a Motion may be considered forthwith without any Question being put; and any proceedings interrupted for that purpose shall be suspended accordingly.

(d) The Question on such a Motion shall be put forthwith; and any proceedings suspended under sub-paragraph (c) shall thereupon be resumed.

(e) Standing Order No. 15(1) (Exempted business) shall apply to proceedings on such a Motion.

(17) (a) No dilatory Motion shall be made in relation to proceedings to which this Order applies except by a Minister of the Crown.

(b) The Question on any such Motion shall be put forthwith.

(18) (a) The start of any debate under Standing Order No. 24 (Emergency debates) to be held on a day on which the Bill has been set down to be taken as an Order of the Day shall be postponed until the conclusion of any proceedings on that day to which this Order applies.

(b) Standing Order No. 15(1) (Exempted business) shall apply to proceedings in respect of such a debate.

(19) Proceedings to which this Order applies shall not be interrupted under any Standing Order relating to the sittings of the House.—(Chris Heaton-Harris)

Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill

Second Reading
Roger Gale Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Sir Roger Gale)
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Amendments, new clauses and new schedules for Committee of the whole House may now be tabled by Members at the Opposition side of the Table of the House. I understand that the Chairman of Ways and Means has indicated that she will make her provisional selection of all those amendments tabled soon after 2 pm. If any amendments are tabled and then selected by the Chairman of Ways and Means, an amendment paper for the Committee of the Whole House will be circulated as soon as possible.

13:23
Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Chris Heaton-Harris)
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I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

This is a very short and, I would like to think, perfectly formed Bill. I thank all those who have helped to expedite this simple but important piece of legislation to this point. As Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my focus has always been on facilitating the return of devolved institutions and upholding the Belfast/Good Friday agreement in all its strands. This Bill is no different, and hopefully plays a part in that.

The UK Government believe in the agreement. We believe in devolution. We believe in localism. We strongly believe in power sharing. That is why I am today legislating to extend retrospectively the Executive formation period to 8 February 2024. The people of Northern Ireland deserve locally elected decision makers and want them to address the issues that matter to them. This very short extension provided for by the legislation will create the legal means to allow the Assembly to sit and get the Executive up and running as soon as possible.

Importantly, a restored Executive will have access to the significant financial package that I announced before Christmas, worth more than £3.3 billion, to secure and transform Northern Ireland’s public services. Ministers will be empowered to immediately begin working to address the needs of local people and unleash Northern Ireland’s full and amazing potential. This Bill to helps to deliver that outcome and support the return of devolved governance to the citizens of Northern Ireland. On that note, I conclude my remarks for now and commend the Bill to the House.

13:26
Hilary Benn Portrait Hilary Benn (Leeds Central) (Lab)
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Another year, and another Bill to postpone the Northern Ireland Assembly elections. It is worth noting that the last time we did this, something quite significant happened five days later, when the Windsor Framework negotiations were concluded, so let us live in a state of hope—tempered, as always, by experience.

I thank the Secretary of State for introducing the Bill in such a timely fashion. We support it and I have met no one who thinks that holding elections now would help to resolve the difficulties that Northern Ireland’s politics are currently in. However, while we may be in agreement about the need for this Bill, I do not think we should let this moment pass without acknowledging that the Assembly elected 20 months ago has still not yet been able to meet. In any other democracy anywhere in the world, that would be a cause of anger, not to say uproar. The very essence of a democratic election is that the representative body should be able to meet and do its job. I would just observe that Northern Ireland surely cannot continue to be the only place where that does not happen.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for the discussions that we have had. It is a pleasure to do business with him. As my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Peter Kyle), said just under a year ago:

“It would, of course, be better if this legislation were not needed. Northern Ireland is a valued part of the United Kingdom, and restoring the Stormont Assembly and Executive should be a priority for the Government.”—[Official Report, 22 February 2023; Vol. 728, c. 238.]

I know that is a priority for the Secretary of State, because he has spent so much time negotiating with the Democratic Unionist party to try to find a way forward, and from the moment I took on this role I have tried to support him and the Government in that objective. With the negotiations, it appears, having effectively concluded, we have now come to the moment of decision.

I hope the DUP will return to government. I think the DUP should return to government. I say that for a host of reasons, but above all because the people of Northern Ireland need to have their Government back. The consequences of having no Government for almost two years this time around—and, of course, for almost three years when Sinn Féin walked out of the institutions—are very serious for the people of Northern Ireland. As we know, the Assembly cannot even elect a Speaker so it cannot meet, difficult decisions are not being taken, the public finances are in a parlous state, and when the floods struck last year and affected so many businesses and homes, there was no Government in Stormont for people to turn to for help—none.

Conor McGinn Portrait Conor McGinn (St Helens North) (Ind)
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When I was at home over Christmas, I took my uncle to the specialist cancer centre at Belfast City Hospital. It was a humbling experience to see the care and dedication provided by the staff in that world-leading facility, but the stresses and strains of a lack of funding and direction were clear. When institutions and systems fail, people suffer. This has to be the last time that legislation like this comes before the House. Let us get the institutions back up and running, or the Secretary of State, with the Irish Government, should find something else to sort it out.

Hilary Benn Portrait Hilary Benn
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I agree with my hon. Friend that this is the moment to get the institutions back up and running. I wish the person he referred to all the best in their treatment.

The civil servants are left to make decisions that ought to be made by elected representatives. In the case of public sector pay, for example, some workers have not had a pay rise for almost three years—that should hardly bear repetition—and no decisions have been taken because there is not enough money in the budget to do so. That is why there was such a large strike last week, and I see that further industrial action is likely coming towards us. Everyone, including the Government, now recognises that that is not a sustainable position.

The proof on the Government’s side is that, in announcing the financial package, they identified money for public sector pay, but it will not be released until such time as the Executive are restored. If I may be frank, I understand why the Secretary of State took that decision initially, but in relation to public sector pay, that moment has now passed. That is why I called on him last week to release that part of the budget package so that the disputes can be settled, workers can get their pay increases and public services can try to address the many challenges that they face.

Sammy Wilson Portrait Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP)
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The right hon. Gentleman is making an important point. Many public sector pay awards have been made—nearly 50 over the past year. The only reason the current one is not being made is that the Secretary of State is holding teachers, nurses and so on as pawns in the game that he is playing in his efforts to force us to make a decision that he wants us to make, but that we do not wish to make.

Hilary Benn Portrait Hilary Benn
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The right hon. Gentleman links the pay question to his stance on the DUP’s difference of view on the Windsor framework and the protocol. I say to him in return that it is equally true that if the DUP were to go back into government, public sector workers would get their pay increase. That is why I said a moment ago that I hope very much that that will be the case.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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Back home in the papers, with TV correspondents and in media statements, those in the unions say clearly that the problem does not lie with the politicians but—with respect—it lies with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who has control of the moneys. He, in his own right, could settle the claims for those in education, healthcare and elsewhere. The moneys are there. The unions say, “Let the Secretary of State do it.” Has the shadow Secretary of State heard the same story that I have heard in the news and media?

Hilary Benn Portrait Hilary Benn
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I have indeed heard the unions making precisely that point. I have set out to the House that I understood why the Secretary of State took that approach initially, but I do not think that public sector workers should continue to be held hostage to the failure thus far. I hope that it will change soon in order to solve this problem, which is why I am calling on the Secretary of State to release the funds now.

We need to be honest about how we got to the deadlock that the Government, and indeed the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson), as the leader of his party, have been grappling with. One of the many consequences of leaving the EU was that a decision had to be taken about what to do about trade across the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Everyone agreed that the border had to remain open—there were not many things on which everyone agreed when it came to Brexit, but that was one of them—and everyone agreed that the EU needed to be sure that goods crossing that border complied with the rules of the single market. There was no escaping that. The Government decided that the answer would be the Northern Ireland protocol.

Before I occupied this role, I was one of many people who argued that the implementation of the protocol would not work in Northern Ireland as originally intended, including for reasons that many in the Unionist community had pointed out. In fairness to Maroš Šefčovič, he understood what the problems were and changed the EU’s approach. That is why I genuinely believe that the Windsor framework represents a significant step forward, and why Labour voted for it.

Of course, detailed implementation will need to be worked through—that is another reason the Executive need to return—but most businesses tell me that the green lane is working reasonably well. As I said last week—I make no apology for reinforcing this point today—the framework is here to stay and will continue to be implemented by whoever is in government in Westminster. With respect, anyone who thinks otherwise has simply got it wrong, not least because any hope of negotiating future arrangements of benefit to Northern Ireland with the EU will depend on the Windsor framework being implemented. If the UK were to renege yet again on an international agreement that it has signed, which has happened before, no sanitary and phytosanitary agreement or anything else would be reached, because trust would once again have been destroyed—absolutely destroyed.

At the same time, of course, unlike the rest of the UK, Northern Ireland continues to enjoy ready access to both the UK and EU markets, which is a huge opportunity for jobs and economic growth in the years ahead. Those are facts that nothing will change. What the Government have been doing, as we all understand, is negotiating on measures that they could take to reinforce Northern Ireland’s position in the UK internal market. The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley has wisely and repeatedly said—and I support him in this—that any agreement has to be acceptable both to Unionists and to nationalists. That has shown great wisdom. In addition, there is now a financial offer on the table that I think provides a basis on which to go forward. After months of negotiation between the Government and the DUP, now is the moment to decide whether to restore the institutions.

On the detail of the Bill, of which there is not much, I have one question. In his press statement on 19 January, the Secretary of State said:

“I intend to introduce new legislation which will take a pragmatic, appropriate and limited approach to addressing the executive formation period and support Northern Ireland departments to manage the immediate and evident challenges they face in stabilising public services and finances.”

I take it from those words that actually he was referring to another Bill that he thinks might be needed if the current negotiations fail. Can he confirm that that is the case? I am not asking for any further detail, but we all hope that the institutions return and that such a Bill will not prove necessary. Will he assure the House that, as and when there is an outcome either way, he will immediately make a statement to the House?

Julian Smith Portrait Julian Smith (Skipton and Ripon) (Con)
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The right hon. Gentleman asks in his questions to the Secretary of State about plan Bs and alternatives, but does he agree that any alternative to restoration of the institutions is suboptimal and not the settled position of this House? All parties have as their primary policy on Northern Ireland governance the restoration of the institutions.

Hilary Benn Portrait Hilary Benn
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I agree 100% with the right hon. Gentleman. He anticipates a point that I am just about to make in my concluding remarks.

Northern Ireland has come a long way since the Belfast/Good Friday agreement in 1998. It is unrecognisable in so many ways, and for the better. In all of my meetings and visits, I have been so impressed and encouraged by the energy, enterprise and industry of those I have met, who are working hard to build a new and better future for the people of Northern Ireland. That really matters when we know, for example, that families in Northern Ireland have the lowest disposable incomes in the United Kingdom.

The longer there is no functional devolved Government, the harder it will be for those businesses to seize the opportunities that are available anyway, including because of access to the EU market. Businesses that are thinking of investing do not like uncertainty. They want stability—they want to know that a Government are in place—so the absence of a Government undermines the bright future that otherwise faces the people of Northern Ireland.

The basis of power sharing, which was at the heart of the Good Friday agreement—including devolved government—was essential to the making of progress. Of course, there have been bumps and difficulties along the way and periods of no Government, but a generation on from 1998, I simply want to echo the point made by the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith): we cannot give up on devolved government. It is what we in this House believe in, and it is the responsibility that we all take on when we stand for elected office. We cannot have a system where any of us chooses to put down conditions and does not take part if those conditions are not met. That is not how a democracy works.

As I am fond of saying, we have to deal with the world as it is, as we seek to change it into the world we wish it to be. It cannot be, surely, that politicians from all parties and communities in Northern Ireland are somehow unable to come together to establish the Assembly, form an Executive and get on with the task of governing.

Robin Millar Portrait Robin Millar (Aberconwy) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am very much enjoying the tone and the thrust of the right hon. Gentleman’s speech. Of course, he is dancing between a majoritarian and a power-sharing arrangement in his comments, which are perhaps not quite as aligned as he might suggest.

This is not the first time that Stormont has been suspended. In the past, Sinn Féin refused to come back to the Assembly. As I understand it, that was due to concerns over the language, and the UK Government have taken steps in that regard in recent years. As such, would the right hon. Gentleman support the UK Government taking measures to address the current impasse over the Northern Ireland protocol, as modified by the Windsor framework? Could he support alterations that might be helpful in restoring power sharing and alleviating the concerns of the Unionist parties in Northern Ireland?

Hilary Benn Portrait Hilary Benn
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful for that intervention. I believe strongly in Northern Ireland’s place as part of the internal market of the United Kingdom. Since I took up this position, I have repeatedly made it clear that I will support any measures that reinforce that place and make it clear, but that are also consistent with the international commitments that the Government have signed up to.

Can I just pick the hon. Gentleman up on what he said initially? I am not arguing at all for a majoritarian position. I believe in power sharing—I am as wedded as the Secretary of State to the letter and spirit of the Good Friday agreement. I am making a point about the responsibility of politicians to participate in that power-sharing arrangement, and I would make those remarks equally to those who have collapsed the institutions previously and the current cause of the collapse, because in the end it is not in the interests of Northern Ireland to not have a functioning Government. I would like to clarify that.

John Redwood Portrait John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Hilary Benn Portrait Hilary Benn
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will give way, and then I will finish.

John Redwood Portrait John Redwood
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The right hon. Gentleman is raising a very important point. The whole point of the agreement and of power sharing is that it is based on consent, so how can the Unionist community consent to lawmaking by the EU in which that community does not participate and has no influence?

Hilary Benn Portrait Hilary Benn
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The right hon. Gentleman asks a very pertinent question, but that is a consequence of a course of action that I personally did not think was a terribly good idea and he thought was a good idea. The moment we left the European Union, everybody knew that there would be a problem that had to be addressed. To keep that open border, there were only two practical propositions. The first was proposed by the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), the former Prime Minister: she came up with a scheme to try to keep the whole of the UK within the arrangements of the single market, having announced that we were leaving the single market. That did not work out, so the second option was to do the same in respect of Northern Ireland. That is where we are, and the Government eventually negotiated the Windsor framework, which is an important step forward. These things are going to have to be worked through.

Really, what we are talking about is the operation of the green lane. Everybody agrees with the red lane: if goods are coming into Northern Ireland to then head off to the Republic, of course they should be checked, and that is what the red lane is for. We are debating the operation of the green lane. The question is whether it makes sense for there to be no power-sharing Government institutions—no Assembly and no Executive—in Northern Ireland because of a debate and an argument about the operation of the green lane. My very strong view is that that is not sufficient reason not to have a functioning Government.

I will conclude just by saying that the people of Northern Ireland have been waiting long enough, and now is the time for everyone to get back to work.

13:45
Julian Smith Portrait Julian Smith (Skipton and Ripon) (Con)
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I want to make a few remarks in support of my right hon. Friend the Minister who introduced this Bill. I think it is absolutely the right thing to be doing, and I pay tribute to the patient work over the past few months that he and the officials have done—those here in the Northern Ireland Office, in the Northern Ireland civil service and in the different political parties at Stormont.

There is a huge need for the institution of Stormont to be restored. Whether it is regarding public sector pay, which has already been mentioned, health waiting lists, creaking public services, charities and others relying on the public purse, or the limited offer of childcare in Northern Ireland, that institution needs to be back up and running. Divergence on medicines and other issues is also happening as a result of Stormont not sitting. The deal that the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister put forward before Christmas is really good: it provides over £3 billion and will unlock many of the challenges currently facing Northern Ireland.

The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) and his team seem to have negotiated a very good deal with the Government on issues around the Windsor framework. I hope that we will be able to see the results of that work in the coming days and weeks. I am sure some in his party will still have concerns. The deal will not be perfect, but it will be much better now that so much work has been done over the past few months to enable the DUP to go back into the Executive and make further arguments. For Unionism generally, being in the devolved Assembly is the key route to making the case for the Union—for the NHS, for the fact that being in the UK defence and security system is better for Northern Ireland, and for making sure that any remaining concerns on the post-Brexit arrangements are dealt with.

The Secretary of State has given an end date of 8 February for this Bill. My understanding is that the Government are supporting the final stages of the DUP negotiations. There is no bullying or any hard demands; there is just support for the work that the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley is doing with his party and the discussions he is having. There is a real hope that, in making the decision to get the institution back up and running and to go back into Stormont, if the DUP does so, the future for Northern Ireland, and for young people and generations to come, will be best served, with local Ministers making decisions in the best interests of this key part of our country.

13:48
Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson (Gordon) (SNP)
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I will begin, as is sadly becoming customary, by saying how much it is a matter of regret that we are back here discussing a postponement to elections. I am very firmly of the view that Northern Ireland is governed best when it is governed locally, and that for the sake of all the people of Northern Ireland we wish to see the Assembly return in early course. Having said all that, however, we see no utility in or prospect of progress being made by holding an election at this point.

There were opportunities last year to reflect on the 25 years of devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. I remember with great pleasure the special meeting of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly in Belfast. There were meetings across Stormont itself, and also at Belfast castle, at which those charged with the care of affairs and relationships between our islands and jurisdictions had the opportunity to benefit from the breadth of experience of those who were involved in the peace process, the Good Friday agreement and establishing devolution. As a temporary custodian of that role, I certainly found it incredibly valuable to have that transfusion of knowledge and experience. It was also a tremendous opportunity to reflect on how far all parts of the UK that have experienced devolution over that quarter of a century, particularly Northern Ireland, have advanced and progressed. It also brought into sharp focus how much is missed by Stormont sitting empty at present. I very much share the sentiment of the shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) when he speaks about hope being tempered by expectation.

I always very much enjoy the opportunity to visit Northern Ireland, whether in a private capacity or in my role as the SNP spokesperson and, when I can, to engage with businesses, community groups and representatives of wider civic society. I have had much cause to be grateful to elected Members across various parties in Northern Ireland for the opportunities they have given me to do that, for the doors they have opened and for the insights I have gained. What I have observed from many of those visits is the sense of frustration at how politics is presently failing in Northern Ireland. I say politics rather than politicians deliberately, because it is a failure of politics across many strands that has brought us to this point.

We saw that bubble up most obviously with the recent strikes. In the debates we had in this place on the Northern Ireland budget, I highlighted the problems caused, and the potential solutions deferred, by civil servants having to cheesepare budgets within the confines of the ghosts of ministerial decisions past. I remember from my time in local government the frustration of council officers if we were unable to provide any clear political direction about what we wanted to happen. While it was always possible under different circumstances to set balanced budgets, how much better it was to be able to set them in the context of clear political leadership on the choices we wished to make within the resources at our disposal. That is certainly a consideration, because it is impossible to set the strategic budget directions that are needed in Northern Ireland right now in the absence of a working institution at Stormont.

When it comes to public sector pay, the Secretary of State says that using part of the £3.3 billion cash allocation to settle claims ahead of Stormont being reconstituted is a political decision, and therefore not one that he is willing to make. I would just say as gently as I can that deciding not to act is taking a political decision in its own way: the decision not to act is also political. I would join the voices in previous debates—I am sure we will hear them later—urging the Secretary of State to reconsider his stance on that. Public sector workers in Northern Ireland, on whom the brunt of the pressures caused are falling, really do deserve the pay settlements that their counterparts elsewhere in these islands have been able to get.

I mention in passing that it was said that the absence of a functioning Stormont was the reason why the UK Government were unwilling to make progress on providing funding for levelling up. I had a wry chuckle about that given the UK Government’s disinclination to work with the devolved Governments in Scotland and Wales. There seems to be a certain amount of cherry-picking in the excuses offered. Punishing the people of Northern Ireland to try to bring to bear some additional political leverage on politicians has not been a conspicuous success so far. Neither do I believe it is an appropriate lever to use where public sector pay is concerned.

As I say, this has been a failure of politics. The fundamental problem that has led us to where we are stems from Brexit and the manner in which successive Governments chose to take that forward—against the express wishes, lest we forget, of clear majorities both in Scotland and in Northern Ireland. Again, I allow myself a wry smile, because during debates about the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 we were told that we would apparently be creating a trade border with the rest of the UK. Yet only two years later we saw the UK Government themselves going hell for leather towards creating a trade border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

I remember very much enjoying causing consternation on the Government Benches by pointing out in a Backbench Business debate about the Northern Ireland protocol, perhaps a little indelicately, that if Scotland were once again independent and in the European Union, we would be able to enjoy free trade with Northern Ireland. Neither can currently enjoy that as part of the Union, based on the deals that have been put in place.

In closing, I am very clear what my preferences are for the constitutional future of these islands, but short of that, bringing the UK back into the single market and the customs union would make this problem go away. Accepting that that is not politically realistic, given the stance of the current Government and the aspiring Government, closer alignment, on sanitary and phytosanitary matters especially, would be of enormous benefit, not just to people in Northern Ireland but right across these islands, particularly my constituents—speaking selfishly—and for those involved in agriculture and the food trade. That closer alignment would be much better, because the closer we align, the less significant these issues become, and that would be manifestly in the interests of all of these islands, whatever constitutional future we choose in future.

Roger Gale Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Sir Roger Gale)
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I call the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.

13:56
Robert Buckland Portrait Sir Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson). I listened very carefully to his assertions about an independent Scotland being a member of the European Union. I am not sure that that assumption is actually the right one, bearing in mind the view of some member states of that Union, notably Spain. That provides a reality check on some of the loftier rhetoric of the SNP about its position in Europe and the world, should it choose to separate from the rest of the United Kingdom.

I make that point, because the consequences of Brexit inevitably meant that an arrangement for the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic would always be difficult. I certainly bear the scars on my back, having been involved as a Law Officer throughout that process. Indeed, I helped to put together the Malthouse compromise—anybody remember that?—back in early 2018. I know DUP Members will remember that time very well, when we tried to work together to get somewhere that would satisfy everybody.

As the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) said, we have to work in the world as it is, not as we would like it to be. The one way we can actually find out about the operation of the Windsor framework is for the Executive to be able to operate it and to see how the green lane works—and if there are operational problems, then let us deal with them. I am as anxious as anybody to make sure that businesses and individuals, and everybody who wants to trade in Northern Ireland or through Northern Ireland, are able to do so in as free and uninhibited a way as possible. I do not want to see Northern Ireland cast adrift from the rest of our United Kingdom in that way.

Paul Girvan Portrait Paul Girvan (South Antrim) (DUP)
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The right hon. and learned Member makes reference to Northern Ireland being set adrift from the rest of the United Kingdom. Businesses in the United Kingdom are finding it difficult—bureaucratically difficult—to trade with Northern Ireland. As a consequence, the divergence of trade is continuing daily, and it is increasing. Everyone says, “Oh, the Republic of Ireland is booming”, but that is simply because its supply chain has changed. Goods are no longer coming through the UK, but straight from France. There is one point I want to find out about: what engagement has the British Government had with the EU on the changes that need to be made to the Windsor framework and the protocol in order for them to work?

Robert Buckland Portrait Sir Robert Buckland
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Obviously, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will answer on any engagement that the UK Government have had with Brussels. He is right to cast it at that level, because it is a matter between that Government and the EU, bearing in mind the Republic of Ireland’s membership of the EU, and the fact that the EU has that competence to negotiate a treaty. However, it is barely a year since the Windsor framework was agreed and in reality, coming back to the world as it is, it would be wrong of us blithely to assume that somehow that can be reopened here and now. I am not saying that it can never be reopened—of course everything can be reopened, and there will be an opportunity in a few years to look at the whole trade agreement that we reached with the EU in the 2025-26 review period.

My point is that unless we see a functioning Executive with responsibility for the operational aspects of Windsor being able to identify and highlight the problems and to raise them with the UK Government, at an appropriate level, we will not move the process on in the way that I know right hon. and hon. Members want to happen, as do I.

As I have said many times, the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, which we debated long and hard when I was Lord Chancellor, contains some measures that have been helpful and are now on the statute book. However, putting aside the “notwithstanding” clause, more was intended to be done legislatively to help cement the place of Northern Ireland in our UK internal market. I think that we should legislate, and I know my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) very much agrees with me on that point. We want to see that happen, but we are here in January 2024. I note the shortness of the period that the Secretary of State seeks to extend in the Bill, and I think that is sensible and right. Tempting as it is to have longer periods—I will not call them blank cheques—I do not think that would be right. I wish the Secretary of State, and everybody in the negotiations, well in coming to a sensible and pragmatic solution that allows the Government of Northern Ireland to continue.

I will not repeat the points made by right hon. and hon. Members. I see in the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which I chair weekly, the inability of the institutions of Northern Ireland to plan ahead in a multi-year way, and to provide the level of public service that I know they want but which they cannot do, bearing in mind the constraints under which we have to operate. Unlike previous periods of direct rule, this time there would need to be legislative change on the Floor of the House for that to happen. It has been made clear by the leadership of both main parties that that is not the policy of the British Government.

That is the world as it is, I am afraid, not the world as some would like it to be. I certainly do not want a situation where there is again an imbalance in our UK constitution that will only lead to more tension being stoked in the communities of Northern Ireland, rather than less. It therefore seems to me that the most obvious way forward now has to be the restoration of the Executive.

Robin Millar Portrait Robin Millar
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There has been much use of the phrase “the world as it is” in the debate, which I think is helpful because we must be pragmatic about this. Is it the intention of my right hon. and learned Friend’s Committee to look at Northern Ireland as it is now, including levels of inward investment, for example, or how business has responded to the 12 months in which the Windsor framework has been in place?

Robert Buckland Portrait Sir Robert Buckland
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We are in the process of preparing a report on the state of public services in Northern Ireland. We have taken a wealth of evidence, and I am grateful to the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart), who are active members of the Committee. They will have heard the same evidence we have heard. We are looking into the energy market and the move to net zero in Northern Ireland. That is a very important issue, bearing in mind hard-pressed bill payers, and the particular pressures that they are under given the way that energy is supplied. We are also looking at issues as varied as education right through to paramilitarism.

On the Windsor framework, I sound a bit like Zhou Enlai, in that in some respects it is still “too early to say” precisely what its effects are. There is no doubt that, as the hon. Member for South Antrim (Paul Girvan) said—I am sure he will intervene again—there is already evidence of excessive bureaucracy and problems that are real for businesses on the ground.

Paul Girvan Portrait Paul Girvan
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Because Northern Ireland sits under EU rules and laws, the carbon tax offset for energy costs is twice what it is in the rest of the United Kingdom, simply because we are having to take on board European law as opposed to what is passed in this House.

Robert Buckland Portrait Sir Robert Buckland
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The hon. Gentleman is right to point out some of the facts about the situation we find ourselves in. I will not labour the point, but I am afraid that the consequences of Brexit were always going to be complex and difficult for Northern Ireland, bearing in mind the particular importance of the border and the clash, if you like, between the irresistible force of the logic of a single market that wishes to police its border rigidly, and the immovable object of the fact that the border has a particular status and sensitivity that means that to make it excessively hard creates other problems and issues that we are all familiar with. That, I am afraid, is the difficulty that we all have to wrestle with. I know that this place sometimes risks sounding rather portentous and nannyish in the way it talks about Northern Ireland, and we have to be careful about that. But in resisting that approach it is logically correct to say that the best way to cure this issue is for the institutions of Stormont to function, and to function well.

John Redwood Portrait John Redwood
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Does my right hon. and learned Friend have a message to the Unionist community in Northern Ireland regarding why they should put up with EU laws that they do not influence, and why they should put up with border controls when they are trading within our own country?

Robert Buckland Portrait Sir Robert Buckland
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The message I would give is simply that we still need a functioning Executive to work out and bring to account, with proper scrutiny, issues with the framework, so that at a Stormont level it can be understood and debated in far more detail than with the time and capacity we have in this House. That work should be done thoroughly by the institutions of Stormont, so that this place, and the Government in particular, are even better informed about what they need to do to correct some of the problems that have been thrown up by the anomalous position that Northern Ireland finds itself in. That is where we now stand. We have to get on with exercising those institutions in order to solve some of the problems that right hon. and hon. Members quite rightly raise.

Before I finish, I will simply say this: I commend the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) for his forbearance, his patience, and the way he is approaching these issues. It is not an easy position for anybody to be in. All of us will have to make compromises in our political life—goodness knows that is something I have had to wrestle with. On behalf of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which I have the honour of chairing, I say simply that he goes with all the good will and support that I can muster on behalf of the Committee. I hope that 2024 will be a moment not of more pause and political vacuum, but a moment when responsibility can be taken up, the reins of government can be held firmly by my friends in the DUP, and we see the progress for the people of Northern Ireland that I know everybody wants.

14:09
Jeffrey M Donaldson Portrait Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP)
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I thank the right hon. and learned Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland) for his comments, and I wish him well in his ongoing and important work as Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.

I say to the hon. Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn), who is no longer in his place, that we recognise the pressures on our public services at this time, and we want to get to a place where we see our political institutions restored on a sustainable basis. As the shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), reminded us, that must be on a basis that Unionists and nationalists can support, because that principle of cross-community consensus is at the heart of the Belfast and successor agreements. It is the key principle that enables those institutions to operate in what remains a divided society in Northern Ireland.

To be absolutely clear, the Democratic Unionist party supports devolution. We support the concept of the people of Northern Ireland being able to elect their representatives and to have good government delivered through the institutions of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Northern Ireland Executive. We are clear that our objective is twofold: to address the issues and problems created by the Northern Ireland protocol as part of the withdrawal agreement of 2019-20; and to provide the basis for the restoration of our political institutions.

We are approaching the two-year mark since my party took the decision to withdraw the First Minister, which then precipitated a process that ultimately resulted in the institutions not being able to function. That was not a decision we took lightly. For months in advance, I and my party made it clear that we wanted to see a negotiating process under way between the Government of the United Kingdom and the European Union to address the very real problems created by the protocol. Sadly, those pleas were ignored and there was no process. In fact, we were told variously by Irish Government Ministers, EU representatives and so on that the protocol would not be renegotiated.

I stand today and recognise that, as a result of the actions that my party took, the EU was brought back to the table, there were negotiations, changes have been made and further change will come. I watch the political discourse back home in Northern Ireland and I listen to the commentary of some who share our concerns about the protocol and its impact on Northern Ireland, but who are talking up that some deal has been done—clearly, they think they know the detail—and that it falls short of what they need or require.

My party can stand on its record of the change we have delivered and will deliver. I say to those who point the finger at us, “What have you delivered? What has the Traditional Unionist Voice party delivered by way of change to the protocol?” Absolutely nothing—not a single thing—yet TUV members put up posters in the dark of the night, before any deal has been done, talking about a sell-out. What have they sold? What have they delivered for the people of Northern Ireland? What has been their contribution to securing the change that we need to restore our place in the United Kingdom and its internal market?

We read lots of other pearls of wisdom on social media about what is needed and required. We hear all kinds of speculation from commentators about what has been agreed, despite the fact that they have not seen the detail. There is undoubtedly an attempt to orchestrate opposition to a deal and agreement that are not yet concluded. The very fact that we are here today in the House of Commons extending legislation reflects the reality that no agreement has yet been reached. If it had, we would not be here.

There are some, though, who are putting it about for their own narrow purposes that certain things have been agreed, the deal is all there and they know what it is. They are entitled to their view—everyone is entitled to their perspective—but they should wait until an agreement is reached before they make their final verdict and assess the progress that has been made before they reach their conclusion. I suspect what is going on is not about that.

The truth is that there are some—a tiny minority, but there are some—who do not want Stormont back or an Assembly in Northern Ireland. They would rather have imperfect direct rule than an imperfect Stormont. That is what they say, yet they are the same people who constantly berate the Government of the United Kingdom and this Parliament for selling them out. They constantly point the finger at the United Kingdom Government and say, “You have sold us short. You have betrayed us. You have let us down,” yet they want to hand all the power back to that Government. That is not the view of the vast majority of Unionists or people in Northern Ireland, and we understand that, which is why we are committed to getting a solution, moving things forward, making progress and resolving the issues that have harmed Northern Ireland—our economy, our businesses and, yes, our place in the United Kingdom.

I am a proud Unionist. I am proud to be part of this United Kingdom. I am proud to have served my country in this Parliament for almost 27 years. I am proud of the service that I have given, unlike some others, to my country, when I put on the uniform of the Ulster Defence Regiment to protect everyone in the community from terrorism and violence, yet today, because of the stirring up that is going on, I was threatened by those who never put on a uniform and who have not served our country. I checked out one of the people who threatened me on the register, and they did not vote at the last election. They cannot even come out to vote for our future in the Union, never mind doing anything about it, yet they are threatening me, and people like me who are working day and night to try to find solutions and to move Northern Ireland forward on a basis that the vast majority of people can support.

I say this to those who stir up and threaten: the Provisional IRA attacked me in the past, and it did not deflect me from the task that I and my colleagues have to do our jobs and get the best we can for Northern Ireland, and I will not be deflected now. I will continue on the course. I will continue to engage with the Government until we get the progress needed to enable us to take a decision about whether the deal is sufficient to restore the political institutions.

Let us not forget that when we took the decision to come out of the institutions, it was about the protocol and restoring Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom and its internal market. It is about ensuring that goods flow freely from Great Britain to Northern Ireland when they are staying within the United Kingdom. It is about ensuring that our place in the economic and political Union is respected and protected in law. That is important, and that is what we are striving to achieve, to ensure that Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom is valued, respected and protected, and that our right to trade within our own country is respected and protected.

That is what we are aiming to achieve, but I make no apology for us also aiming to strengthen our ties across this United Kingdom. Devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has altered the way in which we govern in this nation. Brexit—our decision to leave the European Union—has altered things, which is why, as part of what we are proposing, we want to see a more joined-up, cohesive approach across the Union, working together on economic issues, trade issues, education and health. We are working to make progress on that.

I want to talk about something else, which I found quite insulting: when the Secretary of State convened talks at Hillsborough to discuss the funding of our public services in Northern Ireland. I did not ask him to do that. I am very clear that for me this is not about the money; this is about Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom. When we have made the progress that I hope we will make, we will sit down with the Government and finalise arrangements in relation to the future sustainability of our political institutions and the funding of our public services.

I want to echo comments made by other colleagues in the House. Our public services are only as effective as the people who work in them. During the covid pandemic, we saw our healthcare workers—our doctors, our nurses, our ancillary staff and our care workers—on the frontline working hard, taking risks and putting themselves on the line. In education, our teachers are investing in the future of our young people, and many others work across our public services in Northern Ireland. They deserve their pay rise. They have earned their pay rise. It is essential to the delivery of our public services that they get their pay rise.

In advance of reaching an agreement on the outstanding issues—whenever that might be; I believe we are moving towards finalising them—I hope that the Secretary of State will transfer the funding for 2023-24 that the Treasury has committed to and enable our public sector workers to have the pay rise that they deserve. I urge the Government to do that; we do not want to see politics played with them. I note that the Irish Congress of Trade Unions Northern Ireland has today come out with yet another statement calling on the Secretary of State to act. I echo those comments. Those people deserve the pay rise. I hope the Secretary of State will reflect on that.

In conclusion, some have said that they hope this is the last time we have this type of legislation, but that requires us to reach agreement. It requires us to resolve and finalise the outstanding issues so that we can move forward. We can assess the progress that has been made and we can take decisions around the restoration of our political institutions if that is the way we are to go. But I am clear, and my colleagues are clear, that this is not about any price. We have fought hard and will continue to fight hard to get the outcomes we need for everyone in Northern Ireland, to restore the cross-community consensus that is essential for the proper functioning of our devolved institutions in Northern Ireland. We will work at that.

I simply say to my fellow Unionists in Northern Ireland, whatever their political persuasion or background, that the notion that a Unionism that turns in on itself is a Unionism that can deliver for Northern Ireland, to make Northern Ireland work and to secure the Union for the future, is not the way to go. We will provide the leadership that is required—because that is what is necessary to make Northern Ireland work—to ensure that our place in the Union is valued, respected and protected in law and in practice, to remove the barriers to trade so that we can trade in both directions with the rest of the United Kingdom, and to ensure that our Union is stronger and that Northern Ireland’s place within it is both respected and protected. That is what we are aiming to achieve.

We will assess the outcome against our seven tests, which we have set out clearly, determine the progress made and make our decisions based on these matters. We will do so rationally and clearly, recognising that we are the custodians of Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom. On our shoulders rests a huge responsibility. We will not shirk that responsibility, and we will not be found wanting in continuing to defend Northern Ireland’s place in the Union.

14:25
Stephen Farry Portrait Stephen Farry (North Down) (Alliance)
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This will probably not do the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) many favours, but I congratulate him on the tone of his speech. I found it to be encouraging in that respect. Obviously, Northern Ireland is currently in an incredibly difficult place. In terms of the overall situation we find ourselves in, it is fair to say that there is disappointment, anger, frustration and indeed bewilderment that we do not have functioning institutions. That view is shared by the vast majority people in Northern Ireland and, indeed, by businesses and civic society organisations.

When the January 2024 date was set in the previous Bill, it was so far off into the future that it seemed inconceivable that the institutions would not have been restored by that point, but here we are. It is in a sense bizarre to see a piece of primary legislation going through this Parliament essentially to extend and facilitate a negotiation by two weeks. Decisions could have been taken at any stage in the previous year—indeed, in the previous weeks and days—to avoid this situation.

On the surface, this is a simple Bill, but beneath it lies a much bigger story. This may well be a pragmatic extension in the hope and expectation of a breakthrough, and I sincerely hope that that happens, but the people of Northern Ireland have been patient—overly patient in many respects—about bringing matters to a conclusion. There will always be a degree of scepticism until we see a positive outcome. For others, however, the Bill amounts to kicking the can down the road for another couple of weeks and potentially deferring the much bigger decisions that will have to be taken in the event that we do not see the speedy resumption of devolution.

One aspect of the situation we find ourselves in is the story of Brexit, which was alluded to by both the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) and the hon. Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson). It is about how the DUP backed a hard Brexit and did not reconcile that with the implications for Northern Ireland in terms of the special arrangements that had to be put in place. There is no perfect solution to the challenges that Brexit poses to Northern Ireland. The Windsor framework offers perhaps the best approach to putting a square peg into a round hole, short of a wider reassessment of the UK’s overall relationship with the European Union, but I must stress that whatever residual issues exist with the Windsor framework—I fully accept that businesses have frustrations with certain aspects of what they see; the same applies for consumers in some respects—they all pale into insignificance compared with the absence of functioning institutions and the ability to take decisions on health, education, our economy and protecting our environment.

As the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, the right hon. and learned Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland), said, we are also seeing real consequences in the wider trust and confidence in politics itself in Northern Ireland. Politics is not working, and that is a dangerous place to find ourselves in. It is not simply that issues are being parked for the eventual resumption of the Assembly to pick up where we left off. Every day the impasse goes on, more and more damage is being done to Northern Ireland’s public services and we are losing economic opportunities.

I do not want to get into too much politics today—there has been a lot of that—but nevertheless I have a responsibility to say that there are other options we can consider. The DUP has been allowed to essentially hold the process to ransom with impunity over the past 12 months, in terms of blocking the Executive. I understand the point about cross-community confidence in any Executive, but blocking the functioning of the Executive goes against 75% of the people of Northern Ireland. There is a world of difference between checks and balances on individual decision making with the institutions, and a party pulling them down and stopping them from functioning and having no Government at all. The fact that we have to legislate for direct rule—if that is where we end up; I stress again that I hope we do not find ourselves in that situation—shows that previous legislators did not envisage a situation where the Assembly would not be functioning.

The space for negotiations around the Windsor framework is narrow. We have to be realistic. The Windsor framework is an agreement between the UK and the European Union, and there will be consequences from unpicking it unilaterally. Equally, we cannot unpick the Good Friday agreement, so the space is narrow and centres around implementation. I want to again stress from the Alliance party’s point of view that we would be open-minded on any solution that comes forward. For us, the key element is that Northern Ireland maintains dual market access to both the UK internal market and the wider European market. Outside that red line, we are open-minded. If checks across the Irish sea can be reduced or limited in some cases, we are all for that. None of us wants to see them, but at the same time we recognise that due to the fact that Northern Ireland has special arrangements, and there is a good reason for them, some degree of checks across the Irish sea might be needed. Northern Ireland has always had special arrangements throughout its entire history, right back to the foundation of the state in the early 1920s, and they were accepted with pragmatism for very good reasons. I urge that that is the case today.

On the financial package the Secretary of State referred to, I again put on record my and my party’s thanks to him and his wider team in the Northern Ireland Office and the Treasury for putting it together. It is a bigger financial package than we have seen in previous breakdowns of devolution. At the same time, however, I have to say that the glass is somewhat half full. It will buy some time for a restored Executive, perhaps a couple of years of stabilisation, but there is still a much bigger conversation that we have to have in conjunction, potentially, with the next spending review on a proper fiscal floor for Northern Ireland. I appreciate that there are reasons why the current Government cannot go down that particular avenue, in terms of their wider spending commitments and the Prime Minister’s five pledges, but it is important to stress the point that that wider discussion still needs to take place.

I join colleagues from Northern Ireland in stressing that we would like to see the Secretary of State moving ahead with the pub