All 18 Parliamentary debates in the Commons on 6th Feb 2023

House of Commons

Monday 6th February 2023

(1 year, 4 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Monday 6 February 2023
The House met at half-past Two o’clock

Prayers

Monday 6th February 2023

(1 year, 4 months 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]
Business before Questions
City of London (Markets) Bill
Bill read a Second time.

Oral Answers to Questions

Monday 6th February 2023

(1 year, 4 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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The Secretary of State was asked—
Sara Britcliffe Portrait Sara Britcliffe (Hyndburn) (Con)
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1. What steps she is taking to increase police resources.

Dean Russell Portrait Dean Russell (Watford) (Con)
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12. What steps she is taking to increase police resources.

Flick Drummond Portrait Mrs Flick Drummond (Meon Valley) (Con)
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15. What steps she is taking to increase police resources.

Suella Braverman Portrait The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Suella Braverman)
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On 31 January, the Government confirmed a total police funding settlement of up to £17.2 billion for 2023-24, an increase of up to £287 million on this year, providing the police with the resources to fight crime and keep the public safe. As a result of our police uplift programme, we are on track to meet our target of 20,000 new police officers, meaning that England and Wales will have the most police officers ever.

Sara Britcliffe Portrait Sara Britcliffe
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I welcome the work this Government are doing to increase police resources and tackle antisocial behaviour, with many initiatives—such as the youth investment fund, the youth justice sport fund and the safer streets fund—acting as preventive policy measures. However, in my constituency of Hyndburn and Haslingden, it is not just individuals who are impacted by this; it is also businesses, which have associated costs and fear for their staff. Will my right hon. and learned Friend work with me to see how we can address this issue for businesses on our high streets?

Suella Braverman Portrait Suella Braverman
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I share my hon. Friend’s deep concern about antisocial behaviour, and I was pleased to discuss the issue with her very recently. She will obviously be aware of the 435 new police officers on the ground in Lancashire, thanks to this Government. She will also be aware of the 18% fall in neighbourhood crime in Lancashire since 2019, thanks to this Government, and the £1 million safer streets funding in Lancashire, thanks to this Government. Lancashire police are building a specialist antisocial behaviour unit to make the most of those extra resources, and have already had some progress with Operation Propulsion, aimed at tackling nuisance bikes. There is more to do, and that is why I will be setting out the antisocial behaviour plan in due course.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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And it is the finest constabulary in the country.

Dean Russell Portrait Dean Russell
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In Watford, I have been fortunate enough to join dawn raids and have seen at first hand the important work the police do in tackling serious and organised crime. However, once the police successfully carry out these types of operations across the country, often with extensive multi-agency work, it is important the right support is in place to maintain security within the community. Will my right hon. and learned Friend please confirm what further support is in place to ensure the long-term dismantling of these awful gangs and to guarantee that no new criminals take over and reinstate the lines of supply to this criminality?

Suella Braverman Portrait Suella Braverman
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I thank my hon. Friend for his excellent work in Watford, working hard for the communities he serves.

Through our successful county lines programme the police have arrested thousands of individuals and closed down 2,900 county lines. The programme focuses on charging line holders, ensuring we put offenders behind bars and putting deal lines out of action. Together with “Clear, hold, build”, an initiative that I launched recently, we will also be taking more robust action on serious and organised crime gangs that blight communities through drug dealing.

Flick Drummond Portrait Mrs Drummond
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Hampshire and Isle of Wight constabulary is one of the lowest-funded police forces by central Government. Can my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that this historically unfair funding settlement will be looked at, and that the people of Hampshire and the Isle of Wight can look forward to the same levels of funding as similar areas?

Suella Braverman Portrait Suella Braverman
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We will be consulting very shortly on police funding formulas, but I am very pleased that the excellent police and crime commissioner in Hampshire, Donna Jones, has made very good use of the funding flexibility that I brought into force very recently by raising the precept. That will increase the amount of funding available to the frontline in policing, and together with the safer streets funding and millions of pounds for violence reduction units, it will mean more police, less crime and safer streets in Hampshire.

Luke Pollard Portrait Luke Pollard (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Lab/Co-op)
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Linking police records of gun certificates to medical databases was a key ask of the community in Plymouth after the tragedies we suffered in 2021. How is that linking of GP records with police-held databases and other medical records going, and what additional policing resources is the Home Secretary making available to ensure that, no matter where in the country someone lives, if they present to their medical professional with a mental health issue, it will be clear to that medical professional whether they have a firearm?

Suella Braverman Portrait Suella Braverman
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The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point about access to firearms or other weapons for people with a track record or indication of mental health vulnerabilities. We must wait for the coroner report to be issued, so I will not comment substantively, but we are looking very closely at this and I hope to report on it in due course.

Nick Smith Portrait Nick Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab)
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There have been too many examples of misogyny and sexism in public services in recent times, so can the Home Secretary reassure the House that sufficient resources will be provided to clear out the worst offenders and help change the culture so we can once again have confidence in our important police services?

Suella Braverman Portrait Suella Braverman
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The hon. Gentleman is right that recent instances have really shaken confidence in the whole of the policing family throughout the country, and although there are many thousands of professional, expert men and women who put themselves forward every day, it is clear that policing must do better. That is why I have asked the College of Policing to strengthen the statutory code of practice for police vetting, we have tasked the Angiolini inquiry to look into the specifics of the David Carrick case, and we have commissioned the inspectorate to conduct a rapid review of all forces’ response to the inspectorate’s recent review into vetting and counter-corruption. It is clear that standards need to rise so that cases such as the tragic ones we have seen become a thing of the past.

Helen Morgan Portrait Helen Morgan (North Shropshire) (LD)
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North Shropshire is obviously a safe place to live, I am very glad to say, but headteachers and health professionals have recently reported to me an increase in county lines drug-running activities and child exploitation. Can the Home Secretary confirm that North Shropshire will receive additional police resource, particularly at night-time, and the multi-agency approach we need to close down these county lines gangs?

Suella Braverman Portrait Suella Braverman
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There has been considerable success through our county lines programme over the last few years, shutting down over 2,000 county lines across the country and making thousands of arrests of those caught up in propagating this evil behaviour of drug supply. It is vital that we go further and that this success reaches every part of the country.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the shadow Minister.

Sarah Jones Portrait Sarah Jones (Croydon Central) (Lab)
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Thank you, Mr Speaker.

Some Government Members will be celebrating the Prime Minister’s first 100 days—it is remarkable that that is considered an achievement these days—but during those 100 days in office around 30,000 people, mostly women, will have been raped, and 20,000 of those rapes will have been reported while only about 320 will ever lead to a charge. The Home Secretary has responded by slashing Government funding for forensics, cutting this year’s funding for local police forces by £62 million and heaping pressure on to council tax payers to fill the gaps. Is that because of the Government’s disastrous mini-Budget, is it because of the Government’s failure to grow the economy over 13 years, or have they simply given up on tackling violence against women and girls?

Suella Braverman Portrait Suella Braverman
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I must gently point out that the hon. Lady has got to get with the programme, get with reality, and come back down to earth. The facts are that we have increased police funding by over half a billion pounds, I have just brought in more flexibility so police and crime commissioners around the country can increase their resources on the frontline, and we are on track to have the highest number of police officers on the ground in the history of policing. That is thanks to this Government’s funding and policies.

Of course we must do better on violence against women and girls and on rape and sexual offences; that is why we are pioneering the roll-out of Operation Soteria, which will improve operational support for victims of rape and serious sexual offences on the ground throughout an investigation. It is also why we are going to have specialist measures in court so that victims of rape and serious sexual offences give evidence in a much more appropriate manner. We are taking the steps; that is far better than carping from the sidelines.

Virendra Sharma Portrait Mr Virendra Sharma (Ealing, Southall) (Lab)
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2. What recent assessment her Department has made of the level of threat posed by the Iranian regime to people in the UK.

Tom Tugendhat Portrait The Minister for Security (Tom Tugendhat)
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The director general of MI5 recently outlined that, since January 2022, there have been at least 10 Iranian threats to kidnap or even kill UK-based individuals. The level of the Iranian threat is kept under constant review. The Home Secretary and I are working with our partners across Government to ensure that all tools at our disposal are used to protect individuals in the UK against any threats from the Iranian state.

Virendra Sharma Portrait Mr Sharma
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It has been patently obvious for years that the whole Iranian Government are rotten. Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps leaders are allowed to travel to the UK and store their stolen wealth almost with impunity. The people of Iran are fighting back. Why do we not stop their abusers stealing the wealth of the country and sanction more than just 50 people at the top of the organisation?

Tom Tugendhat Portrait Tom Tugendhat
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The hon. Member is absolutely correct: the IRGC is a vicious organisation and its first victims are the Iranian people, who have been brutalised and murdered by that despotic regime for far too long. I hope he will be encouraged by the actions the UK Government are taking at the moment in looking into various of these areas, and also by the work being done by some of our partners. It is interesting to note that, of the so-called E3+3, Germany and France appear to be looking at proscribing the IRGC, as the United States has already done. It seems that not only is there international agreement on the point the hon. Member raises, but that action is absolutely ready to go.

Theresa Villiers Portrait Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con)
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As part of the sanctions the Government are imposing on this evil regime, will they please shut down the Islamic centre in Maida Vale, which is the voice of the supreme leader in this country? It should not have charitable status and should be shut down.

Tom Tugendhat Portrait Tom Tugendhat
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My right hon. Friend has raised an extremely important issue, of which I am acutely aware and which has not gone without notice.

John Cryer Portrait John Cryer (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab)
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The Minister seemed to say in response to the original question from my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) that we were considering proscribing the IRGC. Is that the case?

Tom Tugendhat Portrait Tom Tugendhat
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The Government always keep all areas under review, and speculation has certainly been in that direction. What we have already done is sanction various different elements. Any further action will no doubt be announced as soon as it is ready, and we will see as soon as that can be done.

Bob Blackman Portrait Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con)
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Clearly, the threat from the IRGC to people in this country—be they opposition journalists reporting on what is going on in Iran at the moment or UK citizens—is paramount. Foreign Office Ministers have responded to all the urgent questions the Speaker has granted and the debates we have had, but will my right hon. Friend now take the obvious step, which is supported by all political parties in the Chamber, and proscribe the IRGC in its entirety?

Tom Tugendhat Portrait Tom Tugendhat
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My hon. Friend will know that it is not me he has to persuade in this matter and that there are many areas where I would like to go. I can assure him that the Government are absolutely listening to exactly what he is saying. The Home Secretary and I are as one on this.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the shadow Minister.

Holly Lynch Portrait Holly Lynch (Halifax) (Lab)
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The Minister has been explicit, as have others, about the threat we face in the UK from the Iranian regime. I really welcome what he has said, and we stand ready to work with him on this issue, but the truth is that we have not seen anything like the sanctions and immigration controls that have been deployed against Russia being deployed against Iran. Will the Government go further and be clear? Will they proscribe the IRGC using either existing terror laws or new state threat variations to drive out this threat and keep people safe?

Tom Tugendhat Portrait Tom Tugendhat
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The hon. Lady knows very well that the Government have already sanctioned many individuals inside the Iranian regime and have taken action on individuals who may have had access around Europe and indeed into the United Kingdom. Those people have been either controlled or not allowed permission to travel. She should also be aware that our embassy in Iran is keeping us closely informed of how the sanctions are playing out and making sure that we target appropriately individuals who are a threat to the United Kingdom.

It is completely wrong that any foreign state should be able to threaten anybody in the United Kingdom. Anybody in the UK should have the same protection and be afforded the same rights as anybody else. The action we have taken to protect some journalists in the UK, which was highlighted only recently by some of our agencies, is absolutely vital to the security of our whole society.

Barry Sheerman Portrait Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op)
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3. What steps she is taking to help ensure that refugees are placed in adequate housing.

Greg Smith Portrait Greg Smith (Buckingham) (Con)
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7. What progress she has made in ending the use of hotels as contingency asylum accommodation.

Robert Jenrick Portrait The Minister for Immigration (Robert Jenrick)
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Our first duty is to break the business model of the people-smuggling gangs, stop the boats and reduce the number of those coming to this country illegally. Alongside that, we are working to ensure that decent but not luxurious accommodation is available while asylum claims are being processed. We are working with local councils and providers to develop regional dispersal plans and are pursuing a range of options to increase supply.

Barry Sheerman Portrait Mr Sheerman
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I am very pleased to hear what the Minister says. When the dreadful invasion of Ukraine took place, many people welcomed with open arms refugees from Ukraine. Does he agree that it is still not safe for many of them to go home? Many have outstayed their time with their host, so can we have a coherent plan going forward to ensure that refugees from Ukraine are decently protected and housed?

Robert Jenrick Portrait Robert Jenrick
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The hon. Gentleman is right to celebrate the good work that we have done in this country to support people who came here from Ukraine. That has been the largest humanitarian visa effort in this country’s history. I have benefited from that personally, having had a family stay with me, as I know many Members across the House have. Over 500 individuals continue to come to the UK every week under the Ukrainian visa schemes, but he is right to say that the challenge now is as much about ensuring re-matches are available for people who, for whatever reason, are coming to the end of their stay with their original families. We are working very closely with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to ensure that those changes are as seamless as possible so that nobody ends up homeless.

Greg Smith Portrait Greg Smith
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The Best Western hotel in the town of Buckingham was originally acquired by Clearsprings on a six-month lease, which in theory runs out in March. The loss of the hotel as a valuable local business is noticeable in the town, as is the diversion of precious primary care resources, with an on-site clinic required at least once a week on top of the usual services of the Swan Practice. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the use of the Best Western in Buckingham will end soon, so that Buckingham businesses can get back to normal and health resources are freed up?

Robert Jenrick Portrait Robert Jenrick
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The Home Secretary and I are as frustrated as my hon. Friend that too many people are staying in hotels, costing too much money to the taxpayers of this country. We want to ensure that hotels such as the one in his constituency are exited as swiftly as possible. That is why we are pursuing a full dispersal model with local authorities and considering a range of other options, including larger sites. The enduring solution to this problem is to break the business model of the people smugglers and to stop the boats. It is for that reason that the Home Secretary and I will shortly bring forward further legislation, which I hope will command support across the House.

Hilary Benn Portrait Hilary Benn (Leeds Central) (Lab)
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Do the Government have any plans to make use of the former Atkinson Court care home in east Leeds as part of their dispersal policy?

Robert Jenrick Portrait Robert Jenrick
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I am not aware of that site, but I am very happy to look into it and revert to the right hon. Gentleman. The mandatory dispersal model we are pursuing is one of agreement with local authorities, where every local authority works with the Home Office and our providers to agree a number of bed spaces in their local area and then to choose appropriate ones that meet the needs of the local community. I am happy to revert to the right hon. Gentleman on that.

Damien Moore Portrait Damien Moore (Southport) (Con)
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Does my right hon. Friend agree that, given the severity of the risks, it would not be appropriate to house asylum seekers in a Pontins holiday camp in my constituency? Will he take the opportunity to confirm at the Dispatch Box the reports at the end of last week that the site will not be used?

Robert Jenrick Portrait Robert Jenrick
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The Home Office is reviewing a range of options and having exploratory conversations with a number of local authorities. If the local authority, Sefton Council, does not wish to proceed On the Pontins site in my hon. Friend’s constituency then the site will not proceed, because it is the freeholder of that site. He should really speak to Sefton Council to get that assurance, but the task for all of us is to stop the boats, or else we will continue to have troubles like this in the years ahead, with thousands of individuals crossing the channel illegally and placing unbearable strain on our asylum accommodation.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the SNP spokesperson.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP)
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Home Office accommodation provider Mears has made significant profits providing substandard facilities for asylum seekers. Community InfoSource in Glasgow has found that Mears’ practices are retraumatising and causing unnecessary stress and suffering. Mears is now back to using hotels such as the Muthu in Erskine, which the Park Inn incident in Glasgow proved to be entirely unsuitable for vulnerable people. Why are the UK Government encouraging rapacious companies to profit from misery, rather than investing in community-based alternatives and more effective decision making?

Robert Jenrick Portrait Robert Jenrick
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If the hon. Lady has specific allegations, will she please bring them to me and I will be happy to investigate them?

The answer to this issue, in Scotland as across the country, is for local authorities to step up and make more accommodation available. As I have said many times at the Dispatch Box, including to the hon. Lady, the Scottish Government are taking fewer asylum seekers and refugees than any other comparable part of the United Kingdom. The SNP’s record on this issue is frankly shameful. It was, after all, the Scottish Government whose failed Ukrainian scheme meant that they had to house Ukrainian refugees in cruise ships.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Lab)
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4. What steps her Department is taking to help prevent crime in Lancashire.

Chris Philp Portrait The Minister for Crime, Policing and Fire (Chris Philp)
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I know that questions about policing in Lancashire are of particular interest to you, Mr Speaker.

I am pleased to report that since 2015, there are 467 more police in Lancashire. Next year, the available funding will increase by £12.3 million. Over the last three years, Lancashire police have had £5.5 million for their violence reduction unit and £4.7 million for their hotspot policing. I met this morning with Lancashire’s excellent police and crime commissioner, Andrew Snowden, who talked to me about Operation Warrior, which has seen on average each week 2 kg of drugs being seized, 17 arrests and £55,000 of illicit cash being taken off the streets.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
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When I tabled my question, I had planned to raise the issue of rural crime in the Wyre area of my constituency, but events over the last few days have changed that. As part of the intensive search for Nicola Bulley, Lancashire police are asking drivers for dash-cam footage from the Blackpool Lane and Garstang Road area of St Michael’s from Friday 27 January between 9 and 10 am. Will the Minister echo my request for people from the local community to come forward, even if they think their dash-cam footage does not contain anything of interest—the police will be able to make that decision—and for all of us to do our best to find Nicola and bring her home?

Chris Philp Portrait Chris Philp
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I completely echo what the hon. Lady says about this awful, tragic case. I agree with everything she said and I join her in urging anyone who thinks they may have any information, however innocuous it may seem, to come forward, including dash-cam footage and any other information that may be relevant. The whole local community and the police are desperately doing everything they can to find out what happened, and I urge everyone to help them in that endeavour.

Paul Maynard Portrait Paul Maynard (Blackpool North and Cleveleys) (Con)
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It almost seems like Lancashire day today, Mr Speaker.

I join the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) in praising the hard work of our constabulary and the many local people, particularly my constituents, who have been out searching the river banks of the Wyre estuary looking for clues as to what has happened. Will the Minister join me in imploring people to avoid the speculation, gossip and guesswork that has been going on? People have been descending on St Michael’s on Wyre and it is hampering the investigation and causing inordinate distress to Nicola’s family.

Chris Philp Portrait Chris Philp
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I agree completely with my hon. Friend. It is important that the public respect the family’s need for privacy at what is obviously an extremely difficult, upsetting and unimaginably distressing time. It is important that the public let the police and the local authority get on with their work. I repeat what my hon. Friend said and what the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) said a moment ago: if anyone has any information, however minor or innocuous it may seem to them, I ask them to share it with the local police. Anything at all could help them to get to the bottom of this, and I urge people to do everything they can to help the police at this terribly difficult time.

Ellie Reeves Portrait Ellie Reeves (Lewisham West and Penge) (Lab)
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5. What steps her Department is taking ensure effective (a) management and (b) monitoring of serial perpetrators of domestic abuse.

Sarah Dines Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Miss Sarah Dines)
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Domestic abuse is an abhorrent crime and tackling it is a priority for this Government. Our tackling domestic abuse plan, which was published last year, is clear that our response to perpetrators will be uncompromising and relentless. We are investing unprecedented amounts in perpetrator interventions and technology for the police to identify abusers. We are also considering the feasibility of putting dangerous offenders on the register.

Ellie Reeves Portrait Ellie Reeves
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In response to a recent parliamentary question, the Minister admitted that the Home Office does not routinely collect data on the number of domestic abuse victims killed by a partner who had previously been convicted of domestic violence. When domestic abuse offences reported to the police have doubled in the past five years while charges have nearly halved, this puts lives at risk. Will the Minister back Labour’s call for a domestic abuse register to track offenders, protect victims and help prevent more crime?

Sarah Dines Portrait Miss Dines
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The feasibility of such a register is being looked into. I remind the House that 911,000 reports of domestic abuse are made to the police every year. The Government are carefully considering technological answers and ensuring that police forces look carefully at the situation. We are looking at multi-agency forums for improving the track record on this issue. The Government are spending unprecedented amounts in a cogent, targeted way and I am proud of the commitments so far.

Alexander Stafford Portrait Alexander Stafford (Rother Valley) (Con)
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I was pleased to see that last year’s tackling domestic abuse plan recognised the link between domestic abuse and child abuse. My hon. Friend will be aware of the horrendous child sexual exploitation case in Rotherham and will agree that we need to end child abuse of all kinds. Does she agree that we need a child criminal and sexual exploitation commissioner, working alongside the Domestic Abuse Commissioner, to stop CSE, punish perpetrators and ensure that anyone linked to CSE has no link to public office ever again?

Sarah Dines Portrait Miss Dines
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I know my hon. Friend is a strong campaigner on this issue and that it is very important locally, but it is also hugely important nationally. I was privileged to visit the National Crime Agency and other groups that work in the field. A huge amount of work is going on. It is clear that the Government need to have a detailed response to the recent report to ensure that we have joined-up thinking across all Departments to stamp out child sexual abuse, because it is a dreadful crime.

Alistair Carmichael Portrait Mr Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)
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6. When she plans to appoint an Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner.

Sarah Dines Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Miss Sarah Dines)
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The role of the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, as set out in the Modern Slavery Act 2015, is to encourage good practice in the prevention, detection, investigation and prosecution of slavery and human trafficking offences and the identification of victims. The Home Secretary recognises the importance of the role of the anti-slavery commissioner and has committed to running a new competition to recruit for the role. The process will begin imminently.

Alistair Carmichael Portrait Mr Carmichael
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I thank the Minister most warmly for that answer. She illustrates perfectly the need for my private Member’s Bill, which would allow Parliament to make this most important appointment, rather than the Government. The post has been vacant for 10 months already. In the third quarter of last year, no fewer than 4,586 potential victims of modern slavery were referred to the Home Office—38% up on the previous year. What is it about their record on this issue that makes the lack of scrutiny so attractive to the Government?

Sarah Dines Portrait Miss Dines
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I do not accept that narrative. The competition is opening shortly. There will be a large number of very good candidates, and there needs to be a proper process. These things cannot be rushed. Sometimes the best things come to those who wait.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the shadow Minister.

Naz Shah Portrait Naz Shah (Bradford West) (Lab)
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In the third quarter of 2022, over 4,500 potential victims of modern slavery were referred to the national referral mechanism—a record since its introduction—and 43% of those were children. Just last month, people up and down the country were shocked to learn that over 200 children seeking asylum have gone missing from Home Office hotels. The Home Office ignored repeated warnings that the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 would make things worse. What have we seen since then? A failure to appoint a new anti-slavery commissioner and just one conviction for child trafficking last year. Does the Minister think that that one conviction shows that the Government are on top of this? Does it not show that they are continuing to let dangerous criminal gangs get away with their crimes?

Sarah Dines Portrait Miss Dines
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There is a big history with trafficking, and dangerous gangs have to be looked at. However, it is this Government who have the confidence to do something about it. There are issues that other Members of this House were reluctant to look at. It is important, for example, that the ethnicity of each and every alleged criminal in the field is noted, so that greater statistics and knowledge can be held. A commissioner will be appointed at the appropriate time, as soon as possible.

Liz Twist Portrait Liz Twist (Blaydon) (Lab)
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8. What recent assessment her Department has made of the adequacy of levels of neighbourhood policing.

Chris Philp Portrait The Minister for Crime, Policing and Fire (Chris Philp)
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We are in the middle of recruiting an extra 20,000 police officers. We are on track to deliver that by March, in just a few weeks’ time. As of December, we had recruited over 16,000 of them. When we hit the target in a few weeks, we will have more police officers than at any time in this country’s history: approximately 148,000.

Liz Twist Portrait Liz Twist
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Neighbourhood policing is vital in cracking down on antisocial behaviour. I am very glad to say that our excellent police and crime commissioner, Kim McGuinness, is fully aware of that issue and is addressing it. Nationally, why have we seen an overall drop of 8,500 in the number of police community support officers over the past 13 years? Locally, in Northumbria, there has been a drop of 395, and we are still down by 565 police officers since 2010.

Chris Philp Portrait Chris Philp
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As I explained a moment ago, we are on track very shortly to have more police officers than at any time in this country’s history, but let me tell you what has dropped since 2010, Mr Speaker. According to the crime survey, criminal damage has dropped by 65%, domestic burglary has dropped by 56%, robbery has dropped by 57% and violence has dropped by 38%. That, Mr Speaker, is what has dropped.

Kelly Tolhurst Portrait Kelly Tolhurst (Rochester and Strood) (Con)
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In Kent, burglary has decreased by 41% and crime overall has decreased by 7%. I am pleased to report that by the end of next month, we will have 358 extra officers operating across Kent. However, in Medway we have been blighted by the new phenomenon of car racing and car meets, which have created terrible antisocial behaviour and lots of problems for local residents. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Kent police working with the council to implement a public spaces protection order is a great way to tackle this nuisance, which is a very dangerous activity?

Chris Philp Portrait Chris Philp
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I am happy to confirm that the county of Kent already has a record ever number of police officers. I pay tribute to its fantastic police and crime commissioner, Matthew Scott, who is doing great work—along with Kent’s MPs, of course. I agree with my hon. Friend that public spaces protection orders are a very good way to combat antisocial behaviour, whether it is antisocial racing or nitrous oxide consumption. I encourage all local authorities to use PSPOs.

Rachel Hopkins Portrait Rachel Hopkins (Luton South) (Lab)
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9. What recent progress her Department has made on reducing the backlog of asylum applications.

Vicky Foxcroft Portrait Vicky Foxcroft (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab)
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16. What recent progress her Department has made on reducing the backlog of asylum applications.

Robert Jenrick Portrait The Minister for Immigration (Robert Jenrick)
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We have committed to clearing the backlog of asylum applications over this year and to introducing a faster, more productive system. Since making that commitment at the end of 2022, we have made excellent progress: recruiting more caseworkers, working towards a doubling in their number, establishing dedicated caseworkers per nationality and designing a more streamlined process, which is already raising productivity substantially.

Rachel Hopkins Portrait Rachel Hopkins
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Luton is a compassionate town and is always proud to support those seeking sanctuary, but the backlog and delays in the Home Office’s asylum system have led to Luton receiving a disproportionate number of dispersal placements in comparison with the rest of the east of England. Luton Borough Council’s services are already stretched beyond their means, following a decade of Government cuts, so how is the Minister working with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to ensure that councils receive clear funding settlements to cover the costs of the increased impact on local services?

Robert Jenrick Portrait Robert Jenrick
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We provide funding for every asylum seeker who is in a local authority’s care of about £3,500, and we work closely with local authorities through the mandatory dispersal system to make sure that each one plays a fair and equitable part. However, the answer to this problem is not more accommodation; it is stopping the boats and ensuring that we have some of the most robust laws in the world, so that those who come here illegally do not find a way to a life in the UK. I hope that the hon. Lady will support us when we introduce our legislation.

Vicky Foxcroft Portrait Vicky Foxcroft
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My constituent arrived here from Syria and claimed asylum in July 2021. He is a doctor and applied to volunteer with the covid vaccination programme, but was turned down because he had no documentation. After more than a year and many interventions by my office, he finally had his asylum interview and was given a job as a healthcare assistant, but that was delayed because he had to wait for his national insurance number. The NHS is crying out for staff. When will the Government sort this out?

Robert Jenrick Portrait Robert Jenrick
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We are working to bring down the backlog of cases. Let me gently point out that the last Labour Government left a backlog of cases of not 450,000, as I said during the last session of Home Office questions, but 500,000, as has been shown by further research. So bad was the backlog that there was even a room colloquially known as the “room of doom” into which cases were put. We will get the backlog down, and create a streamlined and efficient asylum system.

Amanda Milling Portrait Amanda Milling (Cannock Chase) (Con)
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Tensions in the community are rising in my constituency owing to the use of hotels to house asylum seekers in and around Cannock Chase and, in particular, in Bridgtown. There were protests in Cannock at the weekend. Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking the local police, who are doing everything they can to respond to issues as they arise, and will he meet me to discuss the situation and ways in which we can alleviate the concerns of my constituents?

Robert Jenrick Portrait Robert Jenrick
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I should be pleased to meet my right hon. Friend and work with her to ensure that that hotel, like others, is cleared as quickly as possible. I hope she will see from the work we are doing that we are straining every sinew to tackle this issue. For example, following the communiqué that was signed with Albania at the end of last year and is now being implemented, we are seeing weekly return flights of illegal migrants to Albania and a faster process, involving 400 caseworkers dedicated to those Albanian cases.

Julian Lewis Portrait Sir Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con)
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One group with a strong claim to be here are the former interpreters in Afghanistan and other locally employed civilians who helped our armed forces. Will the Minister explain to the House whether such applications are caught up in the general collection of applications made by people who have come here illegally, or whether any form of priority and extra attention is given to those very deserving Afghan refugees?

Robert Jenrick Portrait Robert Jenrick
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My right hon. Friend has raised an important issue. We take our moral commitment to those who supported our troops and our efforts in Afghanistan extremely seriously. We have helped more than 20,000 individuals to come to the UK, some before Operation Pitting, some during that operation and some since, under the Afghan relocations and assistance policy and subsequently the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme. The Foreign Office is drawing up a further list of individuals for the ACRS. The people to whom my right hon. Friend has referred should be applying to that scheme, and we hope we will be able to bring them to the United Kingdom as soon as possible, if they are not here already.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the shadow Minister.

Stephen Kinnock Portrait Stephen Kinnock (Aberavon) (Lab)
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In 2019, the then Conservative Home Secretary said that she would end small boat crossings in a matter of months. Since then, the number of crossings has increased from 1,000 to 45,000, with the criminal gangs laughing all the way to the bank. Last year, Ministers promised that the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 would deal with the crisis, but in fact it has caused the asylum backlog to spiral out of control, forcing the British taxpayer to foot the bill for an extra £480 million in six-monthly accommodation costs. Now, Ministers are making all the same empty promises again. The Refugee Council says that the latest Government proposals will cost the taxpayer an extra £1 billion every six months, without anyone being returned anywhere. Does the Minister agree with Albert Einstein that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is a definition of madness?

Robert Jenrick Portrait Robert Jenrick
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The problem with the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues is that they vote against every step that we bring forward. In an age of mass migration in which millions of people are on the move and want to come to our country, either as economic migrants or asylum shoppers, we have to take the most robust action we can. The system we are building is a simple one in which those who want to come here illegally in small boats will find no way to a life in this country. They will be returned home, or to a safe third country such as Rwanda.

We will fulfil our commitment to those fleeing genuine persecution, war and human rights abuses, such as through the schemes that we have created for Afghanistan, Syria and Ukraine, but we on the Government Benches are capable of seeing the difference between genuine asylum seekers and economic migrants. I hope the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues will join us in voting for that further legislation when we bring it forward shortly.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the Scottish National party spokesperson.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP)
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Delays even when decisions have been made are all too common. To give an example, a constituent had his appeal allowed but is still waiting for the tribunal’s decision to be implemented nine months later. He cannot get on with his life. In a written answer to me, the Minister for Immigration was unable to provide my constituent with a timescale, or to establish the longest time that people have been waiting, or even how many appeals are still in Home Office limbo. Can he tell me what is the longest time that people like my constituent will have to wait, or is Home Office bureaucracy now completely out of his control?

Robert Jenrick Portrait Robert Jenrick
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The hon. Lady does not want us to tackle this issue because she believes in open borders. We want to take action to ensure that this country is not somewhere where economic migrants and asylum shoppers seek to come. That means suffusing deterrents throughout the system. She should support plans such as Rwanda and our efforts to bear down on illegal migrants. We will bear down on the backlog of cases. As I said in answer to an earlier question, we will clear it over the course of this year. We are ensuing that productivity rises every week.

Matthew Offord Portrait Dr Matthew Offord (Hendon) (Con)
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10. What steps her Department is taking to help ensure that police officers protect communities.

Suella Braverman Portrait The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Suella Braverman)
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The Government have committed substantial extra funding to invest in policing and to reduce crime, including the recruitment of an additional 20,000 police officers by March. We recently confirmed a total police funding settlement of a maximum of £17 billion for 2023-24. We have seen great results: a fall in overall crime since 2019 thanks to this Government, a fall in domestic burglary since 2019 thanks to this Government, and a fall in violent crime since 2019 thanks to this Government—more police, less crime and safer streets.

Matthew Offord Portrait Dr Offord
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Hendon Police College was once an exemplar of British policing, but there have been accusations of police staff officers being assaulted, inappropriate use of pain compliance techniques and multiple cases of cheating in exams, where the perpetrators subsequently lied about it—all by trainee police officers. How can there be trust in the police to protect the public when the recruitment process fails to identify the fundamentally dishonest?

Suella Braverman Portrait Suella Braverman
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My hon. Friend is right to raise that point about standards in policing and, in particular, the recruitment methods used to increase the forces. That is why we need to improve our standards. I am glad that many forces have committed to a face-to-face interview—that is absolutely vital to weed out the inappropriate applicants. We need to ensure that there is a rapid review of all forces’ responses to the inspectorate’s recent report on vetting and counter-corruption. I know that the Met commissioner is taking this issue incredibly seriously and has put in place a rigorous plan to improve standards and restore confidence.

Andrew Gwynne Portrait Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab)
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Kids in my constituency are razzing around the streets illegally on motorbikes. Sadly, two have died as a consequence of accidents they were involved in. The worst of it is that, on both occasions, the police have been caught on the hop by impromptu vigils that have taken place at the accident spots. Hundreds of other kids are defacing public and private property and intimidating residents, and the police are powerless to act. That shows that turning the police funding taps off and on has lost us experience. What will the Home Secretary do to get that experience back?

Suella Braverman Portrait Suella Braverman
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I will tell the House why the hon. Gentleman is absolutely wrong in his analysis. We are on track to recruit 20,000 police officers. That is the highest number of police officers ever known in this country—higher than in the Labour years and higher than in the 1990s, so I am sorry, but the facts do not support his accusation of reduced funding and reduced resources. He raises an important point about antisocial behaviour, and that is my priority: graffiti, vandalism, drug dealing, nuisance boy racers—they all have to be stopped. That is why increased numbers of police officers and neighbourhood policing on the ground are going to be able to tackle exactly the problem he talks about.

Jason McCartney Portrait Jason McCartney (Colne Valley) (Con)
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T2. If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities.

Suella Braverman Portrait The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Suella Braverman)
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I am going to make a short topical statement.

It is very important that our passport system runs as efficiently as possible. This is an issue that matters a great deal to our constituents. Covid had a global impact on passport processing times. In 2022, His Majesty’s Passport Office served more customers than ever before. Staff numbers have increased by over 1,200 since April 2021 and many staff have been trained to deal with a broader range of applications. I note that last spring there were serious concerns about the performance of the Passport Office, which prompted the Home Affairs Committee to inquire into the issue. I have made it a priority to fix that issue since I became Home Secretary, and I am pleased that since September the team at the Passport Office have worked hard to reduce processing times and that, despite very high demand so far this year, last week, approximately 99% of all UK applications were completed within 10 weeks. Indeed, last week, approximately 97% of all UK applications were completed within three weeks. We expect elevated demand for passports throughout the year, so customers should continue to allow 10 weeks, and I urge people to apply in good time, not at the last minute, to avoid delays.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I say to the Home Secretary that it is not appropriate to make such statements at the start of topicals. If there is a statement, she should come to the House. Topicals are meant to be short bits of business, not to be dragged out. If we stay long today, she will understand why. If there is an urgent question tomorrow, she should not be shocked if somebody has to answer it.

Jason McCartney Portrait Jason McCartney
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Whereas most countries have police forces, we are proud to have a police service in Britain, with police officers playing an integral role in the communities in which they live and work. That is why I particularly welcome the 16,000-plus police officers who are being recruited. In West Yorkshire, in my patch, that means 589 additional police officers. What extra will the Home Secretary do to ensure that we recruit high-quality police officers while also retaining those experienced officers in our local forces?

Suella Braverman Portrait Suella Braverman
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West Yorkshire police have recruited 837 additional police officers to December, against their total allocation of 852. This is an unprecedented recruitment drive and it gives forces the opportunity to recruit the brightest and the best into policing. It is thanks to this Government’s commitment to policing, to police numbers and to funding that we are on track to recruit a historic level of police officers on the frontline, something that the Labour party has failed to support.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the shadow Home Secretary.

Yvette Cooper Portrait Yvette Cooper (Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford) (Lab)
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The whole House’s thoughts will be with Turkey and Syria after the terrible earthquake.

Sentencing is under way today for David Carrick’s truly appalling crimes. It is shocking that he was able to serve as an officer for so long, and we think of his victims. After Sarah Everard’s murder, Ministers said “Never again”, but barely anything changed. Can the Home Secretary confirm that, if a police officer is under investigation for rape or domestic abuse, there is still no requirement for them even to be suspended, and that many, like Carrick, are not?

Suella Braverman Portrait Suella Braverman
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We are going through an overhaul of our processes when it comes to disciplinary procedures applying to those officers who are under investigation. That is why I have announced a review and am looking into measures over the disciplinary process, so that we make it easier for chief constables to exclude those officers who have fallen short, whether that is criminal behaviour or other professional misconduct. It is right that we change the system and, if necessary, I will act.

Yvette Cooper Portrait Yvette Cooper
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But nothing has changed in two years. Everything the Home Secretary has said is too little and too late, and far, far too weak. I have been contacted by a woman whose police officer partner was actually charged by his force with domestic abuse, but he still was not suspended and he is still a serving officer. This kind of thing is too unfair on victims and on police officers working hard. Labour will change the law to bring in compulsory standards for policing and to tackle abuse. Why won’t the Home Secretary change the law?

Suella Braverman Portrait Suella Braverman
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I think the right hon. Lady needs to keep up, because we have the College of Policing already strengthening the statutory code of practice for police vetting; we have tasked the Angiolini inquiry to look at the specifics of the Carrick case; and I have launched a review into the disciplinary process.

But let us be clear: the right hon. Lady is trying to talk tough and to sound robust on the issues, but her actions and those of her party have completely fallen short of protecting the British public. It is the Labour party that has voted against police funding for several years now, and it was the Labour party that voted against our legislation that would have given the police greater powers and increased sentences.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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Home Secretary, these are topicals. You took advantage; don’t take it on every question, please.

Greg Smith Portrait Greg Smith (Buckingham) (Con)
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T3. Can my right hon. Friend update the House on the steps being taken to further the aims of the Green Ribbon Policing campaign, to support the mental health of our police officers—particularly those with serious conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder—and to hold the forces to account for delivering that support?

Chris Philp Portrait The Minister for Crime, Policing and Fire (Chris Philp)
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My hon. Friend raises an extremely important point. It is something we work on regularly via the police covenant oversight board, which I chair. One of the steps we have already taken is to appoint a chief medical officer for the police, to deal with exactly the issues that he rightly raises.

Rachel Hopkins Portrait Rachel Hopkins (Luton South) (Lab)
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T5. The broken police funding formula means that Bedfordshire police are continually reliant on special grant funding each year to tackle serious and organised crime. Will the Minister tell the House when he expects the review of the police funding formula to be completed, and can he assure my Luton South constituents that that review will take account of the level of complex and organised crime in Bedfordshire?

Chris Philp Portrait Chris Philp
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Yes, there is an intention to consult on the police funding formula in the near future. That is very important, but I ask the hon. Lady to join me in welcoming the fact that Bedfordshire now has about 150 more officers than it did in 2010.

Gary Sambrook Portrait Gary Sambrook (Birmingham, Northfield) (Con)
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T4. Recently, we have seen an increase in instances of antisocial behaviour, especially around shops in Rubery and in particular the Co-op in West Heath, an incident that involved a knife. Can my right hon. and learned Friend explain how we can help to protect those who work in retail, and also reduce instances of antisocial behaviour?

Suella Braverman Portrait Suella Braverman
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Tackling antisocial behaviour is a priority of mine, and my hon. Friend is right to mention this issue. When it comes to retail staff—people who are on the frontline of our public services—we have taken steps to protect them. We introduced an aggravating factor in legislation, so that an assault on a retail staff member will be taken into account at sentencing; we have a retail crime group within Government chaired by the Policing Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp), to bring together the relevant agencies; and ultimately, more police and less crime is going to do the job of protecting those in retail.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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Can I say that I am quite serious about trying to get through topicals? When the right hon. and learned Lady is still here much later than was expected, do not try and complain.

Patrick Grady Portrait Patrick Grady (Glasgow North) (SNP)
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T6. On 14 December, the Home Secretary said to the House regarding people who are smuggled into the UK,“they are coming here unfairly and illegitimately. That is not the right way to come to the United Kingdom and they are not welcome.”—[Official Report, 14 December 2022; Vol. 724, c. 1123.]When I meet with asylum seekers and refugees in Glasgow North next week, if it transpires that some of them have come to the United Kingdom on small boats or in the backs of lorries, at what point in the meeting should I tell them that the Home Secretary says they are not welcome here?

Suella Braverman Portrait Suella Braverman
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I am sorry, but the hon. Gentleman is living on another planet if he thinks that everybody who is coming to this country on a small boat—breaking our laws, putting themselves at risk, and paying huge amounts of money to unlawful and criminal people smugglers—is welcome. Those people should not be taking that journey, and there will be a robust response from our laws if they continue to do so.

Desmond Swayne Portrait Sir Desmond Swayne (New Forest West) (Con)
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T8. What is being done to reduce the impact of fraud?

Tom Tugendhat Portrait The Minister for Security (Tom Tugendhat)
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My right hon. Friend is right to ask the question, because fraud has been a blight on too many communities. I assure him that the fraud strategy that many of us have been working on for a number of months is coming out very soon.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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That was a quick answer.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
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T7. I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Last Wednesday, it was a pleasure to meet Home Office staff who were out on strike over pay and to protect their pensions. What interventions is the Secretary of State making to resolve that dispute, so that Home Office staff can process their many asylum applications, which have been mentioned today?

Suella Braverman Portrait Suella Braverman
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The hon. Gentleman is talking about industrial action, and there were instances of that by Border Force officers in the run-up to the new year. I was very grateful for the preparation and planning by Border Force management, and for the incredible support from members of the military to enable swift operations at the border, despite the industrial action.

Maggie Throup Portrait Maggie Throup (Erewash) (Con)
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T9. Does the Minister agree that in addition to funding for town centre improvements, there is the safer streets fund, which plays a vital role in levelling up places such as Ilkeston and Cotmanhay? They will benefit from more than £400,000 of safer streets funding to tackle crime and antisocial behaviour, which far too often blight our communities.

Sarah Dines Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Miss Sarah Dines)
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My hon. Friend represents a seat in an interesting county, and I know that she works hard on this issue. I believe that there are three projects of the kind that she mentions in Derbyshire, on which more than £1.5 million has been spent. These projects do level up, and they include spending on measures such as closed circuit television and street lighting. Crime has fallen in her constituency, and that is partly due to her work with the outstanding Conservative police and crime commissioner, Angelique Foster. I urge my hon. Friend to continue that work.

Charlotte Nichols Portrait Charlotte Nichols (Warrington North) (Lab)
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Following the news this week that Australia’s medical regulator, the Therapeutic Goods Administration, has moved to reschedule psilocybin for medicinal use from 1 July, when can we expect the Home Office to finally reschedule psilocybin, so that people with conditions such as treatment-resistant depression and post-traumatic stress disorder do not have to travel to Europe, the United States or, now, Australia for psychedelic therapy treatment that they should be able to access safely, where appropriate, here?

Chris Philp Portrait Chris Philp
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The hon. Lady is raising an important and reasonable point. I have carefully read her moving letter on this issue. We are getting advice from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, and will act on this as soon as we can.

Robert Neill Portrait Sir Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)
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T10. I have been contacted by a number of medical professionals working for us in the NHS who are trying to get extensions to their skilled worker visas. They have waited for months, but emails and telephone calls to the Home Office are going completely unacknowledged and unanswered. Surely people who are doing a service to this country should at least have a dedicated hotline, so that they know where they stand.

Robert Jenrick Portrait The Minister for Immigration (Robert Jenrick)
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We introduced the health and social care visa to make it easier for the NHS to recruit internationally. A benefit is that there is an enhanced service standard of 15 working days for extensions to those visas. That is being met at present. If my hon. Friend has concerns, I would be happy to look into them.

Mike Amesbury Portrait Mike Amesbury (Weaver Vale) (Lab)
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Will the Minister meet me to discuss the continued pressures arising from the use of hotel accommodation in my constituency and others across the Liverpool city region?

Robert Jenrick Portrait Robert Jenrick
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I would be happy to. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support our legislation in due course, which will tackle the root cause of the issue.

Anna Firth Portrait Anna Firth (Southend West) (Con)
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Over Christmas, a 17-year-old boy in Leigh-on-Sea was able to buy a terrifying 2-foot “zombie knife” machete online and have it delivered directly to his door. Does the Minister agree that we need to close the loophole regarding the definition of zombie knives, and get them out of circulation once and for all?

Chris Philp Portrait Chris Philp
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Yes, I entirely agree. I thank my hon. Friend for drawing this issue to my attention a few weeks ago. We are looking to consult in the very near future to make sure that the law prohibits dangerous weapons where necessary.

Valerie Vaz Portrait Valerie Vaz (Walsall South) (Lab)
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A man was stabbed to death outside Asda in Walsall town centre, and an 18-year-old was stabbed to death in Cook Street, Darlaston. What discussions has the Home Secretary had with the new chief constable about reducing serious violent crime in Walsall?

Suella Braverman Portrait Suella Braverman
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Violent crime is devastating, which is why we need to get knives and other offensive weapons off our streets. I am pleased with the targeted interventions made through violence reduction units, hotspot policing and, of course, increased police resources, which are all working towards a reduction in knife crime and violent crime.

Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe (South Basildon and East Thurrock) (Con)
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Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is quite extraordinary that Members of this House complain about the number of asylum seekers, but oppose all measures that the Government bring forward to tackle them coming here illegally? Will she therefore join me in encouraging all Members to back our plans to stop small boats, which is what my constituents and the British public so manifestly want to happen, so that we can save lives and break the model used by illegal people traffickers?

Suella Braverman Portrait Suella Braverman
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My hon. Friend puts it incredibly well. The tragedy is that Labour Members have opposed every measure that we have proposed. They voted against our Bill, which would have provided tougher penalties for people smugglers. They voted against our measures to improve the situation. We delivered the ground-breaking partnership with Rwanda and they would scrap it. Labour’s plan is to invest more money in the National Crime Agency. Let me tell Members that we are already doing that. The reality is that Labour has no plan. It has no idea, and, frankly, it is not on the side of the British people, because all it wants is open borders.

Liz Saville Roberts Portrait Liz Saville Roberts (Dwyfor Meirionnydd) (PC)
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South Caernarfon Creameries is Wales’s oldest and largest dairy co-operative. It is investing in Project Dragon, an ambitious expansion programme that involves investing £8 million in a factory plant from Turkish technology leaders, Gemak. Contractual deadlines are at risk as a result of delays at the British consulate in issuing visas for key staff who are essential to installing and handing over the equipment. Will someone from the Secretary of State’s Department meet me at their earliest convenience to resolve this situation?

Robert Jenrick Portrait Robert Jenrick
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I would be happy to look into the matter for the right hon. Lady. I would say, however, that the visa service is now working within its service standards in all respects.

Philip Hollobone Portrait Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con)
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How many Albanians last year claimed to be modern-day slaves, and what are we doing to encourage the processing of their claims back in their country of origin?

Robert Jenrick Portrait Robert Jenrick
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The published figures to September last year show that 3,400 Albanians claimed to be modern slaves. Of course, some within this number will prove to be so, but many will not, which is why it is right that we tackle abuse of the system. We have already taken substantial action by increasing the reasonable grounds threshold and reducing the minimum recovery period. If we need to take further action, we will.

Stephen Farry Portrait Stephen Farry (North Down) (Alliance)
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Around 40,000 people seeking asylum are stuck in hotels. However, Home Office policy allows decisions on refugee status to be communicated only to those who have been dispersed. Surely that is absurd and counterproductive. When will the policy change?

Robert Jenrick Portrait Robert Jenrick
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We are considering this issue. The policy was put in place some time ago, for good reason: so that those local authorities that were bearing a disproportionate number of the individuals in hotels and temporary accommodation did not take a corresponding number of people were they to be granted asylum. We are looking into that at the moment.

Ben Everitt Portrait Ben Everitt (Milton Keynes North) (Con)
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The skilled worker visa system simply is not working for many businesses in Milton Keynes North. Despite having a licence, small businesses find that it takes ages to get a decision, and then either the visa is denied, or they pay extortionate fees for a service that does not materialise. Can we get on this immediately, because our businesses are crying out for skills? Will my right hon. Friend commit to resolving these issues?

Robert Jenrick Portrait Robert Jenrick
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I would be happy to look into any specific cases, but overall, the skilled worker system is operating well. We have more than 48,000 registered sponsors, mostly small and medium-sized businesses. In the year to September last year, almost a quarter of a million work-related visas were granted, and the standard processing time is three weeks for those applications.

Richard Foord Portrait Richard Foord (Tiverton and Honiton) (LD)
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The graduate visa route enables international students to work in the UK for up to two years after their study. Curtailing or removing this route would deter international students from studying in the UK, but their net contribution to the UK economy is more than £25 billion per year. Does the Minister recognise that international student fees cross-subsidise teaching fees for British students?

Suella Braverman Portrait Suella Braverman
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We very much welcome the best and the brightest students from all over the world to our world-leading universities. Our points-based system was designed to enable graduates and undergraduates to come and study at UK universities. We are always looking at our visa routes to make sure the right balance is struck between the resources we can provide for people coming here and the numbers coming here. That is the same across the board, whichever visa route we look at.

Tom Hunt Portrait Tom Hunt (Ipswich) (Con)
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I welcome the extra funding from the safer streets fund and the shared prosperity fund, but does the Home Secretary agree that we also need a zero-tolerance approach to tackling antisocial behaviour? Many of my constituents—long-term residents—are concerned about going into our town centre because they do not feel safe. Does she agree that it is time for a hands-on, and not a hands-off, approach, so that where there are groups of men in the town centre blighting the experience of most of my residents, we clear them out?

Chris Philp Portrait Chris Philp
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Yes, we agree entirely. That is why my hon. Friend’s county and his town have had safer streets funding, and why they are getting extra police officers. The Government completely agree that zero tolerance to ASB is exactly what we need.

Chris Bryant Portrait Sir Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab)
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The biggest criminal in Europe, with the most blood on his hands, is Vladimir Putin. We have frozen his Russian state assets in the UK; will the Home Secretary support my Bill tomorrow to allow us to seize those assets and give them to the Ukrainian people, so that they can rebuild their country?

Tom Tugendhat Portrait Tom Tugendhat
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Going from freezing to seizing, as the hon. Gentleman knows, is a slightly difficult procedure under our laws, due to the rights that people have. We have looked at that matter with partners, particularly in common law jurisdictions, and I hope to have further conversations on the subject with the United States when I go there tomorrow.

David Evennett Portrait Sir David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con)
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My constituents remain concerned about the victims of people-smuggling gangs. Can my right hon. Friend advise how many people smugglers have been caught and arrested under the Nationality and Borders Act 2022, and confirm that the Government will continue to act with vigour against people smuggling and illegal immigration?

Robert Jenrick Portrait Robert Jenrick
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My right hon. Friend makes an important point. We are implementing the Nationality and Borders Act as swiftly as possible, and it is already having a real impact, with more than 190 people having been arrested since it became law.

Margaret Ferrier Portrait Margaret Ferrier (Rutherglen and Hamilton West) (Ind)
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Aviation is hugely important to the UK economy, but the Government have neglected to recognise the worker shortage in the sector. Does the Home Secretary plan to include aviation in the skilled worker visa shortage occupations list?

Robert Jenrick Portrait Robert Jenrick
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We work with the Migration Advisory Committee to keep the skilled worker list under review. We work closely with the Department for Transport on issues such as wet licensing, which was raised recently. It is important to make sure that we have the correct workforce, but we also have to crack down on abuse where we see it.

Boris Johnson Portrait Boris Johnson (Uxbridge and South Ruislip) (Con)
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Is it not obvious from today’s exchanges that many of those who oppose the UK-Rwanda migration and economic development partnership have no idea about Rwanda, have probably never been there, and are wholly wrong to condescend to and disparage Rwanda? Above all, they have not the ghost of an idea how to solve the problem of cross-channel gangs putting people at risk at sea. The difference between the Government side and the Opposition is that we have a plan and they do not.

Suella Braverman Portrait Suella Braverman
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My right hon. Friend puts it very well. Let me put on record my thanks and appreciation to him for all that he has done to try to fix this incredibly difficult problem. He is absolutely right: the Labour party complains and sits on the sidelines, criticising, opposing and voting against every measure that we put forward. I urge Labour to back our Bill, back control over our borders, and back the British people.

Simon Jupp Portrait Simon Jupp (East Devon) (Con)
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East Devon’s farmers rely on a skilled domestic and foreign workforce to put their fantastic produce on our tables all year round. What reassurances can my right hon. Friend give that he will work with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to ensure that the seasonal agricultural worker scheme will be extended beyond 2024?

Robert Jenrick Portrait Robert Jenrick
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We review the seasonal agricultural worker scheme every year, working closely with DEFRA. We have extended it for this year, as my hon. Friend knows, and increased the numbers permitted under that scheme. That is quite right, but it is important to balance that against the need to ensure that British workers find their way into the workplace and are trained, and the need to invest in British farming, so that we do not need to reach in the first instance for foreign labour.

Lia Nici Portrait Lia Nici (Great Grimsby) (Con)
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It is quite right that police forces are under significant scrutiny at the moment, but I commend Humberside police force, which has recently been assessed as “outstanding”, and, in particular, its Grimsby-born chief constable, Lee Freeman, who was recently awarded the King’s Police Medal. Will my right hon. Friend outline the steps that excellent police forces such as Humberside can take to share good practice so that every police force across the UK can become outstanding?

Suella Braverman Portrait Suella Braverman
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I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to Chief Constable Lee Freeman for his rightly deserved award for excellence and leadership in policing. Humberside police force is a great example of how standards in policing are improving and strong leaders are turning things around. That force’s recent inspectorate report is testament to its excellent work. Humberside police has been pioneering best practice when it comes to police treatment of and resolution for victims and people with mental health issues. Its pioneering programme of “right care, right person” is being rolled out throughout the country and is sought after by other forces. It is an example of excellence.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call Paul Bristow. Is there anybody else?

Paul Bristow Portrait Paul Bristow (Peterborough) (Con)
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It was worth waiting for, Mr Speaker.

I have recently written to the Minister about the Great Northern hotel in my constituency, which is being stood up to accommodate migrants who have crossed the channel on small boats. I asked him if he would give a timeframe for when the hotel will be stood down. I do not expect him to give me that timeframe from the Dispatch Box today, but can he at least guarantee that when he responds in writing, there will be a timeframe so that we can give certainty to the police, support services and the people of Peterborough?

Robert Jenrick Portrait Robert Jenrick
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The Great Northern hotel in Peterborough is ingrained in my mind as a result of my hon. Friend’s assiduous lobbying. That is quite right, because we share his frustration; we want to see such hotels returned to use by the local community and for the benefit of the economy. I will write back to him to set out our plans—as far as I can at this stage. I know that he will support us in all our efforts to stop the boats.

NHS Strikes

Monday 6th February 2023

(1 year, 4 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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15:47
Wes Streeting Portrait Wes Streeting (Ilford North) (Lab)
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(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care if he will make a statement on the NHS strikes.

Will Quince Portrait The Minister for Health and Secondary Care (Will Quince)
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I am grateful to the hon. Member for his question, which I am taking on behalf of the Department as the Secretary of State is attending a COBRA meeting focused on minimising the disruption experienced by patients because of today’s walkouts.

In preparation for today’s industrial action, we have again drawn on extra support from a range of places, including military service personnel, volunteers and the private sector. People should continue to use NHS 111 if they need medical help and to dial 999 in the event of an emergency. Yet even such strong contingencies, including more people trained to drive ambulances and doctors redeployed to other parts of the system, are no replacement for having the right people doing the right jobs.

Any strike inevitably means that some patients will have their treatment delayed, and I know that people are being contacted if their appointments need to be changed. About 88,000 procedures or outpatient appointments have been postponed as a result of industrial action over the last eight weeks, so I am disappointed and concerned that patients are facing disruption once again, especially because strikes by Royal College of Nursing members have now come together with action by GMB and Unite members in eight ambulance trusts.

I recognise that there have been efforts on behalf of unions to ensure that derogations are in place to keep people safe, and I acknowledge that some aspects of that can indeed be challenging, but it is essential that all unions adhere to a set of derogations at a national level so that we can plan and act with certainty. I have also been heartened to hear that on previous strike days, some devoted ambulance workers and nurses who received calls while on the picket line returned to work where derogations were not going to be met. That is a real tribute to the care and dedication we see on the frontline day in, day out.

Ultimately, both staff and the public should no longer be in this situation, because we all know that industrial action is in nobody’s best interests, especially given the collective challenges we face to help the NHS recover from the pandemic. Despite what the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) might imply, there is much common ground, not least our shared desire to improve the NHS and deliver better care. Last week we announced our plan to recover urgent and emergency care—the second of three plans to cut waiting times in the NHS, including our elective recovery plan and our primary care recovery plan, which will be published in the next few weeks. With such important missions ahead of us, and fewer than two months left of this financial year, it is time to move forward, to look ahead and to come together in the interests of the patients we all serve.

Wes Streeting Portrait Wes Streeting
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This week will see the biggest strike in the history of the NHS, with nurses, ambulance workers and physiotherapists all driven to walk out. Some 88,000 appointments, including 10,000 operations, have already been cancelled, with much more disruption to patients expected this week, yet Government Ministers still speak as if they are mere observers or commentators, not leaders key to solving this dispute. This is the cost of the Prime Minister’s failure to sit down and negotiate with nurses, paramedics and other NHS staff.

Let us be clear about this fact: there has not been a single minute of negotiation on pay. NHS leaders are asking the Government to negotiate. Chief nurses are desperate for the Government to negotiate. The unions have offered to call off the strikes if the Government are willing to negotiate. The public cannot understand why, even now, they will not get around the table to sort this out. What on earth are they playing at?

Developments in Wales show that there is a deal to be done. The general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing has written to the Prime Minister, but she has not heard anything from the Government for weeks. It looks to the country like the Prime Minister and the Health Secretary are the ones on strike. Where is the Prime Minister? Where is the Health Secretary? In the week of the biggest strikes in the history of the NHS, during the biggest crisis the NHS has ever faced, the Health Secretary was not available for interviews this morning and he is not available to MPs today. Are we meant to believe that at 4 o’clock in the afternoon he is talking about how to avert disruption that has been taking place all day? Don’t make me laugh. Perhaps the Health Secretary is busy briefing against the Chancellor, just as the Chancellor is busy briefing against him. All the while, the Prime Minister is too weak to do anything about it.

The power to stop these strikes is in the Government’s hands. Patients have suffered enough disruption as it is. Is it not time for the Prime Minister to swallow his pride, sit down with NHS staff and negotiate an end to these strikes by paying NHS staff fairly?

Will Quince Portrait Will Quince
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I am not going to engage in the playing of party politics on this. The hon. Gentleman already knows that the Secretary of State is due to attend a Cobra meeting, which he and I rotate, and the hon. Gentleman may have missed it, but this morning the Secretary of State did do a media clip, and Members will have seen that across multiple outlets.

Where I do agree with the hon. Gentleman is that he is right to talk about the amazing job that our NHS colleagues do on the frontline. I know he does that, and I thank him for that, but that is even more reason why we must find a fair resolution, and NHS colleagues certainly will not get one from those on the Opposition Benches. The Opposition say that they back the independent pay review process, while disagreeing with the body’s decision when it does not suit them. They say they would not increase public spending, while failing to set out any plans for how they might pay for unaffordable pay increases. They say they believe in public safety, too, while criticising the common-sense steps we are taking to ensure safe minimum staffing levels, just as they do in many other European countries. We have got a plan—they do not.

More than 1 million NHS staff have been given at least a £1,400 increase in their pay, representing a 9.3% rise for those on the lowest salaries. NHS staff also received a 3% pay rise last year—even when pay was frozen across the rest of the public sector. We have done this because we know how hard NHS colleagues work and we recognise that there are cost of living pressures on NHS staff.

Our goal has always been a resolution that is fair for colleagues and for the country: to find a way forward that ensures we are spending money where it is needed most, and helping the NHS to recover from the pandemic, but not on pay hikes that would stoke inflation and ultimately make us all poorer. I met GMB members last week, and—together with my ministerial colleagues—I remain fully committed to working together with the unions, the NHS and others to find a responsible and fair way forward.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the Chair of the Health and Social Care Committee.

Steve Brine Portrait Steve Brine (Winchester) (Con)
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The NHS Pay Review Body was in front of my Select Committee last week, but it will not produce its report for 2023-24 until the end of April. Surely the longer this process goes on, the slower the resolution will be for those on Agenda for Change. Does the Minister agree that a much earlier remit letter would have been helpful, and when does he expect the Department to produce its evidence to this year’s pay review body round?

Will Quince Portrait Will Quince
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I thank the Chair of the Select Committee for his question. He is right that we are committed to the independent PRB process, which is the right way to set public sector pay and has operated successfully for over four decades. We are not changing that process, but we decided to take the step to engage with the unions on our respective evidence so that it can be as informed as possible, and we very much thank the trade unions for working with us in that spirit. We need to wait for discussions with unions to finish across Government, so I hope I can use the word “shortly”; I am mindful that we want to get this done as quickly as possible.

Martyn Day Portrait Martyn Day (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (SNP)
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What does the Minister think when he looks across the border to Scotland and sees that Unison, Unite and other unions representing the majority of NHS Agenda for Change staff have accepted the 7.5% pay rise offer? There are no planned strikes in Scotland while pay deals are being considered, which clearly illustrates that negotiating with the unions is a better way of ending strikes than picking fights with them. The UK Government are unique among the four Governments of the UK in that they are the only ones who have full financial powers, and therefore the only Government who are not acting with a hand tied behind their back in offering pay uplifts to their NHS staff. Why is it, then, that the UK Government are facing the greatest number of strikes and have failed to settle any pay disputes?

Will Quince Portrait Will Quince
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I remember another Scottish National party Member making a similar comment in a previous urgent question, crowing about how Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland, was directly negotiating with the unions and that they had paused their industrial action, but only a handful of weeks later that industrial action was renewed. Pay is of course a devolved matter for Scotland and for Wales.

I will not make unfunded promises or pledges from this Dispatch Box. I want to have an honest and open dialogue with the unions about what is affordable for the NHS, where we recognise and reward NHS staff—who do the most incredible job day in, day out—with one eye to recruitment and retention, but it also has to be fair to taxpayers; and that is the spirit in which I approach this matter.

John Redwood Portrait John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con)
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Can senior managers of NHS England and its various trusts make more use of pay gradings, job evaluations, promotions and increments, using pay flexibilities so that staff who are doing a good job feel valued and can be paid more?

Will Quince Portrait Will Quince
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That certainly is an option. My right hon. Friend talks about NHS managers. Understandably, the Opposition focus on nurses and paramedics, but let us not forget exactly who we are talking about: the entire Agenda for Change workforce, which is 1.245 million people. That is exactly why every 1% equates to £700 million. My right hon. Friend is right that pay is a factor, but it is not the only factor, which is why we also focus on working conditions and environment.

Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell (York Central) (Lab/Co-op)
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Taxpayers want NHS staff to be there when they need them, but as more and more staff leave the service, flipping over to work for agencies because they simply cannot afford to work for the service on their salaries, their money is being spent in the wrong way. On Friday, when I met NHS staff who came in on their day off, they said that the thing that is breaking them is the Government’s contempt for them. They simply want the Government to negotiate—so why will they not?

Will Quince Portrait Will Quince
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I thank the hon. Lady for her question, but she could not be more wrong. I was in Darent Valley hospital today and I was in Watford hospital last week, and I have the utmost respect for all those who work in our NHS. Everybody in this Chamber wants those who work in our NHS—in fact, all public sector workers—to be paid more, but the independent pay review process is a tried and tested process that has been used for more than 40 years, and it is important that the unions engage with it so that we get this right from April.

Philip Hollobone Portrait Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con)
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Due to the covid pandemic, the NHS has a large care backlog, which my constituents in Kettering are keen to see addressed. Will the Health Minister confirm that spending on the NHS is at record levels and that the Government have a plan to reduce NHS backlogs, which the strikes are disrupting? For every day of NHS strike action, how many NHS operations and procedures are lost?

Will Quince Portrait Will Quince
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I will gladly write to my hon. Friend on the specifics, but he is right to point out that NHS spending in England this year is about 11.4% higher in real terms than it was in 2019-20. He is right to point to his constituents on the waiting lists, and I want to get the numbers down as quickly as possible, particularly for those who have been waiting the longest. On top of a £2 billion recovery fund, we have invested £8 billion over three years; we have already opened 92 community diagnostic centres, and we will open 160 by March 2025; and we have opened 89 surgical hubs, with an aim to open 140. Our aim is 9 million more treatments and diagnostic appointments by 2024, so that constituents of my hon. Friend who have been waiting too long get that service.

Paul Blomfield Portrait Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central) (Lab)
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Ministers are hiding behind the independent pay review process. The Minister knows that recommendations have been ignored when it suited the Government in the past. NHS employers want negotiations, the unions want negotiations and the public want negotiations. The Minister says it is time to come together in the interests of patients. He is right, so why do the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister not come together with the unions and sort it out?

Will Quince Portrait Will Quince
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I have met employers, and I believe in open and honest dialogue. What the hon. Gentleman has not accepted—and I appreciate that being in opposition is the easiest job in the world—is that, as I have pointed out, every 1% is £700 million. I have a budget this year of £153 billion and, yes, that is rising, but I have some huge challenges. We have huge challenges to tackle within our NHS. The hon. Gentleman the shadow Secretary of State just says, “Negotiate, negotiate”—

Will Quince Portrait Will Quince
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Yes, yes—but where exactly is the funding coming from? The hon. Gentleman rightly pushes me on the elective backlog and he rightly pushes me on urgent and emergency care, but every 1% is £700 million that I would have to find from our NHS budget. That is exactly why we have to ensure that the pay review body makes the recommendation from April that is affordable to the NHS and recognises and rewards NHS staff, taking account of recruitment and retention and some of the challenges that we face, but that is fair to taxpayers too. That is why I would encourage the unions to get involved and take part in that pay review body process, so we can get it right.

John McDonnell Portrait John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab)
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The Minister says that opposition is the easiest job. Well, we are hoping he is soon performing it. When he opened his response this afternoon, he said that the Secretary of State was at a Cobra meeting, but would it not be more worthwhile if he negotiated and met the unions themselves? In advance of the next meeting for discussions of wages, maybe he could visit a picket line, because if Conservative Members visit the picket lines, they will find groups of staff—nurses and ambulance workers—who are extremely distressed. I have met many of them who were in tears—tears because they are worried about the patients whom they want to support, but also tears because many of them cannot survive doing the service they want to provide due to their low wages. Unless negotiations are started soon, the Government could do irreparable damage to the national health service, so the Secretary of State needs urgently to leave the Cobra meeting, sit down with the unions and start negotiating.

Will Quince Portrait Will Quince
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The right hon. Gentleman says that many who work in the NHS are worried about patients: I spend every single day worrying about patients; I spend every single day ensuring the NHS has the resources it needs to provide the level of care and service our constituents rightly expect. I have a budget, and that budget has already taken into consideration a 4.75% on average pay award, with more than 9% for some of the lowest earners. There is an independent pay review body process for a reason; it is only two months away, in April, and I encourage the unions to take part in it. Of course I meet with unions, and of course I do and will meet with nurses and those who work in our NHS. I believe some of the points the right hon. Gentleman makes are correct, and I know those who work in the NHS genuinely want to ensure we are attracting and retaining the very best; that is all the more reason for us to get it right, and the way to get it right is the independent pay review body process.

Barbara Keeley Portrait Barbara Keeley (Worsley and Eccles South) (Lab)
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There were no strikes in the NHS over 13 years of the last Labour Government, and the cavalry is coming to rescue our health service with the next Labour Government. The Minister just asked where the funding is coming from to pay for NHS staff: we will train a new generation of NHS staff paid for by abolishing non-dom tax status so that the NHS has the workforce it desperately needs. Why will the Government not do as the Chancellor has suggested and adopt this policy now?

Will Quince Portrait Will Quince
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The hon. Lady says the cavalry is coming; how many more unfunded pledges—[Interruption.] Labour Members say they are fully funded: absolute tosh. I have heard the Opposition spend that non-dom money more times—

Will Quince Portrait Will Quince
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Once? The shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), has spent it twice over already. And that is if indeed it would raise any money; I know I look very young, Mr Speaker, but I am old enough to remember a former Chancellor, one Ed Balls, say he did not believe taxing non-doms would raise any money whatsoever.

Luke Evans Portrait Dr Luke Evans (Bosworth) (Con)
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I declare my interest, Mr Speaker.

We have spent a lot of time talking about pay, but making working conditions for frontline staff much better is key, so what are the Government doing to focus on improving the simple things in a clinician’s life such as joining up testing, improving prescribing, and making sure that 10% to 15% of a GP’s workload is not spent chasing admin? These are simple things that would make a huge difference and improve outcomes for both patients and staff.

Will Quince Portrait Will Quince
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I completely agree with my hon. Friend. Ensuring that we support the mental health and wellbeing of NHS staff and that working conditions and working environments are the best they can possibly be is how we can attract and retain the best. Measures such as wellbeing champions, training for line managers, occupational health services and flexible working are very important, but the key to this is having conversations with the unions, because they are the representatives, ambassadors and advocates. That is why I very much hope they will engage in the pay review body process and continue to have those conversations with me, not just about pay, but about how we can improve working conditions and working environments and reduce the bureaucracy that makes the job so difficult.

Richard Foord Portrait Richard Foord (Tiverton and Honiton) (LD)
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It is now clearly established that the workforce crisis in the NHS is mirrored by vacancies in adult social care. There are more than 165,000 vacancies in social care, up by 52% in a year. The Liberal Democrats are calling for a carers’ minimum wage of £12.42 per hour from April; will the Minister support a £2 per hour uplift in that minimum wage for care workers by doubling the tax on the profits of online gambling companies?

Will Quince Portrait Will Quince
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The hon. Gentleman got a plug in for his policy there, but I am not entirely sure how relevant it is to this statement. On NHS staffing, we have 10,500 more nurses and 4,800 more doctors than last year. But I know adult social care represents one of the biggest challenges for our NHS, and it puts pressure on the rest of the system. That is why in the autumn statement the Chancellor put in place £7.5 billion, the largest ever investment in adult social care.

Valerie Vaz Portrait Valerie Vaz (Walsall South) (Lab)
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The Minister will know about the ministerial code and about keeping the House updated, so will he tell us when the Secretary of State for Health met Pat Cullen of the RCN? If cannot tell us now, will he write to us and put that letter in the library, please?

Will Quince Portrait Will Quince
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Of course I am happy to do that, and I think these things are put on the public record in any event. I do not know when the Secretary of State met specifically with the RCN, but I can tell the House that I have met the unions, I believe, on 9, 12, 25 and 31 January.

Zarah Sultana Portrait Zarah Sultana (Coventry South) (Lab)
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I have just come from the nurses’ picket outside St Thomas’s Hospital, on the other side of Westminster bridge, where nurses made the point that they were not striking against the NHS but to save the NHS. They have been underpaid and overworked for too long; their pay is down 20% on what it was when the Tories came into power, and now there are a record 50,000 nursing vacancies in England. That is not just unfair but incredibly unsafe. As one nurse said, “Patients aren’t dying because nurses are striking. Nurses are striking because patients are dying.” Will the Minister finally listen to NHS staff, get around the table to talk about pay and give them the pay rise they deserve?

Will Quince Portrait Will Quince
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Despite what the hon. Lady says, there are 47,100 more nurses this year than there were in 2010 and 10,500 more than last year, and we have 72,000 nurses in training. The Government hugely value the work not just of nurses—I remind the hon. Lady that she is also talking about the 1.245 million people who work on the Agenda for Change contract. She is right that we have to get pay and other matters right, and that is why we have an independent pay review body process where we look at affordability, reward and recognition, and pay, alongside recruitment and retention and achieving a package that is fair to taxpayers. That independent pay review body will make a recommendation, and it is then for the Government to look at it and accept it or reject it.

Margaret Greenwood Portrait Margaret Greenwood (Wirral West) (Lab)
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I stand in solidarity with nurses and other NHS workers who are taking action in their fight for fair pay and improved patient safety. Miriam Deakin, the director of policy and strategy at NHS Providers, has said that its key ask is that

“the Government does sit down around the table with the unions for formal negotiations on pay, and for that to be applied to pay this year.”

She has described the absence of formal negotiations as “very worrying”. Does the Minister accept that responsibility for the continuation of strike action by NHS staff lies firmly with the Government? Does he agree with Pat Cullen, the general secretary of the RCN, that

“this government has chosen to punish the nurses of England instead of getting round a table and talking…about pay”?

Will Quince Portrait Will Quince
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I thank the hon. Lady for her question, but nothing could be further from the truth. We accepted the independent pay review body’s recommendation of an average of 4.75% in full. That is over and above a 3% pay award last year, when the rest of the public sector saw a freeze. The hon. Lady, like me, will have lots of other public sector workers, and indeed private sector workers, in her constituency who will also earn between £30,000 and £50,000 a year. They will also have seen pay awards this year of between 4% and 6%, but they will not have 20% pension contributions or up to 33 days of annual leave a year. We have to keep these things in context, and any award also has to be fair to taxpayers more broadly, which is why we have an independent pay review body process. I want to address many of the issues that the hon. Lady has raised. We have that process; it is important that we use it, and I hope that the unions and others, including providers, will engage with it.

Liz Twist Portrait Liz Twist (Blaydon) (Lab)
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Our NHS staff—all of them—saw us through the pandemic, many without proper protective equipment. They have now seen us through the catch-up exercise, and they are working hard, but they are at the end of their tether. Meanwhile, the Minister says there is no money, but the Government wasted £15 billion on personal protective equipment—money that could have given everyone a 20% pay rise. Is it not time that the Government understood the issues in this strike, got around the table and talked about pay to the nursing unions?

Will Quince Portrait Will Quince
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First, let me correct what the hon. Lady said about PPE. I was not a Health Minister at the time, but let us not forget that 97% of all PPE was usable. Despite being a Minister in another Department, I remember that those on the Opposition Front Bench rightly agitated on this issue, saying, “Do anything, strain every sinew and take a risk, but make sure you get PPE as quickly as possible.” It was the most desired global commodity, and Governments around the world were fighting for it.

Nevertheless, the hon. Lady raised a good point, and of course NHS staff got us through the pandemic. That is exactly why we accepted the independent pay review body recommendation in full. It is exactly why we accepted the recommendation last year of a 3% award when the wider public sector was frozen. Of course we value all those who work in our NHS, and that is exactly why have to get this right for the next independent pay review body. That is why we have to ensure that not just the Government but the unions, providers and others give evidence to that body.

Mike Amesbury Portrait Mike Amesbury (Weaver Vale) (Lab)
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Just over two hours ago, I joined Lorraine and other colleagues from the Royal College of Nursing over the bridge at St Thomas’s Hospital. They do not want to be on strike and they do not want to be on a picket line, but they want a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. A key message from them to the Minister is to get round the negotiating table and give them a fair deal.

Will Quince Portrait Will Quince
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Opposition Members keep saying, “Get round the table and negotiate.” I encourage the next one who says that to tell me exactly where each block of 1%, each £700 million, will come from out of our NHS budget. [Interruption.] They point at me, but I remind the hon. Gentleman that we accepted the independent pay review body’s recommendations in full. We stand ready to look at the independent pay review body’s recommendations for next year, which of course is only two months away, because it starts in April. It is really important that we all engage with that process, so we can get it right and address many of the issues the hon. Gentleman and others raise.

Ben Bradshaw Portrait Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab)
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What is the Minister’s estimate of the number of people in England who have had their appointments or operations cancelled today, compared with Wales and Scotland where there are no strikes? Why are the Conservative Government so indifferent to the suffering of patients in England that they refuse to do what the Governments in Scotland and Wales have done, which is to get round and negotiate a settlement?

Will Quince Portrait Will Quince
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We do not, as yet, have the details of today’s and tomorrow’s industrial action, but we will certainly be able to publish that information in due course. I can tell the right hon. Gentleman, as I mentioned in my opening response to the urgent question, that over 88,000 appointments have been rescheduled so far and over 58,000 shifts have been missed. Of course I deeply regret that and wish that there was no strike action. [Interruption.] Of course I do.

If we had not accepted in full the independent pay review body’s recommendations, the right hon. Gentleman and others would have an argument to make to say that we had not, but we did accept them in full. We accepted them in full last year, too, despite them being over and above the evidence submitted by the Government in respect of affordability. That is why I look forward to the next independent pay review body process, and why it is so important that the unions and others engage with that process so that we get it right.

Andy McDonald Portrait Andy McDonald (Middlesbrough) (Lab)
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I have more than enough cause to thank my local NHS for the lifesaving treatment it has given me, but so has every single family in this country. Why do the Government not get it, as the public clearly do, that our health workers, like all public sector workers, are at the end of their tether? Get round the table to resolve these disputes and give them the proper wage rise they so desperately need and deserve.

Will Quince Portrait Will Quince
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First, let me agree entirely with what the hon. Gentleman said about NHS staff and how we all owe them a debt of gratitude for the service they have given, not just to us but to all our families. Again, he may have missed it when I asked that if any Opposition Member was going to raise the same question, they might also stand up and say exactly where each block of £700 million would come from, out of my £150 billion budget. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler) says, “Show us the books.” She knows exactly where the NHS funding goes. I want to ensure that we have an open and honest dialogue. I have been having those conversations with the unions and I have set out exactly the challenges we face. Any pay has to be affordable not just to the NHS but to the wider budget. It has to recognise and reward those who work in the NHS. Of course I want to retain and attract the very best, but it also has to be fair to taxpayers, and that is the point I think the hon. Gentleman and others are missing.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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I thank the Minister for his answers. For nurses and many others in the NHS, striking is not what they want to do: all they want is dialogue and to try to move forward with an agreed wage structure. They have been left vulnerable by understaffing on the wards, and the pressure that adds is repugnant to them. The Government must move from their entrenched position to find a workable solution. Will the Minister commit to reopening dialogue and looking at the situation, not from the angle of enshrined principle but from a safety angle, which concerns us all?

Will Quince Portrait Will Quince
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I thank my hon. Friend for his question. We accepted in full the independent pay review body’s recommendation this year of 4.75%, which was over and above last year’s figure of 3% when the rest of the wider public sector was frozen. He asks about dialogue. Of course I am happy to have dialogue with the unions; my door has always been open and it will continue to be so. What I am not going to do is reopen this year’s pay review. We have the independent pay review body process and we accepted that recommendation in full. What I am willing and happy to do is to have that dialogue about next year’s independent pay review body recommendation. Let us not forget that it is in only two months’ time that the new financial year starts, and we have to get that right. I hope that he will encourage unions and others to take part in that process so that we can get it right, because we all want to ensure that NHS staff get the right pay rise that recognises the huge service they give.

Jonathan Edwards Portrait Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (Ind)
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Half of the successful revised offer by the Welsh Government is in the format of a one-off payment. Will the British Government confirm that that element of the pay settlement will be recognised as cost of living support and not as income, and treat it as such for tax and benefit purposes?

Will Quince Portrait Will Quince
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Pay is a devolved matter and I understand that the full details of the Welsh offer are yet to be finalised. They will include a number of non-pay commitments, and I understand that the cost of those measures could be substantial. I will look carefully at what the hon. Gentleman says. In any event, it would not be a matter for me as a Health Minister but for the Treasury.

Prepayment Meters: Ofgem Decision

Monday 6th February 2023

(1 year, 4 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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16:21
Edward Miliband Portrait Edward Miliband (Doncaster North) (Lab)
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(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy if he will make a statement on Ofgem’s decision to suspend the forced installation of prepayment meters.

Graham Stuart Portrait The Minister for Energy and Climate (Graham Stuart)
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As I have set out to the House previously, it is critical that our most vulnerable energy users are protected, which is why we have already put in place a generous package of support to help people with their energy bills this winter. I was appalled, however, to see reports that vulnerable customers struggling with their energy bills have had their homes invaded and prepayment meters installed when there is a clear duty on suppliers to provide them with support. Since those reports came to light, we have acted swiftly and we will not hesitate to go further to protect consumers.

The Secretary of State has called for more robust Ofgem enforcement on those issues, as well as, more importantly, action from suppliers. It is right that Ofgem has now taken the steps it has, including asking suppliers to pause forcible installation and to conduct a thorough review of processes, and I welcome steps from those suppliers who have already announced that they will do so. I welcome the move by Lord Justice Edis today, ordering magistrates courts in England and Wales to stop authorising warrants for energy firms to forcibly install prepayment meters with immediate effect.

The Government expect strong and immediate action where suppliers fall short of their obligations. I discussed these matters with the chief executive officer of Ofgem this morning, and I met the CEO of British Gas on 1 February to tell him of the strength of the Government’s concerns at the distress that his company has caused to customers. The Secretary of State has asked suppliers to set out by the end of the day tomorrow how they will make redress to customers who have inappropriately had a prepayment meter fitted, including the possibility of compensation, and I look forward to seeing the responses from suppliers.

I thank the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) for raising this issue. I remind the House that I have committed to meeting the all-party parliamentary group on prepayment meters, where I can keep Members updated on the issue as we move forward after today.

Edward Miliband Portrait Edward Miliband
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I thank the Minister for his reply, but it is simply not good enough. The story of this scandal is of a Government sitting on their hands and being far too slow to act. Ofgem did reviews in September and November and highlighted the problem—where were the Government? In early January, Citizens Advice reported that 3 million people have been disconnected by the back door. Even after that, he came to the House and refused an outright ban. Now we know the result of his inaction: 30,000 people have had warrants issued for the forced installation of prepayment meters in the past month alone, and 6,000 in the past week since he said no to a ban—thousands of people who are victims of Government negligence.

Let me ask the Minister some questions. First, how long will this pause, which has finally been put in place, last? Will he pledge that it will not be lifted until this discredited, rotten system is properly reformed? Secondly, he mentioned compensation as a result of remedial action for those adversely affected. Will he tell us how this compensation scheme will work? Thirdly, will he look at the case for energy companies having to supply a minimum amount of power to all customers, as in France, so that nobody is cut off—just like we do not cut off people’s water supply in this country? Fourthly, this crisis is happening against a backdrop of energy bills being due to rise 40% in just eight weeks’ time because the Government say there is nothing more they can do. This is the next looming scandal. Will he finally end the loopholes in the windfall tax, including billions being siphoned to fossil fuel companies, to stop bills rising?

Energy companies forcing their way into people’s homes, millions getting disconnected by the back door, no proper windfall tax on fossil fuel profits—this is Britain under the Tories. There is no one else to blame; it is long past time they got a grip.

Graham Stuart Portrait Graham Stuart
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The right hon. Gentleman asks how long the pause will last. That is up to Ofgem, as the regulator. It looked at this process before, as he rightly said, and it had assurances that have not proven to be accurate. Ofgem needs to ensure that the processes are properly observed, because it should be an absolute last resort that a prepayment meter is forcibly installed. He asks how compensation will be worked out. That is a matter for Ofgem. As is proper for the regulator, it stands between the Government, consumers and the suppliers in delivering that.

I have asked officials to look at providing a minimum amount of power, like France does. There are a lot of technical and other challenges to such a system. One of the benefits of having a prepayment meter is that it allows someone who is not engaging with their supplier and is running up debt to none the less have a supply continuing in their home. Having people cut off completely if they fail to manage that is not something we would want to see.

The right hon. Gentleman talked about the position from April. I am proud that the energy price guarantee will continue after April, providing support for households right the way into 2024, and we have committed to consult on a new system to look after vulnerable consumers after that date.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the windfall tax and loopholes. We are investing in our energy security. While we are importers of oil and gas, as we will be under net zero all the way to 2050, the absurd position set out by the Leader of the Opposition is that Labour will oppose any new oil and gas licences, meaning that we pay billions to other countries to import it. There is no magic bullet to stop us using fossil fuels immediately. This Government have accelerated the move to renewables as fast as possible and will continue to do so, but it is absurd to have a policy under which we pay billions to countries abroad to produce oil and gas that we could produce at home to ever higher carbon standards.

Alexander Stafford Portrait Alexander Stafford (Rother Valley) (Con)
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An Englishman’s home is his castle, so it is disgusting that British Gas is forcing its way into people’s homes. What is especially galling is that, five years ago, Ofcom sent a missive to British Gas warning it not to do this, and British Gas is clearly ignoring Ofcom—[Hon. Members: “ Ofgem.”] Ofgem. What further powers can the Government give the regulator to ensure that British Gas and other such companies cannot do this again and to protect the sanctity of people’s homes?

Graham Stuart Portrait Graham Stuart
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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We should all be grateful to The Times and its journalists for going undercover and revealing such behaviour—the processes were not followed. Ultimately, as a final resort, we need a forcible installation of prepayment meters in order to ensure that someone is not cut off entirely; that is necessary, but every effort must be made to support people, offer them payment plans, provide them with emergency credit and the like. We are ensuring that we have a system that does that. Ofgem has therefore since announced that it will conduct a further assessment of supplier prepayment meter practices, and we will back Ofgem to have all the powers it needs to hold suppliers to account.

Anne McLaughlin Portrait Anne McLaughlin (Glasgow North East) (SNP)
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It should never have got this far. We should never have ended up in a situation in which we are now talking about compensating people for something that should never have been allowed to happen to them in the first place. Nor would it have happened if the Government had listened to the many voices who have been telling them this for months. Since I first wrote to the Secretary of State in September—I am still waiting for a reply, incidentally—prepayment meters have been mentioned 450 times in this place and the other place, so the Secretary of State feigning surprise at the weekend is just not acceptable. Nor is stopping at this one aspect of forced switching, and nor is compensation alone—these meters need to be taken away.

Why are we so appalled? It is because prepayment meters are unfair, full stop. Whether they are forced on vulnerable people or whether people choose to have them, they are unfair because someone who is on one will pay more per unit of energy than those who pay in arrears, which is most of us; they will pay more in daily standing charges; and they will be automatically disconnected the second they run out of money. That is why these abhorrent practices, which have been going on for a very long time, are so unfair: prepayment meter customers are treated unfairly, full stop. Will the Minister ask the Secretary of State to look at all aspects of prepayment meters with a view to radically overhauling the entire unfair system? Does he believe that energy should be a human right?

Graham Stuart Portrait Graham Stuart
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The hon. Lady says that prepayment meters are unfair, full stop. That is clearly not true: they have a great use. What they should do—

Graham Stuart Portrait Graham Stuart
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Where the charges are higher, it is because the system, which I think was last changed when the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) was Secretary of State, has meant that Ofgem is under an obligation to ensure that suppliers match charges to the actual cost of serving a customer. That was the principle established under the last Labour Government, and it subsists today, but I tend to agree with the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin) that we need to look at this again. That is why we are looking at a reformed system for the treatment of vulnerable customers from April 2024.

Craig Whittaker Portrait Craig Whittaker (Calder Valley) (Con)
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It is welcome news that forced prepayment meters have finally been stopped, but that is only half the story. The premium paid by those who are on prepayment meters is also a scandal. The least able to pay are paying the highest tariff because they cannot afford the cheapest tariff—you couldn’t make it up. Will the Minister update the House on what Ofgem is doing to radically and quickly look at the matter so that this injustice is finally put to bed?

Graham Stuart Portrait Graham Stuart
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As I said, the system for a long time has been that charges should be cost-reflective, and it is more expensive to service prepayment meters. We need to look hard to ensure that the increase in prices, which has come as energy prices have gone up, is commensurate with that before we look at the position of PPMs overall, which we will do as part of our overall reform of the treatment of vulnerable people. It is worth pointing out that the last time a survey was done, only 30% of those who are in fuel poverty had a prepayment meter, while 70% did not. Ensuring that we have a system that is fair to all is really important; that is why it is quite a complex job to make sure that we have a better system than the one we inherited from the Labour party.

Nia Griffith Portrait Dame Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab)
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I am very disappointed in the Minister’s reply to the question that my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) asked about a minimum level of supply. It is utter nonsense to hide behind the idea that it is complicated. I am sure that energy companies could find a way of doing it. When will the Minister make them?

Graham Stuart Portrait Graham Stuart
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It is worth pointing out that emergency credit should be supplied to customers and support should be put in place for those who get into arrears. It is a failure of the existing processes and duties that has been highlighted and has caused us to come before the House today. We must make sure that companies do that which they are obliged to do.

Bernard Jenkin Portrait Sir Bernard Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex) (Con)
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Can we be clear about the fact that, inexplicably, what has been happening has been completely legal? Nothing has changed since the gas and electricity Acts of the 1980s, and, indeed, the Rights of Entry (Gas and Electricity Boards) Act dates from 1954. Can the Minister explain whose decision it was that the courts should start issuing warrants for the forcible fitting of prepayment meters online, with no judicial oversight or scrutiny? Applications have been submitted in their thousands, and granted in their thousands, without even a magistrate looking at each case. Whose decision was that?

Graham Stuart Portrait Graham Stuart
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Of course I welcome the move by Lord Justice Edis to order magistrates courts to stop the authorisation of warrants for energy firms, and I will write to my hon. Friend if I can identify the root cause of the original decision.

Wera Hobhouse Portrait Wera Hobhouse (Bath) (LD)
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On 7 December, I presented a private Member’s Bill to ban the installation of prepayment meters this winter, but the Government chose to ignore me, and since then nearly 60,000 people have been put through the misery of prepayment meter warrants being issued against them. Will the Government now apologise to all the households who had prepayment meters wrongfully installed, will he force the energy companies to remove the prepayment meters, and will he personally commit himself to ensuring that the companies pay back the poverty premium that so many vulnerable people have been forced to pay this winter?

Graham Stuart Portrait Graham Stuart
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I entirely agree with the hon. Lady. That is exactly the sort of development we want to emerge from what has happened. We want to ensure that prepayment meters are removed when they should not have been installed, that people’s rights are respected, and that if the processes that should have been followed have not been followed, compensation is provided as well.

Robert Neill Portrait Sir Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)
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It is clear from the evidence received by the Justice Committee only last week and, now, from the statement made by the senior presiding judge, Lord Justice Edis, that—leaving aside the merits or otherwise of prepayment meters—the agreement by the judiciary to deal with warrants in bulk resulted from their reliance on assurances given by the energy providers that they had complied with Ofgem’s requirements and that the representatives of the energy providers, giving evidence in relation to each bulk application, would swear on oath that the requirements had been met. It is clear that in many cases they cannot have been met. That must surely indicate, first, that the process itself is flawed and should not be continued and, secondly, that there must be an inquiry into not just the process itself, but the suitability of some of those who are representing the energy suppliers and Ofgem in court. Either they gave misleading information by inadvertence or, potentially, they did so deliberately, which, on oath, amounts to perjury. That is a very serious matter which brings the court process into disrepute, and it needs to be investigated too.

Graham Stuart Portrait Graham Stuart
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I thank my learned hon. Friend for his typically erudite question, and I agree with him. That is why, two weeks ago, we said that we would work with the Ministry of Justice to look into this and ensure that the processes were suitably robust. It is clear—not only, potentially, from court proceedings but from evidence given to the regulator—that some suppliers did not provide evidence on which we could rely.

Seema Malhotra Portrait Seema Malhotra (Feltham and Heston) (Lab/Co-op)
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The Minister will know that prepayment customers, many of whom are the least well off in society, are charged a higher rate for their energy; that has been mentioned by Members on both sides of the House. Does he recognise the injustice of thousands more families being forced on to prepayment meters, on his watch, and on to higher rates at a time when so many are facing severe cost of living pressures? Does he not accept that it is time for him to step up and act further and faster, because this country needs that?

Graham Stuart Portrait Graham Stuart
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As I have said, that situation has obtained since the Labour Government introduced the current regime, and it is that cost-reflective principle which leads to prepayment meter customers being charged more. That was the position when the right hon. Member for Doncaster North was Secretary of State, and it still exists today. However, I agree with the hon. Lady, which is why, within the existing system, I have asked Ofgem to seek to ensure that not a penny extra goes beyond what is necessary to reflect cost. We are undertaking to look again at the whole system to ensure that it is fair to all, and most of all to the most vulnerable.

Jack Brereton Portrait Jack Brereton (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Con)
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There are concerns that some of the poor practices around prepayment meters may have been going on for some time. How far back will the investigation look into these matters? Will it look at some of the historical issues, particularly abuse of those vulnerable people?

Graham Stuart Portrait Graham Stuart
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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Government will support the regulator to look into this matter thoroughly because any injustice done to any consumer must be identified and redressed.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
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My constituent Mr Valmassoi has to move out of his home at the end of the month because Utilita has taken so long to investigate a potential fault with his prepayment meter that saw his bills soar by over 400% in 14 days, despite no increase in usage. What can the Minister do? Mr Valmassoi says that a refund nine months later will not replace losing the flat that he has made his home for the past few years. What can he and others like him, who have been ignored and let down by providers such as Utilita, expect from the Minister?

Graham Stuart Portrait Graham Stuart
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It is precisely for people who have been ill-treated such as the hon. Lady’s constituent that we need to reform the system and ensure that suppliers meet their licence obligations. It is the job of the independent regulator to work with suppliers and ensure that we minimise that. We would encourage anyone to pursue the system of redress to make up for that as best they can. But no one can make up for the fact that someone lost their flat and home. They should not have done so if the supplier had acted as it was under a duty to.