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Victims and Prisoners Bill
Lords Chamber

Committee stage: Part 1
Wed 31st Jan 2024
Victims and Prisoners Bill
Lords Chamber

Committee stage: Part 2

House of Commons

Wednesday 31st January 2024

(3 months, 4 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Wednesday 31 January 2024
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock

Prayers

Wednesday 31st January 2024

(3 months, 4 weeks ago)

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

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

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Wednesday 31st January 2024

(3 months, 4 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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The Secretary of State was asked—
Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris (Swansea East) (Lab)
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1. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the cost of living in Wales.

Wayne David Portrait Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab)
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4. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the cost of living in Wales.

David T C Davies Portrait The Secretary of State for Wales (David T. C. Davies)
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The UK Government fully recognise the challenges posed by cost of living pressures that have come about as a result of the covid pandemic and the invasion of Ukraine. That is why they are providing £104 billion over 2022 to 2025 to support households and individuals across the UK—an average of £3,700 per household.

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris
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On Monday evening, ITV News featured a Bevan Foundation study on pensioner poverty in Wales. With nearly a quarter of Wales’s population being over 65, more pensioners are experiencing poverty in Wales than anywhere else in the UK. The “make do and mend” generation, who experienced imposed rationing as children, are now self-denying, with one in 10 pensioners skipping meals and one in five going without heating at some point this winter. What do the UK Government intend to do about this dire situation?

David T C Davies Portrait David T. C. Davies
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The UK Government fully recognise the importance of supporting pensioners. That is why we have committed to the triple lock and made sure that, even through the difficult crises we have faced over the past few years, pensions have risen in line with inflation. On top of that, there has been an extra payment of £300 for pensioners, and the UK Government’s policy of bringing down inflation is going to help everyone in Wales and the UK, including all pensioners. I hope the hon. Lady will agree that that is a much better focus than, for example, bringing in road user charging, which is going to hit pensioners who want to drive cars in Wales.

Wayne David Portrait Wayne David
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Citizens Advice Cymru has stated that during 2023, it referred over 21,000 people to food banks in Wales, almost double the number for 2021. What does that say about the impact of the Government’s policies on ordinary people in Wales?

David T C Davies Portrait David T. C. Davies
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As I have just outlined, the UK Government are absolutely focused on supporting those with the least in Wales and across the United Kingdom. That is why the UK Government’s policy of bringing down inflation to around half has helped everyone, and it is why the UK Government have made sure that benefits have risen in line with inflation. Households where there are benefits have received a £900 payment, and households where there is disability have received a £150 payment. I do not for one moment doubt the fact that many people are facing serious difficulties at the moment, but this Government are committed to helping them. When I visit food banks, I am told that all sorts of people have to go and visit food banks on a temporary basis—they should not be used to score cheap political points.

Sarah Atherton Portrait Sarah Atherton (Wrexham) (Con)
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Welsh Labour’s reduction of business rates relief from 75% to 40% is already having an impact, with small businesses in Wrexham saying that they are going to fold. Despite the UK Government maintaining the rate at 75%, the Welsh Government are focusing more on wasting £140 million on a 20 mph scheme and increasing the number of Senedd politicians. Does the Secretary of State agree that the Welsh Labour Government should focus on what the people of Wales need, not what socialist Senedd politicians want to dictate?

David T C Davies Portrait David T. C. Davies
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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is disgraceful that pubs in Wales are going to be paying, on average, thousands of pounds more in business rates because the Welsh Senedd Government have not passed on the money that has been given to them by the UK Government, and it is disgraceful that small tourism businesses are facing a tourism tax levy. If the Welsh Government want to focus on the priorities of small businesses and communities in Wales, they should indeed scrap the plan to spend £140 million on extra Senedd Members.

Virginia Crosbie Portrait Virginia Crosbie (Ynys Môn) (Con)
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Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the best ways in whichthe Welsh Labour Government can help with the cost of living is by helping businesses create jobs and supporting employers, such as the iconic Lobster Pot on Anglesey, rather than increasing business rates punitively and increasing the number of Senedd Members by a staggering 60%?

David T C Davies Portrait David T. C. Davies
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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. She is a huge champion of businesses in her constituency, and it is a shame that the Senedd does not look to her example of championing businesses instead of imposing all sorts of extra taxes, while—as she mentioned—wasting money on schemes such as creating extra Senedd Members and bringing in road charging on the M4. Even my own Labour council is suggesting bringing back Severn bridge tolls.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the shadow Minister.

Jessica Morden Portrait Jessica Morden (Newport East) (Lab)
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Some 8,000 homeowners in Wales face the Tory mortgage bombshell this month, with households projected to pay an extra £240 per month as their fixed-rate deals come to an end. Despite the Conservative party’s opposition, the Welsh Government have put in place measures to prevent repossessions, and a UK Labour Government would require banks to protect homeowners. What is the Secretary of State doing to help homeowners facing massive bills caused by the Conservative party’s economic mismanagement?

David T C Davies Portrait David T. C. Davies
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The UK Government have put in place a number of measures to support any mortgage holders facing difficulties at the moment, but the most important measure has been to bring down inflation. Inflation actually peaked at a higher rate in Europe than in the United Kingdom. Inflation is now down at 4%—much less than half of what it was previously—which will have a beneficial impact on mortgage interest rates over the longer term. I ask the hon. Lady whether, in all fairness, she thinks that her party’s plans to borrow £28 billion a year, which is going to increase inflation and have a very bad impact on mortgage interest rates, will be good or bad for homeowners?

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call Liz Saville Roberts.

Liz Saville Roberts Portrait Liz Saville Roberts (Dwyfor Meirionnydd) (PC)
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Diolch yn fawr, Llefarydd. The Government’s own estimates warn that new Brexit border checks will increase the cost of fresh imports by £330 million and worsen food inflation. The Secretary of State used to dismiss warnings of Brexit border controls as scare stories. Will he now admit how wrong he was, and recognise that the best way to reduce food inflation, which sits at an eye-watering 8%, would be to rejoin the single market?

David T C Davies Portrait David T. C. Davies
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I make no apologies for rubbishing the scare stories that came out before Brexit took place. We were told that it was going to lead to the collapse of the economy, to the collapse of house prices, to the end of fresh fruit and veg being sold in shops, and even to no more Magnum ice creams. I think we were even going to run out of Viagra as well at one point. The reality is that none of those scare stories has happened, but it is a bit ironic that the right hon. Lady, the leader of the Plaid Cymru group, is demanding that we rejoin the European Union while at the same time wanting to take Wales out of one of the most successful financial unions—

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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Order. Secretary of State, I am this way, not that way, and you are getting a little carried away. There are a few more questions, and Liz Saville Roberts has another one for you.

Liz Saville Roberts Portrait Liz Saville Roberts
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That is a Brexit fantasy, and now we look at the wonder of the UK. Northern Ireland is set to receive over £3 billion and a fairer funding settlement from the Treasury, which I welcome. That includes millions of pounds to help balance budgets. Meanwhile in Wales, councillors face a budget black hole of £646 million, which is set to decimate our social services over the next three years. These cuts will be devastating for people left without resources during the cost of living crisis. As Wales’s man in the Cabinet, what has the Secretary of State done to demand equivalent fair funding for Wales?

David T C Davies Portrait David T. C. Davies
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First, I must point out to the right hon. Lady that, since leaving the European Union, our growth rate has been better than that of Germany, and our manufacturing has now exceeded that of France. As far as fair funding for Wales is concerned, we receive 20% more per head to spend on devolved services than is spent in England. One thing the right hon. Lady and I might agree on is that it is high time the Welsh Labour Government explained why we have longer waiting lists and lower educational standards, despite having more money to spend on devolved services.

Stephen Doughty Portrait Stephen Doughty (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op)
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2. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the adequacy of the energy mix in Wales.

Anna McMorrin Portrait Anna McMorrin (Cardiff North) (Lab)
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10. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the adequacy of the energy mix in Wales.

Fay Jones Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Fay Jones)
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That was lively, Mr Speaker.

The UK has a secure and diverse energy system, and Wales continues to play a key role. The UK Government are going further to ensure our energy security by supporting our oil and gas industry, and investing to scale up our renewable energy production, such as floating offshore wind in the Celtic sea.

Stephen Doughty Portrait Stephen Doughty
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Many of my constituents make the long journey round to work at Hinkley, yet we have had this Government in power for 14 years and we have seen no new nuclear delivered in Wales, despite our proud history of generation, with its significant opportunities to lower energy bills, deliver high-quality jobs and reduce carbon emissions. Where on earth is their plan, and why are they not getting on with delivering it?

Fay Jones Portrait Fay Jones
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I very much welcome the hon. Gentleman mentioning nuclear. I seem to recall that, when his party was in power, Labour did next to nothing to advance the cause of nuclear energy in this country. It gives me ample opportunity to pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie), who has committed the Government to everything we have done on Wylfa so far. Progress is being made, in stark contrast to the record of his party.

Anna McMorrin Portrait Anna McMorrin
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We have had 14 years of successive Tory Governments, who have all had the chance to invest in the transition to net zero. Instead, they have chosen to backslide on climate commitments, and it is working people across my constituency of Cardiff North who are paying the price. With this Government intent on issuing new oil and gas licences, what does the Minister say to families in my constituency who are now paying treble for their energy bills?

Fay Jones Portrait Fay Jones
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I would point out that it is this Government who stepped in with £96 billion of support to mitigate the impact of those energy bills. I completely disagree with the hon. Lady’s assessment of our record on net zero, and I would point out that, when her party was in power, 7% of our energy supply came from renewable sources.

Anna McMorrin Portrait Anna McMorrin
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Fourteen years!

Fay Jones Portrait Fay Jones
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If the hon. Lady will let me finish the point, the figure is now just under 15%, and that is the record of this party’s 14 years in power.

Stephen Crabb Portrait Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con)
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My hon. Friend mentions the new industry of floating offshore wind, which has huge potential to create a large number of high-quality jobs in places such as Milford Haven and Port Talbot. The two ports both have bids in with the UK Government to the FLOWMIS port infrastructure scheme, which will be key to seeing this vision realised. When can the ports expect to hear back about those bids?

Fay Jones Portrait Fay Jones
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I thank my right hon. Friend, the Chair of the Select Committee, for that question. I am delighted that today the Crown Estate is hosting a bidders day to drive forward plans for innovative floating wind projects in the Celtic sea. The UK Government are supporting FLOW through our contracts for difference scheme, securing a long-term pipeline of projects in the Celtic sea. I would be happy to write to him with a further update on when more progress can be discussed.

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

Jo Stevens Portrait Jo Stevens (Cardiff Central) (Lab)
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On the issue of the energy mix, the Tata workers I met last week know that the virgin steel they make is vital to supporting our renewable energy aspirations, such as offshore wind in the Celtic sea, so the loss of 3,000 jobs is a kick in the teeth for our proud and skilled Welsh steelworkers. It will devastate local economies and the sovereign steelmaking capacity that would build the wind turbines we need, yet the Business Secretary told us at the weekend:

“It’s not about the job losses”.

Does the Secretary of State agree with her comments?

Fay Jones Portrait Fay Jones
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I am sorry that the hon. Lady has me replying to that question, not the Secretary of State.

It is important to recognise that the investment from this UK Government has saved thousands of jobs across the United Kingdom. Of course, the transition board is now working with the individuals affected in Port Talbot, which is the proper and right thing to do. I am glad that both the UK and Welsh Governments are working towards that; it is absolutely the right outcome. We need to think about these things in the wider context, which is our responsibility.

Jo Stevens Portrait Jo Stevens
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The Minister boasts about the transition board, but that only exists because of the Government’s failure to protect jobs and vital industries. Each year, Port Talbot provides enough virgin steel to deliver the UK’s 2030 wind targets by itself. Can she tell the House where that steel will come from when her Government’s intervention shuts the blast furnaces early? Will it come from India? If so, we will be surrendering our ability to create jobs, investment and cheaper bills here in Britain.

Fay Jones Portrait Fay Jones
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Mr Speaker, it will not surprise you to learn that I completely disagree with the hon. Lady’s assessment. I would point out that this Government have provided the transition board with £80 million. We have not seen any of the £20 million that the Welsh Labour Government have promised, but indications so far are that moving away from steelmaking would not have a direct impact on national security.

James Davies Portrait Dr James Davies (Vale of Clwyd) (Con)
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3. Whether he has had discussions with the Welsh Government on the introduction of a 20 mph speed limit on residential roads and pedestrian streets in Wales.

Scott Benton Portrait Scott Benton (Blackpool South) (Ind)
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7. Whether he has had discussions with the Welsh Government on the introduction of a 20 mph speed limit on residential roads and pedestrian streets in Wales.

David T C Davies Portrait The Secretary of State for Wales (David T. C. Davies)
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The Welsh Government’s policy on the blanket 20 mph speed limit is damaging communities and businesses across Wales. All of us support 20 mph limits if there is a safety reason outside schools, hospitals or old people’s homes, but the blanket 20 mph limit is, by the Welsh Government’s own figures, going to create a £4.5 billion hit to the Welsh economy.

James Davies Portrait Dr James Davies
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In my constituency, bus services no longer serve Dyserth’s high street or the Tweedmill shopping outlet in Trefnant, which impacts on some of the most vulnerable people. Arriva has stated that the Welsh Government’s 20 mph policy is a key reason for that. Does the Secretary of State agree that the Welsh Government have failed in multiple ways to properly consider the impact of their policy and that they should repeal it in full?

David T C Davies Portrait David T. C. Davies
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My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. Not only have the Welsh Government not considered the impact of this policy on the economy, businesses and commuters, but they have failed to consider the impact on users of public transport. We are seeing bus timetables across the whole of Wales being ripped up because of this daft policy. The Welsh Labour Government seem determined to apply a handbrake to the Welsh economy.

Scott Benton Portrait Scott Benton
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Blanket 20 mph zones do not command widespread public support and, as a consequence, are widely ignored and unenforceable. Furthermore, there is very little evidence that they improve road safety or air quality. The roll-out of the scheme in Wales has proved to be an utter farce. Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that the Labour party has not learned its lesson and would no doubt seek to impose this costly and disastrous policy in England were it to be elected?

David T C Davies Portrait David T. C. Davies
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My hon. Friend is correct. Not only have the Welsh Labour Government not considered this policy, but they have ignored the fact that 468,000 people have signed a petition calling on them to reconsider—the largest petition in the history of the Senedd. He is also correct to say that if a Labour Government were ever elected in this country—I certainly hope that will not happen—it is inevitable that they would pursue anti-motorist policies such as the 20 mph speed limit, a ban on new roads being built, and congestion charges and emission zones being set up all over the place.

Hywel Williams Portrait Hywel Williams (Arfon) (PC)
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The South Wales Argus of 28 December 2022 informs us that the Secretary of State for Wales outlined his “anger” that the 20 mph speed limit in Caerwent was not being enforced properly by the police. Is he still angry?

David T C Davies Portrait David T. C. Davies
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I began my response earlier by saying that all of us in this House support 20 mph speed limits where there is an issue of safety, and I could not be more clear about that. What I do not support is a blanket 20 mph limit. Alongside that blanket 20 mph limit on 30 mph roads, the Welsh Labour Government are using underhand methods to bring down the speed limits on perfectly safe dual carriageways from 70 mph to 50 mph. That is what lies in store if Labour is ever elected to government in the rest of the country.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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Clearly the 20 mph speed limit that is being enforced in Wales will restrict people in their movement. Has the Minister had any discussions with the Welsh Assembly on providing more buses to take people out of their cars, and will there be more provision for cyclists? If there is not that provision, this system cannot work.

David T C Davies Portrait David T. C. Davies
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Unfortunately, Welsh Senedd Ministers do not seem interested in reconsidering the policy. Frankly, there is an anti-motorist agenda with the Welsh Labour Government, which has seen blanket 20 mph speed limits, speed reductions on dual carriageways, congestion charges being considered and charging to use the M4. Most shockingly of all, my own Labour council is considering bringing back Severn bridge tolls.

Karin Smyth Portrait Karin Smyth (Bristol South) (Lab)
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5. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the adequacy of rail infrastructure in Wales.

Fay Jones Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Fay Jones)
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I have regular discussions with colleagues across Government on rail infrastructure. The UK Government are committed to building a strong rail infrastructure network across Wales, which will improve connectivity and drive economic growth. We have provided over £390 million for Welsh rail in recent years, and we recently announced a further £1 billion to fund the electrification of the north Wales main line.

Karin Smyth Portrait Karin Smyth
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The Welsh Affairs Committee highlights the need for greater connectivity between Swansea, Cardiff and Bristol, which would be of huge benefit, particularly for sports and music fans coming to Ashton Gate in my constituency. Why has the Wales Rail Board failed to initiate recommendations and other further improvements?

Fay Jones Portrait Fay Jones
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The hon. Lady’s constituents will be greatly affected by the project that she mentions and by the performance of Great Western Railway, which is not sufficient. The Office of Rail and Road has launched an investigation into poor train punctuality and reliability in Network Rail’s Wales and western region, and we await the recommendations of that review. I add that industrial action has affected things.

Michael Fabricant Portrait Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con)
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Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating Network Rail and its subcontractors on completing the repair works on the longest wooden rail bridge in Europe across the Mawddach estuary in Gwynedd?

Fay Jones Portrait Fay Jones
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I certainly will join my hon. Friend, and I am delighted that he takes such keen interest in Welsh rail infrastructure and raises it here on such a regular basis. He is right to flag that project, which is an example of this Government’s record investment in rail infrastructure in Wales. I was pleased to visit the project and give it my full support.

Chris Elmore Portrait Chris Elmore (Ogmore) (Lab)
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6. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the future of the steelmaking industry in Wales.

Alex Cunningham Portrait Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab)
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8. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the future of the steelmaking industry in Wales.

David T C Davies Portrait The Secretary of State for Wales (David T. C. Davies)
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The Government are investing £500 million to secure the future of steelmaking in Port Talbot for generations to come. It is one of the largest UK Government support packages for steelmaking in history, and it will protect 5,000 jobs directly with Tata and many thousands more in the supply chain.

Chris Elmore Portrait Chris Elmore
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Last week, the Secretary of State stated in the steel debate that he understands

“the devastation that people will feel in Port Talbot—the whole community, but especially those people who face the loss of their jobs”—[Official Report, 23 January 2024; Vol. 744, c. 264.]

at the plant and beyond. Why is it, then, that the Secretary of State or the Business Secretary did not put in a red line on job losses while this work was being done, especially given that Tata has this morning doubled down on those losses at the Welsh Affairs Committee? It is nothing short of a disgrace.

David T C Davies Portrait David T. C. Davies
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As the hon. Gentleman knows, Tata approached the UK Government and said it was intending to pull out of the United Kingdom. If Tata had pulled out completely, that would have immediately cost 8,000 jobs and many thousands more in the supply chain. The Government therefore acted to take the only deal available, which was to build the electric arc furnace and save thousands of jobs.

Alex Cunningham Portrait Alex Cunningham
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I do not think that thousands of jobs will be saved at all. The people of Teesside, who saw the Tory Government abandon them and end virgin steelmaking at Redcar, leading to the loss of 3,000 jobs, will sympathise with those in Wales. The failure of the same Government will see virgin steelmaking also ended in Wales, with the loss of another 3,000 jobs, and leave the UK even more reliant on imports, as they are surrendering the market to other countries. Why would the Government want to do that when steel is a foundation industry and, with the introduction of new technologies, could have a bright future?

David T C Davies Portrait David T. C. Davies
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I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be aware that 100% of the materials—the iron ore and coke—used to produce steel in Port Talbot are imported from abroad. At the same time, we are exporting 8 million tonnes of scrap steel, so building an arc furnace to make use of that scrap steel will make us less dependent on other countries for our steel.

As far as job losses are concerned, the UK Government have put aside a budget of £80 million, combined with £20 million from Tata, to support anyone who loses their job. Thus far, we have not had one single penny towards that from the Welsh Labour Government—who, by the way, are able to find £100 million to create a whole load of extra Senedd members in Cardiff Bay. I know where my priorities are: with the steelworkers.

Chris Clarkson Portrait Chris Clarkson (Heywood and Middleton) (Con)
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Steelmaking is essential to our national security, as is reaching net zero. The problem is that the Welsh Labour Government cannot make their mind up about which is more important. After trying to kill off the steel industry with their green measures, they now complain that the UK Government are not doing enough to support that industry. Does the Secretary of State think that they do not really know their ACAS from their NALGO?

David T C Davies Portrait David T. C. Davies
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My hon. Friend makes a good point. The Government have looked carefully at this, and very little steel being produced by Port Talbot is going into the defence industry, but the defence industry is being supplied with steel from an electric arc furnace by Sheffield Forgemasters. There is absolutely no reason why an electric arc furnace built at Port Talbot, using UK Government support, cannot help support our defence industry in the years to come.

Emma Hardy Portrait Emma Hardy (Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle) (Lab)
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9. What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on supporting victims of crime in Wales.

Fay Jones Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Fay Jones)
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I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues on a range of topics including on justice matters. The Government are committed to supporting victims. By 2025, we will have quadrupled funding in England and Wales for victim and witness support services from 2010 levels.

Emma Hardy Portrait Emma Hardy
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Nine in 10 crimes went unsolved in Wales in the last six months. What does the Minister say to the victims of the 82,000 unsolved crimes?

Fay Jones Portrait Fay Jones
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I would point to the Government’s record on crime. Last week’s Office for National Statistics crime survey shows drops in all major crime types, with an average reduction of about 50%. Violent crime is down by 51%, neighbourhood crime is down by 48%, and theft is down by 46%. That is due in part to the fact that the Government have met their commitment to provide 20,000 extra police officers. My own force, Dyfed-Powys, has now got an extra 143 officers.

Robin Millar Portrait Robin Millar (Aberconwy) (Con)
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11. What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the potential impact of levelling-up funding on Welsh communities.

David T C Davies Portrait The Secretary of State for Wales (David T. C. Davies)
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I have regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues and delivery teams in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities on the progress of levelling-up fund projects in Wales. I look forward to hearing more about the projects taking place in my hon. Friend’s constituency.

Robin Millar Portrait Robin Millar
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The Môr i’r Mynydd—sea to mountain—active travel route in the Conwy valley received an £18.6 million boost through levelling-up funds The projects will make a positive difference to communities in Glan Conwy, Betws-y-Coed and Trefriw. Apart from unlocking the Conwy valley to visitors, it will help young people get to school safely and workers to their jobs. I meet regularly with Conwy County Borough Council about the progress of those projects. What is my right hon. Friend doing to ensure that levelling-up funds are being delivered effectively in Wales?

David T C Davies Portrait David T. C. Davies
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I congratulate my hon. Friend on being such a champion of levelling-up fund schemes in his constituency. The levelling-up funds have allowed us to keep our post-Brexit promise to ensure that Wales continues to be generously funded. That is one of many such projects, such as the levelling-up funds, the freeports and the investment zones that are ensuring that Wales levels up.

Grahame Morris Portrait Grahame Morris (Easington) (Lab)
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Like the towns and villages I represent, coalfield communities in Wales are still bearing the brunt of deindustrialisation. I am delighted that we will have a debate tomorrow on miners and mining communities, and I encourage Welsh colleagues to attend. Can the Minister tell us what steps he is taking to ensure that levelling-up funding in Wales and across the coalfields in the UK is targeted at the most deprived, left-behind areas, which have suffered most?

David T C Davies Portrait David T. C. Davies
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The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say we need to target the areas most in need, but that is exactly what this Government have been doing. It is not just about levelling-up funds; we have had four growth deals across the length and breadth of Wales, three rounds of levelling-up funding, two investment zones, two freeports, an electrified rail line in north Wales and an electrified arc furnace in south Wales. The reality is that while we are committed to levelling up, the Welsh Labour Government are committed to levying further taxes on people and businesses on Wales.

Speaker’s Statement

Wednesday 31st January 2024

(3 months, 4 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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Before we come to Prime Minister’s questions, I want to say that recent exchanges have been lively, to the point where it is becoming difficult for colleagues to hear what is being said clearly, and there has been an escalation in unhelpful exchanges across the Floor of the House from sedentary positions and the attempted use of props. Some of the language used in questions has also fallen short of the standards of good temper and moderation that should characterise the proceedings of this House. I know there is a general election approaching, but I urge hon. Members on both sides of the House to exercise greater self-restraint in their choice of words and in their general behaviour, both when they are asking a question and when they are not.

Pharmacy First

Wednesday 31st January 2024

(3 months, 4 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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00:00
Andrea Leadsom Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care (Dame Andrea Leadsom)
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With permission, I shall make a statement on the launch of our Pharmacy First service.

Pharmacies are at the centre of our communities. They are an accessible front door to our NHS for millions of people. Alongside general practice, optometry and dentistry, pharmacy is one of the four pillars of primary care in England. Four in five people in England live within a 20-minute walk of a community pharmacy. Pharmacies provide fast, fair and simple access to care and advice for the kinds of illnesses from which people suffer every day. Our constituents can now walk in off the high street whenever it suits them—whether they are at home, at work, or visiting somewhere.

Our pharmacists are not only conveniently located, but highly skilled professionals with years of training under their belts. The number of registered pharmacists in England has grown considerably under this Conservative Government—up 61% compared with 2010. None the less, these skilled healthcare professionals still represent a rather untapped resource in our NHS, so this Government are bringing forward reforms that will make the most of their expertise: giving people up and down the country a variety of quality care and wise advice, quickly and easily, saving them a trip to the GP; freeing up appointments for patients who need GPs the most; and driving our plan to cut waiting lists. The benefits are clear. That is why this Government have consistently taken the decisions that allow community pharmacists to deliver more clinical services and supply more treatments— whether that be other parts of the NHS referring patients suffering from minor illnesses to community pharmacists for advice and the sale of over-the-counter medicines, offering lifesaving blood pressure checks in pharmacies, or making it easier for women to access oral contraception in pharmacies. I am proud of everything that we have accomplished so far.

To unlock the full potential of our pharmacists, we need to go further and faster. That is why I am delighted to inform the House today that we are launching the Pharmacy First service—a personal priority of the Prime Minister, who is himself the son of a pharmacist. This will give pharmacists the power to supply prescription-only medications, including antibiotics and antivirals for seven common conditions: sore throats, ear aches, infected insect bites, impetigo, shingles, and minor urinary tract infections in women. More than 10,000 community pharmacies have signed up—over 95% of pharmacies in England—which is a brilliant sign of their approval.

The next time that anyone is suffering from any of those seven conditions, for most people their first port of call will be a quick trip or a call to their pharmacist. They will not need to see their GP first. They will not need to spend time making an appointment, and they can turn to their pharmacist whenever it suits them. That benefits everyone involved: people get the care they need faster; GPs can focus on more complicated cases; and pharmacists can make better use of their knowledge and skills. This is a common-sense reform. Pharmacists see and advise people with these sorts of conditions every day, but we have now enabled them to provide prescription-only medicines where clinically appropriate, so that they can help people more easily.

All this will deliver results. Pharmacy First will make it easier for millions of people to get the care they need on the high street and, together with the expanded blood pressure and contraception service, it will free up as many as 10 million GP appointments, in turn reducing unnecessary trips to A&E, reducing the pressure on GPs, and driving forward our plan to cut waiting lists for patients.

The investment that we are putting into Pharmacy First will also level up digital infrastructure in community pharmacies up and down the country, streamlining referrals to and from GPs, giving pharmacists better access to relevant information from patients’ GP records, and allowing them to share relevant information quickly in return.

Pharmacy First is not just about delivering care faster, but about making care fairer by driving down health inequalities. That is because there is double the number of pharmacies in the most deprived communities in our country. Getting the right care, the right contraception and the right test will now be faster and simpler for all those people in our more deprived communities than it ever has been before. Thanks to Pharmacy First, they will be able to take full advantage of their pharmacists’ expertise and use them to complement the care they receive from their GPs and throughout the NHS.

Pharmacy First was made possible only through close collaboration with Community Pharmacy England, which I thank for all the work it has done and will continue to do to support community pharmacies to gear up and deliver this new service for our NHS.

We on the Conservative Benches have a clear plan for the NHS: getting patients the care they need faster; making the system simpler for staff; and making it fairer for everyone. That is our plan and I look forward to working with pharmacists up and down the country to deliver today’s announcements as we build a brighter future for families right across the country. I commend this statement to the House.

12:40
Preet Kaur Gill Portrait Preet Kaur Gill (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab/Co-op)
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I thank the Minister for advance sight of her statement.

Let me start by paying tribute to the many organisations that have been involved in preparing for this launch and the thousands of pharmacies across the country that have embraced this initiative. Labour has long been arguing that pharmacists should play a greater role in the NHS, so we support this move.

As the Minister has said, pharmacies already do far more than just dispense repeat prescriptions and sell shampoo: they are medicine experts within the NHS; they are highly trained; they are easily accessible right across the country; and, as we saw during the pandemic, they are a highly trusted part of their communities. But their skills and knowledge are often under-utilised. Therefore, bringing more services to British high streets for patients to get treated more quickly and conveniently is absolutely right. It is why, as we announced last week, we want to bring NHS out-patient appointments closer to people through high street opticians too.

The Minister is right to say that pharmacists can take pressure off GPs. However, let us be clear: this announcement will not make up for the 1,000 pharmacies which have been closed under the Conservatives, or the 2,000 GPs that have been cut since 2015. Patients today are waiting over a month to see a GP, if they can get an appointment at all. When Labour was last in office, people could get an appointment within 48 hours.

That is the thing with this Government: they give with one hand and take with the other. Will the Minister explain what has happened to the Government’s pledge to deliver 6,000 more GPs this year and what she is doing to support community pharmacies, which are already facing a perfect storm of inflationary pressures for running costs, recruitment challenges and an unstable medicines market?

The Government press release issued today claims that patients in England will be able to get treatment for seven common conditions at their high street pharmacy from today. I would like to dig down into whether that is actually the case. Healthwatch England has warned that it will take time for pharmacists to be trained in order to provide the services that Ministers have announced, so can the Minister tell us when she will be able to guarantee that the services advertised will actually be available?

Let me also ask about IT integration. To facilitate this roll-out, pharmacists were supposed to have access to GP Connect, so that details of patient consultations would automatically be sent to general practice through the clinical IT systems. The Government have had 12 months to get that ready, but from what I am hearing this morning it is still not live. Pharmacists are telling me that they can access only a summary of GP records, that they have to use another system to input what they have prescribed, and that they then have to download that and email it across to the GP. That is cumbersome. What estimate has the Minister made of the time that will be wasted at a local level to address that issue, and how long will it take before the system is ready?

Finally, what is the Government’s plan in the longer term to integrate the increase in independent prescribers who are being trained as part of the long-term workforce plan, and does the Minister agree with us that we should be accelerating the roll-out of independent prescribing to establish a community pharmacist prescribing service covering a broad range of common conditions? That would support patients with chronic conditions, which is the big challenge facing the NHS. Does the Minister agree that community pharmacies will have an important role to play in supporting GPs in the management of long-term conditions such as hypertension and asthma and in tackling the serious issue of over-prescribing, which is responsible for thousands of avoidable hospital admissions every year?

We agree that patients should be able to go to their local pharmacy to receive some services that they currently get at GP surgeries, such as vaccinations free of charge on the NHS, allowing patients to be seen faster and freeing up GPs to see more complex cases. By bringing healthcare into the community, patients will have greater control. The NHS should be as much a neighbourhood health service as a national health service, with healthcare on the doorstep, there when it is needed—and with Labour, it will be.

Andrea Leadsom Portrait Dame Andrea Leadsom
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Well, the very first appointment under Pharmacy First happened at 8.30 this morning.

Andrea Leadsom Portrait Dame Andrea Leadsom
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Oh, was it 8.31? I thank the Secretary of State. When will the services be available? I should think that many more are taking place already.

I am afraid that, while welcoming this, the hon. Lady is being a little pusillanimous with her praise. A lot of her suggestions, as she will know, are simply not true: already, well over 2,000 new GPs and tens of thousands of nurses are working in our NHS. Many thousands of additional practice staff are working in GP practices, and, as she will know, our brilliant GPs have made 50 million more appointments available each year ahead of the target in our manifesto. Good on them. They are doing an amazing job, and Pharmacy First will ease the ever-increasing burden on them.

The hon. Lady talks about technology. I am pleased to tell her that ensuring that the technology was in place was key in deciding when we could go live. There is a very short window in which some systems will have elements of manual intervention, but only for a few weeks. The whole system will be fully automated and will provide the ability to inquire into GP records and to swap advice, which is important for pharmacists to deliver the excellent service that they are already delivering.

Finally, the hon. Lady will know that community pharmacists have for some time now been delivering blood pressure checks, which in some cases are truly lifesaving. This is amazing patient access and patient convenience. The Labour party should, for once, simply praise it and be glad that the Government have stuck to our plan and got on with it.

Thérèse Coffey Portrait Dr Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal) (Con)
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I am so pleased to hear today’s announcement that we are delivering. It was one of the key things in our plan for patients that I wanted to ensure happened. In particular, many Members of this House, current and past, have had infections and, as a consequence of not dealing with them, have ended up in hospital. This is the sort of sensible approach that, frankly, met some resistance during my time in the Department, with worries about over-prescribing. It is about treating pharmacists like proper professionals and, most important, providing quicker access to necessary care, which patients will now properly enjoy.

Andrea Leadsom Portrait Dame Andrea Leadsom
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May I say a huge thank you to my right hon. Friend for her contribution to kicking this project off? I feel very fortunate to be at the Dispatch Box on the day we launch it, because many others were involved in setting it up. She rightly highlights some of the problems with spotting things such as sepsis infections, which pharmacists are trained to spot. They really can be the first line of defence. Being able to walk in off the high street to see a pharmacist is incredibly valuable to us all.

George Howarth Portrait Sir George Howarth (Knowsley) (Lab)
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As a long-standing supporter of the idea of Pharmacy First, I welcome the right hon. Lady’s statement and the specific reforms she has talked about introducing. She will be aware, however, that pharmacists in my constituency and further afield are very concerned that they are unable to do the job that they are already expected to because of lack of capacity and problems in accessing certain drugs that they need to prescribe. Can she indicate how the existing problems will be dealt with, so that they can do what is promised in Pharmacy First?

Andrea Leadsom Portrait Dame Andrea Leadsom
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I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his support for the programme. There are around 14,000 licensed medicines, the vast majority of which are in good supply. The Department works very closely with the sector on finding alternatives and sourcing supplies of medicines, and most of the time we are able to meet the demand. Occasionally there are challenges, but that does not change in any way the ability of community pharmacists to be the expert medicine suppliers that they are, and to meet the need that members of the general public have for treatment and advice.

James Morris Portrait James Morris (Halesowen and Rowley Regis) (Con)
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I warmly welcome the statement. This initiative has the potential to transform primary care and access to treatment, but does the Minister agree that to realise its full potential, we need to invest in new technology—she mentioned digitalisation—to make sure that community pharmacies are set up to take advantage of these new opportunities? We also need to invest in the pharmacy workforce as part of the Government’s long-term workforce plan, so that those in alternative roles within pharmacies, such as pharmacy technicians, have the capacity to take the opportunities she has outlined.

Andrea Leadsom Portrait Dame Andrea Leadsom
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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Investing in technology is vital, but so is investing in the workforce. We have seen a 61% increase in the number of registered community pharmacists since 2010, and we aim in our long-term NHS workforce plan to increase that by a further 50%. We have already increased the number of training places for both pharmacists and pharmacy technicians.

Diana Johnson Portrait Dame Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab)
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I, too, welcome Pharmacy First, which I think is a very good initiative. In recent weeks we have seen the closure of two pharmacies in my area, on Beverley Road and Chanterlands Avenue. I am also told by leaders in the Humber pharmacy community that our area has one of the largest numbers of temporary closures because of problems accessing pharmacists. Will the Minister look favourably, therefore, on my idea to attach a school of pharmacy to Hull York Medical School? We need a school of dentistry, too. If we could have a centre of excellence in the Humber area, it might solve some of our specific workforce problems.

Andrea Leadsom Portrait Dame Andrea Leadsom
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I am always happy to speak to colleagues on both sides of the House about their ideas for new dental and pharmacy schools. It is an ongoing interest.

England is, in fact, blessed with huge numbers of community pharmacies—well over 10,000—and four in five of us are able to walk to a community pharmacy within 20 minutes. The number of pharmacies in more deprived areas is double the number in more well-off areas. We are very well served by our brilliant pharmacies, and I hope the Pharmacy First programme will improve their footfall and their value in each of our communities.

Bernard Jenkin Portrait Sir Bernard Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex) (Con)
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I very much welcome this initiative to encourage our pharmacies to provide more frontline healthcare. People need to know about this, because they often do not think of going to the pharmacy. What work are the Government doing in larger population centres such as Harwich and Dovercourt, which has over 20,000 people but no out-of-hours pharmacy cover? People have to make a round trip of more than 40 miles to collect a prescription on a Sunday, for example. Are the Government doing any work on 24/7 pharmacy coverage for larger population areas?

Andrea Leadsom Portrait Dame Andrea Leadsom
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My hon. Friend raises an important point. Pharmacists will keep their community pharmacy open for up to 72 hours a week in most cases, and up to 100 hours in some cases, which means there is weekend accessibility. We keep this under review, but the availability is very good.

Daisy Cooper Portrait Daisy Cooper (St Albans) (LD)
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The Liberal Democrats have long supported calls for Pharmacy First, and the National Pharmacy Association, based in my St Albans constituency, has been calling for it since at least 2017. This is a welcome move, but it is long overdue. The Minister will be aware that there have been almost 700 permanent pharmacy closures since 2015, and the Company Chemists Association now estimates that eight pharmacies a week are closing, including one in my constituency. What steps is she taking to make sure there are no more closures this week, next week and every other week this year?

Andrea Leadsom Portrait Dame Andrea Leadsom
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The hon. Lady might remember that the Liberal Democrats were in government for a good part of that period. She talks about pharmacy closures, and we see pharmacies opening and closing. There has been a small number of net closures, but we are very well served across England and we keep a close eye on that. Pharmacy First is a new boost to community pharmacies across England.

Heather Wheeler Portrait Mrs Heather Wheeler (South Derbyshire) (Con)
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I congratulate my right hon. Friend on bringing in this initiative. I have fantastic community pharmacies in South Derbyshire—although, sadly, when the boundary changes come, I will lose Hatton to Derbyshire Dales. They are leaders in their field and they are trusted in their communities. This is a brilliant initiative, and I cannot thank my right hon. Friend enough.

Andrea Leadsom Portrait Dame Andrea Leadsom
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I thank my hon. Friend.

None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
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Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)
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Order. That was a perfect answer. I have to tell the House that we have a lot of business to get through today, and I will therefore need short questions and admirably short answers, because otherwise not everyone who is standing will have a chance to ask a question.

Barry Sheerman Portrait Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op)
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I do not agree with most of what the Minister has said today. We are all in favour of pharmacies, but I think this statement is a distraction from the real problems in our health service, our GP service and much else.

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker
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Order. Will the hon. Gentleman please ask a question?

Barry Sheerman Portrait Mr Sheerman
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Has the Minister looked at the number of pharmacies that have closed in the poorest areas of our country? Lastly, what is she going to do about companies like Boots? It has even closed its local branch in Westminster—

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker
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Order. Because of his seniority, I have allowed the hon. Gentleman a little leeway. One question, one answer.

Andrea Leadsom Portrait Dame Andrea Leadsom
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The more deprived parts of England are much better served by community pharmacies than better-off areas are.

Dean Russell Portrait Dean Russell (Watford) (Con)
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We have amazing pharmacists in Watford, and I have championed community pharmacies such as Sigma, which is a fantastic local business. Can the Minister provide an assurance that the general public will be made massively aware of this fantastic new service?

Andrea Leadsom Portrait Dame Andrea Leadsom
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Yes, there will be a significant communications package, beginning today.

Ben Bradshaw Portrait Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab)
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The Minister does not appear to be concerned about the record number of community pharmacy closures under this Conservative Government. Why does she think it is happening?

Andrea Leadsom Portrait Dame Andrea Leadsom
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There has been a 61% increase in registered pharmacists since 2010, with plans to increase that number by 50% in the next few years.

Priti Patel Portrait Priti Patel (Witham) (Con)
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I commend my right hon. Friend for her excellent statement, but how will she tackle the issue of funding for prescriptions? Community pharmacies are struggling, and she will understand that the NHS tariff does not pay them the full price of products. Will she look at that as she rolls out the scheme?

Andrea Leadsom Portrait Dame Andrea Leadsom
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The Government currently contribute £2.6 billion to community pharmacy, quite apart from the £645 million addition for Pharmacy First. We are about to start negotiations for the 2024-25 period.

Sarah Jones Portrait Sarah Jones (Croydon Central) (Lab)
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The three pharmacies in Shirley, in my constituency, have been there for decades. They are very well known and very trusted, but they are all on the edge of having to close. To stay open, one pharmacist is using their own savings and not paying themselves a wage. I welcome your announcement, but would you read a letter from them—

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)
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Order. There may have been lax obeying of the rules at other times, but would the hon. Lady please refer to the Minister as “she”, not “you”?

Sarah Jones Portrait Sarah Jones
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Forgive me, Madam Deputy Speaker. That was an error.

Would the Minister read that letter, consider these issues and perhaps meet us to talk about it? They are good people, and we want to keep their pharmacies open.

Andrea Leadsom Portrait Dame Andrea Leadsom
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I am of course happy to read the letter, but I would say that Pharmacy First offers a significant new boost to community pharmacies.

Edward Timpson Portrait Edward Timpson (Eddisbury) (Con)
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My right hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that, across Cheshire and Merseyside, including my Eddisbury constituency, 535 community pharmacies will be starting the Pharmacy First initiative today. Particularly in rural areas, pharmacies are a lifeline for many people. Can she reassure patients of the clinical competence of pharmacists to make prescriptions, and can she reassure pharmacists on the issue of clinical liability?

Andrea Leadsom Portrait Dame Andrea Leadsom
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I can assure my hon. Friend that pharmacists are highly skilled and better trained than ever before in this country. They are fully equipped to meet the demands of their new prescribing role.

Clive Efford Portrait Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab)
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I welcome the Pharmacy First initiative—its roll-out is long overdue—but what expectations are we creating in the minds of patients attending pharmacies? Will pharmacists be trained in denying medication to people who turn up expecting to be given a prescription of some sort? Clearly, the initiative will encourage more people to present in order to get medication when it may not be necessary.

Andrea Leadsom Portrait Dame Andrea Leadsom
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The hon. Gentleman raises a good point. Of course, pharmacists will be prescribing for seven common conditions. Plenty of referrals will be made to GPs, and from GPs to pharmacists, to give patients the accessibility and the appropriate level of assessment for their needs.

Jeremy Quin Portrait Sir Jeremy Quin (Horsham) (Con)
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Pharmacies in Horsham have asked for such a scheme, so they will very much welcome it, as do I. However, as the Minister is aware from our one-on-one discussions, for which I am grateful, there are currently issues of access to pharmacies in Horsham. Will she ensure that the sector is appropriately resourced and has the right training in order to ensure that the scheme is the great success that it deserves to be?

Andrea Leadsom Portrait Dame Andrea Leadsom
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Absolutely, and I am always happy to discuss that further with my right hon. Friend.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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Northern Ireland’s minor ailments scheme, and this Pharmacy First initiative, are acknowledgments that GPs can spend up to 40% of their working day on minor ailments, but the scale in Northern Ireland is different from what has been proposed for England. Is there capacity for a UK-wide roll-out of Pharmacy First to take pressure off our GP services? If there is, that would be the right thing to do.

Andrea Leadsom Portrait Dame Andrea Leadsom
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I seriously look forward to the re-establishment of the Stormont Assembly so that it will be possible for Northern Ireland to implement such a scheme itself.

Robert Buckland Portrait Sir Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con)
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I warmly welcome the statement. I have been a strong champion of pharmacies in my constituency. We are experiencing challenges, however, when the likes of Boots withdraw their services. It is difficult to transfer or apply for licences, despite the fact that we have a number of keen applicants who want to provide important pharmacy services. What more can the Government do to speed up and make the licensing application procedure smoother and better?

Andrea Leadsom Portrait Dame Andrea Leadsom
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I would love to hear more about that from my right hon. and learned Friend. I will be happy to look into it.

Munira Wilson Portrait Munira Wilson (Twickenham) (LD)
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In recent months, Boots has closed two of three pharmacies in the Hampton area of my constituency. That has left Hampton North, which is one of the most deprived wards in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames, without a single pharmacy, so elderly residents and those with long-term conditions have to walk for a lot longer than 20 minutes to access a pharmacy. Local GPs tell me that it is just not viable to set up a community pharmacy facility. Will the Government review the pressures on community pharmacy and consider the community pharmacy contractual framework so that we can make this initiative work and take the pressure off GPs?

Andrea Leadsom Portrait Dame Andrea Leadsom
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As I have already mentioned, there are many community pharmacies starting up all the time, as well as closing down. The hon. Lady will appreciate that the Pharmacy First initiative is a real boost to community pharmacies. I am happy to discuss it with her, but I would imagine that there will be the capability to open new community pharmacies in her area.

Richard Drax Portrait Richard Drax (South Dorset) (Con)
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I congratulate my right hon. Friend and her Front-Bench colleagues on rolling out this initiative. The Isle of Portland had two pharmacies, both run by Boots, but one is now shut. Can I meet my right hon. Friend and Front-Bench colleagues to discuss how we can ensure that deprived areas such as Portland retain the pharmacies that they desperately need?

Andrea Leadsom Portrait Dame Andrea Leadsom
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I would be very happy to meet my hon. Friend.

Alistair Strathern Portrait Alistair Strathern (Mid Bedfordshire) (Lab)
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With so many of my constituents waiting a long time to see GPs, any boost to primary care capacity must be welcomed, so I thank the Minister for today’s announcement. The GPs and pharmacy staff I meet raise concerns about recruitment to open roles. What assurances can the Minister offer that this will not be another policy, like the childcare announcement, that lacks the workforce or sectoral strategy to really gain the full benefits?

Andrea Leadsom Portrait Dame Andrea Leadsom
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As the hon. Gentleman will know, our NHS long-term workforce plan intends to increase by 50% the number of registered pharmacists. That work is under way and includes increasing the number of pharmacy technicians.

Vicky Ford Portrait Vicky Ford (Chelmsford) (Con)
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It is great that people will be able to go to the pharmacy for their prescriptions, as well as for the products that they need, without the need to visit a GP. Chelmsford has some great community pharmacies, but Boots is closing three branches. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss how we can ensure that the people of Chelmsford will be able to get to a pharmacy, in order for the initiative to work?

Andrea Leadsom Portrait Dame Andrea Leadsom
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I would be very happy to meet my right hon. Friend.

Helen Morgan Portrait Helen Morgan (North Shropshire) (LD)
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The community pharmacy in Wem in my constituency has struggled to find a full-time pharmacist, relying instead on locums. That means that opening times are erratic, people cannot rely on the service, and the pharmacy is loss-making because locums are so expensive. How will the Minister help pharmacies in rural areas to recruit the full-time pharmacists and reduce their reliance on locums?

Andrea Leadsom Portrait Dame Andrea Leadsom
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The hon. Lady will be aware that, although a few are owned by GP practices, community pharmacies are usually private businesses. We are training the registered community pharmacists that we need. Obviously, it would be for that local area to put in place its own recruitment policies, but I would be happy to meet her to discuss that further.

Cherilyn Mackrory Portrait Cherilyn Mackrory (Truro and Falmouth) (Con)
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I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement, and I put on the record my thanks to all the pharmacists who work in my constituency. The geography of my constituency can often mean that someone’s nearest pharmacy is about a mile and a half away across the water, so they end up driving 11 miles around to get to it. I believe that the mapping needs to change. Will she meet me to discuss it?

Andrea Leadsom Portrait Dame Andrea Leadsom
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I am always happy to meet my hon. Friend. Just to let her know, 100 pharmacies in Cornwall are signed up to Pharmacy First.

Paul Bristow Portrait Paul Bristow (Peterborough) (Con)
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This brilliant announcement has the potential to free up many thousands of GP places in areas such as Peterborough, but the initiative will be the success that we need it to be only if more people know about. My right hon. Friend touched on an awareness campaign, but what efforts will she make to ensure that it reaches difficult-to-reach communities, such as those for whom English is an additional language?

Andrea Leadsom Portrait Dame Andrea Leadsom
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There will be a big communications plan, which I am happy to share with my hon. Friend. Well over 100 community pharmacies in his area have signed up to Pharmacy First, which is brilliant news. It is incumbent on us all—and the purpose of the statement—to ensure that our constituents know about this excellent new service.

Michael Fabricant Portrait Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con)
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Although my right hon. Friend and I share a common scepticism of the sclerotic state of the European Union, there are lessons to be learned from Europe. I am glad to see that, like France, we are now respecting community pharmacies. However, I have one specific question. In her statement, she said that one thing on which the pharmacy can act is female urinary tract infections. Why not male?

Andrea Leadsom Portrait Dame Andrea Leadsom
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I wish my hon. Friend a happy Brexit day. I will have to come back to him on that issue. The point is that the service is limited to minor urinary tract infections. That might be why it does not include men, but I will certainly get back to him on that point.

Ben Spencer Portrait Dr Ben Spencer (Runnymede and Weybridge) (Con)
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I and many—if not all—of my constituents very warmly welcome the statement. On integration with other NHS access services, if an individual were to dial NHS 111 with one of the conditions mentioned in the statement, would they be diverted to a pharmacy or to a GP first?

Andrea Leadsom Portrait Dame Andrea Leadsom
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To a pharmacy. NHS 111, GPs and urgent and emergency care can all refer to pharmacists for those particular common conditions.

James Wild Portrait James Wild (North West Norfolk) (Con)
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I join others in welcoming the new scheme. Will my right hon. Friend ensure, as part of the communications, that the NHS website is updated to show which pharmacies have signed up to Pharmacy First, and will she continue to encourage those that have not yet signed up to do so?

Andrea Leadsom Portrait Dame Andrea Leadsom
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What is brilliant is that over 95% of all community pharmacies have signed up, including 172 in my hon. Friend’s area.

Nigel Mills Portrait Nigel Mills (Amber Valley) (Con)
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Key to the service’s success will be pharmacies actually offering it when patients turn up. Does my right hon. Friend know how many individual pharmacists have been trained to provide the services, and is there a way of gathering and publishing data on when pharmacies will offer the service, so that patients will not have a frustrated journey and we can see where the gaps are?

Andrea Leadsom Portrait Dame Andrea Leadsom
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As I say, more than 95% of all community pharmacies have signed up to the service, and all their pharmacists have been trained in how to deliver it.

Steve Double Portrait Steve Double (St Austell and Newquay) (Con)
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As someone who has championed the role of community pharmacies throughout my time in this House, I warmly welcome today’s statement. I am particularly delighted that we were able to host one of the pilot schemes in Cornwall, which was hugely successful, resulting in 7,500 consultations that took 6,000 appointments away from GPs and 75 A&E appearances. Will the Minister join me in thanking all the pharmacies in Cornwall that took part in that pilot, which was so successful?

Andrea Leadsom Portrait Dame Andrea Leadsom
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Absolutely. It is only by trying these things that we can see how successful they can be, and I do believe this service is going to radically improve patient access to care.

Northern Ireland Executive Formation

Wednesday 31st January 2024

(3 months, 4 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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13:10
Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Chris Heaton-Harris)
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With permission, I will make a statement on Northern Ireland Executive formation.

This Saturday would mark two years without a fully functioning devolved Government in Northern Ireland. That is two years without locally elected Ministers able to take important decisions on Northern Ireland’s schools and hospitals and the broader economy, and above all, it is two years in which Northern Ireland has been held back from achieving the massive potential of this unique part of the United Kingdom.

It was nearly two years ago that the then First Minister resigned over the old Northern Ireland protocol. The Government recognised that the protocol did not deliver to the people of Northern Ireland the same freedoms that leaving the European Union delivered for the rest of the United Kingdom. As the party of the Union, this Conservative Government have sought to address those concerns by replacing the protocol with the Windsor framework. I maintain that the Windsor framework was, and is, a good deal for Northern Ireland that addresses the issues around the old protocol and sets out a new way forward. However, it alone did not prove sufficient to allow the devolved institutions to function with the cross-community support that is such an essential bedrock of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.

As such, for the past few months, my team and I have been holding discussions with the Northern Ireland political parties on how we could see the return of devolved institutions. Those discussions have been long and necessarily tough, but that is testament to the patience of all Northern Ireland’s political leaders, who—as I have seen at first hand—work tirelessly to make sure that Northern Ireland is the most prosperous and safe society it can be. One of the people I have been talking to most is the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson). It has been a pleasure to work with him on these matters, and it was also a pleasure to confirm recently that the Government will support his Bill that seeks to create a dedicated route for eligible Irish nationals who wish to apply for British citizenship. If passed, that legislation would support the close historical and geographical ties between Ireland and the UK, and I commend him on championing that cause.

I am also pleased to be able to outline today the package of measures we are announcing, which has four key elements. First, it further protects Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom by demonstrating our commitment to restoring power sharing so that it has the broadest support from across the community in Northern Ireland. I know that I am not alone in believing firmly that the long-term interests of the Union are served by persuading those who might not vote for Unionist parties, or even think of themselves as Unionists, that Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom offers the best solution for them and their children. I have always believed that making Northern Ireland work—indeed, making Northern Ireland thrive—is the surest way to safeguard the Union, and I commend all Unionists on taking bold steps to make that case for the Union, too.

We will also legislate to reaffirm Northern Ireland’s constitutional status, including as reflected in the Acts of Union. We will also recognise in domestic law that, with the vital democratic safeguard of the Stormont brake that a new Assembly would wield, the idea of automatic and permanent dynamic alignment of EU law no longer applies. We will also future-proof Northern Ireland’s position within the UK’s internal market against any future protocol that would create a new EU law alignment for Northern Ireland, and with it, barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.

Secondly, the deal promotes and strengthens the UK internal market, delivering new legislation to guarantee and future-proof unfettered access for Northern Ireland goods to the whole of the UK internal market, and ensuring that internal trade within the United Kingdom takes place under a new UK internal market system. Only yesterday, we saw how quickly progress has been made, with a joint legal solution reached with the European Union on tariff rate quotas. That solution, which will be taken forward at the next UK-EU Joint Committee, will ensure that Northern Ireland traders can benefit from the UK’s independent free trade policy when importing agrifood goods, reflecting Northern Ireland’s integral place in the UK’s customs territory. To maintain that focus on delivering in the interests of businesses for the future, we will put in place new structures, such as a new independent monitoring panel to ensure a practical and pragmatic approach without gold-plating.

Thirdly, the deal will recognise the importance of the connections across the United Kingdom, now and in the future. A new UK-wide east-west economic council will bring businesses and Ministers together to identify the opportunities that unite us across all parts of the United Kingdom, and a new body—InterTrade UK—will promote and facilitate trade within the United Kingdom, recognising that while international trade is important, so too is the vital trade that occurs within our internal market.

Finally, the deal will help put Northern Ireland’s public services on a sustainable footing, with funding totalling over £3 billion to support public services in Northern Ireland and provide a solid foundation for the Executive to deliver better outcomes in the day-to-day lives of the people in Northern Ireland. That funding is part of a financial package I announced before Christmas that will help address public sector pay pressures; provide an updated Barnett formula for Northern Ireland, now and into the future, reflecting the needs and unique circumstances of the people of Northern Ireland; and give the Executive significant funding to stabilise public finances.

Much of what I am announcing today is the result of a significant period of negotiations between the Government and the Democratic Unionist party, led by the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson). Many of us in this Chamber last week could not have failed to be struck by his unshakeable advocacy on behalf of the Unionist cause. That same determination, fortitude and tact was at the heart of his approach during those detailed discussions, and further to the right hon. Member’s comments in this place last week, I am absolutely sure that the whole House will join me in expressing support for him in utterly condemning those shameless figures who have tried to threaten and intimidate him for simply doing his job. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] The right hon. Member is a man who is truly committed to Northern Ireland. He is truly committed to the Union, and has always worked hard to find solutions and improvements when others have taken the far easier path of simply criticising and heckling from the sidelines.

The result—as I hope hon. Members will agree—is a deal that, taken as a whole, is the right one for Northern Ireland and for the Union. With this package, it is now time for elected representatives in Northern Ireland to come together, end the two years of impasse and start work again in the interests of the people who elected them. This week, the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley was clear that this depended on the Government demonstrating their commitment to the Union, not just in word but in deed. That is exactly what we will do. Today, I am publishing the details of the deal, but I am also laying before the House the statutory instruments that enshrine several of its commitments in law. Those instruments will be debated in this place tomorrow, subject to a change in its future business with the will of the House, as an immediate show of good faith.

Once those instruments are passed by this House, as I hope they will be, I trust we will have the conditions to move onwards and to see Ministers back in post in Stormont swiftly. As those Ministers take their places, they will face massive challenges, but they have the tools to grasp those challenges, not least in moving to resolve the public sector pay issues that have been so disruptive. They will also be able to grasp the opportunities offered by Northern Ireland’s unique economic position and the good will that it enjoys across the world.

It is only right that I acknowledge that, for many in the community, an important part of this will be seeing Michelle O’Neill take her place as First Minister following the democratic mandate she won at the May 2022 Assembly election, recognising that the First and Deputy First Ministers remain equal in law. I look forward to working with the new First Minister and Deputy First Minister and all their colleagues in the Northern Ireland Executive to improve the lives of people from all backgrounds, whether Unionist, nationalist or other. As we move forward swiftly to give effect to our commitments, I urge the parties to do the same thing by notifying the Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly to recall Stormont, electing a First Minister and Deputy First Minister, and appointing new Ministers to the Executive.

It is time to build on the progress of the last 25 years. Today, we have presented a plan that will deliver the long-term change that Northern Ireland needs. It will strengthen Northern Ireland’s place in our Union and guarantee the free flow of goods across the entire United Kingdom. It is only by sticking to this plan that we will become a more united and prosperous country together, and I commend this statement to the House.

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

13:19
Hilary Benn Portrait Hilary Benn (Leeds Central) (Lab)
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I am grateful to the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement.

This is a very significant moment. It is our chance to restore to the people of Northern Ireland what they desperately need but have been without for almost two years: a functioning Government. It will also mark a first in Northern Ireland history when Michelle O’Neill takes up her position as Sinn Féin First Minister in a power-sharing Government with a DUP Deputy First Minister. I would like to thank the Secretary of State for his tireless efforts that have brought us to this point. His is a great achievement.

I would like to acknowledge the courageous and decisive leadership of the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson), who in the face of abuse has consistently and persuasively made his case for change, while always being clear that he wanted to return to government with an agreement that was acceptable to all communities. I also want to thank the other party leaders in Northern Ireland—and I join the Secretary of State in doing so—who, with great wisdom, have allowed the time and the space for this deal to be reached, as well as to express my thanks to all the officials involved.

On the legislative changes that the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State has set out, I welcome the Government’s commitment not to ratify any new Northern Ireland-related agreements with the EU that would create new regulatory borders. This will be a helpful brake on divergence. Could the Secretary of State say when the new UK internal market lane will come into being?

We will of course examine in detail all the proposals in the statutory instruments to which the right hon. Gentleman referred—I understand that we are likely to debate them tomorrow—because we need to get on with this so that the Assembly can be recalled and the Executive established as quickly as possible. I have always made it clear that we believe in Northern Ireland’s place in the internal market of the United Kingdom, and that we support any practical measures to reinforce it that are consistent with the Windsor framework, which we also support, and that have the support of nationalists as well as Unionists. On that basis, we will vote for the legislation.

The money that the Secretary of State has announced, including the needs-based funding formula and the stabilisation funding, will enable a restored Executive and Assembly to give public sector workers a pay rise, for which they have waited too long, and to start to tackle the huge challenges facing communities and public services and make the most of the great economic potential of Northern Ireland. We also welcome the plans to defer and then write off Stormont’s overspend, provided that the Executive produce a new fiscal sustainability plan. How quickly does the right hon. Gentleman expect the money to be transferred, and when does he think the new Executive will produce a budget?

Finally, as we reflect on the importance of this moment, since the Good Friday agreement was signed the people of Northern Ireland have been without a devolved Government for over a third of the time. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree with me that we need to work together—all of us in the House—to prevent the institutions from collapsing again in the years ahead? Stability is everything, especially to the people of Northern Ireland after all they have been through, and we all have a duty to ensure that it endures.

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I thank the shadow Secretary of State for his very kind words and for all the work he has done with me on these matters. I really do appreciate the way we have been able to work together. It has contributed to our getting to this point and it has made a big difference, so I thank him for that.

The shadow Secretary of State is completely right that everyone in this House will need to work together to ensure stability for Northern Ireland and to ensure that the institutions do not fall again. It is vital that we all understand the responsibility that sits with us in this place: we are guarantors of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. We have a responsibility to the people of Northern Ireland, and in every way we should consider that in everything we do, because this Union is stronger for it.

The shadow Secretary of State asked some questions. We hope to have the UK internal market lane in operation as soon as possible, and we obviously need some legal changes—I mean, other changes—to have that done. The money will flow as soon as the new Executive is up and running, and I very much hope that a new Executive will be sitting very soon.

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

Robert Buckland Portrait Sir Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con)
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I warmly commend the hard work of my right hon. Friend—and good friend—the Secretary of State. It is only a week ago that we passed legislation to extend the election period, and heard the impressive and powerful speech of the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson). He has demonstrated, with his colleagues in the DUP, that to lead is to choose and to make difficult decisions. They have done that, and I think respect and praise are due in large measure for their hard work.

I am particularly pleased that the Command Paper incorporates many of the sensible recommendations from the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson), which we share, on further legislation to make sure that the position of Northern Ireland within the UK internal market is absolutely cemented. I am particularly pleased that the Command Paper looks forward to new investment—not just the important investment in public services, but the enhanced investment zone proposal of £150 million, which will be at the centre of how we attract new inward investment to realise the huge potential that Northern Ireland presents for jobs and the economy both here in the UK and across the wider world.

It is tempting for this Parliament, once it passes the secondary legislation, to say that the job is done, but we cannot afford to devolve and forget. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that this Government will not devolve and forget?

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his welcome for this package of measures. It is a package, and it has been negotiated over a long period of time, with a better understanding of all the things that Northern Ireland needs to be an active and wonderful part of the Union. I welcome his comments on the investment zone, and he is absolutely correct in what he said at the end. Northern Ireland will never be forgotten in this place, and I hope we are demonstrating that today.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the SNP spokesperson.

Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson (Gordon) (SNP)
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Can I just say on behalf of my party that we very much welcome the progress that has been made? We are firmly of the view that Northern Ireland is governed best when it is governed locally, and we welcome the publication of the Command Paper.

I would like to take this opportunity to recognise the distance that has been travelled by all parties in getting to this point, but we were brought to this point by a failure of politics around the manner in which the UK chose to leave the European Union. Now that the politics has moved on, it is time for the politicians in Northern Ireland to step up, and we wish the MLAs well in that endeavour and look forward to seeing the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister taking office in what will be a very significant moment in history for all in these islands.

The Secretary of State describes his party as being the party of the Union, and I say to him that it has not gone unnoticed in other parts of the Union that Northern Ireland has for some time had the offer of a status, in its access to the UK market and to the European market, that other parts of the Union are now deprived of. I am sure that voters will draw their own conclusions from that.

I want to ask two questions. When might the details of any new fiscal framework emerge? While I would like to take this opportunity to welcome the new east-west economic council, can the Secretary of State clarify what role there might be for the other devolved institutions in these islands to make that new council as successful as it possibly can be?

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his questions, his welcome and his help in the past few weeks and months, which has been much appreciated. Again, it has helped us to get to this place. He is right to recognise that Northern Ireland is a special place, and has a special place as the only part of the United Kingdom with a land border with the EU. In the past, that has created disadvantage, but we hope it will create advantage for it in the future. Everyone recognises that; it was recognised in the Windsor framework and, as he will see, in various choices we are making in the Command Paper.

On the fiscal framework, I very much hope that the incoming Northern Ireland Executive and Ministers responsible will work with His Majesty’s Treasury in great detail to make sure that we get that absolutely right. I have never conducted a negotiation with His Majesty’s Treasury in that sort of way, but I imagine that it has quite tight pockets, is very difficult to get hold of and probably would not want ongoing commentary. However, I am sure that it will make the matter as public as it can, when it can. Finally, on the east-west body, it is important that it works with all parts of Great Britain.

Julian Smith Portrait Julian Smith (Skipton and Ripon) (Con)
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I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his patience on this deal, as well as the Prime Minister and the DUP on negotiating such a tough and positive document. The Northern Ireland parties have been incredibly patient through the past months, and I pay tribute to them. I put on record my thanks to the Labour party and the shadow Secretary of State for Labour’s support for the Government’s deal. This deal will be a huge relief to many across Northern Ireland, who have got to the end of their tether, whether the issue for them is public services, waiting lists or other elements of society. Does the Northern Ireland Secretary agree that the deal is a significant boost to the economy, to peace and to the Union?

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I thank the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland for his kind comments. Yes, I absolutely believe that this deal will bring greater prosperity to Northern Ireland. When I was given this role, I was, in essence, given three tasks by our Prime Minister. The first was to help him find a route through the Northern Ireland protocol conundrum, and that became the Windsor framework. The second was to try to get Stormont up and running, so that local people make decisions for their fellow people in Northern Ireland, and I would like to think that we are getting there. The third was to make Northern Ireland one of the most prosperous parts of our United Kingdom; I think we can all agree on that aim.

Gavin Robinson Portrait Gavin Robinson (Belfast East) (DUP)
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On occasions such as this, it is courteous to thank the Minister or Secretary of State for the statement, but may I, on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) and my party, thank the Secretary of State most sincerely for his steadfast endurance in our negotiations, for his commitment to ensuring that we got to this stage, for not giving up, and for resolving the issues that have been an impediment to devolution operating sufficiently and properly in Northern Ireland? He will know that on Monday evening and into Tuesday morning, my party took a significant decision to move forward, on the basis of what we know to be in the Command Paper published today.

Although we were told that the Windsor framework could not be reopened, we have succeeded. Although we were told that there would be no change to the green lane, it is gone. We were told that there would be no removal of barriers to trade between GB and Northern Ireland, but we have removed all checks within the UK internal market system, save for those ordinarily required for dealing with criminality and the prevention of smuggling. We were told that there would be no legal change to the Windsor framework or the EU text, yet—this was part of the process of ensuring trust and commitment—colleagues will have noticed the publication just yesterday of more than 60 pages of legislative changes to text on the European perspective. That will allow rest-of-the-world products and the benefits of UK-wide trade deals to truly be available UK-wide.

We are very grateful to the Secretary of State and to the Prime Minister, who was here earlier, and we are grateful for the offers of support and commitment from His Majesty’s loyal Opposition and the Leader of the Opposition. We are grateful for having got to this place today. We have turned the impossible into the possible, and are delivering the undeliverable in this Command Paper. We are hopeful for the future, but the Secretary of State will know that our position is predicated on full and faithful implementation and delivery of what we have achieved. Today’s Command Paper and yesterday’s legislative changes were published; in the spirit of the trust that we have established, and given the process that needs to flow, I would be very grateful if he could indicate that tomorrow, subject to what the Leader of the House does, we will see the introduction and passage of the legislation that is so crucial to this programme.

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. As I mentioned in my statement, he has been integral to what has been happening over the past few weeks and months. I really do enjoy working with him, and am looking forward to doing so in the future. He mentions a host of things. He is right to say that the Command Paper is clear: we will provide clear legal direction to the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs and other UK Government authorities to eliminate any physical checks when goods move within the UK internal market system, save for those checks required as part of managing the risk of criminality, abuse of the scheme, smuggling and disease.

The hon. Gentleman knows more than anyone that the deal is about safeguarding Northern Ireland’s place in the Union. We have set out what that involves. It includes new measures in domestic legislation to affirm unfettered access and Northern Ireland’s constitutional position, as well as new structures, and steps to ensure that the full benefits of the Windsor framework are felt by people and businesses. As is shown by the draft tariff text that he mentioned, we can continue to show the joint solutions that the UK and EU can deliver under the Windsor framework. He asked me a very specific question about the timetable. I am committed to the timetable, as are the Government. Everybody in this House should know that. In all transparency, it is unbelievably important that, with the leave of the House, we get the business changed, so that we can debate those two statutory instruments and they can be passed. They are a fundamental part of the timetable that leads to Stormont’s return.

Theresa Villiers Portrait Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con)
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I welcome the progress made towards the restoration of power sharing, and thank the Secretary of State and the DUP for their dedicated work on that. I am sure there will be much to welcome in the papers published today, which we will need to scrutinise carefully in the 30 or so hours before we are asked to vote on them. However, one thing that we know that they do not contain is a removal of Northern Ireland from single market legislation. Will the Secretary of State ensure that the Government commit to continuing the dialogue with the EU, so that we can amend the Windsor framework, and restore democratic control over law making in every part of our United Kingdom?

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I thank my right hon. Friend—one of the longest-serving former Secretaries of State in this House—for her comments and questions. She is absolutely right in all she says. The Command Paper, which I do hope people will have the opportunity to read before tomorrow, contains quite an amount of detail on the deal. It is a comprehensive deal. The statutory instruments tomorrow are just two small parts of a much wider package of items in the deal; this is all outlined and detailed in the Command Paper. To answer my right hon. Friend’s question, she will also see an important change that we intend to make to section 7A of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018; it now has a powerful democratic safeguard in the Stormont brake, which the new Assembly will have immediately at its fingertips.

Jamie Stone Portrait Jamie Stone (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD)
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As the Members behind me know, I was married in County Armagh at the very height of the troubles, and I heard the explosions and saw the huge bomb damage. Tragically, my wife’s family lost a number of friends in the troubles. I served for 12 years in the Scottish Parliament, so I have some knowledge of devolution. May I therefore ask the Secretary of State to make possible the maximum liaison between a restored Stormont—Godspeed to that—and devolved institutions such as the Scottish Parliament, so that the maximum benefit can be drawn from responsible working devolution?

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question; he is absolutely right. I know of his history and the story about his wife, which he has mentioned to me a number of times. I thank him for his interest in all things Northern Ireland and all things Union. In fact, there is a body, the British-Irish Council, that does exactly what he suggests, at the highest level. Hopefully, at the next meeting of the British-Irish Council, the First Minister and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland will attend with representatives of all the other devolved Administrations of the United Kingdom.

William Cash Portrait Sir William Cash (Stone) (Con)
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The proposed legislation is of great constitutional significance, yet it is merely a statutory instrument and not an Act of Parliament. What restrictions on its lawmaking has the EU agreed over the single market in Northern Ireland? What democratic improvements are being made to the Stormont brake in Northern Ireland to ensure divergence, and to enable the United Kingdom Government to remove or veto the imposition of EU laws?

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He and I have had a number of discussions over the years on these sorts of matters, and his question is a very wise one. As I mentioned, we are amending section 7A of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, so there is now a powerful democratic safeguard on the flow of EU law, which a new Assembly will have immediately at its fingertips. I thank my hon. Friend, because I know about the work that he did to ensure that section 38 was included in the Act. I hope he recognises that we are adding Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom, which is a strong addition to section 38 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2020. Indeed, his original clause has been a big part of the solution to this conundrum, and I am truly grateful to him for it.

Sammy Wilson Portrait Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP)
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Despite the gains made by my party leader and deputy party leader in these negotiations, the fact remains that there are still EU-manned border posts being built in Northern Ireland, which will create a border within our own country. When the Northern Ireland Assembly sits, Ministers and Assembly Members will be expected by law to adhere to and implement laws that are made in Brussels, which they will have no say over, no ability to amend and no ability to stop. That is a result of this spineless, weak-kneed and Brexit-betraying Government refusing to take on the EU and its interference in Northern Ireland.

The Government have admitted that there will be divergence in the future. On page 17 of the Command Paper, there is an indication that there will be a legal requirement to assess whether new legislation impacts on trade between Northern Ireland and GB. If it does, Ministers have to make a statement. We have had the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker), saying only this week that that does not mean that the UK Government cannot introduce laws that diverge from the EU laws that apply in Northern Ireland. Which is it? Is Northern Ireland going to find that it has the ability to stay tied to the United Kingdom, or will the Government happily proceed to change laws here in Westminster, regardless of the impact it has on Northern Ireland?

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question, but some of the points he made were actually incorrect. In the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, we said that there would be checks on goods going into the EU single market. I think that every piece of legislation we have proposed in this place has said that, but it will be UK folk operating the UK internal market scheme. Today, on the fourth anniversary of our leaving the European Union, I can tell him that the agreed package of measures will not change the freedoms and powers we have secured through Brexit or the Windsor framework. It will not reduce our ability to diverge, nor our commitment to do so, should it be in the interests of the United Kingdom.

The right hon. Gentleman refers to clause 13C in one of the statutory instruments. A whole swathe of things happen behind the scenes before a Bill is brought before this House. One of them, which the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) has complained to me about before, is something we call the parliamentary business and legislation committee, or PBL. We do a Star Chamber of Bills, and the Secretaries of State for Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales attend to state whether there is any adverse effect of the legislation being mooted. What the right hon. Gentleman rightly asked for is transparency and the publication of a written ministerial statement when there is the possibility of a significant adverse effect on GB-NI trade. Publishing a written ministerial statement is not in any way what he says it is.

Richard Drax Portrait Richard Drax (South Dorset) (Con)
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May I congratulate my right hon. Friend and the DUP? Clearly, this is still a highly emotive issue, and understandably so, because when we left the EU, I, the House and the country were promised that we would leave as a United Kingdom. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom but, as we have heard, it will still be subject to EU laws, so that axe is still grinding away and we must get rid of it. What is unhelpful is Sinn Féin’s whispering about unification at this highly emotive time. Can my right hon. Friend tell me, the House and this country that Northern Ireland will always be part of the United Kingdom? We are stronger together.

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I have to tread slightly more carefully on that particular issue, because as Secretary of State I am responsible for making an independent assessment of the conditions that might lead to the border poll to which my hon. Friend alludes. I have to be very careful, but I am comfortable suggesting that, certainly in my lifetime, Northern Ireland will be a strong and wonderfully prosperous part of the United Kingdom. However, it is very important to outline the parts of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement that allow for all these things to happen, and any change would absolutely depend on the consent of both communities at the time. I certainly do not think anybody judges that to be in place at this point.

Colum Eastwood Portrait Colum Eastwood (Foyle) (SDLP)
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It is important to point out that the people of Ireland, north and south, will decide the constitutional future of Ireland—nobody else. This is a very good day for the people of Northern Ireland, and I am very glad to see it. We are about to see something very significant: we will have the first ever nationalist First Minister and the first ever nationalist leader of the opposition, and I wish them well. In order to properly maintain this progress and make the most of it, will the Secretary of State convene a process with all the political parties and the Irish Government to look at how we can reform the institutions of the Good Friday agreement, to make sure that no one party can ever pull them down again?

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for welcoming the proposal. He mentioned at the very beginning of his question that the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement relies on the consent of both communities and then suggested reform, which certainly does not have the consent of one of them. However, I understand the point he makes. When people have asked me about future reform of the institutions, I have always said that this is a conversation that should be started within Stormont and by the people of Northern Ireland and their elected representatives. The thing I hope for is not that particular conversation; it is for Stormont to be returned so that elected folk from Northern Ireland can govern for the people of Northern Ireland.

Priti Patel Portrait Priti Patel (Witham) (Con)
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It is absolutely vital that the democratic institutions and lawmaking powers are returned to the elected politicians in Northern Ireland, and today is clearly very historic and symbolic. At the same time, however, we know that Northern Ireland’s economic lifeblood is linked to the rest of GB, and I concur with the rest of my colleagues who have spoken on this issue. It is vital that we ensure not only that there is the ability to diverge and have the freedom to secure Northern Ireland’s economic lifeblood, but that the prosperity of Northern Ireland remains. May I ask the Secretary of State to ensure that we have the full ability to do that, and that it will be backed up by this Government in Westminster?

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I am delighted to give her the assurance she seeks, because this announcement will reduce neither our ability to diverge, nor our commitment to do so should that be in the interests of the United Kingdom.

Stella Creasy Portrait Stella Creasy (Walthamstow) (Lab/Co-op)
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Many of us welcome this day and hope that the restoration of Stormont is possible. If the Government are capable of removing trade barriers with the European Union for the constituents of Belfast, many of my constituents would like to see them do the same for them. May I press the Secretary of State on what he said about amending section 7A of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, because he will know that is the foundation of the practical application of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement that many of us hold dear. His Command Paper talks about the “pipeline of EU law”. Can he clarify for the avoidance of doubt that any amendment he makes will not see any regression at all in the rights upheld in that document, and in particular the rights afforded to every single member of the communities in Northern Ireland in the wording of the Good Friday agreement and under the European convention on human rights?

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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Yes, I absolutely can.

Jacob Rees-Mogg Portrait Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) (Con)
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May I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) for his important endorsement, which is encouraging? May I ask my right hon. Friend about paragraph 145 of the Command Paper? Can he give an example of the circumstances in which a Minister might say that there would be an effect on the internal market and what that might restrict in practice?

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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Off the top of my head, I cannot give an example, because I have not yet needed to do that in the PBL—parliamentary business and legislation committee—as I have stated. The practical effect is one of transparency. I am aware that there are many Select Committee Chairs in this place. We want to ensure that when a Bill potentially has a substantial adverse effect on GB-NI trade and we are making those decisions, we are transparent about it and we tell people about it. The best way to do that is to inform this House through a written ministerial statement.

Gregory Campbell Portrait Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP)
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I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. I remind him that we have been pressing the Government for action rather than words for more than two years, but we welcome the fact that action has been taken, both on trading and the constitutional position. Does he agree that subsequent to the next few days, we need to continue to work to close the narrow gap that remains? We have made significant and substantial progress towards what we asked the Government to do. Will he also indicate to the wider community in Northern Ireland that even when someone gets a large number of votes, such as Sinn Féin, if they have a mantra that their day will come, it will also go with less fanfare?

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman. I see all politics as a process, actually. All politics is an evolution. In the Windsor framework, there is provision for when matters are discussed about Northern Ireland in the Joint Committee—the body that looks at the EU-UK relationship, legislation and its effect—that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister can attend. We are not only moving on through Stormont returning, but we are ensuring that Northern Ireland’s voice is heard and that that process can continue.

Laurence Robertson Portrait Mr Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con)
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Given everything that the Secretary of State has said, can he assure the House that article 6 of the Act of Union, which guarantees that everybody within that Union shall not be disadvantaged in any way, particularly with reference to trade, is still in place and will remain so?

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I point my hon. Friend to the very large section and annex in the Command Paper on the Acts of Union. I know my colleague the shadow Secretary of State dug out the Acts of Union to read them in relation to this business. There are many bits of the Acts of Union that we would not really want to have now, because they introduced tariffs of their own, but I ask my hon. Friend to look at the annex in the Command Paper where we go into great detail on exactly the answer he wants.

Jeremy Corbyn Portrait Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Ind)
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We thank the Secretary of State for his very welcome statement, and we take the opportunity to congratulate Michelle O’Neill on becoming the First Minister and all the other parties that have managed to bring this agreement about. Does he think that this agreement will lead to an increase in all-Ireland institutions and their effectiveness—in culture, tourism, transport, health and so on—and does he agree with the point, made by the hon. Member for Foyle (Colum Eastwood), that ultimately it is for the people of Ireland to decide their long-term future, not anyone else?

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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On the second point, it is for the people of Ireland and Northern Ireland to decide their futures in that particular matter. I remind the right hon. Gentleman that there is a little way to go in this process before we have the First Minister and Deputy First Minister sitting, and this is an important part of that timetable, but we welcome that happening. He asked about all-Ireland institutions. This agreement means that those institutions set up by the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, such as the North South Ministerial Council, can function correctly, and it also sets up new east-west bodies to ensure that Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom is equally recognised and made stronger.

Richard Graham Portrait Richard Graham (Gloucester) (Con)
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May I join the shadow Secretary of State in hugely welcoming this great achievement by the Secretary of State, by the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) and by all the other party leaders with whom he successfully agreed to re-establish devolved Government at Stormont? As the son of a Northern Ireland Unionist family, I believe it will only be good for the stability and prosperity of Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom. Can my right hon. Friend confirm when the internal market levy and the changes to tariffs on goods from countries with which the UK has a free trade agreement will come into place?

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words. The factually correct answer is probably that those measures will come into place when the legislation is passed through this place.

Ian Paisley Portrait Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP)
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The Secretary of State knows that 2025 is just too long to wait for veterinary medicine issues to be resolved in Northern Ireland. That grace period is totally unacceptable. He knows it will decimate veterinary practices, affect farm viability and, according to the British Veterinary Association, have a detrimental impact on public health. In paragraph 141 of this Command Paper, the Secretary of State indicates that he will set up a veterinary medicines working group. I welcome that, but will he confirm that if a speedy solution is not brought forward by the spring, he will table legislation in this House to unilaterally deal with this matter once and for all?

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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The hon. Gentleman is right; I think it is paragraphs 136 to 141 in the Command Paper that detail the issues he has rightly raised in this place, with me privately and in meetings with my officials. It is probably fair to say that he was the genesis of the veterinary medicines working group idea in paragraph 141. That group will receive expert opinion, and that is a vital part of the solution to this problem. My intention is to listen carefully to the group’s recommendations, because it will have the experts in this matter. At that point, he and I can have the next bit of conversation, although I hope that will not need to be the case, because I would like to think we can pursue solutions through technical discussions with the European Union, but let us see.

Robin Millar Portrait Robin Millar (Aberconwy) (Con)
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I echo the comments of many colleagues across the House in welcoming the progress made on this matter. Through the Secretary of State, I thank the many people involved for the effort they have put in. We have two draft statutory instruments before us amending two sets of primary legislation, with the words “constitutional law” in one of them. The questions asked during this statement hint at the breadth and depth of the issues that such instruments raise. It seems slightly incongruous that they are coming to this place last, even though they are the first concerns of this House. Does my right hon. Friend agree that hon. Members should have time to read, digest and debate the instruments? Can he explain why the current proposals are for exactly that to be done in just 24 hours and with a short debate?

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I thank my hon. Friend for his question; I know that he has talked to my Minister of State on these matters. Actually, our Standing Orders state the debating time for these things. The House is an interesting being, and I would not want to get in the way of its Standing Orders.

Secondly, as I tried to underline in a previous answer, a timetable has been agreed with the Democratic Unionist party, which the Government are committed to, and if we fulfil it, that will lead to the restoration of Stormont. The House is full of agile and able Members of Parliament who are amazingly good at scrutiny, and I know that they can do that very, very well in the time provided.

Carla Lockhart Portrait Carla Lockhart (Upper Bann) (DUP)
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I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, and I thank my party leader and deputy leader for the many gains in the Command Paper. However, our leader said that there remains work to do. Will the Secretary of State therefore confirm whether Northern Ireland still remains under the EU’s single market laws for the production of food and agrifood? Does the EU customs code still apply in Northern Ireland? Does he accept that such a situation is not compatible with UK sovereignty and Northern Ireland’s place as a full part of the United Kingdom? In accepting that, would he say that more work needs done on this? Will he further outline what assurances he has had from the EU that the rules governing the new internal market system are acceptable to it?

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I thank the hon. Lady for her questions. May I recommend that she re-reads the Windsor framework and indeed the Command Paper?

Tom Hunt Portrait Tom Hunt (Ipswich) (Con)
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I applaud the Secretary of State, the Minister of State and the wider Northern Ireland team. I know—I have seen this up close and personal—how passionate and dedicated they are on this issue. The people of Northern Ireland will ultimately be the winners when it comes to decisions being made locally, closer to them.

As a Member of Parliament from the new intake, I think it is a great shame that we have often felt at loggerheads with Democratic Unionist party Members. Ultimately, I share a huge amount of their values, and I absolutely appreciate their passion and how closely they cling to their identity. I share that passion. Will the Secretary of State ensure that this marks a new chapter when we can work more collaboratively to promote the place of Northern Ireland within our Union, which we all love?

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I thank my hon. Friend. I know that he is passionate about Northern Ireland: indeed, I saw his passion when I hosted him and he visited and looked around Northern Ireland. The answer to his question is yes. Yes, we need to move forward. Yes, we need to work with the Democratic Unionists. Yes, we need a positive way forward for Unionism so that Northern Ireland can forever stay part of our United Kingdom.

Stephen Farry Portrait Stephen Farry (North Down) (Alliance)
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I am hopeful that Northern Ireland is now in a better place. I have always understood that, in the context of a hard Brexit, Northern Ireland would require some special arrangements. My party has always been open to maximising flexibilities, provided that those are done in a legal way and that we protect our dual market access.

On the financial package, I very much welcome the £3.3 billion for Northern Ireland, which reflects a cross-party effort. Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that there is a need for a further discussion to happen—potentially in the next Parliament—on a long-term review of Northern Ireland’s fiscal framework and fiscal floor? On reform, will he recognise that, building on precedents, the UK Government must lead that process? If we are talking about safeguarding the Union, we also have to talk about safeguarding the Assembly and the Executive.

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question, which has been raised with me for months—if not since I became Secretary of State—by the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson), who is rather keen on making sure that we have a long-term agreement and process in this space. I really look forward to working with Ministers in a reformed Executive on exactly that.

Paul Girvan Portrait Paul Girvan (South Antrim) (DUP)
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In the light of the answer the Secretary of State gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart)—or the lack of an answer—I would like to reiterate that point as well as ask about implementation and how Northern Ireland is affected by not getting access to duty-free. Every other airport in the United Kingdom has access to duty-free, yet those flying from Northern Ireland to any part of Europe cannot avail themselves of duty-free—it is the only airport on these islands where that cannot be done. That is one area where the single market is affecting us.

We are still part of that single market and, from what I see in the Command Paper, we will continue to be. As a consequence, in our energy market in Northern Ireland—I would like an answer on this—we are paying a carbon tax at an entirely different rate from any other part of Great Britain. For our electricity supply, our carbon offset is twice the level paid in any other part of the United Kingdom. What measures on that are included in the Command Paper? It was handed to us at what I would call the eleventh hour and 59th minute. We would like to be given time to get into the details. We very much feel like we are being bounced through a timetable and that we will not get through the detail that is supposedly in the statutory instruments and the Command Paper.

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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The hon. Gentleman raises a number of important points. I think it is fair to say that Northern Ireland was part of a single energy market across the island of Ireland well before we left the European Union and that there have always been interactions on that basis. The answer to his question is contained in the Command Paper.

There are a whole host of things to say, but I will just make the point about the difference for Northern Ireland. It does have access to the EU single market and unfettered access to the UK’s internal market, but it is not subjugated to the European Union arrangements. It will not pay into the European Union budget. It is not subject to European Union freedom of movement, services rules, environmental rules, labour rules or procurement rules; neither is it subject to the European Medicines Agency, the common agricultural policy or the common fisheries policy. Northern Ireland has unique circumstances because of its geographic location. Everybody recognises that. We want it to thrive in our Union, and with the Command Paper that direction of travel is set.

Jonathan Edwards Portrait Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (Ind)
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I welcome the statement. If a future UK Government were to diverge substantially from EU product regulations and standards for Great Britain, what would be the impact on what the Secretary of State has announced today?

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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First, we would be allowed to do that—100%. Secondly, there would be a written ministerial statement stating that exact fact so that Ministers and others in the Northern Ireland Assembly could debate and make provision for it.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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I thank the Secretary of State very much for his statement and the hard work he has done—I say that sincerely. Government actions until now have undermined some of the trust of Unionist people, so there is a clear need for messaging from the Government that the concerns that Unionists have been expressing for the last two years are being dealt with through secure legislative processes here and with the EU. My Strangford constituents—some of them are in the Gallery today—are proud of their Britishness. I am sure that the Secretary of State can confirm—I hope he can—that we in Northern Ireland are as British as those in London, Cardiff, Manchester and Newcastle, and, indeed, Edinburgh and Scotland as well.

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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And Daventry. I can confirm that 100%. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I am very proud that he is a proud Brit, as I am.

Business of the House

Wednesday 31st January 2024

(3 months, 4 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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14:10
Penny Mordaunt Portrait The Leader of the House of Commons (Penny Mordaunt)
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With permission, I will make a short business statement about an addition to tomorrow’s business. Following the statement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the business tomorrow will now be:

Thursday 1 February—a debate on motions to approve the draft Windsor Framework (Constitutional Status of Northern Ireland) Regulations 2024 and the draft Windsor Framework (Internal Market and Unfettered Access) Regulations 2024, followed by a general debate on miners and mining communities, followed by debate on a motion on freedom and democracy in Iran. The subjects of these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

I will announce further business in the usual way on Thursday.

Lucy Powell Portrait Lucy Powell (Manchester Central) (Lab/Co-op)
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I thank the Leader of the House for the update to the business and for advance sight of her announcement.

As the shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) said, we welcome the decision of the Democratic Unionist party to return to the Northern Ireland Executive following negotiations, subject to commitments by the Government and to legislation being passed. We also thank the other parties of Northern Ireland for their forbearance and co-operation.

This is a very important moment. We warmly welcome the progress so far, especially for the people of Northern Ireland, who have been without their Government for almost two years and for five of the past seven years. I welcome the publication of the Command Paper and the statutory instruments, and the fact that the business has changed tomorrow so that we can speedily consider these matters in the timetable set out, although I am sure other Members will want time to consider them. Could the Leader of the House let us know whether she anticipates that consequential legislation will be needed in due course, such as legislation to establish the internal lane?

Penny Mordaunt Portrait Penny Mordaunt
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Like the hon. Lady, I thank all parties who have been involved in getting us to what has been described as an historic moment. It is a good thing for the people of Northern Ireland that this is happening. I want to place on record my thanks to everyone who has been involved. I thank the hon. Lady for welcoming, understandably, the change of business tomorrow. With regard to her sole question, the answer is yes, and that is set out in the Command Paper.

Robin Millar Portrait Robin Millar (Aberconwy) (Con)
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I thank the Leader of the House for making provision for a debate on the statutory instruments tomorrow. We have before us those two instruments, which address a wide range of issues: movement of goods in the UK, the internal market, and Northern Ireland’s place in the UK. Each of those has been subject to multiple lengthy debates in this House. Will she consider making time for two debates—one on each draft statutory instrument—thereby doubling the time that Members have to consider these matters in this House?

Penny Mordaunt Portrait Penny Mordaunt
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My hon. Friend is right that there has been a tremendous amount of discussion of these issues on the Floor of the House. As the Secretary of State acknowledged earlier, the Standing Orders protect time for debate on statutory instruments to 90 minutes. I am sure that my hon. Friend knows how to apply for a debate on a particular topic, but the Standing Orders will protect the time tomorrow.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock (Edinburgh North and Leith) (SNP)
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There is little to add to this short statement, as there will be more discussion on this latest legislation tomorrow. I want to state on the record that I welcome the progress that has been made, particularly as a former Northern Ireland spokesperson. Of course, there is much to be done, so I send my sincerest best wishes to all those in the Assembly who, hopefully soon, will step up to their places and their great responsibilities to the people of Northern Ireland.

Penny Mordaunt Portrait Penny Mordaunt
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I thank the hon. Lady for her support in this matter, and I very much welcome her party’s support, too.

Ian Paisley Portrait Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP)
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Just to be clear, we are presented with the United Kingdom’s internal market piece of legislation, a Northern Ireland constitutional law piece of legislation, and 80 pages of a Command Paper. With the best will in the world, we will get on to that around midday tomorrow. The maximum time possible is probably three hours for all that. That is insufficient time for the Front Benchers and all the Back Benchers with an interest in this matter to properly debate and scrutinise such legislation. Is there no opportunity to extend the proceedings to allow lengthier consideration of the legislation?

Penny Mordaunt Portrait Penny Mordaunt
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. He knows what is set out in the Standing Orders. I appreciate where he is coming from, but I point him to the comments the Secretary of State made a moment ago about the external timetable that we need to keep pace with.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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As always, I thank the Leader of the House for the business statement. Further to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley), I am conscious that there will be quite a few speakers for the debates after that on miners and Iran and human rights issues. Given the time needed for the Northern Ireland legislation, and being ever mindful of how important it is to get it sorted, with no disrespect to the other two debates, is it humanly possible to have all the time between 12 noon and 5 pm for debates on the legislation that we need in Northern Ireland?

Penny Mordaunt Portrait Penny Mordaunt
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I say to the hon. Gentleman, “Welcome to my world.” We are trying to accommodate all parties. There was an additional Select Committee statement on tomorrow’s agenda, which we are talking to officials about to try accommodate tomorrow. I hope to update the House on that later.

Sammy Wilson Portrait Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP)
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Is it not a fact that, now this Government have the Assembly on the fishing hook, they really do not care one iota about scrutiny of the bait being used to get the Assembly back? Having introduced the Command Paper to the House today and having got a commitment to the Assembly, I suggest that this Government do not give two hoots about whether there is sufficient time to see whether the promises made will be fulfilled.

Penny Mordaunt Portrait Penny Mordaunt
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I have great respect for the right hon. Gentleman, but I think he is wrong in that assertion. There will be many strong feelings on all sides of the House about various aspects of the position we have got to, but the comments made from all sides of the House during the Secretary of State’s statement indicate that this is an important step forward and is to be welcomed. Inevitably, it is a compromise; people have had to compromise to get here, and I applaud them for doing that. There will be future debate on these matters. My colleagues on the Front Bench will be very happy to answer any points that the right hon. Gentleman raises. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, is an example of conviction, passion and determination on the issues that the hon. Gentleman cares deeply about.

Points of order

Wednesday 31st January 2024

(3 months, 4 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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14:19
Richard Drax Portrait Richard Drax (South Dorset) (Con)
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On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. At the start of Prime Minister’s questions, the Speaker reminded the House about the use of language. The debate on Gaza is getting far more emotive, and the language used has been questionable in one or two cases, as I am sure you are aware, Madam Deputy Speaker. One of the SNP Members asked a question about Gaza and, after the question was answered, a member of the SNP—I cannot identify them—accused the Prime Minister of being Pontius Pilate, which we on these Benches heard very clearly. That kind of language is extremely unpleasant because, as you know, Madam Deputy Speaker, Pontius Pilate washed his hands and handed Jesus over to a murderous death. That is not what the Prime Minister is doing. He has an impeccable record on this topic, and is leading with great courage and conviction in a war in Gaza that is, indeed, highly emotive.

Owen Thompson Portrait Owen Thompson (Midlothian) (SNP)
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Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Just for the record, I seek your guidance on how to make it very clear that it was not a member of the SNP who said any such thing—I can be absolutely certain about that. I think Members might want to be very clear about which parties are saying things before making such accusations. How can I put that on the record, Madam Deputy Speaker?

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)
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I thank the hon. Gentleman. I will come to the other points of order in a moment. I appreciate the point of order made by the hon. Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax). I can say only this: Mr Speaker strives throughout Prime Minister’s questions to keep order in this House, but it has become fashionable to make unnecessary noise during the half hour when the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition are on the Front Benches. Generally, this House is well behaved, as it is at the moment, and takes its duties, responsibilities and public image seriously.

It is very sad if somebody did make the comment that the hon. Member for South Dorset has described. I take the point made by the hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) that if a remark was made about Pontius Pilate, it was not made by an SNP Member, but actually, as far as the Chair is concerned, I do not care who made such a remark. It is wrong to try to whip up bad feeling in this House or anywhere else about the tragedy unfolding in Israel and Palestine. I urge all hon. Members, who have different points of view on this emotive subject, to be very careful about what they say in public and in private, but especially in this Chamber.

Richard Drax Portrait Richard Drax
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Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I would like to think I am an honourable Gentleman, and if indeed I got it wrong, I withdraw the point that the comment was made by an SNP Member. It came from that part of the House, but if it was not an SNP Member, I withdraw that point.

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker
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I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for withdrawing that accusation, because it lets us at least take that part out of this specific issue. It may be that somebody made that comment, but I really do not care what they said or how they said it. They should not be saying anything at all while seated when someone else is asking a question or the Prime Minister is answering it. Everyone in this House ought to bear in mind that what is said and done in here has a much wider audience, and we ought to be setting an example of being reasonable and careful in the way that we use words and phrases, and never being inflammatory.

Dawn Butler Portrait Dawn Butler (Brent Central) (Lab)
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On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. My point of order also relates to Israel and Gaza. ITV News recently broadcast a video showing the killing of an unarmed civilian in Gaza who was waving a white flag—the international symbol of peace. It is not the first time unarmed people have been killed in Gaza while raising white flags; in fact, three Israeli hostages were brutally killed while topless and waving a white flag. This is deeply concerning to me, as I am sure it is to many people in this House. An Israel Defence Forces commander has indicated that the IDF was responsible, saying,

“There are mistakes, it is war.”

This incident could potentially constitute a war crime. How can we ensure that the Government come to this House to assure us that this incident will be properly investigated and that UK-supplied weapons were not used, and to set out the steps being taken to ensure that Israel follows the ruling from the International Court of Justice?

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker
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I have listened carefully to the hon. Lady, and the point she makes is not a point of order for the Chair—not at all. She is making a very serious point about a tragic incident among many thousands of tragic incidents that have occurred over the past few months, but it is not a point of order for the Chair.

The hon. Lady is raising a point that she wants to raise with Ministers. The Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), was recently at the Dispatch Box making a statement on Gaza, and I anticipate it is very likely that a Foreign Office Minister or a Minister from the Ministry of Defence will be here again within a few days to make a further statement. If not, Opposition Front Benchers and others have been most assiduous in asking urgent questions to ensure that Ministers come to the House to answer these important questions.

The hon. Lady is not asking a question that I can deal with from the Chair; she is asking a question that she wants to ask of a Minister. If she wants to ask a question of a Minister, there are various ways she can do that: she can put down an urgent question; she can ask for an Adjournment debate; she can speak to Members on her own Front Bench about having an extended debate in Opposition time—I will not list them all. There are many, many ways in which the hon. Lady can do that, but I cannot answer her question from the Chair. It is not a point of order.

Patricia Gibson Portrait Patricia Gibson (North Ayrshire and Arran) (SNP)
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On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I have on two previous occasions asked the Leader of the House to correct the record after she told this House on 11 January that people in England pay

“lower tax than people in Scotland and we have managed…a balanced budget”.—[Official Report, 11 January 2024; Vol. 743, c. 455-456.]

At Prime Minister’s questions today, the Prime Minister incorrectly referred to people in Scotland paying higher taxes than people in England. I have notified the Prime Minister that I would be referring to him. The House of Commons Library, via the Office for Budget Responsibility, has confirmed that the statements made by the Leader of the House and the Prime Minister are both untrue. The majority of people in Scotland pay lower taxes—including council tax—than people in England. No UK Government have delivered a balanced budget since 2000-2001, and the current UK Government pay the equivalent of £300 million a day in debt interest, while the Scottish Government must, by law, balance their budget every year.

Given that hon. Members must correct inadvertent errors at the earliest opportunity, Madam Deputy Speaker, I seek your guidance and advice as to how to ensure that the Leader of the House and the Prime Minister do indeed correct the record, and your advice as to what measures can be taken if hon. Members repeat factually incorrect information in this place and appear to—

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker
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Order. I thank the hon. Lady. Once again, I appreciate that Members want to use the opportunity of a point of order to make the point that they want to make, but there is a big difference between—[Interruption.] Do not shout while I am speaking. There is a difference between a point of order on procedure in this House and a matter of opinion in the interpretation of statistics. There are also—[Interruption.] Will the hon. Lady just be quiet and allow me to answer her question?

There are inevitably differences of opinion on the interpretation of statistics. There are also, as the hon. Lady says, facts, as opposed to opinions. If facts are stated wrongly in this House, they should be corrected. However, it is not for the Chair to make a judgment as to who correctly interprets the facts put before the House. That is why we have debates and questions. We are not meant to come here and all agree with one another. That is why we have this Chamber, where proper debates can take place.

If the hon. Lady is saying that facts were stated wrongly, I am quite sure that a Minister will take the first opportunity to correct those facts. I think, perhaps, the Leader of the House will take that opportunity right now.

Penny Mordaunt Portrait The Leader of the House of Commons (Penny Mordaunt)
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Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I would be very happy to. This is obviously a matter of great concern and urgency to the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson)—she would normally raise it at business questions tomorrow. I am quite sure this has nothing to do with the fact that the former First Minister is in front of the covid inquiry today. [Interruption.] There is nothing like a good old—[Interruption.]

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker
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Order. What on earth do you think you are doing? The hon. Lady raised a point. The Leader of the House is answering an aspect of that point. It is not a moment when shouting should occur.

Penny Mordaunt Portrait Penny Mordaunt
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To get to the substance of the point, I understand that the hon. Lady mentions a House of Commons Library paper that she is relying on to do this. That particular Library paper is using a figure from the Scottish Budget in 2022, which is out of date. As she will know, income tax out turns are not going to be reported for many more months, so she cannot make that assertion. What I have done in my responses at business questions to detailed points on taxation is to give the House direct salary levels and the taxes that people are paying north and south of the border. Whatever our views and political disagreements, I take my responsibilities to this House extremely seriously.