Early evening summary
Firefighters across the UK have voted for a national strike over pay for the first time in 20 years after an “overwhelming” ballot result.
Strikes by teachers in England and Wales will go ahead this week after last-ditch talks between union leaders and the government broke up without any progress.
Rishi Sunak has said he can “restore the integrity back into politics” as he began a fightback against the political damage from sacking Nadhim Zahawi as Conservative party chair for breaches of the ministerial code over his tax affairs.
Government defeated in Lords as peers insist on stricter definition of what counts as disruption in public order bill
In the House of Lords peers have started voting on the public order bill. Amnesty International UK describes it as “deeply draconian” and there are a series of amendments down at report stage which would make it significantly less draconian.
In the first vote, peers backed a Labour amendment, with cross-party support, designed to raise the threshold for what counts as serious disruption. The bill as drafted by the government is designed to lower the threshold, so as to make it easier for the police to arrest protesters.
The amendment was passed by 243 votes to 221 – a majority of 22.
Moving the amendment, Labour’s Lord Coaker said that without change, the bill would outlaw protests “that all of us would regard as reasonable, all of us would regard as acceptable”.
This is from the pressure group Liberty.
Health leaders say emergency care recovery plan won't work unless NHS gets more staff
Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary, said the government’s recovery plan for emergency care was flawed because the NHS might not have to staff available to make it work. He told MPs:
That is the super massive black hole in his plan published today – people. Virtual wards without any staff isn’t hospital at home, it is home alone, so where is [the health secretary’s] plan to restore care in the community?
This is a point that has been made by several other health leaders today.
Dr Tim Cooksley, president of the Society for Acute Medicine, told ITV this morning:
It’s pleasing that the government recognises that the NHS is in crisis, and there are some extremely positive elements to this plan but the major concern is that there will be no recovery in urgent and emergency care without a people recovery.
There isn’t the workforce to currently deliver this and that is the major concern.
We have this significant workforce shortage, and we are haemorrhaging staff and unless we have some clear retention plans, and some clear plans to attract colleagues back who have left, alongside recruitment plans, this plan will not work.
Dr Adrian Boyle, president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, told Times Radio:
The workforce plan has been written, but it isn’t published, and is separate to this … workforce retention is key to making all of this work, because largely all the problems we see around NHS work and NHS crises, they’re related to workforce.
And Saffron Cordery, interim chief executive of NHS Providers, told the Today programme:
All eyes will look forward to the budget now to see whether the chancellor and the government is going to announce the fully funded and costed workforce plan for the long term that that we’ve been asking for for a very long time – because without the workforce, however much capacity we put in place, we can’t actually safely staff [the emergency care plan].
Gillian Keegan, the education secretary, said it was “hugely disappointing” that the NEU is going ahead with strike action and pledged to do everything possible to protect children’s education. In a statement she said:
These strikes will have a significant impact on children’s education, especially following the disruption of the past two years, and are creating huge uncertainly for parents.
With talks ongoing on a range of issues, including around future pay, workload, behaviour and recruitment and retention, it is clear that strikes are not being used as a last resort.
I have been clear today that unions do not need to strike to meet with me. I also reiterated my call to union leaders to ask their members to let head teachers know if they intend to strike, helping schools to minimise the impact on children.
I will continue doing everything possible to protect children’s education.
In the Commons Michael Gove, the levelling up secretary, is currently making a statement confirming the plans – briefed over the weekend and announced this morning (see 10.08am) – to in effect exclude developers from the housing market if they refuse to contribute to a £2bn fund to remove dangerous cladding.
Earlier, in the health statement, Labour’s Janet Daby why the government was not committing to a return to the target of having 95% of visitors to A&E seen within four hours.
In response, Steve Barclay, the health secretary, conceded that that target was currently impossible. He said:
We are not setting out that ambition in this statement, because the impact of the pandemic has been so severe. We need to set a target that is ambitious but achievable, and that is what we have done.
No 10 says NEU's decision to go ahead with teachers' strike 'very disappointing'
At the afternoon lobby briefing Downing Street said the decision by the National Education Union to go ahead with its strike on Wednesday (see 5.42pm) was “deeply disappointing”. The PM’s spokesperson said:
Children were some of the hardest hit during the pandemic when schools needed to be closed.
To have the ability to get into classrooms taken away from them again is particularly difficult. Obviously it has a knock-on impact on parents who will have to scramble to get childcare. So, it is very disappointing.
The spokesperson also urged the Fire Brigades Union to keep negotiating before it goes on strike. Asked about the FBU strike vote (see 4.15pm), the spokesperson said:
Strike action would be disappointing and concerning for the public. We will continue to work with that union to see what we can do to mitigate against the possible risks that that poses – and in the first instance call on them to reconsider and keep negotiating.
Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, has urged the government to negotiate a settlement on pay to avert the firefighters’ strike. (See 4.15pm.) She said:
No one, including firefighters themselves, wants a strike. It is this Conservative government’s reckless behaviour that has crashed the economy, and their failure to get a grip on inflation means working people are struggling more and more. This is their mess to fix.
It’s up to the home secretary to get around the table and talk. She should be doing everything she possibly can to negotiate a deal and prevent a strike.
Public appointments watchdog recuses himself from inquiry into BBC chairman because they know each other
A week ago William Shawcross, the commissioner for public appointments, announced that he would review the circumstances that led to Richard Sharp being appointed as chairman of the BBC. He said he wanted “to assure myself and the public that the process was run in compliance with the government’s governance code for public appointments”.
Today, in a letter to the Commons culture committee, Shawcross says he will recuse himself from the inquiry because he knows Sharp. He says:
As I have met Mr Sharp on previous occasions, I have decided to recuse myself from this particular investigation. I will be delegating my powers as commissioner under the 2019 order in council to an independent person who will be appointed by my office for this one investigation. They will have sole responsibility and will be supported by my officials.
Firefighters vote for what would be first national strike in 20 years
Firefighters in the UK have voted to go on strike. Announcing the results of a ballot, the Fire Brigades Union said its members had voted 88% in favour of strike action, on a 73% turnout.
The union is taking action in opposition to the 5% pay rise it was offered last autumn. It says this would be the first national strike by firefighters since 2003, but it says it is giving government and employers 10 days to make a revised offer in the hope the industrial action can be called off.
Two separate ballots, by firefighters in Northern Ireland and by control room staff in the north-west of England, also produced majorities in favour of going on strike.
In a statement Matt Wrack, the FBU general secretary, said:
This is an overwhelming vote for strike action against an offer which would mean further significant cuts to real-terms wages for firefighters and control room staff. They have already lost at least 12% of the value of their pay since 2010.
This is an absolute last resort for our members. The responsibility for any disruption to services lies squarely with fire service employers and government ministers …
The government and the employers have the power to stop strikes from happening by making a credible offer that can resolve this dispute. The ball is in their court.
We have delayed calling strikes to allow the employers to meet us and to make a new offer. I hope they take that opportunity. Otherwise, in the coming weeks, we intend to announce a series of strike dates and industrial action.
Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary, said the health plan being announced by the government would not lead to patients seeing GPs more quickly, not restore district nursing, not improve nurses and not lead to an increase in the number of doctors and nurses.
And he said the government could not even say when they would get waiting times down to safe times.
Waiting 30 minutes for a stroke or heart attack victim to get an ambulance was not acceptable, he said.
He said, instead of hitting their targets, ministers were moving the goalposts.
Labour announced its own plans for more people to be looked after at home at its conference, he said. What the government has announced is very similar. He said he was happy for the government to adopt Labour’s.
But the government’s plan would not work without extra staff, he said.
Labour had a plan to double the number of places at medical school, he said. It would pay for that by abolishing non-dom status. He said he could understand why Rishi Sunak would not support that.
Steve Barclay, the health secretary, is making a statement to the Commons about the emergency care recovery plan. He says this is the second of three NHS recovery plans. An elective care plan has already been published, and a primary care plan is coming, he says.
He says this plan is based on best practice followed by hospitals around England.
The plan is ambitious and credible, he says.
By next March, the government wants 76% of patients seen within four hours, he says.
And by next March it wants to see category two ambulance response times, covering strokes and heart attacks, down to 30 minutes.
In due course, it wants performance on both measures to get down to pre-pandemic levels, he says.
Barclay says current waiting time data at A&E starts from the point of admission, not the point of arrival. For some time experts have been calling for the clock to start at the moment of arrival. And so from April NHS England will publish data on waiting times from arrival, he says.
He suggests this could be challenging. But he says he hopes the move will be a “catalyst for transformation of the urgent and emergency care pathway”.
NEU teaching unions says strike going ahead on Wednesday after talks with Gillian Keegan failed to produce breakthrough
The National Education Union says its strike on Wednesday will go ahead after last-minute talks with Gillian Keegan, the education secretary, failed to produce a breakthrough. In a joint statement after the meeting, the NEU’s joint general secretaries, Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney, said:
Gillian Keegan has squandered an opportunity to avoid strike action on Wednesday.
The government has been unwilling to seriously engage with the causes of strike action. Real-terms pay cuts and cuts in pay relativities are leading to a recruitment and retention crisis with which the education secretary so far seems incapable of getting a grip. Training targets are routinely missed, year on year. This is having consequences for learning, with disruption every day to children’s education.
We can do better as a nation, for education, for our children, if we invest more. That is in the gift of this government. It should start with a fully-funded, above inflation pay rise for teachers.
Defence minister says army in urgent need of extra funding after 'serial underinvestment over decades'
In the Commons Tobias Ellwood, the Conservative chair of the defence committee, used defence questions to ask about a Sky News report saying that an American general told Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, that the British army was now longer regarded as a top-level fighting force. Ellwood said his committee had come to a similar conclusion.
In response, James Heappey, the armed forces minister, conceded there was a problem, but suggested that defence spending would increase in the budget. He said:
Serial underinvestment in the army over decades has led to the point where the army is in urgent need of recapitalisation. The chancellor and the prime minister get that and there’s a budget coming.
In her Sky News story Deborah Haynes says:
A senior US general has privately told defence secretary Ben Wallace the British army is no longer regarded as a top-level fighting force, defence sources have revealed.
They said this decline in war-fighting capability – following decades of cuts to save money – needed to be reversed faster than planned in the wake of Russia’s war in Ukraine.
“Bottom line... it’s an entire service unable to protect the UK and our allies for a decade,” one of the defence sources said.
BBC economics coverage not politically biased, but too influenced by groupthink, review concludes
The BBC’s economics reporting does not lean conclusively towards the left or right politically, but can be influenced by groupthink and hype and be led too strongly by the Westminster narrative, a report commissioned by the corporation has said. PA Media says:
An analysis of the corporation’s coverage, which its authors said also largely applies to the rest of the UK media, found that “too many journalists lack understanding of basic economics”.
It revealed that the BBC’s economic coverage at times shows bias towards both the left and the right, making “a charge of systematic political bias in this area hard to sustain”.
The review said “the main issue is lack of impartiality caused by uninformed groupthink and lack of confidence to challenge arguments, often given an extra twist by hype”.
It said that some journalists “feel instinctively” that debt is bad, and do not realise that this is a contestable position.
And it questioned the influence of politics on the corporation’s reporting, with what is said in Westminster often meaning that economic issues are reported on by political journalists.
“‘The Westminster frame on things is the elephant in the room here,’ said one senior journalist, who argued that the political angle of the day often determines coverage whether the specialist judges it significant or not,” the report said.
One person outside the BBC told the authors that political editors are asked to understand economics, trade, law, and political negotiations as well as the ins and outs of daily politics, “and nobody can do that”.
The BBC’s news summary of the report is here. And the full report, which was written by Michael Blastland and Sir Andrew Dilnot, is here.
Steve Brine, the Conservative chair of the Commons health committee, told Radio 4’s the World at One that select committee scrutiny could improve the quality of cabinet appointments. He told the programme:
The way that ministers are appointed I think needs looking at.
I do wonder whether there is more scrutiny on people appointed to the House of Lords or even, dare I say, to become chairman of the BBC … than there is for very senior cabinet ministers.
In the US, for instance, they have confirmation hearings of members of the cabinet.
We have select committees in parliament, we say that we trust them. Why not at some point bring them into that process? I don’t think that is unreasonable.
Brine suggested that after the prime minister appoints, for example, a health secretary, the health committee could hold a confirmation hearing. He went on:
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that – if you wanted to add something new to the principles of integrity in public life, then there is an idea.
Select committees routinely hold pre-appointment hearings with officials selected to run public bodies. They do not have the power to veto appointments (which they would in a confirmation hearing), but on rare occasions a critical report following a pre-appointment hearing has led to a rethink.
Two-thirds of Britons think it's time for change at next election, poll suggests
Isaac Levido, the strategist who ran the Tory campaign in 2019, reportedly told the cabinet away day at Chequers last week that they had a “narrow path” to victory at the next election. He was arguing that some of the support for Labour is soft, but new polling out today suggests that “narrow” might be understating it.
Ipsos has published its latest monthly political monitor polling and it suggests Labour, on 51%, has a 25-point lead over the Conservatives, on 26%. But governments can recover from setbacks like that. In elections the most potent message is often “it’s time for a change” and the poll suggests that is what two-thirds of voters want.
Here are the key findings.
Two-thirds of Britons believe it is time for a change at the next election, the poll suggests. It says 55% of people say that the government has done a poor job and it’s time for a change, and 11% say the government has done a good job but it’s still time for a change.
This might not matter much for Rishi Sunak if he were seen as a change prime minister (as John Major was in 1992). But other findings in the polling suggest he isn’t.
Sunak’s satisfaction ratings are going down, the poll suggests. In January 55% of Britons are dissatisfied with the job he’s doing, up 6 points from December. And 26% are satisfied, down two points. That gives him a net satisfaction rating of -29, down from -21.
Sunak has lower satisfaction ratings at this stage of his premiership than any other prime minister since 1979 at the same point of their premiership – except for Liz Truss.
Only 20% of people would describe the government as competent, the poll suggests.
Keir Starmer is ahead of Sunak on who people think would make the most capable PM by a margin of 39% to 33%, the poll suggests. In November, Sunak was ahead of Starmer by 41% to 35%.
No 10 refuses to back Zahawi's attack on media coverage of his case
Nadhim Zahawi attacked the media in the letter he sent to Rishi Sunak following his sacking at Tory chair. He said:
I am concerned, however, about the conduct of some of the fourth estate in recent weeks. In a week when a member of parliament was physically assaulted, I fail to see how one headline on this issue ‘The Noose Tightens’ reflects legitimate scrutiny of public officials. I am sorry to my family for the toll this has taken on them.
Zahawi was referring to a headline over a splash in the online-only Independent. The wording of that headline was crass, but given that Zahawi last summer threatened to sue reporters who said that he was being investigated by the tax authorities, and dismissed the story as a smear, when essentially it was all true, his decision to depict himself as a victim of the press was odd.
At the Downing Street lobby briefing, asked if Rishi Sunak agreed with Zahawi’s criticism of the media, the PM’s spokesperson implied he didn’t. He replied:
It is important to emphasis that, in a healthy democracy, the media plays a vitally important role in holding the government of the day to account. And I’m sure it will continue to do so.
And here are some more lines from the Downing Street lobby briefing.
Rishi Sunak was not aware of any “outstanding issues” relating to Nadhim Zahawi’s tax affairs when he appointed him to government, the PM’s spokesperson said. He said Sunak did not know Zahawi had paid a penalty to HM Revenue and Customs until Zahawi admitted this in a statement. The spokesperson also confirmed that Sunak was aware of “speculation” in the press about Zahawi’s tax affairs published much earlier, but he would not say why Sunak had not asked Zahawi directly about these stories before appointing him. It is understood that, when ministers are appointed, officials routinely flag up if a minister does have oustanding tax issues. But if a matter has been settled, that is not flagged up as part of the routine process.
The spokesperson defended Sunak’s decision to reappoint Suella Braverman to cabinet, even though she broke the ministerial code, while sacking Zahawi for breaking the code. Asked to explain the distinction, the spokesperson said:
Suella Braverman resigned and acknowledged the mistake she made – she took accountability for her actions.
It was on that basis that the prime minister subsequently chose to reappoint her.
The spokesperson did not rule out Zahawi being reappointed to government.
The spokesperson said that ministers should “pay the right amount of tax”. Zahawi was sacked because he had not disclosed at the right time the HM Revenue and Customs inquiry into his tax affairs, and the fact that he paid a penalty, but the spokesperson’s comment suggests not paying the full amount of tax on time was also an issue.
Penny Mordaunt, leader of the Commons and the MP who came third in the summer Tory leadership contest, is favourite to replace Nadhim Zahawi as the next party chair, Kitty Donaldson from Bloomberg reports.
William Hill has Mordaunt at 4/1 favourite, ahead of Oliver Dowden and Michael Gove, both on 5/1, and Brandon Lewis and James Cleverly, both on 7/1.
But in an article for ConservativeHome at the weekend, its editor, Paul Goodman, predicted a more low-key appointment. He said:
Who will replace Zahawi? Downing Street will want an appointment that creates a positive headline. It may take the view that the appointment of a woman will suit. The women in cabinet are Suella Braverman, Penny Mordaunt, Thérèse Coffey, Gillian Keegan, Kemi Badenoch, and Michelle Donelan.
The first is too senior, the second too ambitious, the third associated with Liz Truss and the fourth difficult though not impossible to move, given her pivotal role at education. Such an appointment would undoubtedly create a splash.
Or the prime minister could go for a safe pair of hands, such as Mark Harper. Or seek minimum disruption to cabinet, and promote from the junior ranks of government or else from the backbenches.
No 10 rejects claims from Zahawi's allies that inquiry that led to his sacking was rushed, or unfair
The Downing Street lobby briefing has just finished. Nadhim Zahawi’s allies have been claiming that the inquiry into his tax affairs was rushed and that he did not get a chance to make his case properly. In his story on this for the Daily Telegraph, Daniel Martin reports:
On Sunday allies of Mr Zahawi raised questions about the process asking why the inquiry was so short, especially as it had been expected that it would run for three weeks.
Had the prime minister in fact ended up giving in to political pressure to get rid of him early, before Sir Laurie had been able to properly investigate the case?
Downing Street denies the charge, but Mr Zahawi’s allies asked why it was that he only had 30 minutes on Wednesday to put his case to the ethics adviser.
And why did the report not reflect the former chairman’s insistence that he told the top civil servant at the Treasury that he had paid a penalty when he was chancellor?
At the briefing the prime minister’s spokesperson rejected this charge. Asked about these claims, the spokesperson said:
As you know, we didn’t set any time limit on the adviser and he was free to carry out the investigation to establish the facts and [he] concluded his work when he felt he had done.
It wouldn’t be for me to get into the details of that process. I would say that he was able to speak to whoever he wished during that process and we’re confident he established the facts.
It is understood that Downing Street also rejects the claim that Zahawi only had one conversation with Sir Laurie Magnus, the PM’s ethics adviser, during the inquiry. There was a further conversation on Saturday, after the 30-minute one on Wednesday, it is understood.
At the briefing the spokesperson also said that Sunak was told there were no oustanding tax issues relating to Zahawi when he appointed him to government. Sunak was not told that Zahawi had paid a penalty to settle a tax dispute.
But the spokesperson was unable to say why Sunak had not proactively asked about an inquiry or a penalty given the media coverage of Zahawi’s tax affairs over the summer. (See 11.29am.)
Kremlin rejects Boris Johnson's claim Putin threatened him with missile before invasion of Ukraine
As my colleague Harry Taylor reports, Boris Johnson has claimed that Vladimir Putin threatened him in a call shortly before the invasion of Ukraine. Johnson told a BBC documentary:
[Putin] sort of threatened me at one point and said: ‘Boris, I don’t want to hurt you, but with a missile, it would only take a minute’, or something like that.
This morning the Kremlin has described this as a lie. Asked about Johnson’s comment, the Kremlin spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, said the former PM’s account of the conversation was untrue, “or, more precisely, it was a lie”.
As PA Media reports, Peskov said Johnson may have deliberately lied or failed to understand what the Russian leader was telling him. Peskov said:
There were no threats with missiles.
While talking about security challenges to Russia, President Putin said that if Ukraine joins Nato, the potential deployment of US or other Nato missiles near our borders would mean that any such missile could reach Moscow in minutes.
William Hague rules out becoming next Conservative party chair
Some Tories would like Rishi Sunak to appoint William Hague, the former Tory leader and former foreign secretary, as the next party chair, Jason Groves reports in the Daily Mail. Groves says:
Last night two ministers told the Mail that former Tory leader William Hague was among the possible candidates for the job.
One said: ‘If the PM could persuade Hague to do it, it would be fantastic. He is hugely popular with the party in the country and he is someone who could clearly and forcefully articulate the government’s message.’
No 10 hinted that the search could take some time and said the PM had not yet ‘sounded [anyone] out’, including Lord Hague, who is a close ally of the PM and was invited to attend last week’s cabinet ‘away day’ at Chequers.
This morning Hague has ruled it out. He did not quite say he wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole, but he might just as well have done. He said:
Since I’ve seen reports of people placing bets on me being the new party chairman, please be aware that I will absolutely not be returning to politics in any shape or form, including that one.
Health department publishes plan for up to 50,000 patients per month to be treated in 'virtual wards'
The Department for Health and Social Care has published more details of its plans for up to 50,000 patients a month to be treated in “virtual wards”, or “hospital at home” beds, by next winter in England. In a news release it says:
The NHS has already rolled out virtual wards – treating patients from the comfort of their own homes – with growing evidence that these are a safe and efficient alternative to hospital care, particularly for frail patients. These see patients supported by clinicians to recover in the comfort of their own home, rather than in hospital – and has increased the number of patients that can be cared for in this way by 7,000, a 50% increase since last summer. Another 3,000 ‘hospital at home’ beds will be created before next winter and the plan will include an ambition to see up to 50,000 people supported a month.
Hi-tech virtual wards currently support frail elderly patients or those with acute respiratory infections and cardiac conditions. Patients are reviewed daily by the clinical team who may visit them at home or use video technology to monitor and check how they are recovering.
Steve Barclay, the health secretary, is expected to make a statement about this to MPs tomorrow, and the government says its full urgent and emergency care plan will be published tomorrow.
Sunak claims he ordered inquiry into Zahawi 'as soon as I knew about the situation'
Here is the full answer that Rishi Sunak gave to Sky’s Beth Rigby when asked about the Nadhim Zahawi affair. (See 10.57am.)
What I have done is follow a process, which is the right process.
Integrity is really important to me – all of you guys want to see that government is run properly, that it is run with integrity and there’s accountability when people don’t behave in the way that they should or if something doesn’t go right, and that’s what we’ve done.
We have an independent adviser – that’s what the government has, it’s not me who’s doing it – and what I asked when all these questions started coming to light about Nadhim Zahawi, I asked the independent adviser to get to the bottom of it, and to provide me with the facts.
And then, on the basis of the facts, which he did relatively quickly over the past week, I was able to make a very quick decision that it was no longer appropriate for Nadhim Zahawi to continue in government, and that’s why he’s no longer there.
That’s what I’ve done. It relates to things that happened well before I was prime minister, so unfortunately, I can’t change what happened in the past.
What you can hold me accountable for is, what did you do about it? What I did, as soon as I knew about the situation, was appoint somebody independent, looked at it, got the advice and then acted pretty decisively to move on, because that’s what I think all of you deserve, from me and from the government.
Other reporters tried asking about the Zahawi affair too, but in response Sunak just delivered an abbreviated version of what he told Rigby, or ignored the question altogether.
Sunak obviously wants to draw a line under the story and move on. But the claim that he acted “as soon as I knew about the situation” is not persuasive. At the weekend my colleagues Pippa Crerar and Anna Isaac reported that Sunak was warned that there was a risk when he appointed Zahawi to be Conservative chairman in October. No 10 disputes this, but it cannot deny that stories about Zahawi being investigated by HM Revenue and Customs over his taxes first appeared in the papers last July. Sunak hasn’t explained why he never asked anyone to get to the bottom of these reports until Monday last week.
Q: What more can you do to keep children safe, in the light of the killing of a teenage girl in Hexham?
Sunak says partly it is about investing in the police, which is happening. He says stop and search rules are being changed to make it easier for officers to use stop and search. And tackling violence against women and girls specifically is important too, he says.
And that’s it. The Q&A is over.
Q: There has been a really worrying report about our defence capability. What are you doing about this?
Sunak says defence spending is going up. And he says the government is supplying more arms to Ukraine.
ITV’s Robert Peston goes next.
Q: Why do so many Tories find it hard to obey the rules?
Sunak says he has aready addressed this.
Pressed again, Sunak says he cannot do anything about what happened before be became PM.
Q: When will you resolve the nurses’ pay dispute?
Sunak says he answered this in a long answer earlier. (See 10.35am.)
He says he will keep at it. They will find a way through. He says they are already talking about pay for this year.
Sunak claims he acted 'decisively' over Zahawi and says he wants to 'move on'
Sunak is now taking questions from the media.
Beth Rigby from Sky News goes first.
Q: Today you are not even recommitting to get back to the 18-minute waiting time target for ambulances. Why not?
Sunak says the current waiting times are unacceptable.
But he says the NHS has faced unprecedented pressures. The flu crisis was the worst for years.
He says he wants to get waiting times down to 30 minutes this year, and down to pre-pandemic levels later.
He says he thinks the January figures will show things are already starting to improve.
Q: You are talking about the NHS. But your tenure in government has been more about sleaze than sound government. Are you furious about Nadhim Zahawi?
Sunak says he followed the process. He has an independent adviser, he asked the adviser to get to the bottom of the facts, and he took a decision on the facts.
He says this relates to things that happened before he became PM.
He says he acted “decisively” so that people could “move on”, which is “what I think all of you deserve”.
UPDATE: See 11.29am for the full quote from Sunak in response to the Zahawi question.
Q: To staff all these extra beds, you will need more staff. Will you review the rules that determine what people like nurses are and are not allowed to do?
Sunak says that is a very good question. The government is reviewing this, he says.
He says doctors need to be confidence that “virtual wards” can be safe.
The government has a “great plan”. But it has to deliver it, and part of that involves ensuring that staff can deliver it, and that restrictions don’t stop them doing what is needed.
Q: I’m a senior partner in a GP practice. The bureaucracy for GPs is increasing. Can you reduce it?
Sunak says he discussed this at his recovery forum in Downing Street recently. The royal college made some suggestions. The government is looking at them.
He says it is helpful for him to hear from doctors like the questioner what the problems are.
Sunak says the proposals in the urgent care plan announced today to increase the use of “virtual wards” will be “transformational”.
Sunak says NHS workforce plan will increase number of places in medical schools
Q: A Policy Exchange report a few weeks ago called for an increase in places at medical school. Will that be part of your NHS workforce plan?
Yes, says Sunak. That is what the government needs to do.
It needs a long-term approach.
Here is the Policy Exchange report. Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary, spoke at the launch where he pointed out that Labour has already set out ambitious plans to expand the number of NHS training places availabe.
Sunak says it will be 'awful for all of you' if government fails to bring down inflation
Q: What are your plans for rebuilding hospitals like the University Hospital of North Tees in Stockton, the one you visited this morning? And when will you pay nurses properly?
Sunak says the NHS capital spending budget is the biggest ever. Almost 100 hospitals are being upgraded. And there is the 40 hospital programme, he says, which involves builds and rebuilds.
(He does not describe this as the government building 40 new hospitals – which was the misleading description used by Boris Johnson for the programme.)
On pay, Sunak says the government has followed the pay review process.
He says asking why nurses cannot be paid more is “a fair question”.
But, referring to the topics covered by earlier questions, he says there are many other demands on the money.
He can says the NHS is getting more money than before. “Overall the pie is as big as it’s ever been.”
But, within that they have to balance the needs of pay against other needs, like more MRI scanners.
And Sunak says he does not want to put people’s taxes up.
He also says his priority is to halve inflation.
If inflation is still high in a year’s time, it will be “awful for all of you”, he says.
Q: There are 1.5m people with learning disabilities, but only 17,000 learning disability nurses. What can you do improve that?
Sunak says the government is going to legislate to change the way people with learning disabilities and autism are treated. He says the prevalence has gone up. He says he wants to ensure young people get the help they need. That will come out later this year, he says.
Q: Will you put more funding into pharmacies. And will you consider a national pharmacy first scheme?
Sunak says he is biased in favour of pharmacies, because his mum ran one.
He says he would like to move towards a pharmacy first model.
By 2025 or 2026, all pharmacies should be able to prescribe, for example for urinary tract infections (UTIs).
But he says the medical officers want to ensure this does not lead to too many antibiotics being prescribed, because over-prescribing can lead to people building up immunity to them.
UPDATE: Sunak said:
A lot of pharmacists have said to us, whether it’s for UTIs or minor ailments, will it be possible for pharmacies to do more – and that’s why we’re actively looking at things like regulation, and antibiotics.
And also if we have more pharmacies doing blood pressure checks, for example, that will get people the treatment they need earlier and stop ambulance callouts.
The first question comes from a woman who asks if the government will do more to help nursing students. She says some are really struggling, and dropping out.
Sunak says the government restored bursaries for student nurses.
He says a workforce plan will be published soon.
And he says the government will do more to give NHS staff continuous career development.
This is from the Daily Express’s Martyn Brown.
Sunak says urgent care plan will lead to 'largest and fastest improvement in emergency waiting times in NHS's history'
Rishi Sunak began by summarising the NHS urgent care plan announced today.
He said it would lead to “the largest and fastest-ever improvement in emergency waiting times in the NHS’s history”.
UPDATE: Sunak said:
I think we will see – in fact I know we will see – the largest and fastest-ever improvement in emergency waiting times in the NHS’s history.
That is the ambition of our plan that we’ve set out today.
I feel really confident we can deliver it.
Rishi Sunak's Q&A
Rishi Sunak is holding a Q&A in Darlington.
It seems to be following the same format as that used in his first PM Connect event earlier this month – a short speech, questions from the audience, then questions from the media.
Gove says plan to exclude developers from housing market if they don't remove unsafe cladding should release £2bn for repairs
This morning the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities has confirmed details of its plan – publicised by Michael Gove yesterday – to force developers to remove unsafe cladding from tall buildings or face sanctions that would in effect stop them building new homes. In a news release it says:
Developers today received legally binding contracts that will commit them to pay to repair unsafe buildings.
The government has set a six-week deadline for developers to sign the legal agreements and is warning that companies who fail to sign and comply with the terms of the contract will face significant consequences.
Legislation will be brought forward in the spring giving the secretary of state powers to prevent developers from operating freely in the housing market if they fail to sign and comply with the remediation contract …
Under legislation to be brought forward this spring, a responsible actors scheme (RAS) will be created, allowing the secretary of state to block developers who have not signed the contract or failed to comply with its terms from carrying out development and from receiving building control approval. This will prevent them from operating as normal in the housing market for as long as they do not resolve the problems of the past.
The department says this will lead to developers spending an estimated £2bn on cladding repairs or removals from buildings 11 metres high or taller that they developed or refurbished over the past 30 years.
Sunak 'being pulled down' by scandals dating from Johnson era, says George Osborne
Yesterday Steve Brine, the Conservative chair of the Commons health committee, said the Nadhim Zahawi affair showed how the Tories were suffering from “long Boris” because this, and other, scandals originated in events that happened during Boris Johnson’s premiership. It is a terrific phrase, and a variation on the “long Johnson” version used by my colleague Rafael Behr in a column last week (which itself may have been inspired by Robert Shrimsley’s “long populism” column in the Financial Times earlier this month).
George Osborne, the Tory former chancellor, made the same point on the Andrew Neil Show last night. He said:
The big question for the Rishi Sunak premiership was whether his high ratings could pull the Tory party up, or the Tory party’s low ratings would pull him down.
And at the moment he is being pulled down by a series of scandals which do not directly involve him, are hangovers, if you like, of the Johnson era.
Osborne said there were similarities between Sunak’s position and John Major’s in the 1990s.
I was the photocopy boy in Downing Street back in the ’90s when John Major had all these problems. And there are similarities in that John Major was likeable, conscientious, like Rishi Sunak, but ultimately, was not able to escape the downward pull of the Tory party. It’s still ‘we’ll see’ with Rishi Sunak, but he knows that as each week passes, as each new scandal unfolds, the window for action gets smaller and smaller.
Osborne also said that Sunak should do more to show that he was different from Johnson.
To my mind, the defining thing of his political career was his decision to resign as chancellor from the Boris Johnson government over sleaze, over integrity, but he’s never really talked about that.
And we got the very first hint of it at prime minister’s questions this week where he started to say, ‘I resigned from the Johnson government’. I think you’re going to hear a lot more of that. I think he’ll have learned lessons even from the Zahawi affair, that you need to act more quickly than he did – and I think that he’s going to try and define himself now as ‘the sleaze buster’, but it’s extremely hard.
Rishi Sunak has praised NHS workers who have pioneered a new system to manage the flow of patients through their hospital, PA Media reports. PA says:
Sunak joined the health secretary, Steve Barclay, and the NHS chief executive, Amanda Pritchard, on a visit to the University Hospital of North Tees in Stockton, Teesside.
They visited the hospital’s integrated coordination centre, a hub which manages patients coming in and out of the hospital and links up with community teams to help them be discharged, freeing beds.
Talking to accident and emergency staff, Sunak said: “It’s a model we need to make sure we can do more of across the country.”
No need for Nadhim Zahawi to step down as MP, insists minister
Nadhim Zahawi has been sacked from his post as Conservative party chair, which came with a government job as a minister without portfolio in the Cabinet Office, but that is not enough for some opposition parties. The Liberal Democrats say he should stand down as an MP. In a statement this morning Daisy Cooper, the Lib Dem deputy leader, said:
Nadhim Zahawi failed to pay the taxes he owed, refused to come clean, and then threatened campaigners and journalists with legal action simply for trying to uncover the truth.
It shows that Zahawi is simply not fit to represent his constituents in parliament. If he refuses to stand down as an MP, Rishi Sunak surely has no choice but to withdraw the Conservative whip.
Even some of Zahawi’s colleagues think he should leave parliament. Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, the treasurer of the backbench 1922 Committee, told Radio 5 Live last night that Zahawi ought to stand down at the next election.
But this morning Helen Whately, the social care minister, said there was no need for Zahawi to quit parliament. Whately was the government representative on the morning media round and, as my colleague Peter Walker reports, she said it was for Zahawi’s constituents to decide if he should continue to represent them.
Rishi Sunak to hold Q&A as Zahawi's allies claim he was sacked unfairly and Labour says 'many questions' still unanswered
Good morning. It was widely predicted that Nadhim Zahawi would lose his job as Conservative party chair after the investigation into his tax affairs, but I don’t think anyone in the Westminster politico-media world was expecting a sacking at 9am on a Sunday morning. Normally that’s a dead zone for No 10 announcements. The timing seemed contrived to imply decisiveness, and to show that Rishi Sunak was taking the initative.
But the departure of Zahawi has not stopped the opposition, and others, criticising Sunak’s handling of the affairs. The story has moved to the “raises questions about his judgment” phase of scandal coverage and Labour has written an open letter to Sunak with a string of as-yet unanswered questions. It says the scandal “leaves many unanswered questions”. Here is the letter.
Conventiently, Sunak will be answering questions this morning. He is doing a Q&A in the north-east of England this morning where some of this is bound to come up.
But it is not just Labour asking questions about the process. Zahawi is said to be furious about his treatment, and Steven Swinford in the Times says Zahawi is considering publishing his own response to the Sir Laurie Magnus report into his tax affairs, which he considers flawed. Swinford says:
Zahawi is said to be furious and believes he has not been given the chance to put his case across. He had one 30-minute meeting with Magnus last Wednesday and only saw details of Magnus’s report when it was published on Twitter.
Allies of Zahawi have disputed Magnus’s timeline. Magnus says that Zahawi failed to inform the Cabinet Office of the settlement he reached with HMRC until January. Those close to Zahawi claim that he did so in September, before his appointment as chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster by Liz Truss and as chairman of the Conservative Party by Sunak.
They say he has text messages and emails to support his claim, which he is said to have shown to Magnus. Zahawi is also said to have been infuriated by the manner of his dismissal shortly before 9am on a Sunday morning. Zahawi was still sending material to Magnus on Saturday night and was given half an hour’s notice that he was being fired.
“It’s an outrage, the timing is deliberate and brutal. He had a half-an-hour meeting on Wednesday in which he gave his side of things and that was it. People deserve their right of reply. A response to the report is a possibility.”
The Daily Telegraph and the BBC have both had similar briefings.
The Spectator has published a list of its own questions for Sunak, based on the premise that Zahawi did not get a fair hearing.
Today Sunak wants to talk about plans he is announcing to commission thousands of extra hospital beds and hundreds more ambulances to cut A&E waiting times by next winter. But the din of scandal means he is not getting the hearing he wants either.
Here is the agenda for the day.
After 9.30am: Rishi Sunak does a Q&A in the north-east of England, after visiting a hospital.
11.30am: Downing Street holds a lobby briefing.
2pm: The National Education Union holds talks with Gillian Keegan, the education secretary.
After 3pm: Peers debate the report stage of the public order bill.
After 3.30pm: MPs debate the remaining stages of the strikes (minimum service levels) bill.
I’ll try to monitor the comments below the line (BTL) but it is impossible to read them all. If you have a direct question, do include “Andrew” in it somewhere and I’m more likely to find it. I do try to answer questions, and if they are of general interest I will post the question and reply above the line (ATL), although I can’t promise to do this for everyone.
If you want to attract my attention quickly, it is probably better to use Twitter. I’m on @AndrewSparrow.
Alternatively, you can email me at email@example.com