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Volume 672: debated on Wednesday 4 March 2020

It is now two years to the day since a chemical weapon was deployed by Russian military intelligence on the streets of Salisbury. All our thoughts remain with those affected and their families and loved ones. We will continue to seek justice for them. I am pleased to say that, two years on, Salisbury is back on its feet, focused firmly on the future and welcoming visitors with open arms. I am sure the House will want to pay tribute to the people of Salisbury and Amesbury and wish them well for the future.

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

As the Government prepare the nation for the worst of the coronavirus, while working for the best, now is the time to wash our hands and pull together, so does the Prime Minister agree that we need in place a robust plan to cover any significant cash-flow losses for businesses, so that employees and their mortgages, rents and benefits will still be paid? Will the Treasury consider delaying VAT and pay-as-you-earn collection, if need be? Does the Prime Minister agree that, come what may, as we saw during the devastating floods of Gloucester in 2007 and elsewhere recently, Britain will find the strength, perhaps aided by a cup of not-necessarily-Yorkshire tea, to pull through?

My hon. Friend is entirely right. We are of course monitoring the situation and are prepared to support individuals, businesses and the economy to maintain economic confidence, quite rightly. Our action plan—our battle plan—points to mitigations that already exist, such as Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs’ Time to Pay arrangements, which are available on a case-by-case basis to support firms struggling with payments.

I am sure the whole House will join me in congratulating the Prime Minister and his partner on the news that they are expecting a baby. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]

I join the Prime Minister in wishing the people of Salisbury well. It is a wonderful city and I have visited it many times, and what happened to them was of course utterly appalling. Their safety and security is paramount for all of us.

I pay tribute to all the medical staff and, indeed, expert public servants, here and overseas, who are doing vital work to combat the spread of coronavirus and are looking after those affected.

Yesterday, our part-time Prime Minister finally published the steps that his Government will take to tackle the outbreak of the disease. The strategy broadly has our support, but a decade of Tory austerity means that our national health service is already struggling to cope. Bed-occupancy levels are at 94% and hundreds of our most vulnerable people are being treated on trolleys in corridors. What additional funding will our overstretched and underfunded NHS be given to deal with this crisis?

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, this Government have put record funding into the NHS and we have pledged that we will give it everything that it needs to cope with the crisis.

It might be for the advantage of the right hon. Gentleman and the House if I update the House on where we are with the coronavirus outbreak. As yesterday’s plan made clear, we are not at the point yet where we are asking large numbers of people to self-isolate, but that, of course, may come if large numbers of people have the symptoms of coronavirus. If they stay at home, the House will understand that they are helping to protect all of us by slowing the spread of the virus and that is what the best scientific evidence tells us. If they stay at home and if we ask people to self-isolate, they may lose out financially, so I can today announce that the Health Secretary will bring forward, as part of our emergency coronavirus legislation, measures to allow the payment of statutory sick pay from the very first day someone is sick, instead of four days under the current rules. That is the right way forward. Nobody should be penalised for doing the right thing.

I thank the Prime Minister for that, but I want to ask him a couple more questions on this subject. Is it true, as has been reported, that police forces are likely to become so overstretched by coronavirus that 999 response times will have to be extended and that even investigations into some murders will have to be halted as a result?

We are not at that stage, or anything like that stage, yet. The right hon. Gentleman knows that our police forces are well able to cope with all types of eventualities and have long-standing arrangements to prepare them for such pressures.

Under this Government, there are 2 million workers on low pay, many of them women in the care sector who are not eligible for statutory sick pay at the present time. It is not clear whether the Prime Minister’s statement just now covers them or not, and those on social security could face sanctions if they miss appointments and, therefore, they and their families will face terrible hardship. When the Prime Minister brings forward the emergency legislation, will he guarantee that workers’ rights to sick pay from day one—he has just indicated that that will apply on statutory sick pay—will apply to all claimants? Those people who are not currently eligible for statutory sick pay will have to make a terrible choice between health and hardship.

The right hon. Gentleman is raising a very important point. We are, of course, very much aware of the issues faced by the self-employed and those on zero-hours contracts. I should stress that some of them will be entitled to statutory sick pay—[Interruption.] A great many. Others will be entitled to help through the existing system, such as universal credit. We are urgently looking at the application process to reflect on the advice on self-isolation. I think that members of the public have appreciated the way that, hitherto, Members have come together across the Floor of this House to deal with the crisis. I think it would be common ground between us all that we would want to do everything we can to avoid penalising those who are doing the right thing.

The Prime Minister is not being clear. about this. The reality is that, if a person is on universal credit or has just been put on to it, they have a five-week wait before they get any benefits. Will he be absolutely clear that nobody—nobody—will have to choose between health and hardship, because it is a matter of public health concern for everybody?

Our part-time Prime Minister failed to turn up on Monday to answer a question about a breach of the ministerial code. In his own foreword to that code, the Prime Minister wrote:

“There must be no bullying and no harassment”.

Will he now commit to an independent investigation into the Home Secretary’s conduct, led by an external lawyer, and commit to a date when its findings will be made public?

Of course, it is right that there should be an investigation into any allegations of bullying, and that is what the Cabinet Office and Sir Alex Allan will be doing. Since the right hon. Gentleman mentions the Home Secretary, let me just remind him that she is keeping this country safe by putting in place record numbers of police officers, she believes in stopping the early release of offenders, and she is bringing in an Australian-style, points-based system to tackle our migration crisis. The right hon. Gentleman would scrap stop and search, he believes in getting rid of our security services and he certainly would not tackle our immigration system.

This is about whether the Prime Minister will release the findings of an investigation into the Home Secretary’s behaviour. I repeat to him that a Government cannot be judge and jury over their own conduct; there has to be an independent element to that investigation. Overnight, further allegations have emerged that the Home Secretary repeatedly harassed and humiliated her private secretary while she ran the Department for International Development. If that is true, it suggests a shocking and unacceptable pattern of behaviour across three Government Departments. On each occasion, tens of thousands of pounds of hard-earned taxpayers’ money has been spaffed up the wall to buy their silence. Was the Prime Minister aware of these allegations about the Home Secretary? If he was, why did he appoint her?

I repeat the point I just made—the Home Secretary is doing an outstanding job and I have every confidence in her. If there are allegations, of course it is right that they should be properly investigated by the Cabinet Office, and that is what is happening. But I take no lessons about bullying from the leader of a party where female MPs were bullied so badly in the matter of antisemitism that they actually left the party, and where the shadow Chancellor has still not apologised for his call for a Member of our party to be lynched.

The Prime Minister said, “If there are allegations”. Is he completely unaware of all the allegations that have been made over the last few days? Is he completely unaware of the resignation of a permanent secretary because of his treatment by the Home Secretary? We have a part-time Prime Minister who barely turns up but is determined a cover up for bullies in his Government. There cannot be one rule for workers across this country, and another for him and his Ministers. His Home Secretary has been accused of repeated bullying and harassment, leading to hard-working staff attempting suicide by overdose, and he has given her his full support. How can the people of this country have faith in a Prime Minister who cannot be bothered to turn up and, when he does, has no shame in defending bullying in his own Government?

That is a question from a full-time neo-Marxist who has failed to stamp out bullying in his own party. I am very proud of the record of this Government, just over the last 82 days. We have taken back control of our borders, our laws and our money. We have got Brexit done. We have set out a new points-based immigration system. We have put more money into people’s pockets through the biggest ever increase in the living wage, and have guaranteed more funding for schools by increasing the minimum funding for every pupil. We have restored the nurses’ bursary, introduced a Bill to set out a record cash boost for our NHS and ensured that there will be free hospital car parking for everybody who attends a hospital. And we are delivering gigabit broadband for the entire country. That is to say nothing of the police we are recruiting. That is just in the last 82 days. We are getting on with delivering the people’s priorities.

Q4. My constituents in East Surrey care enormously about climate change. Does my right hon. Friend agree that yesterday’s news that the UK’s carbon emissions have been reduced by a third over the past 10 years is a fantastic and important Conservative achievement, and will he set out his plans to continue this progress? (901079)

I will indeed. Today I will chair the first ever Cabinet Committee on Climate Change, in recognition of this Government’s revolutionary commitments to cut to net zero by 2050—one of the many ways in which the Government are leading Europe and the world in tackling climate change.

Like the Prime Minister, I note the two-year anniversary of the terrible attack in Salisbury. It is important, on these matters and on other crises that we face, such as coronavirus, that, where appropriate, we do stand together.

Coronavirus is causing deep and genuine concern across society. We know that up to 80% of the population are at risk of infection. We must all provide clear, calm and practical leadership in the days, weeks and months ahead. In the past few days, Scotland’s First Minister, the Scottish Government and the Westminster Government have been working closely together to put plans in place to protect all our people. Yesterday, the Governor of the Bank of England suggested that a financial bridge may be available to assist markets through any volatility. If there is a financial bridge for markets, can the Prime Minister tell us: will there be a financial bridge for all workers and, indeed, those who rely on benefits, who should not risk the threat of sanction if they cannot make an appointment?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the excellent co-operation that Scotland and, indeed, all the devolved Administrations have given in preparing the battle plan. Yes, really to recapitulate my answer to the Leader of the Opposition, we will take every step that we can to ensure that businesses are protected, that the economy remains strong and that no one, whether employed or self-employed—whatever the status of their employment—is penalised for doing the right thing.

I thank the Prime Minister for that answer, and I commit my party and our Government in Scotland to work constructively together.

Of course, people are worried about their health, but there are millions of workers who are worried about the consequences for their incomes, their job securities and their families, so I do ask that the Prime Minister give specific guarantees. Certainly, we will work together in the SNP in pushing for emergency legislation. Will he give the clarification that all workers will be fully protected from the first day of sickness, that those payments should be up to the level of the real living wage and that there will be emergency legislation to guarantee that staff who are asked to self-isolate, and their businesses, are fully supported? That is the leadership that is required. I ask if the Prime Minister will commit himself to working constructively with us all to that end.

Again, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the spirit in which he asks the question. He will have seen from my earlier answer that what we are indeed doing is advancing the day, on a temporary basis, on which people are eligible for statutory sick pay from the fourth day to the first day. I think that is the right thing. Again, I repeat that we will support business and we will make sure that we keep the economy strong. No one should be penalised for doing the right thing. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will be happy to engage in further conversations with the right hon. Gentleman about the detail of how we propose to do that.

Q8. Tomorrow is St Piran’s day, when Cornish men and women around the world will be celebrating our national saint and all things Cornish. St Piran is also the patron saint of tin mining, but mining is not just something assigned to Cornish history. Is the Prime Minister aware that significant deposits of lithium have been identified in Cornwall, which provides the opportunity of levelling up the Cornish economy and providing the UK with a domestic supply of this critical mineral? Will he commit his Government to enabling Cornwall to make the most of this opportunity, and wish all Cornish men and women a happy St Piran’s day? (901083)

This country, as my hon. Friend knows, leads the world in battery technology. It is a wonderful thing that Cornwall indeed boasts extensive resources of lithium, and we mean to exploit them. I know that there is no more passionate champion of Cornwall than my hon. Friend. I wish him a happy St Piran’s day—and Kernow bys vyken!

Q2. Last week’s historic judgment against Heathrow expansion found that the Prime Minister’s Government broke the law by ignoring the Paris climate agreement and by breaching their own sustainable development duty to future generations when they drafted the airports national policy statement. Will the Prime Minister tell the House today precisely how many of the Government’s other national policy statements have been assessed against the Paris climate agreement, and will he commit, right now, to reviewing and, if necessary, revising all those that have not? (901077)

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. She can take it that we will ensure that we abide by the judgment and take account of the Paris convention on climate change, but I do not believe for one second that that will be an impediment to our delivery of an infrastructure revolution across this country.

Q9. Communities like mine in West Bromwich West are grateful for this Government’s commitment to 366 police officers for the west midlands. Will my right hon. Friend reaffirm that, unlike the Labour police and crime commissioner, who is decimating communities like mine in Tipton with the closure of our police station, this Government are committed to keeping our communities safe through investment in the police and tougher sentences for the criminals who are ruining the lives of my constituents in Tipton? (901084)

That is precisely why my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is working so hard to recruit 20,000 more police officers and to enhance stop-and-search powers. That is why we have set out plans to build more prisons and keep violent and sexual offenders in prison for longer. I am delighted that the west midlands, thanks partly to my hon. Friend’s lobbying, is receiving another 366 police officers.

Q3. I note that, in the interests of public safety, the Government have taken emergency measures to rush through legislation to ensure that those convicted of terrorist offences serve their full sentences. Given the far smaller conviction rate and far more substantial reoffending rate for those convicted of sexual offences, will the Prime Minister commit to a wider sentencing review, so that communities can rest assured that sex offenders who pose a threat to children and women are serving their full sentences, to ensure their rehabilitation? (901078)

I congratulate the hon. Lady on what she just said, which may have come as a bit of a bombshell to some of her colleagues—

Perhaps those on the shadow Front Bench, at any rate. The hon. Lady is entirely right, and that is what we are doing, as I said in my earlier answer.

Q11. Will my right hon. Friend commit to ensuring that Blyth Valley benefits from the Government’s ambition to unite and level up across this fantastic country? (901086)

I can indeed. That is why we are supporting the Ashington to Blyth to Tyne rail line—the start of our £500 million investment in connecting towns whose stations were closed during the Beeching cuts. That is among many other benefits that we will bring to the people of Blyth. I thank my hon. Friend for his support. We are going to repay the trust and confidence of those people by investing in their communities.

Q5. Karbon Homes, a registered social landlord, has over 30,000 homes in the north and north-east. Detailed research that it has conducted shows that the five-week delay in universal credit payments ensures that many families amass huge rent arrears before receiving anything and are trapped in debt for years. Some 72% of its tenants on universal credit are now in significant rent arrears, with over half of them technically destitute. The Prime Minister’s mantra that work is the route out of poverty is true only if there are jobs that are full time, permanent and decently paid. When will he stop this deliberate policy of inflicting impoverishment and destitution on tenants of Karbon Homes and other registered social landlords in the north-east? (901080)

I am happy to study the particular case that the hon. Gentleman raises. Universal credit is available from day one—[Interruption]—and I stick firmly to my belief that the best route out of poverty is not benefits but work, and what this Government have achieved is record low unemployment and record gains in employment across the country. Wages are now rising—[Interruption.] They don’t want to hear it, but the truth is that wages are now rising for the low-paid as well.

Q13. Last Thursday, in the dead of night, the Prime Minister made a secret visit to Kettering General Hospital. There was no media entourage. This was no photo call; he had come to listen. He listened to staff. He listened to patients, and he left at 3.30 am. One patient said, “I thought Boris was a bit of a dopey bloke, who doesn’t really know what’s going on, but he was a lovely bloke and actually caring to all other patients.” Prime Minister, what did you learn from your listening visit? (901088)

I learned what a wonderful staff we have in the NHS, and I am delighted to say that Kettering General Hospital NHS Foundation Trust will receive £3.7 million seed funding for a full redevelopment, in addition to the £46 million that we are now putting in to its urgent care hub. This is the party of the NHS—delivering on the people’s priorities in Kettering and across the country.

Q6. For the purpose of clarity, if the Cabinet Office inquiry into allegations that the Home Secretary breached the ministerial code establishes that her conduct fell below the standard expected of a Minister in any way and on any occasion, can the Prime Minister confirm that she will be expected to resign or be removed from office? (901081)

I return to the point I made earlier on, which is that the Home Secretary is doing an outstanding job—delivering change, putting police out on the streets, cutting crime and delivering a new immigration system—and I am sticking by her.

Q14. Having knocked on doors across Stafford in my constituency, it is clear that the A&E at County Hospital is a vital local service, so does the Prime Minister agree with me that A&E units at medium-sized hospitals such as County are essential for the future delivery of care in our NHS? (901089)

My right hon. Friend the Health Secretary has just told me—passing the ball swiftly down the line—that, yes, my hon. Friend’s A&E is certainly staying open, and I thank her for the point that she makes.

Q7. Resignation of an experienced civil servant, sacking of a Government aide—with this Government it seems that allegations of bullying or just being incompetent gets you promoted, whereas standing up to it, you lose your job. What does this say about this Prime Minister? (901082)

I loathe bullying, but I am not taking any lessons from a party that has presided over systematic bullying and discrimination against those who stick up for the Jewish community and for Israel in this country, and we still have yet to hear a proper apology from the Labour party or from the Labour leadership for what they have done.

The Taliban have resumed their attacks in Afghanistan, and today the US has undertaken defensive airstrikes, undermining the fragile peace deal, which will mean the release of thousands of prisoners and the continued export of opium to fund extremism. Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that no peace deal can bypass the Afghan Government, and will he give me his assurances that we will stand shoulder to shoulder with Afghan women, many of whom have already lost their lives just fighting for dignity under Taliban rule?

We of course stand shoulder to shoulder with the Government of Ashraf Ghani, and my hon. Friend is right, by the way, in what she says about women in Afghanistan. It is one of the great achievements of this country, despite all the sacrifices that we experienced in the operations in Helmand, that millions of women in Afghanistan were helped into education, thanks to the interventions of this country, and we can be very proud of what we did.

Q10. We are all becoming increasingly concerned about covid-19—the coronavirus—but every week 650 of us come here from every part of the UK, spend several days operating in close proximity and meeting people from all over the world, and we then return to our constituencies, potentially becoming the very vectors that we are trying to shut down. Parliament must stay open, but what plans does the Prime Minister have to utilise systems such as conference calls and electronic voting to ensure that we do not become part of the problem? (901085)

The hon. Member is raising a very important point. The chief medical officer and the chief scientific adviser, together with my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary, will be saying a little bit more in the next couple of days about what we are going to do to delay the advance of coronavirus—in Parliament and in other large gatherings. We are still at the containment stage—she will understand the distinction that the Government are making—and when we come to the delay phase, she will be hearing a lot more detail about what we propose to do with large gatherings and places such as Parliament.

My consituent Tom Channon was just 18 years old when he tragically died at the Eden Roc complex in Mallorca in July 2018. This incident was totally preventable and avoidable. It came just five weeks after Tom Hughes from Wrexham fell to his death at the same site in similar circumstances. Nothing had been done to make the site safe. An independent surveyor report has pointed to serious health and safety deficiencies; Tom’s parents, John and Ceri Channon, have been campaigning for a criminal case to be brought against those responsible. Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister use all his influence to press the Spanish authorities to pursue a criminal prosecution that not only seeks justice for Tom but sends a clear message to other accommodation-owners in Mallorca to prevent similar tragedies from occurring in future?

I thank my right hon. Friend very much for raising what sounds like an appalling case, and I am sure the whole House will join me in expressing our deepest sympathies to Tom’s family and friends. To seek justice for Tom, I am very happy to ask the Foreign Office to begin talks first with my right hon. Friend and then with their Spanish counterparts.

Q12. Last month, a young man from my constituency was fatally stabbed, and just this weekend another young man was stabbed in Coventry. Violent crime in the city is rising, yet I have only 10 police officers in my constituency, some of whom I share with my Coventry colleagues. As the Prime Minister makes such a big deal about his 20,000 new police officers, can he tell my constituents whether we are going to get our fair share? (901087)

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise the issue of stabbings and violent crime, which I agree with her are too high and must come down. That is one of the reasons why we are increasing the number of police officers in this country, and, as she will have heard in the House just now, in the west midlands that number is going up by 366 immediately.

The Prime Minister will be aware that, due to coronavirus, demand for air travel has decreased around the world. Is he aware that, due to slot allocation rules, there are perverse incentives for airlines to fly half-empty planes around the globe so as not to lose lucrative slots? Will he seek a derogation for UK airlines from these international rules, if only for the sake of the environment?

My hon. Friend raises a characteristically brilliant point, which I confess has not been drawn to my attention so far. I will look at it, and it certainly seems crazy that planes should be flying simply to retain the slots to which they are entitled, and we will see what we can do.

Q15. The Prime Minister promised on the steps of Downing Street to fix the crisis in social care. We need an extra 580,000 care workers, not to improve services, but just to fill existing vacancies and meet the basics of growing demand. Even if the Government fund increases in the pay and status of carers, where on earth are we going to find all these extra staff when EU workers will be excluded under the Prime Minister’s new immigration system? [Interruption.] Our families and the NHS—[Interruption]—depend on— (901090)

Order. I make the decisions; please, we want shorter questions. Now, just finish, very quickly—and when I get up, please give way.

Will the Prime Minister meet me to discuss a special migration route into social care, to stop the current crisis getting even worse?

I do not know quite what the hon. Lady means by excluding EU workers, since there are record numbers of EU workers currently in this country, and indeed more can come until the end of the year, when they can register. I have every confidence that we will solve the issue of social care. We will be bringing forward plans very shortly, which I hope will attract cross-party support, to ensure that everybody gets the dignity that they need in old age and nobody is forced to sell their home.

My right hon. Friend has, with righteous zeal, acted to curb the early release of terrorist prisoners, but he must know that those plans will be put at risk by malign, bourgeois-liberal judicial activists, so will he, in the spirit of our wonderful new Attorney General, agree an urgent review of the legislative means they use to do their work and to put our people at risk and the Government’s plan to tackle that in jeopardy?

It is certainly true that people have been let out far too early, far too often. That is why we are not only looking into stopping the early release of serious sexual and violent offenders, but have already produced legislation to stop the early release of terrorist offenders.

The Prime Minister will be aware of continuing concerns in Northern Ireland among business about the Northern Ireland protocol. Will the Prime Minister agree to meet a cross-party delegation of Members of Parliament representing Northern Ireland and business representatives to discuss his commitment to maintain unfettered access to the UK market for Northern Ireland business?

I have no difficulty at all making such an undertaking, because it is very clear from the protocol that unfettered access for Northern Ireland will continue.