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Business of the House

Volume 675: debated on Tuesday 21 April 2020

I should like to make a business statement, Mr Speaker. You have announced new arrangements for oral questions, urgent questions and statements in this House during the coming weeks. With this in mind, and with the agreement of other parties, it is the Government’s intention to prioritise their legislative requirements to allow for minimum attendance in this Chamber.

I can confirm today that the House will not proceed with the Second Reading of the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill. Tomorrow —Wednesday 22 April—the House will for the first time be able to question Ministers remotely. Prime Minister’s questions and any urgent questions or statements will be followed by procedural motions. On Monday 27 April, this House will return for the Second Reading of the Finance Bill. On Tuesday 28 April the House will consider the Second Reading of the Domestic Abuse Bill, and on Wednesday 29 April the House will consider the Second Reading of the Fire Safety Bill.

We are living in uncertain times, and, as a consequence of the situation that we are in, the business that I have announced will be subject to continuous review and possible change. I will of course update the House as required.

Where shall I start? I call William Wragg—[Interruption.] I apologise—I call the shadow Leader of the House.

Thank you, Mr Speaker—I am still here, virtually and physically. I thank the Leader of the House for the emergency business statement. I start, because we have not had the opportunity before now, by remembering the dead, and the grieving families whose lives are utterly changed and will never be the same again. I also want to mention, because we live in extraordinary times, that we have a Prime Minister who has been in intensive care and that other Members of this House have been extremely ill. I want to wish them all a speedy recovery and remember them.

I also thank all the frontline staff, the NHS and all those involved in public service, and everyone from the House authorities, for getting us to this point. The Leader of the House did say that we would return on 21 April, and, despite this extraordinary circumstance, we are here debating in the House of Commons Chamber on 21 April. We have returned to do the democratic process and to hold the Government to account, which of course we want to do.

The Opposition have come out of lockdown. There was red smoke and I am pleased to congratulate the new Leader of the Opposition, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), and my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner). We have a new Front-Bench team, who are working incredibly hard, and we want to work in a constructive way to protect people and the economy.

It is right that we learn from other countries and that we start looking at an exit strategy to plan in advance, so that options can be explored and strategies tested for when we come out on the other side and make sure that all our folks do not suffer. I appreciate that this is not static—it is going to change. I also pay tribute to my Chief Whip and the Government Chief Whip, because I know how hard they have worked in ensuring that we get to this place. We know that the usual channels will have to work continually to ensure that business comes before this House. Things will not be static and I had understood, although the Leader of the House has not announced this, that there will be a statement on coronavirus tomorrow. I hope he can confirm that. We are looking for answers—proper answers. Just as we get the graphs at the press conferences, we want to know how many ventilators there are and whether there is personal protective equipment. We already know that there has been difficulty in pinning down when exactly the PPE is coming from Turkey, and that should not be the case. We need to know that it is going to arrive and when the shipment will be here.

We want to work in a constructive way. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (John Spellar) said, some of our constituents who were stranded tell us that Heathrow airport is acting in a completely different way from other airports: there are no checks, no hand sanitisers, no masks—nothing—and people just walk straight through, so it is right that we raise these issues and we will continue to raise them.

I want to place on record my thanks to the acting high commissioner in India, Jan Thompson, who has been absolutely fantastic in getting our constituents back.

The Leader of the House knows I am going to raise our British citizens—Nazanin, Anousheh and Kylie—whom we want to be responsible for. They need to be back home at this difficult time.

With another death of a BAME consultant, Manjeet Singh Riyat, who was 52 years old and who died in his own hospital, may I ask the Leader of the House to provide a written statement on the terms of reference of the inquiry that the Government have announced into the over-representation of deaths—not only of health care professionals, but of ordinary citizens—among the BAME community?

Finally, I want to wish our gracious sovereign a very happy birthday.

The right hon. Lady was so right to mention, at the beginning of her statement, the dead and the grieving. We must pray for the souls of the dead, for the comfort of those who grieve, and for those who are suffering in the hope that they recover. I think all of us have known people who have been very seriously ill. The recovery of those who have been ill is worth praying for.

May I join the right hon. Lady in congratulating the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) on his election? I am one of those people who always think that an effective Opposition leads to better Government, so, in a roundabout way, I wish him extraordinarily well, because I think it is in the interests of the country to have an effective Opposition. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) on winning the deputy leadership. I am particularly pleased, if I may say so, Mr Speaker, that the right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) remained in her place in the reshuffle. I hope that we can carry on debating as we have been. I am grateful for her support in this difficult time, and for the support of the Opposition in being very constructive in most of their suggestions.

I, too, believe there will be a statement by the Health Secretary tomorrow—the first virtual statement. I am sure he will, as always, give proper answers. I do not think that the right hon. Lady need worry about his answers being anything other than proper and complete. It is right that issues are raised in the House in that way.

As always, the right hon. Lady raises the issue of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who, as she knows, has been temporarily released. The Government hope that that release will be made permanent, and will continue to make the case for British citizens who are detained improperly.

I note the right hon. Lady’s request for the terms of reference for the inquiry into the disproportionate number of deaths among the BAME community. I will take that up for her and give her a written answer.

I got in first to wish Her Majesty a happy birthday, but I am always happy to do it. Is it not wonderful that we can carry on singing the national anthem while washing our hands? We will do that today with a special spring in our step.

May I begin by expressing my condolences to the families of constituents who have sadly lost their lives to covid-19? I pay particular tribute to the nurses and doctors at Stepping Hill Hospital, and those working in social care throughout my constituency, for their extraordinary efforts. In that light, may I ask the Leader of the House if he could convey the message that it may be appropriate for the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to make a statement tomorrow on PPE procurement processes? I am sure that we are all finding, in our own ways with inquiries from businesses and healthcare settings, that there is certainly a blockage in the system. Mr Speaker, I would have tabled an urgent question on the matter today, but it would have been an invidious decision for you to have to make, given that many Members have not been present and our new proceedings have not yet been adopted. However, its urgency is absolutely vital.

On the question of a statement tomorrow, I have already mentioned that I believe it will be the Health Secretary who will be making a statement. The issue of PPE is important. It is worth bearing in mind that over 1 billion pieces of PPE have been distributed. Yes, of course there is more that needs to be done, but I am sure that will be covered by the Health Secretary tomorrow.

We are ever mindful of the business that we had before the coronavirus outbreak. The Westminster Hall business and the business in this Chamber that was lined up for this Thursday will probably not take place. Will it resume exactly when coronavirus comes to an end? Other Members have mentioned this, but I am conscious that there is lots of business that individual Members wish to bring forward for consideration by this House when normality resumes. I wish to seek the Leader of the House’s guidance that that will happen whenever normality returns, as, God willing, it will.

The motions being put down for tomorrow allow for an extension of the list of things that may be debated, and that will depend on how long we are in this situation; the longer we are in it, the more items will be able to be taken. However, the hope must be that we come out of this and can then resume normal practice. At that point, what is brought forward will be a matter for the Backbench Business Committee and for Mr Speaker, and for the other processes that lead to business being decided.

Will the Leader of the House give us a debate on how and when we come out of the lockdown? I understand Ministers’ caution about talking about this issue, but this country is committed to saving lives by staying at home—it is committed to the lockdown—and that commitment will be unshaken by a transparent debate on how the lockdown is gradually brought to an end. We need hope—we need hope for businesses on the edge—and we will get hope if we have a debate on how and when the lockdown will come to an end.

My right hon. Friend is right to raise this, and it is part of bringing this House back into a functioning state and having a virtual Parliament. It will allow, tomorrow, for the First Secretary of State to be questioned, and I am sure he will be questioned on these issues, as, likewise, will the Health Secretary. Next week, with questions and statements, this process will be able to continue. It is right that these questions should be raised in this Chamber.

Will the Leader of the House indicate when the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will be able to take questions and make a statement on the impact of covid-19 in Northern Ireland? When can we have a debate that will allow us to address the issues that have had a specific impact on our Province? In line with other questions that have been asked, may I ask him to say that no attempt will be made to usurp the powers of the Northern Ireland Assembly, now that devolution is up and running again, on any matter, including, most importantly, those to do with the life of the unborn child? Finally, we know how people in Northern Ireland love to march and to celebrate, so will he consider having, at the end of all this, a march for our health workers across the United Kingdom? May we have a “march for health”, to encourage and thank them in a very public way, more than just what the round of applause has done every Thursday night? May we have something that will tell them how grateful we are for the great work our doctors, nurses and careworkers have given to our entire community?

First, on the easy question to answer, Northern Ireland questions will next be held on Wednesday 13 May, and that will be an opportunity to raise with the Secretary of State the hon. Gentleman’s second question, about how the relationship between the Secretary of State, this Parliament and the Assembly will work, which is a matter for him. As for marches, what a wonderful idea. I know that in Northern Ireland there is a great affection for marches, although they are sometimes controversial. Speaking as a Catholic, I always think it is worth remembering that the Holy Father in 1690 had a Te Deum sung in honour of the victory of King William at the Battle of the Boyne because he was not getting on very well with Louis XIV at the time.

Let me again thank you, Mr Speaker, and your team for enabling us to return to raise this wide range of issues on which we will want to question Ministers. May I also put on record my thanks to the team from the Treasury Committee, who enabled us to meet quite a few times during the recess so that we could probe on the economic issues? My question is a parochial one, but it is none the less important to my constituents. Just over two months ago, the town of Tenbury Wells was badly flooded—it was the top story in the news at the time. Will the Leader of the House give an indication as to when the Adjournment debate that I have on the subject, which has now been postponed twice, will be able to be held?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to praise those running Select Committees. Before we rose for Easter it was thought extremely difficult to allow Select Committees to meet regularly, and now by the time we have got back we can have a regular range of Select Committees meeting. It has been a hugely impressive effort by the parliamentary staff. As for Adjournment debates, as I mentioned earlier, it depends slightly on how long this procedure lasts. We will seek to extend it to cover more and more business the longer it lasts, but my hope is that we will be back to normal before that level of extension has been reached, in which case matters of Adjournment debates will be in Mr Speaker’s hands—and I have a feeling he will be sympathetic to requests to reinstate Adjournment debates where Members have been generous enough to allow them to not be taken.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for bringing us back here today; you have put a huge amount of effort into that, and I really do thank you for it.

May I also thank those hundreds, if not thousands, of my constituents who go to work every day to make my life and the lives of my neighbours and those I represent a little easier? These people are doing a truly terrific thing and they deserve all of our congratulations wherever they are doing it.

May I ask the Leader of the House, as he is a Cabinet Minister, whether we can look at the retail, hospitality and leisure sector grant and its scope? A number of businesses are excluded from it. I am thinking particularly of those in the exhibition industry who have seen their entire business evaporate; they will be the first into this recession and, I suspect, the last out.

May we also look at the small business grant? A number of businesses are excluded from this grant because their rates are bundled up with their rent and paid to their landlord. Many of these are concessions or very small cafés or businesses and they are missing out on the £10,000. I hope the Leader of the House can convey that to the Chancellor.

All of us who are constituency MPs as well as Ministers are aware of these issues being raised by our constituents. My hon. Friend’s point about rates rolled up in rents is an obvious and important one. Treasury questions are not taking place until 18 May, but of course there is the Prime Minister, and Prime Minister’s questions are to the First Lord of the Treasury. I am sure that the First Secretary of State will be able to answer my hon. Friend’s questions on these matters. In the meantime I will take them up with the Chancellor on his behalf.

I wish to place on record my thanks to the healthcare professionals—the doctor, nurses and particularly our social care workers—across West Dorset. Will the Leader of the House make provision for a statement from the Environment Secretary on the state of farming and our food supply industry, which I am greatly concerned about at this time? We have had a number of conference calls with the National Farmers Union and others, and it is very clear that the dairy and beef industries in particular are under great stress and I greatly fear for the future of the food supply chain.

This is a matter of the greatest importance and I will pass on my hon. Friend’s concerns to the Secretary of State. Questions to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are not immediate; they are relatively late in the schedule, on 19 May, so we will see if this can be taken up more directly and swiftly.

I thank the Leader of the House for his responses this afternoon. On the point about business rates, my constituency has had a lot of business rates relief and, in certain cases, the small business grant has been exploited by owners of second homes. Will my right hon. Friend ask the Chancellor and his team to review how business rate reviews are dealt with, how the relief is granted and how the small business grants that are there for businesses at this time of need are issued, because they are being exploited?

As I understand it, it is only available if second homes are genuinely used for businesses; if they are used for business purposes, the grant is available. That is fair and reasonable as long as they are being used for business purposes.

May I go back to a subject that I raised with the Leader of the House in my earlier contribution about the large number of constituents who are still stranded in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh? Many of them are elderly. The temperature there is rising enormously and conditions are becoming unbearable. There has been an improvement in the number of flights, but we are still well behind many other countries, particularly Germany. We need urgent additional flights to get these people home.

The Government have made enormous efforts to bring people back. The numbers involved are very large: 200,000 people have come back from Spain; 13,000 from Egypt; 6,000 from Pakistan; and 1,000 from New Zealand. It has been a big effort by the Government, and particularly difficult when the number of aeroplanes flying has been reduced. May I suggest that the right hon Gentleman raises this matter with the Foreign Secretary, the First Secretary of State, when he is answering Prime Minister’s questions tomorrow?

I understand that the ten-minute rule motion will not be moved.

Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill

Bill to be read a Second time tomorrow.


Resolved, That this House do now adjourn.—(Tom Pursglove.)

House adjourned.