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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 676: debated on Wednesday 3 June 2020


The Secretary of State was asked—

Covid-19: Role of the Union

Our co-ordinated UK-wide response to the threat posed by covid-19 is testament to the strength and value of the Union. People and businesses in Wales and across the UK have benefited from the Government’s unprecedented package of support, which is far beyond the scale that any UK nation could offer alone.

I thank the Secretary of State. As all nations start to lift lockdown measures and interconnectivity starts to increase, it is really important that we work together to track and trace the movement of any covid-19 cases, especially across porous borders such as the one between England and Wales. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is in fact an opportunity to show how we are stronger working together and that we are better off tackling the crisis as one United Kingdom?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and I absolutely agree with her. Covid does not respect political boundaries and it does not respect national boundaries. As a result of that, we have had something in the region of 110 meetings now at which the Welsh Government were present so that we can approach this issue, for example through the joint biosecurity centre, as one United Kingdom, because that is the way that we will crack this.

The contact tracing systems are now active in all four nations across the UK, and will require thousands of people to self-isolate to stop the virus spreading further, but for many self-employed and low-paid people who do not qualify for support such as statutory sick pay, this means there will be no money coming in to support them or their families. Will the Government urgently look to fill the gaps in statutory sick pay so that no one faces the impossible choice of self-isolating or putting food on the table?

My opposite number makes a very good point. Right from the start, as I think he will agree, the Chancellor has said that we will always look at every possible anomaly in these support systems, because he and all of us, I suspect, in our own constituency examples recognise that even though the measures are widespread and generous and try to account for every individual circumstance, they do not always do so. Where people slip through the net and where there are anomalies, yes, of course, we will work to see if we can rectify those.

The furloughing scheme has been a lifeline for businesses in every corner of the United Kingdom and demonstrates the strength and the value of our Union, but with the scheme becoming co-financing in August, could I ask my right hon. Friend urgently to discuss with the Chancellor the need for ongoing financial support, particularly for tourism businesses in Wales? Frankly, they will not have the money to contribute a share of staff costs, and they see little prospect of the Welsh Government allowing any kind of late tourism season this year.

My right hon. Friend rightly points out what is becoming known as the risk of the 12-month winter, and he might be pleased to hear that I have already had such conversations with Treasury Ministers including the Chancellor himself. We are looking, as we always do, at ways of making sure that for industries that find themselves in a particularly difficult position—tourism and leisure is one such example—there are ways in which we can be as flexible as possible, but obviously within the overall financial ambitions and constraints that we all understand.

The furlough scheme in Wales has rightly been a success. However, as the Secretary of State knows, one large company called BA—British Airways—has decided not only to furlough its staff, but to consult about losing their jobs. It is morally reprehensible that during this time people are worried about their jobs. Will he make a commitment, first, to condemn this behaviour and, secondly, to speak to the chief executive of BA about the jobs that are at risk in constituencies such as mine and those of other colleagues across Wales?

Indeed, I have examples in my own constituency of people who have come to me feeling completely bewildered at the position they find themselves in. Absolutely, I offer that guarantee to take it up with BA. It does seem, on the face of it, to be a mystifying decision, particularly in the circumstances we are in. The answer to that is yes, of course, we will look into it. I am sure that, UK-wide, there is going to be much more debate in this place about that very problem.

Transport Connectivity

3. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Transport on connectivity (a) within Wales and (b) cross-border. (902988)

We have regular discussions with Ministers in the Department for Transport across a wide range of issues, including connectivity within Wales and cross-border, such as our support for the Pant-Llanymynech bypass and the restoration of the Barmouth viaduct, and obviously we have offered the funding for an M4 relief road. I very much hope that the Welsh Government will choose to prioritise these schemes.

I welcome that answer, but I have had lots of correspondence from constituents concerned about people travelling to second and holiday homes. What is my hon. Friend’s assessment of what can be done about this in Wales?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. The leisure and tourism industry has been hugely affected by covid-19, but now is not the time for people to travel to Wales for a holiday or to a second home. Of course, when this crisis is over, we want to roll out the red and green carpet for visitors from throughout the United Kingdom to come and enjoy everything that Wales has to offer. I look forward to welcoming my hon. Friend.

Covid-19: Co-operation with Welsh Government

4. What steps his Department is taking to ensure effective co-operation with the Welsh Government during the covid-19 outbreak. (902989)

8. What steps his Department is taking to ensure close co-operation with the Welsh Government during the covid-19 outbreak. (902994)

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Wales and I are working hand in hand with the Welsh Government in responding to the virus. I have already provided the House with a comprehensive schedule of engagements between my Department and the Welsh Government, which outlines more than 100 instances since the start of the crisis. I will today place an updated schedule of those meetings in the Library.

The Prime Minister may not have heard of it, but we know from the Welsh Government that the Conservatives’ “no recourse to public funds” rule is causing real hardship to families in Wales and throughout the UK. People face extreme poverty for doing the right thing to protect public health. Will the Secretary of State listen to the Welsh Government and urge his colleagues to do the right thing now and suspend the rule during this public health emergency?

I would like to think that I always listen to valid arguments put forward by the Welsh Government, and this is no exception, but I ask the hon. Lady to recognise that the UK Government have provided an extraordinary level of support—probably one of the most extensive plans on the globe—for people who are suffering across our economy and throughout the nation of Wales. That support will remain; we are being as flexible as possible and as generous as possible for as long as possible. I will of course have the discussions to which the hon. Lady refers.

The Welsh Labour Government require businesses that receive financial support to sign up to their economic contract, which means that they need to support economic growth, fair work, employee health and skills, and action to reduce carbon footprints. Given the need to build back better after this crisis, does the Secretary of State agree that the Welsh Government approach should be adopted by the UK Government?

The point the hon. Gentleman makes is interesting, because of course a number of the companies to which he refers are UK-wide companies. It is a UK-wide issue that we are looking at, and it will require co-operation between the UK Government and the Welsh Government in the areas that are devolved and the areas that are clearly reserved. Currently, that co-operation and collaboration has been, by and large—probably eight times out of 10—as positive as the hon. Gentleman would hope, and as businesses and individuals would hope. We will of course continue that collaboration. We are now into the recovery period, hopefully—touch wood—and that will clearly test that collaboration, but at the moment I have confidence that it can work.

A few days ago, Wales finally joined the UK portal for covid test applications—some five weeks following its launch. Perhaps because of such delays, north Wales remains an outlier in new case numbers. Will my right hon. Friend join me in calling on the Welsh Government to get a grip on controlling outbreaks, mostly relating to care homes and hospitals?

My hon Friend clearly has considerable and detailed knowledge of this pandemic and the problems in his area. I hope he will be relieved to hear that I have a call this afternoon with the First Minister to discuss, among other things, exactly the point my hon. Friend raises, because the statistics show that north Wales is currently an uncomfortable outlier compared with what is going on throughout the rest of the UK and particularly Wales.

As the Secretary of State knows, the Welsh Labour Government have given an extra £2 billion to support businesses that are affected by the pandemic—the most generous package anywhere in the UK—and, crucially, they are not giving a penny of that public money to companies that are based in tax havens, thus doing right by the taxpayer and right by the companies that do pay their fair share. Will the Secretary of State commit to persuading the Chancellor to do the same thing?

I feel I ought to point out that the £2.2 billion to which the hon. Lady refers is in fact money that has been provided courtesy of the Barnett formula because Wales is a member of the Union. Not only that, but on top of that £2.2 billion is probably a similar amount of money, taking it up to between £4 billion and £5 billion of support that UK Government intervention has provided to businesses, individuals and taxpayers in Wales. In case I have not mentioned it before, I should say that I did have a conversation on this very point with Ken Skates, the Minister in the Welsh Government. He explained to me the logic behind what they were trying to do but also pointed out that it relates to a tiny proportion of the companies under consideration. As a general rule, the idea that he and the hon. Lady have come up with sounds good and looks good, but in fact it refers to very few businesses that are actually situated in Wales.

Well, indeed, Mr Speaker, I think the Secretary of State makes the point very clearly that a UK-wide attack would have a lot more effect. But anyway, looking beyond the current covid challenge, Welsh businesses, farmers and universities all deserve to know now what funding will be in place in January when the structural funds come to an end. With barely seven months to go, when will the Government publish the detail of the shared prosperity fund so that people in Wales can prepare?

The hon. Lady will be aware that, if the shared prosperity fund was an important future issue for the economic prosperity of Wales before, it is even more so now. I think that we all acknowledge that. There are regular discussions with Jeremy Miles in the Welsh Government and relevant Ministers in the UK Government to prepare for that. As she knows, Government policy is very clear on this. The project is on time and on schedule, and more details will be shared with her colleagues in Cardiff as and when the relevant decisions are made. At the moment, though, there is no change to Government policy in this regard.

Covid-19: Intergovernmental Relations

5. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of intergovernmental relations between the Government and (a) the Welsh Government and (b) other devolved Administrations in responding to the covid-19 outbreak. (902990)

13. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of intergovernmental relations between the Government and (a) the Welsh Government and (b) other devolved Administrations in responding to the covid-19 outbreak. (903000)

We have worked hand in hand with the devolved Administrations since the start of the outbreak, including through the Cobra ministerial committees and the ministerial implementation groups. We have noted 112 engagements in total since 23 March and the number continues to rise.

I want to associate myself with the point made by the right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) because there is a danger that the wind-down of the furlough scheme will have an impact on the hospitality and tourism sector in Wales. Given that that is a policy that will be directed from London, does it not make the case for the devolution of fiscal powers, so that the Welsh Government can continue to support businesses for so long as is necessary?

The UK Government have already made it very clear that they are supporting Welsh businesses. We have had the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme, the large business scheme, the furlough scheme and the self-employed scheme, and there are other schemes as well. We have shown, at all times, the flexibility and the commitment to support industry, including the tourism industry, and I welcome the interactions that I have had with members of the Scottish Government, as well as with the Welsh Government.

From the outset of this pandemic, the UK Government said that they would take a four-nation approach, which surely requires transparency over how decisions are made. But two unilateral decisions have been made in the past week without consulting or forewarning the Welsh Government: first on shielding advice; and secondly, on university numbers, which affects Glasgow Central, as it does Wales. So how can the UK Government claim to be respecting that four-nation approach? Is it not less hand in hand than thumbing a nose?

I am reliably informed that, in actual fact, there has been a great deal of consultation with the Welsh Government on university numbers and, of course, shielding is a devolved matter and the hon. Lady surely would not expect us to trample all over the devolution settlement. But it is important to say that the people of the United Kingdom—Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England—expect politicians to put aside political grandstanding at the time of this crisis and work together, and the UK Government are committed to doing that.

Office for National Statistics figures show that the number of people claiming jobseeker’s allowance and universal credit in Dwyfor Meirionnydd has increased by 124% since the start of lockdown. This is the biggest increase in any Welsh constituency. A pattern is appearing across Wales and the UK, with regions heavily dependent on tourism and hospitality seeing a desperate increase in unemployment. We will see a corresponding increase in rural poverty if these businesses are left defenceless and facing a three-winter scenario. Will the Minister commit today to working with the Welsh Government to create a tailored long-term package to guarantee the long-term future of the Welsh tourism and hospitality sector?

I thank the right hon. Lady for the question. It is quite obvious that the lockdown will have a huge impact on our economy and it will increase unemployment figures. That is why the UK Government are committed to coming out of lockdown as quickly as it is safe to do so, and I hope that the Welsh Government and members of Plaid Cymru will also support that. I said earlier on that we look forward to rolling out a red and green carpet for visitors from across the United Kingdom, and we want to make absolutely certain that we do not see signs going up in parts of rural Wales saying, “English people are not welcome here”. We welcome tourists from all parts of the United Kingdom and beyond to see what Wales has to offer. I hope the right hon. Lady will talk to members of local authorities across north Wales to emphasise that message.

I think some more specific support would have been more useful than political points. The Minister says that both Governments will work together, but we know that this week’s student number controls announcement in response to the covid-19 pandemic was brought out without any consultation whatsoever with the Welsh Government. Given his role in the Government and his role representing Wales, what is he doing to protect the interests of the Welsh higher education sector from such potentially damaging effects and decisions made by his Government?

I discussed this very issue with my officials this morning. I am assured that there was consultation between the Wales and the UK Government and that this is a UK-wide scheme that is being put in place to protect universities and to stop people poaching students from each other across the United Kingdom. I can only say once again that the UK Government are completely committed to consultation with Welsh Government. We have made it clear that Welsh Government Ministers are welcome at Cobra meetings and the ministerial implementation groups, and we have actually asked if we could attend Welsh Government meetings in the same way; thus far we have not had a response. If the right hon. Lady can put pressure on her friends in the Assembly to allow UK Welsh Government Ministers to attend Welsh Government meetings, we would be happy to do so.

The First Minister and members of the Welsh Government have been closely involved in all aspects of the UK Government’s coronavirus response, but despite this the First Minister has been continually critical of the UK Government. Can my hon. Friend put these criticisms to bed and outline just how engaged the UK Government have been with the Welsh Government?

As I have already mentioned, we have had 130 meetings at which Welsh Government Ministers have been present, and we very much hope that the Welsh Government will take a similar view of the importance of having UK Government representation at their meetings. We look forward to invitations coming to me and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales from the Welsh Government shortly.

I thank the Secretary of State and the Minister for their mature approach to the Welsh Government and for engaging on so many levels. My hon. Friend was right to outline tourism as important to Wales. As we come out of the lockdown, the language and the relationship between the two Governments working together is key for my constituents and the tourist industry. Will he meet me and push the Welsh Government to work together on coming out of lockdown?

I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend to talk about how we can support tourism after the crisis is over. We will be meeting with many other representatives of industry groups, including the automotive, defence and aerospace sectors, to discuss how we can support them as well.

Transport is an important area of intergovernmental relations between the Welsh and Westminster Governments. Would the Minister agree that both Governments’ transport investment plans are of even greater importance as we come out of the crisis, and would he meet me to discuss the need in Clwyd South for projects such as step-free access at Ruabon station?

I would be delighted to discuss step-free access at Ruabon station with my hon. Friend, and I hope that I will be able to give him news of much greater rail and road infrastructure projects that will be on offer to Wales once the crisis is over.

Covid-19: Deployment of Military Personnel

6. What discussions he has had with the Welsh Government on the deployment of military personnel to Wales in response to the covid-19 outbreak. (902991)

I regularly discuss with the Welsh Government the vital role of the UK’s armed forces in supporting Wales in its fight against covid-19. Whether it is getting personal protective equipment to those who need it, establishing testing sites or driving and decontaminating ambulances, the response of our servicemen and women is testament to how strong we are as members of the United Kingdom.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Our armed forces have been active in all corners of the United Kingdom during this crisis. We see this particularly clearly in my own constituency, where the Royal Air Force’s transport fleet is based. Would the Secretary of State agree that in the dedication and reach of our armed forces we see the perfect illustration of what our family of nations, this Union, can achieve?

My hon. Friend makes a really good point really well. There are so many examples of where this is the case. In Wales alone, the armed forces have done one fifth of our ambulance shifts and decontaminated more than 2,000 ambulances, without seeking praise, reward or recognition; it is just part of what the armed forces do, and they do it in a fantastically clear, brave and professional manner. The idea that that service could be provided in a broken-up United Kingdom is a complete fantasy. I wish that some of the separatist noises we occasionally hear in the Chamber would recognise that.

There can be no doubt about the importance of the military in terms of supporting the people of Wales during the pandemic, so can I press the Secretary of State to do all he can, in his discussions with the Secretary of State for Defence, to ensure that the base in Brecon is kept in Wales?

Indeed, the military footprint, as it is called, is incredibly important for lots of reasons, economic reasons being high amongst them. I have regular conversations with the various brigadiers and individuals based in Brecon and elsewhere across Wales, and they are as enthusiastic about the hon. Gentleman’s comments as I am. It is a shared ambition to ensure that we deliver on our military footprint.

Covid-19: Lockdown Policies

7. What comparative assessment he has made of the effect of covid-19 lockdown policies in Wales and England on their respective economies. (902993)

There is no doubt that covid will have an enormous and detrimental impact on the Welsh economy. The Government are doing everything they can to support business and individuals through the pandemic and to ensure that the economy recovers as quickly as possible. I am confident that our policies are the right ones to defeat this virus and to save jobs in Wales.

I thank the Minister for that response. Although our efforts are rightly focused on tackling the coronavirus pandemic, we also need to continue building on our cross-border economic activity; that is now more important than ever. What initiatives has the Department put in place to strengthen the economic links between Wales and the north-west of England?

It is heartening that the Welsh Government have adopted a number of UK-wide programmes, such as the UK-wide coronavirus testing portal. A UK-wide, Union approach is key as we move to the next phase, and it is disappointing that sometimes the Welsh Government have taken a little time to come on board with UK-wide schemes. On testing, England has tested around two and a half times per head more people than Wales. I look forward to closer co-operation in future.

I am thinking in particular, as we move into the next phase of the covid-19 crisis, about the steel industry, especially in south Wales. Of course we know how vital it is for jobs and livelihoods across the UK, but especially in Newport West, in places such as Island Steel. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with his Cabinet colleagues about the steps that the UK Government plan to take to protect the UK steel industry?

The hon. Lady makes a very important point; the steel industry is vital to the UK and to Wales, and the Secretary of State and I have had discussions with the sector. We have, as she is aware, already put in place a range of schemes, which companies such as Tata and Celsa are taking advantage of—the coronavirus large business interruption loan scheme, the VAT deferral, the covid corporate financing facility and so on—but we will be very happy to have further discussions about specific proposals that could help that industry.

This week is National Volunteer Week. Will the Secretary of State join me in thanking the hidden heroes in my constituency of Ynys Môn and all across Wales—five-year-old Alfie Pritchard making rainbows, Stayce Wheeler sewing? Can we please thank those people, who are working so hard to protect the vulnerable at this exceptional time?

I absolutely support the hidden heroes—and the not-so-hidden heroes. I have been delighted to take part in the clapping every Thursday for the NHS and for all members of the emergency services.

Industry: North Wales

I have had regular discussions with businesses from north Wales, including a recent webinar with the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), and the Welsh Government Minister responsible for the economy and transport. Earlier this week I had a wide-ranging and useful meeting with the North Wales Economic Ambition Board.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Obviously, what happens in north Wales matters to people in the Wirral. The Welsh Government take a social partnership approach, involving employers and trade unions in the situation that we face. So in all those meetings that the Minister has just described, can he tell me—does he take that same social partnership approach?

I am very pleased to say that I do, and it may surprise the hon. Lady—I was cut short earlier—that one of the very useful meetings that I had was with the trade union representatives from across Wales, and I was delighted with their very constructive approach. They are as keen as we are to see Welsh businesses up and running as quickly as possible.

Covid-19: Financial Support

10. What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on financial support for people in Wales affected by the covid-19 outbreak. (902997)

I have had regular discussions with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to ensure that the right financial support is available to people in Wales, and across the United Kingdom, to help people through the covid-19 outbreak.

The UK Government want to tax the one-off thank you payment that the Welsh Government are going to make to carers in Wales. As the Secretary of State goes out and claps on a Thursday evening, he should ask himself—or maybe explain to the people of Wales, especially if he refuses to stand up for the people of Wales, allowing his Tory Government to short-change the Welsh carers who have looked after our most vulnerable—what is the point of his role?

If there had been a little bit of earlier consultation, we might have been able to advise the Welsh Government on how that problem could have been overcome. We have made some suggestions to them about how that gift to care workers is properly made, without the need for primary legislation, which is where we are at the current time. I also urge the hon. Lady, if she is concerned about the matter, to make sure that everybody in the care sector receives a similar act of generosity from the Welsh Government.

We have now come to an end. I am going to suspend for a minute to allow those who do not need to be in the Chamber to make way for those who need to come in.

Sitting suspended.

On resuming—

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


Tomorrow, I will open the global vaccine summit; the UK-hosted, virtual event will bring together more than 50 countries, as well as leaders of private sector organisations and civil society, to raise at least $7.4 billion for Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance. Tomorrow’s global vaccine summit should be the moment when the world comes together to unite humanity in the fight against disease.

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 Prime Minister obfuscates over his adviser, the real scandal of the coronavirus pandemic has been exposed in the Public Health England report published yesterday on inequality and poverty. If you are black or Asian, if you are poor, if you have a low-skilled job, the mortality risk is up to double that of the rest of the population, with the poorest having the greatest exposure, risk and fate. Now the Government are seriously increasing that exposure and risk with their easement announcements. Why will the Prime Minister not publish a full health and economic risk assessment for scrutiny, to protect us all from this deadly virus?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. This Government commissioned the review from PHE and we take its findings very seriously, because there obviously are inequalities in the way the virus impacts on different people and different communities in our country. The Minister for Equalities, my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Kemi Badenoch) will be looking at what next practical steps we need to do to protect all our country from coronavirus.

In the past few weeks, Blackpool has been inundated with visitors, and the images of people not social distancing and leaving our beach strewn with litter have angered my constituents, at a time when they are doing the right thing and following the Government’s advice. The fact that Blackpool has one of the highest local infection rates in the nation has only served to heighten these fears. What assistance are the Government providing to areas such as Blackpool to deal with the influx of visitors, at a time when local services are already under pressure?

My hon. Friend well represents Blackpool and his constituents, sticking up for the interests of Blackpool. In addition to the £3.2 billion we are already giving to local councils to help combat corona, Blackpool is receiving another £9 million, as well as the funding from the high street funds and the town fund to deal with the particular problems he rightly identifies.

May I start by expressing shock and anger at the death of George Floyd? This has shone a light on racism and hatred experienced by many in the US and beyond. I am surprised the Prime Minister has not said anything about this yet, but I hope that the next time he speaks to President Trump he will convey to him the UK’s abhorrence about his response to the events.

This morning, The Daily Telegraph is reporting that the Prime Minister has decided to take “direct control” of the Government’s response to the virus, so there is an obvious question for the Prime Minister: who has been in direct control up till now?

Let me let me begin by associating myself absolutely with what the right hon. and learned Gentleman had to say about the death of George Floyd. I think that what happened in the United States was appalling and inexcusable. We all saw it on our screens. I perfectly understand people’s right to protest at what took place, although obviously I also believe that protests should take place in a lawful and reasonable way.

On the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s more polemical point, let me just say that I take full responsibility for everything that this Government have been doing in tackling coronavirus, and I am very proud of our record. If you look at what we have achieved so far, it is very considerable. We have protected the NHS. We have driven down the death rate. We are now seeing far fewer hospital admissions. I believe that the public understand that, with good British common sense, we will continue to defeat this virus and take this country forward, and what I think the country would like to hear from him is more signs of co-operation in that endeavour.

The Prime Minister asks for a sign of co-operation—a fair challenge. I wrote to him, as he knows, in confidence two weeks ago, to ask if I could help build a consensus for getting children back into our schools. I did it confidentially and privately, because I did not want to make a lot of it. He has not replied.

This is a critical week in our response to covid-19. Whereas “lockdown” and “stay at home” were relatively easy messages, easing restrictions involves very difficult judgment calls. This is the week, of all weeks, when public trust and confidence in the Government needed to be at its highest. But as the director of the Reuters Institute, which commissioned a YouGov poll this weekend, said,

“I have never in 10 years of research in this area seen a drop in trust like what we have seen for the UK government”.

How worried is the Prime Minister about this loss of trust?

I am surprised that the right hon. and learned Gentleman should take that tone, since I took the trouble to ring him up, and we had a long conversation in which I briefed him about all the steps that we were taking. He did not offer any dissent at that stage—he thoroughly endorsed our approach, and I believe that he should continue to endorse it today. I think that he is on better and firmer ground when he stands with the overwhelming majority of the British people who understand the very difficult circumstances we are in and who want clarity across the political spectrum but who believe that we can move forward, provided that we continue to observe the basic rules on social distancing, on washing our hands and on making sure that when we have symptoms, we take a test and we isolate. I think everybody understands that. That is why the incidence of this disease is coming down, and his attempts to distract the public from that have not been successful, because they continue to pay attention to our guidance.

The Prime Minister challenges me on the offer I made to him. This was a confidential letter. I think the best thing I can do is put it in the public domain, and the public can decide for themselves how constructive we are being.

Two weeks ago today at the Dispatch Box, the Prime Minister promised:

“we will have a test, track and trace operation that will be world-beating, and yes, it will be in place by 1 June.”—[Official Report, 20 May 2020; Vol. 676, c. 568.]

But it is not, and a critical element—the ability of local authorities to respond to local spikes—is missing. As one council leader put it to us, “We are weeks away from having this fully up and running. We simply were not given enough warning.” [Interruption.] The Prime Minister mutters that it is not true. Dido Harding, the Prime Minister’s own chair of the track and trace system, has said that this element will not be ready until the end of June. The Prime Minister must have been briefed on this problem before he made that promise two weeks ago, so why did he make that promise?

I am afraid that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is casting aspersions on the efforts of the tens of thousands of people who have set up the test, track and trace system in this country from a standing start. We now have 40,000 people engaged in this. As he knows, thousands of people are being tested every day. Every person who tests positive in the track and trace system is contacted, and then thousands of their contacts—people they have been in contact with—are themselves contacted. I can tell the House that at the moment, as a result of our test, track and trace system—which, contrary to what he said, was up and running on 1 June as I said it would be—and the efforts of the people who set it up, thousands of people are now following our guidance, following the law and self-isolating to stop the spread of the disease.

I welcome that news from the Prime Minister. He did not put a number on those who have been traced, but, as he knows, the number of people testing positive for covid-19 every day is only a fraction of those actually infected every day. According to the Office for National Statistics, the number actually infected every day is between 7,000 and 9,000. Assuming that up to five contacts need to be traced for every infected person, the system probably needs to reach 45,000 people a day, so there is a long way to go; and I am sure that if it is 45,000 a day, the Prime Minister will confirm that in just a minute. But the problem when the Prime Minister uses statistics is that the UK Statistics Authority has had concerns on more than one occasion. In a strongly worded letter to the Health Secretary yesterday, the chair of the UK Statistics Authority said that the statistics

“still fall well short of…expectations. It is not surprising that given their inadequacy data on testing are so widely criticised and often mistrusted.”

Can the Prime Minister see how damaging this is to public trust and confidence in his Government?

I must say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that I really do not see the purpose of his endless attacks on public trust and confidence, when what we are trying to do is to provide—I think this is what the public want to hear from politicians across all parties—clear messages about how to defeat the virus. Test and trace is a vital tool in our armoury, and, contrary to what he says, we did get up to 100,000 tests a day by the end of May and to 200,000 by the beginning of this month. That was an astonishing achievement, not by the Government, but by tens of thousands of people working to support the Government; I think that he should pay tribute to them and what they have achieved.

The Prime Minister is confusing scrutiny with attacks. I have supported the Government openly and I have taken criticism for it—but, boy, he has made it difficult to support this Government over the last two weeks.

Another critical issue on trust and confidence is transparency about decision making. On 10 May, the Prime Minister said on the question of lifting restrictions:

“If the alert level won’t allow it, we will simply wait and go on until we have got it right.”

At the time that he said that, the alert level was 4, and the R rate was between 0.5 and 0.9. We are now three weeks on and some restrictions have been lifted, so can the Prime Minister tell us: what is the alert level now and what is the R rate now?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman knows perfectly well that the alert level does allow it. Indeed, he did not raise that issue with me when we had a conversation on the telephone. He knows that the reason that we have been able to make the progress that we have is that the five tests have been fulfilled. Yes, the alert level remains at 4, but as the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies will confirm, we have managed to protect the NHS, and we have got the rate of deaths and the rate of infections down. The personal protective equipment crisis; the difficulties in care homes; the question of the R figure—they have been addressed. The question for him is whether he actually supports the progress that we are making because at the weekend he was backing it, but now he is doing a U-turn and seems to be against the steps that this country is taking.

I have supported the Government in the gradual easing of restrictions. That is why I wrote to the Prime Minister two weeks ago, because I could see the problem with schools and I thought it needed leadership and consensus. I privately offered to do what I could to build that consensus. That is the offer that was not taken up.

Finally, may I turn to the question of Parliament? Mr Speaker, I know you feel very strongly about this. The scenes yesterday of MPs queuing to vote and Members being unable to vote were, frankly, shameful. This should not be a political issue. Members on all sides know that this is completely unnecessary and unacceptable. If any other employer behaved like this, it would be a clear and obvious case of indirect discrimination under the Equality Act 2010, so may I urge the Prime Minister to stop this and to continue to allow online voting and allow the hybrid Parliament to resume?

Again, I do think that the right hon. and learned Gentleman needs to consider what is really going on throughout the country, where ordinary people are getting used to queuing for long periods to do their shopping or whatever it happens to be. I must say I do not think it unreasonable that we should ask parliamentarians to come back to this place and do their job for the people of this country. I know it is difficult, and I apologise to colleagues for the inconvenience. I apologise to all those who have particular difficulties with it because they are shielded or because they are elderly, and it is vital that, through the change we are making today, they should be able to vote by proxy. But I have to say that when the people of this country look at what we are doing, asking schools—the right hon. and learned Gentleman now says he supports schools going back—our policy is test, trace and isolate; his policy is agree, U-turn and criticise. What I can tell him is that I think the people of this country on the whole will want their parliamentarians to be back at work, doing their job and passing legislation on behalf of the people of this country, and that is what this Government intend to do.

Q3. I congratulate the Prime Minister on hitting the 200,000 daily capacity target for testing, which puts us at the top of the European league table for testing. He rightly said that he wanted a 24-hour turnaround for testing, so could he tell us how many of the tests are currently being turned around within 24 hours and whether he would be willing to publish that number on a regular basis? (902900)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the kind of detailed forensic question that we could have had earlier on. The answer is that we already turn around 90% of tests within 48 hours. The tests conducted at the 199 testing centres, as well as the mobile test centres, are all done within 24 hours, and I can undertake to him now to get all tests turned around in 24 hours by the end of June, except for difficulties with postal tests or insuperable problems like that.

Watching events unfold across America in recent days, and the actions and rhetoric from the American President, has been distressing and deeply worrying. We cannot delude ourselves into believing that we are witnessing anything short of a dangerous slide into autocracy. It is at times like these that people look to those they elect for hope, for guidance, for leadership and for action. However, in the seven days since George Floyd was murdered, the UK Government have not even offered words. They have not expressed that pain. They have shuttered themselves in the hope that no one would notice. The Prime Minister skirted over this earlier in Prime Minister’s questions. May I ask him what representations he has made to his ally Donald Trump? And at the very least, Prime Minister, say it now: black lives matter.

Of course black lives matter, and I totally understand the anger and the grief that is felt not just in America but around the world and in our country as well. I totally understand that, and I get that. I also support, as I have said, the right to protest. The only point I would make to the House is that protests should be carried out lawfully and, in this country, protests should be carried out in accordance with our rules on social distancing.

I am afraid the Prime Minister did not answer the question of what representations he has made to his friend Donald Trump. It is imperative that the UK is vocal on human rights, freedom to gather and protest, freedom of speech and upholding press freedom in other parts of the world. It would be nothing short of hypocrisy if we were to turn a blind eye to events unfolding in the US. However, actions speak louder than words. [Interruption.] The Prime Minister can shake his head, but the UK exports millions of pounds worth of riot control equipment to the US, including tear gas and rubber bullets. The Prime Minister must have seen how these weapons are used on American streets. With the Government’s own guidance warning against equipment being used in such way, will the Prime Minister urgently review such exports?

I am happy to look into any complaints, but as the right hon. Gentleman knows, all exports are conducted in accordance with the consolidated guidance, and the UK is possibly the most scrupulous country in that respect in the world.

Q4. I have a number of businesses that serve the wedding market and would like to hold viewings to make bookings for the future. Church leaders of Loughborough have also contacted me about access to churches both for services and to help to tackle loneliness. Please could I ask that religious faiths be allowed to let people into their places of worship, observing social distancing within their premises, and that wedding venues be allowed access for bookings? (902901)

I very much understand the urgency that many people in this country feel about the need to reopen places of worship. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government is of course leading a taskforce on this very matter. It is a tough one: every time we do something like this, we push up the risk of infection and the risk of pushing up the R again. To repeat what I was saying earlier to the Leader of the Opposition, we are not there yet. We are getting there, but we are not yet there. It is vital that the people of this country understand the continued need to push down on the infection rate.

Q12. Our firefighters have been assisting in this covid crisis. They have taken 12 additional areas of work supporting our NHS, and while they are busier than ever, they are about to face another round of devastating cuts. My local fire authority in East Sussex is planning to remove 10 fire trucks from the county, with the loss of frontline firefighters. Is the Prime Minister planning to respond to the Fire Brigades Union letter sent to him on 22 May calling for a moratorium on cuts? Clapping on Thursdays is well and good, but will he put his money where his mouth is and ensure that no fire authority needs to cut frontline firefighters when they have been helping to save our country? (902909)

Q5. Does the Prime Minister agree that as we exit the pandemic, it is critical that we not only stimulate the UK economy, but also start the important process of levelling up? This should include stimulating the housing market to help excellent companies such as PWS at Newton Aycliffe, investing in rural broadband to help villages such as Killerby, and maybe moving the Treasury to Sedgefield, and also the acceleration of rolling stock investment to help companies such as Hitachi. May I also ask him to join me in opening the station at Ferryhill, which I am sure he will ask the Transport Secretary to approve? (902902)

What a brilliant idea. I think Sedgefield should be careful what it wishes for, but I will certainly investigate that possibility. My hon. Friend will know what we were doing, whether it is the 300,000 homes that we want to build every year, massive investment in gigabit broadband, or the huge investment in railways and roads, and I will make sure that I add to that an ambition to come and see Ferryhill station launched with him.

Will the Prime Minister address himself to the question of quarantine arrangements? Most European countries have had quarantine arrangements for quite a while now and are beginning to reduce them. This country has had no quarantine arrangements to date and is only now introducing them. Why is that?

For the simple reason that as we get the rate of infection down, with the efforts that we are making as a country, it is vital that we avoid reinfection from elsewhere. That is why we are doing it.

Q6. When my right hon. Friend attended the Liaison Committee last week, he very kindly committed to me to speak to the Chancellor about the possibility of including self-employment income received by way of dividend in the calculation of furlough support. I wonder whether my right hon. Friend has had the opportunity to have that conversation and whether he has some good news for the House, because there are hundreds and thousands of self-employed people up and down this country who need that support. (902903)

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who raises a very important point. I have an answer of fantastic complexity here before me, but the gist of it is that at present HMRC would be forced to rely on all sorts of information that it would not be able to verify very easily in order to comply with his wishes. I am happy to discuss it more fully with him and to write to him in detail.

Q15. In front of the Liaison Committee last week, the Prime Minister was clearly shocked to learn that many migrants living and working lawfully in the UK have no recourse to public funds. Without support, many have been forced to continue working in unsafe conditions or have been pushed into extreme poverty. He promised the Liaison Committee that he would do all he could to help. Scrapping the policy would be the best step, so will he update the House on his progress? (902912)

What I can tell the House is that everybody knows that no recourse to public funds is a long-standing condition that applies to people here with temporary immigration status, but it is a term of art; it does not mean that they are necessarily excluded from all public funds. For instance, they may be eligible for coronavirus job retention scheme funds or self-employed income support scheme funds. Indeed, if they have paid into the benefit system, they may be eligible also for certain benefits.

Q7. As we come out of lockdown, it is vital that we get our economy firing on all cylinders. In Bolsover, to level up we need more skilled jobs, so will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister meet me to discuss my proposal for Bolsover to lead the country with a green enterprise zone so that we can bring low-carbon manufacturing and research to our region? (902904)

My hon. Friend has exactly the right vision for Bolsover. Indeed, it is the vision that I have for the whole country. The green recovery will be essential to this country’s success in the next few years. I am happy to meet him to discuss it.

The Communities Secretary has admitted unlawfully overruling his own planning inspector to allow the Westferry development to go ahead, potentially saving the developer, Richard Desmond, who is a Conservative party donor, £40 million in tax. The Secretary of State did so just weeks after sitting next to the developer at a Tory fundraising dinner. Given that this was the same scheme that the Prime Minister tried to push through when he was Mayor of London and which reappeared after he entered Downing Street, will he now tell the House what conversations he has had with the Secretary of State about the scheme? Will he publish all relevant correspondence between No. 10 and the Department?

I am happy to tell the hon. Lady that I have had no conversations on that matter whatever, nor any exchanges of any kind.

Q8. The lock- down has seen a rise in antisocial behaviour in my area, including at Lullingstone castle, where a man sadly died last Thursday evening. My sincere condolences are with his family and friends at this time. This incident shows the need for more visible police in Sevenoaks. Can the Prime Minister confirm that the 147 new police officers promised to Kent will not be delayed and they will be focused on frontline policing to tackle antisocial behaviour? (902905)

Yes, indeed. That is why the Government are going to get on with our agenda of uniting and levelling up the country with 20,000 more police officers. In fact, we have recruited thousands already, and I am pleased to say in terms of the 147 that she identifies coming to Kent that I think they have already got there. If they have not, they are getting there very shortly.

In view of the Health Secretary admitting yesterday that covid outbreaks are worse in deprived areas and that our great cities have been hardest hit—the Prime Minister said earlier in the session that he takes these inequalities very seriously—will he now promise me that Liverpool City Council and Knowsley Council will get the full costs of their covid spend reimbursed, as they were told they would, instead of only half, which is what they have been allocated? I raised the issue with him on 11 May, and he promised he would look into it. I have written to him, but I have not had a reply.

The hon. Lady has raised this before. I pointed out that we have given an extra £3.2 billion to local government and another £600 million to deal with the particular costs of care homes, but I am happy to write back to her about the particular needs of Liverpool and Knowsley councils.

Q9.   Buckinghamshire Council has been able to help thousands of local businesses thanks to the £91 million grant from the Business Department, but despite the very best efforts of its staff, £13 million remains unclaimed. I and the council would like all that money to be able to be given to small businesses that need it to survive, but at the minute that is not allowed. Will my right hon. Friend seek to persuade his Cabinet colleagues that this would be a win-win—more help for businesses in need without costing the Government a penny more than has already been allocated? (902906)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend; he represents his businesses in Aylesbury well. We are certainly talking to all councils about how they can properly utilise the allocations that they have.

The Public Health Minister told me in an email on 22 May that the justification for a 14-day quarantine is

“where local Covid incidence and prevalence is much lower relative to international incidence and prevalence”.

It is not, is it? So why is the Prime Minister inflicting, from Monday, a blanket quarantine with no basis in science that will devastate our travel industry and rob British families of their foreign holidays?

I am surprised to hear that criticism from the Labour Benches. I thought that the Opposition were in favour of the quarantine policy. The simple reason is to protect the British people from the reimporting of that disease once we have driven infection rates down.

Q10. Aviation was one of the first sectors to take an immediate negative impact from the coronavirus pandemic and will probably be one of the slowest to recover. Will my right hon. Friend consider an extension to the furlough for air industry employees through the low season and into 2021? (902907)

I am not going to make a commitment, alas, to extend the coronavirus job retention scheme now, but my hon. Friend represents the aviation sector, which has been very hard hit, and we will look at all the ways we can to support it throughout the crisis.

I hope that the Prime Minister will join me in standing together not only in grief at the killing of George Floyd but in determination that we will work together against racism, both in the US and here in the UK. In Putney, black teachers have told me that they are scared of going back to school because of the higher rates of death, and today’s figures from the Metropolitan police show that more than a quarter of lockdown fines have been for black people, although they are an eighth of our London population. Will the Prime Minister condemn the actions of the American police, will he freeze sales of tear gas and rubber bullets, will he review the lockdown fines, and will he act on the report on covid deaths, so that there are not more black people dying than white?

The hon. Lady raises a very important series of points. I certainly condemn the killing of George Floyd, and we will certainly make sure that everything that we export to any country around the world is in accordance with the consolidated guidance on human rights.

Q13.   This Government have taken the lead on tackling domestic abuse, but there is an ugly dimension that remains unresolved, where men who kill their partners in appalling acts of sexual violence establish in court that “she asked for it” and avoid a murder conviction. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the time is now to end the rough sex defence? (902910)

My hon. Friend raises an incredibly important point. We are committed to ensuring that the law is made clear on this point, and that defence is inexcusable.

The virus effectively turned summer into winter for Cumbrian tourism. Ending Government funding in October, though, will mean three winters in a row, causing severe hardship on top of the 312% increase in unemployment we have already had locally. Will the Prime Minister provide a support package for tourism and hospitality in the lakes, the dales and elsewhere to see them through the spring of 2021?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. We are certainly looking at all sorts of packages—creative ideas—to help the tourism industry over the winter period so that its winter, as it were, can continue to be a kind of summer once we can get things open again. There are all sorts of packages that we will be bringing forward, but I do not want to extend some of the schemes that we currently have.

Q14. I am very proud to tell the House that we have 2,500 world-class steelworkers in Scunthorpe. Like steelmakers across this land, they stand ready to make steel for High Speed 2. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said in the House that he wants to see that happen. Will he reassure me that he will press for HS2 to sign the UK steel charter, and that steel for HS2 will be made in Britain? (902911)

We are doing everything we can to support the UK steel industry and to make sure, as HS2 goes forward, that it maximises the use of UK steel. I am proud to say that 98% of the companies that have signed up to deliver for HS2 are based in this country.

When the Prime Minister was forced to publish the review of the risks covid-19 poses to black and minority ethnic groups yesterday, why did he remove reference to the 1,000 responses to the review, many of which cited structural racism and discrimination as root causes of higher risk? If, unlike Trump, he seeks to represent the whole country that he is elected to lead, what action is he going to take to show that in tackling covid-19 and wider racism in society, black lives matter?

I think that the hon. Gentleman may have missed some of the earlier answers I have given, but he is wrong when he says that this Government were somehow forced to publish a review. This Government commissioned the review because we take it incredibly seriously. It is our review, and yes, I do think it intolerable that covid falls in such a discriminatory way on different groups and different communities in our country, and that is why we are going to ensure that our Minister for Equalities takes up that report and sees what practical steps we need to take to protect those minorities.

My right hon. Friend has rightly been focusing on keeping people safe, but that task goes beyond covid-19, so can he give me the reassurance that as from 1 January 2021, the UK will have access to the quantity and quality of data that it currently has through Prüm, passenger name records, the European Criminal Records Information System and SIS—Schengen Information System—II, none of which, I believe, should require the European Court of Justice jurisdiction in the UK?

That depends, I am afraid, on the outcome of our negotiations, as my right hon. Friend knows well, but I am absolutely confident that our friends and partners will see sense and the great mutual benefit in continuing to collaborate in exactly the way that we do.

We now come to the end. In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I suspend the House for five minutes.

Sitting suspended.

On resuming—