House of Commons
Wednesday 3 June 2020
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
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 why 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 in 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.
We have regular discussions with Minsters 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.
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
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
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, 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?
Covid-19: Deployment of Military Personnel
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
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?
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
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.
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, where 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 for 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 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.
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 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.
What a brilliant idea. I think Sedgefield should be careful what it wishes, 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?
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.
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.
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?
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 PM 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has asked me to respond on his behalf.
The covid-19 crisis has affected every person in the country and every sector of the UK economy, and aviation is essential to that economy. It connects the regions together and it plays a huge part in the UK’s future as a global trading nation. That is why the Government have responded to the crisis with an unprecedented package of measures. On 24 March, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer wrote to the aviation sector setting out the schemes being made available, including the deferral of VAT payments, the covid commercial finance facility and the coronavirus job retention scheme. The Civil Aviation Authority is also working with airlines, airports and ground handlers to provide appropriate flexibility within the regulatory framework. If airlines, airports or other aviation organisations find themselves in trouble because of coronavirus and have exhausted the measures already available to them, the Government have been clear that they are prepared to enter into discussions with individual companies seeking bespoke support.
We recognise that there remain serious challenges for the aviation sector, despite the measures that have been put in place. It will take time for passenger numbers to recover, and the impact will be felt first and foremost by the sector’s employees. The recent announcements about redundancies from companies such as British Airways, Virgin and easyJet will be very distressing news for employees and their families. These are commercial decisions that I regret, particularly from companies that benefit from the job retention scheme, which was not designed for taxpayers to fund the wages of employees only for those companies to put the same staff on notice of redundancy during the furlough period.
The Government stand ready to support anyone affected, with the Department for Work and Pensions available to help employees identify and access the support that is available. My Department has set up a restart, recovery and engagement unit to work with the aviation industry on the immediate issues affecting the restart of the sector and its longer-term growth and recovery. As part of that, we have established an aviation restart and recovery expert steering group, which is formed of representatives across the sector, including airports, airlines and ground handlers, industry bodies and unions.
The sustainable recovery of the aviation sector is a core part of our commitment to global connectivity and growing the UK economy. With airports, airlines and other parts of the aviation sector, we are putting in place the building blocks for recovery. The House will be updated as soon as possible on the next steps.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for giving aviation workers in your constituency and across the nation the chance to have their voice heard. I am grateful to the Minister for being a tireless champion for the sector.
This is a hugely challenging time for the aviation economy. Job losses are inevitable, but many of us are concerned that companies are using the pandemic as a justification to slash jobs and employment terms—step forward British Airways, the only airline that is effectively sacking its entire 42,000 workforce and replacing it with 30,000 jobs on inferior terms. BA has tried that before, but its workforce resisted. It is ethically outrageous that our national flag carrier is doing that when the nation is at its weakest and when we expect the country to do its bit.
May I ask the Government to use their full weight to stop unscrupulous employers using the pandemic as a chance to slash terms and conditions? Will the Department ask the Civil Aviation Authority to undertake an urgent review of reallocating lucrative landing slots at Heathrow to companies such as British Airways that indicate that they are downsizing, and perhaps handing them to companies that wish to expand and take on workers? BA has 51% of Heathrow landing slots, including the most profitable to John F. Kennedy airport. Will the Government change the job retention scheme to stop employers using it while simultaneously putting employees on redundancy notice?
On quarantine, that is the wrong policy at the worst possible time for the aviation sector and the economy. It gives companies such as BA justification for shedding staff and worsening terms and conditions. Thirteen of our 15 most popular international destinations have a lower R rate than we do. Will the Government commit to reviewing quarantine, bringing in air bridges from safer destinations, and developing an immediate exit strategy to allow the aviation sector to plan ahead? The situation is grave, but there is still time to save the aviation sector with further Government support and action to ensure that companies such as British Airways do their patriotic duty and stand by their hard-working and loyal staff, rather than deserting them.
I thank my hon. Friend for his work as Chair of the Select Committee on Transport and the fair but firm way in which he is standing up for the aviation sector.
My hon. Friend asked about the Government’s ability to stop employers making poor use of the pandemic to slash terms and conditions. I certainly would not expect employers to use the pandemic as a chance to do so. I think most people would agree that terms and conditions are usually a matter for employees and employers, but employees have recourse to a number of options for support in cases in which that is happening. I highlight the fact that in crises such as this we would hope that all organisations that are taking such measures treat their employees with the social responsibility that one would expect. I will do everything in my power to make sure that that is understood by those organisations.
My hon. Friend asked about the ability to reorganise the slots process. He is right to raise that. The Government are currently legally prevented from intervening in the slots allocation process. However, we want airport landing and take-off slots to be used as effectively as possible for UK consumers. As the UK aviation market recovers from the impacts of this terrible disease, I want to ensure that the slots allocation process encourages competition and provides connectivity, so that is something I will be looking at.
The Prime Minister has been clear, and I will be clear again today, that the job retention scheme was not designed for this purpose. It will be for Treasury to review the specifics of the scheme, and I am sure that colleagues will be taking note of today’s proceedings.
The Home Secretary will be making a statement on the quarantine measures immediately after this, and I do not want to pre-empt her, but I can confirm that the measures will be subject to regular review. My Department, through the aviation restart and recovery unit, is working non-stop with the sector and Government partners to plan for the future of aviation, enabling it to recover. No option is off the table, and we are looking closely at air bridges, which are also known as international corridors. I will be working tirelessly, as I have done over the last 10 weeks, to do whatever I can to mitigate the impacts that have been felt by the aviation sector.
I congratulate the Chair of the Transport Committee on securing this urgent question. The aviation industry is looking to the Chancellor for leadership, but he is not here today, and it has been locked in a holding pattern once again. While the Treasury dithers and delays, the crisis continues to unfold, with 12,000 job losses at BA—a quarter of its workforce; 4,500 redundancies at easyJet; 3,000 staff at threat of redundancy at Virgin Atlantic; GE Aviation making a quarter of its global workforce redundant, with jobs at risk in south Wales; and Airbus describing this as the biggest crisis in its history. So where is the urgency, the clarity and the specific support package that the Chancellor referred to back in March?
This is a sector that contributes £22 billion a year to our economy, with 230,000 jobs across the industry and the manufacturing supply chain dependent on it. It needs to change to meet the challenge of climate change. So why did one industry leader tell the Transport Committee just a fortnight ago that the Government were “asleep at the wheel”? Can the Minister go back and wake the Treasury up?
We have been calling for an aviation sector deal. Can we have one? If so, by when? British Airways has taken taxpayers’ cash to furlough its staff. Why is anyone surprised by that? We warned the Government that this would happen. Will the Government now ensure that any bail-outs come with conditions to protect jobs, workers’ rights and taxpayers’ money? Will the Government ensure that any company in receipt of support from British taxpayers also has its tax base here in the UK? Will the Government hold them to tougher environmental targets to achieve our net zero ambition, rather than simply allowing them to go bust through Government inaction and incompetence?
Finally, we have the Home Secretary ambling along this afternoon with a face-saving quarantine plan that has huge consequences for our economy and without any publication of any evidence to support it on public health grounds. None of this is good enough. This is an issue for our whole economy. With respect to the Minister, her Department is neither use nor ornament. We need the Treasury to act. The Chancellor should be here. They should have turned up this afternoon, and I hope she will take that message back in the strongest possible terms.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his place as shadow Minister. I am responding to this urgent question as the Minister responsible for aviation who has been working with the sector over the last 10 weeks to understand the impacts and the issues related to our airlines, airports and the whole aviation sector.
We cannot overestimate the impact that the coronavirus has had on the whole UK economy, and the aviation sector has been acutely affected. We have been working hard in Government, and it is pretty clear for most people to see the unprecedented level of support that the Chancellor and this Government have delivered across the economy, which has had a massive impact in the aviation sector. The Chancellor was incredibly clear that any business that had explored all the Government schemes and needed bespoke support as a last resort could enter into discussions with the Government. It is absolutely right that we request those private businesses to exhaust all other options before that, including raising capital from existing investors and exhausting all the economy-wide measures that are in place.
The job retention furlough scheme has had a massive impact in the aviation sector in keeping people employed. As I outlined in my opening answer to the urgent question, I will do whatever I can as Aviation Minister to encourage companies to use the furlough scheme and make use of the other Government schemes without making people redundant. We absolutely have not been asleep at the wheel. I am not sure that anybody else recognises that description. Of course, a bail-out by the taxpayer or any other Government support would need to comply with state aid rules and require us to meet our legal obligations, particularly on climate change.
On quarantine, the Prime Minister made it very clear at PMQs just now that we need to keep the infection under control, and the Home Secretary will introduce measures to try to mitigate it.
I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
Aviation supports 1 million jobs in the UK, including 114,000 in aerospace and 1,700 in my constituency, and international air travel is necessary for trade; without it, there is no global Britain. Given that, instead of introducing measures to close Britain off to the rest of the world, why are the Government not taking a lead in developing an international aviation health screening standard, to save jobs and ensure that Britain is open for business?
I recognise the importance of the aviation sector, particularly in my right hon. Friend’s constituency. The restart and recovery unit, which we set up within the Department, is working across Government, the sector, including the airlines, airports and ground handlers, and trade bodies, and looking at how we can do exactly that—get internationally agreed standard health measures. We are working incredibly hard to gain consumer confidence so that people want to travel again. We want to meet our objective of keeping people safe and reducing the spread of coronavirus while also trying to get the aviation sector up and running as quickly as possible.
Back in March, the Chancellor said he was working on a specific package of help for airports and airlines. We are still waiting for that support. Will the Minister press the Chancellor at least to follow the Scottish Government’s lead in giving the industry 100% business rates relief for a year? Will she also echo what the Chair of the Transport Committee said about the despicable behaviour of Willie Walsh and IAG? In the short term, we all understand and accept that the industry needs to reduce in size, but the manner in which Mr Walsh is choosing to do this should be illegal, if it is not already.
This affects the supply chain too. Sadly Rolls-Royce has today confirmed it intends to cut 700 jobs at Inchinnan in my constituency. The company is looking to offshore yet more work, despite having taken UK Government research and development money and job retention scheme money. The UK, but particularly Inchinnan, is being disproportionately affected. Are the Government engaged with, or have they offered any support to, Rolls-Royce to mitigate job losses? Finally, will the Minister join me in urging Rolls-Royce to engage meaningfully with the Scottish Government on supporting jobs at Inchinnan?
The hon. Gentleman has raised several of these points with me previously, and I have tried to articulate to him before the support being offered to the aviation sector. Once it has looked at all the Government schemes and exhausted all other possibilities, such as going to shareholders to see whether they can support their businesses, businesses in the sector can come to the Government to discuss bespoke support. As he would imagine, those discussions are ongoing.
On business rates, which the hon. Gentleman has, rightly, mentioned before, the Chancellor was clear about where those business rate alleviations would happen and that is obviously a matter for the Treasury. On the impact of the reduction in aviation on the wider jobs market in the aerospace industry, and particularly on Rolls-Royce, as I have outlined, the furlough scheme was not introduced in order for businesses to put people on notice of redundancy while they were on furlough. As hon. Members would expect, we will work across Government, including with colleagues in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, to assess the significant impact that will be felt across the economy, and particularly in the wider aerospace sector. We will do whatever we can to ensure that we engage with those businesses and protect as many jobs as possible.
Manchester airport generates 100,000 jobs and is an essential motor for growth across the north of England. If we are to save those jobs, it is essential that companies behave responsibly, and that the Government partner with the sector to ensure that the vital peak summer season goes ahead. For that to happen, we need immediate clarity about the criteria for safe countries, and the names of the countries that will be air bridges should be put in place rapidly.
My hon. Friend is right. Across Government, we are working with the sector, at pace, and with officials and representatives, to get those measures in place so that people can get back into the air and travel as soon as possible. I caveat that with the point that ultimately, limiting the spread of coronavirus and keeping the UK population safe must be our priority, but I am determined and will work hard to find a solution.
As we have heard, British Airways has taken public money from the Government’s coronavirus job retention scheme that was intended to protect workers’ jobs, and instead it has used it to put 12,000 workers on notice of redundancy. The purpose of the scheme is to keep people in work, not to let them go on the cheap. Will the Minister join me in condemning that behaviour, and will she ensure that any further support will protect the workforce as intended?
Shareholders and employers should consider their social responsibility to the people in their businesses. They take the benefits in the good times, and they should share the burden when times are harder, particularly when in receipt of taxpayer moneys. As I have said, I will do all I can to ensure that that is understood by those organisations.
The Minster will be aware of how important the airline sector is to connecting Scotland not just with the rest of the United Kingdom, but with the whole world. With airlines under pressure and flight paths being reduced, there is real concern in Scotland that it might lose out. Will the Minister reassure me that the Government will do everything they can to protect Scotland’s air connections, not just with the rest of the UK, but across the world?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Air connectivity with all our devolved Administrations, particularly Scotland, is important, and regional connectivity and our smaller airports will very much feature in our planning for the recovery stage. I am incredibly cognisant of the fact that we must do a lot of work to keep that connectivity and deliver on our levelling up agenda, and that is exactly what I intend to do.
I thank the Minister for her answers, and I echo the point about the use of taxpayers’ money and the furlough scheme, and the corporate responsibility of carriers such as British Airways. A 14-day quarantine would ground the aviation industry and all jobs and businesses that rely on it, but as yet we have not provided aviation-specific financial support. Given that the 14-day quarantine is in effect a Government mandated shutdown of a large part of the passenger airline industry, does the Minister agree that sector-specific financial support should be provided, as we have done for other sectors that have been directly shut down, such as shops and pubs?
I recognise the importance of the aviation sector in my hon. Friend’s constituency; he has been a champion of it and spoken to me about this issue a number of times already. We absolutely have already delivered unprecedented financial support already for the airlines, which have the ability to access the Government schemes. As we move through the period of restart and recovery, we are working with the industry to assess what the problems, issues and requirements will be. We have not taken anything off the table and we will continue to work through things. We are obviously working closely with the sector to deliver on the quarantine announcement.
It is worth repeating that British Airways, which has benefited from covid-19 taxpayers’ support, has issued redundancy notices to its entire 42,000-strong workforce and shamelessly intends to make 12,000 redundant and to rehire the remainder on much worse contracts. British Airways has taken hundreds of millions of pounds of Government money that is intended to protect workers’ jobs. In the words of the many British Airways employees in my Leicester East constituency who fear for their futures, this is immoral, opportunistic and greedy. Did the Government not agree conditions? Do they plan to stand up to this corporate bully? Will they say now—now—how they will guarantee protections for workers?
I feel the concerns of BA workers and others, and we want to make the point to these organisations that the use of Government schemes is preferable to making redundancies. Terms and conditions are a matter for negotiation between employers and employees—the Government are not part of that—but I have already stated that we would expect employers to treat employees fairly and in the spirit of partnership.
Up to one in three households in the London Borough of Hounslow could be affected by job losses at Heathrow. Will the Government work with aviation communities and their local councils, and with aviation unions, to deal with the economic and social impact on our communities of the decimation of the aviation sector?
I thank the hon. Lady for raising that point, because it is quite right. The Department for Work and Pensions stands ready to support anyone who is affected by the announcements and those job losses. As the Minister responsible for the aviation sector, I have said that I am keen to work regionally, where we can, when particular areas may or may not be affected disproportionately by the loss of these jobs.
Without airports, there can be no aviation sector. Many of our smaller regional airports, such as Cornwall Airport Newquay, have been deeply impacted by this crisis, and there is great concern about their future. Such airports will be vital to the recovery of the aviation sector and, indeed, the wider economy, so will the Minister say what steps she is taking to support our regional airports?
My hon. Friend is quite right that the regional airports—our smaller airports throughout the UK—will be and have been affected by coronavirus. I have given my assurances to those smaller airports that we will work with them on the recovery stage to secure our connectivity. They are important pieces of infrastructure and I am very cognisant of the fact that once such important pieces of infrastructure are closed or lost, it is harder to reinvigorate them, so I will be working my hardest to try to protect them.
My many constituents who are employed by British Airways are absolutely devastated by the threat of losing their jobs and the proposed downgrading of their terms and conditions of employment. That is a message that BA needs to hear loud and clear from this House. I am glad to hear that the Minister shares the concern of so many Members about the proposals, but will she go further and condemn this behaviour and make it a condition of any financial or business support that BA reverses its decision?
I have been clear with the hon. Member for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe) about my position on that particular point. We need to recognise that coronavirus has had an unprecedented impact on all businesses, and that airlines are not immune from some of the financial challenges faced by other parts of the economy. However, we absolutely stand by the point that this was not the intention of the job retention scheme; I think I have already made that point.
If British Airways continues to treat its employees with contempt by refusing to take section 188 off the table and refusing to move the deadline past 15 June, will the Government consider speaking to the Aviation Authority to encourage it to remove the airline’s legacy landing slots as leverage to ensure that it treats its employees with the respect that they deserve?
I agree with my hon. Friend. As I have outlined, businesses get the benefits from being shareholders in the good times, and they should be sharing the burden in the bad times. Ultimately, it is the workers who make—and, really, dictate the success of—any business. I have already outlined that there are opportunities as we work through coronavirus and move to the end of December, and I am quite willing to look at anything that can benefit, open up and increase competition in the aviation sector.
In the Minister’s response to the hon. Member for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe), she said that she wanted to make the point to BA that the job retention scheme was not to be used for redundancies. Can she confirm specifically what engagement the Government have had with BA? It is at least three weeks since I was first contacted by constituents who are appalled by the way in which they are being treated after a lifetime of loyal service. What have the Government actually done to engage with BA on this point?
The hon. Lady will accept that I have been engaging regularly throughout the last 10 weeks with the whole aviation sector, including with BA and other organisations that have made similar announcements, and I will continue to do that. Questions such as this will make a clear point to those organisations. As I have said before, the organisations taking these decisions ultimately need customers, and if customers view that their actions are below par, people might start voting with their feet when booking flights.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) for securing this urgent question. As an MP for Greater Manchester, I am particularly concerned about Manchester airport and the wider impact on the north-west aerospace and aviation industry. Will my hon. Friend the Minister tell me what assessment she and her Department have done regarding employment in the sector itself and in the wider supply chain?
I thank my hon. Friend and note the importance of the Manchester airport, which is close to his constituency, and the work that is done there. We have been engaging with the airport extensively over the past 10 weeks, as hon. Members would expect. We are working across Government, through a Government-led taskforce on aviation. I am working with my colleagues in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to look at the extent of the impact on a wide range of jobs in the sector, not only at airlines and airports. That work is ongoing and will very much influence policy.
Liverpool John Lennon airport in my constituency supports 7,000 jobs and contributes £240 million in gross value added to the local economy, but saw no international flights at all from mid-April to mid-May. The chaotic and strangely timed Government quarantine plan will prevent any early recovery and cost the aviation industry generally more. In view of this, what specific support will the Minister offer to the aviation industry generally, and to regional airports in particular, in exchange for this sudden imposition of Government policy?
Our priority is clear: it has been to halt and limit the spread of the coronavirus. Officials in our Department are working with the sector in order to gain a set of standard health measures that can be applied across the industry and that will be internationally recognised. We are working with the sector to find ways in which we can allow people to travel safely and come into the country without the need for quarantine, but ultimately it is absolutely the right time to implement quarantining as we are seeing a reduced number of transmissions and we want to protect the UK and the people within it.
My constituents in Hertford and Stortford who are employed by British Airways at Stansted airport are desperately worried for their jobs. Will my hon. Friend join me in supporting them and condemning BA? Will she also urge BA—a profitable cash-rich company that has availed itself of Government support in this crisis—in the context of Project Birch to engage with the Government, unions and staff and not to destroy my constituents’ jobs?
Like my hon. Friend, I too have British Airways employees in my constituency and I understand the pain and worry that this is causing those individuals. There is so much concern among the whole of the UK population about what this means for them economically, and I have made the point that this is not what we would expect. Quite rightly, we are not part of the ongoing discussions, but I will monitor them. I will continue to talk to the unions and to those businesses in order to limit the number of jobs that are lost.
I have had scores of emails from people representing years of loyal service to British Airways, who initially welcomed these lefty-looking furlough and job retention schemes and are now finding that the public purse is being used to effectively chuck ’em on the scrapheap. May I ask the Minister to revive another old Labour tradition and, rather than acting a bit like a bystander, bang some heads together and get the unions, the airlines and the Government round the table—they can have beer and sandwiches at No. 10 if they like—to thrash out a sector-specific deal to save aviation in this country?
I like the hon. Lady’s optimism for beer and sandwiches. I personally do not drink beer, so that would not necessarily be of benefit to me. Wine is more to my taste. But I should say that we remain committed as a Government to do what we need to do and align the policies in order to get planes up in the air. The aviation sector is so important for the UK economy and it will remain so, particularly with our regional connectivity. We will work through this crisis with the aviation sector in mind, working on what we can do to mitigate its impact.
Will the Minister continue to press the Home Office on introducing a flexible quarantine rather than a blanket quarantine, so that countries with high infection rates can be targeted rather than every country, including those with low infection rates? While she has the opportunity, given that some extensions have been given to review periods, will she give a commitment to the House that any review, post 29 June, will be for three weeks and three weeks only and will not be extended to four weeks or further?
My hon. Friend is right to suggest that any quarantine review period needs to be understood by the sector. As I have already outlined, we are working with the sector and we are investigating air bridges. There is a lot of work going on internationally as well, with other international organisations, and that is quite right because this is not something that purely affects the UK. In relation to quarantine, a number of countries are following suit or have already implemented measures at this time. The Home Secretary will be making a statement immediately after this in relation to the policy, and I obviously do not want to pre-empt anything that she might say.
It is quite clear from the callous and cavalier attitude of Willie Walsh that he only understands one piece of language, so may I gently suggest to the Minister that this matter definitely needs to be escalated? When will the Prime Minister pick up the phone to Willie Walsh and make it crystal clear to BA that unless it halts its plans, those much-coveted slots at Heathrow will go? We need much stronger language from the Government on this, because many of my constituents are frankly cheesed off about it.
I accept that constituents will be concerned and upset; that is a completely understandable position. I have tried to outline that I will do what I can as aviation Minister to mitigate or limit the number of job losses. We have not stopped working on that—I have not, and the Prime Minister was also clear that this matter was not in the spirit of the furlough scheme—and we will keep on working on that.
The slowdown in the aviation sector is having a big impact on jobs in my constituency—Airbus, Rolls-Royce and GKN employ several thousand people—so does my hon. Friend agree that we must get the aviation sector working again quickly, not only to protect jobs, but to preserve our country’s world-leading industrial manufacturing capability in civil aerospace and, crucially, in defence?
I thank my hon. Friend for that. He is right to say that the success of the aviation industry has a direct impact on some of the wider aviation manufacturing technology being developed in this country, and it has a particular effect in my constituency too. We will continue to work across government to understand the full impact this has in the wider supply chain and to provide mitigation as far as we are able.
On Asda, Marks & Spencer, B&Q, John Lewis and Sainsbury’s, the Minister and I have been here before, when employers have been choosing to reduce terms and conditions for their long-standing staff simply with 90 days’ notice. BA, however, is the employer that bears our country’s name and holds our country’s flag; is this what we want for Britain in post-coronavirus times? We will not fight our way out of a depression by reducing people’s pay.
The hon. Lady is right to say that we have had conversations in this vein many times before. As I said in my opener, I regret the job announcements that the organisations have made. We also need to accept that we are in unprecedented times, and we are working hard with the sector—with all stakeholders, including unions, industry representatives and companies —to fully understand what that will mean for the future and what we need to do to provide mitigation. I have set out my position a number of times today and I will continue to work to try to limit those job losses.
Although the aviation industry will face significant challenges in the months and years ahead, regional airports across the UK will continue to be well placed to increase economic growth and boost connectivity in the longer term. Does my hon. Friend agree that restoring commercial passenger flights from Blackpool airport in the longer term could boost tourism, increase economic growth and really help to deliver the Government’s levelling-up agenda?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right; regional airports can have such a major impact on the local communities they serve, and there is much pride in having an airport within one’s area. These airports are absolutely part of our levelling-up agenda and of being able to increase and improve our UK’s connectivity, not just within the UK, but abroad. That is absolutely part of our recovery and planning for the future,
I echo concerns about the shoddy treatment of BA staff. Newcastle airport is the single largest site for employment in my constituency, supporting 4,000 jobs there and 19,000 across the north-east region. The airport is pivotal to our regional economy. Airports in Scotland and Northern Ireland have been granted business rates relief. In England and Wales, the Government have offered that to retail, hospitality and leisure, but not to aviation. The Minister says that business rates are not for her Department, but the Chancellor is not here. Can this Government not see that this industry needs support, both now and to deal with the future economic storms that are clearly going to come, which will have an impact on areas such as the north-east in particular?
I understand the impact that any reduction in jobs or stress on organisations in the hon. Lady’s constituency will have on her constituency. The Chancellor did announce an unprecedented level of support, and use has been made of that. The option to come to talk to us about bespoke support has been there and is still there. I am continuing to talk to airports and airlines about the ability to tap into that. We will continue to work with those in the sector to mitigate some of the issues and impacts they are understandably feeling at this moment in time.
Constituents of mine have told me that BA’s plan means that they face redundancy, significantly reduced wages and worse working conditions. The company should step back from the brink, and instead work with trade unions and the Government to develop a strategy that protects jobs and the environment. Will the Minister commit to using the Government’s powers to prevent this betrayal of staff, such as withdrawing slots at airports and exploring the option to bring the company back under public control?
I think I have outlined the point quite clearly, and I have answered a number of questions in the same vein. I will continue to do what I can to make organisations in the sector aware that we would rather they used the unprecedented Government support available to them before making redundancies. I absolutely understand the concerns of the workers affected, and we will continue to look at all the options we as a Government have to make use of.
I also represent a number of the British Airways employees affected, and I am grateful to the Minister for her commitment to keep pressurising the airline to try to minimise the number of job cuts. Indeed, I would encourage her to do that not simply with British Airways, but with all the other airlines affected. This sector is the busiest and biggest of its kind in Europe in normal times, and it is crucial to our economy. Can I ask her to work with the Chancellor, as he comes to his next financial statement during the course of this year, to look at a longer-term recovery plan for the sector that goes beyond the immediate Government support and actually sets a path that can put this sector back where it should be, which is at the top of the European league table?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. He is absolutely right about the scale and importance of the aviation sector in the UK compared with other parts of the world, and also about the level of employment that it creates in the UK. I am committed, as the Secretary of State is, to working with the Treasury and across Government—with all Government Departments—to find solutions for a sector that has been affected badly, and obviously may experience a slight lag in the restart due to the nature of the work it does. I am committed to working with my colleagues across Government to find solutions to those questions.
I thank my hon. Friend for her comments, particularly on BA, which is affecting a lot of employees in my constituency as well. Southampton airport is an important contributor to the economic prosperity of the wider region. It has already seen the loss of Flybe, which was 95% of its business, so it was already struggling before covid-19. What further support can the Government give regional airports, such as Southampton, which are relied on by a wide range of companies and are lifelines for business and other travel?
I thank my hon. Friend for her question. I know very well the impact the coronavirus has on Southampton airport, which is a great asset on the south coast. We are engaged constantly with the airports. I am committed to doing that and to having such conversations about what we can do to help those regional airports, and that will continue. We fully understand their pressures, and where we can act, I will do my best to achieve that.
On 12 May, I raised with the Transport Secretary the worries of many of my constituents, some of whom had over 30 years of service. One constituent highlighted to me that, on his road alone, there are five BA members of staff. Let us be clear: these are staff members who have given up birthdays and funerals to serve BA. They have made sacrifices, and they fear losing everything when this sham of a consultation ends in two weeks’ time. Will the Government act urgently now to ensure that support is provided to those constituents and others?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. The Department for Work and Pensions stands ready to help and support anyone who is affected by this. I must reiterate that terms and conditions are for negotiation between the employer, the employee and/or their representatives and that the Government are not part of those discussions. If terms are not agreed to, there are still options for recourse. I am monitoring the situation closely. Many constituencies are affected. We will keep an eye on what happens in relation to the point that she raises, but, absolutely, I want all employees to be treated fairly and given the respect that they deserve for the contribution that they have made to the businesses in which they have worked.
I am grateful to the Minister for confirming that the Government would be willing to enter into bespoke agreements and arrangements with airlines. Given that British Airways in particular is ultimately a private company and thinks that it can behave as disgracefully as it wishes, how do the Government intend to mitigate that?
As I have said, as aviation Minister, I would expect any organisation to treat their employees fairly and in the spirit of partnership. Absolutely, it is a question for the organisations as to whether they feel that they are carrying out their social responsibility and acting in a good way, but there are opportunities for us as we move forward. We have the restart and recovery project in which we are working with the sector to find ways that we can speed up the recovery in the aviation sector. I am sure that, across the Treasury and the Government, we are looking at ways in which we can mitigate all of the things that colleagues have, quite rightly, raised here this morning.
Now is the opportunity to move the aviation sector towards net zero. The Government need to require the gradual blending in of synthetic fuels, first, for all internal flights and then for international flights via international agreements. There is a mechanism for doing this via the renewable transport fuel obligation. Will she commit to making this move towards a net-zero aviation industry?
The hon. Lady knows that decarbonisation of the aviation sector is an important priority both for the Government and the sector itself. They have come together to work towards that. I, as the aviation Minister, and the Department commit to working with the sector to reduce those emissions and to decarbonise the industry as far as we are able.
May I put on record my thanks to the Minister for the meetings that she has had with me and my colleagues over this crisis to deal with the airport situation in Northern Ireland which has its own particular problems? I am sure that she agrees that the staff of British Airways—the cabin crew, the pilots and other staff—who operate out of Northern Ireland feel absolutely betrayed by the conduct of Willie Walsh and the organisation. BA carries the strapline “national carrier”, but that should be changed to “national disgrace” given the way that it has operated. None the less, the Government cannot have it both ways. They cannot close down air traffic, introduce a quarantine that will impact on airports and airlines and then say, “This has nothing to do with us”. Action has to be taken to address this matter holistically. I urge the Minister and the Government to act.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his words, particularly in regards to our regional connectivity. Being able to continue that connectivity with Northern Ireland is a key priority, and it has been good to be able to continue to do that with Government support. We will continue, as I have outlined, to work together across Government with the aviation taskforce, working with the sector, working with experts, and working with our stakeholders in order to try to find solutions. The reality is that, with regard to aviation, there has to be consumer confidence to travel. We need to ensure that we are not only tackling consumer confidence, but creating the right environment with our policies in order to get airlines back in the air. I am committed to working with all our colleagues across Government, as is the Secretary of State, to deliver that.
Section 188 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 creates not just a general duty to consult with employees, but a specific duty to consult on avoiding redundancies, reducing the numbers of those selected for redundancy and mitigating the consequences. Will my hon. Friend commit to including an employment judge or an impartial employment lawyer in the steering group to assess whether BA and other airlines are meaningfully engaging with their statutory obligations and make this a condition of further Government support?
I have received thousands of individually written emails, including from residents in Ilford South, who have collectively spent decades and decades working for British Airways. Unite the Union members have given their adult lives to making British Airways our proud national flag carrier. BA is a multibillion-pound company, with £10.7 billion in liquid and other assets if we include the parent company, International Airlines Group. Will the Minister seriously consider whether any mechanism can be brought forward by the Government to look at the allocation of slots? Those slots are the most lucrative part of the operation from which BA makes its profits. That might make IAG, Willie Walsh and all the people swinging the axe on tens of thousands of people—remember, not only all of them being sacked and then re-engaged—sit up and actually listen to how serious Members are across this House. If not, will she ask whether they will return the British flag, because they do not deserve to carry it on their planes?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for questioning me on that particular point in the Transport Committee. I very much recognise his support for his constituents. The point I will make is that this has been a commercial decision taken by British Airways. We would absolutely expect any organisation entering into this process to do so with fairness and in the right way for its employees. I will do my best to work with colleagues across Government to deliver the support needed by those affected, and to try to our best to mitigate the job losses that are coming because of an unprecedented reduction in the number of flights that is not specific to the UK.
Moray is well served by Inverness airport, which has been operating only essential flights during the pandemic. Will the Minister outline what support the Government have given and will continue to give to regional airports such as Inverness, which serves people in Moray and across the north of Scotland?
We will continue to work with our regional airports to understand the full impact coronavirus is having on the operation of their businesses. As I outlined, regional connectivity is a priority for the Department. I will continue to work with individual regional airports to deliver on what we can do. Policy levers are available to us, and we will be exploring that more within the restart and recovery unit.
May I raise with the Minister the particular issue of the British Airways Avionic Engineering site in Llantrisant in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones)? I pay tribute to her for all the work she is doing to support the workforce there. Many of my constituents are facing the consultation now. It cannot be good enough for the Minister to simply say that the Department for Work and Pensions is ready to offer support if they lose their jobs. These are highly skilled, well paid jobs in south Wales. The site is worth £1 billion to the south Wales economy and over £6 billion to the Welsh economy as a whole. I do not doubt the Minister’s sincerity, but her answers just are not good enough. My constituents, and constituents up and down the land, are desperate for Government intervention to support the aviation sector and all the jobs that many tens of thousands of them rely on.
The hon. Gentleman knows I have great respect for him, but we are supporting the aviation sector. We have delivered unprecedented Government support and those organisations have the opportunity to talk to us with regard to bespoke support. He is absolutely right that we in Government will try to deliver what we can to support those colleagues, but we also need to be asking those organisations how they will support workers affected by the commercial decisions they are taking. I will continue to do what I can in my capacity.
Much of the anger that has been expressed in this House is because British Airways has taken advantage of a Government scheme intended to protect jobs and used it as a convenient funding stream for a long-planned corporate restructuring. It is a breach of faith. Does my hon. Friend agree that British Airways should pay a price for that breach of faith?
My constituents have had to make huge sacrifices during this terrible outbreak, and they have responded with real solidarity, helping others and following the rules. Now those who work at the British Airways call centre in Newcastle see the contempt in which they are held, and they feel abandoned, betrayed and blackmailed. Does the Minister agree that, just as with Governments, businesses will be judged by their response to a crisis? Does she think that British Airways’ response is worthy of our national flag?
The hon. Lady is right: businesses are judged by the way they behave and the way they treat their employees. We will need to wait to see how British Airways is judged by the consumers and customers they reach out to, and I will do whatever I can to work with the airlines to mitigate any job losses.
I understand the public concern that has given rise to the policy on quarantining, but would it be worth publishing the economic and public health impacts of that policy, with and without air bridges, to properly inform the public debate?
The Home Secretary will make a statement directly after this session, and I would not want to pre-empt anything that she may be inclined to speak about. It is right that at this time, as we see a reduction in the spread of domestic cases, we do whatever we can to limit imported cases. That is why the decision has been taken. As I have outlined, I have been working hard with the sector, the team at DFT and across Government to find solutions to ensure that we can get aeroplanes in the air and passengers on their holidays as quickly as possible.
The Minister must have made an economic assessment of the effects of quarantine. Does she accept that there is no point in quarantining people coming from countries with a relatively low disease burden to the UK? If she does, which European countries specifically has she in mind for quarantine, since pretty much all of them have a lower disease burden than the United Kingdom?
My right hon. Friend will know that in DFT, we are working closely with our colleagues in the Home Office on the implementation of the borders and quarantining policy, to ensure that we are expressing the concerns and needs of the aviation sector and looking at how that can be implemented practically. There are a number of differences in the implementation of quarantining and other measures in many countries across Europe and the rest of