The business for the week commencing 8 June will include:
Monday 8 June—Second Reading of the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill [Lords].
Tuesday 9 June—Second Reading of the Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill.
Wednesday 10 June—Motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to the draft Court of Appeal (Recording and Broadcasting) (Amendment) Order 2020, followed by a motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to the draft Civil Aviation (Insurance) (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020, followed by a motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to the draft Water Industry (Specified Infrastructure Projects) (English Undertakers) (Amendment) Regulations 2020, followed by a motion relating to the Adoption and Children (Coronavirus) (Amendment) Regulations 2020.
Thursday 11 June—Remaining stages of the Birmingham Commonwealth Games Bill [Lords].
Friday 12 June—The House is not expected to be sitting.
I thank the Leader of the House for the business, and for finding time for the debate on the adoption and children regulations.
There were two pictures of long queues: one was of us in Parliament; the other was outside a furniture store, with better social distancing than we had. When someone gets to the top of one queue, they get a cushion and perhaps some meatballs; with us, someone might even get infected. I notice that the Prime Minister and the Minister for the Cabinet Office were not voting with us all, but the Leader of the Opposition was there. That image of our Parliament is going to live with this Government forever—time wasting, shambolic, breaking the rules, putting people’s lives at risk.
I do not know whether the Leader of the House has seen the notice around Parliament saying, “Avoid crowded areas and don’t move around the estate”, both of which the Leader of the House has ignored when he switched off the hybrid Parliament. His response to my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) was to talk about the Chamber, but my hon. Friend was talking about the 400 of us who were waiting in and confined in Westminster Hall. Parliament is a local setting where there is a risk of an outbreak. Those are the Government’s own rules.
The Government are putting the House staff, the Doorkeepers and all of us at risk. They are alarmed that one of the Government’s own Ministers—the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy—has now contracted the disease. I was here yesterday evening when he was taken ill, and we wish the right hon. Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma) well.
This is discriminatory towards hon. Members. The Leader of the House has disenfranchised hon. Members. Quite frankly, it is disgraceful and it has brought Parliament into disrepute. Our position is that a hybrid virtual Parliament and remote voting should continue, at least until the R level has reduced and the alert level has gone down. Meanwhile, the other place is actually moving towards a digital voting system.
The other big returners this week were the schools. How is that going? Headteachers are saying that it was highly variable. A school had to close because seven teachers had contracted the virus. Could we have a statement next week on what the position is with each of the schools and what the next steps are for them? I saw the Leader of the House chatting with the Secretary of State for Education—actually, they were not social distancing—so perhaps he could encourage him to come to the Chamber next week.
I asked the Leader of the House on Tuesday whether a risk assessment had been undertaken on the effect on black, Asian and minority ethnic staff of their return to work. Has that been done? We now have a Public Health England report that seems to be floating from one Department to another. The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care has passed it to the Secretary of State for International Trade like a hot potato. We heard during the urgent question today that the Cabinet Office will now be taking it forward. My right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne) is acting like a responsible mayoral candidate and has set up his own inquiry in the west midlands, where there are concerning figures about the number of BAME people who have died. He is not excluding submissions like the Government have. We need an urgent statement on which Department has responsibility for this report and the terms of reference.
Another inquiry was promised by the Prime Minister. On 26 February, he pledged to the House, in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne), that an independent inquiry into the Horizon IT scandal would be set up. It has left sub-postmasters devastated. They were innocent, and some of them have killed themselves. When will the Government release details of the timetable and the scope of the inquiry?
I do not know whether the Leader of the House has had time to make any further inquiries about Nazanin, Kylie and Anousheh. It is Gabriella’s sixth birthday. I do not think she has had a single birthday where both her parents have been there. All these innocent families are caught up for no reason.
The Leader of the House talks about the accountability of the Government. That is what we would like, so why are responses to written questions coming back saying,
“The information you have requested is not assured to the standard required by ONS for publication and as it would be too costly to do so, we are unable to provide it”?
That is a bit rich, when the chair of the UK Statistics Authority has raised concerns about the Government’s own reporting of testing data, which appears to contain a substantial number of as yet unpublished results, based on statistics for which no citation is available. I suggest that those Members who have contacted me because they have not had a response to their written questions write directly to the Leader of the House, and he will take it up with the appropriate Department.
Finally, I want to say to the staff of this House: I am sorry that the Government put you through the risk on Tuesday, and thank you for all your help and courtesy— that goes to everyone, including the Doorkeepers and the Clerks, who were sitting at the Table as we filed past to vote.
May I start by responding to the important question that the right hon. Lady raises every week about Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe? Of course, the Government continue to be in touch, and the consular officials are working. It is good news that Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe is still on temporary release, but I have no further news to report. I continue to welcome the right hon. Lady’s regular mention of this distressing case, because it ensures that pressure is kept up. I will continue to pass on what she says to the Foreign Office, so that the governmental systems are ensuring that representation is properly made for a British citizen.
The right hon. Lady asks why we were queuing when our constituents were queuing. I think it is fairly obvious why we were queuing: we were queuing because we have our democratic duty to do. We have a legislative agenda to get through. We made commitments to the British people in December to get Bills through Parliament. The Domestic Abuse Bill is a very important one. The Northern Ireland legacy Bill is another important one. There is also the Fisheries Bill and the Fire Safety Bill—I could go on and on. We have really important legislation to get through that we committed to the British people to get through. How many of those Bills do the Opposition want to abandon? Probably all of them, because they are the Opposition, and of course it is their job to try to stop us getting our legislation through.
We should lead by example. Across the country, people are going back to work. The right hon. Lady mentioned schools. How can we look teachers in our constituencies in the eye when we are asking them to go back to work and saying that we are not willing to? We have to be back here delivering on the legislative programme, but also being held to account. It is fascinating that the Opposition seem so reluctant to hold the Government to account, but it is right that we should be held to account, and that is done effectively by being in this Chamber. It is important that while we are here, we follow the social distancing rules. Look around the Chamber and through the whole Palace: there are marks showing the distance people should keep. In Westminster Hall, it was made remarkably easy, because the size of the flagstones was large enough to meet the requirements. Certainly I was standing at a safe distance from people. Most Members were. Most Members were standing at a safe distance, and it was marked out for them to do so.
As regards people who cannot attend the House, they will be able to be facilitated. There was a motion we put down yesterday but, as it happens, it was blocked by a Labour Member. It would have facilitated remote appearances by people who on medical advice could not appear. As it happens, we took the definition of who could appear from an amendment tabled by the Opposition, and then the Opposition blocked it. Let us hope we have a bit more success later today, but we are obviously willing to discuss who should be in those categories to try to facilitate people who are unable to come.
The Government’s position is that those who need to go back to work should go back to work, and it is obvious that people in Parliament need to come back to work for the business of this House to work properly. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr Perkins) chunters away inaudibly. I am sure if he tries to catch Mr Deputy Speaker’s eye, he may get a question in, which is the proper way of running this process. People can send in an application—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) always chunters away, but it is noticeable that it was his chuntering last night that stopped people who have to stay away from appearing remotely. I hope he is suitably ashamed of himself today, and it is noticeable that he says one thing and does another.
No, I certainly have not accused the hon. Gentleman of hypocrisy; I would not dream of doing that.
Let me come to the issue of schools and a statement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. He does not need any encouragement to come to this House. He is hoping to make a statement early next week. It is obviously important that the House is updated, but it is also really important for our children’s futures that they are going back to school and that, as with us, is the process of normalisation that we are getting under way.
With regard to coronavirus and the BAME community, the Minister for Equalities, my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Kemi Badenoch), is leading the work on that with Public Health England.
As regards written parliamentary questions, I am taking that up with Departments. We are looking at which Departments are issuing the most holding replies. I make a general point that I would continue to have sympathy with the Department of Health and Social Care, which has been exceptionally busy in leading the response to this crisis. Other Departments, I think, have more reason to be fully up to date with their written parliamentary questions.
Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the reopening of places of worship? Yesterday we heard the exchanges at Prime Minister’s Question Time, but as we are easing lockdown and will allow social distancing in shops, surely to goodness we can allow social distancing in places of worship, which at this particular time mean even more to so many people.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this question. I have heard what His Eminence the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster has had to say, and he is a very important figure in this debate. He has called for places of worship to open, and they do indeed offer a great deal of spiritual succour to many people. The Government are working with the Churches to get them reopened as soon as is practicable. Having religious succour is going to be important for those who have faith.
Once again, my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) has been denied the opportunity to do his job because the Government have removed his ability to participate remotely. Much of the drama this week could have been avoided by simply letting this week continue under the hybrid arrangements. The usual channels could have used the recess period to come to an agreement about the way forward. We understand that the Government want to get their business done, but we have a right to hold them to account, and that is being denied to us. I hope that there will be progress on the motions on the Order Paper this evening, because too many of Scotland’s MPs are being actively excluded by the lack of remote participation. Many, including our shadow Leader of the House, are doubly excluded because they speak on behalf of the party as well as of their constituents, and they can currently do neither. None of the events this week that the shadow Leader of the House mentioned has been edifying, and none of them has helped to strengthen the Government’s precious Union. The Leader of the House might want to think about that.
We have still been left with more questions than answers. There needs to be one clear definition of who can participate remotely and apply for a proxy vote, and it has to take into account the circumstances not just of the Member but of the household they live in. There will also need to be answers about how track and trace applies to the House. All of us hope that the Business Secretary recovers quickly from his illness, but do Members who take ill in the Chamber self-isolate in London or return to their constituencies? Do the Government have a continuity plan in place for the operation of the House if—quod avertat Deus—there is another serious outbreak here in Westminster?
Much of the business that has been announced for next week has little relevance to Scotland, but the Leader of the House can be assured that we will use whatever opportunities we can to hold the Government to account. He will need to find time for the Foreign Secretary to make a statement about the Government’s relationship with the United States of America and what steps they are taking to ensure that tear gas, rubber bullets and riot gear produced in or sold from the UK are not being used to oppress peaceful protesters in the States. That is a huge concern to many constituents.
Finally, I would like to echo the thanks to all the staff and support services of the House who are working under immense pressure and in difficult circumstances, particularly the chaplains, who are providing pastoral support. Father Pat continues to celebrate the Wednesday evening mass, and yesterday marked the martyrdom of the Ugandan martyrs. Black lives have mattered for a very long time, and that is a legacy that we all have to be aware of.
May I begin by thanking the hon. Gentleman for the support that he has given to us in getting our motions through to allow for remote participation for those who, for medical reasons, cannot come and to allow for proxy voting? I would point out that I indicated to the House on 20 May that we would be making facilities available for those who could not come to the House to appear remotely, and I mentioned on Tuesday that I was not ruling out proxy voting, so the Government has always been willing to listen to what hon. and right hon. Members have to say—[Interruption.] If people sometimes listened rather than just heckling, they might actually find out the reality of the situation.
The relationship of this country with the United States is always of great importance, and the Foreign Secretary is a regular attender of the House to be questioned on these matters. Foreign Office questions are later in the month, but this is a matter of continuing interest in the House widely and will always be discussed.
I share the hon. Gentleman’s view that we should pay tribute to chaplains. He mentioned Black Lives Matter, and I would say that the Holy Father reminded us all yesterday that racism is a sin. It is important to bear in mind that it is a sin; it is something that is fundamentally wrong and wicked. The Holy Father also encouraged us to pray for the soul of Mr Floyd, and I would encourage hon. and right hon. Members to do that.
Can the Leader of the House tell us what steps are being taken to ensure that we deliver on our important legislative agenda, as we have been tasked to do by the British people? In particular, will he ensure that everything possible is being done to deliver the Domestic Abuse Bill, the Fisheries Bill, the Trade Bill and the Northern Ireland and counter-terrorism legislation in the coming weeks?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to make the important point that we need to deliver our legislative agenda, and that is why we need to be back physically. We were getting no Bill Committees or statutory instrument Committees, and the routine work of legislation simply was not taking place with a virtual Parliament. The Chamber was taking place in a limited way, but we had not got to the Public Bill Committees and we were running way behind on the business that we needed to attend to. Under the virtual system, we went down to a third of the time debating public Bills that we had had in the week before we had to go away, earlier in March. We therefore needed to get back to make sufficient progress with these important Bills.
I understand that we are due to have some time for estimates day debates in early July, so Members across the House need to be thinking about submitting applications for the subject matter, and the Departments that they want the estimates day debates to be about, to the Backbench Business Committee by no later than a fortnight tomorrow, Friday 19 June.
We are reassembled here in the House of Commons this week so that the Government can carry forward their legislative programme and, as the Leader pointed out, to hold the Government to account. However, I note with regret on behalf of the Committee that the business statement did not include any Backbench Business debates next week.
With no Backbench time, we, as elected Members, are mainly able to hold the Government to account only through debates on subjects of the Government’s own choosing. May we therefore have a debate, in Government time, on the way in which our parliamentary agenda is constructed, and the need to uphold the spirit of Standing Orders with regard to the allocation of time for Back Bencher-generated debates, to be able to hold the Government to account on subject matters of Back-Bench Members’ choosing?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for reminding hon. and right hon. Members about the estimate day debates, and to put in for subjects that they will want to discuss. It is right that Members should be able to hold the Government to account, which is why we are having the considerable additional time that we achieve by being back physically. The virtual Parliament meant that there was significantly less time for debate and scrutiny.
Adjournment debates are now back, so we are beginning to bring things back. Unfortunately, the period when we were not operating at full capacity has meant that the Government’s agenda is behind schedule, but I am well aware of the Standing Orders and I am very keen that Backbench business should be facilitated in due course.
Following the Prime Minister’s positive comments yesterday, will my right hon. Friend find time for a Government debate on how we can use green, low-carbon industries to help to power up our economy in areas such as Bolsover and in towns such as South Normanton to provide new skilled jobs in the future?
Yes, I commend my hon. Friend for ensuring that his own constituency is properly represented in this way. It is clear that the UK, along with the rest of the world, is facing considerable economic disruption as a result of the coronavirus, and the Government are developing a strategy for an ambitious programme for our economic recovery from the global pandemic.
The Government are committed to investing in green industries, and I assure my hon. Friend that this is one of their highest priorities. I believe it is important to invest in new and sustainable technologies, which will help to boost employment, grow our economy and protect the environment in future. I hope that that will particularly be the case in Bolsover.
Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the decision by Natural England to object to any proposal that would stop the erosion of cliffs on the Isle of Sheppey? I warned Natural England of the likely consequences if nothing were done to solve the problem, but my pleas for a change of policy fell on deaf ears. Its refusal to act has resulted in a family’s home crashing into the sea, leaving them with nothing more than the clothes on their backs.
In addition, 10 other families have been evacuated because their homes are in danger. They, too, could lose everything that they own. My hope is that a debate on the Floor of the House might embarrass Natural England into changing its mind, and allow something to be done to help my constituents, who feel abandoned by the authorities.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that deeply distressing matter in the House on behalf of his constituents. It is hard to think of anything worse than having to move out of one’s house, or being left just with the clothes that one was wearing at the time one’s house fell into the sea, because something had not been done that would have prevented that from happening. I therefore share my hon. Friend’s concerns about the effect of coastal erosion on seaside communities, particularly those in his constituency.
I point out that the Environment Secretary will be in the House to take questions on 25 June, which I believe will be a useful opportunity to address the matter to the Secretary of State, but my hon. Friend is right to use the procedures of this House to ensure that quangos are held to account, as well as Government Ministers directly.
I recently had the pleasure of voting while strolling outdoors in the company of the Leader of the House for 43 minutes when he was simultaneously being barracked by his own colleagues for the arrangement that has put in place for voting. I am glad that he responded to my intervention on him on Tuesday about proxy voting, but why will he not simply allow Members to self-certify and thus treat them as “honourable” Members? The Prime Minister calls for British common sense, but from the Leader of the House we get no House of Commons sense.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. The precise details of how people get a proxy vote is for agreement between Mr Speaker and the leaders of the three main parties—the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the leader of the Scottish National party. That is the provision in the Standing Orders relating to proxy voting—that is how it has been done for paternity and maternity leave—and what the level of certification would have to be within that. Maternity and paternity leave requires specific certification. The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point about whether that is necessary in this case.
The social distancing guidelines of 2 metres unfortunately threaten the future viability of pubs, bars and restaurants in my constituency of Newcastle-under-Lyme and across the country. I appreciate that they are based on scientific advice, but from the evidence we have heard in the Science and Technology Committee and from international comparisons, it is apparent that there is a gradient of risk. In my opinion, it is for the House to assess the appropriate level of risk, so please may we have a debate about the guidelines?
I am sure that my hon. Friend has also seen an article in The Lancet, which went through those issues in considerable detail and was widely reported. Obviously, the Government keep under review all the measures that they have implemented to continue to reduce the flow of this terrible disease. We also need to play our part in not making it worse by not allowing us to go back to square one. People should therefore currently follow the guidance to stay 6 feet apart. The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies has been clear that the easing of social distancing has to go slowly. Politicians ultimately have to make decisions but they need to be advised before they make them.
I place on record my association with the shadow Leader of the House’s concerns about the wisdom of our physical attendance here today.
Today is the 30th anniversary of the massacre in Tiananmen Square. It would be appropriate if the Government marked that by announcing time for a statement or a debate on what the pathway to citizenship for British national (overseas) passport holders in Hong Kong will actually look like. Just yesterday, remarkable statements came from a senior executive in HSBC and from Standard Chartered Bank, apparently supporting the Chinese terror legislation. Goodness only knows what pressure was put on those banks to bring about that remarkable statement, but it makes it clear that we need to hear sooner rather than later exactly what the Government intend.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for reminding us of the anniversary of Tiananmen Square, though I must confess that I had not personally forgotten it. It is a reminder of what communist totalitarian regimes are capable of. The Prime Minister has made it clear that we will stand by our duty to the British nationals overseas—the holders of BNO passports and those who are eligible for them. They will be entitled to come here for a longer period and there will be a pathway to citizenship for them. The behaviour of the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation is of course a matter for that corporation, but it may be that it is more closely allied to the Chinese Government than to Her Majesty’s Government.
Will the Leader of the House please tell the House what impact covid-19 has had on the progress of the Government’s legislative agenda and what measures he is taking to ensure that the Government deliver on all the manifesto commitments that we were elected to deliver just six months ago?
As I said, during virtual proceedings we were not able to have any Public Bill Committees or secondary legislation Committees. That has meant that there is a blockage in our legislative agenda and we were running at about one third of the time available for our Bills to go through the necessary procedures. Those Bills are important—they affect people’s lives: the Domestic Abuse Bill, the Northern Ireland legacies Bill, the Fire Safety Bill, the Trade Bill. A whole number of Bills deliver on the promises we gave to the British people and that is why we have to be back here to ensure that we as politicians do what we said we would do.
Will the Leader of the House agree to a statement or a debate to honour those who have returned to service in the NHS? I am talking about those who have retired—doctors, nurses, care assistants, pharmacists, occupational therapists, lab technicians and workers in every other essential area? Every one of us here knows of workers who waded into this battle when, by rights, they could have stayed where they were, having paid their dues and retired. Does the Leader of the House not agree that special note must be made of those who knew what they were going to face but who waded in regardless of their own health?
Yes, indeed. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to pay tribute to those who, at a risk to themselves, decided to go back to serve on the frontline, helping people in ill-health and ensuring that as many people as possible could recover from the coronavirus. He is right to suggest that and to raise it on the Floor of the House. I cannot promise him time for a specific debate, but it may well be that he can get an Adjournment debate to discuss this matter and bring it to wider attention.
Can we have a debate to highlight the great work that our teachers have been doing across the country during this pandemic? Such a debate would allow me to put on record the thanks of Keith Grammar School pupils past and present for the great work their now former rector, Jamus Macpherson, has done. Sadly, Jamus has had to retire early due to ill health. Will the Leader of the House join me in thanking Jamus for his service? As a former pupil of Keith Grammar School, he has led it incredibly well for the past eight years, and we wish him and his family well for the future.
I very much join my hon. Friend in thanking the recently retired rector of Keith Grammar School for his dedication and commitment to educating the children of Moray for many years. School leaders and staff have done a fantastic job, preparing to open more widely and welcome more children back, implementing a range of protective measures and reassuring families about how children will be supported. The safety of hard-working staff in schools is absolutely paramount, as it is for the children. Teachers, along with all other essential workers, deserve praise and recognition for their efforts throughout the pandemic. May I say that all of us—every single one of us—remembers a teacher who was influential in our own lives, and I pay a tribute to my own former headmaster, Sir Eric Anderson, who died recently. He was a wonderful and inspirational schoolmaster.
On the first Thursday that we are not clapping for carers, would the Leader of the House agree with me that all key workers who are keeping our country going yet dying at a disproportionate rate should not be exposed to unnecessary risk? Will he schedule a debate in Government time on one category of workers—transport workers—who cannot work from home, unlike MPs who have seen that we can? In that way, lessons can be learned, action can be taken and we can ensure that the lives of Belly Mujinga, the ticket officer at Victoria Station who died after being spat at, and Ranjith Chandrapala, the bus driver serving Ealing Hospital who died of covid-19 at Ealing Hospital, have not been in vain.
Oh, Mr Deputy Speaker, may I thank the hon. Lady for raising that question and for the tribute that she paid to transport workers who have carried on throughout the crisis, ensuring that key workers can get to their places of work? They have performed a noble and important service and they deserve to be recognised. It is important to remember the number and variety of people who have kept our country going during this pandemic. I cannot promise her time for debate, but her comments are absolutely welcome and the right ones to be making, so I thank her.
The ability to work from home and to home school has been frustrated for many of my constituents in villages such as Addington by poor broadband speeds. Can I ask my right hon. Friend to prioritise time to bring forward this Government’s excellent commitment around delivering gigabit broadband for the hardest-to-reach areas first?
My hon. Friend raises a crucial matter. While many people up and down the country have managed to work from home successfully thanks to new technology, it is important to remember that many others have faced challenges. The Government are committed to delivering nationwide gigabit-capable broadband coverage as soon as possible. I hope that this will be able to assist his constituents and others who have found it difficult to work from home using local broadband. Gigabit-capable coverage now stands at 19% and we welcome the pick-up in build rates from industry over the past year. However, we still have far to go to achieve nationwide coverage. We understand the challenges in achieving this, particularly in the hardest-to-reach areas. As a result, we committed in the Budget £5 billion of taxpayers’ money to ensure that these areas are not left behind. We will continue to take action to remove the barriers to commercial network roll-out.
Tuesday’s voting was chaotic and brought this House into disrepute. The end of the queue was moved from one vote to another, which left Members wandering around not knowing where to join the end of the queue and inevitably breaking the social distancing rules. The organisation of this lies at the door of the Leader of the House. He was determined to bring us back, yet the organisation was chaotic. We need to end this Mogg conga that we have to participate in; we need to move into the real world, and allow virtual voting and virtual participation in this House. What does it say to our constituents if this House has to lock down again because of the chaotic organisation of the Leader of the House?
May we have a statement in Government time about the situation of zoos and wildlife parks, which are desperate to reopen and should not be kept waiting until 4 July?
Is there a possibility that the Leader of the House, the shadow Leader of the House and the Speaker might come together to decide whether there is any way in which we, as a House, can show solidarity and support for Britain’s black community in the shocking aftermath of the slow-motion murder of George Floyd on the streets of our democratic ally, the United States?
I will, if I may, answer the second question first. It was such a shocking scene, and I can only repeat what the Holy Father said, which is that racism is a sin, and murder is a mortal sin, and anyone seeing those pictures must watch them in horror. It is difficult to change from that subject to talking about zoos, although they are important to the people who run them. I understand the point my right hon. Friend has made and I will ensure that it is taken up with my colleagues in government.
This week, I heard that the BBC’s “Politics North” will not be returning before the summer recess—no return date has been given for it—nor will the award-winning current affairs show “Inside Out”. Regional television news has been performing very strongly during the current pandemic, and it is vital that communities in the north-east and across the country are given a regional voice and that our politicians can be held to account. So may we have a debate in Government time on the reduction in these vital services and the future of regional programming?
I understand that “Points West”, the programme in my constituency in Somerset and the region, is more watched, proportionately speaking, than “EastEnders”, which is an indication of how popular these programmes are and the local service that they provide. David Garmston, the local broadcaster in Somerset, is one of the most popular figures around. It is very important that local television is kept up. However, it is a matter for the BBC as to how it allocates resources, and this may be a subject worth raising in an Adjournment debate.
The Leader of the House and I have more in common than he might want to believe, in that we are both traditionalists on how this House should operate, and I have missed the cut and thrust of debate. However, he is tin-eared and not following his own Government’s advice, which is to work at home if possible. Up and down the country, businesses and organisations are making massive compromises and working in different ways, yet he seems to think it is okay to exclude Members of this House from full participation and to put our constituents up and down the country at risk as we all come together, from all four corners of the UK, and then go back out again, while we are still at risk from this virus. Will he not reconsider and allow us to continue our good work but do it remotely?
Indeed we may have more in common than most people know; we were at Oxford together, and when I arrived the hon. Lady was a most distinguished officer of the Oxford Union, somebody I looked up to and continue to look up to as a distinguished figure. I followed in her footsteps and later became an officer of that same Oxford Union. However, I would deny the charge of “tin-earedness”; I think we are in line with what the country is doing. We are coming back to work because we could not do it properly while not being here. I would ask again: which of the important Bills do Opposition Members not want? Do they not want the Domestic Abuse Bill? Do they not want the Fire Safety Bill? Do they not want to stand up for our fishing communities with the Fisheries Bill? Do they not want the Northern Ireland legacy Bill? What is it that they wish to abandon? Which parts of our country do they wish to let down? We must come back because we have a job to do.
The Leader of the House will be aware that some Brexit myths and untruths are currently being peddled by certain sections of the media. Will the Leader of the House please reassure me and the constituents of Ashfield that there will be no extension to the transition period?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for asking this vital question, and I am sure we can agree that ensuring we leave the transition period successfully in full by the end of this year is one of the Government’s—and, even more importantly, the British people’s—highest priorities. An extension of the transition period would be in neither the UK’s nor the Europeans’ interest. Both parties want and need to conclude a deal this year to complete the transition period. An extension to the transition period would bind us into future EU legislation without us having any say in designing it, but still having to foot the bill for payments to the EU budget. We must be able to design our own rules, because that is in our own best interests, without the constraints of EU regulation. I would like to assure my hon Friend and the people of Ashfield that the Government are delivering on their promise. Will we have an extension? To quote Margaret Thatcher, “No, no, no.”
The people of Chesterfield were incredibly happy when Derbyshire clinical commissioning group set up a coronavirus testing unit in the car park of the Proact stadium in Chesterfield, but weeks after it was set up, the vast majority of people from Chesterfield are unable to get a test there, because it is only for key workers, meaning that Chesterfield residents have to travel 30 or 40 miles to get a test. I have been attempting to pursue this, but it seems to be a local example of the national failure. All this testing capacity is going home after an hour every day and people are unable to get a test. Can we have a debate in Government time on the Government’s entire testing strategy so that people can bring local examples and help the Government to really get on top of testing?
The testing strategy has achieved 205,000 tests as of the 30 May in terms of capacity, and that is important. It is the largest diagnostic testing programme in our history, and from scratch it has in a number of weeks got to more than 4 million tests having been undertaken. So that is a significant success, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care has driven this personally, and has, to my mind, done absolutely brilliantly in managing to force something through that would not have happened without his individual and personal determination. However, the hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and this is one of the ways in which this House being here is always so useful, because specific constituency examples where things can be improved can be brought to the attention of the House. I will certainly pass on to my right hon. Friend the point that the hon. Gentleman has made.
Can the Government find time to debate the appropriate mechanisms for connection of the new wave of offshore wind turbines and farms to the national grid and include consideration of an offshore ring main?
That is particularly important to my constituency of North Norfolk, where many cable corridors are being built across the rural countryside, causing enormous disruption to residents. Surely it is now high time that the Government review the current method of connection to the grid.
In case that was not heard by Hansard, it is worth recording for the record that the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) said it was a current pun. I think that is very good: at least it was not a Bath bun.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and I know that offshore wind farms play a significant role in his constituency. I assure him that the Government want to foster as successful an offshore wind industry as possible. Thanks to the Government’s intelligent approach to delivering offshore wind, I am pleased to say that we have managed to offer significant savings for the consumer while also increasing the supply of green energy. Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy officials are working together with organisations such as Ofgem and the National Grid electricity system operator to consider the appropriate framework for offshore transmission to support increased ambition for offshore wind. I recommend that my hon. Friend take this matter up at the next oral questions with BEIS on 16 June.
The Leader of the House says that Bills cannot progress, but that is not quite accurate. Bills can progress if there is the will for them to do so. Digital sittings could allow for that to happen in the same way that Select Committees are happening. I am in the Finance Bill Committee upstairs this morning and this afternoon. This could easily happen if the measures were put in place to do so, and it is a decision by the Leader of the House not to put those forward. Will the right honourable vector explain why he wants to put not just us but the low-paid catering and cleaning staff of this House, our constituents and anybody else we might meet between here and our own constituencies at risk?
The cleaning staff were coming in anyway, and it is worth remembering that the cleaning staff were coming into this House when we were not. Frankly, the idea that others should work when we do not have to is one that I find unimpressive. Bill Committees were not established while we had a virtual Parliament. Second Reading of the Finance Bill is normally an unlimited debate, and that has been used by Opposition parties over the years to debate for many hours, sometimes with great distinction in what they had to say—
Sometimes, and that allows proper scrutiny to take place. We did the Finance Bill in four hours, with an interruption after two hours. That is nothing like the proper level of scrutiny. Both from the Opposition’s point of view in holding the Government to account, and from the Government’s point of view in getting their important Bills through, the hybrid Parliament was not working.
A really dry spell has left the Pennine moors as dry as a tinderbox, and sadly, there have been moorland fires in the past few days at Digley reservoir and Dovestone, adjacent to my constituency. I would like to put on record my thanks to the firefighters, the mountain rescue teams and all the volunteers who tackled those fires. These moors are not only a beautiful habitat; they have captured and stored tonnes of carbon, so they are also important for our environment. Can we have a debate on having enforceable fire bans, to help protect our moorlands, and consider bans on the sale of disposable barbecues?
It is obviously important that members of the public treat our beautiful countryside with respect and care. It was a great shame to see the news of fires on the moorlands near my hon. Friend’s constituency, and he is right to praise the local fire brigade for the way it tackled the blaze. Everyone should follow the countryside code and not light fires or use disposable barbecues, which can be devastating to people, property and habitats. That does not mean, however, that we should ban everything, and I am always very cautious about having further bans. We have seen devastating wildfires erupt around the world in recent years, and I am sure he will agree that this shows the importance of taking care of our countryside in the most intelligent and prudent way.
St Andrews University is the largest employer in my constituency. It is already facing the financial impact of covid-19 and an effective cap on Scottish student numbers. Now, on the basis of the funding package available only to English universities, it faces a cap on the number of English students it can admit. A written statement has been published on the matter, but this cap has been applied with no consultation with Scottish universities. Does the Leader of the House agree that the Government should make time available for a debate on the cap, which impacts not only Scottish universities but higher education institutions in the other devolved nations?
The hon. Lady raises an important point about the difficulties that universities across the United Kingdom will be facing. It is an obvious problem with what is happening and with the need temporarily to restrict numbers because of the consequences of the coronavirus. As I said earlier, the Secretary of State for Education will come to the House, hopefully next week, and I am sure that the hon. Lady will be able to raise her concerns then.
As we have noticed on being back in the Chamber this week, many of us across the House are in desperate need of a trip to the hairdresser. As we begin to look at measures for such businesses to reopen in July, when can the House expect an update, so that hairdressers, hotels and other hospitality businesses can adequately prepare to reopen with social distancing measures in place?
When I was a child I remember there being a song called “Long Haired Lover from Liverpool”. I have never aimed, in my whole career, to end up looking like the long-haired lover from Liverpool, but I fear I am heading in that direction. I have never had longer hair and I am beginning to wonder whether I ought to ask nanny if she can find a pudding bowl and put it on and see if something can be done as an emergency measure.
Of course nanny is part of the household. What a daft question. But I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that the Government are working with industry representatives to develop safe ways for some industries, such as hairdressers, to reopen at the earliest point. I think many of us will feel there is a burden lifted from our shoulders when the hairdressers are reopened.
Talking of Liverpool, at the beginning of the covid crisis the Government instructed local authorities, including Liverpool City Council, to do whatever it takes to facilitate the lockdown, rather than worry about how much it costs to take the measures they were taking. However, Liverpool City Council and Knowsley Borough Council have since been allocated only half of the costs they have incurred, despite being one of the hardest hit hotspots in the country. May we have a debate in Government time on why the Government have broken that clear promise to the local authorities in my constituency about giving back the full costs of covid?
The Government have spent £3.2 billion of taxpayers’ money to help councils. We made a grant payment in May of £1.6 billion as an unring-fenced amount to councils and we have provided a further £600 million to fund infection control in care homes via councils, so the Government have provided a lot of taxpayer-funded support for councils across the country and therefore have lived up to their commitment.
I welcome the work the Government are doing at a national level on the track and trace strategy, but there is only so much that phone apps and national call centres run by Deloitte and Serco can do. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the role of local councils, local public health professionals and community groups is equally important, and that, in military terms, we need human intelligence as well as signals intelligence to defeat this enemy, and that means boots on the ground? Will he find time for a debate about the relationship between Public Health England and local authorities?
I thank my hon. Friend for his characteristically wise question. I agree with him about the important role of the local community in tackling the coronavirus. I hope I can reassure my hon. Friend that a huge local and national effort is under way to ensure our track and trace system is as effective as possible. Our 25,000 contact tracers will be in touch with anyone who tests positive for coronavirus and they will need to share information about their recent interaction. I am encouraged that councils have been producing local outbreak plans to contain outbreaks in their area. All upper tier local authorities are producing their plans this month. So I think local and national are working together, but his question is certainly a wise one.
This week marks 36 years since the then Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, ordered her abhorrent attack on the most revered Sikh shrine, the Golden Temple complex in Amritsar. It eventually led, under a media blackout, to the destruction of historic structures, the genocide of the Sikhs and the burning of the Sikh reference library. That is why Sikhs can never forget 1984. I am sure the Leader of the House will agree with me that it is atrocious that many still struggle for justice. Perhaps he can explain to me why, despite recent revelations and given the huge demand from within the British Sikh community and the support of the Labour party and other Opposition parties, an independent inquiry to establish the extent of the Thatcher Government’s involvement in the attack has still not been held? May we have a debate on that?
It is an important anniversary to remember. The question the hon. Gentleman raises is one he could raise in an Adjournment debate, but I have every confidence that Margaret Thatcher, one of the greatest leaders this country has ever had, would always have behaved properly.
Like many Government Members, I greatly welcome the decision for Members to return to Parliament to deliver on the Government’s legislative agenda. That reflects the way we are encouraging people across the country to return to work and restart the economy where it is safe to do so. However, it is important to bear in mind the particular requirements for those for whom that is not necessarily feasible, including some disabled people. I wonder whether my right hon. Friend could advise me, perhaps by way of a statement, how such adjustments will be made here and how I can ensure that they are made in my constituency.
I would encourage all Members able to do so to return to Parliament. The limitations of virtual proceedings have meant the Government have not been able to make sufficient progress on their legislative programme, which has had a real-world impact: the Domestic Abuse Bill, the Northern Ireland legacy Bill, the Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill. Members will agree that these Bills are of huge importance to the British people. We in Parliament are responsible for passing essential legislation that improves the lives of people across the United Kingdom. I recognise that health is a deeply personal matter, and MPs with health concerns will need to decide what is appropriate for them. My hon. Friend will be aware that the Government have tabled motions to allow virtual participation in interrogative sessions for Members unable to attend for personal, medical or public health reasons, and to extend proxy voting to those same hon. Members, but I am always open, and always have been, to listening to any suggestions that right hon. and hon. Members have to make.
The Leader of the House is rapidly building a strong claim to the title of the worst holder of the job in living memory. He is supposed to be the voice of the Commons in government as well as a member of the Government, and he is failing dismally at that task. He illegally shut down Parliament, then he unilaterally abolished the perfectly fair system of electronic voting and hybrid proceedings developed to ensure at least some scrutiny of the Government during the pandemic. His pièce de résistance was the absurd spectacle he created on Tuesday, the coronavirus conga, which put at risk the health of Members and staff in this place. The discomfort of the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the right hon. Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma), last night perfectly illustrates the risks his arrogance have created for Members and staff in the House. Can he show some bravery and make time next week for us to debate his disastrous record and perhaps even call for his resignation?
The hon. Lady so overstates that she undervalues. What she has said is so overcooked and exaggerated: we poor Members, we could not queue for a little time to do our public duty. How hard was it? It was very amusing reading in The Times how some Members were quite incapable of walking in the right direction, though I think that more their problem than mine.
And a point of order.
If necessary, if the next business is objected to, we will be counting Members in all parts of the House, including upstairs in the Galleries.
I now call the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) to propose a debate on a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration under the terms of Standing Order No. 24. He has three minutes in which to make such an application.