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Commons Chamber

Volume 677: debated on Thursday 11 June 2020

House of Commons

Thursday 11 June 2020

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 4 June).

[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]

Oral Answers to Questions

Cabinet Office

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Leaving the EU: Transition Period

The transition period ends on 31 December 2020. Under no circumstances will the Government accept an extension. Indeed, we have a domestic law obligation not to accept. Extending would simply delay the moment at which we achieve what we want and what the country voted for: our economic and political independence.

I am keen to ensure that new arrangements following the end of the transition period work for small businesses in Broxtowe. Will my right hon. Friend outline what steps he is taking to support small businesses facing considerable uncertainty over their future because of the covid-19 pandemic and the end of the Brexit transition period?

My hon. Friend is right that small and medium-sized enterprises face particular challenges at this time, and that is one reason the Government are doing everything they can to ensure that customs intermediaries and others who can support small businesses to continue to export—indeed, to enlarge their export profile—are put in place.

Does the Minister agree that businesses, not just in Bury South but right across the country, simply want to remove the uncertainty that comes with prolonging negotiations and feel safe in the knowledge that a firm mandate for the negotiations will allow businesses to prepare properly and prosper?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I know that the businesses for which he speaks up so effectively in Bury South and elsewhere want uncertainty removed. That is why we are clear that we will end the transition period on 31 December, which is a position I understand the CBI is now in favour of.

The Minister talks about certainty, and he is right: businesses need certainty on the outcome of the talks. On Tuesday, the Paymaster General told the House:

“On… zero tariffs and zero quotas, our policy has not changed.”—[Official Report, 9 June 2020; Vol. 677, c. 161.]

That was the pledge the Conservative party won the election on. But last week, the Government’s chief negotiator wrote:

“we would be willing to discuss a relationship that was based on less than that”.

Who is speaking for the Government—the Paymaster General or their chief negotiator?

The Paymaster General speaks eloquently and powerfully on behalf of the Government, and it is right that we seek what the political declaration also commits the European Union to, which is a zero-tariff, zero-quota arrangement.

EU Trade Negotiations

What recent assessment he has made of the state of trade negotiations between the UK and the EU; and if he will make a statement. (903079)

What recent assessment he has made of the progress of negotiations on the UK’s future relationship with the EU. (903090)

What recent assessment he has made of the progress of negotiations on the UK’s future relationship with the EU. (903091)

UK and EU negotiators held discussions last week via video conference and covered the full range of issues. Both sides engaged constructively, but sadly there was no movement on the most difficult areas where differences of principle are most acute—notably on fisheries, governance arrangements and the so-called level playing field.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that he will not sacrifice access to our waters for any trade deal with the EU and will he make it clear to Mr Barnier that that is not negotiable?

Our excellent chief negotiator, David Frost, has made it clear to Michel Barnier that we will be an independent coastal state, that we will control who has access to our waters and on what terms, and that access to our waters will be subject to annual negotiations.

Is not the real problem that Michel Barnier has absolutely no room for manoeuvre because he has to do what has been agreed with the other 27 countries? Is not that lack of agility and flexibility the very reason we have decided to leave the EU and why companies such as Nissan and Unilever, which has announced this today, are centring their operations here in the United Kingdom?

My hon. Friend puts it perfectly, and his question is its own answer. I do not think we have heard any sage of Lichfield since Dr Johnson who has put things quite so well.

With such slow progress on the talks, the Government somehow believe they can hold the EU bloc to ransom, but all they are doing is taking the country perilously close to no deal. Will the Minister confirm that the Government will do everything in their power to reach an agreement and translate legally what is written in the political declaration? On one specific point, will he push for the ability of the devolved Governments of Wales and Scotland to participate in the Erasmus programme and other schemes, so that students do not to miss out, if he will not stand up and do that for England?

We all want an agreement, and I am grateful for the support and help that the devolved Administrations have given. I talk regularly to them, as does my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General. We know how important Erasmus is to many, and we will continue to seek membership of those programmes across the United Kingdom.

The British people were promised an oven-ready deal, but given the speculation in recent weeks, what they have is half-baked. Will the Secretary of State therefore commit to no unpicking of the political declaration or the withdrawal agreement—the work of the past three years?

Not only was an oven-ready deal secured, but we had that oven-ready deal delivered and agreed to by this House earlier this year, which is why we left the European Union on 31 January. Of course, we will always honour the withdrawal agreement and, as far as the political declaration goes, it commits the European Union to use its best endeavours to secure a zero-tariff, zero-quota arrangement, and we hope that the EU will do that.

As my right hon. Friend knows, article 184 requires both parties, including the European Union, to use their best endeavours to reach that agreement. Will he update the House on the progress that has been made, and cite one significant thing that he thinks would help things further?

Progress has been made and, on a number of issues—on fisheries and on state aid—Michel Barnier has indicated that he is inclined to move. Some EU member states have been a little more reluctant. It would be in everyone’s interest—EU member states, the Commission and, of course, the United Kingdom Government—if Michel Barnier were able to use the flexibility that he has deployed in the past to secure an arrangement that would work in everyone’s interests.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s hard work in this area. He has been quite clear that we will have full control over our economic destiny in future. Does he agree that, now more than ever as we emerge from this pandemic, it is vital that we look to forming new trade relationships and partnerships around the world?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, and that is one of the reasons why the Secretary of State for International Trade opened new trade negotiations with Japan this week and why she is in trade negotiations with the United States. However, it is not just trade deals that matter; it is also export promotion. The Department for International Trade is doing a superb job in making sure that businesses are equipped to take advantage of the new markets, which I know that he, as a strong voice for business, is committed to supporting.

The Government’s approach to trade negotiations with the EU and with the US will have huge implications for all of us. The Government’s election manifesto guaranteed that food imports would have to be produced at the same standards as in UK farming. The EU also says that a free trade deal depends on the UK maintaining those high standards. Does this remain Government policy in our approach to EU and other trade negotiations, and, if it does, why were such commitments not upheld in the Agriculture Bill?

It is absolutely our commitment to make sure that we uphold those very high standards. The Agriculture Bill will ensure not only that those high standards are upheld, but that public money is spent on public goods and that environmental enhancement is at the heart of how we manage our countryside alongside high-quality food production.

I am afraid that that does not quite answer the question about why the amendment from the chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee was not accepted. Let me push the right hon. Gentleman a bit further. He said on “Countryfile” in October 2018 that

“there is no point in having high animal and high environmental standards if you then allow them to be undercut from outside.”

When pressed on whether it would be a red line in any trade discussions, the Minister stated, “absolutely”. Yet on Tuesday in this House, in an answer to a question about such standards, the Paymaster General said that

“we should trust the consumer.”—[Official Report, 9 June 2020; Vol. 677, c. 162.]

Are we, or are we not, able to trust the Government to maintain such standards? Can the Minister guarantee absolutely that there will be no dilution of environmental or animal welfare standards, and that the Government will not risk our ability to secure what is supposed to be an oven-ready trade deal with the EU for the sake of getting any deal with the US that would hurt British farming and water down environmental and animal welfare standards?

Not only was our deal oven-ready, but anything that goes into UK ovens will always meet high quality standards. More to the point, the Paymaster General and I, and the whole of Government, are like peas in a pod. We are committed to making sure that high animal welfare and environmental standards continue to characterise British farming, which is the best in the world.

We all know that the right hon. Gentleman is not very keen on economic forecasts, but given the growing warnings from business—the latest today has come from the CBI—he must be aware of the damage that would be inflicted on businesses by red tape, tariffs and loss of access if there is no agreement reached with the European Union in the next four months. We all want a deal, but, with British businesses already reeling from coronavirus, what does he propose to say to those businesses come January if the Government’s gamble does not pay off?

The Government are not gambling. The Government are holding the European Union to account for its commitment to secure a zero-tariff, zero-quota deal and to use its best endeavours, and I have confidence that the European Union will do that.

Digital Technology

The Government have implemented the technology code of practice and service standard, which provides Departments with technical support and case studies to improve how they design, build and buy digital technology to give citizens the best services. The Government Digital Service is also building digital capacity through the Digital Academy and applying the innovation that we might find in the private sector at public sector scale through the GovTech Catalyst fund, to support the use of emerging technologies.

I thank my hon. Friend for her reply, and I add my thanks to the amazing work that Jen Allum and her team have done during this crisis. Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a huge opportunity in the fact that the UK has moved quickly to cashless transactions and digital government, and that as we move beyond this crisis, it is important that we do not regress and that we unleash the opportunity for economic growth?

Yes, I do, and there are two points to make here. First, the Government have taken unprecedented steps to support the economy through the immediate crisis, looking towards a strong and sustainable recovery. Secondly, I think we all recognise that digital payments have positively transformed the way that many people buy things and transact, and we are committed to supporting those payments while protecting access to cash for those who need it.

Public Sector Frontline: PPE

What steps his Department is taking to support the procurement of personal protective equipment for frontline public sector workers. (903080)

What his Department’s role is in the procurement of personal protective equipment for frontline public sector workers. (903099)

We are supporting the Department of Health and Social Care to get personal protective equipment to those who need it. We have expanded both overseas supply and domestic manufacturing and scaled up our logistics network for delivering that PPE to the frontline.

I have been proud to join Carshalton and Wallington residents who are volunteering to deliver PPE, and, thanks to the voluntary sector in my area, St Helier Hospital and GPs are well stocked. What assurances can my right hon. Friend give me that as lockdown measures are eased, PPE will continue to reach the frontline, particularly in care homes and on public transport?

We have 400 officials working on ensuring that we have robust PPE supply chains. I thank my hon. Friend and all those who have volunteered alongside him. That last-mile delivery has been critical in getting equipment to the many hundreds of organisations that have needed it in our constituencies, and volunteers have been critical to doing that.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking all the wonderful volunteers on my patch who have been making scrubs and all the local textile companies that have switched production to help produce PPE, including McNair Shirts in Slaithwaite, which has been producing gowns for my local hospital? It needs help in getting specialist material, which is being bought up centrally by Government and is sitting in a warehouse. Can my right hon. Friend see whether we can get some of that material to McNair so that it can make gowns for the local hospital?

I thank all those people in my hon. Friend’s constituency, no matter which sector, for the work they have been doing on PPE. It just shows what can be done when the private, public and third sectors work together and are facilitated in doing that. If he writes to me with the details of those organisations, I will see what we can do to get them those raw materials.

Boundary Review

What steps his Department is taking to ensure equal constituency boundaries for the next general election. (903093)

The Parliamentary Constituencies Bill received its Second Reading last week. It delivers our manifesto pledge of equal and updated parliamentary boundaries. The Bill determines that the next boundary review, due to start in 2021, will complete by 1 July 2023 at the latest, and after that boundary reviews will take place every eight years.

I thank the Minister for that response. The building blocks for all the new constituency boundaries are local authority ward boundaries. In London, the vast majority of local authorities have recently had boundary reviews within their boroughs by the Local Government Boundary Commission for England, but they await orders in the House of Commons to implement them. When will my hon. Friend implement those orders, so that the new ward boundaries in London come into operation and the Boundary Commission can commence its review of them?

I thank my hon. Friend for that important question, which allows me to clarify that the laying of the orders is the Local Government Boundary Commission for England’s responsibility. I understand that, following a pause because of coronavirus-related restrictions, the commission intends to resume laying the orders before Parliament this month. There are nine areas in which revised electoral arrangements are agreed but an order is not laid, all of which are in London, and the commission intends to lay those over the summer and autumn.

My constituency is one of 27 in Greater Manchester, where electorates range from 63,000 to 95,000, and it is under-represented in this place. Does my hon. Friend agree that more up-to-date equal boundaries will give people fairer access to their elected representatives?

Yes, that is exactly what they will do. That range in constituency sizes is unacceptable, and the Parliamentary Constituencies Bill will achieve not only updated but equal constituencies and fair votes. A vote cast in any part of Manchester should be just as good as one cast anywhere else in that city or the UK.

As a result of the Bill, England looks set to increase its number of constituencies at the expense of Scotland and Wales. What action are the Government taking to prevent the weakening of Scottish and Welsh voices in this place and to both strengthen and defend the Union?

There is an awful lot of action on those scores. The boundaries Bill does an important thing first—paying equal respect to all nations of our United Kingdom—because we on the Government side believe in the Union. We believe it is incredibly important, and we believe that people’s voices ought to be equal between and within the countries of our United Kingdom.

It is interesting that the Minister talks about the importance of equality and ensuring that every vote counts equally when her Government is pushing a policy that could see some votes count more equally than others. In the light of the Windrush scandal, where we discovered that some communities find it harder to access proof of identification than others, in the days following the Black Lives Matter protests, and knowing that, for instance, 76% of the white population hold a driving licence compared with 52% of black people, if she really wants to ensure that every vote counts equally, will she ask herself: why continue with these discriminatory policies?

Because they are not discriminatory. The hon. Lady sees evils where they do not exist. Everyone on the Government side of the House, and I hope everyone in the House, agrees that black lives matter. She is wrong and has been wrong every time she has tried to run that argument about voter identification. It is a reasonable thing that many other countries do, and it will improve the security of our voting. The evidence shows there is no impact on any particular demographic group.

Lockdown Easing: Public Confidence

What steps he is taking across Government to increase public confidence in the policy of easing the covid-19 lockdown. (903082)

We recognise the range of emotions that people are feeling about the lifting of restrictions. Tremendous sacrifices have been made to get the virus under control, and incredible patience shown. We published our recovery strategy on 11 May and each day our measures follow the approach it sets out. Protecting public health is, and must always be, our No. 1 priority.

We are determined to get the UK economy—including the hospitality sector—up and running again and our schools reopened. Research published in The Lancet last week showed that a physical distance of at least 1 metre—or, if my right hon. Friend insists, 1.09 yards—

I thought he might. That was strongly associated with a lowered risk of transmission, but a distance of 2 metres was likely to be more effective. The advice therefore remains that wherever possible the public should keep two metres from one another, but the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies keeps that under review.

Can the Minister think of one specific episode in the past few weeks that might have done more than anything else to undermine the Government’s public messaging on covid? If she is struggling, let me give her a clue: Specsavers.

The hon. Gentleman raises a serious point, but if he thinks that that has undermined public health messages, I would strongly suggest he might like to stop banging on about it.

The failure of this Government to take the Cummings episode seriously has not just compromised the public messaging; it is worse than that for them—it has compromised their credibility and popularity, which have now taken the catastrophic nosedive they thoroughly deserve. The public anger over Dominic Cummings has not abated, as the right hon. Lady will see if she looks at her inbox. The whole battle against covid has been wrecked by the pathetic protection of this odd man. Is Dominic Cummings really worth all of this?

It is absolutely vital in every part of our United Kingdom that people follow the advice of our respective chief medical officers. They should do that not because I, the hon. Gentleman, any politician or any adviser asks them to, but because it is the right thing to do to protect our families, our communities and our NHS and to get the economy moving again. I know that the hon. Gentleman is angry, and many people are angry, but that is what we need to focus on and that is the message we need to deliver. I thank everyone in this country who has followed that advice, because they are beating the virus.

Special Advisers: Code of Conduct

What recent assessment he has made of the compliance of Government special advisers with the code of conduct for special advisers. (903083)

What recent assessment he has made of the compliance of Government special advisers with the code of conduct for special advisers. (903085)

What recent assessment he has made of the compliance of Government special advisers with the code of conduct for special advisers. (903095)

Paragraph 9 of the code of conduct for special advisers states:

“The responsibility for the management and conduct of special advisers, including discipline, rests with the Minister who made the appointment.”

It is therefore for each appointing Minister to ensure that their special advisers operate within the terms of the code of conduct.

I hope you had a pleasant birthday yesterday, Mr Speaker.

Public health experts have voiced concerns that Dominic Cummings did undermine public trust in lockdown rules, going against the principle of integrity that is in the code of conduct. Will the Cabinet Office conduct an investigation into potential breaches of the code of conduct by Mr Cummings, or have Ministers yet again decided that they have had enough of experts?

I am not sure whether the hon. Lady listened to the answer I gave, which was that the responsibility for those decisions rests with the appointing Minister. In this case, that is of course the Prime Minister, who has accepted Mr Cummings’s explanations and has defended that at this Dispatch Box and elsewhere. There is little further to add to that. Of course, if it helps you, Mr Speaker, I can also add that Durham constabulary has said that there is nothing further to do, and the Cabinet Secretary has responded to Opposition Members, including the SNP party leader in this place, to say he is also satisfied.

The Minister referred to the code of conduct for special advisers in her earlier answer. Paragraph 14 states:

“advisers must not take public part in political controversy”,

including speeches to the press. The Prime Minister says that, somehow, Cummings did not offer his resignation, and nor did the Prime Minister think about asking him. What does the Cabinet Minister think would be adequate sanctions for Dominic Cummings to face for breaking the code of conduct?

I have answered that question. It is extraordinary that we have heard four questions in a row from the Scottish nationalist party, who have little more to say on the subject of how, as a country, we should emerge from coronavirus and how we should continue, as my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General explained, leading people and asking them to follow the remaining stages of the plans, so that we can keep safe and move the country on. Have they nothing better to say?

Thank you, Mr Speaker. First, it is the Scottish National party—I would hope the Minister would at least get the political party correct. We know that Mr Cummings is in contempt of Parliament for refusing to appear before the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster also said previously that Mr David Frost should be able to appear before Committees, but he could not guarantee it. Is it okay for this country to be run by unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats?

Allow me to let the hon. Gentleman into a secret: the country is not run that way; the country is run by Ministers who are accountable at this Dispatch Box. I do, of course, accept that Scotland runs its affairs in respect of what is devolved to it, as does Wales and Northern Ireland. However, we have a huge opportunity here to be working together not only for the good of the Scottish people or people anywhere else in the country, but together as a United Kingdom. I am so sorry that we have not seen a better attempt to do that from the hon. Gentleman and his team this morning. They are focused on the past, not the future.

Weddings: Covid-19 Restrictions

What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the extent to which covid-19 restrictions will apply to weddings taking place in (a) 2020 and (b) 2021. (903084)

In step 2 of our road map to recovery, we are committed to exploring how we can enable people to gather in slightly larger groups to better facilitate small weddings. My right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary is exploring with ministerial colleagues a range of measures to do that.

Thousands of couples planning to tie the knot this year have had their plans postponed by the pandemic. The next few weeks, as we approach midsummer day, would of course have been peak season. Through no fault of their own, they will have none of the legal protections of marriage until next year—maybe longer—when they can reschedule. Will the Government consider creating a temporary declaration of intent for those couples, backed by the state, so that they are not prejudiced in law or taxation before they finally take the plunge?

May I thank my hon. Friend for the campaign he has been running? I have spoken at length with him on many Cabinet Office calls about the cases he has in his constituency. I know that some of his cases, and those of many hon. Members across the House, will involve older people who are taking greater risks. Many people will have gone back into work for the NHS and are deeply concerned, should they become infected, what that would mean for their fiancé/e. The Justice Secretary is apprised of the issue. I think there are some difficulties with the particular route my hon. Friend sets out, but I know that my right hon. Friend will be bringing forward measures very soon.

Test and Trace Application

What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care on the (a) development of the NHS test and trace app and (b) trial of that app on the Isle of Wight. (903086)

What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care on the (a) development of the NHS test and trace app and (b) trial of that app on the Isle of Wight. (903089)

The NHS test and trace service is already alerting the close recent contacts of everyone who tests positive for the virus, so that they can self-isolate to prevent the spread. The app is intended to complement that service and continues to be piloted on the Isle of Wight. Consideration is being given to next steps in light of the wider NHS test and trace programme.

Given that we have known for months about the disproportionate impact of coronavirus on black, Asian and minority ethnic communities across the UK, I am confused as to why the Government chose to trial the NHS contact tracing app on the Isle of Wight, an island with an overwhelmingly white population. We know that BAME communities are less likely to trust the app due to their experiences of discriminatory policing and there is potential for existing biases to be amplified by algorithms. With that in mind, does the Minister still think that the Isle of Wight was the right place to trial the app?

The hon. Gentleman makes a series of very important points. The Isle of Wight was an appropriate place in which to trial the app, because by definition trialling it in a geographically secure, as it were, community was one way to make sure that we could conduct that trial in an effective way and in a way that allowed us to learn lessons rapidly. Trialling the app in other parts of the United Kingdom would have posed significant challenges, but he is absolutely right to remind us that the BAME community is more affected by covid-19, and that there are elements within the BAME community that have concerns about the exercise of state power in maintaining public order and in other areas. We are very sensitive to both of those issues. It is absolutely critical that we continue to work to identify more effectively those factors among the BAME community and others which predispose them towards either catching the virus or suffering more adversely. Of course, when it comes to our proud tradition of policing by consent and the protection of civil liberties, we need to maintain those traditions in order to command the confidence of all our citizens.

It’s been a shambles, hasn’t it? Announced in May, hiring paused in mid-May, targets missed, tracers reporting that they have been paid to sit at home and watch television as there is no work for them—and now, changes to the app are being considered and it is not going to be working properly until the autumn. Does the Minister stand by his fulsome praise of the Health Secretary or agree with scientists who said only days ago that the Government’s whole test-and-trace strategy is simply not fit for purpose?

Well, I think it is fit for purpose—not just that but it is an effective way of ensuring that we can work together in order to contain the virus. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady says from a sedentary position that the scientists are wrong. I disagree with her; I think the scientists are right.

Critical Infrastructure: Resilience

Each Government Department is responsible for the resilience of critical national infrastructure in their sectors. They report to the Cabinet Office on their plans through annual sector security and resilience plans. The Cabinet Office co-ordinates the work of Departments where risks require a cross-sector response.

While we welcome investment into the UK, our national security powers on the ownership and control of companies, including national infrastructure, urgently need strengthening. So when the Government bring forward measures, hopefully shortly, will they ensure that telecoms, nuclear and other critical national infrastructure, as well as our technology base, will be protected from hostile states and state-backed enterprises, including protecting assets such as intellectual property?

My hon. Friend raises an extremely important and relevant point. I would expect nothing less from him given his experience in working at the Ministry of Defence. He will know from that time why it is appropriate that we bring forward the national security and investment Bill.

Covid-19 Services: Private Provision

What assessment he has made of the (a) effectiveness and (b) value for money of Government contracts with private companies to provide public services in response to the covid-19 outbreak. (903103)

What assessment he has made of the (a) effectiveness and (b) value for money of Government contracts with private companies to provide public services in response to the covid-19 outbreak. (903114)

The private sector has been absolutely vital to the covid response and continues to be so. Despite the speed that procurement has had to run at, value for money and quality remains our top focus.

Contact tracing is highly skilled and sensitive work. Does the Minister really believe that recruiting contact tracers to work for little more than the national living wage in call centres run by Serco, which in 2019 was investigated by the Serious Fraud Office, is the best way to deliver it?

If the hon. Lady has concerns about any aspect, whether related to a company or practices within a company, she should please raise it with the Cabinet Office. People have raised questions about Serco which I understand have been answered, and it has self-reported to the Information Commissioner’s Office.

Rather than relying on local authorities and public services, since the start of the covid crisis, well in excess of £1.7 billion of taxpayers’ money has been spent by this Government on outsourcing directly related to coronavirus. Given that normal procurement rules have been suspended by the Government, there is no requirement for companies to go through the usual competitive bidding process to be awarded contracts. But lo and behold, major Tory party donors and prominent Members on the Government Benches—including Ministers, may I add—have major shareholdings in or are inextricably linked to many of these firms. So will the Minister commit to making public details of all negotiations pertaining to those companies?

First, procurement rules have not been suspended. One of the absolute key focuses is to ensure that the very many companies that have stepped forward to help this nation in this response are appropriate. We know that the quality of what they are offering to procure has been absolutely where it needs to be. A huge amount of work has gone into that. I pay tribute to the civil service, and particularly to the procurement team in the Cabinet Office, for the sterling work they have done.

With regard to any allegations the hon. Gentleman might make against Ministers— and if he is referring to my hon. Friend in the other place—the Cabinet Office has confirmed that there have been no breaches of rules, and I would urge caution that, having had those categorical responses, people are very careful about what they say in impugning the character of colleagues.

Covid-19: Government Contracts

What steps his Department has taken to remove potential conflicts of interest when awarding Government contracts in response to the covid-19 outbreak. (903094)

As we tackle the covid-19 outbreak, it is crucial that Government contracts are awarded efficiently and responsibly to business of all sizes. Paragraph 24 of the Public Contracts Regulations 2015 ensures this by requiring all contracting authorities to take appropriate measures to effectively prevent, identify and remedy conflicts of interest arising from the conduct of procurement procedures.

Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi), it was clear that transparency is absolutely vital to public trust in Government. Given that the Minister for the Cabinet Office, Lord Agnew, is responsible for the Government’s policy on coronavirus procurement and is also a shareholder in Faculty, a company that has recently been contracted to provide coronavirus-related services to Government, should not the Government make public the details of the services that Faculty will be providing and Lord Agnew’s involvement in any negotiations?

I refer the hon. Lady to the previous answer from my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General, which sets out the situation very clearly.

Voter Identification

The Government are, as I referred to, committed to introducing voter identification to strengthen the integrity of our electoral system and give the public confidence that our elections are secure and fit for the 21st century. As promised in the Queen’s Speech and our manifesto, we will bring forward legislation to do that.

Across this House we need to make sure that we trust the results of the ballot box to protect our democracy. What assurances can my hon. Friend give that every eligible voter, irrespective of their socio-economic background, is encouraged to vote?

I can absolutely give my hon. Friend that assurance. This touches on the answer I gave earlier, whereby the evidence of our pilots shows that there is no impact on any particular demographic group from this policy. Indeed, the experience of it in Northern Ireland shows that turnout and participation do not come down. Furthermore, I am doing work throughout this with various organisations that represent groups who may have anxieties on any of these scores, and I am extremely keen to make sure that we resolve those concerns and, as he says, encourage everybody to register to vote.

Future Relationship with the EU

What plans he has to change the size and strength of the negotiating team working on the future relationship between the UK and the EU. (903107)

We have no plans to change the size of the negotiating team working on the future relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union. As Eric Morecambe said of Ernie Wise, it is “small and perfectly formed”.

Some of us on the Committee on the Future Relationship with the European Union are very worried about the Secretary of State. He was very lacklustre when he gave evidence to the Committee recently, and we are very sympathetic. This is a tough job. In reality, we have only five months to get it right for the country. Is it not a fact that there is a rift between him and the Prime Minister? The Prime Minister is not good on detail. There is a rift between them—does he need more help to overcome that?

I am always grateful to the hon. Gentleman for offering to step in as a marriage counsellor. I have to say, notwithstanding my earlier reference to Morecambe and Wise, that the Prime Minister and I, when it comes to everything, are like the two Ronnies, so it’s goodnight from me and it’s goodnight from him.

Personal Protective Equipment

What proportion of personal protective equipment procured by the Government during the covid-19 outbreak was manufactured by UK businesses. (903112)

The whole country is facing an unprecedented crisis, and British businesses have risen to the challenge with offers of help. Businesses across the UK have stepped up to provide PPE including aprons, face masks, visors and gowns. We have now signed contracts to manufacture over 2 billion items of PPE through UK-based manufacturers, and we have already taken delivery of products from new certified UK manufacturers.

There is no doubt that the devastating consequences of covid-19 were exacerbated because the Government allowed stockpiles of PPE to be run down and were too slow to anticipate the level of need that there would be. Given that in a worldwide pandemic there will inevitably be worldwide demand for PPE, do the Government now accept that it was a mistake to place so much reliance on overseas investors?

The Government have been working around the clock to get frontline NHS and care workers the equipment that they need to do their jobs safely and to save lives. Since the start of the outbreak, we have delivered over 1.7 billion items of PPE across the health and social care system within England. Plus, tens of millions of items have been distributed to the devolved Administrations. We will continue to pursue every possible domestic and international option for PPE procurement.

Topical Questions

Tomorrow I will chair the UK delegation at the second meeting of the Joint Committee overseeing the withdrawal agreement, and I look forward to having productive discussions with Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič.

It is marvellous here, Mr Speaker. Given the Cabinet Office’s unique role in co-ordinating across Government, will the Secretary of State commit to taking up the Leader of the Opposition’s call for a national mission to get children active, social and ready for learning this summer by using charities, clubs, theatres, musicians, libraries and others, given the damage caused by his Government’s mismanagement of school reopening?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady. She is very knowledgeable and committed when it comes to ensuring that our schools do better for all students. We will work not just with the Leader of the Opposition but with others across civil society and do everything possible to ensure that those children who have lost out as a result of not being able to be in school can benefit from appropriate learning in appropriate circumstances.

My right hon. Friend will know more than most that under the amended lockdown regulations, the Government must now review the need for those regulations periodically. Will he commit to publishing a statement at the end of each review period, explaining the reasoning for either amending the regulations or, indeed, keeping them as they are?

That is a characteristically good idea from the Chairman of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, and I will discuss it with my Cabinet colleagues.

The terms of reference for the Public Health England report on covid-19 disparities promised recommendations for further action to reduce disparities in risk and outcomes, yet the report did not include a single recommendation. The Government have since announced that the equality hub in the Cabinet Office will review existing actions, commission further data and undertake further engagement. I ask the Minister: where is the urgency? On what date will we see a clear, detailed action plan to stop further preventable deaths and address the appalling inequality of this pandemic? When will the Government demonstrate, with their actions, that black lives matter by putting in place the protections that black, Asian and minority ethnic workers and communities need to keep them safe from coronavirus?

The hon. Lady raises a very broad question. As the Secretary of State for Health has pointed out, many of those who have been in the frontline of the fight against coronavirus have come from BAME communities. We know that they have been disproportionately affected both by the spread of the virus and by its severity. It is vital that we not only develop a more sophisticated scientific and medical understanding of why, but also protect those communities and do everything to ensure that they are safe from the virus and supported if it affects them or their families. Every day, I and other Ministers are asking for more evidence and more action.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that getting children back to school is vital? Will he commit to marshalling all the resources of central Government to support the Education Secretary to do just that? (903136)

I know that my hon. Friend is a working mother as well as someone who is committed to improving social mobility. She is also an effective champion for the excellent schools in her constituency of Sevenoaks. She is right: we all need to do more to ensure that children can be in appropriate environments, learning, growing and developing. My right hon. Friend the Education Secretary is utterly committed to that. One or two people in the trade union movement have perhaps not been as constructive as they might be, but I hope that they heed the wise words of my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell).

It is clear that, while sharing the same objective, the nations of the United Kingdom have taken differing approaches to dealing with the pandemic. To enable restart and recovery, the devolved national Administrations may require additional powers under the devolution settlement, particularly with regard to the economy. If the Scottish Parliament seeks such powers, will the UK facilitate that, or will it restrict its ability to act? (903142)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question and to Ministers and officials in the Scottish Government for their work in helping us to co-ordinate a response to the coronavirus. The hon. Gentleman is right that because of different situations, geographies and considerations, at different times the devolved Administrations have fine-tuned or tailored their policies as appropriate. However, when it comes to the economy, one thing is clear: the strength of the United Kingdom, the strength of the UK Exchequer and the strength of Her Majesty’s Treasury has underpinned the economic resilience of the whole United Kingdom. We know that if Scotland were independent, as the hon. Gentleman fervently and honestly believes that it should be, Scotland would have the largest budget deficit of any country in Europe. It is only in the interests of the Scottish people to maintain our Union, and that is why we need to maintain the power of the Treasury to support Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish and English citizens.

The exciting plans to revitalise the Lowestoft and East Anglian fishing industry are founded on the principle that my right hon. Friend set down with passion and skill when he was Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that the UK would control who fishes in our waters. I would be most grateful if he confirmed that that principle remains non-negotiable. (903137)

It absolutely does. I know that my hon. Friend has spoken up passionately for fishermen in Lowestoft and indeed for inshore fishermen across the United Kingdom. I look forward to continuing to work with him to ensure that they can benefit from the sea of opportunity that leaving the EU provides.

This morning, the Confederation of British Industry told the BBC that the resilience of British business to a no-deal Brexit in December is absolutely on the floor. The director general warned that if the Government insist on a political timescale that takes us to the last minute to get a deal in December, it will be catastrophic for British business. He finished by saying that just because the house is on fire, it does not mean that we should set fire to the garden shed as well. What economic analysis have the Government done on the likely impact of a no-deal Brexit in the middle of a covid crisis? (903144)

We cannot have a no-deal Brexit because we had a Brexit deal that was agreed and voted on in the House of Commons, which is why we left the European Union on 31 January.

Will my right hon. Friend reaffirm that as we come out of the lockdown due to coronavirus and rebuild our economy, the Government will do so in a way that levels up and works for all parts of our country and society, especially those in Rother Valley, as we pledged to do in the general election campaign? (903139)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the sad phenomena of last two or three decades is the way in which divisions in our society have grown deeper. It is vital that we heal, unify and level up, never more so than after the coronavirus pandemic. The communities of Rother Valley and others in South Yorkshire are at the heart of the Government’s commitment to making sure that opportunity is more equal. That is why my hon. Friend is such an effective voice for those communities that have been neglected in the past.

The right hon. Gentleman will have read yesterday’s damning report from the Social Mobility Commission, which highlights a failure of coherence and effort across Government to address this important agenda. Will he put his personal authority and the weight of his Department behind developing and supporting a cross-Government strategy to ensure that we narrow inequalities and injustices? (903145)

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I know that even before she was in this House she had a very distinguished career in speaking up for the disadvantaged, particularly children and young people, who need the helping hand of Government as well as the support of civil society in order to achieve everything they can. She is absolutely right: there is much more that we need to do. We have touched on schools, but there are many other areas where we need to improve what we do—from child and adolescent mental health services to making sure that those in care are better supported. She is absolutely right.

Would my right hon. Friend outline progress in setting up the joint biosecurity centre, and how can we ensure that its work in controlling localised covid-19 outbreaks extends across the United Kingdom? (903140)

The joint biosecurity centre is a very welcome addition to the armoury of weapons that the UK Government have in fighting this infection. It is the case that, for the JBC to work effectively, it needs to work across the whole United Kingdom. I can confirm that devolved Administration chief medical officers and Health Ministers have been working very successfully with the Secretary of State for Health in order to ensure that information can be shared in a way that benefits us all.

We know that test, track and trace has been slow to get to where it is, but we are glad it has started. However, the key thing, whatever happens centrally, is local tracking and tracing. Hackney Council is a pioneer borough, and we are really pleased that that is the case, but what is critical is that we are not getting the data that will help us track people. For example—forgive the long question, Mr Speaker—if an individual is tracked as having been close to someone who has tested positive, all Hackney gets is the information that they live in the borough of Hackney. That is not enough to act on. When will boroughs get that detailed localised information from central track and trace so that they can act and help attack this virus? (903147)

I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that point. I will be talking to the team who are operating the JBC later today, and I will raise that specific point with them. I am really grateful to her for raising it with me.

Would my right hon. Friend agree that the work of the UK Government during the coronavirus crisis has been hugely assisted by the excellent performance of local authorities across the UK, including, in my constituency, Wrexham County Borough Council and Denbighshire County Council, and all the town and community councils across Clwyd South? (903143)

I know that in both Wrexham and Denbighshire there have been recent incidences of the spread of infection that have been concerning, and I know that my hon. Friend, along with colleagues in local government, has been highly effective in making sure that we deal with those in the most appropriate way. He is absolutely right: it is joint working with effective local councils and energetic Members of Parliament like himself that is critical to making sure that we deal with this infection.

In order to save lives, the covid crisis has actually seen the Government take, I think, the most difficult decision—to deprive people of their freedom—since the second world war. Now, as central Government take a strategic lead to set out the road to recovery, would my right hon. Friend agree with me that the real heroes of the piece are local people, charities and public services, such as the new Buckinghamshire Council and the Buckinghamshire Healthcare NHS Trust, and should they not be recognised for their amazing work, which has brought out the best in our society and helped everyone? (903146)

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I know that people in Chesham and Amersham, and elsewhere in Buckinghamshire, have benefited from her advocacy and from the energetic work of the local authority. She is right that we will, in appropriate time, need to recognise the commitment of those in civil society and elsewhere. I know that her championing of their cause has been heard in other parts of Government, and more will follow later in order to recognise exactly the validity of the argument she makes.

It is lovely to follow my great friend, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan).What more can the Government do to encourage people from the private sector to become involved in the management of civil services and agencies such as Public Health England in order to give good management expertise to deliver services to the public? (903150)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Attracting people from a wide range of backgrounds into Government and into public service is essential for making sure that we have cognitive diversity, as well as entrepreneurial skills. When we look at how the Government use data, it is vital that we get people in from organisations such as Amazon who have experience in this area. When we think about how we communicate our intent to the broader public, it is also vital to have people who have extensive experience in local radio as entrepreneurs. They can often be some of the most effective communicators, managing to combine authoritative communication with a lightness of touch.

In order to allow the safe exit of vulnerable Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am suspending the House for three minutes.

Sitting suspended.

Planning Process: Probity

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, if he will make a statement on the need to maintain public confidence in the probity of the planning process and his quasi-judicial role in these matters.

The Government are committed to maintaining public confidence in the probity of the planning process at all levels, including the Secretary of State’s role in deciding called-in planning applications and recovered appeals. Rightly, Parliament has, through the planning Acts, delegated to local planning authorities the powers to determine things at their level. However, Parliament has also created provisions whereby a small proportion of cases are determined by central Government.

The written ministerial statement of June 2008 sets out clear criteria for the use of the powers. For example, some decisions are recovered because of the quantum of housing they involve and thus their potential effect on the Government’s objectives for sustainable communities; others are recovered because of non-determination by the local authority. The involvement of Ministers in the planning system is a very long-established process that is clearly guided by both the published ministerial code and the guidance published by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government on planning propriety, which focuses on the duty on Ministers to behave fairly and to approach matters before them with an open mind.

The vast majority of planning decisions are determined at a local level by local planning authorities. However, as I have said, the planning system provides for decisions to be sent to Ministers for determination, including on the grounds that they involve developments of major importance. In fact, Ministers were involved in 26 planning decisions out of a total of 447,000 planning cases last year. The small number of cases that are referred to planning Ministers for determination are often among the most controversial in the planning system—for example, the 500 dwellings in the Oxford green belt that were recently allowed, and the 500 dwellings in the York green belt that were refused.

Given the nature of the cases before them, it is not uncommon for Ministers to determine against the planning inspector’s recommendation, as has happened in around 20% of cases in recent years. In conclusion, I stress that each planning decision is taken fairly and on its own merits.

The Secretary of State will not have the public confidence that he needs to overhaul the planning system until we have full transparency over his unlawful decision to force through the Westferry development. He gave consent to the scheme on 14 January, in the teeth of opposition from Tower Hamlets Council and his own planning inspector, who both considered the scheme oversized and lacking in affordable housing. When Tower Hamlets took up a judicial review to challenge the Secretary of State, he took the extraordinary step of admitting that his decision was unlawful because of apparent bias. That meant that he avoided publishing in open court all correspondence revealing the true reasons behind his decision. Will the Minister tell us what that apparent bias was?

The developer, Northern & Shell, is owned by the billionaire Conservative party donor Richard Desmond. Mr Desmond sat next to the Secretary of State at a Conservative party fund-raising dinner just two months previously, and he admits that they discussed the scheme. The ministerial code requires Ministers to act with integrity; did the Secretary of State disclose his conversation with Mr Desmond to the Department before he granted permission? As the circumstances clearly raise a question of bias, why did the Secretary of State not immediately recuse himself from taking the decision?

The Secretary of State gave the scheme consent one day before a community infrastructure levy came into force; did he know that he was helping Mr Desmond to dodge a potential £50 million tax bill? Will the Secretary of State now disclose what contact he or his representatives had with the developers about that tax?

By an astonishing coincidence, just two weeks after the Secretary of State took his decision Mr Desmond made a generous donation of £12,000 to the Conservative party. This sequence of events raises grave concerns about cash for favours. If he wants to restore trust, the Secretary of State must immediately publish all documents and all correspondence relating to this decision. The public need reassurance that the integrity of the planning process cannot be auctioned off at Conservative party fund-raising dinners.

The hon. Gentleman’s comments remind me of the adage, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again,” because I think, Mr Speaker, that this is his sixth attempt at an urgent question on this matter. I do not deny—

Order. We do not discuss urgent questions, and I am the judge of what is right and wrong on the numbers, so we will leave that for today. Mr Pincher, I have the greatest respect for your job, and you need to have the same for mine.

Indeed, Mr Speaker. I was simply going to observe that the hon. Gentleman has shown great persistence, although after listening to his questions I do not think there was much in them that was new or different. He asked four fundamental questions, Mr Speaker.

Order. I am sorry. That is questioning the judgment of decisions we take in a meeting on whether there was something different. You were not present at that, Mr Pincher, and I do not believe that you are aware of our discussions—and if you are, you should not be. So I think we can leave that for now.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am very happy to answer the hon. Gentleman’s question, and certainly never question your judgment.

The hon. Gentleman asked first about the nature of the decision of the Secretary of State for a redetermination. The Secretary of State, with the support of the Mayor of Tower Hamlets and others in the local planning authority, believed the best course of action was for a swift redetermination of this particular issue. The way to achieve that, technically in law, is to accept the action that was brought by the local authority to the court. That is why the Secretary of State made the decision that he did.

The hon. Gentleman also asked whether the Secretary of State acted properly and with propriety in making clear to the Department all discussions that he has had with applicants; yes, he did. At all times he has disclosed any conversations that he has had with applicants.

The hon. Gentleman also requests me to describe my right hon. Friend’s relationship with the applicant. My right hon. Friend has no relationship with the applicant, so that question is irrelevant. Both the applicant and the local authority have asked my right hon. Friend to make a site visit. My right hon. Friend, in discussion with officials in our Department, weighed up the pros and cons of such a site visit and decided against.

As for the decision on 14 January, which is outlined publicly and which the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members can see online, that decision is all very clear. There were no discussions about the CIL issue between my right hon. Friend and the applicant. My right hon. Friend has been very clear about his involvement with the applicant. I do not think anything further needs to be added.

The applicant has, I think, paid for tickets to a Conservative party event. That is apparently where the funds came from. Ministers have no knowledge of funds provided to political parties through donations or through payment for tickets. These are spendings made by donors which go to parties of all persuasions. They are declared in the proper and usual way. None of this is known to Ministers, and none of it is discussed by Ministers. It certainly was not discussed on this occasion.

When it comes to planning, nowhere offers greater opportunity for house building, of all tenure types, than here in the capital, yet a total lack of ambition by the Labour-run City Hall leaves a shortfall. What steps can my right hon. Friend outline to get the planning system working in London?

One reason why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has called in the Mayor’s plan is that we believe it to be insufficient; it has a paucity of ambition for the sorts of houses and the number of houses we need in London. By his own admission, the Mayor is missing his own target. The reason why this particular application came before my right hon. Friend was the failure of the local authority to properly determine upon it. He came to the conclusion that it should go ahead because of the number of homes and of affordable homes that were going to be built—the sorts of homes the Mayor of London is not building.

This is like the Dominic Cummings affair and we have a Minister defending the indefensible. When the Secretary of State personally approves a planning application a day before the deadline, which saves the developer £40 million of fees in infrastructure payments, it raises serious questions. When it transpires that the developer then donates to the Tory party, to the public this matter simply stinks. Worse, the Secretary of State’s actions overruled the planning decision of the local council and it was against his own Planning Inspectorate advice. Why did he think he knew better? Why do the Minister and the Secretary of State not think it would be better to have more affordable homes funded? Surely they must agree that a multi-millionaire funding a £1 billion development helps fund future infrastructure for the greater good. Why was the Secretary of State content with his decision until legal action was raised by Tower Hamlets Council? Why do the Government think it is acceptable for the Secretary of State to remain in place after an unlawful decision, which he admits shows apparent bias? This is a party whose former Prime Minister and current Prime Minister once auctioned off a tennis match with themselves for £160,000. Does the Minister understand what these fundraising events look like to the public when other decisions then get made that seem to favour those who attend the events? For a Tory Government, it is one rule for them and one rule for another. Fortunately for us in Scotland, many people in Scotland now see independence as a better option, because nothing the Minister can say gives confidence in this place.

I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for his question. As I said, it is not unusual for Ministers to look at and call in significant applications, and for them to come to a different conclusion from that of the Planning Inspectorate. My right hon. Friend’s reasons for his decision were clearly outlined in his decision letter of 14 January. He makes it clear that one reason for his decision to allow the application was the very significant number of homes that were going to be built as a result of it, including affordable homes. I might say in response to the hon. Gentleman that in the same week, in an application to the same authority, my right hon. Friend came to a very different conclusion when he refused a planning application made by and supported by the local authority to demolish the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, the one that created Big Ben and the Liberty bell. The local authority, the well-known tribunes of the people in Tower Hamlets, wanted to demolish it and build a luxury boutique hotel. My right hon. Friend will always come down on an application based on its merits and in the interests of the people. That is what he did on this occasion and that is what he will always do.

Will my right hon. Friend set out his plans to increase the supply of affordable homes to rent and to purchase through the excellent first homes programme that he has brought forward, particularly for key workers, the heroes of the covid crisis? Will he consider directly commissioning the construction of those homes on surplus public sector land?

Let me just say that we are straying from what the urgent question is about, so, unfortunately, we will have to move on.

In the interests of transparency, may I say that the Select Committee has not considered this matter? Last night I did receive a letter from the mayor of Tower Hamlets, but the Committee has not given consideration to that. Does the Minister agree that such matters as this are best dealt with when all the facts are in the public domain, otherwise judgments will be formed along the basis of supposition and conjecture, and, were the Committee to make a request to the Secretary of State, would he be willing to provide us with all relevant documentation so that the Committee could give proper, careful consideration to these matters, based on the facts that are available?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. I remind him that the decision of the Secretary of State, as I have already said, is in the public domain. The application is a live one, and documentation will be published in the usual way. We always take seriously, and consider weightily, requests from the Committee, and I am sure that we will happily consider this one. However, my right hon. Friend has published his decision, it is a very clear decision, and all documents will be published in the usual way, as they are through live planning applications.

While the Conservative Mayor in the West Midlands is getting homes built by making the best use of brownfield sites, the Labour Mayor in London keeps missing his housing targets and the Labour Mayor of Greater Manchester proposes ripping up the green belt against the wishes of my constituents. Is it only the Conservatives that are able to get it right on housing?

Order. Unfortunately, we need to get the question right. The Urgent Question is certainly not about Manchester, and certainly not about that. [Interruption.] I think it is for me to decide. It might be helpful if Members were to go and read what the Urgent Question is about, and then we can link the two. I call Rachel Hopkins.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I speak as a local councillor. We are regularly reminded to abide by our code of conduct, based on the Nolan principles, including integrity, accountability, openness and honesty, and declare personal or pecuniary interests, be them real or perceived, in decision making. With that in mind, is it a coincidence that Mr Desmond made a substantial donation to the Conservative party just days after the Secretary of State rushed through permission for the Westferry development, against the advice of his own planning inspector, and one day before Mr Desmond would have become liable for a £50 million tax bill?

I do not know when Mr Desmond made donations or, in this case, payments for tickets to a Conservative party event. I believe he has donated to other political parties, including the Labour party. He is clearly a very generous man. I do not know that, and nor does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, because we have no knowledge of those political donations when we are making planning decisions. My right hon. Friend has laid out very clearly his reasons for his decision, which he has made honestly and fairly. He is mindful, as am I, of his responsibilities according to the ministerial code and MHCLG propriety codes. We will always make decisions fairly, based on their merits and in the interests of the people.

One way we can ensure trust in the probity of the planning process is to ensure that it relates to the needs of people on the ground in communities. I was saved by social housing. Were it not for social housing, I would not be here. How can we ensure that the planning process that local authorities follow respects the communities that they represent and, more importantly, that the standards of social housing are improved? I know that this is an issue that the Minister finds very important.

On the question of social housing, and indeed affordable housing, we are committed to increasing the numbers of affordable homes and social rented homes. It is worth while noting that in the last year alone this Government have built more council homes than the last Labour Government did in the entire 13 years of their history. My hon. Friend has an absolute guarantee that we will work, as will Mayor Street, for the interests of local people, building the homes that they want.

My hon. Friend also makes a point about the planning system. I am keen to ensure that the system acts with speed and transparency, and in the interest of local people. He can always be assured that the Conservative Government have that interest at heart.

Did major Tory party donor Mr Desmond ask to sit next to the Secretary of State at the Conservative party dinner, on a table where—by mere coincidence, according to accounts—other developers involved in the scheme were seated? Mr Desmond himself has admitted that they discussed the scheme over dinner, but the Secretary of State says that they did not. Who, out of the two, is misleading the British people?

We must be very careful about the word “misleading”. I am sure that no Member of this House would ever mislead anybody.

My right hon. Friend has been absolutely clear: the applicants raised the issue of Westferry with him at that dinner, my right hon. Friend made it clear that he could not discuss planning matters and would not discuss that planning matter, and the issue was closed. I have no idea what Mr Desmond asked for at that dinner, where he wished to be seated or who made the decision on where he was seated, because Ministers in my Department and others do not know what donations or funds are being spent by donors on political parties. There is a firewall, quite properly, between the two.

I completely agree on the need to maintain public trust in the planning process. I have the honour to represent the historic market town of Newcastle-under-Lyme, and one concern people have is that our historic buildings and heritage are not always protected in the planning process. What steps is the Ministry taking to ensure that buildings of importance, such as the Guildhall in Newcastle-under-Lyme, are protected in the planning system, in the public interest?

Heritage assets are vital to us all, and we want to ensure that they are protected. The Guildhall is clearly of great interest to my hon. Friend and his constituents. One reason why my right hon. Friend made the decision he did with respect to the Whitechapel bell foundry was its huge historic interest to the people of Tower Hamlets and to people in this place. His decision there was the right one, and I think all his decisions have been right.

To recap, we have a planning decision that is unlawful, weaved through guidance on tall buildings, downplayed the heritage impact on the Greenwich world heritage site, increased the intensification of the housing units by 113% at the same time as reducing the proportion of affordable units by 40%, was taken on a timescale that exempted the developer from making contributions and saw a substantial donation to Tory party coffers. Does the Minister not understand how bad this looks? Why is the Secretary of State not coming to the House to explain why he sought to exercise his powers in the manner in which he did? Will he now ensure that all the documents and correspondence germane to this decision are released, so that people can understand for themselves the nature of the apparent bias in this case?

My right hon. Friend’s reasons for his determination are quite clear—as I have said already, they are laid out in his decision letter of 14 January, which is open to public scrutiny and, indeed, legal challenge. My right hon. Friend made a decision in favour of local homes for local people, including more affordable homes. I remind the hon. Gentleman that, when it comes to tall buildings, other Ministers in my right hon. Friend’s position have made decisions in their favour, including John Prescott, who in 2003 accepted a building for 750 asylum seekers that was particularly tall. My right hon. Friend will always act in the interests of local people and will act fairly, proportionately and properly.

I welcome the additional investment in the affordable homes programme secured by my right hon. Friend in the Budget in March—a scheme responsible for the delivery of almost half a million new homes since 2010. What assurances can the Minister give me that developers will continue to be held to their obligations to provide affordable units within residential developments?

We have a very effective affordable homes programme under way. As a result of the work of this Government and previous Conservative Governments, we have built something like 450,000 affordable homes in the last 10 years. We should compare that with the 399,000 built by the previous Labour Government during their nine years in office, at a time when apparently the economy was rosy and they had lots of money to spend. The Chancellor announced at the Budget £12 billion for the next affordable homes programme. We will make sure that the tenure and geographic mix is right for local communities and that it builds affordable homes and the homes that people want and need.

Given that the Prime Minister pushed through the original scheme for the same developer when he was Mayor of London, did No. 10 have any involvement in events or conversations leading to the Secretary of State’s unlawful decision to grant approval?

With respect to the hon. Lady, she is wrong. That was an entirely different application. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was determined to leave a legacy in London of more homes—more of the right homes in the right places—so that people could live the lives they wanted to live. In comparison, the present Mayor of London is missing his own targets and the Government’s targets. It is the reason we have had to call in his plan—to demonstrate that he must do better.

I thank the Minister for his responses on this very important topic. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (James Daly) for raising his concerns about the green belt, which I share. With public engagement in the planning process at an all-time low, because meetings are now held online or not at all, what advice is the Minister giving to planning authorities to maximise public probity and prevent any decision from being steamrollered through?

As I said in my opening remarks, planning is essentially a local matter. The vast majority of local planning decisions are made locally. Sometimes they are appealed against to the Planning Inspectorate, but only on a small number occasions will those applications come to a Secretary of State. I am very keen to ensure that the planning system is swift, transparent and reflects and adheres to local needs, and I shall make sure that my hon. Friend’s comments and concerns are properly reflected in all our considerations about planning processes.

Campaigners in Warrington North have been battling to save Peel Hall from development for over three decades. With planning law already weighted so heavily in favour of development, what assurances can the Minister give that the developer cannot simply make a substantial donation to the Conservative party to subvert the process and that residents will get the fair hearing they deserve and can have confidence in that process?

The planning law in this country is very clear, as the hon. Lady knows. I suggest that she go and read it.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the probity of the planning system has been enhanced by the Secretary of State’s decision to proceed with South Oxfordshire District Council’s local plan and that the holding of an examination in public online is a very good, transparent way of proceeding?

Virtual proceedings are an effective way of ensuring that the light of public interest shines upon planning decisions, and I think the decision made in respect of South Oxfordshire was the right one. As I have said before, we will act always with fairness and probity, but we will also act to make sure that the Government’s objectives to build more homes in the right places—the sorts of homes people want and need—are met.

When I was elected to the council, one of the first things I did was sit on a planning committee. Does the Minister agree that transparency in that quasi-judicial role is really important, especially when constituents still feel there is a lot of secrecy around the planning process? Does he believe that there needs to be that full, transparent process in order not to undermine the planning system for our constituents?

I certainly agree that transparency in planning is important. That is why the decisions that Ministers make, if they are involved in those planning decisions, are properly published and open to full public scrutiny, as they have been in the case that the hon. Member for Croydon North (Steve Reed) has raised.

Like the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi), I sat on my local planning committee and in my training I learned that only the most contentious of applications, or those of national significance, come before the Minister. We have an example on our doorstep, just over the road, where the 50-storey St George’s Tower was granted by John Prescott against the wishes of the local council. Can the Minister clarify why certain applications require a ministerial decision?

There are some applications which, because of the number of homes, will involve a ministerial decision. Other applications, which are timed out because the local authority has not been able to come to a determination and the applicant appeals, also come before a Minister. That happens in a small number of cases. It happened in the Westferry case, but I remind the House, because I think it bears repetition, that the issue came before the Secretary of State because the local authority failed to make a determination. It came before the previous Secretary of State in the early part of last year and went through the normal adjudication process in MHCLG.

In my constituency, the local planning authority has just rejected a planning application aimed at reducing the number of affordable housing units. What confidence can my constituents have that the Government will not overrule that decision? Most importantly, should Ministers who are making planning decisions not be under the same obligation as local councillors working on planning decisions to declare personal and prejudicial interests?

Ministers are obliged to adhere to the ministerial code and the MHCLG proprietary and ethics policy. We will build the homes that we think people need. We are going to spend £12 billion on the affordable homes programme to ensure that the right sort of homes are built in the right places. It is for the local authority, whichever local authority it is, to determine need and to bid for some of that AHP money if it wishes to build socially rented homes. Homes England will also take bids from applicants to build homes according to the land supply of local authorities. Let us see what the hon. Lady’s local authority achieves. I trust that it will build the right sorts of homes for the people of Bath.

In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am now suspending the House for three minutes.

Sitting suspended.

Business of the House

May I belatedly wish you many happy returns for yesterday, Mr Speaker? I hope it was duly celebrated across the land.

The business for the week commencing 15 June will include:

Monday 15 June—Motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to the draft Electricity Capacity (Amendment etc.) (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020; followed by a motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to the draft Environmental Protection (Plastic Straws, Cotton Buds and Stirrers) (England) Regulations 2020; followed by a motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) (Amendment) (No.3) Regulations 2020; followed by a motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to the draft Fatal Accidents Act 1976 (Remedial) Order 2020.

Tuesday 16 June—Opposition half day (8th allotted day—1st part). There will be a debate on a motion in the name of the official Opposition, subject to be announced, followed by a motion to approve statutory instruments relating to the draft Over the Counter Derivatives, Central Counterparties and Trade Repositories (Amendment, etc., and Transitional Provision) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020 and the draft Financial Services (Miscellaneous Amendments) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020; followed by a motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to the draft Public Service Vehicles (Open Data) (England) Regulations 2020.

Wednesday 17 June—Committee and remaining stages of the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill [Lords].

Thursday 18 June—Motion to approve statutory instruments relating to the draft African Development Bank (Fifteenth Replenishment of the African Development Fund) Order 2020, the draft African Development Bank (Further Payments to Capital Stock) Order 2020, and the draft African Development Fund (Multilateral Debt Relief Initiative) (Amendment) Order 2020;followed by a motion to approve statutory instruments relating to the draft International Development Association (Nineteenth Replenishment) Order 2020 and the draft International Development Association (Multilateral Debt Relief Initiative) (Amendment) Order 2020; followed by a debate on a motion relating to the effect of covid-19 on black, Asian and minority ethnic communities. The subject for the debate was determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 19 June—The House will not be sitting.

I thank the Leader of the House for the forthcoming business and for the unexpected treat of an Opposition day—we did not even have to ask for it—but could he also confirm the recess dates? He alluded to them being moved slightly over for the summer recess. It would be really helpful if he could, in his reply, give us those dates.

Mr Speaker, a belated happy birthday to you. It is a birthday you share with His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh. My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) wants us all to join her in wishing Gabriella Zaghari-Radcliffe a very happy sixth birthday. How sad that an innocent child must suffer in this way. Clemency is all we ask for our British citizens: Nazanin; Anousheh, who is facing a covid-19 outbreak in prison; and Kylie. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) has consistently raised the case of Luke Symons, who is being held hostage by the Houthis in Yemen. Would it be possible for the Foreign Secretary to update the House next week on our British citizens? They belong here at home.

The other place is moving to a virtual Parliament and remote voting next week, while we are sort of moving backwards. However, I am pleased that the proxy voting system has been extended and I hope it is given the widest possible interpretation. Perhaps the Leader of the House will look again at the possibility of not excluding hon. Members from substantive proceedings, so that they can take part in legislative debates too.

I was quite surprised that, given the events of this week, the Prime Minister did not come to the House to make a statement on what the Government will do on the Black Lives Matter movement that is sweeping the world. The Leader of the Opposition mentioned inaction on a number of reports: the Public Health England report, the Lammy report and the Windrush report.

To that, I would add the McGregor-Smith review of race in the workplace. It was commissioned by the former Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid), and found that helping black, Asian and minority ethnic people to progress in their careers could add £24 billion to the economy. This is not just an economic issue; it is a moral issue, too. Its report gave signposts for action. The only action we have seen is that by the chief special adviser marching a young BAME woman out of her job and out of No. 10.

These reports are so numerous that I hope they are not becoming a footstool for the relevant Minister in the race disparity unit. I asked last week which Minister is responsible for taking all those reports forward. I hope the Leader of the House can write to me and place the letter in the House of Commons Library at to who is responsible, because there seems to be a crossover between two Ministers. Could the Prime Minister make a statement on this race tipping point? We need points of action and a timeframe.

I notice that the No. 10 Downing Street spokesperson said that the Cabinet did not observe the minute’s silence that you, Mr Speaker, had across the House for George Floyd on Tuesday. I suppose it is too much to ask that they would take the knee. We also had a minute’s silence for those who died in Grenfell Tower three years ago. Is it too much to ask for an urgent statement for an update on what is going on now?

Speaking of the Cabinet, we see that zoos are opening next week, but the Secretary of State for Education has no plan for the reopening of schools. Headteachers, teachers and the teaching unions—who, let us remember, continue to work to teach our children—said that the return could have been eased back safely. The Government always talk about Labour in Wales, but Labour in Wales consults, discusses and then announces, while the UK Government seem to be announcing first and then scrambling back. May we have an urgent statement from the Secretary of State for Education?

This is Carers Week, and the deputy leader of the Labour party has said that one in four adults now has a caring responsibility. Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that covid-19 deaths account for 28% of all deaths in care homes and nursing homes. We have previously raised the delay in the Government response to the virus. We ask again what happened in January and February. The Prime Minister missed Cobra meetings because he did not clock that this was a pandemic sweeping the world. We were told that sporting events could not be cancelled because people would meet in the pub. Public Health England said that we were two weeks behind Italy, so there were many countries we could have learnt from. That is why we need an urgent explanation from the Secretary of State for Health, not just about his bunions but about the breach in patient confidentiality.

Finally, it is our gracious sovereign’s official birthday on Saturday. Trooping the colour will take place in Windsor. We thank her for all her public service.

May I begin at the end? Yes indeed, that will be a proper occasion on which to celebrate the Queen’s official birthday and an extraordinary period of decades of service to the nation as our longest-reigning monarch. May the Queen live forever—amen, amen, alleluia, alleluia, amen.

As for recess dates, those are always subject to the progress of Government business, and the right hon. Lady will be aware that the Government’s business has inevitably been delayed because of the current crisis, but I can assure her that as soon as it is practical to bring forward any changes to dates, they will be brought forward.

May I join the right hon. Lady in wishing a happy birthday to Gabriella Zaghari-Ratcliffe? We remain very concerned about this situation, and I remain grateful to the right hon. Lady for raising it every week. It is continually taken up by the Foreign Office and by our diplomatic service in Iran. The Foreign Secretary will be here to answer questions later in the month, on 30 June, and the issue relating to Luke Symons in Yemen can also be brought up at that point, but the right hon. Lady knows that I pass messages on to the Foreign Office after these sessions every week.

As regards virtual participation, the Procedure Committee is looking into the possibility of people participating in non-interrogative sessions—or substantive sessions, if the right hon. Lady prefers—and we will have to wait and see what that Committee comes forward with.

In relation to the Government’s record on race and faith and equality since 2010, a great deal has been done. The race at work charter was launched, helping to create greater opportunities for BAME employees. The apprenticeships diversity champions network was set up. In other areas, the right hon. Lady mentioned the Lammy review of the criminal justice system. That is being looked at, as well as how to collect and publish more and better data on race, improving diversity in the prison workforce, and working towards incorporating ethnicity when gauging performance. So this is work that is under way within the Government. The Prime Minister was obviously here yesterday to answer questions, as he is every week. The Government are very well aware of these important and sensitive issues and are committed to improving equality in this country. We take the issue with the utmost seriousness.

The right hon. Lady mentioned the third anniversary of the Grenfell disaster. Once again, the Government would like to reiterate their heartfelt condolences to the survivors and recognise what a terrible tragedy it was. The Government are committed to ensuring that something like this does not happen in future. That is part of the reason the Fire Safety Bill was introduced and is making progress through the House.

Coming on to the schools question, the Secretary of State was here on Tuesday to make a statement with regard to what was happening in schools. It is an issue that we are all facing as to how things reopen in a way that protects safety and health.

The right hon. Lady referred to what has been going on in care homes. It is now good news that the deaths in all settings, including care homes, are falling, but every death is a tragedy—we must always remember that. Early death is something that Government policy has sought to avoid. That is why we have had the lockdown. It is why steps continue to be taken to help care homes, with testing kits, an overhaul in the way that personal protective equipment is delivered, and provision of very significant funds to local authorities, including the £600 million infection control fund to tackle the spread of covid-19 in care homes. In the face of an unprecedented pandemic and emergency, the Government have taken the steps that are suitable and the best steps that they could take at the time.

Will the Leader of the House introduce a measure next week which will efface all remaining trace that there was a Roman civilisation on this island?

My right hon. Friend, as so often, comes to the heart of the matter. I am surprised that he has not raised Stonehenge, which is known for being the site, or thought to have been the site, of human sacrifice. It does occur to me that if it were removed, then of course the A303 could be widened more easily, making it easier to get to Somerset.

First, may I associate myself with the comments of the shadow Leader regarding Black Lives Matter? I think most people will find it astonishing, given the depth of feeling in the country, that the Government do not wish to lead a parliamentary debate on the matter.

The Scottish National party did not oppose the motion to establish proxy voting last night, because we believe that something is better than nothing, but the Leader of the House should not think we are in any way satisfied with the Government’s defence of democratic expression in the age of coronavirus—we are not. Given that the right hon. Gentleman has been dragged kicking and screaming to accept the right of Members to vote by proxy if they cannot attend in person, why does he continue to oppose electronic voting through a system that has already been perfected by our staff? Switching that back on would not only allow Members to vote remotely, but would permit those on the premises to vote safely without the need to congregate in one place.

Secondly, does it not seem odd that there is no place in our future agenda for Parliament to debate the overall approach of the Government to the covid-19 pandemic? We need a full debate on that, not just glib 20-second answers and well-rehearsed soundbites. Given that the Government seem to be losing their grip and are in danger of losing public confidence, is this not the time to reach out and engage all parties in a renewed consensus?

Finally, can I ask for a statement on the Government’s willingness to answer questions from elected Members? Many of us have raised repeated questions with the Chancellor on behalf of our constituents relating to the various support schemes run by his Department and its agencies—most notably, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. It now seems that the Treasury is refusing to answer individual queries and has taken to issuing generic circulars instead. That is not acceptable, and it marks a serious departure from the way in which the Government are held to account in Parliament. I am well aware that things are not normal at the moment, but elected representatives must be able to get answers from those who serve the public. Does the Leader of the House agree?

With regard to the final part of the hon. Gentleman’s question, I agree absolutely. I view it as one of the roles of the Leader of the House to take it up with Departments when answers are not felt to be satisfactory by Members, and I will unquestionably take up what he has said with the Treasury. Answers ought to be specific to the question raised by a Member of Parliament. That is one of our rights as a Member of Parliament, and if that is not happening, that is a lacuna in the service the Government are providing, so I assure him that I will take that up.

The hon. Gentleman started by saying that he was not satisfied. I so look forward to the day when an SNP Member stands up and says he is satisfied about anything of any kind whatever. He conjured up this fascinating image of my being dragged kicking and screaming. I have to confess that since my earliest infant years I have not been one of the greatest kickers or screamers in any circumstances. [Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) says I am now, but no, no kicking, no screaming; just listening and seeing how things can be done and working out a system that ensures we have a physical Parliament that can get through the Government’s busy legislative programme. We now have three Public Bill Committees up and running, and we will have four. That is very important and it is why we had to come back physically, while recognising that circumstances require some Members to be absent from this House.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) sort of made my point for me, because he asked for an overarching debate on the coronavirus. He has clearly forgotten that we had one lasting two days when we had a virtual Parliament. Clearly, what went on in the virtual Parliament was so unsatisfactory that it has passed from people’s memory.

Just to help, I ask Members to speed up questions and answers, because we are going to run this until about midday.

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on Sessional Orders, which determine how close to this building demonstrations can take place? Over the weekend, Winston Churchill’s statue was desecrated, a flag was burned at the Cenotaph and two wicked people threw bikes at horses. Parliament needs to act.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has been quite clear about these criminal acts, which are entirely unjustifiable. We are lucky in our police who, according to Sir Robert Peel’s principles of policing, police with consent. It is absolutely right that peaceful protest should be allowed. That is part of a democratic system, but people have to obey the law. That is incumbent upon all of us, but my hon. Friend will know that to ensure access to Parliament, discretion is given to constables by the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis under section 52 of the Metropolitan Police Act 1839 to

“disperse all assemblies and processions of persons causing or likely to cause obstructions or disorder on any day on which Parliament is sitting”.

In the past, both Houses passed Sessional Orders at the beginning of each Session, but the effectiveness of that is a matter of debate, and something where I think you and I do not necessarily share the same opinion, Mr Speaker.

Mr Speaker, we have something in common, because you share your birthday with the Duke of Edinburgh, and I share my birthday with Her Majesty the Queen, so we are a match made in heaven.

We anticipate an allocation of time in early July for debates on departmental estimates. I remind Members on both sides of the House that applications for those debate days should be submitted to the Backbench Business Committee by a week tomorrow—19 June.

The tap has been turned on: we have an allocation of time for a Backbench business debate next Thursday on the important issue of coronavirus and its impact on black and minority ethnic communities. However, there is other business that day, and there could be urgent questions or statements, so would the Leader of the House please look at providing a measure of protected time for that debate? It is an important subject, and it would be dreadful if the debate was foreshortened by other business that came up on the day.

Can we arrange a better flow of information from Government sources to local health public health officials about the results of covid-19 tests? Quite often, local public health officials are in the dark as to the whereabouts of someone in their locality who has tested positive through the national testing system, so could we have a better flow of information to local public health officials? That is vital.

Lastly, in his response to the shadow Leader of the House, the Leader of the House did not mention the recess dates. If there is to be a change, Members on both sides of the House would welcome knowing about it sooner rather than later.

Celebrating birthdays is becoming a theme, which we should try to bring up at all business questions. My birthday happens to be shared with Her late Majesty Queen Victoria, so we all have some royal association somewhere or other.

If only I were as time honoured as that would indicate.

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about protected time. I am not unsympathetic to that, but I will ensure that it is discussed, in the way these things are. As regards co-ordination with public health officials, there are the local resilience forums, which are probably the right place for that to be organised.