Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 677: debated on Thursday 11 June 2020

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.