This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others, and I shall have further such meetings later today.
The journey of Munira Mirza from the pages of the Srebrenica-denying Living Marxism and the Revolutionary Communist party into the heart of No. 10 has not gone unnoticed. On Monday, the Prime Minister appointed them to lead the commission—the Government’s commission—on racial inequality, and it was greeted with some disbelief, given their well-known views on the matter. So I wonder: can the Prime Minister tell us today, does he agree with Ms Mirza that previous inquiries have fostered a “culture of grievance” within minority communities?
I am a huge admirer of Dr Munira Mirza, who is a brilliant thinker about these issues. We are certainly going to proceed with a new cross-governmental commission to look at racism and discrimination. It will be a very thorough piece of work, looking at discrimination in health, in education and in the criminal justice system. I know that the House will say we have already had plenty of commissions and plenty of work, but it is clear from the Black Lives Matter march and all the representations we have had that more work needs to be done, and this Government are going to do it.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I can tell her and the House that any incident of vandalism or attack on public property will be met with the full force of the law, and perpetrators will be prosecuted. I can also confirm that we are looking at new ways in which we may legislate against vandalism of war memorials.
Can I start by welcoming the announcement of a major breakthrough in the treatment of coronavirus by UK scientists? That is really fantastic news. We are all behind it and I pay tribute to all of those involved.
Can I also welcome the Prime Minister’s latest U-turn, this time on free school meals? That was the right thing to do and it is vital for the 1.3 million children who will benefit. It is just one step in the fight against child poverty.
A report last week from the Government’s Social Mobility Commission concluded that there are now
“600,000 more children…living in relative poverty”
than in 2012. The report went on to say:
“Child poverty rates are projected to increase to 5.2 million by 2022.”
What does the Prime Minister think caused that?
I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for what he said about dexamethasone, and I am glad that he is finally paying tribute to the efforts of this country in tackling coronavirus. But I can tell him, on free school meals, that this Government are very proud that we set up universal free school meals. I am very pleased that we are going to be able to deliver a covid summer food package for some of the poorest families in this country and that is exactly the right thing to do. But I must say that I think he is completely wrong in what he says about poverty. Absolutely poverty and relative poverty have both declined under this Government and there are hundreds of thousands—I think 400,000—fewer families living in poverty now than there were in 2010.
The Prime Minister says that poverty has not increased. I have just read a direct quote from a Government report, from a Government commission, produced last week, which says that it has gone up by 600,000. The Social Mobility Commission has a clear answer to my question:
“This anticipated rise is not driven by forces beyond our control”.
I gave the Prime Minister the number: 600,000. He did not reply. The report goes on to say, and this is a real cause for concern—[Interruption.] The Prime Minister is chuntering. He might want to listen. This is a real cause for concern because the commission goes on—[Interruption.] I am sure that the Prime Minister has read the report. On the increase to 5.2 million, it states that
“projections were made before the impact of COVID-19, which we expect to push more families into poverty.”
This is a serious issue. I am sure the Prime Minister would agree that an even higher child poverty rate would be an intolerable outcome from this pandemic. So what is he going to do to prevent it?
I have understood that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is talking about what he calls an anticipated rise rather than a rise that has actually taken place. A new concept is being introduced into our deliberations. What we are talking about is what has actually happened, which is a reduction in poverty. I can tell him that of course we are concerned. The whole House will understand that of course this Government are deeply concerned about the impact of coronavirus on the UK economy. I think everybody with any fairness would acknowledge that this Government have invested massively in protecting the workforce of this country, with 11 million jobs protected by the coronavirus job retention scheme, unlike anything done anywhere else in the world, and £30 billion-worth of business loans. We intend to make sure that we minimise the impact of coronavirus on the poorest kids in this country. One of the best ways in which we could do that, by the way, would be to encourage all kids who can go back to school to go back to school now, because their schools are safe. Last week, I asked him whether he would say publicly that schools were safe to go back to. He hummed and hawed. Now is his time to say clearly that schools are safe to go back to. Mr Speaker: your witness.
The Prime Minister obviously has not got the first idea what the social mobility report, from a Government body, actually said last week. He talks to me about consistency and U-turns. The Government have had three U-turns in the last month. First, we had the immigration health charges; then we had MPs’ voting; and then we had free school meals. The only question now is whether U-turns at the Dispatch Box are before or after. Three U-turns. He argues about one brief one week and one the next; he is an expert in that.
This is not the only area where the Government are falling short. During the pandemic, local authorities have been working flat out on social care, homelessness, obtaining protective equipment for the frontline, and delivering food and essential supplies. On 26 March, the Communities Secretary told council leaders directly and in terms, in a letter to council leaders and in a speech:
“The Government stands ready to do whatever is necessary to support councils in their response to coronavirus”.
Does the Prime Minister believe that the Government have kept that promise?
We put £3.2 billion extra into local government to tackle coronavirus, but I must say that we did not hear an answer, did we Mr Speaker? How can the right hon. and learned Gentleman talk about tackling the effects of coronavirus on the most disadvantaged? It is the most disadvantaged kids who need to go back to school, and it is those groups who unfortunately are not going back to school. Let’s hear it from him one more time: will he say that schools are safe to go back to? Come on!
This is turning into Opposition questions. If the Prime Minister wants to swap places, I am very happy. I could do it now. The only bit of an answer he gave to the question I asked was about £3.2 billion—[Interruption.] It is a lot of money. The Conservative-led Local Government Association has said that councils will have a shortfall of £10 billion this year—[Interruption.] The Health Secretary heckles. The Conservative leader of Lancashire County Council wrote a letter to the Communities Secretary a month ago, on 7 May. He said that
“the overall financial impact on councils nationally and locally will be far in excess of the £3.2 billion provided to date”.
He went on to say that
“we…would like some assurance from you that all councils will be fully reimbursed for the costs of…covid-19”.
These are the Prime Minister’s own council leaders. He must have known about this problem for months. Why has he been so slow to act?
We have not, because in addition to the £3.2 billion, we have already put in another £1.6 billion to support councils delivering frontline services, plus—from memory—another £600 million to go into social care. I want to return to this point about poverty. We want to tackle deprivation in this country. I want kids to go back to school. The unions will not let the right hon. and learned Gentleman say the truth. A great ox has stood upon his tongue. Let him now say that schools are safe to go back to.
The Prime Minister just does not get how critical this is. I spoke with council leaders from across the country this week. The Prime Minister must know that they face a choice between cutting core services and facing bankruptcy under section 114 notices. Either outcome will harm local communities and mean that local services cannot reopen. That will drive up poverty, something the Prime Minister says he does not intend to do. Local councils have done everything asked of them in this crisis—the Government have not. Will the Prime Minister take responsibility and actually do something?
With great respect to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, I have outlined what we are doing to support local government, and I think this country can be very proud of the investments that we have made. It can be very proud of the incredible work that local government officials have done across this country, but I must say that there are some councils, particularly Labour councils, alas, that are not opening their schools now when they could be opening their schools. I say to him, for I hope the last time: now is the moment when he can say to those Labour councillors that it is safe for kids to go back to reception, to year 1, to year 6, to early years, as they can. Will he now say it?
Every week, the Prime Minister seems to complain that I ask him questions at Prime Minister’s questions. If he wants to swap places, so be it.
Finally, I want to return to the Prime Minister’s other recent U-turn, which was on the immigration health surcharge for NHS and care workers. Following Prime Minister’s questions on 20 May, the Government announced that they would drop that deeply unfair charge—that is nearly a month ago. Nothing has happened. The British Medical Association, the Royal College of Nursing, the Royal College of Physicians and Unison have all written to the Prime Minister, so he must know about this. One doctor was quoted on Monday as saying:
“My colleagues who have applied, even yesterday, one of them said he had to pay for himself, his wife and four kids so that is £6,000…The Home Office is…saying that…nothing has been implemented”.
These are people on the frontline. The Prime Minister said he would act. When is he going to do so?
I am genuinely grateful for an important question, because it is vital that people who are working on the frontline, and NHS workers in particular, get the support that they need. That is why I said what I said a few weeks ago. What I can tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman is that NHS or care workers who have paid the surcharge since 21 May will be refunded, and we are getting on with instituting the new arrangements as fast as we possibly can.
I can tell my hon. Friend that it certainly will when we become once again an independent coastal state. I know how brilliantly she campaigns for fisheries in Grimsby and I urge her to engage with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to make sure that the people of Grimsby can exploit the recapture of our spectacular natural marine wealth.
Marcus Rashford has shown more moral leadership in tackling poverty in a matter of days than this Tory Government have in the past decade of cuts, but, as he says, people are struggling all year round and more needs to be done. This morning, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Save the Children published research showing that the ongoing health crisis is causing six in 10 families to borrow money, seven in 10 to cut back on essentials and over five in 10 to fall behind on rent and other essential bills. An extra £20 a week in social security support would prevent millions of families from having to make the choice between paying their bills or feeding their children. Will the Prime Minister now immediately uplift the child element of universal credit and child tax credit by £20 per week?
This is a Government who have done everything we possibly can so far to help families in need to make sure that nobody is penalised for doing the right thing during the crisis. I know how difficult it has been. That is why we uprated the universal credit by £1,044, benefiting, I think, 4 million families in this country. I say in all sincerity to the right hon. Gentleman that we are fully aware that there will be tough times ahead and we do stand by to do more where we can.
Twenty pounds a week—twenty pounds a week to help families with children. That is what we are asking for. We are talking about an extra £20 a week to stop families having to make the choice between paying their bills or feeding their children. That is the harsh reality, Prime Minister. This is a question of helping people survive. This Tory Government have seen a decade of austerity that has driven people into poverty, and they have scrapped child poverty targets. Rather than reversing their damaging policies that have pushed millions into poverty, the Prime Minister is more interested in finding money to spend on his own vanity project: a luxury VIP plane. Is he seriously saying that he will not find £20 a week to help families who are struggling to survive?
No, of course not. That is why we are investing massively in universal credit, employment and support allowance, and benefits across the board, to say nothing of the novel schemes we have introduced, such as the coronavirus job retention scheme, which is a model that I think the whole world is admiring. There is no other country that has put its arms around 11 million workers in the way that this Government have supported jobs and supported incomes across the whole of the UK. We are going to get this country through it, and I hope the right hon. Gentleman supports our measures.
I have studied my hon. Friend’s proposals with interest. He is an expert in what he speaks of and we will certainly look at all kinds of imaginative ways in which we can stimulate a strong rebound, a strong economic recovery. He should stand by for what the Chancellor is going to be announcing in the next few weeks.
Due to the covid crisis, tens of thousands of British businesses face bankruptcy and millions of British people face redundancy. In Britain’s hour of need, will the Prime Minister put the practical imperative of saving jobs before his Brexit ideology, rather than risk a bad deal or a no deal due to the deadline set before coronavirus? Why does the Prime Minister not show some good old-fashioned British common sense, give our economy the chance to breathe, and accept the EU’s offer of a delay?
I put it to the right hon. Gentleman that there is another way of looking at it. The first point is that the people of this country are heartily sick of us going on about Brexit. They wanted to get it done. We got it done and we are going to move forward. The other point is that when we come to the end of the transition period, we will be able to do things differently. We will be able to respond to our economic needs in a creative and constructive way, looking at regulation and looking at ways in which we support industries in a way that we have not been able to do before. That will be very productive for this country. Let us not delay that moment; let us get on with it.
Yes, indeed; it is absolutely crucial that we do that. There is a big catch-up plan that my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary is going to be announcing very shortly. It is vital that kids catch up on the education that they have lost, but even more vital, as I think I may have mentioned to the House already this morning, that the kids who can go to school should go to school. Would it not be a fine thing, Mr Speaker, if we heard from all parts of the House that schools are safe to go to, rather than the wibble-wobble we have heard from the Opposition this morning?
I am very grateful to the hon. Lady, because we take the issue of the UK steel industry very seriously. We are doing everything we can to maintain UK steel production. Clearly it was always facing difficulties, even before corona struck. I will make sure that I look at the particular needs of the concern that she raises in Newport East. We will ensure that we do everything we can. I just remind her that we have supported 9,200 workers in her constituency through the furlough scheme.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why we have provided 100% business rate relief for all new fibre investment. I am very happy to join her in thanking telecommunications workers for their amazing work. Many of them have kept going throughout the pandemic to put in that broadband infrastructure. I thank them with her.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I certainly had no correspondence about the matter myself, nor as far as I am aware did any of my officials, but if there is anything to be said, I think the hon. Gentleman has written to the Cabinet Secretary, and I know that he will be writing back.
Yes. I thank my hon. Friend for the way he campaigns for business in Aylesbury. We will do what we can to flex the social distancing rules, but only as we make progress in driving the incidence of the virus down. I think everybody understands the tension that the whole country is operating under and the trade-off that we have to make. We must continue to defeat the virus. We will stick ruthlessly to our plan to continue with the opening of hospitality sectors on 4 July at the earliest and proceed on that basis.
No. The furlough scheme should be available for everybody.
My hon. Friend is right. We will be bringing forward legislation that focuses on protecting people who have been involved, whether victims or veterans alike, ensuring equal treatment in Northern Ireland for our veterans and also for those who have served overseas.
Of course they should be eligible for those, but as I have said to the right hon. Gentleman repeatedly in the Chamber, those who have no recourse to public funds do have access to the coronavirus job retention scheme, the self-employment income support scheme, the measures that we have introduced to protect renters and the mortgage holiday for those who need it. When an individual has been working for long enough in the UK and enough national insurance contributions have been made, they may also be entitled to employment and support allowance. Although “no recourse to public funds” sounds as though it means just that, it is a term of art. There are many ways in which we support the poorest and neediest in this country. We are proud to do so, and we will continue to do so.
I welcome efforts by companies such as Facebook to make the internet a safer and less misleading place. I know my right hon. Friend will agree that we cannot leave online platforms to regulate themselves, so may I urge him to allow no further delay in bringing forward the Government’s response to the online harms White Paper consultation and legislation that will enable this country to play the global leadership role on this that it can and should play?
I know that my right hon. Friend has campaigned on this issue, and I remember the interest that he has taken in online harms. They are an evil. There is a real risk that, during the lockdown, terrible things have been going on behind closed doors and closed curtains in this country on the internet. We had a summit on the matter in No. 10 recently, and we are working at pace, as he knows, on new legislation against online harms.
I am concerned about the behaviour of some companies, and many colleagues in the House will have received similar representations from their constituents. I do not want to single anyone out, but it is important that companies recognise that the Government —the taxpayer—have gone to huge lengths to help and to put our arms around UK business. They should do what they can as well to look after their workers in very difficult times, because those workers will stand them in good stead when the economy turns up again.
In Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, I have the incredible Chatterley Whitfield colliery. Once the beating heart of the industrial revolution, Chatterley is now, sadly, at risk of being lost. Will my right hon. Friend support me, Stoke-on-Trent City Council, Historic England and the Friends of Chatterley Whitfield to protect and preserve this historic landmark by creating an industrial heritage park to stimulate tourism, create new green jobs and memorialise the history from the pits to the pots?
I congratulate my hon. Friend and the Friends of Chatterley Whitfield colliery on the ambition that he has just outlined for a heritage park. It is a proposal that he needs to work up in more detail and bring to the Government, and we will certainly look at it with interest.
Question 25 has been withdrawn by Amy Callaghan. I am sure all those in the House pass on our best wishes to her and are looking forward to her speedy recovery and return to the House.
Does the Prime Minister agree with me that as our country emerges from this crisis, we have an opportunity to be bold in putting innovation at the centre of our response, to support high-growth sectors such as green energy and FinTech, and also to use innovative financial solutions such as social impact bonds as a tool in delivering our levelling-up agenda?
Yes. My hon. Friend may not believe it, but when I was the Mayor of London we pioneered social impact bonds to tackle the most entrenched rough sleepers and to give value to companies and charities for their success in dealing with that terrible problem. I am proud to say that those social impact bond schemes are now being used in seven projects across the country to tackle rough sleeping. We have made huge progress in dealing with rough sleeping. The number of rough sleepers has been a scar on our consciences. It has got much, much better over the crisis, but we must make sure it does not recur.
Beef farmers in my constituency produce high-quality products in which consumers can have confidence because our farmers can demonstrate lifelong traceability of their cattle. Their efforts, however, are undermined by labelling legislation in this country, which allows beef from anywhere in the world to be labelled as British beef as long as it is packaged in this country. If the Prime Minister is serious about maintaining food standards, especially in light of any future trade arrangements, will he do something to close that loophole?
Yes. If what the right hon. Gentleman says is indeed the case—I am sure that he knows exactly whereof he speaks—I can only say that it must be one of those things that is currently governed by the laws of the EU, to which he is bound to return an independent Scotland, should that catastrophe ever arise. On this side of the House, we intend to take advantage of the freedoms that we have—the freedoms that the British people have decided to take back—to make sure that Scottish beef farmers have the protections that they need.
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 suspending the House for three minutes.