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Volume 677: debated on Wednesday 17 June 2020

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.

Following the disgraceful events of the last week, with folks defacing national monuments, including Churchill and Queen Victoria, and offending the memory of hero PC Keith Palmer, what will the Prime Minister do to uphold British values and carry out the rule of law? (903345)

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 welcome the Prime Minister’s rejection of the extension to the Brexit transition period. Does he agree that taking back control of our fishing waters in January 2021 will benefit the fishing communities within the Great Grimsby constituency? (903347)

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.

This morning, with the Social Market Foundation, I published my report entitled, “Unlocking Britain”, which sets out 10 reforms that the Government can put in place to help our economy recover once the health crisis is behind us. Would the Prime Minister agree to work with me and consider some of those ideas, in particular my idea of a recovery fund for British small and medium-sized businesses—indeed, small and medium-sized businesses from the entire United Kingdom—to help to reduce their debt burden and give them equity, so they can power our recovery forward? (903348)

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.

I am sure everybody will be delighted that my right hon. Friend is back in this House in such robust form. He will be pleased to know that almost 50% of the children in Gloucestershire who qualify are back at school now, but their education has suffered over the past few months. Will he consider therefore doing two things? First, will he ask all teachers to set all their children and pupils a catch-up plan before the summer? Secondly, will he ask all headteachers to get a recovery plan so that everybody can go back in September? (903349)

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, is 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?

A strong UK steel industry is essential for the UK’s economic recovery. Plants such as Llanwern and the Orb steelworks in Newport—the only electrical steel plant in the UK—can play a key part in that recovery, but we are three months into the crisis and steel companies are still waiting for Government liquidity support. That is critical. Will the Prime Minister commit to addressing that now? (903346)

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.

Coronavirus has underlined the importance of improving broadband infrastructure. Does the Prime Minister agree that extending the existing relief on business rates for new full-fibre infrastructure could see the release of the investment we need to level up rural areas such as North Devon? Will he thank telecommunications workers for their efforts during the pandemic? (903352)

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.

The Prime Minister has previously stated to the House that he had no correspondence or discussions with the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government about the Westferry Printworks application. Will the Prime Minister now also confirm that none of his officials or advisers had such correspondence or discussions with the Secretary of State or his officials and advisers? Will the Prime Minister undertake to publish all correspondence relating to the matter when the Cabinet Secretary reports? (903350)

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.

The reopening of non-essential shops in Aylesbury on Monday has been a very welcome boost to restart the local retail sector. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that he will do everything necessary to stimulate the rest of the Buckinghamshire economy in the weeks and months to come, for example, by easing restrictions on outdoor tables and chairs, cutting unnecessary regulation and, perhaps most importantly, providing a dedicated stimulus for our small businesses—the businesses for which the county is rightly renowned? (903353)

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.

Last week, in response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft), the Prime Minister said:“newly shielded people may be asking themselves whether they will be entitled to furlough funds. I have been made aware of the issue very recently. I can assure her that we will be addressing it forthwith.”—[Official Report, 10 June 2020; Vol. 677, c. 281.]Since then, the deadline for applying for the furlough scheme has been and gone, and there has been no announcement about the support for shielding workers. Is this yet another U-turn, or has the Prime Minister just forgotten what he said in the Chamber last week? (903351)

It is really good to see the Prime Minister looking fighting fit. Where are we in the process of trying to stop repeated vexatious claims against servicemen and women who have been involved in fatality shootings in the Northern Ireland campaign? (903354)

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.

One million people with no recourse to public funds cannot access the universal credit safety net. I agree with the Prime Minister’s point at the Liaison Committee that hard-working families in that position should have help of one kind or another. Will he deliver help by suspending the “no recourse to public funds” restriction for the duration of this crisis, and do it before the school summer holidays, so that destitute families can at least claim the free school meal vouchers he announced yesterday? (903355)

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 and learned 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.

As if BA’s behaviour has not been bad enough, an agency in its supply chain, Shorterm, did not pay staff during the covid crisis, claiming that it was awaiting clarification from HMRC about furlough. The workers could not access benefits and have now been made redundant after 10 weeks of zero income. Will the Prime Minister ensure that HMRC clarifies the matter and considers an extension to the furlough deadline? If Shorterm is found to be bluffing, what will he do to stop companies treating workers like numbers on a spreadsheet? (903356)

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.

Sitting suspended.