House of Commons
Wednesday 24 June 2020
The House met at half-past Eleven 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
The Secretary of State was asked—
While the Northern Ireland economy does have its challenges, as we do across the United Kingdom as we come out of covid-19, I am confident that Northern Ireland has a promising economic future as we recover from this crisis. We will continue to work with business, the Executive and local partners to make sure we do everything we can to get the economy not just back up and running, but turbocharged as it moves forward, laying the foundations for a stable and sustainable economic future.
I thank the Secretary of State for that response. Does he agree with me that the much talked about reduction in corporation tax in Northern Ireland to 12.5% would be a major boost to the economy of the Province? If one or two parties in Northern Ireland are not keen on that idea, would the Government consider introducing it once we are free of the shackles of the European Union in that respect?
I think we are all looking forward to being completely free of the shackles of the European Union. We in the UK Government remain committed to supporting the Executive to achieve the devolution of corporation tax, so that they will have the power to make the decision that my hon. Friend has outlined. In the Stormont House and subsequent “Fresh Start” agreements, we made it clear that these powers would be devolved and provided, subject to the Executive demonstrating that their finances are on a sustainable footing for the long term. It is for the Northern Ireland Executive to take the steps necessary to place those finances on a sustainable footing, such as by putting in place the fiscal council, which I hope they will do very swiftly.
There are 600 job losses at Bombardier, 400 at Thompson Aero and another 200 at risk from the cancellation of the Airbus neo—new engine option—project. Northern Ireland cannot afford to lose these jewels in the crown of its economy, so will the Secretary of State ensure that the Government step in with a strategy and support for the aerospace sector similar to that provided by France, Germany and the US?
The hon. Lady asks a very important question about the aviation industry more widely. Obviously, I have spoken to the chief executive of Bombardier in particular, and my colleagues at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker) have been in constant co-ordination and contact with the relevant companies.
The UK Government have provided some £2.1 billion through the covid corporate financing facility to the aerospace sector and airlines more widely, and additional flexibility for UK Export Finance to support £3.5 billion of sales in the next 18 months, as well as putting £0.5 billion into our aerospace research and development over the next few years. We are determined to do everything we can to support all sectors of our economy, including the Northern Ireland economy.
Covid-19: Co-ordinated Response
Throughout the covid-19 outbreak, the UK Government have continued to meet regularly with the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, as well as other Executive Ministers, to co-ordinate the response and, importantly, to take steps together towards a healthy and full economic recovery.
I am delighted to learn about the positive relationship that exists between the Northern Ireland Executive and the UK Government during this unprecedented crisis. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, as the Northern Ireland Executive face some critical challenges in the near future, the spirit of co-operation, which will benefit not only Northern Ireland but the whole of the United Kingdom, should continue?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. It has been a really positive period of working together, across all the devolved parts of the United Kingdom, with the UK Government. I have had regular weekly meetings with both the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, apart from the wider Government meetings that they and their Ministers have been involved with. That is a positive sign of how we have been able to work together for the best interests of everybody in all communities in Northern Ireland. I hope that that will continue in the weeks, months and period ahead.
Absolutely. There has been an absolute unity of purpose in dealing with covid over the period from all parts, and the relationships—east-west, and of the Republic of Ireland with Northern Ireland and the UK Government—have been very positive. We have worked together and met regularly and, as I say, I think that has been a positive sign for what we can achieve in the future.
Business Support: Transition Period
I am working closely with businesses across Northern Ireland to ensure that they are ready for the end of the transition period, which will come at the end of December this year. The first business engagement forum meeting was held on 10 June, and my officials continue to engage in detailed technical discussions, as we did pre that and as we will continue to do.
The Prime Minister continues to insist that Northern Ireland businesses can simply throw customs exit declarations “in the bin”, while Michel Barnier continues to insist that this would be incompatible with the UK’s legal commitments. The Secretary of State says that consultations are ongoing, but does he not see that this cannot drag into the autumn? Business needs clarity now, given that preparation for a no-deal exit takes months. If he cannot provide this, he owes it to business to extend the transition period until proper answers are found.
We will not be extending the transition period; we have made that clear. On the wider point, we will set out more detailed plans for extensive support from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs for Northern Ireland businesses that will be engaging in the new administrative processes, and we will issue that guidance this summer. I shall be clear, as I have been previously at this Dispatch Box: Northern Ireland businesses trading with the rest of the UK are part of the UK customs territory. They will have unfettered access.
On that point, are the Government actively seeking a waiver from the EU to prevent the need for customs declarations on goods being shipped between Great Britain and Northern Ireland? How advanced are such discussions, if they are taking place?
We continue to take forward discussions on the implementation of the protocol in the Joint Committee and in the specialised committee, as the right hon. Gentleman is aware. As we set out in the Command Paper, we will discharge our responsibilities in a way that is effective, that upholds our international obligations and that respects the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland. Provisions must include the minimum possible bureaucratic consequences for businesses and traders, and we will respect what we promised, which is unfettered access.
I thank the Secretary of State for that response. Are the Government promoting a trusted-trader scheme, particularly for key retailers such as those that operate between Great Britain and Northern Ireland? What discussions about that has the Secretary of State had with the business engagement forum?
We are working with Northern Ireland businesses and the Executive to ensure that any new administrative procedures are streamlined, avoid any unnecessary burdens and do not affect any flow of trade. There should be no tariffs on internal UK trade because the UK is a single customs territory. For example, a supermarket delivering to its stores in Northern Ireland poses no risk whatsoever to the EU market. No tariffs would be owed for such trade. The principle needs to be formalised with the EU in the withdrawal agreement Joint Committee. We are talking to businesses, including via the engagement forum and other opportunities, to explore proposals to make sure that we maximise the free flow of trade.
Hello from Dorset. My right hon. Friend knows that Northern Ireland businesses want to prepare to make Brexit a success; the problem is that they do not quite know what they are preparing for. In reflecting on last week’s Select Committee hearing, is my right hon. Friend persuaded of the merits of providing stepping-stones between now and 31 December, so that business knows what to prepare for and in what timeframe?
As I said, we are working with Northern Ireland businesses and the Executive to support preparations for the end of the transition period at the end of this year. As we engage, including through the business engagement forum that we have already established, we will set out further details to help businesses to prepare for the end of the transition period at the earliest appropriate moment. I assure my hon. Friend that further guidance will be published this summer to make sure that people and businesses know what they need to do to prepare for the end of the transition period, which will be at the end of December this year.
An HMRC whistleblower recently warned that the new customs declaration service system is not only delayed but does not talk to other HMRC systems, some of which are 20 years old. With criminal organisations and smugglers ready to take advantage of any gaps in systems, how confident is the Secretary of State that this IT solution will work and provide proper controls to prevent businesses and the Treasury from losing millions of pounds in tax?
Sporting and Cultural Events
Northern Ireland has a rich sporting and cultural heritage and is a great setting for any event, as proven by the success of the Open last year. While any decision to bid to host major events is a matter for the Executive, my officials are in regular contact with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and their devolved counterparts to support UK-wide events.
The United Kingdom’s involvement in next season’s world rally championship is currently very uncertain: nine of the 11 rounds have already been chosen and GB is not currently part of that choice. The WRC promoter has previously spoken about the need to rotate Rally GB into Northern Ireland, where most of the competitors wish to participate. Can the Secretary of State save WRC? Will the Secretary of State assist by co-funding the event with the Northern Ireland Executive during our centenary year?
The hon. Gentleman in a consistent and passionate advocate of hosting a round of the world rally championship in Northern Ireland. We can safely say that if it does come to Northern Ireland, he will have been a driving force. In the “New Decade, New Approach” agreement, the Government have already pledged up to £2 billion to help the Executive to deliver on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland, but I would be very happy to support the Executive to foster closer ties and better collaborative working across sectors of the UK to attract the WRC and a portfolio of other events to Northern Ireland.
Covid-19: Public Security
I maintain close contact with the Northern Ireland Executive’s Justice Minister and the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Public safety obviously remains at the forefront of the PSNI’s efforts, and thanks to its dedication during this period, public safety has not been compromised. By working closely with and financially supporting the Executive, we have worked together to protect our hospitals and frontline responders and maintained essential public and emergency services.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Will he join me in commending all those involved in maintaining public safety in Northern Ireland for their commitment and efforts during the unprecedented and difficult circumstances of the past few months?
Absolutely. I have had the great honour and pleasure over the past few weeks of being able to meet some of the teams in the ambulance service and the PSNI, who have been working through the covid period in some very difficult circumstances, having to prepare themselves to go out to work to keep people safe and healthy. We owe them all a huge debt of thanks for the amazing work they have done over this period to keep people safe and healthy; I absolutely join my hon. Friend in welcoming that.
Of course, keeping people safe in Northern Ireland should always be the priority. However, that has not always been the case. In 1981, Paul Whitters, aged 15, was killed in Derry, and Julie Livingstone, aged 14, was killed in Belfast. Both were killed with plastic bullets. The files relating to their deaths have been reclassified and withheld until 2059 and 2064 respectively. Does the Secretary of State agree that there is no good reason to keep those files closed, and will he now act to allow the parents of those children to see the files?
I have enormous sympathy for those families who lost loved ones—especially children, which is a tragedy—during the troubles. The files mentioned by the hon. Member are currently held by the National Archives and were closed to protect the privacy, health and safety of individuals named in those files. A freedom of information request to the National Archives is the most appropriate next step to enable a full independent review of the files. Such a request can be made by anyone, including the hon. Member, and my Department would provide any necessary assistance to the National Archives if such a request were received.
Covid-19: Economic Recovery
The UK Government have supported Northern Ireland businesses and employees through grants, loans and the job retention scheme. The additional funding available to the Executive as a result of the Government’s coronavirus response amounts to £1.3 billion so far. In addition, the UK Government have provided £2 billion in new investment for Northern Ireland through the “New Decade, New Approach” agreement, to turbocharge infrastructure investment and provide the best possible platform for businesses to grow.
The impact on the economy in Northern Ireland has been severe. What will the Minister do to avoid a double whammy once the 28 weeks have passed in the case of a no-deal Brexit to stop chaos, confusion and potentially violence between parties in Northern Ireland?
The hon. Lady is right to recognise that there has been a severe impact, and we are determined to work hand in hand with the Executive on the response to that. I was pleased to see them publishing their own plan, and their focus on skills and infrastructure are shared objectives with the UK Government. This certainly needs to be a joint endeavour, to ensure that we support a strong economy and the conditions for safety and security for the people of Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland is reported to be heading for a prolonged economic downturn. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) said, its aerospace industry is in crisis, with significant job losses at Bombardier and Thompson Aero. The Secretary of State can stop further decline by putting pressure on the Treasury to accelerate defence procurement programmes. Why has he not done that?
The hon. Lady is right that the covid-19 outbreak has had a severe impact on the aviation and aerospace sectors around the world. The UK Government have already provided significant support to the sector, including through the business interruption loan scheme, the job retention scheme and, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State mentioned, £2.1 billion through the covid corporate financing facility, with additional flexibility from UK Export Finance. Of course we will have contact with Ministers at the Ministry of Defence, and we are always happy to work with the sector to promote job opportunities in Northern Ireland.
Virtually every major commercial aircraft programme in the world comes back either in structure, services or parts to Northern Ireland, yet the recent redundancies have been greeted with no more than a shrug of the shoulders from Ministers, who seem to think that general statements are enough. When will the Minister meet the workforce at those plants and put his weight behind a plan to help them survive this crisis?
UK Government Ministers and officials have been engaging with key stakeholders in Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State has met the key business leaders in this respect to inform our response to covid-19. The lead Department on this, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, has been engaging extensively with the trade unions. Only this morning, I spoke to my ministerial colleague at BEIS to ensure that we can continue to co-ordinate our work on aviation.
The simple answer is that it is not. We want to make sure that we meet our commitments in a way that imposes a minimal burden on business and provides unfettered access. We are absolutely clear that we will provide that unfettered access and legislate for it through this House.
My hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State has already mentioned the severity of job losses at Bombardier, which drives a whole host of other supply-chain companies. What is the Minister doing to support capital investment in the supply chain to maintain jobs and skills at this particular time?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: the supply chain is crucially important to this industry. Making sure that we take the right approach to unfettered access and that we provide support across both the UK and the Northern Ireland economies is crucial in that respect. That is why we are working very closely with colleagues at BEIS and in the Executive to make sure that the support is there up and down the supply chain.
Covid-19: Hospitality and Tourism
The UK Government have made £1.3 billion of additional funding available to the Executive as part of the coronavirus response. That has enabled them to provide £25,000 grants to businesses in these sectors and to extend the initial three-month business rates holiday to 12 months for most Northern Ireland businesses. Prior to lockdown, I visited many of Northern Ireland’s beautiful tourist attractions and saw first hand the amazing experience and the giant welcome that Northern Ireland offers to visitors. I look forward to encouraging everyone to visit as soon as the public health guidelines allow.
I agree wholeheartedly that tourism is indeed a jewel in Northern Ireland’s crown. Does the Minister agree that, subject to public health guidance, of course, now is the opportune time to really promote Northern Ireland as a destination? Being in the common travel area, quarantine does not apply to English, Welsh and Scottish visitors, so they can fly into Belfast or sail across the Irish sea and still be on staycation.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I absolutely encourage people to avail themselves of those opportunities. It is worth noting that on 1 May the UK Government, together with the Executive, announced a generous £5.7 million funding support package for City of Derry and Belfast City airports so that we can keep this connectivity going. There is a huge opportunity for Northern Ireland tourism. As we enter the recovery phase, many more people from across the UK can go and visit the beautiful sights across Northern Ireland.
Cross-border Transfer of Jobs
Northern Ireland is and will remain a great place for businesses to invest and grow. Only this week we saw Belfast listed among the top 10 tech cities of the future. A number of companies have recently announced investments into the Northern Ireland economy, including Randox, Cygilant and Hypixel Studios.
May I bring to the attention of the Minister, in case he has missed it, the words of the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith), who said recently that businesses in Northern Ireland were telling him that because of the uncertainties they faced they were considering shifting jobs into the Republic of Ireland? Will he not listen to the warnings of a very highly respected former Secretary of State and actually start engaging with businesses instead of just disregarding them?
I share the right hon. Gentleman’s respect for the former Secretary of State, but there is no need for Northern Ireland businesses to move elsewhere to trade with the UK. The Government will provide unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses to the UK market. Working together with the Executive, we can provide strong conditions for recovery that will make Northern Ireland an excellent place to invest.
We are committed to working hard to deliver a relationship with the EU based on friendly co-operation between sovereign equals and centred on free trade. The relationship we are seeking will work for all of the UK, including Northern Ireland, and will best serve the interests of Northern Ireland businesses and consumers.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Does he agree that, with business facing the hardest level of uncertainty in our lifetime because of coronavirus, it would be an enormous mistake to do as many Opposition Members are suggesting and extend the transition, the talks and all the unwanted uncertainty, delaying the start of our new relationship indefinitely?
My hon. Friend is quite right. First, extending the transition period would bind us into future EU laws, without us having any say, yet we could still have to foot the bill. Secondly, extending the transition period would simply prolong the negotiations and increase uncertainty for business. That is why we will not extend the transition period. This country needs to be able to design our own rules in our own best interests, and that is what we will do.
My hon. Friend asks an important question. Our top priority is to protect the Belfast Good Friday agreement and the gains of the peace process to preserve Northern Ireland’s place as a key part of the UK. Our approach is at all times guided by these priorities and sets out how we will meet our obligations in the protocol. The Command Paper that we published in May outlines how the protocol can be implemented in a flexible and proportionate way to protect the interests of people and businesses in Northern Ireland, as well as the whole UK, and indeed the EU. The protocol puts legal obligations on both sides and makes it clear that it is for both the UK and the EU to respect Northern Ireland’s integral place in the UK customs territory. We stand ready to work with the EU in a collaborative and constructive way to uphold the integral role that Northern Ireland has in our community and the role of the Northern Ireland Executive.
Since Patrick was a boy, trade across these islands has been critical to our economies in all parts of these islands. Trade for businesses is worth some £14 billion with Northern Ireland and £35 billion with Ireland. What guidance are the Government giving to British businesses about the different rules they have agreed with Northern Ireland and on trade with the Republic as part of the European Union?
I would just say that if the hon. Lady has a read of the Command Paper, she will see that it outlines our position on the protocol. As I said earlier, we will be publishing guidance for businesses shortly. The key issue for businesses in Northern Ireland is that they will have unfettered access to the UK as part of the UK’s internal market.
Restoration of Assembly Powers
As my hon. Friend knows, following successful talks in January this year, the Executive and Assembly were restored on 9 January with their full powers. We are grateful for the progress that they have made since in delivering public services, bringing to an end the nurses’ pay dispute in Northern Ireland and working alongside other parts of the UK to tackle coronavirus.
My hon. Friend will know that this House has passed draconian laws that have been put on the people of Northern Ireland, particularly in relation to abortion. Can he confirm that it is now up to the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Executive to decide whether to keep those laws, to reform them, or even to revoke them?
As my hon. Friend knows, the regulations to which he refers do not replace or remove powers from the Executive. I remind him that they were introduced and approved by this House via an amendment to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019, following a three-year absence of devolution. We have delivered regulations that came into force on 31 March, as we were required to do. Parliament has now approved the regulations and they remain the law on access to abortion services. Abortion remains a devolved issue, and the Northern Ireland Assembly can legislate on that or amend the regulations, so long as it does so in a way that remains compliant with the CEDAW—convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women—recommendations and convention rights.
New Decade, New Approach Deal
The Government, despite the challenges of the pandemic, have continued to progress work where possible to implement our commitments. These include helping to end the nurses’ pay dispute, launching and progressing the recruitment process for a veterans’ commissioner, releasing £553 million of funding out of the £2 billion made available to progress implementation, and making changes to immigration rules. We will also be restarting the process with the Executive for organising a joint board that will provide quarterly review of UK Government funding provided under the deal.
Absolutely. I agree with my hon. Friend, but we should recognise the manner in which the Executive have worked collaboratively to tackle the immediate crisis, including the way in which the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister have demonstrated leadership and the ability to put their differences aside, working together to protect the public.
The Government and the Northern Ireland Executive have set out our complete commitment to ensuring that the “New Decade, New Approach” deal is implemented in full. As the Secretary of State said earlier, one aspect we would welcome rapid progress on is the independent fiscal council.
The Prime Minister was asked—
My constituents in Wrexham welcome the announcement by the chief medical officers of Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England about reducing the UK covid alert level from 4 to 3. Indeed, through my work at the Wrexham Maelor Hospital, I have seen a reduction in the number of covid-positive cases needing to be treated. Does the Prime Minister therefore agree that the UK-wide approach works and we need to continue with it to beat the pandemic?
First, I personally pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the shifts she has put in throughout the pandemic and of course thank all her colleagues at the Wrexham Maelor Hospital, which I know. Working together across all four nations of our country is indeed the way in which we will beat the pandemic.
Yesterday, the Government announced the next stage of easing lockdown restrictions. If that plan is to work—and we want it to work—we need an effective track, trace and isolate system. The Prime Minister promised that a world-beating system would be in place by 1 June. The latest figures from yesterday’s press conference hosted by the Prime Minister show that 33,000 people are estimated to have covid-19 in England. The latest track, trace and isolate figures show that just over 10,000 people with covid-19 were reached and asked to provide contact details. I recognise the hard work that has gone into this, but if two thirds of those with covid-19 are not being reached and asked to provide contact details, there is a big problem, isn’t there?
On the contrary. I think that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has been stunned by the success of the test and trace operation. Contrary to his prognostications of gloom, it has got up and running much faster than the doubters expected. They are getting it done—Dido Harding and her team have recruited 25,000 people and so far they have identified and contacted 87,000 people who have voluntarily agreed to self-isolate to stop the disease spreading. I do not think the right hon. and learned Gentleman would have predicted that a few weeks ago. I think he should pay tribute now to Dido and her team for what they are doing.
The Prime Minister just has not addressed the question I put to him. I was not asking about those who have gone into the system—the 10,000—or those who have been contacted; I was asking about the two thirds of the 33,000 with covid-19 who were not reached. That is a big gap. The Prime Minister risks making the mistakes he made at the beginning of the pandemic—brushing aside challenge, dashing forward, not estimating the risks properly. If two thirds of those with covid-19 are not being contacted, that is a big problem. If we do not get track, trace and isolate properly running, we cannot open the economy or prevent infection from spreading, so let me ask the question in a different way. What is the Government’s strategy for closing the gap between the number of people with covid-19 and those going into the system—not what happens to those who go into the system?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman is inadvertently giving a false impression of what test and trace is doing. The 33,000 cases in the country is, of course, an estimate. NHS test and trace is contacting the vast majority of those who test positive and their contacts and getting them to self-isolate. It is a formidable achievement. Yesterday, the right hon. and learned Gentleman was kind enough to say that he supported our policy and our programme—I seem to remember him saying that loud and clear yesterday. Today—as I say, I understand the constraints of the profession in which he used to work; I know how it works—he seems to be yo-yoing back into a position of opposition. Which is it: is he supporting what we are doing or is he against it?
The figures I have, which the Prime Minister says are inadvertently misleading, are the slide at his press conference yesterday and the slide at the Government’s press conference last week—the latest figures. They are the two figures. I do support the next stage of the operation, but the Prime Minister is wrong to reject challenge. Sixty-five thousand people have lost their lives because of covid-19. The Prime Minister should welcome challenge that could save lives, rather than complaining about it.
Another risk to this plan is if local councils do not have the powers and resources to implement local lockdowns. There is a report today that eight out of 10 councils face bankruptcy or cutting services, with many of those in the north-east and midlands, where, as the Prime Minister knows, there are the worst affected areas for covid-19. The real concern among council leaders is that they do not have the powers or guidance to implement lockdowns quickly if needed. The Conservative leader of Oxfordshire County Council said it would be “interesting” for central
“government to confirm what is meant by the local lockdown”—
“clear guidance as to those powers and what is expected of us”.
Can the Prime Minister tell us when local authorities will get the guidance that they need?
Everybody understands—we have seen it already, across the country—that when there are local outbreaks, for instance in Weston-super-Mare or in GP surgeries in north London, there have been local lockdowns and local crackdowns. We have a very effective cluster-busting operation, which is designed to ensure that we keep those outbreaks under control. Local councils understand how to do it, with the local resilience forums backed up by the joint biosecurity centre. That is how it works and that is how it is going to work, and it is a very effective way of keeping this disease under control. I am not going to pretend to the right hon. and learned Gentleman or to the House that this thing is beaten or that the virus has gone way, because clearly that is not the case. We have to remain extremely vigilant, and local councils will be supported in doing their vital work in implementing local lockdowns.
May I now turn to the app? This really matters because unless someone with covid-19 can name and identify everybody they have been in contact with, the app is the only way of tracing unknown contacts. My hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) made precisely that point yesterday. He gave the example, “How on earth do you trace everyone in close contact at a seafront or in a park without an app?” Up until last week, the Government maintained that the app was “critical—another of their slides—but at the weekend the Health Secretary downplayed the app, saying it was only ever additional support. So which is it: critical or not?
I wonder whether the right hon. and learned Gentleman can name a single country in the world that has a functional contract tracing app—there isn’t one. What we have—and what, I am afraid, has left the Opposition slightly foundering—is a very successful NHS test and trace operation, which yesterday they supported. Yesterday, they said it was good enough for this country to go forward with step 3 of our plan, but today they are yo-yoing back again and saying that it is not good enough. They need to make up their mind. They need to get behind NHS test and trace, support it and take the country forward together.
Germany. It had its app working on 15 June and it has had 12 million downloads—I checked that overnight. [Interruption.] Twelve million—it is way beyond. The Health Secretary said that we would have the app by mid-May—presumably that was on advice. The Prime Minister said that we would have it by 1 June, but now Government Ministers say that it will not be ready until the winter. We have spent £12 million on this. Other countries are ahead of us. When are we going to have a working app?
I am afraid that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is completely wrong, because no country in the world has a working contact tracing app. I have always been clear—we have always been clear—that the app would be the icing on the cake. If we can get it to work, it will be a fine thing, but there is not one anywhere in the world so far. What we do have is a fantastic NHS test and trace operation that is already up and running, that is going to get better and better, and that will be indispensable to our future success. I think that he should support it and, by the way, that he should make it much clearer that he supports our programme going forward.
Since the right hon. and learned Gentleman mentions Labour councils and support for Labour councils, perhaps he might clear up the position of yesterday and say once and for all that Labour councils should now be encouraging children in their areas to go back to school. We heard some warm words from him yesterday. Can he now confirm that he wants all children who can go back to school to go back to school this month?
Yes. The only U-turn here was the Education Secretary on 9 June, who ripped up the Government’s plans to get children back into school before the summer break.
There is a theme to these exchanges. Last week, I asked the Prime Minister about two claims about child poverty. He said that absolute child poverty and relative child poverty
“have both declined under this Government”.—[Official Report, 17 June 2020; Vol. 677, c. 796.]
On Monday, the Office of the Children’s Commissioner ruled that the Prime Minister’s answer was “mostly false”. The Prime Minister also said that there are 400,000 fewer families living in poverty now than there were in 2010. On Monday, the Office of the Children’s Commissioner ruled that that was simply “false”. He has been found out. He either dodges the question or he gives dodgy answers. Mr Speaker, no more witnesses; I rest my case. Will the Prime Minister do the decent thing and correct the record in relation to child poverty?
I am happy to point out to m’learned friend that actually, there are 100,000 fewer children in absolute poverty and 500,000 fewer children falling below thresholds of low income and material deprivation. This Government, as he knows, are massively increasing universal credit with £7 billion more to help the poorest and neediest families in our country. We are getting on with it. We are taking the tough decisions. He still cannot make up his mind.
Talking about child poverty, the single biggest determinant of a child’s success is whether he or she goes to school. The right hon. and learned Gentleman still will not say whether children should go. I think it is absolutely infamous for him to come to the House one day and say he supports the programme and then, the next day, not to confirm that he wants kids to go to school now.
My hon. Friend knows a great deal about the subject whereof she now speaks. We remain fully committed to the welfare of all seafarers, regardless of their nationality. We ask all states to do the same. I look forward to discussing that in person with her.
I am sure the whole House will join me in passing on condolences to the family of the three children who sadly lost their lives in a house fire in Paisley last Friday evening, Fiona, Alexander and Philip Gibson—such a terrible tragedy.
This morning, we heard growing concerns from medical experts about the real risk of a second wave of covid-19. At the same time, experts at the Fraser of Allander Institute outlined the scale of the economic challenges ahead, with a raft of redundancies and business closures if financial support is withdrawn. They warned that measures that risk a second wave of the virus would delay recovery in Scotland until 2024. The health and economic emergency requires an unprecedented response.
On Monday, the Scottish Government’s advisory group on economic recovery, led by independent business leaders, published its initial analysis to secure a strong recovery. Will the Prime Minister welcome those efforts to find a way forward out of this economic crisis?
I am grateful to the Prime Minister for that answer, and I am glad that he agrees that we need to take every action to study and aid the economic recovery. I am sure he is aware that the Scottish advisory group has called for an accelerated review of the devolved fiscal framework. Crucially, it has supported a significant increase in access to capital to stimulate an investment-led recovery in Scotland. Scotland can make different choices and invest in a strong recovery, but we can only do it with the necessary financial powers. Our First Minister and our Finance Secretary have already made a request for more borrowing powers. Will the Prime Minister implement the recommendations of those business leaders and give the Scottish Parliament the economic powers it needs to fuel a recovery in the wake of the pandemic, or will he put Scotland’s economic recovery at risk?
I respectfully remind the right hon. Gentleman that, as part of our UK campaign against the coronavirus, Scotland has so far received £3.8 billion in Barnett consequentials—a fact that I am sure is seldom off his lips in his discussions with SNP colleagues. We will continue to invest massively in Scotland because Scotland, like the whole of the UK, benefits from being part of the oldest and most successful political partnership anywhere in the world. I congratulate the SNP, by the way, on its U-turn—which could be copied with advantage by our friends on the Opposition Front Bench—on education and getting all kids into school.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out the evil that is done by drug gangs around the whole country. County lines operations have spread across our country, and we must roll them up. That is why we are tackling them directly with every technological resource at our disposal, and that is why we are making sure that we invest in another 20,000 police officers going to Keighley and across the country as well.
Diolch yn fawr, Mr Llefarydd. Covid-19 has now broken out in three Welsh food factories. There are 200 cases in Llangefni in Ynys Môn, 70 in Wrexham and 34 in Merthyr Tydfil. A plant in Germany has also seen 1,500 workers test positive. The difference, of course, is that German employees get sick pay worth 100% of their salary. Here, workers get sick pay worth on average perhaps 20% of their salary, so they lose 80% of their salary. These are low-paid workers. For any future local lockdown to succeed, people will need to be supported. Will the Prime Minister now commit to local furlough-like schemes for self-isolating workers?
As I said in my statement yesterday, the coronavirus job retention scheme—the furlough scheme—as well as what we have done for self-employed people, which has also been considerable, and the expansion of universal credit have been massive commitments by our Government to the workforce of this country. We will continue to make those commitments and, as I said yesterday, if we have to move back—obviously we do not want to—to local lockdowns, or indeed a national lockdown, nobody should be penalised for doing the right thing. So there is the right hon. Lady’s answer.
I will certainly look at all proposals that my hon. Friend makes on taxation. As she must know, they are a matter for the Chancellor and for the next Budget, although what we have already done is give business rates holidays—pushing back business rates right until the end of next year—and huge coronavirus loans, bounce-back loans and grants of £25,000 for every business. What we will also do is support tourism across the whole of the UK, and I hope that she will put the welcome sign above Eastbourne this summer, so that people can enjoy its attractions.
We have massively increased our spending on universal credit, but the hon. Lady raises an important point about access to benefits for terminally ill people, and I will undertake, if I may, Mr Speaker, to revert to her as soon as possible by writing.
I refer my hon. Friend to what I said to our hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) just now. We will continue to support the hospitality sector in all the ways that I have described, but, of course, what could also happen is that people in Newcastle-under-Lyme could be encouraged to enjoy themselves sensibly, in a covid-secure way, and keep the purple flag flying above it.
The hon. Lady has an extremely important point. It is one that we are working on very intensively now in Government, so that we use the opportunity of this crisis to bounce forwards with new low-carbon technology that will continue to drive the UK’s formidable aerospace industry.
We have of course invested a huge amount in south Leicester. The local growth fund is expected to deliver 2,700 jobs and 5,000 new homes, but, as I am sure the House will understand, this is a planning decision, with which this Government obviously cannot involve themselves.
As I think the Leader of the Opposition himself confirmed just now, we do have a pretty good estimate of what is happening in the country. Overall, we think the numbers have moved down from, say, one in 400 four weeks ago to maybe one in 1,700 today. The incidence continues to decline across the country. Where there are particular outbreaks and particular hotspots, such as in Bedford or elsewhere, we now have the resources of our test and trace operation and the joint biosecurity centre, which are getting better and better the whole time, to implement those local crackdowns and cluster-busting operations.
Yes, indeed. I thank my hon. Friend for what he is doing to represent his young constituents. It is vital that we invest in people’s skills during what will unquestionably be economically difficult times. We are not just investing in training through our new £2.5 billion national skills fund: we also want to encourage as many in-work placements as possible and get people the live experience that they need.
The right hon. Gentleman raises an incredibly important point. Any MP will have had very hard cases caused by the DBS system. It is important for the protection of children and young people, but we are considering the Supreme Court’s judgment and will set out our opinion in due course.
The Prime Minister stated that when we leave the EU at the end of this year Northern Ireland will still remain a full part of the United Kingdom. But I have in my hand a letter received by the management of the port of Larne only this week, stating that it has to prepare to become a border control post, and 14 acres of land has been looked at for car parking, for lorry parking and for construction. There is a sense of urgency, as the proposals have to go to the EU by the end of the month. Can the Prime Minister explain how Northern Ireland can remain a full part of the United Kingdom if people coming from the rest of the UK into Northern Ireland have to pass through a border control post? Would he advise management to tear this letter up as well?
I have not seen the letter the right hon. Gentleman describes, but I can tell him absolutely categorically that there will be no new customs infrastructure for the very simple reason that, under the protocol, it is absolutely clear in black and white that Northern Ireland is part of the customs territory of the whole of the United Kingdom. We will be joining the whole of the United Kingdom in our new independent trade policy and doing free trade deals around the world.
I thank my right hon. Friend, and he is quite right that there will be tough times ahead for people and for families. That is why we have massively increased universal credit. We stand by, as we have throughout this crisis, to help the British people through it.
I have been contacted by hundreds of my constituents about racial inequality in the UK. We had the Lammy review of the justice system, we had the race disparity audit in the workplace, and we now have the independent review of the Windrush scandal. What is the Prime Minister’s timeframe for implementing those recommendations?
Actually, we are getting on with implementing a huge number of the recommendations we have already had. Sixteen of the Lammy recommendations have been implemented. A further 17 are in progress; two of them we are not progressing. The Home Secretary will set out further what we are going to do later—before recess—about Windrush with Wendy Williams’s report, and we will go on with our cross-governmental commission to ensure that we stamp out racism and discrimination across this country and throughout our system of government. We take it exceptionally seriously, and I am glad that the hon. Lady raised it.
Absolutely. I can certainly say to my hon. Friend and to the people of Blyth Valley that we are going to do absolutely everything we can in the course of our infrastructure revolution to ensure that UK steel manufacturers are at the front of the queue for the great projects that we are going to construct. We have already identified about £3.8 billion worth of opportunities.
My constituent Elizabeth Smurthwaite contracted coronavirus in her care home and was refused admission to hospital. This Government’s policy of discharging patients with coronavirus into homes has led to over 16,000 deaths. Sadly, Elizabeth has since passed away. Last week, the Health Secretary said that he accepted responsibility for these deaths in our care homes. Does the Prime Minister?
Of course this Government accept responsibility, and I accept responsibility, for everything that has happened throughout this crisis, but I will say that what happened with the discharge of patients into care homes was all done according to clinical decisions, as the NHS has confirmed, and actually there was a 40% reduction between January and March in the number of people going from the NHS into care homes. Thankfully, we are now seeing a massive reduction, thanks to the efforts of care workers and our care home action programme, to get the numbers of deaths in care homes down to the levels we would expect to find this year.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw the attention of the House to a very serious and worrying situation, which we are monitoring closely. Perhaps the best thing I can say to her is that we are encouraging both parties to engage in dialogue on the issues on the border and sort it out between them.
The last few days have been very difficult for our town. I offer my deepest condolences to the families of those who died in the dreadful attack in Forbury Gardens on Saturday evening. It is impossible to imagine what they are going through. My thoughts are also with the injured and their families, and with all those who have been affected by this terrible attack. I thank Thames Valley police and the other emergency services for their swift and effective response and for the incredible bravery shown by officers. Will the Prime Minister ensure that the investigation now receives all the resources it needs and that our town is properly supported? We have a strong and diverse community. We can and we will get through this together.
Yes, indeed. I thank the hon. Member for his question and for how he expressed it, because I think the whole House shares his feelings of support for the police and acknowledges their bravery in running towards danger, as well as that of the members of the public who themselves intervened. It was a really extraordinary moment, but it was also an appalling crime and an appalling tragedy.
Obviously there is a case that must now be properly proceeded with, and I just make two comments. First, if there are any lessons that we need to learn about the way we handle things in the future, we will of course learn those lessons and this Government will act in this Parliament. Secondly, as I said yesterday to the House, and I think it is a common view, we will not let this kind of attack—this kind of senseless murder—distract us or in any way allow us to be intimidated or to change our way of life.
I have a short statement to make about Divisions. With effect from today, the doors will be locked 18 minutes after the start of a Division. As at present, this can be extended if there is a queue at that time.
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.
Virtual participation in proceedings concluded (Order, 4 June)
Police Stop and Search (Repeal) Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Sir Edward Davey presented a Bill to repeal sections 60, 60AA and 60A of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 in so far as they apply to England and Wales.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 10 July, and to be printed (Bill 147).
Demonstrations (Abortion Clinics)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to restrict demonstrations in the vicinity of abortion clinics; and for connected purposes.
The demands in this Bill are not new, and although its title includes the word “abortion”, the termination of pregnancy is not at issue here—not the number of weeks, or anything of that nature. This is about women being able to present themselves for legal healthcare free from intimidation.
Many Members with a clinic within their boundary will know the issue at stake. In 2017, I and 113 cross-party colleagues wrote to the then Home Secretary Amber Rudd, which resulted in her commissioning a review. Alas, by the time it reported back, her successor recognised the problem but deemed it was not serious enough to address. Yet any harassment is surely wrong and since then things have worsened. Pre-lockdown, there were scenes of scores of protesters obstructing the entrance to the BPAS Finsbury Park clinic. That made national news. My hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) called on the Government to bring forward legislation to protect women from Cardiff to Eastbourne and Doncaster—even my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has this menace on his patch.
Lockdown provided some respite, but they are at it again. It took over three decades of protests outside the Marie Stopes clinic in Ealing until the exasperated council in 2018 introduced Britain’s first buffer zone—a public spaces protection order, a local authority byelaw—so that women could access healthcare services in confidence and dignity, with their journey down the street and up the path into the clinic unimpeded by anti-abortion or even pro-choice campaigners after having probably made the most difficult decision of their lives.
But with the covid-19 crisis preoccupying local authorities—although the protesters do not seem deterred by it—councils have enough on their plate without having to find the time and resources for the onerous process necessary for a PSPO. While a PSPO is an infinite improvement on what was there before, it is cumbersome and only temporary. Ours ends next year, and it took a six-figure sum to gather evidence and redeploy a senior team of officers from elsewhere for six months, and to pay for the subsequent signage and the legal fees from the inevitable challenges from the well-endowed people on the other side.
I have been aware of Ealing protests since the ’90s, which included disturbing 2D and 3D foetus images lining the road. When I became a parent and had to walk my own past there, I shuddered more. As an MP, I received representations from constituents from neighbouring houses, with people saying that they there were not sure whether to comfort the women in distress. Worse still was the anguish felt by women clinic users. They were usually young and about to go through a challenging process, sometimes after rape or a fatal foetal abnormality. The last thing they needed in that situation was to be met by lifelike, medically inaccurate foetus dolls and graphic images, handed misleading literature on the way in, or called “mum” and told they would go to hell. I held a meeting at the clinic, and we only got in because it was raining that day and the protesters were put off by the precipitation. The clinic keeps an incident log, and staff reported being hounded themselves, and told me about women either missing appointments or turning up in tears due to groups congregating outside, thus causing potential physical and emotional harm to themselves. There was a record number of submissions to the PSPO consultation, including reports of clinic users being shouted at, having their arms grabbed, and being filmed on camera phones. While pro-life supporters claim that handing out leaflets and kneeling with rosary beads is not harassment or intimidation, nor needs police intervention, as Justice Turner said when upholding the Ealing decision at the High Court, it is “uninvited attention” when women are “vulnerable and sensitive”.
Ealing’s chief superintendent told me that the police would prefer national protections as this order is about to run out and the whole onerous process must start again. Policing has been made a lot better now, with officers freed up to fight crime, rather than keeping rival groups apart at the gate since the emergence of the pro-choice advocacy group, Sister Supporter.
In reality, however, only one side protests not in the traditional sense by targeting legislators like us to change decisions, but by targeting individual women on their way to make this agonising decision that they have often made as a forced choice, and with judgments on their morality cast all over them. The High Court, the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court have all affirmed the Ealing decision, with my brilliant barrister constituent, Kuljit Bhogal, defending each time, but the cash-strapped council and our leader Julian Bell now fear further expense because the next stop is going to be the European Court of Human Rights, at a time when every penny from the public purse counts.
Life is all about weighing up competing interests, and freedom of thought, of conscience, of expression and of assembly are often cited, but clinic users also have a right to privacy. Pregnancy is something we tend to keep private until it shows: I definitely did—and look at Carrie; we didn’t know until later, did we? Pregnancy is a personal thing, and shaming people undergoing it, with the added dimension of abortion, and pushing them into the spotlight in a public place—a public highway—violates this. As our chief superintendent put it, protesters can still protest; they have just moved a few hundred yards down the road.
Many MPs on both sides of the House who are supporting this Bill are devout Christians, and we should not muddy the waters of the issues at stake here. When that vicar’s daughter, the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Joy Morrissey), was an Ealing councillor, she was a prime mover behind our PSPO, and local clergy, such as Nick Jones of Saint Mary, Acton, are completely 100% on side, as are a plethora of other groups: the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Royal College of Midwives, the End Violence Against Women Coalition, Women’s Aid and Mumsnet to name but a few.
Australia and Canada have adopted this approach and this type of legislation functions fine, but we do not want to go down the road of America, where there are horrific stories of medical professionals’ cars being booby-trapped and all sorts of scary things; I fear we could head in that direction if action is not taken now.
This is not about the rights and wrongs of abortion. While emotions run high, and there are sincerely held opinions on both sides of the argument, we must accept that it has been legal for 50 years in this country. This is about the rights of vulnerable women seeking access to healthcare in safety, anonymity and dignity, without the accompanying paraphernalia designed to induce guilt, such as grossly inaccurate quasi-medical leaflets or being filmed and livestreamed entering and leaving the clinic, which no other medical procedure would attract. Access to health services should be a fundamental human right enjoyed by all without interference.
Following our buffer zone in Ealing, Richmond has followed suit, and apparently the constituencies of my good friends my hon. Friends the Members for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) and for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill) are next on the cards. Although Ealing’s PSPO was a necessary and local solution to a local problem, women should not effectively be in an uneven, patchy postcode lottery in order to be able to access harassment-free reproductive healthcare. This is a national problem that requires a national solution. Where Ealing leads, the world should follow, but we should better what Ealing has. This Government have been courageous with things such as same sex-marriage and they should be so again. I commend the Bill to the House.
I rise to oppose this Bill and urge colleagues to vote against it, whatever their views on abortion, on several key grounds: its potentially damaging impact on freedom of speech; the fact that we already have sufficient relevant and effective legislation—we do not need more—and because the Government looked into and rejected a Bill of this type less than two years ago
In 2018, the then Home Secretary conducted an in-depth review about protest activities outside abortion clinics. The outcome was clear. He said that
“introducing national buffer zones would not be a proportionate response.”
Why did he conclude this? One clear reason was, as he said, that
“legislation already exists to restrict protest activities that cause harm to others.”
Where a crime is committed, the police have the power to act so that people feel protected.
There are, by my reckoning, at least six pieces of legislation already available for authorities to tackle behaviour that might cause harassment, alarm or disorder: the Criminal Justice Act 2003; the Public Order Act 1986; the Protection from Harassment Act 1997; the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005; the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 and the Local Government Act 2000. We do not need more.
The Government’s review also found that anti-abortion activities take place outside a very small number of abortion facilities. Of the 363 hospitals and clinics in England and Wales that carry out abortions, just 36 had experienced anti-abortion activities. Evidence showed that these activities were—again I quote from the then Home Secretary’s conclusion—“passive in nature” predominantly. He went on to say:
"The main activities that were reported to us that take place during protests include: praying; displaying banners; and handing out leaflets. There were relatively few reports of the more aggressive activities"
of the type described by the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton. The type of behaviour that she described is simply not replicated widely across the country. In fact, for more than a quarter of a century, in places from Ealing to Edgbaston, people concerned about abortion have, in the main, gathered peaceably to pray near abortion clinics, and they have gently offered a leaflet or the opportunity of a conversation. Actually, colleagues, how different is that from our political campaigning—apart from the praying that is, though some of us do that, too. Little trouble was registered at these clinics until the last few years when opposing campaigners started to arrive in groups with a mega- phone to deliberately stir up conflict—in my opinion—where none had existed previously.
Let me be clear: I do not condone aggressive protest activities outside abortion clinics, but those are in the minority and imposing national legislation where it is not required would be a drastic overreaction. It would be a drastic overreaction because of the potential damage that this Bill could do to the more widely held freedom of speech in this country. As the then Home Secretary wrote:
“In this country, it is a long-standing tradition that people are free to gather together and to demonstrate their views. This is something to be rightly proud of.”
Not only could freedom of speech be threatened, but also freedom of assembly, freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, freedom of expression, the right to peaceably protest, and the right to receive information. They are fundamental liberties, many hard-won, underpinning our democracy. This is a dangerous Bill with potentially far-reaching implications. Everyone has the right to free speech within the law. That includes the right to say things which, though lawful, others may find disturbing or upsetting. Of course free speech is not an absolute; there are limitations prohibiting speech that incites violence, or constitutes harassment or is defamatory, but there are laws to deal with that, as I have said. However, the law does not prohibit speech that others might find upsetting or offensive. I find it upsetting to hear that 9 million unborn children have been aborted since 1967—one every three minutes in Great Britain today; 600 every working day.
We must not allow a situation where minority groups holding unpopular or unfashionable opinions that are within the law are shut down by those seeking to prevent the free speech of people whose views they disagree with. What other points of view could be delegitimised next? We must safeguard free speech as precious. No wonder a host of prominent human rights groups and civil society campaigners, who I suspect do not share my views on abortion, have spoken against the proposed “buffer” or “censorship” zones proposed in the Bill. They include Peter Tatchell, the Manifesto Club, Big Brother Watch, Index on Censorship, the Freedom Association and Liberty, the last of which has strongly criticised the public spaces protection orders, to which the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton referred, as powers that allow
“for the criminalisation of a very broad range of conduct”,
and has called on the Government
“to get rid of these over-broad and under-scrutinised powers.”
A PSPO can be created simply if a local authority is satisfied that two conditions are met: if activities in the area have a detrimental effect on quality of life—a hugely subjective test, especially when applied in such a sensitive area as abortion—and if the activities are likely to be continuing. Not only would such nationwide censorship zones set an illiberal precedent of Government censorship, but they would make people fearful of expressing views about abortion elsewhere, outside such zones, lest they be held to have broken the law, or to be guilty of some hate crime—the so-called chilling effect on free speech. That may well affect freedom of speech on other topics. How soon will it be before legal pro-life expression is unacceptable anywhere in the public sphere—or the expression of views on other issues that cause people to feel uncomfortable?
This House must safeguard freedom of speech and oppose a Bill that risks silencing in public life the views of countless people, including those of Alina, who described on the website Be Here For Me how she kept her daughter, now aged seven, after a quiet encounter outside an abortion clinic. When she went into the clinic, she was told only how to have an abortion, but she says that having had that encounter with a woman outside,
“I felt that I did have a choice. I can choose, yes or no.”
This is not a pro-choice Bill. It is a regressive Bill, and I urge colleagues to vote against it today.
I am about to put the Question, and I expect there to be a Division when I do. I remind hon. Members that we are using the new arrangements I announced last week, with the voting in the Lobbies being recorded by pass readers. I will not give the instruction to lock the doors earlier than 18 minutes after I call the Division, although I expect that time to be reduced as the new system beds down. I urge all hon. Members to be patient during this process and in particular to observe the requirements of social distancing.
Question put (Standing Order No. 23).
The list of Members currently certified as eligible for a proxy vote, and of the Members nominated as their proxy, is published at the end of today’s debates.
That Dr Rupa Huq, Dame Diana Johnson, Rosie Duffield, Jess Phillips, Sarah Olney, Sir Bernard Jenkin, Mr Andrew Mitchell, Laura Farris, Caroline Lucas, Mr Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, Huw Merriman and Liz Saville Roberts present the Bill.
Dr Rupa Huq accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 11 September and to be printed (Bill 145).
[9th Allotted Day]
Westferry Printworks Development
I beg to move,
That an Humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, that she will be graciously pleased to give a direction to Her Ministers to provide all correspondence, including submissions and electronic communications, involving Ministers and Special Advisers pertaining to the Westferry Printworks Development and the subsequent decision by the Secretary of State to approve its planning application at appeal to the Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee.
The Westferry case, and the role of the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government in it, has blown apart confidence in the planning system. The only way to put that right is for the Secretary of State to publish the evidence about what really happened. If he has done nothing wrong, he has nothing to fear. I hope that he will welcome this opportunity to restore trust in a sector that will be so critical in rebuilding Britain after the lockdown.
In November last year, the Secretary of State attended an exclusive Conservative party fundraising dinner. He was seated next to Richard Desmond, the owner of Northern & Shell, and three of his senior executives. I understand that Mr Desmond’s lobbyists—a company called Thorncliffe—had been busy selling tickets to the event to people who wanted access to the Secretary of State.
Northern & Shell is the applicant behind the Westferry Printworks development in Tower Hamlets, a highly controversial live planning application on which the Secretary of State was due to take a final decision. Ministers are not allowed to take planning decisions if they have been lobbied by the applicant. Under the ministerial code, Ministers are required not to place themselves under an obligation by, for instance, helping to raise funds from a donor who stands to benefit from the decisions they make, because it raises questions about cash for favours, which would be a serious abuse of power.
Tower Hamlets Council was opposed to the Westferry scheme because it was oversized and lacked affordable housing, and the Secretary of State’s own planning inspector agreed with the council. However, on 14 January, just weeks after he had dined with Mr Desmond, the Secretary of State overruled them and forced the scheme through. He claims that he had no idea he would be sitting next to Mr Desmond and his senior executives.
The Secretary of State has not yet told us whether Conservative party officials knew and whether they sold tickets on that basis, as Thorncliffe seems to believe they did; he has not explained why, since he admits that the meeting gives rise to apparent bias, he did not ask to be re-seated elsewhere as soon as he realised who he was sitting next to; and he has given no reason why he did not immediately recuse himself from any further involvement in the decision.
The Secretary of State assured the House only last week that he did not discuss the scheme with Mr Desmond. Unfortunately for him, Mr Desmond says that they did. He has gone further and told us that the Secretary of State viewed a promotional video about the scheme on Mr Desmond’s phone—something the Secretary of State failed to mention to the House.
It is very hard to imagine that the Westferry scheme did not crop up during the three hours or so that the Secretary of State must have been sitting next to the owner of Northern & Shell and three of his most senior executives. Viewing Mr Desmond’s video is not cutting off the discussion, as the Secretary of State told the House; it is the developer lobbying the Secretary of State, and apparently with some considerable success.
The Secretary of State has still not confirmed when and how he notified officials in his Department about this encounter. Was it before he took the decision, or was it afterwards? What was their advice to him? It is hard to believe, if he was honest with them about viewing the video, that they did not advise him to recuse himself immediately—so did they, and did he overrule them so that he could do favours for a friend?
The Secretary of State took his decision to approve the Westferry scheme on 14 January. That was one day before a new community infrastructure levy came into force. The timing of the Secretary of State’s decision saved Mr Desmond up to £50 million.
I think the hon. Gentleman may be unintentionally misleading the House on that point. It did not save the developers £50 million. If he reads the inspector’s report on this, he will see that it quite clearly says that the schedule 15 viability assessment can be rerun in the event that the appeal scheme becomes liable for community infrastructure levy. The report states:
“The adjustment is likely to reduce the amount of affordable housing.”
What the Secretary of State did was to make sure that the right proportion of affordable housing was delivered on that scheme. The hon. Gentleman is saying, quite wrongly, that that was not the reason. If he repeats that, or anyone else does, in this debate, they will therefore be intentionally misleading this House.
I am going to come on to the issue of the proportion of affordable housing that was included in the scheme. The timing of the decision is a further issue on which I am seeking clarification from the Secretary of State. He could easily provide that if he published the documents behind it. I hope that he will, and that Conservative Members will all be voting for that when this debate concludes.
Irrespective of the rights and wrongs of the Secretary of State’s behaviour, viability assessments are used by developers around the country to frustrate the affordable housing targets of local councils and planning authorities. South Lakeland District Council, Lake District National Park and Yorkshire Dales National Park do their best to provide affordable housing in a place where average house prices can be well in excess of a quarter of a million pounds, but viability assessments are often used to frustrate that process. Would it not be better if the Secretary of State were to stand up in the interests of affordable housing and not in the interests of the developer?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point, and I agree with him. Indeed, the Secretary of State allowed the applicant to reduce the proportion of affordable and social housing in the scheme from the 35% supported by his own advisers to the 21% preferred by Mr Desmond. According to Tower Hamlets Council, that decision saved Mr Desmond a further £106 million. That is a considerable amount of money in total that the Secretary of State saved Mr Desmond—money that would have gone to fund things like schools, libraries, youth clubs or clinics in one of the most deprived communities anywhere in this country.
I represent one of the two Tower Hamlets constituencies. We have the highest child poverty rate in the country and the most overcrowding in the country. Denying that borough a combined total of £150 million is a disgrace. The Secretary of State ought to publish the documents and come clean today.
Is it not also the case that Labour-run Tower Hamlets Council has £567 million in usable reserves and is losing £3 million to £4 million a year in inflation because it is not spending the money it has got in the bank, which is just sitting there?
I am afraid I do not know Tower Hamlets Council’s budget in sufficient detail, but I do know that councils across the country face a funding gap of around one fifth of their annual revenue budget because the Government have failed to deliver on their promise to fund councils to do whatever is necessary to get communities through this pandemic. That is another issue that I hope the Secretary of State will deal with.
I would like to make a little progress, because an awful lot of Members—not just in the Chamber, but elsewhere—would like to contribute to the debate.
The Secretary of State admitted last week that he was fully aware that his decision helped Mr Desmond avoid these charges. Why was it so important that this decision was rushed through on 14 January rather than, say, a day later or a week later? He has given no compelling reason for that, so suspicion arises that he was trying to do favours for a Conservative party donor.
The Secretary of State’s own advisers from his Department believed the scheme was viable with the higher level of affordable housing, so on what specific grounds did he overrule professionals with relevant experience that far outweighs his own? Without a credible answer, the suspicion arises once again that the Secretary of State was bending over backwards to do favours for his billionaire dinner date.
Barely two weeks after the Secretary of State forced the scheme through, in the teeth of opposition from his own advisers and the local council, the beneficiary, Mr Desmond, made a donation to the Conservative party— what an astonishing coincidence! The Secretary of State can see, as we all can, how that looks: cash for favours—mates’ rates on taxes for Tories that everyone else has to pay in full. Do this Government really believe that taxes are just for the little people? No one will believe a word they say on levelling up until the Secretary of State levels with the British people over why he helped a billionaire dodge millions of pounds in tax after they enjoyed dinner together at an exclusive Conservative party fundraising event.
Has the hon. Gentleman considered that the urgency partly arose from the fact that the period for determination of the application had expired in November 2018? The opportunity of these valuable homes had already been waiting more than a year for a decision in the hands of Labour Tower Hamlets Council.
The issue in question is not that the Secretary of State called the planning decision in; it is what he did after he had called it in—[Interruption.] The Secretary of State will have a chance to respond. It is what happened when he took the determination, not the fact that he was taking it.
I understand that the Secretary of State has acknowledged the appearance of bias. My hon. Friend is making a compelling case. If, in fact, the Secretary of State is entirely innocent of everything that has been suggested, there is a simple way for this to be resolved, which is for him to provide complete transparency. If only he showed the documents, he could prove his own innocence, and we could all get on to other matters.
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. There is, of course, a very simple way for the Secretary of State to show that he did absolutely nothing wrong—it really could not be more straightforward. Officials in his Department will have kept meticulous records of the entire process: how and when he notified them about his dinner with Mr Desmond, and whether he told them that he had viewed the video; whether they advised him to recuse himself, and whether he overruled them; why he needed to take the decision in a way that helped Mr Desmond cut his tax bill; and what advice he received about the viability of the scheme with a higher level of affordable housing. It is all there. If he has nothing to hide, he has nothing to fear. He can just publish it, and I urge him to do that.
I think the hon. Gentleman is unintentionally risking the reputation of this House. Does he not accept the position that I stated earlier? It is not a question of saving the developer up to £50 million. As the inspector himself admitted, it is simply that a commensurate amount of money would have been reduced from the allocation of affordable housing. That is what would have happened. It was not going into the back pocket of the developer. The hon. Gentleman must accept that, or he risks the reputation of this House.
The hon. Gentleman gives me the opportunity to repeat the same point: let us see the documentation from the Department and the advice that was given to the Secretary of State—openly, transparently, for everybody to see—and then we will know exactly whether what happened was in breach of the ministerial code of conduct and the planning code.
Instead of being open and transparent, the Secretary of State has gone to great lengths to keep the documentation secret. Tower Hamlets Council took out a judicial review of his decision and was rewarded with a high-handed and arrogant letter from the Department accusing it of going on a fishing expedition, until someone realised that a judicial review would require the Secretary of State to release all the documentation and correspondence about the decision in open court for everyone to see. He then took an extraordinary step. Suddenly that “fishing expedition” did not look quite so speculative, because he quashed his own decision and declared it to be unlawful because of apparent bias. That is explosive. A leading planning barrister says that it is without precedent and raises questions about the integrity of the entire planning system. That prompts the question of what in the documentation is so embarrassing and so bad that it is better to admit taking a biased and unlawful decision than to publish the documents in open court.
There is only one way to clear this up. Let us see the documents. Let us see that there was no breach of ministerial code. If the Secretary of State continues to refuse, let us have a full investigation by the Cabinet Secretary. Without it, there can be no trust in the Secretary of State or the planning system over which he presides. Without that trust, who on earth will believe that the Secretary of State has the credibility to take the numerous decisions that he makes every day, let alone reform the entire planning system, as he has said he wants to do?
Does my hon. Friend agree that we do not need a detailed chronology or to go over the books with a fine-toothed comb to realise that this is redolent of the stench of sleaze? It brought down the Major Government. The suggestion of unfair advantage to donors or supporters is sleaze writ large. The wheels are coming off this oven- ready Government.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, in my experience, every letter that emanates from the Department goes with the consent of officials? Ministers cannot write in a personal capacity. My experience of those officials is that they are expert and meticulous. It is important to reflect that in the debate. Does he also accept that when an application is called in for non-determination, there is, for obvious reasons, pressure to move quickly to determine it? Does he accept that point at least?
I respect the right hon. Gentleman’s experience in those matters, and of course there may well have been a need to move at speed. It is not so much the speed I am concerned about as what happened during that timeframe.
Westferry is not the only example of that kind of behaviour by the Secretary of State. Similar allegations were reported yesterday in The Times about a case in Surrey. There are fresh allegations just today that when Westminster City Council’s planning officers twice recommended refusal of the Secretary of State’s plans to refurbish his London home, Conservative councillors called it in and overruled their own officials for him, but, to my knowledge, nothing about that relationship was disclosed in any register of interests.
Westferry is not a one-off. It is part of a pattern of behaviour, and the questions do not stop with the Secretary of State. They reach right into No. 10 Downing Street to the Prime Minister. In his final days as Mayor of London, the Prime Minister pushed through an earlier version of the same development. He was photographed at numerous convivial meetings with Mr Desmond, but No. 10 has refused to answer perfectly legitimate questions about whether and how often the Prime Minister has met Mr Desmond since he took office and whether they discussed the scheme. We need to know.
Will the Secretary of State tell us whether any other Ministers or their officials contacted him about the scheme before he took his unlawful decision? Did he disclose those contacts to his officials as he is required to do? Honesty is the best disinfectant for the very bad smell that hangs around this decision. Today, the credibility of the planning system and of this Secretary of State hangs in the balance. We cannot allow the planning system to be auctioned off at Conservative party fundraising dinners. There cannot be one rule for the Conservatives and their billionaire donors, and another rule for everyone else. So I say to the Secretary of State: it is time to come clean. Publish the documents. Let us see what he was really up to and let us see if we are staring into a new era of Tory sleaze.
Before we continue this debate any further, let me say that hon. Members should be very careful about accusations made in this House. I am not suggesting that anything has been said that should not have been said—I would have stopped anyone saying anything that is not suitable for saying. I am just issuing a warning.
I welcome the opportunity to address the House today on this matter. I will write to the Chair of the Select Committee on Housing, Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts)—
I will give way in a moment to the hon. Gentleman, but he could let me even begin my remarks, if he is truly interested in what I have to say. I will write to the Chair of the Select Committee outlining the timeline of events and the rationale for my decision making pertaining to the Westferry Printworks planning decision. Alongside this letter, and after a comprehensive review of what documents might be in scope of this motion and of the letter he sent me on behalf of his Select Committee, I will be releasing, later today, all relevant information relating to this planning matter, using the Freedom of Information Act as a benchmark. I recognise that there are higher standards of transparency expected in the quasi-judicial planning process, which is why I will also release discussions and correspondence that the Government would not normally release.
These documents show that, contrary to the wild accusations and baseless innuendo propagated by the hon. Member for Croydon North (Steve Reed) and restated today in a series of totally inaccurate statements and comments, this decision was taken with an open mind, on the merits of the case, after a thorough decision-making process. It was rooted in my long-standing and well documented view that we have a generational challenge as a country, which we need to meet and not shirk, to build more houses in all parts of this country and that whoever holds this office, whether it is me, another Member from my party or the hon. Gentleman, must make those tough decisions in order to build the homes that this country needs and to build a better future for the next generation.
The Secretary of State says that he is pleased to have this debate and started his speech by saying that he is going to release all of these documents. Why is he doing that today? He is releasing them because he has been forced to come here by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North. If the Secretary of State wanted some transparency, instead of having to have this dragged out of him, he would have done this weeks ago.
The hon Gentleman is completely incorrect in that respect. First, a lot of documents are already in the public domain, and I will come on to discuss that. The reasons for my decision are set out clearly in the decision letter. From the comments that we have heard from the hon. Member for Croydon North, I suspect he has not taken the trouble to read it. The inspector’s report is already in the public domain, with the representations made by the parties. Since my receipt of the letter from the Chair of the Select Committee, we have undertaken the process I have just described, which, as Members can imagine, is not one that one does in a day or two. It has taken us time. As Members will see when I publish the documents later today, and in the letter I have written to the Chair of the Select Committee, we have taken that process very seriously, because transparency matters, openness matters and settling this matter matters, because I certainly do not want to be the subject of the innuendo and false accusations that the Opposition are choosing to peddle.
I thank the Secretary of State for committing to publish that document and send it to the Select Committee, although it might have been helpful if we had had it before the debate today. The Committee will obviously want to look at it and may then want to enter into further communication or, indeed, even talk to the Secretary of State about it. I ask him one thing: will the documentation that he sends to the Select Committee include everything that he said to the Cabinet Secretary following his investigations into the matter?
It will include most of that information, subject only to the benchmark of the Freedom of Information Act, which I have just described. I think that is the right approach, and it is on the advice of my Department that I do that. If this debate truly is—I suspect it is not, because I suspect this debate is mainly motivated by party political considerations—concerned with the probity of the planning system, I am sure that the Chair of the Select Committee, for whom I have the greatest respect, would agree that it is absolutely right that we release documentation in accordance with the rules, bearing in mind that this is a live planning matter.
I will come back to the hon. Gentleman, but first let me make some progress.
For the benefit of the House, I take this opportunity to outline the facts of the case. As Members will be aware, the Secretary of State’s role in deciding called-in planning applications and recovered appeals is very long established. The vast majority of planning decisions are rightly determined at a local level by local planning authorities. However, Parliament has created provision whereby a small proportion of cases are determined by Ministers. The cases that fall to Ministers are by their nature highly contentious, frequently very complex and sometimes very subjective. There is no escaping that reality. It is not unusual for Ministers to come to a different conclusion from that of a local authority. Nor is it unusual, as has been said, for Ministers to disagree with the recommendations of planning inspectors, and I say that with no disrespect to the brilliant men and women who work in the Planning Inspectorate. My predecessors from both sides of the House have done so on multiple occasions.
I will in just a moment, but I want to make a bit more progress, because it is important to set out the facts. In the past three years, 14 substantive decisions have been made by Ministers in disagreement with the recommendations of the inspector. Such applications cannot be easily compared and each case must be determined on its own merits, and that is what I have done in all cases since becoming Secretary of State, as the documents that I intend to publish will, I hope, demonstrate.
I will just make some more progress, then I will come back to the hon. Lady.
In July 2018, Westferry Developments submitted a planning application for a large development comprising 1,500 homes, including affordable homes, shops and office space. The case was with Tower Hamlets Council for eight months, and over that period, despite having five determination meetings arranged, it failed to make a decision. It is disappointing that the council failed to meet its statutory requirements, but it is not surprising. In the past five years, 30 planning applications have been decided at appeal because of non-determination by the council.
The council had considerable time to process the application. Indeed, a meeting of the strategic development committee was cancelled in January 2019 due to lack of business. Is it fair to say that there is a lack of business when we are in a housing crisis and the council has applications such as this before it? Does the Labour party believe that is fair? In our system of law, justice delayed is justice denied, and that is what Tower Hamlets Council was trying to do here.
I will in a moment.
This, I remind the House, is the council that has the highest housing deficit in England, according to the housing delivery test. Given Tower Hamlets’ failure to determine the case within the prescribed period, on 26 March, the developer exercised their right to appeal to the Planning Inspectorate and, after advice, my predecessor—not me, as has been said on many occasions by many individuals, including the hon. Member for Croydon North—took the decision to recover the appeal. All the parties were notified about this in a letter dated 10 April 2019.
So before I give way to hon. Members, let us be clear. I did not call in this application; I was not the Secretary of State. The application was not called in; it came to the Department because of the failure of Tower Hamlets Council. Here we have a council, described by one of my predecessors as a “rotten borough”, failing time and again to make decisions and get houses built and a Mayor of London with a dire record on housing leaving us to step in and take the tough decisions that they refuse to make.
I wondered how long it would be before we got on to the deflections on to Tower Hamlets Council and the Mayor of London, but it is a fact, is it not, that the leader of the Conservative group on the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, Councillor Andrew Wood, resigned from the Conservative party, not citing the Mayor of London or Labour Tower Hamlets Council, but citing the actions of the Conservative party and this decision, which he described as
“so shocking I knew immediately that I had to resign.”
Is that not a fact?
It is not a deflection to talk about Tower Hamlets Council because in all likelihood this decision would never have been made by the Secretary of State if Tower Hamlets Council had met its statutory obligations and taken the decision. With respect to the councillor the hon. Gentleman mentions, who I do not know but with whom I have no issue, he was standing up for the concerns of his local residents. I return to the point that I made earlier that in my job it is essential to make—[Interruption.]
What is rotten at the heart of this scandal is the Secretary of State’s behaviour. It is wrong for him to attack Tower Hamlets Council, which was negotiating a better deal for residents and trying to get more social housing. He should get his facts straight before he starts deflecting blame on to a council that has built houses under the last Conservative mayoralty, as well as the current mayoralty. He should sort out the rottenness at the heart of his Department and his Government.
There is nothing rotten in my Department. I have some of the best officials in Whitehall, with whom I am extremely proud to work. The hon. Lady cannot have it both ways. If she disagrees with my decision, she should go back to Tower Hamlets Council and tell it to start making decisions itself, not frustrating planning applications so that they come to me and I and my predecessors and successors have to make the tough decisions.
Given that the Prime Minister pushed through the original scheme for the same developer when he was Mayor of London, does the Secretary of State feel that the documents on any involvement of No. 10, or any conversation about the Secretary of State’s decision to grant approval should also be published?
I am publishing, as I have just said, in an almost unprecedented way, a very comprehensive set of documents, which I think Members on both sides of the House will be more than satisfied with.
I would just politely note to the hon. Lady that her name did come up in the correspondence and advice that I received from officials; the names of MPs do come up when I take these decisions. I asked my officials, “Did the local Member of Parliament make any representations with respect to this application because I want to take into account the views of Members on all sides of this House?” As she will see in the documents, they advised me that the Member of Parliament made no representations. The Member of Parliament—in their words, I think, but I stand to be corrected—took no interest in the application, and neither did her predecessor, so she may be outraged today, but I suggest that Members on both sides of the House who care about contentious planning applications should make representations to the Secretary of State, because I am not a mind reader.
Let me just make some progress, if I may.
It is on public record that in November 2019, during the general election campaign, I was invited to a Conservative party event. This is not unusual for a Government Minister. I was seated next to Mr Desmond at the Conservative dinner, although, as I have said, I did not know the seating plan prior to arrival. I was not familiar with the majority of the table, but I understand that it included the editor of the Daily Mirror, the editor of the Express newspaper, executives from Northern & Shell and a former Conservative Member of Parliament. I had not planned to have any contact with Mr Desmond prior to the event. That was the first time I had ever met him.
He raised the development and invited me on a site visit. I informed him that it would not be appropriate to discuss the matter, and the conversation moved on to other topics. After the event, we exchanged messages. Again, as the record will show, I advised him that I was unable to discuss the application or to pass comment. I informed my officials of my contact with Mr Desmond, and I will publish these messages for transparency. On advice from my officials, I declined the site visit. All decision makers in the planning process receive unsolicited representations from time to time. It would be perverse if any decision maker was barred from taking a decision because of unsolicited representations. Indeed, section 25 of the Localism Act 2011 clarified the law to protect against the overzealous application of the planning rules.
Not at this time.
Housing Secretaries of all parties naturally come into contact with those involved in housing, by which I do not simply mean developers; I mean councils, housing associations, builders and contractors. The key point is that the final decision is always made with an open mind based on the material considerations of the case.
I was a member of a local planning committee. There are strict rules and a code of conduct for councillors to declare either a private or a prejudicial interest, at which point they go out of the room and take no further part in the decision. Does the right hon. Gentleman believe that a Secretary of State should live under different rules from local councillors?
If I may, I will make some progress. I am conscious that a lot of time is passing.
In the same month, the planning inspector submitted his report to me recommending that the appeal be dismissed. As is usual, my officials reviewed the inspector’s report and prepared advice for me to consider. I reviewed this, along with advice on six other urgent planning cases, upon my return to the Department in December following the general election.
Not at this time. I need to make some progress.
Upon reviewing the advice on Westferry, including the inspector’s recommendation, I requested further advice on key questions—for example, asking the Department to source images to understand the potential impact of the scheme on historic Greenwich. Having reviewed all the evidence and taken a further in-depth meeting with senior officials to discuss the case in the first week in January, I determined to allow the appeal and grant planning permission. As I have set out in the letter to the Select Committee Chair, in coming to the decision I considered the significant contribution of housing in a part of the country that is particularly unaffordable, including almost 300 affordable homes, as well as the significant economic benefits from the development, including the hundreds, if not thousands, of jobs that it would have created. The House should remember that we are talking about a large brownfield site in a part of London that already has a high number of tall buildings, so in many respects it is exactly the kind of location where we should be building homes if we are serious about tackling London’s housing needs.
On 14 January, my full rationale was published in the usual way, through the decision letter, with the full inspector’s report. In this case, Tower Hamlets and the Mayor of London challenged the decision in court, as happens in many cases. The irony, of course, is that, as we have already discussed, they could have made the decision themselves but chose not to do so.
On 21 May 2020, my Department proposed that the decision be quashed and redetermined by another Minister in the usual way. The other parties to the matter—Tower Hamlets Council, the Mayor of London and the developer—agreed and the court duly consented. My rationale was that although there was no actual bias whatsoever in the decision making for the application, inferences, even of the appearance of bias, could harm the integrity of the planning system. I did not want that to happen.