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Engagements

Volume 677: debated on Wednesday 24 June 2020

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.

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?

I hesitate to accuse the right hon. and learned Gentleman of obscurantism. He is misleading on the key point. The number of people with covid in this country is, of course, an estimate.

Order. Prime Minister, one of us is going to have to give way and it will have to be you. Obviously, no hon. Member misleads or ever would, whichever side they are from.

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”—

including—

“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.

Seafarers, global key workers, have given us goods from food to medicine during covid, but that is now under threat. Some 400,000 mariners are stuck on board their ships due to the failure of countries to agree crew changes. The United Kingdom is the world’s leading maritime nation, and we are home to the International Maritime Organisation, which gives us a unique responsibility. Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister agree to meet the Chamber of Shipping to marshal the global community to help to get our seafarers home and ensure that free trade continues to flow? (903741)

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?

Yes, indeed. I would be only too happy to study the documents to which the right hon. Gentleman refers.

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.

The people of Keighley and I are sick of drug gangs openly selling drugs on Keighley’s streets and grooming young, innocent children to do their dirty work. Can the Prime Minister update me on what progress is being made to deliver on our manifesto commitment to ensure that West Yorkshire police have the resources and personnel they need to tackle those drug dealers, who are infecting Keighley’s soul? (903742)

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.

Eastbourne’s dependence on tourism and its position as a coastal community mean that it has been particularly hard hit. Indeed, this very weekend we were to stage our international tennis tournament, which puts us on the map and brings in millions of pounds. In that light, may I ask my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to look at a reduction in VAT so that the hospitality sector can get back on its feet and be part of the recovery to get our country moving? (903744)

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.

In order to access benefits quickly, people with unpredictable terminal conditions, such as motor neurone disease, are having to prove that they have six months or less to live, and they risk losing their benefits altogether if they live longer than three years. A year has now passed since the Government announced their review into access to benefits for terminally ill people, but there is still no progress. When are the Government going to act? (903740)

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 have the honour of representing the market town of Newcastle-under-Lyme, and I am very pleased to inform the Prime Minister that our markets are now back. However, the town is also very proud of its hospitality sector. It has purple flag status, recognising the quality of its early-evening and night-time economy —the pubs, clubs, restaurants and cafés. I know that they will hugely welcome what the Prime Minister said yesterday, but he knows they will need further support in the months ahead. Can I ask him what the Government intend to do to support the hospitality sector? (903745)

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 ongoing impact of covid on international travel threatens over 100,000 jobs in the aerospace industry, including hundreds in my constituency. Will the Prime Minister commit to protecting vital aerospace jobs and invest in a green aviation recovery to reduce future carbon emissions? (903743)

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.

I have been contacted by Cotesbach and Shawell parish councils, along with the excellent Harborough District councillor Jonathan Bateman, about a proposed new waste processing facility in my patch. All I ask the Prime Minister is if he would help me organise a meeting with the relevant Minister, so that I can put forward the views of my constituents on this issue. (903747)

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.

Public Health England and the joint biosecurity centre are undergoing a deep dive in Bedford to understand why the infection rate in my constituency is so high. The pillar 2 commercial mass-testing cases are still not being included in the individual totals for England. How does the Prime Minister know that the people of Bedford and Kempston are safe to embrace his new lockdown-easing measures when he does not know how many people are infected with coronavirus? (903746)

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.

Many market traders and independent business owners in Aylesbury have told me how much they appreciate the tremendous help that they have received from the Government during the coronavirus crisis, but we do know that, sadly, many people will still lose their jobs in the months ahead. I wonder if my right hon. Friend could ensure that Government Departments will work together to provide both the resource and expertise that are necessary for people to learn new skills so that they are fully equipped to take on new and different types of work in the future. (903748)

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.

Prime Minister, the rehabilitation of offenders is supported right the way across the political spectrum, but the current operation of the Disclosure and Barring Service is a major obstacle to people turning their lives around. It is inefficient, unfair and, frankly, discriminatory. The Lammy report dealt with this in some depth nearly two years ago, so we do not need any more commissions or inquiries. We need action and an end to the endless Home Office obstruction and delay. You can break the logjam, Prime Minister. Will you do it? (903749)

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.

May I welcome my right hon. Friend’s announcement yesterday that we can start to reopen our economy? Will he join me in praising the fantastic charities and volunteers across Rushcliffe, including the West Bridgford Community Helpers, Cotgrave Super Kitchen and the Friary, who have worked so hard to support vulnerable people throughout the lockdown? (903750)

I have absolutely no hesitation in commending and congratulating all the groups that my hon. Friend mentions—the Friary, the Cotgrave Super Kitchen and West Bridgford Community Helpers. I congratulate them all.

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.

Right now across the country, there are a lot of employers speaking to their staff about redundancies ahead of the furlough scheme unwinding. Sadly, for many families, it will be a hard landing, moving from furlough to benefits. I know that my right hon. Friend has done a huge amount already, and he deserves enormous credit for it, but can I really encourage him, as he thinks about his going for growth strategy, also to consider ways to strengthen the safety net at this time? (903751)

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.

As we exit the covid crisis, we will need essential minerals to supply the UK’s steel, cement and brickworks, which will help build our homes, hospitals and infrastructure of the future. Mining them here in the UK in a sustainable way is not just better for the environment but reduces reliance on foreign imports. Will my right hon. Friend please assure the people of Blyth Valley that he and his Government will do all they can to encourage investment and support jobs in this area? (903752)

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.

Last week, fatal conflict resumed in Ladakh on the line of actual control between India and China. What are the implications for British interests of a dispute between a Commonwealth member and the world’s largest democracy on the one side, and a state that challenges our notion of democracy on the other? (903753)

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)

Sitting suspended.

Bill Presented

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).