Skip to main content

Commons Chamber

Volume 678: debated on Thursday 16 July 2020

House of Commons

Thursday 16 July 2020

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 4 June).

[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]

Oral Answers to Questions

Cabinet Office

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Covid-19: UK-EU Negotiations

What steps he is taking to ensure that the outcome of UK-EU negotiations on arrangements after the transition period will not be detrimental to the UK’s ability to respond to the covid-19 pandemic. (904834)

The coronavirus is a global pandemic, and the UK is collaborating extensively with international partners, including the EU. The UK has been leading the way to find a vaccine, with the University of Oxford and Imperial College undertaking the research that will be available to the UK and the rest of the world. The UK is also seeking a deal with the EU that would facilitate continued trade in all medicinal products, but of course the United Kingdom will be ready for all scenarios after the end of the transition period.

I thank the Minister for that answer. I welcome the news out of Oxford regarding a vaccine, but the Government’s border delivery plans announced on Monday bring into stark relief the extent of new barriers to trade in goods and services and movement of people across the border from 1 January. How will he ensure that during covid and in the event of future health emergencies or a second wave, that will not result in any delays to supplies reaching patients or interruption to the flow of vital machinery and equipment?

The hon. Lady makes an important point. Of course, the health of citizens is the first concern of Her Majesty’s Government, and we will be working with the Department of Health and Social Care and other Departments to ensure that category 1 goods, which include vital NHS supplies, can reach those on the frontline.

Covid-19: Regional Economic Growth

What steps he is taking to support regional economic growth as part of the recovery from the covid-19 outbreak. (904835)

What steps the Government are taking to ensure equal distribution of Government funding throughout the UK in response to the covid-19 outbreak. (904836)

What steps he is taking to support regional economic growth as part of the recovery from the covid-19 outbreak. (904845)

The Government have taken unprecedented steps to support people and businesses across the country during this period. So far, we have helped 1.1 million employers across the UK through our coronavirus job retention scheme and 2.7 million self-employed individuals, and we have provided £10.5 billion in small business grants. Furthermore, the Prime Minister has set out our vision to double-down on levelling up, unite the country and spread opportunity. As part of that, the plan for jobs announced by the Chancellor supports all regions through upgrades to local infrastructure, with £1 billion of investment for local projects to boost local economic recovery in the places that need it most.

In the light of the Government’s avowed intent to build, build, build our way towards economic recovery, will my right hon. Friend put her full support behind key infrastructure projects in Eddisbury in the north-west, including the roll-out of full-fibre broadband and the construction of the Knights Grange women and girls’ football national centre of excellence, which will bolster Winsford’s jobs and economy for many years to come?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. His constituency is one I know well, as he is my mother’s MP. The Government remain committed to delivering nationwide gigabit connectivity as soon as possible. We want to become a world leader in connectivity, increasing the UK’s productivity and competitiveness and boosting the economy in the aftermath of covid-19. I welcome the Cheshire Football Association’s commitment to provide a new world-class facility for women and girls’ football in Cheshire, and I am confident that the pros’ centre will become an excellent sporting asset for the local community.

We have a golden opportunity for much-needed investment in Broxtowe. We have a shovel-ready project: the Toton link road. Toton is the site of the new High Speed 2 east midlands hub. The road would link to houses that we are building in Chetwynd barracks and then on to the A52 and M1. The whole development area will create up to 4,500 new homes, and it is linked to an innovation campus, where we are creating up to 6,000 jobs, many in the high-value area of research and development. Will my right hon. Friend commit to explore this £30 million shovel-ready project, which will support the economic renewal of Broxtowe and help to level up the economy?

I agree with my hon. Friend that shovel-ready projects will play an important part in our economic renewal and the levelling up of the UK. I congratulate him on setting out the case for the Toton link road. I encourage him to work with his local highway authority, so that such schemes are ready to seek funding when suitable opportunities are available following the next fiscal event.

I thank the Minister for her answer. Does she agree that schemes such as the River Thames scheme not only provide flood defences for Runnymede and Weybridge but will be a huge boost for the local economy and our natural environment?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing that issue to the attention of the House. I recognise that the proposed River Thames scheme might have the potential to better protect thousands of homes, contribute to the local economy and increase the social and environmental value of the river. I understand that the Environment Agency has offered to brief him on the progress of the scheme, and I encourage him to take up that offer.

During the pandemic, certain sectors and regions have been disproportionately hit by this economic downturn. In many cases, this is falling on the shoulders of those who are least able to carry it. In Lancashire, 82 businesses have collapsed in May alone and almost 19,000 jobs in the county have been lost during the pandemic. A failure to provide sector-specific, regionally focused support to those most at risk could end up costing many more jobs. What steps are the Government taking to apply a regional lens to this crisis and, in particular, to provide vital investment to counties such as Lancashire?

Mr Speaker, you will know that I know Lancashire very well, having lived there for 15 years myself. We recognise that every region and community will be feeling the impact of covid-19. That is why the Government have introduced unprecedented support for businesses and workers across the country to support them through this economic crisis.

Fixed-term Parliaments Act

The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 led to parliamentary paralysis at a critical time for our country. It is for that reason that the Government made a commitment in our manifesto and in our Queen’s Speech to take forward work to repeal it. An announcement about that legislation will be made in due course.

I thank my hon. Friend for her answer. She is absolutely right to highlight that the paralysis of the previous Parliament, which dithered, delayed and blocked the democratic will of the people of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, who overwhelmingly voted for us to leave the EU, should never be seen again. What assurances can she give my constituents that this reform can be achieved quickly and with support from all parts of the House to ensure that that kind of Brexit-blocking Parliament we saw last year will not be seen again?

There are two points to make to my hon. Friend. The first is that repeal of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act had cross-party support. It was in the manifestos of both the Government and the Opposition, so I hope that that gives it a good wind, but it is also the case that the policy does need to be carefully developed and well scrutinised so that we do not repeat past mistakes with an important part of our constitution.

I thank my hon. Friend for her answer and associate myself with the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis). The problem we had last year was that we had a Government who were manifestly unable to get their core legislative agenda through. They did not have the confidence of the House for that, but the House voted that it had confidence in the Government. I understand that repealing the Act will not necessarily get us back to the status quo ante, so what mechanism does she envisage will make sure that we can never again be in that position where the Government do not have the confidence of the House on their core legislative agenda?

I thank my hon. Friend for putting his finger on a very important part of what was wrong with that scenario and what is wrong with that legislation: it divorces the issue of confidence from the issue of calling an election. One thing we want to do as we look at its repeal is to make sure that that central tenet of the constitution and of parliamentary operation can be properly functional.

I look forward to the appearance of my hon. Friend before the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee next week to discuss this matter at length. She will know that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act requires, by the end of November, a review committee to be established to review the Act in its entirety, so can she describe the arrangements for this Committee and its remit?

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend, and I look forward to discussing more on this subject with him and his Committee next week, because it is very important and we have already begun to identify in these exchanges some of the things that need to be put right. Of course the Chair of the Select Committee is absolutely right in that the Prime Minister is required, between June and November this year, to make arrangements for a committee to undertake a review of the operation of the Act. Again, I look forward to bringing details about that forward in due course, and, as part of that, answering the particular points that he put about its composition and arrangements.

Covid-19: Government Contracts

The coronavirus pandemic is an unprecedented national emergency, and Labour understands that in response there has been a need for the Government to procure goods and services at speed, but the flexibility required by extraordinary circumstances is no excuse for reducing transparency or abandoning any attempt at due diligence. How does the Minister explain reports that contracts to the value of more than £830 million have been awarded to at least 12 different companies for personal protective equipment that has never materialised; that £108 million of public funds has been handed to PestFix, a company with just £18,000 of assets; and that £830,000 for communications advice has been given without any tender process to Public First, which is owned by friends of the Prime Minister’s most senior adviser, and although the payment was justified as part of the coronavirus response, it appears to relate to Brexit? How are we to believe that this Government have any kind of a grip on public spending during this crisis?

Authorities are allowed to procure goods and services in extreme emergency situations, but that does not mean that scrutiny or value-for-money principles go out the window, and the hon. Lady will understand that. I am shocked to hear that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster may know people in Public First; I wish further offences to be taken into account and confess that I, too, know people who work for Public First—as does every Member on the Front Bench and every Member on the Back Bench on both sides of the House, because one of Public First’s associates is a much-loved former Deputy Speaker of this House. If the hon. Lady has serious concerns—other than insinuation—about any contracts, there are clear processes to go through, and I urge her to do so.

Government Planning: End of the Transition Period

What assessment he has made of the adequacy of the Government’s preparations for the end of the transition period. (904852)

What steps the Government are taking to ensure business readiness for the end of the transition period. (904854)

What recent progress the Government has made on negotiating the UK’s future relationship with the EU. (904891)

Earlier this week, we launched a communications campaign to ensure that people and businesses know what they need to do to prepare for the end of the year. Most of the actions will need to be completed whether or not we get a negotiated outcome. While a negotiated outcome remains our preference, our priority is to provide timely and comprehensive guidance on the changes that businesses and citizens will need to make in any scenario.

The leaked letter from the Secretary of State for International Trade demonstrates the alarm and confusion at the top of the Government. Despite Monday’s announcement, the Minister cannot convince his own Cabinet that the border will be ready by 1 January. Does he recognise the concerns expressed by the Institute of Directors, which found that only one in four businesses are ready for the end of transition because

“preparing for Brexit proper is like trying to hit a moving target”?

I understand the frustration that many businesses will have felt as deadlines that were set during the previous Parliament shifted as a result of votes in Parliament, but we now know that, as a result of the general election, the transition period will end on 31 December. There are many “no regrets” actions that businesses should undertake, and I had the opportunity to talk to the chief executives of a number of leading businesses yesterday to make sure that that message was put across in a collaborative way.

The withdrawal agreement stated that both parties would endeavour to conclude equivalence decisions by June 2020. Will my right hon. Friend give the House an update?

I appreciate how hard my hon. Friend works on behalf of businesses, including financial services, in her constituency. We have completed our side of the bargain—we have provided the European Union with the information that it needs for its own autonomous decision on equivalence—and we await that decision with eagerness.

Universities throughout Wales and the UK are working flat out to cope with the effects of covid and Brexit. Some stability and reassurance would be provided by Horizon Europe and Erasmus. Has the Minister now secured full, rather than associate, membership of these valuable programmes?

Continued participation in Erasmus is one of the negotiating requests that our team are making. We will find out from the EU the terms on which it is happy to grant continued access. We have acknowledged that we may continue to be a net contributor to schemes such as Erasmus and Horizon 2020, but it is also important that we continue to collaborate with other countries beyond the continent of Europe when it comes to education and science.

On Monday, when asked about a lorry park in Ashford, the right hon. Gentleman told the House:

“It is not the case that any specific site has been absolutely confirmed. We are in commercial negotiations with a number of sites”—[Official Report, 13 July 2020; Vol. 678, c. 1278.]

So can he answer a specific question: how many sites in Kent is he looking at to put infrastructure on? How many of those sites will be to check the paperwork of goods leaving the UK and how many will be to check goods coming into the UK, because, as we all know, there is no space to do that at Dover?

We were looking at five sites, and yesterday the Department for Transport confirmed that a site at Ashford has been secured. These sites are there to facilitate traffic management and the flow of goods out of the country. When it comes to the appropriate checks on goods coming into the country, at Calais the French authorities will be seeking to check export declarations.

Continuing on the theme of lorries, the Government’s border operating model sets out the obstacles to trade from 1 January, but it promises jam tomorrow on support for businesses. For example, it warns:

“HGV drivers without the correct documentation risk being stopped from boarding services”—

or being—

“fined, or sent back to the UK”

on arrival in the EU. It also highlights the risk of long queues on the roads to UK ports. The Government’s solution, the smart freight service technology, is only in development and there has been no consultation on its use in Kent. The Minister often talks about providing certainty, which is important, so can he confirm to business that the smart freight service technology will be ready in time for companies to test it and train their workers on it so that it can be operational on 1 January?

That is a very good point. The smart freight technology of which the hon. Gentleman speaks does need to be tested before it goes live, but it is important to stress that it is just one piece of the range of measures we are putting in place to ensure the free flow of trade. Businesses have the information now, as a result of the border operating model, to make sure that they have all the details they need and are in compliance with the rules governing trade.

I am afraid the right hon. Gentleman dodged giving a direct answer yet again. Ambiguity and confused messaging are becoming a trademark of this Government, and his answer certainly will not reassure the Road Haulage Association, which has said that this technology will not be much use unless it has the opportunity to test it and train its people before January.

Let me raise another issue. The NHS Confederation and others in the Brexit Health Alliance have warned of potential disruption to the supply of healthcare products. The border operating model says:

“For imports of medicines, regulatory licensing information will need to be included as part of new customs declarations”.

But it goes on to say:

“The requirements for regulatory licensing information are subject to negotiations”.

Recognising that we are in the middle of a global pandemic that has already put enormous pressure on existing medical supply chains, will the right hon. Gentleman say when the details of those requirements will be ready?

The details of almost all requirements are, on a no-regrets basis, available, but of course the hon. Gentleman is right, in that we seek a negotiated outcome that will mean that are neither tariffs nor quotas and indeed that there can be a degree of confidence on the part of all businesses about exactly what they need. He talks about ambiguity and uncertainty. We had a vivid example of that in the Chamber yesterday when the Scottish National party, on its Opposition day, requested an extension to our transition period. The Government voted against it, but the Labour party was conspicuous by its absence. I am afraid that allegations of ambiguity sit ill with the Labour party’s decision to be ambiguous on the biggest question this country faces.

Covid-19: Local Lockdowns

What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on plans for potential further local lockdowns in response to the covid-19 outbreak. (904842)

What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on cross-government planning for a potential second wave of the covid-19 outbreak. (904849)

The Government’s recovery strategy, published on 11 May, stated that we would move from a series of national restrictions to a more targeted set of local measures. We have put in place tools to help us do that, including the Joint Biosecurity Centre.

Although areas in the Jarrow constituency are not currently at risk of going into a full lockdown, like the one that we have seen in Leicester, it is vital that the Government take proactive measures to prevent further local lockdowns. Councils are getting testing data that is sometimes nearly a fortnight old, and they have little information, which is often of little or no help. Will the Minister provide assurances that the Government will improve communications and that data from any test and trace app, when it is operational, will be shared with local authorities to enable them to respond effectively to outbreaks in local areas?

The hon. Lady raises an important point, and I hope that I can give her those reassurances. I gave evidence earlier this week to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, where I emphasised that sharing local data, whether on testing or other planning assumptions, with local authorities, but critically also with the local resilience forums, is vital. They are in the frontline of this fight, so I hope that I can give her those assurances.

The report on preparing for a challenging winter by the Academy of Medical Sciences makes for sobering reading. It warns of a reasonable worst-case scenario in which the R rate rises to 1.7 from September onwards, leading to a second wave of hospital admissions and deaths similar to or worse than the spring. But it also offers hope. As Professor Stephen Holgate says, with relatively low numbers of covid-19 cases at the moment, this is a critical window of opportunity to help us prepare for the worst that winter can throw at us. I am confident that the Minister will have read the report. Will Cabinet Office and the Government grasp that opportunity and act now to implement the report’s recommendations?

It is vital that we do prepare, and we all know the challenges the NHS in particular faces in winter months. Clearly, with the prospect of a second wave, that will be intensified. Yes, we must prepare, but it is also a reason why we still all need to follow the chief medical officer’s advice to ensure that we minimise the chances of a serious second wave.

Northern Ireland Protocol

What recent representations he has received from businesses on the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol. (904843)

We continue to engage intensively with business as we take forward our implementation work, and that includes the important work of the business engagement forum, which has now met seven times, most recently on 3 July.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Many business sectors across Northern Ireland are extremely concerned about the challenges for their individual areas. May I urge the team over the summer to work as hard as possible to ensure sector-specific approaches to implementation so that we do not just go for a one-size-fits-all policy?

I can give my right hon. Friend those assurances. Departments across Whitehall will be liaising in particular with individual sectors. In addition, in the next few weeks, we will bring forward guidance on the protocol for traders, which will set out details of the extensive end-to-end support that we will offer those engaged in those new administrative processes.

SMEs: Public Contracts

We are ensuring that SMEs are awarded public procurement contracts. Last year, we spent £14.2 billion with SMEs, nearly £2 billion more than the previous year. We have gone further to help to ease the procurement process by introducing a range of measures to tackle the barriers faced by SMEs, such as simplifying pre-qualification questionnaires. We now have the opportunity to make procurement even simpler for SMEs following the end of the transition period.

An SME in my constituency has recently redeployed to the manufacture of PPE equipment in response to the covid-19 pandemic, but it is finding it very hard to secure public contracts and, indeed, is in competition with international suppliers who actually cost more. What can be done to support SMEs who have redeployed to meet the national effort as we tackle coronavirus?

We have received an extraordinary response from people offering to supply PPE and UK manufacturers wanting to make equipment from scratch, including the firm my hon. Friend mentions, and we are hugely grateful to everyone who has come forward. As a result, we have now contracted over 3 billion items of PPE through UK-based manufacturers alone. Although further personal protective equipment offers are not needed at the moment, we continue to invite other forms of support from industry.

Border Planning: End of Transition Period

What progress the Government have made on border planning for the end of the transition period. (904846)

On Monday, I made an oral statement to this House announcing the publication of the Government’s detailed border operating model, following extensive consultation. This will allow for the border industry and traders to help prepare for the end of the transition period. We have also made available £705 million for upgraded border systems and infrastructure, and we have launched a new communications campaign.

I thank the Minister for his response. What support will the Government provide to business ahead of those new processes taking effect in order to help with the transition?

My hon. Friend is quite right to speak up for his constituents and for the businesses that need support. That is why we have devoted £84 million to making sure that customs intermediaries can be there for businesses, small and medium-sized as well as large, to ensure the free flow of goods, so that his constituents can be certain that their efforts are rewarded in the market.

Promoting and Protecting the Union

This Government will never be neutral in expressing our unequivocal support for the strength of our United Kingdom. In the summer economic update last week, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced millions of pounds of additional support for businesses across the UK through his VAT cut and other measures. We have also announced an additional £8.9 billion for devolved Administrations through the Barnett formula. The Union is stronger for the contribution that all of its four nations make, and this Government will continue to support its strength.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. He will be aware of the support on the Conservative Benches for the Union, nowhere more so, perhaps, than in north Wales, where seven of the nine Members of Parliament are from the Conservative and Unionist party. In the recent Ditchley annual lecture, my right hon. Friend said:

“We need to be more ambitious for…North Wales.”

Will he agree to meet me and my colleagues in north Wales to hear just how ambitious I am for Aberconwy and they are for north Wales?

Absolutely. From Ynys Môn to Wrexham, there is a team of fantastic Conservative and Unionist Members of Parliament representing the interests of north Wales with vigour and energy. I would be delighted to meet them. We need to do more to ensure that the businesses and people of north Wales get the support they need from this UK Government, working alongside the Welsh Government, to strengthen our Union.

There is no doubt about the right hon. Gentleman’s enthusiasm for the Union, but perhaps he could answer me this. Why does he think that support for independence has now reached 54% among the Scottish people and reached a sustained majority in the past year?

Opinion polls come and go. I am always interested in what opinion polls tell me, but I am rather more interested in real votes cast in real ballot boxes. The last time the people of Scotland were asked if they wanted to remain in the United Kingdom they decided that they did want to by a whopping 10 percentage points—facts are chiels that winna ding—and since then we have seen how the strength of the United Kingdom has supported Scotland’s economy. Indeed, I was very interested to see earlier today that one of the economic advisers to the First Minister said that the support of the UK Government would be vital to Scotland’s economic recovery.

The right hon. Gentleman might not like opinion polls, and of course they are transitory, but let me tell him about another couple of opinion polls. Support for the Scottish National party is now at 55% and we are seeing support for independence growing month by month. He did not give an answer to this, so I will try to answer it for him and he can tell me which one of these he agrees with. Support for independence is rising because of the Government’s Brexit and the way that they are imposing on us their Brexit that, as a country, we rejected; the disrespect; the condescension; the power grab; the barely hidden contempt for our nation from his colleagues behind him on the Conservative Benches; the mistreatment of our Parliament and our democracy; and, of course, the chaotic leadership of his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. Which one of those does he think is rising independence most?

I am very grateful for that multiple-choice question from the hon. Member. It reminds me that when I sat my O-levels and multiple-choice exams when I was a schoolboy in Aberdeen, Scotland’s schools were stronger than England’s schools. Now, after 10 years of SNP Government, Scotland’s schools have fallen behind. The record of the SNP in government, I am afraid, has been one of complacency and neglect. That is why I believe we need to have a strong UK Government working alongside MSPs from every party in order to make our United Kingdom stronger than ever.

Civil Service Reform

If he will make an assessment of the potential effect of reductions in civil service headcount on the ability of Government to implement its policies. (904848)

If he will make an assessment of the potential effect of reductions in civil service headcount on the ability of Government to implement its policies. (904869)

What recent discussions he has had with the Prime Minister on the Government’s plans to reform the civil service. (904870)

The Government were elected with an ambitious agenda. The civil service must continue to change to deliver that agenda, which means focusing laser-like on improving citizens’ lives. I was proud to be able to talk to civil servants yesterday at Civil Service Live and to be able to share with them an ambitious reform programme that has the support of public servants across the United Kingdom.

A number of my constituents are civil servants, and they have written to me to express their understandable shock and upset about the recent announcement about their jobs, which will be cut. Given the extraordinary challenges that our public sector now faces—dealing with covid, the economic downturn and Brexit—can the Minister tell me why the Government have chosen to shrink the civil service at this crucial time, and will he commit to reviewing this decision?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that question on behalf of her constituents. We value everyone who works in the civil service. I will look at the specific cases she mentions, because we want to ensure that everyone who has talent and commitment, and who wants to serve the public, has a chance to do so. If she would be kind enough to write to me about the specific cases, I will respond as quickly as I can in support of her constituents.

One of the justifications for demolishing Richmond House was that we needed extra places for civil servants working for us and generally for the national machine. Now that we have had covid and the civil service is so successfully working from home—and there are long-term plans to move to a three-day week and to allow civil servants to work two days a week—would the Minister accept that we no longer need all this office space in central London, and we can actually make some money by leasing it out to the private sector?

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. People have been working more flexibly as a result of the covid pandemic, and that is something that we would like to encourage, support and facilitate. We also want to ensure that more decision making is taken closer to the people, which means more civil service jobs—particularly senior civil service jobs—being located outside London, and that does create commercial opportunities for the Government.

In his recent Ditchley speech, my right hon. Friend referred to transferring energy sector civil servants and policy makers to Humberside. Will he outline what progress he is making with that, and will he push forward and ensure that the Cleethorpes constituency plays its part?

My hon. Friend is right. I said that there were at least three possible locations for the relocation of jobs in the energy sector: Teesside, Humberside and, of course, Aberdeen. There are already civil servants in Aberdeen working in this area, but we want to ensure that more jobs are dispersed to areas at the forefront of the green energy revolution—and, of course, Cleethorpes is right at the heart of that.

On the important subject of civil service staff, what does it say about the Government’s approach to bullying that it now appears that the director of propriety and ethics, who investigated serious allegations about the conduct of the Home Secretary, is to be moved?

I am not aware of any plans for the extremely distinguished deputy Cabinet Secretary and head of propriety and ethics to be moved. Just because the story appears in The Guardian, that does not sadly these days mean that it is true.

List of Ministerial Responsibilities

The list of ministerial responsibilities document was last updated in October. It is taking longer than usual to compile a new document, and that is in part because Ministers have been focused on responding to the challenges of covid-19. An update will be published when possible.

I am grateful to the Minister for that update, but of course it is not just the booklet; the responsibilities of individual Cabinet Office Ministers have not been available on the gov.uk website, so perhaps that could be updated too. The Cabinet Office has been particularly resistant to transparency and slow to share information in recent times. It is one of the worst performing Departments in responding to freedom of information requests, despite being responsible for FOI policy. In 2019, the Cabinet Office was the Department that was referred the most to the Information Commissioner’s Office. What is the Minister doing about this?

I hope it is the case that Cabinet Office Ministers—the team here today—have accounted for ourselves and our responsibilities adequately. I know that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and I, and all the Ministers, look forward to coming here to do exactly that, and ensuring that all our correspondence, parliamentary questions and all sorts of other things are properly answered. I hope that hon. and right hon. Members can use the contact details that are already available and those that have been updated during covid to ensure that Parliament can rightly get the information that it requires from our Department.

On the particular issue that the hon. Gentleman refers to on transparency and freedom of information, of course the Cabinet Office proudly leads the way in assisting the rest of Government in our duties under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and other proactive transparency measures that we have put in place over the years to ensure that citizens can get the information that they need and deserve. We intend to continue leading the way, and we think it is very important to do so.

National Security Adviser: Appointment

What assessment he has made of the effect of the recent political appointment of the National Security Adviser on their ability to carry out the full functions of that role. (904862)

As with previous National Security Advisers, David Frost will be the principal adviser to the Prime Minister and the Cabinet on national security strategy, policy, capability and civil contingencies. He will be supported by the civil service in the same way as any other political appointee, with openness, honesty, integrity and impartiality.

Yesterday, MPs stopped someone clearly unsuitable becoming Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee. Sadly, no such mechanism exists to prevent an ill-judged political appointment to the post of National Security Adviser. When will the Government stop putting the Prime Minister’s political fortunes before our national security?

I think that is very unfair to one of our colleagues, and I ask the hon. Gentleman to reflect on that. I know that following last night’s events he tweeted that national security should always be placed ahead of politics, and he is right. On that basis, I urge him, as a fellow Portsmouth MP representing that great garrison and naval city, and as a shadow Defence Minister, to work to build a constructive relationship with the new National Security Adviser. If he actually met him, he might be pleasantly surprised. For the sake of our city and our armed forces, he owes them the opportunity to build that constructive relationship with the person who will lead the independent review.

Internal UK Market

What discussions he has had with the Scottish Government on the proposal for an internal UK market after the transition period. (904873)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy will outline the United Kingdom’s White Paper on the internal market later today. Not only will this approach deliver more powers to the devolved Administrations, as the Prime Minister made clear yesterday, it will allow business and trade across all parts of our United Kingdom to prosper and flourish.

The head of the Vote Leave campaign in Scotland was quite clear about the automatic devolution of powers to Holyrood after Brexit, saying:

“Any repatriated power that isn’t already explicitly denoted as ‘reserved’ in the Scotland Act 1998 is assumed to be the remit of the Scottish Parliament.”

Why is that promise being reneged on by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, just as his own promise of migration powers for Scotland is being reneged on?

No promise is being reneged on; a power surge is occurring. Scores of new powers are going to the Scottish Parliament and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) pointed out yesterday, no Scottish National party MP, MSP, councillor or activist can point to a single power currently exercised by the Scottish Parliament that is being taken away. There is no power grab; there is simply an example of SNP myth-making, which this internal market Bill finally puts to bed.

Government Supply Chains: Sustainability

The Government prioritise the environment at every step, investing in sustainable infrastructure to fuel economic growth and to create green jobs.

Contracting authorities are already required to consider social, economic and environmental impacts of their procurement. This year we will take a step further, implementing a new social value model so that those impacts are monitored in Government procurement and our high standards are maintained through effective contract management.

I was thinking particularly of economic sustainability, which also affects the private sector, not least the Scottish whisky industry, which has suffered a 65% downturn in trade to the United States, 30% of which is because of the tariffs. Can we have some clarity from the Government on how they will protect that and make it sustainable in this trade war?

I am sure we are all aware, as many people have spoken in this House about it, of the importance of the Scottish whisky industry. I am sure we will continue to have discussions on the matter.

Topical Questions

As I mentioned earlier, it was a privilege to be able to join the new permanent secretary to the Cabinet Office, Alex Chisholm, yesterday for the Civil Service Live event. I had the opportunity then, and I would like to repeat it now, to thank all public and civil servants across the United Kingdom, in the UK Government and the devolved Administrations, for the amazing hard work they have put in to helping us to deal with the covid crisis. I am sure the whole House would want to take this opportunity to thank our brilliant civil service.

[Inaudible.] the Home Secretary [Inaudible.]. The chairman of the [Inaudible.] has raised concerns about its lack of [Inaudible.] and the Leader of the House has [Inaudible.] to be impartial. Does the Secretary of State agree that the Electoral Commission should be scrapped and replaced by [Inaudible.] that the people [Inaudible.]?

The technology may have been faulty, but my hon. Friend’s judgment is not. Questions have been raised about how the Electoral Commission operates, and those are matters that the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission will investigate with appropriate consideration.

The right hon. Gentleman said in his recent Ditchley Park speech that,

“Government needs to be rigorous and fearless in its evaluation of policy and projects.”

On that we agree. During the covid crisis, the Government have published details of outsourced contracts worth about £3 billion, while the true figure is likely to be many multiples of that. Today I have written to the National Audit Office, asking it to review the Government’s approach to public procurement during this pandemic. Will the right hon. Gentleman, to ensure the rigour that he desires, join me in asking the National Audit Office to take a look and to help the Government to ensure value for money and the very best possible public services?

That is the best answer I have had from the Minister so far. I welcome his support, and I hope he will follow up with the National Audit Office and encourage it to do that work, particularly to help us if we face a second wave or more local lockdowns. On the theme of the privilege of public service, can he inform the House when the report into the conduct of the Home Secretary will be published, following the resignation of the permanent secretary, citing a culture of bullying?

Can the right hon. Gentleman also explain or justify the decision of his party to withdraw the Whip from the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), a Conservative MP for 23 years, former Royal Navy reservist and Chair of the Defence Committee, for the crime of being elected Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee? Losing the Whip used to be the result of serious misdemeanour, not independent thought. What does this say about the Government’s approach to expertise and scrutiny?

The hon. Lady asks about two very important matters. On the first, the inquiry is quite properly independent, and Ministers such as myself have no role or oversight. It is the case that the deputy Cabinet Secretary, the Director General for Propriety and Ethics, with the help of the Prime Minister’s external adviser on the Ministerial Code, will be conducting the conversations required. I am afraid I can say no more, because I know no more.

On the second question, the Intelligence and Security Committee’s membership was chosen by this House and an election has appropriately taken place, but whipping matters are quite properly matters for the respective Whips Offices of our parties and not for those who, like myself, exercise a different constitutional role.

Over 73% of my constituents voted to leave the EU and four years later we are finally going to have control of our own destiny. What can my right hon. Friend do to ensure that businesses and citizens are not only ready for the end of the transition period, but ready to embrace the new relationship with the rest of the world with hope, optimism and determination to succeed in the same way as my constituents? (904895)

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. It is important that we all work together. That is why throughout this week I have been talking to businesses large and small about the changes, challenges and opportunities as we leave the transition period at the end of this year. The Government’s information campaign should provide all businesses with the details they need in order to get going. If more needs to be done, this Government stand ready.

I am sure the Government understand the importance of clear and consistent messages during a pandemic, so I would therefore like to ask how the Cabinet Office will promote to the public not just the requirement for shoppers to wear face masks, but the good reasons behind the policy, too. (904897)

The hon. Lady makes an important point, and when the legislation comes in on 24 July, I hope that everybody will comply with it, because one of the reasons for making sure we can have this law is to give confidence to people that they can shop in the knowledge that public health comes first.

It was an honour to serve as Secretary of State for Wales, where every day I saw the benefits of the Union. Research and development in Wales is used throughout UK. Welsh businesses trade without barriers in Scotland, England and Northern Ireland. Indeed, even our Welsh Guards protect and defend the rights of us all in the United Kingdom. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that the value of the Union will remain at the forefront of the Government’s mind? Will he ensure that after Brexit we move forward more united than ever? Will he resist any new trade barriers emerging between the four nations of the United Kingdom? (904896)

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is vital that, for example, Welsh lamb can be sold across the United Kingdom. It is vital also that we recognise that the labelling requirements that relate to Welsh mineral water, which enable Welsh firms to sell a superior product with confidence across the United Kingdom, are respected as well. Making sure that we work hand in glove with the devolved Administrations strengthens the Union for all its citizens.

With the East Midlands among the regional economies hardest hit by the pandemic, I am sure that the Secretary of State is looking at Nottingham as a potential location for additional civil service jobs and perhaps even Parliament, but what other additional support will the Government offer our region? (904899)

It is a very important point. Nottingham has an outstanding university, great MPs, a superb location and much to offer, and it is the case that close to Nottingham we have world-leading companies such as Boots that play a critical role in the economy of our country. We need to ensure, as the Chancellor has, that we provide financial support and the regulatory environment for business to thrive. The Government have a role to play, and I look forward to discussing with the hon. Lady the many opportunities for relocating parts of the civil service to the beautiful city.

The Secretary of State plans to announce today constitutional changes that will roll back devolution—devolution that was decided in a referendum—on the basis of debates that exclude 250 MPs who are shielding from coronavirus. Will he ensure that before those debates occur, a hybrid online democracy and equal rights for MPs are restored in accordance with an early-day motion submitted yesterday by 49 MPs? (904901)

I have great affection for the hon. Gentleman, but I am not quite sure to what he refers. If he is referring to the UK internal market White Paper, there is a consultation that starts today. I thank him for the thumbs up. That consultation will take place over the summer. Arrangements in the House on how Members participate and vote are decided by the Leader of the House through the usual channels and, of course, with the blessing or not of the Speaker.

I thank my right hon. Friend for the announcement of unprecedented investment in our border infrastructure and security, reducing the burden on traders going forward. With our access to trade being not only through land borders but also Heathrow and Gatwick, does he agree that Runnymede and Weybridge remains one of the best places to set up a business? (904905)

I absolutely do. One of the main advantages of Runnymede and Weybridge is that it is adjacent to Surrey Heath, and so therefore it is in one of the best parts of the country to do business. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Many of my constituents, like his, work in and around Heathrow, and it is absolutely vital that we do everything we can to ensure that trade flows but also that aviation and aerospace continue to get the investment that they need.

Why did the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster allow a political messaging contract worth over £800,000 to be awarded without competitive tender to the company run by his former political director of communications on 3 March, therefore before any emergency covid legislation was actually enacted? (904902)

It is difficult to know where to begin in that concatenation of invention, innuendo and mistake. I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman has completely the wrong end of the stick.

I warmly welcome this Government’s commitment to invest in the poorest and most disadvantaged parts of our country. Cornwall, for too long, has been seen as the poorest part of England and is set to face a very severe impact from the current crisis. Can my right hon. Friend therefore confirm that Cornwall will be a major part of this Government’s levelling-up agenda? (904907)

Absolutely. Cornwall has many, many attractions, but of course the reliance of a large part of the Cornish economy on tourism and on seasonal trade renders parts of it uniquely vulnerable, particularly in the wake of the pandemic. That is why the Chancellor of the Exchequer took the steps that he did in order to support hospitality, but more of course requires to be done. Cornwall has amazing people and so much to boast about. We do need to do everything we can to make sure that my hon. Friend and other Cornish MPs play a role in our economic recovery.

The White Paper on the UK internal market that the Government are launching this morning will have far-reaching consequences for each of the UK’s nations. The Minister said earlier that he would work hand in glove with devolved nations, so why did the Government not have discussions about the White Paper with the Welsh Government or share the paper with them? (904903)

The paper has been shared with the Welsh Government and with other Labour colleagues as well. One of the things that frustrated our capacity to have discussions on this area was the withdrawal of the Scottish Government from some of those discussions. However, I have had fruitful discussions and will continue to have fruitful discussions, including later today with representatives of the Welsh Government. I am sure that the hon. Lady would recognise that Newport’s position on the border of England and Wales gives it, in many respects, the best of both worlds, and ensuring that her constituents continue to have unfettered access to the rest of the UK market must surely be in their interests and in hers.

Blyth Valley has been largely left alone by boundary changes for 40 years, but such changes can cause anxiety and concerns within local communities. Communities are bound by a well-established sense of local identity. Does my right hon. Friend recognise that maintaining community identity is an important part of the boundary review? Will he confirm that he will do his utmost to ensure that all boundary changes are carried out in a way that is both transparent and sympathetic to the local community? (904910)

Absolutely. Northumberland is a fantastic county. To my mind, the communities of Blyth and Cramlington are particularly important because the solidarity they have shown over generations is wholly admirable. Anyone who follows football cannot help but be inspired by the giant-killing achievements of Blyth Spartans. The fact that Blyth Valley has an articulate local boy here in the House of Commons as a Conservative MP is a reminder of what a fantastic part of the world it is. We must do everything possible to ensure that the community spirit, which my hon. Friend embodies, is celebrated and protected in future.

In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am suspending the House for three minutes.

Sitting suspended.

British Overseas Troops: Civil Liability Claims

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Defence to update the House on the overseas operations Bill’s impact on the rights of British troops serving overseas to bring civil liability claims against the Ministry of Defence and its implications for the Armed Forces Covenant.

We have introduced the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill to lance the boil of lawfare and to protect our people from the relentless cycle of reinvestigations against our armed forces. Let me be absolutely clear: none of the measures will prevent the Ministry of Defence from being held to account for any wrongdoing.

To allay any further misunderstanding, let me provide some context. The Bill takes account of the uniquely challenging circumstances of overseas operations. It reassures our personnel that they will not be called on endlessly to defend against historic claims. It does that by introducing what we are calling a longstop. This restricts to an absolute maximum of six years the time limit for bringing civil claims or Human Rights Act claims for personal injury or death in connection with overseas operations.

It is simply wrong to assert that the Bill prevents service personnel, veterans or their relatives from bringing claims, because it does not change how the time limit is calculated. That will continue to be determined from either the date of the incident or date of knowledge. Conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder may not be diagnosed until much later, so the six years would start from the date of diagnosis.

The spirit of the armed forces covenant runs right through the legislation. Fairness is at its heart. We want to ensure that all claims are assessed fairly to achieve a fair outcome, yes, for veterans, but also for victims, service personnel and the taxpayer.

Yes, service personnel and veterans will still be able to bring claims against the MOD for such conditions, even if they are more than six years from the date of the incident. But also yes, this Government are going to war against lawfare. The days of veterans living in a persistent state of worry simply for having served this nation are coming to an end. Under this Prime Minister and under this Government, we will restore fairness to the process.

This urgent question, with the summer recess next week, is the only way of getting Ministers to set the record straight and reassure veterans who have won claims against the MOD after knowing about their PTSD or their hearing loss for years, who rightly feel and fear this Bill will block their comrades from such compensation in future. We also want to protect serving and former troops against the Minister’s relentless cycle of vexatious legal claims or repeat investigations. I say to him that the Government have got important parts of this Bill badly wrong.

I asked the Minister on 6 July why he is legislating to reduce the rights of our armed forces personnel who serve overseas to bring civil claims against the Ministry of Defence if they miss this hard six-year deadline or his longstop. He told the House:

“The Bill does not do that.”—[Official Report, 6 July 2020; Vol. 678, c. 646.]

But of course it does, in clause 11. One week later, his written answer to me confirmed that 70 of 522 such settled claims have been

“brought more than six years after the…incident.”

So he has got the chance to correct the record today.

Why is the Minister legislating to deny those who put their lives on the line for our country overseas the same employer liability rights as the UK civilians they defend? Why are the Government breaching their own armed forces covenant by disadvantaging these troops, and why was the most senior military lawyer, the Judge Advocate General, not consulted on the drafting of the Bill? Is this the reason that Judge Blackett rightly says the Bill is “ill-conceived” and likely to increase prosecutions of UK service personnel in the International Criminal Court?

It is not too late to think again about the best way to protect service personnel from vexatious litigation while ensuring also that those who commit serious crimes during operations are prosecuted and punished appropriately. We are ready to assist, but Ministers have got to get a grip and they have got to get down to some serious work over the summer.

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for his interest in the Bill. I would ask him to consider for a moment, given the history I have in this place, if I would attempt in any way to restrict the rights of service personnel to sue the Ministry of Defence or to claim for compensation after the event. I have read the Bill because I wrote the Bill, and the Bill very clearly states that it is from the point of knowledge or the point of diagnosis that that limitation comes in. We have always had limitations in this country. In the Limitation Act 1980, for example, there are limitations on various claims that are made through the tort system through the courts.

The reality is that introducing this legislation is not going to please everyone, because throughout the legal system that has thoroughly abused this process for many years, an awful lot of money has been made and the lives of our service personnel and veterans have been at the bottom of the priority list. Well, I am afraid that is changing, so I have no qualms at all that some people will disagree with elements of the Bill. But one thing that is beyond debate is that this is enhancing the quality of life and this nation’s responsibility to its service people and veterans; it is not going in the other direction. If there is any genuine concern out there from any individual who can show me that this will inhibit their rights, I am more than happy to look at it. But the issue around limitation is, I am afraid, misunderstood, because it is not from the point of when the injury happened or the incident that caused the injury; it is from the point of awareness or the point of diagnosis. The Bill does not change that. As far as I am concerned, it enhances the armed forces covenant. This will be a good thing, and a tool in our efforts to lance the boil of lawfare in this country.

As someone who chaired the armed forces covenant in the Black Country for a year, I am proud to be part of a Government who are taking veterans in Dudley and across the country seriously, listening to them and giving them the support they need. Will my hon. Friend reassure me that these changes will ensure that our troops and veterans are protected from unfair and persistent pursuit?

The objective of this Bill is very clear. It is to restore fairness in the system for veterans, service personnel and victims, for whom this process has not worked for many years. I am afraid that veterans and their families have not been considered in a lot of these processes, and some of their experiences have been totally unacceptable. This Government were elected to change this nation’s relationship with our veterans. I am very proud that we are doing that now, and the whole House should be supportive of what we are trying to do to get this right.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) on securing this urgent question. I start by declaring my interest, as my husband is a veteran.

The Government are not short on rhetoric on the importance of our armed forces, but as usual the rhetoric does not match the reality. Part 2 of the Bill is yet another attack on our personnel and veterans. Those who have risked their lives in the service of our country will now have a limited period in which to pursue a claim. I know that the Minister said this morning that the six-year limit is from the point of diagnosis, but the culture in the military means that some personnel are told that they are unable to pursue a claim while they are serving, or told by those higher up the chain of command that they do not have a valid claim. Given that many conditions, such as deafness, asbestos poisoning and the impact of radiation exposure, can get worse over the years, what protections will be in place to enable such personnel to pursue their claims? According to the Government, the rationale for these proposals is that they will be beneficial to our armed forces personnel and veterans, so will the Minister give us some real evidence and examples of how personnel and veterans will benefit from this limit?

It is also unacceptable for the Government to introduce the Bill before publishing a formal response to their consultation, so when will that response be published? Why was an impact assessment not published alongside the Bill? The Government seem to be taking advantage of the fact that they are unique in their ability to legislate to restrict legal claims against them. Is it not in fact the case that, under the guise of benefiting service personnel and veterans, the Government are simply saving money from legal claims at the expense of injured veterans?

I hope you will forgive me, Mr Speaker. I have an enormous amount of respect for many of my colleagues, but I have never heard such a load of rubbish in all my life. This Government have done more than any before them to improve the lot of veterans in this country, bar none.

I am answering the question—[Interruption.] Yes, I am answering the question. When it comes to the Bill, if the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) has genuine concerns about how the rhetoric differs from this Government’s actions, I would ask her to look at some of the things we have done prior to the Bill, including establishing the Office for Veterans’ Affairs and the forces railcard, getting the census question in, and ensuring a guaranteed job for those in the civil service. The Government have fundamentally shifted the dial on this. Having written the Bill myself, I totally reject the idea that it reduces soldiers’ ability to make claims. For example, on the radiation question, the claim starts when the condition is diagnosed, as is the case with all other claims in this area.

It is worth saying how the Bill will change people’s lives. Had it been brought in prior to 2003, there would have been a 72% drop in the thousands of claims that were brought against service personnel in this country, of which none—none—were referred to prosecution. I urge hon. Members who are quick to champion and extol the values of veterans to shift from that, do something about it for once, and support the Bill.

I thank the Minister for not only his answers, but his dedication to improving the lives of service personnel in our country. I am grateful that the Government are committed to improving the lives of our armed forces personnel. Does he agree that it is our duty to end the unfair trials of service personnel who have served their country and our country?

I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend. That has been an injustice for many years. I often thought to myself, before I came to this place, how has that process been allowed to continue where those who serve this country on operations are treated like that afterwards?

It is clear to me that in this place, we are good at saying, “Aren’t our veterans brilliant? Don’t we owe them a huge debt?”, but when it comes to doing something about it—something a bit difficult and challenging—everybody runs for the hills. Well, this Government are not going to do that. We are going to legislate to protect those people from those who want to rewrite history to line their own pockets. Those days are over. I fully expect all hon. Members to support that effort.

I agree with the Minister’s intention to remove the ability to bring vexatious claims against our military personnel, which is why we have to get the detail of the Bill right and consider any possible unforeseen consequences of getting it wrong. Does he accept that there are often good and perfectly reasonable reasons why a soldier or veteran may not be able to bring a claim within six years, even if they knew about their injuries? How can we factor that in?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that constructive point. Let me be clear: I am absolutely happy to amend the legislation on the suggestion of any hon. Member to get it right, but it has to be based on fact and reality. The armed forces compensation scheme has a seven-year limit on it anyway. The Limitation Act 1980 also limits the time in which claims can be brought. If hon. Members want to discuss that more widely, clearly that is a broader issue. All we are doing is bringing into line our military personnel and veterans’ experiences.

I will be honest that I cannot, off the top of my head, think why individuals would be diagnosed and choose not to do anything about it, then choose to do something about it much later. I have not come across that in all my experience in the field, but I am happy to learn. If that is the case, I am happy to change the Bill, but that is not what experience shows us. I urge hon. Members to come up with constructive criticism and debate, so that we can really work on the Bill to get it right, because we all agree that we need to do it.

I welcome the spirit of the Bill. To congratulate the Minister, I will send him a copy of my book, “Tommy This an’ Tommy That: The military covenant”. He has done well to bring it thus far, but it is tipped to be heavily amended as it progresses through this place, not least because of Judge Jeff Blackett’s remarks. I press the Minister to look again at part 2, because it seems to me that the “no disadvantage” enjoinder within the military covenant is in danger of being overlooked. I know that he would not want to see that.

I am more than happy to look at any part of the Bill, but as I am also bringing in legislation to make the armed forces covenant law and make it actually mean something, it would be quite bizarre for me to bring in another Bill that reduced it. I will, of course, look at that, but I do not accept that the Bill brings any disadvantage to those who have served.

Will the Minister explain the rationale for six years rather than five years or, indeed, seven years, which he said was the time limit for one of the other claims? Given that these important issues obviously need independent oversight, does he think there is a role for the Intelligence and Security Committee to have that oversight?

It is not for me to say what Committees should do. In terms of the timeframe, all this does is bring it into line with other HRA claims that can be brought forward at the moment. There is no finger in the air—“This is what we’re going to go for.” At the three-year point, courts will now have to consider special provisions that will have to be exceptional for a prosecutor to bring a claim, which brings this into line with other human rights legislation.

The first time I met my hon. Friend the Minister, in Kandahar, Afghanistan, both of us had somewhat smaller bellies and somewhat shorter hair. The lesson that we learnt out there about looking after the guys and girls we served with was an important one. Can he explain to the House what fundamental change this will make to ensure that their lives are better and that their families are not disrupted?

That is a really good question, and I thank my hon. Friend for it. The way that this is going to change lives is by ending the uncertainty. If you have served on operations and you have not committed an offence, you will not be endlessly hounded by those who seek to bring spurious human rights claims. Let us remember how the IHAT process started. We had Public Interest Lawyers driving around Iraq, essentially acting as legal team for the Mahdi army—it was absolutely bizarre. This will change the experience for service personnel, veterans and their families and provide certainty for them and for victims, to clear this mess up and restore fairness to the process.

It should be possible to build an easy consensus in the House on protection for those who have given service in the past, but the Bill that the Minister claims to have drafted himself does a lot more than that. A prescription and limitation on actions brought in respect of torture, crimes against humanity and war crimes is a significant departure on which he will not build a consensus and for which those who give service in our armed forces would not want people to be protected. Will he look again at that provision?

I am happy to look at any aspect of the Bill, but let me be clear: the retrospective application of the Human Rights Act to the battlefield is inappropriate and has caused a lot of the problems that we have had. We want to restore the supremacy of the law of armed conflict in the Geneva conventions. We do a good job of holding our people to account. We are not going to allow the legislation that the right hon. Gentleman mentions to be abused and used in a way that it was never designed to be used in order to bring claims against our service personnel and make their lives a misery.

The rules of engagement for overseas land operations are covered by what is known as Card Alpha. Could the Minister reassure the House that soldiers who pull the trigger in accordance with Card Alpha or its tri-service equivalent can get on with their lives, safe in the knowledge that they will never again be pursued by ambulance-chasing lawyers?

For me, service in the military is very clear. You adhere to the law. If you break the law, you will be charged and prosecuted. If you do nothing wrong, you have nothing to worry about. You operate within the law of armed conflict. Those who are elected to this place to look after you will, from this point on, do their job and protect you.

The Minister has stated that fairness is at the heart of this, and I thank him for that. Does he agree that soldiers who are injured or deployed internationally in service of Queen and country deserve the same route to civil satisfaction as the civil servants in Whitehall, who have no restrictions and no limitations on their civil liability claim ability?

I believe that those who operate in our armed forces are entitled to the protection they deserve. This Bill protects them. That is why I struggle to understand the context, because this is all about protecting our servicemen and women from an abhorrent process that has ruined some of our finest people over the years. I am happy to look again at all aspects of the Bill, but I want to build a collegiate approach in this House to get the Bill through. We agree that this must happen—let us get it done.

As a Northern Ireland veteran who served during the troubles, it would be remiss of me not to say this: I am very grateful for everything my hon. Friend has done to get us to this point, but now that he is the Minister, will he apologise on behalf of the MOD for the decades of harassment that our troops and veterans have faced?

Look, there is no doubt that the prominent protagonists in this have been human rights lawyers, who have abused that system in order to make money, abusing some of the poorest people in the world in the process. But what I would say is that, yes, there are elements that the MOD could and should have done better and for some of our people, those experiences have been unacceptable—and for those, yes, I do apologise.

The Minister now says that he is willing to relook at all aspects of the Bill, which is precisely what my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) asked him to do half an hour ago. Across the House, there is an understanding about the desire to get away from these vexatious claims, but what Members on both sides are telling him is that there are unintended consequences from the way that the Bill is currently structured. He should listen to prevent veterans being penalised while he is trying to do something that we all support.

Veterans are not being penalised. If they were, I would not bring this legislation in. I have not said that I am going to look at all aspects of the Bill; I have made it very clear that I am happy to discuss amendments and changes that people want to make to get the Bill through, but I will also not do it on the back of things that are patently untrue.

In my short time as MP for Bosworth, I have had veterans writing to me and coming to my surgery. They do not want to be above the law, but they do not want vexatious claims either, so these changes are well overdue. What will my hon. Friend do to make sure that the balance is preserved and that servicemen and women, both past and present, are of course held to account, but also protected?

A huge part of my efforts in the MOD is about having a better system to hold our servicepeople to account. There is no doubt about it—if we had had better investigations in the first place, we would not be here, so there is a twin-track approach, trying to get the balance of fairness so that those who break the law are held to account, but ultimately, if people have done nothing wrong, they can live the rest of their life in peace.

Can the Minister explain why British soldiers should have less recourse to compensation from their employer than the civilians they defend?

They do not. The armed forces compensation scheme is out there for everybody to read. It is a good scheme. It is constantly reviewed and it has come on leaps and bounds in the last 10 or 15 years. I am sure that there will be another review of it in the future, but I am afraid that the points that the hon. Lady makes are simply incorrect.

Brecon is a proud garrison town with a high concentration of infantry veterans. The Minister has met me a number of times to discuss my constituents’ concerns, so I have seen at first hand his commitment to righting the wrongs done to our veterans. Does he agree that the closure of Brecon barracks, erasing the history of the Army in Wales, would be another such wrong?

The closure of barracks and the footprint of the military in this country is something that we take very seriously, but let me be clear that the defining issue in that will be the quality of life for our service personnel, and we will make sure that it is acceptable.

The House should know that I have a brother who is a current Army officer and another brother who is a retired Army officer. I also have constituents who have waited years to have medical issues brought on by their service even recognised by the military, never mind the fight that they then have to get the correct support. Taking what the Minister has said about wanting to ensure that there is no disadvantage to veterans, will he outline how exactly he will guarantee that, and that the 60-year rule will not harm injured veterans, as there is great concern among them right now?

Again, I wonder if anybody could show me how this legislation is going to genuinely make somebody’s life worse—the compensation claim starts when that illness or injury is recognised or is a point of knowledge. This does not affect that in any way.

I endorse the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West (Stuart Anderson) and thank the Minister for his very clear answer, which is an apology for what has happened, fundamentally. I remind him that we still have the problem of veterans in Northern Ireland, but I will not linger on that. The only point I would like to make is that having listened to what people have said today, it seems to me that everyone in the House is up to sort out any little problem that might occur. We all want the best possible circumstances for our servicemen and women, either past or present, and for their conditions to be as good as they can be, and I think that my hon. Friend would agree with that.

I completely agree with that, but we are not going to base policy on things that are simply incorrect. This has been an issue for 40 years because people have not wanted to tackle difficult matters. This Government are going to do that, and we will bring forward legislation in September.

We owe a great deal of gratitude to our serving armed personnel, and I was lucky enough to meet Luke Davison from Keighley who served in the Yorkshire Regiment. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is our duty, through this Bill, to ensure that we get the protections the armed services need when deployed?

My hon. Friend is right. The Bill seeks to attain the balance between justice for victims and for veterans. We need to restore fairness to this process, and this Government are determined to do so.

That concludes the urgent question. It might be helpful for hon. Members to be aware that I will permit the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care to make an important statement providing an update on coronavirus at 5 pm today. Member Hub will be open shortly for Members who wish to take part, and it will close at 1 pm.

To allow the safe exit of hon. Members who have participated in this item of business, and the safe arrival of those who wish to participate in the next debate, I will now suspend the House for a few minutes.

Sitting suspended.

Speaker's Statement

Before business questions, I would like to take this opportunity to put on the record our recognition of Banqueting Floor Manager Rui Duarte for his long service in the House with his team before his retirement at the end of this month. He has served this House for 44 years, starting on 28 June 1976. He has been responsible for more than 150,000 events throughout a period of eight Prime Ministers, starting with Jim Callaghan, and went through to see seven Speakers, including George Thomas at the beginning. Along with many Members of this House, I wish Rui all the very best for his well-earned retirement.

Business of the House

The business for the week commencing 20 July will include:

Monday 20 July—Remaining stages of the Trade Bill.

Tuesday 21 July—Remaining stages of the Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill, followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments.

Wednesday 22 July—Matters to be raised before the forthcoming adjournment.

At the conclusion of business, the House will rise for the summer recess and return on Tuesday 1 September.

The business for the week commencing 31 August will include:

Monday 31 August—The House will not be sitting.

Tuesday 1 September—Second Reading of the Fisheries Bill [Lords].

Wednesday 2 September—Second reading of the Private International Law (Implementation of Agreements) Bill [Lords].

Thursday 3 September—Consideration in Committee and remaining stages of the Non-Domestic Rating (Public Lavatories) Bill.

Friday 4 September—The House will not be sitting.

For the convenience of the House—[Laughter.]—I can confirm that, following correspondence from the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, I will be tabling motions on Monday’s Order Paper to give the House the opportunity to agree an extension to the current proxy voting arrangements until 28 September.

In addition, I am aware of the understandable desire for Members from all parties to see the return of business to Westminster Hall. It may help if I update the House by saying that discussions are already taking place with the House authorities with a view to Westminster Hall debates resuming as soon as practicable. I understand from the House authorities that the aim is for business to resume from 5 October, if possible.

I am going to stay away from the lavatory jokes.

I thank the Leader of the House for the business for next week and the first week of September. The first thing I am going to ask for is a list of updated ministerial responsibilities, please—perhaps we could have that next week.

In his response on Nazanin last week, the Leader of the House missed out Anousheh, and there was no mention of Luke Symons. None of them have done anything wrong. The Leader of the House said that Nazanin’s case is a top priority, but there was also no response to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq), who made a separate but important point about Iran.

My colleagues and I are extremely concerned that the responses from Ministers to our letters are falling somewhat below what should be expected. Ministers are obliged to provide meaningful responses. It is quite an easy phrase: “Ministers’ meaningful responses”—MMR—so it would be quite good if we could give them a poke by thinking of it as an injection. Perhaps we can send copies of all the letters that we have received to the Leader of the House so that he can have a look at them. I received one from the civil servants—this is nothing to do with the civil servants—that was a generalist response and contained nothing about the case that I had raised.

The Leader of the House keeps talking about the accountability of this Government, and he ended the virtual Parliament. He wanted us to come back, he said, because it keeps Ministers accountable, so let’s have it. What about the accountability of the purchase of 27 acres near Ashford in Kent, without the knowledge of the local MP and without the people who live near this lorry park even knowing it would be based there? The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster told the House that there were no plans to build a lorry park in Dover. What he failed to go on to say was that it would be in Ashford. In his statement he mentioned technology, but there were no details of the technology, how it would work or how it would be used for border checks. Can we have an urgent statement on the delivery plans for these borders and all EU-facing ports and also a statement on the border with Ireland, which the Minister said he would make later this month? Well, the House will not be sitting, so can we have an urgent statement on the plans for a border with the island of Ireland?

The Secretary of State for International Trade needs to an updated statement, too. She has now put together a Trade and Agriculture Commission, which she announced on Sunday by press release, but not to this House. Will the Leader of the House confirm that there will be regular updates to the House? I know that the commission will be reporting to the Secretary of State, but hon. Members would also like to know what the Commission does.

The Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy will be making a statement later. I cannot ask a question, so will the Leader of the House ask him why Walsall Council cannot use its full discretionary grant for local authorities of £7.6 million? BEIS officials have capped it at £2 million and stopped it using the balance. We are the neighbour to Birmingham and we are just a tiny place, so it is really important to keep our local economy going. The head of Blue Coat School has asked why Walsall libraries are not open, so can the Leader of the House confirm that Government guidance was that pubs and libraries could open from 4 July?

Will the Leader of the House join me in commending the education service, and all hon. Members of Parliament, for their efforts on Parliament Week, which is at the beginning of November? David Clark said that 4,192 organisations have signed up for it. Last year, more than a million people took part, and there were 11,000 activities. North East Somerset came 11th and Walsall came 17th, so we are hoping to beat you this year. Congratulations to everyone—hon. Members and the Parliament team—on raising awareness of Parliament at this important time.

I have one quick point. Depending on what happens in September and how the Procedure Committee reports on its inquiry, can the Leader of the House think about whether we could have an Aye queue and a No queue when we are voting? It would mean that we did not need to have the Whip standing in the middle. Perhaps we could have the Aye queue out of the Members’ Lobby and down those stairs, and the No queue through Central Lobby and down to St Stephen’s stairs. That would mean that the queues would be separate in Westminster Hall and we would know which queue to go to.

Mr Speaker, I join you in congratulating Rui Duarte on his 44 years of service and his retirement. Every event I have attended has always run smoothly in this House. We wish him a well-deserved retirement.

Finally, Mr Speaker, I thank you, your deputies and everyone who works in this House. They have got together to use their talents, their abilities and their skills—that includes Members and our staff. We had the first virtual Parliament in the world. I want to wish everyone well, thank them all for their work and tell them to stay safe.

The right hon. Lady is absolutely right, as you are, Mr Speaker, to thank Rui Duarte for his amazing service to the House. It is illustrative of how fortunate we are as parliamentarians to have this support. There have been 150,000 functions with one man to oversee them. That is quite phenomenal. We are served so well.

As we come to the end of this Session—these are the last business questions before the end of the Session—the right hon. Lady is also right to thank the staff of this House in all sorts of areas, both seen and unseen, for the work that has been done to ensure that Parliament continued doing its job in extraordinarily difficult circumstances. This covers such a wide range of staff. It is the cleaners who have been ensuring that it was safe to come back. It is the organisation of the House that has ensured that the lines are put out so that we can sit in a covid-safe manner. It is the Doorkeepers who constantly work to ensure that everything runs smoothly and that the right number of Members are in the Chamber. I see the Clerk of the House sitting at the table—the team he leads has done a phenomenal job under his inspired leadership, so we are very lucky.

Mr Speaker, I see your own secretary standing next to you. Her work has been absolutely invaluable in making sure that everything works well and, from the Leader of the House’s Office, she is an absolute pleasure to deal with. I fear that the honourable lady is going red as I say this, but the tribute is, none the less, greatly deserved.

I wish to address the points the right hon. Lady raises on Nazanin, Anousheh, and Luke. I can reassure her that consular efforts are being made in all those cases and that support is also being given to Mr Ashoori, supporting the family. It is really important that this support is given and takes place. Consular access to British nationals in Yemen is extremely difficult, given that our embassy operations are suspended, but we continue to press the Houthis to release Luke on humanitarian grounds. The efforts are being made, and the right hon. Lady is right to raise this issue every week.

On ministerial responsibilities, the right hon. Lady knows that this list is always produced in as reasonably timely manner as can possibly be achieved, but ensuring that it is accurate and kept up to date is a complex and time-consuming process, and therefore the list will be provided in due course—in the fullness of time. She is right to raise the point about letters from Ministers; I have received complaints from across the House. Ministers are aware that it is a basic courtesy that replies come from Ministers, not from officials, and I am reminding Ministers of that. We hold the Government to account, not officials to account. That is our role, and I will remind people about that. However, on the accountability point, since we have been back accountability, the Chamber has improved enormously, with a full hour of Question Time.

The right hon. Lady complains that there was no holding to account about the buying of land in the Ashford constituency, but that is exactly what she was doing; she was raising the point and trying to hold me to account for a decision made by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. So proper accountability is taking place, and I am delighted that she is so assiduous in ensuring that we are held to account, as she is doing on the issue of the Irish border. The thing to remember on that issue is that there will be no obstacle to trade from Northern Ireland coming to Great Britain, that Great Britain and Northern Ireland remain in a single customs area and that the UK will not be divided by any agreements made with the European Union.

As regards the trade and agricultural commission, the Agriculture Bill is in the other place, having completed its passage here. The commission will be set up and it seems to me an extremely sensible way to proceed.

On the opening of libraries, not everything that can be opened has been opened. Some people, be they councils or businesses, have decided, for their own private reasons, not to open immediately that they have been allowed to do so. The right hon. Lady will notice that in central Westminster not every restaurant has reopened since it has been allowed to do so, and that is a decision for the individual businesses.

I am delighted to discover that we in North East Somerset won the competition against Walsall South in regards to Parliament Week, but I do not think that that is a reflection on the individual Members of Parliament for those constituencies—it was merely good luck. It is a great event and I certainly encourage participation in it this year.

Finally, on the issue of the Aye queue and No queue, I initially thought that the r hon. Lady was referring to the intelligence level of Members on her side of the House, which I think is extraordinarily high but misguided, whereas on our side of the House the level is extraordinarily high and rightly guided. However, her suggestion will be borne in mind, and I am sure that the Procedure Committee will take it up with interest.

This Government have given unprecedented amounts of financial support to businesses and local authorities throughout the covid pandemic, but many businesses in my constituency are saying that urgent reform needs to happen on local authority parking charges, which are stopping many people coming into our town and inhibiting their shopping habits. So will my right hon. Friend commit to having a debate in Government time on this issue?

My hon. Friend raises a very important point. As we try to encourage people back on to our high streets, we of course want to make it as easy as possible for them to get there to support local businesses. Obviously, local authorities have the power to make decisions on parking charges and need to balance the interests of local people, but I am sure that we would agree that it would be wrong for local government to use parking charges as cash cows without considering the wider effects on local businesses. He may wish to return to this matter in the pre-recess Adjournment debate.

Good morning, Mr Speaker. Those who observe these Thursday morning exchanges will know that I have tried, over the past few weeks, to get a debate on the fiscal framework within which the devolved Administrations are constrained. It was not designed to deal with a global pandemic and it is hindering the Scottish Government’s ability to respond. As I have made clear consistently, this is not an argument about the amount of money but about what can be done with it. The Leader of the House has consistently evaded my questions, referring instead to the sums involved. I think that I now know the reason for that evasion: it seems that, far from enhancing the competence of the Scottish Government, the Tory Cabinet is now determined to constrain it further.

This week, there has been a three-pronged attack on devolution. An announcement on state aid made it clear that Westminster will overrule Holyrood when it comes to providing support for our businesses to recover from this crisis, and it was followed by a statement on the so-called shared prosperity fund, which made it clear that the Scottish Government will have no control over whatever funding replaces EU structural funds. The biggest assault will be announced here shortly: a Government press release tells us that the UK will seek to override and set aside decisions by the Scottish Parliament if they feel those decisions affect UK trade. Were this already in force, it could have overturned decisions on free university tuition, smoking bans or minimum alcohol pricing.

This is a major attack on devolution, taking power away from Scotland, but the details are unclear, so I have three specific questions for the Leader of the House. Is it true that the Government will establish an unelected quango to override the decisions of the Scottish Parliament? Do the UK Government intend to force this on the devolved Administrations if they do not consent? Will these measures require new legislation, and if so, when will this be introduced, and what will happen if it cannot be passed before the end of the transition period? I would appreciate straight answers to these questions, perhaps this time without personal references to my appearance or demeanour.

Finally, since this may be our last business statement before recess, may I take this opportunity to wish you a good summer break, Mr Speaker? I am sorry we were unable to get you up to the Edinburgh Festival fringe this year as planned, but I hope we can do so in 2021.

As always, the hon. Gentleman brings a little ray of sunshine into the Chamber, and we are grateful for that. A light shineth in the darkness. To come to his point, there is a difference between a question not being answered and being given an answer that he does not like. That does not mean the question has not been answered.

I will therefore remind the hon. Gentleman that some £4.6 billion has gone to Scotland under Barnett consequentials from the UK taxpayer. Without the UK taxpayer, the Scottish Government would find it very hard to make ends meet. That has provided support for 146,000 self-employed people, and 628,000 people have joined the furlough scheme, so a very large number of people —more than 750,000 Scottish people—have been helped because they belong to the United Kingdom, and that is something of which we should all be proud.

The hon. Gentleman mentions the devolution settlement, and it has to be said here that the position of the Scottish Government and Scottish nationalists is bizarre. They want the powers to be with Brussels. There are no powers being taken away from the devolved authorities. What is happening is power is returning to the United Kingdom. We will have the authority to decide for ourselves these issues with regard to things that affect trade. Subsidies will be a matter for the UK Parliament rather than unelected bureaucrats in Brussels. We have the separatists in Scotland and we have their leader who wishes to build a metaphorical wall against England and who wishes to do all sorts of things that are not in the interests of the people of United Kingdom or the people of Scotland and wishes to kowtow to Brussels. We wish to make a strong United Kingdom, which has £4.6 billion to help the Scottish economy with.

Childhood obesity is increasing at an alarming rate. It leads to a range of long-term health conditions that adversely affect life chances and life expectancy, particularly in less affluent constituencies such as Stoke-on-Trent Central. The impact of health inequalities has been highlighted by the covid pandemic. Will my right hon. Friend be so kind as to agree to hold a debate in Government time on how we best tackle childhood obesity and the underlying issues such as food poverty?

My hon. Friend raises an interesting point. The relationship between obesity and other comorbidities and covid-19 has been much discussed in recent months, and the Government are looking at it closely. The Prime Minister has expressed personal interest in tackling childhood obesity. The Government have been clear that every single one of us, no matter who we are, where we live or our social circumstances, deserves to have the chance to lead a long and healthy life.

Public Health England has emphasised that we must do more to level up health across the country and reduce health inequalities, something that the Government have already committed to in our manifesto, and we are working closely with local authorities to enable them to do that. In addition to what we are already doing, we are keen to ensure that good health is integrated into all facets of life, including housing, transport, education, welfare and the economy, because we all know that preventing ill health—mental and physical—and improving health outcomes is about more than just healthcare.

I thank the Leader of the House for his response to my letter, although I am afraid to say that I was a little disappointed with his attitude towards not protecting the time for the estimates day debates. The Backbench Business Committee has 30 unaired debates on our waiting list. They range across a number of subjects, including very important ones such as redundancies in, and the future of, the aviation sector; support for the self-employed and freelance workers in the aftermath of the covid virus pandemic; support for the tourism industry; mental health support for frontline workers; and, going further afield, the plight of Rohingya, the situation in, and plight of, the people of Yemen and the situation between Israel and Palestine—and many more. I note in the Leader’s response to the question about businesses that there is an intention to try to get Westminster Hall reopened, but can that not be done sooner than the beginning of October?

Given all those unaired debates, I cannot help but note that we have a general debate on restoration and renewal this afternoon. I think that the vast majority of Members on both sides of the House would say that that subject is not filling up their casework inboxes. There is also a general debate on matters to be raised before the forthcoming Adjournment. We have an awful lot of disgruntled Back Benchers with very important debates waiting to happen. I appeal again to the Leader of the House to get us some time for Backbench Business as soon as possible after the summer recess.

The hon. Gentleman mentions protected time. It is always a difficult balance in this House to ensure that time is available, and it depends on what other Members ask for and are given, but a lot of right hon. and hon. Members value the certainty of a set end point for the day’s business. I absolutely understand his concern about the 30 important issues before the Backbench Business Committee. The pre-recess Adjournment debate will provide an opportunity for Members to raise all those points, so it is an extremely useful opportunity for issues that have not been raised so far to be brought forward. The Government have ensured that the priorities of Back Benchers have been brought forward, both before and after the Backbench Business Committee was established, with supply days being made available and with time being made available to the Petitions Committee and, indeed, for restoration and renewal, a subject that is of great interest to a number of Back Benchers. Time has been facilitated as far as possible, but it is obviously my hope that we can get back to giving the Backbench Business Committee the time that it is entitled to under Standing Orders.

May I have a statement on the public scrutiny of planning applications? Understandably, the opportunity for public meetings has been curtailed during the covid pandemic, but I have a number of controversial large housing applications, including ones at Netherthong and Netherton. I am sure that my right hon. Friend would agree that local residents must be heard when their communities will be hugely impacted by those kinds of huge developments.

I think there is not a single Member of this House who has not had, in his or her constituency, an issue raised of a planning kind that is of great importance to local constituents. It is important that local views are made known and that facilities have been kept during the coronavirus pandemic to ensure that virtual planning committees, with local planning authorities across the country, are implementing planning decisions. However, they are also still required to consult on and publicise planning applications to get the views of local communities. I think that is the right way to proceed.

I want to support the comments of the shadow Leader of the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), on the lack of accountability. Throughout this crisis I have received a very high level of casework, with many issues raised by constituents about the lack of financial support for them from Government schemes, but, having written to Ministers, I have often received template replies from correspondence officers rather than from the Ministers themselves. Those replies merely restate details of existing schemes, rather than dealing with my constituents’ concerns. The Leader of the House talks of courtesy, but can he tell me what he will do to ensure that I get full responses from Ministers when I raise constituents’ issues? Anything less than that is a betrayal of the democratic role we play.

The hon. Lady is right. Responses from correspondents in Departments is not the correct way to treat Members of Parliament. If I may make a brief defence of Departments that did that at the height of the pandemic, I think they were almost overwhelmed with correspondence at that time and I had a certain sympathy with them at that time. However, I think that time has passed and that we have a right to expect proper answers. What have I done? Well, as of yesterday I wrote to one Minister. I raised, jointly with the Leader of the House of Lords, the issue of responses to written questions with Ministers some weeks ago. I will take up, and have taken up, individual cases of poor answers for individual Members of Parliament. If the hon. Lady would like me to take up any cases on her behalf, I will happily do that. It is essential and a key part of holding the Government to account that correspondence is responded to in a timely way by a Minister.

May I associate myself, Mr Speaker, with your kind words to Rui, and to the House staff for all they have done over the past few months?

In September, children in this country will be returning to their schools. Around the world it is estimated that over 1 billion children have not been in school during the covid-19 crisis. The Malala Fund this week estimates that in September there will be some 10 million children, mainly girls, who will never return to school. May we have a debate in Government time in September to mark that milestone and to talk about the Government’s own pledge for 12 years of quality education for every child in the world?

My hon. Friend raises a very important matter. Standing up for the right of 12 years of quality education for all girls is the top development priority for this Government. The UK is a world leader in supporting girls’ education around the world. Between 2015 and 2019, the Department for International Development supported 14.3 million children to gain a decent education, of whom at least 5.8 million were girls. There will be an opportunity to debate these issues in the pre-recess Adjournment debate, but the figure my hon. Friend brings forward of 1 billion children losing out on education is one that should concern us all. It will be important to try to make up what has been lost in future months and years.

There has been a significant increase in the number of individuals in Vietnam imprisoned for non-violent expression of their beliefs, with as many as 251 prisoners of conscience being held in 2019 alone, according to a new report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. Many of them are Christians who have also seen a worrying increase in persecution. For example, the family of imprisoned pastor Nguyen Trung Ton was recently subject to violence and detention by Vietnamese authorities. Will the Leader of the House—he is always very helpful—agree to a statement or a debate on these ongoing developments?

The hon. Gentleman is an absolute champion of freedom of conscience and has brought before this House on a number of occasions scandals from across the world where people have not been allowed to express their views and their beliefs or have been punished for doing so. This is a matter of concern to the Government, and the Foreign Office continues to take it up. I will bring the Foreign Office’s attention to the 251 prisoners of conscience held in Vietnam to whom he refers.

Alcohol addiction can not only destroy lives but end lives. Five years ago, I lost my older brother Mark to alcohol addiction. Trying to find services and help for him at the time was extremely difficult and, indeed, a postcode lottery. Will my right hon. Friend allow for a debate in Government time to discuss drug and alcohol rehabilitation and addiction, and the need for a Government strategy on alcohol to help ensure that no one else needlessly loses a loved one?

My hon. Friend raises a very difficult issue. It is true to say that overall alcohol consumption has fallen over the past 13 to 14 years, but the harms associated with alcohol remain too high, and every death caused by alcohol misuse is a tragedy—and a terrible family tragedy, particularly. The Government are committed to tackling health harms from alcohol and supporting the most vulnerable to risk from alcohol misuse. We do aim to publish a new UK-wide cross-Government addiction strategy that will include alcohol. We have the best health service in the world, and we need to marshal those resources to help people suffering from addiction, particularly addiction to alcohol.

The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders described the Government’s target to ban the sale of petrol, diesel and hybrid cars by 2035 as a “date without a plan”. With only 147 battery electric vehicles licensed to addresses in my constituency, we need to work faster and do more to support zero-emissions vehicles, so can the Leader of the House ensure a debate in Government time about how the required market transformation for these vehicles can take place?

Huge advances are being made in the ability to provide zero-emissions cars, and market forces are coming to work. The Government have been enormously supportive of those and have set an ambitious date for the removal of petrol and diesel cars. That has been a very sensible approach, and we are seeing companies across the world developing cars that are able to operate with zero emissions.

Under current Government and parliamentary procurement rules, purchases of less than £10,000 do not require an open tendering process. This freezes out many local ceramic companies in Stoke-on-Trent, such as Steelite and Churchill China, from the possibility of supplying high-quality, English-made tableware in Government Departments or at Chequers, the countryside residence of the Prime Minister. Could my right hon. Friend advise me on how best to ensure that Stoke-on-Trent’s ceramic companies get a fair crack of the whip in supplying Government with their world-beating products?

It is very important that companies such as Churchill China and Steelite have the opportunity to supply the Government and to make a success of their businesses. I congratulate my hon. Friend on his question. He is a wonderful campaigner for the businesses of Stoke-on-Trent. Supporting high-quality small businesses through the procurement system is something that many Members want to see realised. As we return powers from the European Union, the Government are interested in looking at how public procurement works and how it can be improved. As regards purchases for Chequers, I think that is a matter for a private trust. However, I am sure that with his indefatigable charms, he will make sure that the trust that runs Chequers knows where china can come from.

The House rises next Wednesday, but just two weeks later, on 5 August, it will be one year since the Indian Government revoked article 370 of the constitution and the people of Jammu and Kashmir were locked down. Human rights were attacked, and subsequent violence has resulted in many deaths. The Backbench Business Committee had listed a debate on human rights abuses in Kashmir on 23 March, and then on 26 April, but, as the Leader of the House is aware, debates were cancelled due to covid-19. The situation in Jammu and Kashmir is of urgent importance to many of my constituents in Luton South and those of other Members. Will he ensure that time is found early in September for a debate on human rights abuses in the region?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to ask for a debate on this issue, and I note what she says about the Backbench Business Committee’s willingness to give her one. It will of course be possible to raise this at the pre-recess Adjournment debate, when a Minister will be answering, and I would encourage her to do that. We expect Westminster Hall to reopen from 5 October, so that will provide the opportunity for more debates. I hope that it will be possible to facilitate Backbench Business Committee debates once we are back after the recess.

May I join the call of the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), in appealing to the Leader of the House to grant more time for Back-Bench business debates? The first debate the hon. Gentleman mentioned, on aviation and redundancies, is in my name and has been signed by more than 150 MPs from across this place. I think we all see in our inbox a real desire from employees for MPs to stand up and give them their voice, and I would like to do so but cannot because that time has not been granted. May I please appeal to the Leader of the House, who always stood up for Back Benchers when he was sitting very close to where I am standing now, to give us more time to debate these important matters?

I hear some heckling that suggests I was sometimes accused of reclining when I was sitting in that corner, but my backbone has now been stiffened by joining the Front Bench.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) phrases himself brilliantly, because he says it has been impossible to raise these issues in the House, and then raises them in the House with great panache. He is absolutely right to do so; we have all had correspondence from constituents on aviation redundancies. These companies are vital to the economy and they are being supported in a number of ways by the Government with the time to pay scheme. The demand for debates will be met when we are fully back to normal, and we get back to normal step by step.

The Conservative manifesto at the last election promised a fan-led review of governance of football. As we emerge from covid, many clubs are going to fall into financial difficulties. My local club in the royal borough of Greenwich, Charlton Athletic football club, is currently in that situation. Some dubious characters have got involved with the club, separating off the ownership of the ground and the training ground, which is in my constituency, and undermining the future of the club. We need the Government to make an urgent statement about reviewing the governance of football to stop these bad actors getting into the game, and we need them to do that before the recess, because the season is going to end and many clubs are going to find themselves in difficulties, so we need that urgent statement.