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Business of the House

Volume 679: debated on Thursday 3 September 2020

The business for the week commencing 7 September will include:

Monday 7 September—Remaining stages of the Fire Safety Bill, followed by motion relating to the appointment of trustees to the House of Commons Members Fund, followed by motion relating to the reappointment of the Chairman of the Local Government Boundary Commission for England, followed by motion relating to the reappointment of an Electoral Commissioner.

Tuesday 8 September—Remaining stages of the Extradition (Provisional Arrest) Bill [Lords].

Wednesday 9 September—Opposition day (11th allotted day). There will be a debate on protection of jobs and businesses, followed by a debate on this summer’s exam results. Both debates will arise on a motion in the name of the official Opposition.

Thursday 10 September—General debate on the aviation sector, followed by general debate on support for the tourism industry after the covid-19 lockdown. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 11 September—Private Members’ Bills.

I thank the Leader of the House for the business for next week, and for the Opposition day. May I correct him on the title of the second debate on our Opposition day? The official title will be “The personal role and involvement of the Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Education in this summer’s exams fiasco.”

I welcome the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), who is standing in for the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard).

One small plea, Mr Speaker, in terms of voting: that we separate the queues. I know that you, too, are quite keen to separate the Ayes and the Noes. If we could do that, that might be safer.

On an extremely serious note, yesterday the Prime Minister, in response to the Leader of the Opposition, said that he would not meet the families of the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK because they were in litigation. They have said they are not in litigation, so I think the Prime Minister has to come to the House—maybe he will do that on Wednesday—to correct the record. Could he then meet the families?

Could the Leader of the House find time to introduce urgent legislation on the protection of renters? I think the current protection runs out on 20 September and we need that urgent legislation for further protection.

We have prayed against the town and country planning permitted development regulations—I think there are three sets of them. The shadow Minister for Housing and Planning, my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury), has written to the Secretary of State. I hope that the Leader of the House will find time for that debate.

During August Parliament was not sitting, but extremely important announcements were being made. I cannot understand why the Government, who say consistently that Parliament is sovereign, do not come to the House to explain changes in policy. Apparently, algorithms will now be used in planning decisions. That takes away the very nature of making planning decisions—whether relevant considerations are taken into account or whether irrelevant considerations are taken into account—and it undermines administrative law. When you make a decision, you must give reasons.

The Town and Country Planning Association says that 90% of planning applications are approved and there are 1 million unbuilt commissions. It is time for the shires to rise up and oppose these new policies. Will the Leader of the House ask the current Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government to come to the House to explain why he is using algorithms to stomp on our green and pleasant land?

As though that was not enough, the Secretary of State for Education must come to Parliament—not just on our Opposition day, but next week, given the written and oral evidence of the chair of Ofqual. On Tuesday, the Education Secretary did not apologise for the debacle; all he said was that he was

“deeply sorry that those who have borne the brunt…have been students”.—[Official Report, 1 September 2020; Vol. 679, c. 42.]

There was nothing about the mistake—no mention that students had to demonstrate to be heard. There were three in the marriage: the Department for Education, Public First, which was appointed in June, and Ofqual. We need an urgent statement and a proper response, and the current Secretary of State for Education must explain who knew what and when, and that includes the Prime Minister. They are using algorithms to stomp on the dreams of our young people.

It is very sad that the great educationist Sir Ken Robinson passed away; he made a great contribution to education and his TED talks were absolutely amazing—they have the most views, and I urge people to watch them.

May I write to the Leader of the House about a constituent whose two sons had their grades downgraded and cannot take the A-levels and GCSEs that they want? He has been very responsive whenever I have written to him.

Of course, we all mourn the passing of John Hume, that great peacemaker. Talking of Ireland, may we have a debate on the £355 million package and the £200 million that goes to the trader support service, which will help with paperwork for the Northern Ireland border? We are slightly confused by the remarks of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster: he says that although the

“protocol doesn’t change the economic or the constitutional position”,

it does give Northern Ireland

“privileged access into the European single market.”

Well, we would like that for the rest of the United Kingdom. So there is in fact a border in the Irish sea.

Why is the Department of Health and Social Care not answering written questions? Hon. Members are getting answers back saying that it is not possible to answer the question in the usual time. Why?

In answer to a question at column 6 of Tuesday’s Official Report from my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) about the remaining functions of Public Health England, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care said that the new functions would be “embedded” in the NHS, but did not say how. Will the right hon. Gentleman come to the House to explain what is going to happen with all those functions of PHE, instead of randomly closing A&Es around the country?

May we also have an urgent statement on the recruitment process at No. 10? Yet another person who has applied to the adverts for “weirdos and misfits” has now had to resign because of their extreme views, and a Minister has had to relinquish shares in a company because his company was given a contract under these emergency schemes. That goes to the heart of No. 10—there is something rotten at the heart of No. 10. It is like Palmyra: they are destroying accountable structures on the ground of false ideology. Here is the “Ministerial Code”:

“Ministers have a duty to Parliament to account, and be held to account, for the policies, decisions and actions”

of Government Departments and agencies. They are not.

Of course I am going to raise Nazanin and Anoosheh, but let me take a different tack: will the Leader of the House ask the Defence Secretary to kindly look at Richard Ratcliffe’s letter? There is also Luke Symons in Yemen; my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) is supporting the family.

I am pleased that the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Amy Callaghan) is on the mend, but I just want to finally mention Julia Clifford, who works in the Tea Room and who is, sadly, very ill. I know she has the love and support of all hon. Members throughout the House; we wish her a speedy recovery—it will be a long one, but we want to see her back in the Tea Room.

The right hon. Lady is absolutely right about that. The pleasure that all Members get from going to the Tea Room is due to the wonderful staff there, who work so hard and cheer us all up. They spread a degree of sweetness and light, which politicians sometimes try to do, but not always as successfully as those in the Tea Room.

On Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, I note what the right hon. Lady says about a letter to the Defence Secretary. I will take that up—and, indeed, Anoosheh Ashoori. Both of these issues are of considerable concern to Her Majesty’s Government. I do not have any particularly new information, but I am always willing to take up any points that the right hon. Lady raises at these sessions.

May I also associate myself with the words of the right hon. Lady about John Hume, who was indeed a great contributor to peace? May his soul and the souls of all the faithful departed rest in peace.

Now I want to come to the right hon. Lady’s political points—this question of No. 10 appointments. We are lucky that No. 10 Downing Street has such fine people working there—fine intellects, people doing their best for this country, people thinking things through, coming up with inspired ideas—and I do not think it would be possible to imagine a better functioning, more forward-looking Government than the one we currently have. [Interruption.] Of course the Opposition scoff, but dare I say it, that is in the title of being in the Opposition. It is, as Disraeli said, the job of the Opposition to oppose, even when they see this shining beacon of wisdom in front of them, as they get in No. 10.

Not everything Disraeli said needs to be quoted. It is like the Bible—even the devil can quote scriptures from time to time.

Let me come to the individual points. The Prime Minister is very good at holding meetings with people and is very responsible about the meetings that he holds. He cannot inevitably, with all the good will in the world, possibly hold meetings with everybody who asks for them and I know that the right hon. Lady understands that.

As for the protection of renters, they have been protected but there is always a balance to be struck. There are stories now about people not being able to go back into their own homes because people are not paying rent and therefore they are keeping out the homeowners who are coming back from abroad, and all sorts of things. There is a balance in this, and the Government have, I think, struck the right balance in protecting people during this extraordinary crisis, but that cannot go on forever.

As regards the Town and Country Planning Act regulations, I am in discussion with the Secretary of State in regards to whether or not the prayer against them can have time found for a debate. I will report back to the House with an answer to that in due course. The right hon. Lady called for the shires to rise up. I am a county Member, not a borough Member—I believe that she is a borough Member—and I would not call upon the shires to rise up, and certainly not my shire county of Somerset. The last time we rose up was of great importance, because it was of course when Alfred the Great defeated the Danes. So when Somerset rises up, the nation is reformed, changed, improved, but we are a peaceable people in Somerset and therefore I think have no immediate plans to rise up.

The right hon. Lady then had a pop at my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary. I think he has done an absolutely first-class job under difficult circumstances, and the truth is—

No, he has been upgraded. He is an A* individual and an A* Secretary of State—not on estimated grades, but on the facts before us. We know he is an A* Secretary of State because he was able to react to a situation quickly and put it right. The real success of Governments is, when there is a problem, being able to put it right. That is what my right hon. Friend did and for which he deserves the most enormous credit. He regularly appears in this House, so there is no question of him failing to make appearances and answer questions—as, of course, is my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, who has been before this House and kept us up to date on numerous occasions over the last six months and will continue to do so, because the Government have the fullest respect for this House, as they should.

Of course I note the right hon. Lady’s point that the Department of Health and Social Care is not answering written questions in a timely way, and I will take that up, because that is part of my job as Leader of the House. I have, as the House will know, been very sympathetic to the Department of Health and Social Care particularly during this pandemic for some tardiness in response. I think, six months in, that sympathy is not as great as it previously was, and that is probably true for the House as a whole, so I will absolutely take up what she has asked me to do.

On the position of Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland remains a fundamental part of the United Kingdom and will have complete, uninhibited access to the GB market. That is a very important part of the withdrawal agreement.

We send our best wishes to Julia in the Tea Room and join the tributes paid to John Hume and others.

After three days back, it is almost as if we have never been away. The Government’s shambles over the summer has continued. Despite the Leader of the House defending the Secretary of State for Education, it seems to have been a huge surprise to the Education Secretary and the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care that they might be required to make statements in the House on the first day back, because the official Opposition and SNP Front Benchers did not receive sight of those statements until minutes before Ministers got to their feet. That was quite unfortunate, and I hope the Leader of the House can assure us that the usual courtesies will be more properly observed in the future.

I am sure that some Government Back Benchers are taking great delight from the fact that the new term has begun with the Government ripping up cross-party consensus on international aid and threatening to undermine the 0.7% target, just at the time that our poorest brothers and sisters around the world need it most. Can the Leader of the House assure us that, even if the Department for International Development is no more, the Government are not afraid of scrutiny of their aid spending and that the International Development Committee will be able to continue as a non-departmental Select Committee for as long as it needs to?

What is increasingly emerging out of all this is a tale of two Governments on these islands: right-wing populism from the Leader of the House and his colleagues to mask the utter shambles of their domestic policy agenda, compared with the strong leadership being shown in Scotland and a hugely ambitious programme for government announced by the First Minister this week. This Tory Government just want to get back to pressing a reset switch, to return to the rat race and trickle-down economics as soon as they can. In Scotland, we recognise that the opportunity exists to work our way out of the pandemic towards a greener, fairer society and economy. The more those policy agendas diverge, the more people in Scotland will seek to go their own way.

Finally, on a slightly more consensual note, the Leader of the House will know that this month marks the 10th anniversary of the state visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the United Kingdom and his prophetic speech in Westminster Hall. Would the Leader of the House be willing to discuss with interested parties in this House, the House of Lords and elsewhere how that visit can be appropriately reflected on and commemorated?

What an extremely good point the hon. Gentleman makes about His Holiness the Pope Emeritus, who made a wonderful and inspirational speech in Westminster Hall 10 years ago and told politicians a few home truths with an authority that only the Holy Father can have. It would be marvellous to commemorate that. It occurs to me that next Tuesday 8 September is the birthday of Our Lady, and perhaps we can have a little commemoration then to celebrate the 10th anniversary and consider what we may put in Westminster Hall to note it, as other speeches are recorded in Westminster Hall with little plaques.

That, I am afraid, is where the cross-party consensus comes to an end, and it is more a religious consensus between all three spokesmen for the respective parties today. Scotland has done so marvellously well—yes, thanks to £6.5 billion of spending provided by the UK taxpayer, which has protected 157,000 self-employed people and 779,500 jobs in the furlough scheme and delivered 6.7 million pieces of personal protective equipment. Without the United Kingdom, I am afraid Nicola Sturgeon and her trusty crew would be all at sea.

Talking of being all at sea, we had Second Reading of the Fisheries Bill earlier this week, and the SNP opposed restoring fishing rights to this country. It does not have the interests of the people of Scotland at heart, and it certainly does not have the interests of the people of the United Kingdom at heart, but the United Kingdom certainly has the interests of Scotland at heart through a good Unionist Government.

The Government and, as Leader of the House, I believe that scrutiny leads to better government, and therefore I am sure the House will work out ways of scrutinising spending. There are a number of ways of doing so, but departmental Select Committees, as a rule, need to follow Departments.

This summer, I spent my recess touring the beautiful constituency of North Norfolk, my home, and a question that cropped up on the doorstep time and again was this: will the Government find time to debate the ever increasing problem of first-time buyers not being able to get on to the housing market in these coastal beauty spots and scenic areas where local people are often priced out in their own home?

That is a fundamental point. Helping young people on to the housing ladder is what Conservatives in government always do. Throughout the 20th century, the most successful Conservative Prime Ministers, such as Baldwin, Macmillan and Margaret Thatcher, oversaw huge rises in home ownership, to the enrichment and benefit of the nation. That is why the Government are embarking on a radical overhaul of our planning system, which will increase the supply of housing throughout the country, particularly in areas of highest demand. This is important: we will not deliver affordable homes for people if we do not build more homes, and that means people welcoming the proposed planning reforms so that we can help people into those homes.

I thank the Leader of the House for the business statement and for announcing—at long last—two long-awaited Backbench Business debates on Thursday next, on the effect of covid-19 on the aviation sector in this country and around the world, and also, of course, on the effect on the tourism industry.

We still have 30 unheard debates on our waiting list, covering a huge range of issues. This country, because of its history, has huge influence around the world, and there is a long line of debates waiting to be heard on international topics, such as Yemen, Israel, the Rohingya, the crisis in Sudan and so on. Of course, a huge range of domestic issues also await important debates, particularly on aspects of the Government’s management of the covid-19 pandemic in this country. As soon as we can get some more time, we would be very grateful, as would Members from across the House who are waiting for their debates to be heard.

As always, I ask the Leader of the House to use his good offices to help us with something. My director of public health in Gateshead is concerned that, despite the number of covid-19 cases in Gateshead going up from 18 to 33 to 38 in the past fortnight, our testing capacity has gone—it has just dried up; completely evaporated. At the latest count, we have only enough tests to take us from 8 o’clock in the morning to completely running out by 10 pm. That has significant problems for equalities issues, in terms of who can be tested and where and when. Our director of public health would really like the Government to do something about that and to increase testing capacity. It is important not only in hotspots but everywhere, particularly where local communities are seeing an increase in the number of cases.

I note what the hon. Gentleman says about there being 30 debates on the waiting list. We certainly intend to try to facilitate Backbench Business debates. We in this House are, in every sense, getting back to normal. It is really noticeable that more people are around the Houses of Parliament, with people having their staff coming back. We are getting back—as is the country at large—to a more normal way of working. Westminster Hall Chamber will reopen, I hope, in October; there are certainly plans to do that. I am very conscious of the need to work through this list of 30.

As regards the question of testing in Gateshead, I will take that up with the Secretary of State for Health on behalf of the hon. Gentleman. I am sorry that I am not personally an expert in that particular field.

This country must return to normality, and it is incumbent upon us in this place to take the lead. Does the Leader of the House agree that we now need proactively to mitigate the risks of operating in a covid-secure environment and get this Chamber functioning normally?

That is a very good point, Mr Speaker; I was about to say that it is more your responsibility than mine, and I am always cautious of treading on your toes. There was a bit of a double act with your predecessor, who sometimes used to interfere in Question Time and answer questions that were directed to the Leader of the House, but it has been slightly more normal under your period of office, Mr Speaker.

I am really keen that this Chamber should be as full as it possibly and safely can be. I am sure, Mr Speaker, that you saw the comments made in the debate last night, when people asked whether we could use the Galleries, have microphones at the Cross Benches at the back and do things to get more people in. I am very keen that we should, and I think I can speak for you, Mr Speaker, in saying that you are keen that we should, but we slightly run up against the official advice from Public Health England. It is difficult for this House, of all places, to ignore the advice that has been given by an official body. That is where we are slightly stymied, but perhaps PHE will be more flexible, and I know that Mr Speaker will then encourage more people to come in.

May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care on local restrictions in areas such as Bradford? The Secretary of State’s decision last week to keep my constituency within local restrictions while reverting others in the Bradford district to national restrictions has left me and many of my constituents extremely angry. The Government have not published the data or the criteria behind the decision. We need transparency, consistency and clarity, not party politics, so may we have a statement?

It is not party politics; it is a very difficult decision. When the Government restrict the freedom of individuals, they should do so very cautiously and only when they have to. There is no legitimacy in taking away people’s freedoms unless there is a fundamental reason to do so. As soon as that reason is gone, the restrictions should be removed. That is what we agreed in the House when we passed the emergency legislation. As long as the necessity is there, the restrictions of course need to remain. I am sure that the hon. Lady is making her points clearly to the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, and I am sure that all the data are being examined to see when people’s freedoms can be restored.

Central London has been badly affected by coronavirus, with very low retail footfall and few office workers returning. Will my right hon. Friend countenance a debate on how we can help our inner cities to return to normal and promote their economies?

This is a very important issue, because London’s economy is in so many ways the beating heart of the nation’s economy, and to get this great bustling metropolis back to its bustle is of fundamental importance. There was a discussion on 1 September, led by the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, with other Ministers and the Mayor of London, focused on London recovery. We can all do our bit by eating out while we are in London, encouraging people and reassuring them that businesses are open and we should start using them. The Government have done things such as the temporary cut in stamp duty land tax, which has helped economic activity throughout the country—although because prices are much higher in London, perhaps less so in London than elsewhere. We really need London to be getting back to work and I encourage people who can come back into work safely to do so as soon as possible and to start getting the economy going by buying their sandwiches, going on the train—all the things that get life back to normal.

In 2012, in order to boost our economy, enhance our environment and ensure that 20% of the UK population would be within one interchange of our nation’s main airport, the Government publicly promised to build the western rail link to Heathrow. Even now, the Prime Minister is dreaming up soundbites: “Build, build, build—we will build ourselves out of this crisis.” Despite these grand gestures, despite Heathrow being willing to make a substantial contribution and despite eight years having elapsed, not a single shovel has gone into the ground. Perhaps the Leader of the House could grant us the courtesy of a debate in Government time on key infra- structure projects and the Government’s incapability and incompetence when it comes to actually building.

The Government have set out infrastructure plans that involve spending billions of pounds across the country and this is where the effect will be felt. Money has been made available to local councils to bring forward infrastructure programmes that they already have in the pipeline. Of course, there will be individual proposals and programmes that are subject to delays, but the overall record and ambition of this Government in building infrastructure is second to none.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in noting that the BBC is now going to broadcast “Land of Hope and Glory” as it should be heard? After what could be described as a smokescreen set of excuses for its original decision, concocted to mask yet another virtue-signalling capitulation to political correctness—but I could not possibly comment —it has, as it put it, “reversed” its decision. That is a description that, in the context of anything to do with this Government, it would characterise as a U-turn. Can my right hon. Friend think of any reason for this curious inconsistency?

Order. The Leader of the House should know better. The man supposed to uphold the values of this House has just broken them. How dare he?

Mr Speaker, I of course apologise for any offence that I may have given to the House, but

“When Britain first, at Heaven’s command,

Arose from out the azure main,

This was the charter of the land,

And guardian angels sang this strain:

‘Rule, Britannia! Britannia rule the waves!

Britons never, never, never will be slaves.’”

Let us hope that the BBC will recognise the virtues of Britannia in this land of hope and glory.

Unfortunately, I do not have “Flower of Scotland” ready to play, but I will get it for the next time.

According to The BMJ, one in 10 people who contract covid are still unwell more than three weeks after their initial infection, and some are remaining unwell many months later. Symptoms such as severe headaches, extreme fatigue, dizziness and difficulty in concentrating are typical and, notably, exercise can amplify these symptoms. Will the Government make a statement on the financial support that will be made available for those who are currently unable to return to work due to post-covid symptoms, and the plans they have to financially support phased and part-time returns?

The hon. Lady raises the very important and serious point that all the long-term consequences of the coronavirus are not known and what support will be needed for people. Obviously, the general welfare system does have support for people with long-term health conditions, and in that regard the coronavirus will not be any different. The only difference currently is a lack of full knowledge, but the Government, expert scientists and the doctors are working to try to understand more fully the consequences of the long-term effects of the coronavirus. So I can assure her that things are being done, but I cannot give her a more complete answer because the investigations are not completed.

I am tempted to launch into a rousing rendition of “Trelawny”, but I will resist.

There is growing concern in Cornwall that Cornwall Council is keeping its offices and face-to-face services closed and not holding council meetings. This is making it very difficult for my constituents to access council services and preventing these decisions by the council from being properly scrutinised and held to account. Could we have a statement from the Government on the importance of local councils reopening as much as possible as soon as possible in order that the public can access their services, that council officers can be held to account and scrutinised, and that, when the Government are encouraging people back to work, local authorities take a lead and set an example?

My hon. Friend raises a pressing issue, and I think many Members of the House will see this in their own constituencies. Remote working has benefits for some companies and organisations, but in many essential services it cannot serve as an appropriate substitute for face-to-face personal contact. I am sure I am not alone among MPs in finding that face-to-face constituency surgeries are much better than remote ones or ones held purely by correspondence. Current local authority meeting regulations enable all meetings to be held remotely, but since July the regulations have been adjusted to allow indoor gatherings of more than 30 people in places such as council buildings. I would encourage his local council and other local councils to try to get back to normal, and not make lives more difficult for democratic accountability by not getting back to the ordinary way of running things.

Although face masks are vital for containing coronavirus, they can be profoundly isolating for deaf and hard-of-hearing people who rely on lip reading to understand what others are saying. Would it be possible to have a debate in Government time about clear face masks—the ones with a transparent panel over the mouth—and their use in the NHS, schools and elsewhere, to help the 12 million people in the UK who are affected by hearing loss?

The hon. Lady raises a point of great interest and, if I may say so, good sense. I do not want to promise her a debate in Government time, because I think she has managed to highlight something that will be important and that I certainly had not considered, although I was aware that deaf and hard-of-hearing people who lip read found that face masks made it harder for them to understand what others were saying. Indeed, I think many of us may lip read rather more than we thought—partially, in conversation. I think her suggestion of see-through face masks is a very good one. She has made her point, and I hope that others will pick it up.

I welcome two very important events on Thursday 10 September. The first is my mother’s 83rd birthday, and the second is the general debate on aviation. I thank the Leader of the House for finding the time for the aviation debate, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee and its Chair for putting that debate first among the 30 that have been approved. The debate will give colleagues from across the House a chance to stand up for the aviation workforce and organisations in their constituencies, and for the Government to set out what they are doing to support aviation.

May I ask the Leader of the House to remind all colleagues in this place that it is still possible to come into the Chamber and intervene, and that they do not have to be on the call list to do so? When I open that debate, I will ensure that every voice is heard for the aviation industry.

I begin by wishing my hon. Friend’s mother many happy returns for her birthday on 10 September, which will, I hope, be a day of jubilation and song in the Merriman household. My hon. Friend makes an important point about interventions in the Chamber. Most debates are not entirely full of those who are making speeches in them, and there are opportunities for Members to come into the Chamber, make interventions and get their point on the record. I share his view that when making an introductory speech, it is a good idea to take as many interventions as possible. Doing so allows other Members to get their point across, sometimes in a briefer form than would be the case if they decided to make a speech.

I was delighted to hear the Leader of the House say earlier that he believes that scrutiny leads to better government. I am sure that he will welcome my request for a debate in Government time on contracts awarded without tendering during the pandemic, so that Members can scrutinise, for example, the £840,000 of taxpayers’ cash that went to Public First, run by the woman who wrote the Tories’ manifesto last year and her husband; the £32 million contract for surgical gowns that was awarded to a pest control firm; the £8.4 million that was paid to Taeg Energy, a dormant company, for hand sanitiser; the £252 million that went to Ayanda Capital for face masks that are not fit for purpose; and last, but by no means least, the contract for chemical and biological protection suits that was awarded to a digital marketing company—and so on, and so on. Can we debate the awarding of those contracts?

This is one of the great virtues of our nation: we were able to act quickly, and it was right that contracts were awarded without tendering in an emergency to ensure that the necessary equipment, supplies and advice were provided. It is equally right that those decisions are held to account within this House. We have such an honest and un-corrupt country because of our free press and our outspoken House of Commons.

I cannot promise the hon. Lady a debate in Government time, but there are Adjournment debates and Backbench Business debates. If anyone, at any time, has evidence of wrongdoing, it is their duty to bring it to the Floor of the House so that it may be investigated. It is their duty to use every means at their disposal, including written questions, oral questions, asking me—quite rightly—for a debate and asking the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee for a debate. That is how we have ensured that our country has been so honest and so un-corrupt.

Buckingham’s strong Conservative unitary council works closely with our local enterprise partnership, our business organisation—Bucks Business First—and our local healthcare trust. This presents a great opportunity to act as a pathfinder for greater local devolution. Our significant assets include Pinewood Studios, three enterprise zones and our leading space and motor sport industries. We also have, sadly, areas of deprivation and of course the impending lay-offs from Heathrow and the aviation industry, which are presenting major challenges. May I ask the Leader of the House for an urgent debate on economic recovery and devolution so that we can set out how Buckinghamshire Council, with the right investment combined with devolved funding and more freedoms and flexibility, could form a successful partnership within local government to spearhead the rebuilding of our economy and create the jobs that are so essential to the people who live in Buckinghamshire?

My right hon. Friend makes a compelling case for the varied and innovative economy in Buckinghamshire, supported by a well-led local authority. I am sure that many Members would be interested in taking part in a debate on economic recovery, although I think that these subjects could be included in the Opposition day debate next week. Local leadership will be crucial in the recovery from the coronavirus. We will set out our plans for devolution to local areas in the devolution and local recovery White Paper later this year. These plans will ensure that local economies have the investment needed to restart growth and the right regulatory environment to allow businesses to innovate freely and to really drive our recovery. Most of what my right hon. Friend is asking for is actually broadly in the pipeline.

I suppose that, as the writer said, the world has always had two kinds of families—the haves and the have-nots—but under coronavirus this has become even more acute. Some of the poorest in the country have suffered most. Many families who had just started up self-employed businesses or were tradesfolk have suddenly found themselves going from a significant income to absolutely nothing coming in through the door whatsoever. Unfortunately, despite the Government’s attempts to try to help everybody, there are 3 million people in this country who feel very excluded from every single financial provision that there has been. I am sure that the Leader of the House will have had people knocking on his own door in his own constituency crying about losing their finances, losing their homes—losing everything. Can we not please say to those people that, yes, there is still hope that the Government are going to intervene? May we have a debate on that as soon as possible so that we can still put measures in place for those families who really have suffered the most?

This crisis has been very difficult for very many people. The Government have taken enormous steps with the £35 billion in the furlough scheme and the £8.5 billion for nearly 3 million self-employed people. But of course, as a constituency MP, I recognise that people who founded businesses recently have found things very difficult. We need to get the economy to recover. We need to get people getting back to as normal as they possibly can. We want to encourage people to get back to work. We want to try to ensure that we achieve the V-shaped recovery, which is so important. The steps that the Government have taken have been to protect the structures of the economy so that when demand comes back, those structures are there to meet the demand that never really went away but was just shut down because of the crisis. That is what Government policy has been directed towards. We will need to ensure that we foster the economy and help it grow as we come back up that V, but I understand how difficult it is for individual families in particular circumstances.

May we have a debate on the need to maintain local train services during this pandemic? Recent service reductions in my constituency are completely unacceptable. CrossCountry is refusing to stop trains at Congleton station at all, citing social distancing requirements. It put on a longer train, for which the platform is too short. Yet at other stations, this issue is managed by only certain train doors being opened. At Alsager, East Midlands Trains has cancelled almost its entire hourly service during the day, halving the service from Alsager and resulting in a 900-signature local petition within the past few days.

My hon. Friend raises a deeply concerning point. That train-door excuse sounds particularly feeble, even given the British Rail excuses of old. Many people are returning to their offices and the economy continues to open up. Train operators must keep up with demand from passengers. I will take up her concerns with my right hon. Friend the Transport Secretary, and we will see that they are addressed in full by the Department for Transport.

Clearly, it is vital that we start to build the homes that people need, in the right places. However, the release of the White Paper on planning has caused consternation about the algorithm that will drive the number of homes built in different places and some of the reforms are of concern to local people, local authorities and many across the House. Clearly, we want to get on with building new homes, which need to be in the right places. Will my right hon. Friend therefore urge the Secretary of State to come to the House to make a statement on the planned reforms, so that Members from across the House can have their say before the Government take decisions? Once those decisions are taken, I predict there will be extreme problems in terms of the legislation, unless the Government listen to what Back Benchers have to say.

All sensible Governments listen to wise Back Benchers, who represent their constituents assiduously. My hon. Friend makes that right point: we need—[Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) is a Front Bencher, not a Back Bencher, although I listen to her with great care always. We agree on some things, but not, by any means, on everything. As I was saying, we do need to build more homes. We need to build enough homes; we need to build the right homes; and we need to build beautiful homes. We need to build the type of homes that people want. I am afraid that we have not always managed that since the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 came in. Indeed, we have reduced the size of homes and of gardens over the decades since, which is not necessarily what people want. The White Paper is open for consultation until October, and I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members will make their views known in a variety of ways, both inside the Chamber and by direct correspondence.

It is now six months since I stood in this House to raise concerns about the collapsing oil price and the impact that would have on my city of Aberdeen. Since then, the UK Government have been busy: they have failed to deliver a single penny of sector-specific support; they have yet to sign off on an oil and gas sector deal; and they are now refusing to release any of the £12.9 billion-worth of decommissioning tax receipts that appear to have been locked in a vault in Whitehall. I am sure the Leader of the House will share my concern at this complete inaction and will therefore wish to put aside some Government time for a debate on these very important matters.

The Government have done an enormous amount to support the overall economy, as I have already pointed out, by providing £35 billion for the furlough scheme, £8.5 billion for the self-employed and £15 billion for coronavirus business interruption loans for our small and medium-sized enterprises and large businesses. So a huge amount has been done to help businesses across the country. The price of oil fell into negative territory during the peak of this crisis and has recovered from that quite significantly. Volatility in the oil price is something everybody in the oil industry is well aware of.

This great place plays a part in the leadership of the country and in imbuing everyone with confidence. During the recent lockdown, we have faced challenges on filling the Benches, although I appreciate the incredible work that Mr Speaker and his team have done to make this place safe. Given the public health challenges we face in making sure that the Benches can be refilled, might we open this up to the Great British public and use their ideas and innovation so that we can get these Benches full again and get Parliament working as it always should?

The wisdom of the British people knows no bounds and therefore we should always welcome ideas from our constituents. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) is sniffy about his own constituents. I think the wisdom of the people of the United Kingdom knows no bounds. That is why we have achieved so much over the history of this nation. We have been innovative. We have been a nation that has led the world. We really are—

Well, we are leading the world in developing one. Anyway, this is not meant to be a two-way chat between the hon. Member for Rhondda and me. As I said yesterday, I am extraordinarily keen that the House should get back to normal operations, and we have been back since the beginning of June. We did lead by example, but if we can get any good ideas from constituents, they would be extremely welcome. I do hope that it will not be too long before we allow constituents to come back in to listen to us, because we are an open democracy, not a hidden away democracy, and we want to see all the Galleries with people in them as soon as that is safe to do.

On Tuesday, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care gave the impression to my hon. Friend the member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) that the cancer backlog had been reduced by half. I am gravely concerned that the backlog he referred to is just for cancer patients in the system who had their treatment postponed in lockdown. Cancer services are not yet running at 100%, so there is another, far greater backlog of patients awaiting diagnosis continuing to build up. Will the Leader of the House ask the Secretary of State to come to the House to clarify his misleading statement and give clarity to the thousands of people living with cancer?

I do not think that anything my right hon. Friend said was misleading. I would like to pay tribute to hospitals that have been going to great lengths to deliver care and treatment, including the Circle Bath Hospital in Peasedown St John in my constituency, which, in conjunction with the Royal United Hospital, took in cancer patients during the height of the pandemic to ensure that they were in a covid-free environment. It did remarkable work, with people moving into new specialisations and being flexible about their working to ensure that cancer patients were treated even at the height of the pandemic.

Some 85,000 people started treatment for cancer from March to June, and urgent referrals are increasing again as people come forward for a cancer check. Anyone who is concerned about possible symptoms should contact their GP. I reiterate the point made in this House by others that the health service is open for routine business and people ought to be going to their doctors if they have concerns about their health.

Order. I am sure that the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) was not accusing Secretary of State of misleading the House. I suspect she meant unintentionally misleading.

I am really pleased to hear that the Leader of the House, like me, thinks that the Government should be held to account regularly and thoroughly. With the done deal of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office having swallowed up the Department for International Development, there will be no scrutiny of DFID funding, because it will go across many different Departments. It is no good expecting the Foreign Affairs Committee to do its current work plus that new work. Will my right hon. Friend bring before the House the possibility of a cross-party Committee to look at the funding normally spent to ensure that we keep legally to the 0.7% across government?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question and for her distinguished service on the International Development Committee, where she made a great contribution. It is sensible that Select Committees follow Departments—that has been the long-standing principle—but there are other ways to scrutinise expenditure. The Public Accounts Committee and the Treasury Committee have a role in that, as of course do supply days, when individual areas of expenditure can be examined. The House must determine its own structures of Select Committees, as indeed it does. The convention that they shadow Departments does seem to me a sensible one, but that does not rule out other means of scrutiny.

The people of Chesterfield are concerned that HS2 has put in an objection to the recent planning application by the Chesterfield Canal Trust, describing the two projects as currently incompatible. Will the Leader of the House arrange a debate in Government time on governance and decision making at HS2, so that the Government can ensure these two vital projects do not interfere with each other but work constructively together and that we have can have a sense that the Government have a grip on HS2 and a real commitment to it?

There will be various debates on HS2, not least because part of the legislative programme is continuing, but the subject matter that the hon. Gentleman raises is absolutely ideal territory for an Adjournment debate, and I am sure that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, will pass on a request to Mr Speaker.

Does the Leader of the House agree with me and the people of Ashfield that Members of this House should refrain from labelling members of the public and parliamentary colleagues as “fat old racists” simply because they supported Brexit and voted to leave the EU?

I think that particular jibe was directed at me. I cannot deny that age catches up with me. Seeing my fifth child go to school yesterday made me realise once again how quickly time flies. Fat is a matter of opinion, and some people may think that I am fat. Perhaps Kate Moss thinks I am fat, but other than that, I am not sure that many people would consider me to be particularly plump. The charge of racism is a deeply offensive one and people should not bandy around that type of abuse in politics because it lowers the whole tone of our politics and makes politics unnecessarily fractious when we actually ought to be reasonably polite to each other. I do not mind a little bit of joshing. I do not mind being called old and fat, but calling people racist is wrong.

We do have a fair number of colleagues still to be called, so I urge colleagues to be fairly brief in their questions and likewise in answers.

Our cultural institutions are vital in and of themselves, but they are also an important industry employing many people. Is the Leader of the House aware of the strike action being taken by hard-working members of the Public and Commercial Services Union at Tate galleries in protest against hundreds of compulsory redundancies? Will he grant a debate in Government time on the continued jobs crisis across the whole culture sector resulting from the coronavirus pandemic?

The Government have provided, I think, £1.5 billion to help the cultural sector, so they have provided a lot of taxpayers’ support. I am sorry to say, though, that, if people are on strike, they are, by definition, not hard-working.

Can we have a debate on what further measures need to be taken to tackle the blight of Travellers destroying the local environment and driving a coach and horses through the planning laws? My local residents in Mobberley are facing that problem at the moment and they would welcome a debate in the House so that we can explore what needs to be done not just in Mobberley and across Cheshire, but across the whole country.

The majority of Travellers do obey the law, but we, as a Government, recognise that unauthorised encampments cause significant distress to local residents with antisocial and criminal behaviour. The Home Office recently consulted on measures to enable the police to tackle unauthorised encampments more effectively and we will publish a response to the consultation in due course. As the then Housing Minister, now Foreign Secretary, said when launching the consultation:

“We must promote a tolerant society,”

in which legal sites are available for travellers,

“but equally the rule of law must be applied to everyone.”

Peter Krykant, who is in long-term recovery from his own substance misuse issues and has worked to support others, has this week launched a van in Glasgow where people can inject drugs under supervision, putting himself at risk of arrest for trying to save lives. The Home Office continues to maintain a frankly untenable position in the face of growing overwhelming world evidence that drug consumption rooms reduce harm and save lives. May we have a debate in Government time on the flawed and outdated Misuse of Drugs Acts? Will the Leader of the House ask the Home Secretary to bring forward a statutory instrument to allow DCRs to go ahead legally in Glasgow?

The Home Office has made its position on this very clear. It is not willing to give the exemption that the hon. Lady is asking for. It does not believe that it would be in the best interests of society at large.

May I ask my right hon. Friend whether the Government will make a statement on their free port policy, specifically in relation to the potential for a free port in Teesside? I am sure he agrees that that would be a fantastic location for our first post-Brexit free port, so that we can maximise the benefits of leaving the EU and bring jobs back to Redcar and Cleveland.

My hon. Friend raises a really sensible and important point. Free ports will be of great importance to many areas of our economy, both coastal and inland, and they will be a centrepiece of our international trade economy in the future. As he rightly says, this is only possible because we are leaving the dead regulatory hand of the European Union’s transition period on 31 December, having already left that organisation on 31 January. The free port consultation has closed and officials are carefully reviewing the hundreds of responses received, probably including one from my hon. Friend. The Government will publish a response in due course and set out their policy of free ports being national hubs for trade, innovation and commerce regenerating communities across the United Kingdom.

Two weeks ago, I held a Zoom call with around 75 Vauxhall residents living in a new-build development with dangerous cladding. In January, there were given an external wall rating of B1, which is the lowest rating. As a result, the fire authorities mandated a waking watch. That is an expensive cost for many leaseholders and those costs are not covered by the Government. This is making these buildings really dangerous. A number of the residents, whose lives are on hold, have told me that they cannot move and cannot get a mortgage. Essentially, they are trapped in homes that are high risk. Can we please have a debate in Government time about the scandal and the shameful situation of dangerous cladding and the enormous personal impact this is having on leaseholders, not just in Vauxhall but right across the country?

The Government are introducing legislation improving building standards, including requiring building owners and managers of multi-occupied buildings to consider the risks of cladding and fire doors, and introducing clearer accountability for those responsible for the safety of high-rise buildings. We have also made available a significant amount of taxpayers’ money to remove dangerous cladding. However, the hon. Lady raises the case of a specific building, and I will pass that on to the Secretary of State responsible.

This year the Airedale General Hospital in my constituency celebrates its 50th birthday, and I commend all the hard work of the staff there over recent months. However, the hospital was built originally to have a lifespan of 30 years, it is built solely from aerated concrete and it is the UK’s largest flat-roofed hospital, which brings significant problems. Will my right hon. Friend arrange for a debate to be held in Government time to look at securing our much-loved hospital long into the future?

My hon. Friend is right to single out and praise such a distinguished hospital and its staff. The Government are embarking on a significant spending programme for the NHS estate, with a £2.8 billion programme to build six new large hospitals, as well as upgrades and redevelopment of the primary care estate throughout the country. I am concerned that with the largest flat roof of any hospital in the country, this one might have even more leaks than the Government do.

Manufacturing industries in Coventry and across the west midlands have been hit particularly badly by the coronavirus pandemic. If the Government continue with their reckless, one-size-fits-all winding down of the furlough scheme next month, I fear that we will see an unemployment crisis not witnessed in the city in decades, so will the Leader of the House grant Government time to discuss the urgent need for economic support for manufacturing industries in Coventry and how we can take this moment to invest in the green technologies of the future?

The Government have provided an unprecedented level of support for the economy, but that support cannot continue indefinitely. There has been a crisis, and the response to that has been to maintain the structures of the economy. I have given some of the figures. Let me give some more: £35 billion in more than 1 million bounce back loans; £11 billion in business grant and £10 billion in business rates relief; £27 billion in VAT deferrals, supporting nearly half a million businesses: £33 billion in the summer economic update supporting the jobs retention bonus; and eat out to help out, which has seen 84,000 firms claim £336 million. What the Government have done is absolutely right to protect the structure of the economy as the V has gone down as demand was stopped by Government order. What the Government and the taxpayer cannot do is continue this forever, because ultimately, as socialists always forget, you run out of other people’s money.

I welcome the aviation debate next Thursday. The industry is suffering badly in the current crisis, and the level of job losses is profoundly concerning. It is really important that we get, for example, the transatlantic routes going again. Will the Leader of the House ensure that there is a proper and detailed ministerial response to the concerns raised?

One of the other sectors that is suffering and unable to reopen because of Government restrictions is the events sector. Many of the businesses in that sector are small and run by individuals who often fell through the cracks in the Government’s support schemes; I represent many in my constituency. Could the Leader of the House ask the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to look again at what can be done to help those small businesses in the months ahead and, in due course, make a statement to the House about the future of the sector and how we can help it?

I am in fact taking up these issues for constituents on my own account, so I have a great deal of sympathy with what my right hon. Friend says, and I will ensure that his question is passed on to the Secretary of State.

The Leader of the House will be aware of the 160 job losses at bus manufacturer Alexander Dennis in Falkirk and a further 64 job losses at Greenfold Systems in my constituency. The green bus fund totalling £3 billion that was announced by the Government last February has gone missing. If found, it could be used to save those jobs and support an award-winning industry. Will the Leader of the House commit to a debate in Government time on the green bus fund, in an effort to find the missing billions of promised investment in the bus industry?

In addition to the fund that the hon. Gentleman refers to, the public sector spends around £2 billion supporting road passenger transport. Significant amounts of taxpayers’ money are made available to the sector, and I hope that the company he refers to is able to win some contracts. It is so difficult for businesses in the current circumstances, but it is not for lack of taxpayer money.

The green belt is rightly considered as the lungs around our urban centres. To help protect our green belt and prevent urban sprawl, will the Government make a statement or provide Government time for a debate on how we will seek to “protect and enhance” the green belt, which was our manifesto commitment, and in doing so address the local housing need figures, which are woefully out of date and detrimental to the protection of our green spaces and our commitment to the environment?

My hon. Friend serves his constituents well by bringing this issue to the Floor of the House. He is right to emphasise the support that this Government have for the green belt. The Government have backed the green belt consistently and believe that protections around urban areas are important. However, constraints should not prevent planning for the number of homes that communities need. Authorities should work together to explore how housing can be accommodated in neighbouring areas to increase supply. I speak as somebody who represents an area of which 70% is within the green belt, and that creates undoubted constraints. None the less, the green belt is worth protecting, but we have to build houses too.

Last week, figures were released via a freedom of information request on the number of MPs who have taken our “Valuing Everyone” course. Some 159 MPs have yet to take what is supposed to be a compulsory course—nearly one in four—and of that number, 140 sit on the Government Benches. This is totally unacceptable. We are representatives, but we are also employers, and we have a duty of care to our staff, who too often work in a culture of bullying and harassment. Will the Leader of the House make a commitment that, by the end of the year, every single Member of Parliament will have completed the course? Does he agree that all those who have failed to take it by that point should be named?

I have taken the course, as has my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and a large number of Members of Parliament, and I encourage others to do so. However, it is not and cannot be compulsory. We cannot create new conditions of membership of this House. Our mandate comes from our voters.

Williams Coaches is a fourth-generation family firm based in Brecon. It has been going for over 65 years, but when I visited it in the summer, its fleet of iconic cream and brown coaches were standing on the forecourt when they should be ferrying tourists around mid-Wales. As has already been explained, the UK Government’s support package has been exceptional, but the Welsh Government have not passed on similar amounts of funding that have been made available in England. Can we have a debate on what we can do for industries that would be supported in England but are ignored by the Welsh Government, such as those rural businesses in my constituency?

My hon. Friend raises a very important point. The United Kingdom taxpayer expects the funds it makes available to support industries across the whole of the United Kingdom to be directed in that way. It seems most unreasonable that the Welsh Government are not looking after people in Wales as well as they ought to, but the devolution settlement does give them the responsibility for how those moneys are spent. As I pointed out earlier, £2 billion of taxpayers’ money has been made available. I congratulate my hon. Friend on her championing of this important industry. I have similar businesses in my constituency. They have been finding times very tough, because tourist travel is where they make the profit so that they can afford to do some of the school transport later in the year.

I was very disappointed with the Leader of the House’s little musical stunt with his mobile phone earlier on; a clear case, I thought, of Britannia waives the rules. [Laughter.] I’m sorry. I do apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker.

May I ask the Leader of the House to use his good offices, as he often does, in fairness, to take up the matter of correspondence from Members to the Treasury, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and other Treasury Ministers? It is an important right of Members that they can write to Ministers and expect to get a reply, wherever possible, from Ministers. Occasionally, there is an administrative reply and that is acceptable, but at the moment the Treasury is actually indicating to Members that they should not be writing directly to Ministers, but rather via some other hub it has invented. I sense that the Leader of the House would not support that particular kind of practice. May I ask him to look into that and perhaps to report back to the House or write to Members?

I am so sorry that the hon. Gentleman is disappointed. I am wounded at that prospect.

On his main point, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Members of Parliament have a right to hold Ministers to account, not officials. It is by absolute exception that officials may respond, usually on immigration matters where an official response is in fact more useful. It is a routine courtesy. Ministers know that a Privy Counsellor should expect to get a response from a Privy Counsellor, which is very often the Secretary of State in a Department or a Minister of State, and other Members should expect to get a ministerial response. Getting responses, which I think we may all have received, written by officials that bear no relation to the letter that has been sent is not how Government business should be carried on. I encourage Members to write to Ministers and, if they get an unsatisfactory response, to write again and copy me in. I will take this up for any Member who does not get a proper response. We are not doing this for fun. We are not doing it because we want the answers. We are doing it for our constituents and that is where Governments are there to be held to account. Yes, I entirely support what the hon. Gentleman is saying.

I am very grateful for the announcement by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House of a general debate on aviation to take place next Thursday. If I could catch the Chair’s eye, I would be extremely grateful. Might we have consideration of a statement on the importance of covid-19 testing for inbound passengers not only to increase the confidence of people to travel, particularly by aviation, but for confidence in public health and so that we are not at a competitive disadvantage to countries such as Germany and France, who do test for covid-19?

The Health Secretary was on the wireless this morning talking about testing, and I thought what he had to say was extremely important. There are great efforts being made to ensure that more testing is available and that faster—immediate—testing is available.

As I understand it, though I will bear correction, we cannot be certain that somebody who is tested at 9 o’clock in the morning will not have developed symptoms by 9 o’clock the following morning, and the tests are not predictive of somebody who is not yet showing symptoms. That is the risk with testing people at airports: the symptoms may develop later. The testing is improving. I think half a billion pounds is being spent by the Government on behalf of taxpayers in improving testing, so this may improve, and my hon. Friend makes a very good point, but I am afraid that we are not there yet.

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