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Volume 679: debated on Wednesday 9 September 2020

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

If Ministers think it is acceptable for this Government not to obey the law, how on earth can the Prime Minister expect the public at home to do so?

The Prime Minister will be aware that tomorrow the people of Gibraltar celebrate their national day. As I have the honour to be chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Gibraltar, will he join me in sending the people of Gibraltar our very best wishes for the day when they celebrate their democratic decision and continuing wish to remain British? Will he also pledge that Her Majesty’s Government will continue to give them every support both in that matter and also in all the practical issues for which they may need our assistance going forward with the challenges which we jointly face as part of the British family? (905740)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the continual support he gives to the people of Gibraltar and to Gibraltar. I can assure him that the sovereignty of Gibraltar is inviolable, and I join him, as I hope all Members join him, in wishing the people of Gibraltar a very happy national day on Thursday.

Yesterday, I spoke to a mum who lives in London. She has a four-year-old daughter, who had a very high temperature yesterday morning. She phoned 111, and was told to get a test. She tried to book, and was told the nearest was in Romford. That was at 9 o’clock in the morning. She explored that, but there were no tests there. She was then told Haywards Heath, halfway to Brighton—on exploration, no tests there. By lunchtime, this mum was told the nearest place was Telford or Inverness. A slot became available in Lee Valley in the afternoon—one slot—but, unfortunately, that was being offered across the country, including to people in Manchester, and it was impossible to book. At 9 o’clock last night, she was told the nearest centre was Swansea. This is, frankly, ridiculous. Who does the Prime Minister think is responsible for this?

Clearly, I take responsibility, as I have done throughout, for the entire handling of the coronavirus crisis, but I would just say to those who attack NHS Test and Trace, and those who deprecate the efforts of the people who are doing their level best to keep us safe, that it is precisely because of the success of test and trace that capacity has gone up from 2,000 a month in March to 320,000 a day. We know, thanks to NHS Test and Trace, in granular detail, in a way that we did not earlier this year, about what is happening with this pandemic. We know the groups that are suffering, the extent of the infection rates, and we have been able, thanks to NHS Test and Trace, to do the local lockdowns that have been working. We also know that, alas, some people have not been following the guidance in the way that they should and, therefore, we are seeing a rise in infections, and that is why today we are taking decisive steps to intensify our social distancing measures—the rule of six that will be familiar to the country—in order that we can keep our economy going, that we can keep our schools open and keep this virus under control. I hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman will support those measures and, indeed, support NHS Test and Trace.

I will hear the measures later on, but we will in principle support them, as I have supported all the measures the Prime Minister has introduced, as he well knows. It is the right thing to do, and I have asked people to follow Government advice at every opportunity.

Nobody is attacking here. The Prime Minister needs to know how anxious hundreds of families are. In the past few weeks, they have been sent all over the country or told there are no tests. It cannot be brushed off. Earlier this year, the Health Secretary said:

“Anybody who needs a test can get a test, and it’s the most important thing that you can do to stop the spread of this virus.”

This is a very serious issue, but the Government line on it seems to be changing all the time. Yesterday, the director of NHS Test and Trace said:

“Can I…offer my…apologies to anyone who cannot get a covid’s our laboratory processing”

that is the problem. This morning, the Health Secretary changed tack and appeared to blame the public. I note that he made a statement yesterday and faced questions but he did not say anything about the excuse that he puts forward this morning that emerged overnight. So who is right—the director of Test and Trace, who says it is a laboratory problem, or the Health Secretary, who says it is the public’s fault?

I, of course, sympathise with all those who are facing difficulties getting a test as fast as they want, but demand is at an unprecedented high, particularly because of demand among asymptomatic patients, but the right hon. and learned Gentleman should know that this country has done more tests— 17.6 million—than any other country in Europe. He likes international comparisons. That is thanks to the efforts of NHS Test and Trace, which is, in my view, doing an absolutely heroic job in spite of the difficulties that it faces. It has massively raised its output and it will be up to 500,000 tests a day by the end of October. This is an organisation that is working heroically to contain the spread of the disease, and it requires the public to trust the organisation and to participate. Yesterday, the right hon. and learned Gentleman said that it was on the verge of collapse. I think that those were ill-chosen words. I think he now regrets those words. I think he should reflect and he should take them back.

Hundreds of families have been trying to get a test in the last week, and they cannot get one. I do acknowledge the number of tests overall, but this is basic stuff. People who have got covid symptoms are very anxious about themselves, their children, their families and what to do. It means they cannot go to work and they cannot send their children to school. It matters, and if they cannot get tests the Prime Minister needs to take responsibility and not just tell us about the future or something else, but address this problem.

I want to take it further, because it is not just that people are being told to go hundreds of miles. Somebody contacted me yesterday and said: “My wife has a temperature and they said we needed to isolate and get a test done. I have been trying to book a test”. This is yesterday, Prime Minister. They continued: “the site says, ‘No capacity’. Then I tried for a home test kit and they are telling me that there are no kits available at present.” That was the situation yesterday. Yesterday, there were no tests available in London and it was the same the day before. Prime Minister, what is happening?

I note that the right hon. and learned Gentleman will not take back his criticism and his attack on NHS Test and Trace, and I regret that. I gave him the opportunity to withdraw his verdict that it was on the verge of collapse: it is not. It is doing a heroic job and testing hundreds of thousands of people. Yes, we will do more, and the world we want to move to as fast as possible is a world in which everybody can take enabling tests at the beginning of the day and antigen tests to identify whether or not we have the virus., like a pregnancy test, within 15 minutes or so, so that we know whether we are able to live our lives as normally as possible. That is the vision that the Health Secretary and others have been sketching out over the last few days and that is where we intend to get to.

In the meantime, NHS Test and Trace is doing a heroic job, and today I can tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman that most people get an in-person test result within 24 hours, and the median journey is under 10 miles if someone has to take a journey to get one.

We all want test, trace and isolate to succeed, and I have offered my support before. The Prime Minister is ignoring the problem: if people are being told to go hundreds of miles, something is wrong. This has got a lot worse in the past week or two—all Members of the House know that, because they have all had constituents telling them that. The Prime Minister talks about capacity. The latest Government figures were updated last night. They show that, on average, 75,000 tests are not being used every day. If 75,000 tests are not being used, why yesterday were people being told to go hundreds of miles for a test? Why yesterday were people being told that there is no capacity?

The issue at the moment is that there has been a massive increase in the number of people who need or want tests, particularly people who do not have symptoms. We need—I hope the right hon. and learned Gentleman agrees—to prioritise people such as NHS frontline staff and our care workers who urgently need those tests. As we massively increase the number of tests, it is those groups who are getting priority.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is wrong in what he says about the failure of NHS Test and Trace, so let me tell him that of those contacts who supply details, 80% are reached, and 320,000 people have been persuaded to self-isolate and stop the spread of the disease. That is the British people ignoring the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s attempt to undermine confidence in test and trace. They are ignoring his attempt to undermine confidence, and working together to get this disease defeated.

I am listening carefully to what the Prime Minister says, and what is undermining confidence is families being told to go hundreds of miles and they cannot get a test. That is undermining confidence. I just want this fixed. We do not need to have an argument. What is the problem? The Prime Minister should accept that there is a problem, tell us what the solution is, and we will all muck in, try to make it better, and tell our constituents.

I have been listening. Is the Prime Minister saying that too many people are coming forward for tests and that it is a capacity problem, or not? People are trying to do the right thing. They want to go back to work. We want children back in schools. The Prime Minister is encouraging that—quite right too—and we understand and support that. The Government side of the bargain was to deliver an effective test, trace and isolate scheme, but two weeks into September there is a glaring hole. Will the Prime Minister tell the House when he first knew about this particular problem of people having to go hundreds of miles, or that tests were not going to be available? It is in the last week that this issue has arisen. When did he first know that that was a problem?

It is obviously a function of the growing demand and growing public confidence in NHS Test and Trace that we have to supply more and more tests, and that is what we have been doing. I do not know whether you have been listening, Mr Speaker, but I have been trying to give the House the figures. Thanks to the heroic efforts of NHS Test and Trace, we have gone up from 2,000 tests a day in March to 320,000 a day today. That is thanks to the efforts of thousands of people, who are listening keenly to the words of the right hon. and learned Gentleman for some support, encouragement or belief in what they are trying to do. Thanks to them, on average, people have to travel less than 10 miles, and thanks to them, 80% of the contacts that they or a coronavirus patient identify are reached and told to self-isolate. That is what we are trying to do. It is hard work. It is a big job, and they are doing a fantastic job. I think that what they would like to hear is some praise, encouragement and support from the right hon. and learned Gentleman.

Why can we not just hear from the Prime Minister an honest answer? If he stood at the Dispatch Box and said, “I know something’s gone wrong in the last couple of weeks. We have been getting hundreds of examples of people being sent all over the place or being told there is no test. I have looked into it. I have worked out what the problem is and here is my plan”, people might be reassured. But, as ever, he pretends the problem is not there. The infection rate is rising. This is the very point at which we need a functioning testing regime. Far from the “world-beating” system we were promised, the Government cannot even get the basics right. The Government are lurching from crisis to crisis. They still lack even basic incompetence—[Interruption.] They lack competence. [Interruption.] Yes, Prime Minister, they lack competence, and that is what is holding Britain back. My final question is this: when is the problem with test, trace and isolate going to be fixed?

I think the right hon. and learned Gentleman was on the money when he said that this Government lacked incompetence. I just say to him that we are working flat out to address all the issues confronting us today, including trying to get the infection rate down, and we are getting on with taking the tough decisions and making the tough calls that will take this country forward.

When it came to saying schools were safe, the right hon. and learned Gentleman was silent because he did not want to offend his union bosses. When left-wing anarchists tried to destroy the freedom of the press, he was silent because for some reason he did not want to offend crusty left-wing anarchists. When it comes, by the way, to sticking up for our UK internal market and to delivering on the will of the British people—one of the most important issues facing us today—he is totally silent on the Bill that obsesses the rest of his Back Benchers. He is totally silent. A great ox once again has stood on his tongue. He has nothing at all to say about that subject today, because he does not want to offend the huge number of his Back Benchers who want to overturn the verdict of the people and take us back into the EU, which is of course what he wants to do himself.

This Government get on and take the tough decisions on behalf of the British people, delivering thousands of jobs through our kickstart scheme, delivering record-breaking investment in affordable housing with a £12 billion programme, and getting on with all our work, working with the British people and working with the right hon. and learned Gentleman—if he would only do so—to get coronavirus defeated and to take our country forward. We make the tough calls; all he does is sit on the sidelines and carp.

The work of the armed forces, especially 103 Battalion Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers in Northampton, in logistical support of the NHS, councils and volunteers during the lockdown was truly inspirational. Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking them and recognising the importance to the town of the Clare Street barracks now and into the future? (905744)

I thank my hon. Friend. I indeed recognise the importance of the Clare Street barracks. Indeed, I salute the work of the entire armed services in what they have done across the whole of our United Kingdom to help us fight coronavirus.

Shortly, the Government will publish their internal market proposals. I have seen them. They are nothing short of an attack on Scotland’s Parliament and an affront to the people of Scotland. As we have already heard, this legislation breaks international law, but it also breaks domestic law. The Prime Minister and his friends—a parcel o’ rogues—are creating a rogue state where the rule of law does not apply. Why does the Prime Minister think that he and his friends are above the law?

On the contrary, the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill is about protecting jobs, protecting growth and ensuring the fluidity and safety of our UK internal market and prosperity throughout the United Kingdom. It should be welcomed, I believe, in Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and throughout the whole country.

Of course, we saw the Prime Minister breaking the law last year with the Prorogation of Parliament. We have seen the behaviour of Dominic Cummings, and we know that the Government are prepared to break their international obligations. What the Prime Minister said is complete rubbish, and the Prime Minister knows it. His own White Paper was clear that state aid is going to be grabbed back from Scotland and handed to Westminster. If the Prime Minister will not listen to the Scottish Government, will he listen to the NFU Scotland president, who warned that the proposals “limit” the devolved Administrations? The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee warned that they will

“create new reservations in areas of devolved competence.”

The General Teaching Council for Scotland has warned that the proposals undermine devolved education functions. That, Mr Speaker, is the reality.

Scotland is speaking out, and I state that the Scottish Parliament will reject this attack on devolution, so the question is: will the Prime Minister break domestic law, disregard the settled will of the Scottish people, ignore the concerns of Scotland’s communities and press ahead with this Bill? The time for Scotland’s place as an independent, international, law-abiding nation is almost here. Our time has come.

The answer is that yes, indeed, we will press on with the Bill, because I believe that the right hon. Gentleman’s attacks on it are totally illogical. It actually represents a substantial transfer of powers and of sovereignty to Scotland, to Wales, to Northern—it is a massive devolutionary act. What it also does is—I believe this is common ground across the Dispatch Box—[Interruption.] It also ensures the integrity of the UK internal market. He speaks of a transfer of powers to the UK Government. On the contrary, what he would do is transfer powers back to Brussels not just over competition and state aid but, of course, over fisheries too. That is the policy of the Scottish nationalist party, and it would be a disaster for our country. [Interruption.]

Order. I am sure that the leader of the SNP would like to withdraw that last comment about being a liar. No hon. Member would do that. Please withdraw it.

Mr Speaker, it is on the face of the Bill that the Government of the UK are going to trample over devolution. That is not a lie.

Mr Blackford, you are a great Member of this House. You do the right things by this House, and I have accepted that you have withdrawn it.

Before being elected to represent Blyth Valley last year, I worked in mental health. Since October last year, there have been 120 suicides across the Northumbria police force area alone, and 24 deaths in Blyth. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will agree that one death is one death too many. Will he join me in supporting World Suicide Prevention Day tomorrow and in acknowledging the fantastic work by the mental health charity Mind, as well as by ENGAGE and Davy Orr at Unit Twenty in Blyth? (905745)

Every suicide is an absolute tragedy, and my hon. Friend is right to focus on that issue in the way that he does. I am proud that the Government are rolling out record investments in suicide prevention. I also pay tribute to the charitable sector—to Mind, ENGAGE and Davy Orr—for the fantastic work it does to make a difference at that crucial moment and to prevent suicide.

They herd them on to trains, they shave their heads, they abort their babies. A genocide of the Uyghur people by the Chinese Government is taking place before our eyes. It is easy to criticise the next world superpower, but harder to take action. What action will the Prime Minister take to stop the ethnic cleansing of the Uyghur people in Xinjiang? When will he lead the organisation of an international tribunal, because this time no country can say that it did not know? (905741)

The hon. Lady is entirely right to draw attention to the plight of the Uyghurs, as both I and the Foreign Secretary have done. We raise these concerns directly with the Chinese authorities and will continue to do so in the G20, the UN and every other context.

On Monday night, the BBC’s “Panorama” revealed what parents in Carshalton and Wallington have been telling me for months: that Lib Dem-run Sutton Council is failing our most vulnerable children. Given the shocking scenes we saw, does the Prime Minister agree that the council should hang its head in shame, meet with the parents and sack its failing arm’s- length company, and that the Lib Dem councillors who presided over this failure should resign? (905747)

I understand that the council concerned has acknowledged the failures and the improvements that are needed. For our part, we are reviewing the oversight of special educational needs schools and will be commissioning a new round of inspections by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission. I am happy to write to my hon. Friend further about that issue.

The Prime Minister is aware of the tragic case of Mercy Baguma, who three weeks ago was found dead in her Glasgow flat with her starving one-year-old son, Adriel, lying next to her. Thankfully, little Adriel has made a recovery, and he was running around my constituency office on Friday when his father Eric came to meet me. Adriel has been through more than any one-year-old should ever have to go through, and his future hangs in limbo while the Home Office prolongs his father’s asylum application. Will the Prime Minister agree to organise a meeting between me and the Home Secretary to look at Eric’s case and make sure that the family can go forward with certainty after such a difficult time? (905742)

I thank the hon. Gentleman, and I know that the whole House will join me in sending our deepest condolences to the family and friends of Mercy Baguma. We take very seriously the wellbeing of all who are in the asylum system, and I can assure him that the relevant Minister will take up that particular case with him.

The Prime Minister knows very well that I have an 11-year track record of opposing HS2, not least because of the environmental damage it is causing, and that I have expressed my support for peaceful environmental campaigns against this costly project. Regrettably, the actions of Extinction Rebellion, who have glued themselves to trains and now tried to interfere with the freedom of the press, have tarnished the reputation of peaceful environmental protesters. Will my right hon. Friend tell me what options he is considering to ensure that rather than offering encouragement to law breakers, such unacceptable behaviour and attacks on our democratic freedoms can be prevented from happening again, and that the integrity of peaceful campaigners is not impugned? (905748)

I draw a sharp distinction and contrast between the civilised approach of my right hon. Friend to environmental protest and that taken by those who tried in vain to frustrate the freedom of the press. I must say that I was struck by the silence of the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) when he had an opportunity to condemn it. To answer my right hon. Friend’s point directly, I do think it is important now, given the weight of the economic interests that were under threat and the threat to the freedom of the press, that we look at what we can do under public order and, indeed, under the law on nuisance. That is what we will do.

Yesterday, the Health Secretary said:“We have the largest testing system imaginable.”—[Official Report, 8 September 2020; Vol. 679, c. 527.]Yet in my constituency of Jarrow, which is one of the Government’s areas of concern, people are struggling to get a covid test. This is not criticism or an attack on our NHS, but it is months since the Prime Minister promised us all a world-leading test, track and trace system, so I ask him: where is it? (905743)

I have every sympathy with those who now want to get tests, and the demand is very acute, partly because so many people who do not have symptoms want a test. Our view is that the priority should be those who do have symptoms, and the groups that I mentioned earlier. We will do everything we can to address the issues in Jarrow and across the country. I remind the hon. Lady that NHS Test and Trace has so far conducted 17.6 million tests, which is more than any other European country, so she should take at least some pride in that.

While I am pleased that localised data has allowed local restrictions to be lifted in parts of my constituency—Mirfield, Kirkburton and Denby Dale—will the Prime Minister reassure the people of Dewsbury that if infection rates continue to reduce, Dewsbury will be lifted out of local restrictions sooner rather than later? (905749)

I thank my hon. Friend, and I thank the people of Dewsbury for their fortitude in doing what they have done and the local action that they are taking to defeat the virus. Of course, as soon as we see results in the case of a local lockdown, we do take that area out of lockdown. I have no doubt that the same will happen in Dewsbury and elsewhere.

There have been reports in the last few days that the Chancellor may scrap the planned increase in the national living wage on the grounds that it may be considered unaffordable. Can the Prime Minister rule that out once and for all, recognise that working people should not be made to pay for this crisis, and confirm that the national living wage will rise as planned to £9.21 an hour in April? (905746)

It was this Government who introduced the living wage, and I am proud that we have so far delivered a record increase in the living wage and supported families throughout the crisis, not just with the living wage but with a huge £160 billion package of support. This is a Government who put their arms around the people of the country and help them through tough times.

Burnley College was recently announced as the highest achieving college in the country, recognising its dedicated students, quality teaching staff and fantastic facilities, which include a centre for advanced engineering. As a result, the college has experienced strong year-on-year growth in admissions, but in order to ensure that our young people continue to have the skills they need for the future, it is vital that our further education colleges are invested in and keep up to date. That is why I have given my wholehearted support to Burnley College’s latest expansion plans, which include greater teaching on drone technology, robotics and clean engines. Will the Prime Minister join me in giving Burnley College backing from the Government, and will he join me in visiting the college in the future? (905750)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to champion Burnley College and the cutting edge education in the technologies of the future that this Government support. I welcome all the plans that Burnley College has for capital investment to develop its campus.

Liverpool in 1869 was the first council to build council housing to replace overcrowded slums. Progress over the years has often been obstructed by this Tory Government, most recently with the refusal to extend our most successful landlord licensing scheme and the introduction of permitted development rights, which bypass local control and are likely to create the slums of the future. Will the Prime Minister give a straight answer and commit to withdrawing these plans and returning control to local communities to prevent a return to the 1860s? (905753)

This Government have already built far more council homes, as far as I can remember, than Labour did in 13 years when they were last in office, and we will go on. You have just heard, Mr Speaker, about the huge £12 billion investment in affordable homes that are making this week, and we will deliver beautiful new homes across the country, building on brownfield sites in a way that is affordable and helps young people on to the housing ladder in the way that they need, either through affordable rent or through part-buy, part-rent schemes, which are immensely attractive. That is the way forward for our country.

King’s Lynn will benefit from the Government’s levelling-up agenda, with £25 million through the towns fund. Will my right hon. Friend encourage Ministers to look favourably at proposals for a school of nursing at the College of West Anglia, to help to kickstart local training and job opportunities for the people of west Norfolk?

My hon. Friend is an excellent champion for his area, and if he can just contain his impatience a little bit, he may hear something to his advantage and to the advantage of his constituency from his right hon. Friend and mine, the Communities Secretary.

The £150 million spent on faulty masks, the £120 million spent on contracts awarded to a Tory council and the staggering £1 billion-worth of contracts awarded without proper due diligence—where has the money gone, Prime Minister?

All I can tell the hon. Lady is that there has been a massive investment in PPE throughout this pandemic, and billions of items have been supplied. If she has a particular anxiety about some particular contract, I am more than happy to address that if she will take the trouble to write to me.

From growing our food and producing renewable energy to managing our environment and setting higher welfare standards, British farmers lead the world in so many ways. On Back British Farming Day, will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking the farmers in Havant and across the country for the contribution they make to our country, our national security and our prosperity? (905752)

As somebody who grew up on a farm many years ago, I am thrilled to support Back British Farming Day. It is thanks to those farmers that we have fantastic food on our plates every day, and also that we have an amazing opportunity to increase our agricultural exports around the world. That is why I am so much looking forward to that period, which comes at the end of this year, when we will be able to take advantage of the freedoms that Brexit brings, and I hope very much that Opposition Members will join the whole House in pushing through the valuable United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, which will help to support UK farming across the whole country and build a stronger agricultural industry for our whole country.

The Prime Minister may be aware that there are some Scottish nationalists who want Scotland to follow the example of Catalonia and have a wildcat independence referendum. I oppose that because it would be illegal. If the Prime Minister thinks it is acceptable for his Government to ignore international law, on what basis would he oppose it?

I have great respect for the right hon. Gentleman. Let me just say this, because the Leader of the Opposition in my view neglected to raise this important subject. My job is to uphold the integrity of the UK, but also to protect the Northern Irish peace process and the Good Friday agreement. To do that, we need a legal safety net to protect our country against extreme or irrational interpretations of the protocol that could lead to a border down the Irish sea in a way that I believe, and I think Members around the House believe, would be prejudicial to the interests of the Good Friday agreement and prejudicial to the interests of peace in our country. That has to be our priority.