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Commons Chamber

Volume 680: debated on Tuesday 15 September 2020

House of Commons

Tuesday 15 September 2020

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

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

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

Oral Answers to Questions

Treasury

The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—

Covid-19: Fiscal Support

We have provided unprecedented support worth more than £190 billion to protect public health, businesses and jobs, and the Government remain committed to supporting the economy throughout this crisis. In July, we published our plan for jobs, which announced further support for the economy, with initiatives such as eat out to help out, the £2 billion kickstart scheme and the £9 billion job retention bonus, all of which aim to support, create and protect jobs.

I hear what the Chancellor says, but emergency food parcels for children are up 107% this year and the Trussell Trust now expects to distribute 300,000 more than expected in the fourth quarter. Given that there is a hard Tory Brexit on the horizon and the end to the furlough scheme will certainly push more people into poverty, will the Chancellor do the right thing, adhere to his moral duty and make the £20-a-week increase to universal credit permanent?

Throughout this crisis we have endeavoured to make sure that the most vulnerable in our society get the help that they deserve, which is why results published in July showed that our interventions have meant that those on the lowest incomes have received the most support, through the temporary increase to universal credit, the hardship fund delivered through local councils and, indeed, increases to the local housing allowance to help people with their rental payments.

The events and conferences industry was the first to be affected by lockdown and will be the last to see demand return. Many freelancers, such as my constituent Karen Colvin, have not benefited from support in the same way as other workers. Does the Chancellor have anything new to offer to people such as her?

Many self-employed people have received the second of the self-employment income support grants—almost 3 million people have now received support through that scheme—but the hon. and learned Lady is right that the best way to provide support for people in that industry is slowly and safely to reopen those bits of our economy. My colleague the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Secretary of State is engaged with that industry to start piloting the return of business conferences and events. The situation remains under review.

My right hon. Friend has done a tremendous amount to support jobs in our country, but does he agree that many thousands, perhaps even hundreds of thousands, of jobs are going to be viable after covid is dealt with but will not make it unless they are provided with further targeted support after the end of October?

As ever, I am grateful for the advice from my right hon. Friend. He is right that businesses do need support, which is why many of the interventions that we have put in place—for example, the business rates holidays and, indeed, our support for the economy and jobs through initiatives such as our stamp duty cut to catalyse the housing market—last through to next year. I hope he will be reassured that throughout this crisis I have not hesitated to act in creative and effective ways to support jobs and employment, and I will continue to do so.

Many employees, self-employed people and freelancers in sectors such as hospitality, aviation, tourism, showpeople and the arts cannot go back to normal because of the public health measures brought in by the Chancellor’s Government, so will he examine the calls by the Treasury Committee to consider a targeted extension of support for those sectors? If not, why?

The hon. Lady mentions hospitality and tourism, which is an industry disproportionately represented in Scotland. That is why the Government took steps in the summer to support the industry, with a temporary VAT reduction from 20% to 5% and, indeed, the eat out to help out initiative, both of which were targeted at helping to protect the 2 million jobs and 200,000 businesses engaged in the industry.

That is woefully inadequate, as we head into the winter, for many of these industries that have already suffered with a low income. The Chancellor said that he would do “whatever it takes” and that

“if the situation changed”,

he

“would not hesitate to take further action.”

Those excluded from support schemes, the 700,000 made redundant since March and those losing their jobs because of the premature ending of the furlough scheme want to know whether the Chancellor will be true to that commitment or his words are worth nothing.

The hon. Lady claims that it was woefully inadequate; the VAT reduction was the single biggest ask from the UK hospitality industry. Not only was that delivered, but it was delivered with an extra initiative, eat out to help out, which proved to provide an enormous fillip to the reopening of that part of the economy. It is also worth bearing in mind that all the businesses engaged in that industry are not paying any business rates at all until March next year.

Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme

What estimate he has made of the level of financial support that has been provided to employees by businesses under the coronavirus job retention scheme. (906045)

As of 16 August, 9.6 million jobs have been protected by the coronavirus job retention scheme, helping 1.2 million businesses with a total value of £35.4 billion.

Thousands of jobs in my constituency of North West Durham have been protected by the Government over this period, but my constituents are aware that such levels of taxpayer support cannot go on indefinitely and also want to see new jobs being created. Will my right hon. Friend enlighten me as to how many jobs we are looking at getting through the kickstart scheme, which is now coming forward to help to get new jobs into the economy?

The £2 billion kickstart scheme has the potential to support more than 250,000 young people and, as my hon. Friend is well aware, it is part of a comprehensive package of £30 billion of support that my right hon. Friend set out as part of his plan for jobs in the summer economic update.

Despite countless warnings from these Benches, the Government are pulling away the job retention scheme just at the moment when infection rates are rising again right across our country. Businesses have said it, unions have said it, and even Tory Back Benchers are saying it: the one-size-fits-all withdrawal of wage support risks a jobs crisis this autumn. Will the Minister not listen and change course before it is too late?

The hon. Lady is simply wrong. What she ignores is the fact that my right hon. Friend has put in place a furlough bonus as support that goes beyond October to retain that link for employees to come back. That is part of a wider package of measures that goes alongside the furlough and stands comparison with the most generous in the world.

The Chief Secretary knows full well that the jobs retention bonus risks giving all the money to companies that simply do not need it. We would happily support the Government in developing a targeted, flexible wage support scheme for hard-hit sectors central to our country’s future. We have been saying this day in, day out for months now—the Government just have not been listening. Rather than stubbornly sticking to a decision made back in July, can he not accept that the situation has changed and that the Government must also change course?

There seems to be some confusion because, just last week in the debate that we had in this House, the shadow Chancellor actually recognised that the Chancellor had indeed listened with regard to the design of the furlough. In fact, they claimed credit for the role, which I salute, of the trade unions and others. So we have listened, but the reality is that the furlough pays a higher rate of people’s wages than the scheme in Spain. It supports a wider range of businesses than the one in New Zealand and the scheme runs for twice as long as that in Denmark. That shows the flexibility and the willingness to listen on the part of my right hon. Friend.

Covid-19: Employment

The Government have put in place a £190 billion plan to protect people’s jobs, incomes and businesses, one of the largest and most comprehensive economic responses in the world, and that includes the £30 billion made available under the plan for jobs.

The Eat Out to Help Out scheme has been a phenomenal success in my constituency of the Cities of London and Westminster. More than 890,000 meals have been discounted—several eaten by myself, I hasten to add. Will my right hon. Friend comment on the amazing package of help that the Government have given to the retail and hospitality sectors? Moving forward, what policies can we hope to expect to support these vital sectors, which are responsible for hundreds of thousands of jobs in my constituency?

My hon. Friend is right to recognise the effectiveness of that scheme in supporting demand. It was dismissed as a gimmick when my right hon. Friend the Chancellor launched it, but it has been warmly received by the hospitality industry. As she knows from her constituency and that of others, it is part of that wider package of support, including the cutting of the rate of VAT, which again has been a huge boost to that industry.

I thank the Treasury team for the support that they have provided so far. My experience during the summer was that there was a great deal of support from local businesses for the variety of schemes, particularly those in the hospitality and tourism sectors, which are very important in my constituency. Turning to the future though, we must make sure that we provide the job opportunities that we are going to need. In Gloucestershire, we had a lift-off event last Friday, organised by my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) and supported by all six Gloucestershire MPs, where we focused on skills and training and brought together a range of employers. That is the kind of thing that I would like my right hon. Friends in the Treasury to think about supporting. It is the future we need to focus on, not the past.

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for that event. I saw the read out and how positive it had been. He is right to focus on that forward piece, using the package of measures that my right hon. Friend set out. That includes, for example, the payment to employers for each new apprenticeship—up to £2,000 for those over 25—the £2 billion kickstart scheme, but also other schemes such as the tripling in the number of traineeships. Events such as the one he mentioned are ones that I am sure other Members will wish to follow.

Eat Out to Help Out Scheme

What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the eat out to help out scheme in supporting the hospitality industry. (906047)

What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the eat out to help out scheme in supporting the hospitality industry. (906054)

What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the eat out to help out scheme in supporting the hospitality industry. (906064)

What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the eat out to help out scheme in supporting the hospitality industry. (906066)

By 31 August, over 84,000 UK businesses had registered for the eat out to help out scheme and more than 100 million meals had been claimed for. By getting people back into the habit of enjoying a meal out, the scheme has helped to support nearly 2 million jobs in the hospitality sector and has played an important part in the Chancellor’s wider plan for jobs.

My right hon. Friend’s eat out to help out scheme was also hugely successful in Beaconsfield, where 88,000 discounted meals were enjoyed. I cannot say what percentage of those meals were enjoyed by me personally, but one can wager. What reassurances can my right hon. Friend provide to the House that he will continue to support the hospitality industry through reductions in VAT on food and attractions until next January?

I am delighted that the eat out to help out scheme has been so enthusiastically taken up in Beaconsfield, as it has been around the country, and I thank my hon. Friend for her personal service in this important area. She will know that the Chancellor’s plan for jobs and support for over 150,000 businesses and the effort to protect 2.4 million jobs are all part of a package. To them, of course, as she will know, the Government have also added a reduced rate of VAT for tourist attractions, which will run through to 12 January next year. It all fits together as part of a wider picture of support for these very important sectors of the economy.

In St Austell and Newquay, almost 250,000 meals were eaten—not all by me—as part of the eat out to help out scheme, which put around £1.3 million into our local economy, so on behalf of businesses in mid-Cornwall, I thank the Chancellor for his support. August has been incredibly busy in Cornwall, but the hospitality sector faces a big challenge as we head into winter. Will my right hon. Friend consider a similar scheme to be run in the winter to help as many businesses as possible survive the winter and be here next summer?

There is a danger of a bidding contest between colleagues over the number of meals eaten under the eat out to help out scheme. I would dissuade them from that. In answer to my hon. Friend’s question, however, I would say that there is this wider package. Of course the Treasury keeps all its measures under review, but it is a pretty formidable combination of VAT reductions, business rates relief and billions in tax deferrals and loans.

Given the great success of the eat out to help out scheme in Lincoln and Lincolnshire and across the country, which has led to higher spending in restaurants, will my right hon. Friend now consider further targeted support for struggling industries, such as the arts and tourism, which are drivers of the Lincoln and county economy of my constituency, not least the excellent Usher Gallery and under-pressure Drill Hall in Lincoln?

I am delighted that my hon. Friend has highlighted the great work of the Usher Gallery and the Drill Hall. As he will be aware, the Government have announced a £1.57 billion package of support for the culture sectors, which is designed to support, and will support, thousands of cultural and arts organisations across the country, including theatres, galleries, museums, heritage sites, live music venues and independent cinemas. I think that he will also know that, within that scheme, priority is given not just to organisations with a national or international reputation but to those that are central to the cultural fabric of our towns and regions. That is a very important further component.

Eat out to help out has been a massive lifeline for many pubs and restaurants in my Bridgend constituency. Some have told me that, because of it, they could remain afloat and keep people in work. What assessment has been made of the number of people and businesses in my constituency supported by the scheme?

I can tell my hon. Friend that 67 local businesses registered for the scheme and that it was used 53,000 times in Bridgend, which, while not like the heroic figures we have seen elsewhere, will have provided a very important boost to the local economy. I am sure that he will have had the experience that Members across the House will have had of walking into a café or restaurant and having the proprietor say, “Thank you so much. It has made a vital difference at a critical time of year for us.”

Covid-19: Business Support

The Government recognise the extreme disruption that the pandemic has caused businesses, which is why we have delivered a generous and comprehensive package of support, in line with best practices globally, totalling more than £190 billion. That has included grants, loans, the furlough scheme, the self-employment income support scheme, deferred VAT payments, business rate reliefs and protections for commercial tenants.

I thank the Minister for his answer. Will he and the Treasury consider reviewing the rules of the furlough scheme to deal with cases where some small businesses, particularly one in my constituency, missed out on that scheme through administrative error and, in effect, paid staff when that could have been done through the furlough? Will he discuss that with me separately to see whether we could review the rules to deal with that sort of administrative mistake?

Obviously, the scheme has helped 1.2 million employers, and that involves 9.6 million jobs. I am happy to engage with my hon. Friend on the specific example he raises. No appeal process is available for those who have made administrative errors, but if a mistake has been made by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, a complaints procedure can be followed. I will follow up on this with him personally.

This Government’s support for businesses throughout the pandemic has been wide-ranging and delivered at speed. Without the real-time information held by HMRC, it would have taken significantly longer for those grants to reach employers and many more jobs would have been lost. Digital tax administration not only helps HMRC, but cuts costs to businesses, so what is the Treasury doing to build on those successes and make the UK one of the most digitally advanced places in the world to run a business?

My hon. Friend is right; it is incumbent on the Government, in all Departments, to look at how we can refine the way we operate, to be more effective. That is why in July my right hon. Friend the Chancellor published a 10-year tax administration strategy, setting out our vision for a modern system, which will involve extending making tax digital to more taxpayers. That is a first step, and we hope it will bring us to a world-leading situation in this country.

I have been told by businesses in my constituency that the hospitality VAT cut was a lifeline to them and helped them to continue. Will my right hon. Friend consider extending that VAT cut beyond January next year, to help those businesses with that recovery?

Clearly, every intervention has a cost, and that measure provided support for 150,000 businesses, protecting 2.4 million jobs. As we approach future fiscal events, all contributions and businesses cases for changes will be looked at carefully by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. I am sure that he has heard my hon. Friend’s representations today.

Covid-19: High Street Businesses

What fiscal steps he is taking to support retail and high street businesses affected by the covid-19 outbreak. (906050)

As the House will be aware, in recognition of the extreme disruption caused by the pandemic, the Government have delivered one of the most generous and most comprehensive packages of support around the world. That response is so far totalling close to £200 billion. In addition to affordable Government-backed loan finance, the job retention scheme and deferred VAT, retail businesses have also received specific support, including a 12-month business rates holiday for all eligible retail businesses in England and retail, hospitality and leisure grants worth £10,000 or £25,000.

Since being elected, I have raised on many occasions the issue of the economic and social loss that online trading is having on our towns, cities and high streets, and the pandemic has accelerated that problem. Surely, must not the Government now start to consider a VAT-style online sales tax?

As my hon. Friend will be aware, many offline businesses are also extremely effective online businesses; as Adam Smith almost said, we are a nation of virtual shopkeepers. As my hon. Friend will be aware, the Government are committed to a fundamental review of business rates. We published a call for evidence in July and invited views on reform and on potential alternative taxes, including an online sales tax. Our intention is carefully to consider the merits and risks of introducing such a tax, and I encourage all Members, including my hon. Friend, to contribute their views.

While a number of wealthier inner-city areas have received over £100 million each in rate relief and small business grants, many constituencies in the midlands and the north have been left behind, with some receiving barely a fifth of that support or even less—Dudley North, Rother Valley, Blyth Valley, Don Valley, Penistone and Stocksbridge, Wolverhampton North East, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Redcar, Sedgefield; I could go on. Is that what the Government meant by levelling up?

As the Chancellor has already highlighted, the Government’s intention has been to support vulnerable people, vulnerable businesses and vulnerable families across the country. As he has also pointed out, the evidence appears to be that we have been very successful, with the most targeted support being most heavily felt at the lower end of the income spectrum. If numbers in the aggregate do not please the hon. Gentleman, let me simply tell him the reaction of one chief executive of a retail business in this country, who said to me that without the furlough scheme, that company alone would have laid off 30,000 people. With the furlough scheme, it has been able to continue and recover.

Coronavirus Job Support Schemes

What assessment he has made of the potential effect on levels of unemployment of withdrawing the (a) coronavirus job retention and (b) self-employment income support schemes. (906051)

What steps his Department is taking to support self-employed people affected by the covid-19 outbreak. (906065)

What assessment he has made of the financial effect of the covid-19 outbreak on people who were not eligible for either the coronavirus job retention scheme or the self-employment income support scheme; and if he will make a statement. (906067)

What steps his Department is taking to support self-employed people affected by the covid-19 outbreak. (906069)

What assessment he has made of the financial effect of the covid-19 outbreak on people who were not eligible for either the coronavirus job retention scheme or the self-employment income support scheme; and if he will make a statement. (906071)

What assessment he has made of the financial effect of the covid-19 outbreak on people who were not eligible for either the coronavirus job retention scheme or the self-employment income support scheme; and if he will make a statement. (906080)

The Government have put in place a broad set of policies to support businesses and individuals through this crisis. The coronavirus job retention scheme and self-employment income support scheme have supported more than 9 million and 2.7 million jobs and people respectively. As the economy reopens, we must adjust our support to ensure that people continue to get back to work, protecting the UK economy and people’s livelihoods.

The Institute for Employment Studies is now predicting 450,000 redundancies over the three months to September and a further 200,000 by the end of the year—more than double the levels seen in the 2008-09 recession. Many of those whose jobs are at risk work in the creative industries, performing arts and hospitality, which would be thriving without coronavirus. Why is the Chancellor persisting with a cliff-edge approach, which will inflict the hardship and misery of unemployment on so many people, instead of taking a flexible approach to furlough to save good jobs for the long term?

The furlough scheme, as it is currently constructed, is flexible. It was a key demand from business groups and unions, which we responded to. As the economy is slowly reopening over the late summer and autumn, the furlough scheme has adapted to that, allowing businesses to bring back their employees in a flexible fashion, and that is exactly what they are currently doing.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the introduction of the self-employment income support scheme in particular, but does he recognise that it cannot continue indefinitely? Does he also agree that the self-employed are some of the most innovative individuals in our economy, and it is time to release their innovation to kick-start us?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Now that we have begun to reopen the economy, it is right that our support becomes differentiated and the focus shifts to getting people back to work. It is not possible to sustain this level of intervention. I fully agree with him: those who are entrepreneurial and self-employed deserve our support, and they will continue to get it as we drive our recovery out of this crisis.

Hundreds of thousands of people across the country, including many in my constituency, have not been able to get support during this pandemic. The Government have repeatedly said that it is too difficult to get support to people who are not on the coronavirus job retention scheme or the self-employment income support scheme. The Government have had six months to put something in place, so will the Chancellor outline to the House what barriers exist now to getting support to the people who have so far been excluded?

As I have said from this Dispatch Box, we have not been able to help absolutely everyone in the exact way that they would have liked, but that does not mean that support is not available. Through considerable increases to universal credit and local housing allowance, we have provided support to the most vulnerable. Through measures such as mortgage holidays, which one in six mortgage customers have taken up in the past few months, we have ensured that everyone, one way or another, can access some degree of Government support.

Over £33 million of bounce back loans have been granted to businesses in Darlington, but many businesses in my constituency bank with new start-up, online and challenger banks and have faced some issues with accessing bounce back loans. What steps is the Treasury taking to assist with access to bounce back loans for those who need them?

My hon. Friend raises an important point, and we recognise the vital role that alternative lenders can play in providing finance to SMEs. We continue to work with them and the sector to see what more we can do. As he recognises, the bounce back loan scheme has proved enormously successful, and so far we have accredited 28 bounce back lenders, who have provided loans to more than 1 million businesses. In the first instance, I urge businesses in my hon. Friend’s constituency to look online at one of those 28 lenders, and see whether they can provide the loans that that business requires.

The Chancellor, and all of us whose salaries have been paid throughout the pandemic, may find it difficult to grasp the deep sense of unfairness felt by those who, through no fault of their own, are entirely excluded from any support. Perhaps they followed their entrepreneurial dream and left a good job to start their own business, as encouraged to do by this Government, but did not file their tax returns in time. Perhaps they have an event business that has been left to fend for itself without any events. There are thousands of such people in my constituency alone. How can the Chancellor expect the country to come together to fight the virus when so many have been excluded from all support?

I respectfully disagree with the hon. Lady. Most people in the country recognise that the Government have provided unprecedented support at this difficult time to millions of people, as well as to hundreds of thousands, if not millions of businesses. Although people may not have been able to get support in the exact way they would have wanted, across the spectrum, whether through the welfare system and local authorities, or through banks and the provision of credit, we have ensured that some form of support is available to the vast majority of the British public.

It is now been six months during which 3 million self-employed people have been excluded and locked out of the coronavirus support schemes, and it is no coincidence that this week the Trussell Trust announced an unprecedented need for support. Nearly half of those people are first-time users, and if the forecasts are right, the situation will only get worse, with six emergency food parcels being delivered every minute as we get to winter. I implore the Chancellor to tell hon. Members what he will do to support those who are excluded, so that this disaster does not turn into a catastrophe for families around the country.

The hon. Lady is slightly confused. On one hand she speaks about people who were not eligible for the self-employment scheme, but those who were excluded earned more than £50,000 and were in the top 5% of all earners, with an average median salary of £200,000. In the same question she speaks about targeting support to those who cannot afford food. She should figure out which issue she cares about.

When the circumstances change, policies should adapt. Infection rates are growing, local restrictions are becoming more common, and this morning’s figures show levels of unemployment at a two-year high, and rising, particularly among the young. France and Germany have extended their employment support for a further year. Is it time to reconsider the jobs cliff edge that is approaching at the end of next month, and at least to extend employment support to those sectors that cannot yet go back to work, and areas hit by local lockdowns, so that businesses and workers are not punished for doing the right thing?

The right hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the increase in cases, which is why the Government have taken steps to ensure that we remain in control in suppressing the virus. He talks about local lockdowns, and he will have seen the announcement last week about extra business rates support for businesses that find themselves in those areas, with a payment of up to £1,500 per three weeks of lockdown. He mentioned other countries. He is right about Germany and its scheme, but it is worth bearing in mind that Germany has had such a scheme, in co-operation with businesses and through its social security system, for more than a decade.

As you might expect, Mr Speaker, the Public Accounts Committee is already beginning the reckoning of costs, and there is a cost to the Exchequer from all those people who were self-employed, or employed on short-term contracts, and who received no support. Ultimately, the state still has to support those people, and no tax comes in from them. Will the Chancellor go back to the drawing board and consider the long-term issue of the cost to our country of not supporting people who have a good track record with HMRC and who could be supported? They have lived on fresh air for all these months.

I hear what the hon. Lady says and will certainly reflect on it. I refer her to my response to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) about the importance of a digital taxation system, which I know the hon. Lady’s Committee will have an interest in. As throughout this crisis, our ability to respond in the way that we would want to is often limited by the information that we hold. My right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury has put out a 10-year tax administration strategy that will ensure that our tax system collects in real time the information we need about people and businesses up and down this country, so that, should something like this happen again, the Government can respond in the way that they would want to, as quickly as possible.

Online Sales Tax

The Chancellor has regular discussions on a range of topics with Cabinet colleagues. As the right hon. Gentleman will know, the Government are committed to a fundamental review of the business rates system in England and have launched a call for evidence inviting views on reform. That review will also consider the merits and the risks of introducing an online sales tax.

Online shopping offers a range of choice and opportunities for many of my constituents and other people throughout the highlands and islands that they simply cannot get from local shops, but it often comes with the whammy of delivery charges that make the purchase itself look small, or a refusal to deliver at all. An online sales tax could be an opportunity to give a small tax break to those making online sales who deliver as a universal service with a single price across the whole country. Will the Minister consider that along with his other considerations?

I am very grateful for the suggestion. Now that the right hon. Gentleman has placed it on the public record, I will ask my officials to look more closely at it and to engage with him on it. He will know that we have already introduced, in a quite different context, a digital services tax. We are open to these potential ideas. We will be looking very carefully at this area. Intelligent and well thought through feedback is always of great interest to us.

Export Costs: Northern Ireland to Great Britain

What discussions officials from (a) his Department and (b) HMRC have had with businesses in Northern Ireland on potential additional costs for exporting goods to Great Britain from Northern Ireland under the withdrawal agreement. (906055)

The Government have been actively engaging with businesses and fully committed to providing them with the information and support needed to prepare for the end of the transition period in Northern Ireland. As was set out in the Command Paper, the Government’s position is that there should be no additional process, paperwork or restrictions on Northern Ireland goods arriving in the rest of the UK.

While I welcome the provisions of the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill debated yesterday, they do not cover the issue that the EU is demanding that goods coming into Northern Ireland have tariffs imposed on them until it is proven that they have not left Northern Ireland and gone into the EU. This is damaging to business, because it requires additional paperwork, will affect cash flow, and will put up costs. Given that the Government are committed to keeping Northern Ireland in the UK customs union, that the Act of Union says that there should be no tariffs on trade between countries within the United Kingdom, and that 75% of goods do not leave Northern Ireland once they enter anyhow, will the Minister give a commitment to ensuring in the Finance Bill that the EU demand for those tariffs to be collected will be removed so that Northern Ireland businesses are not disadvantaged?

As the right hon. Gentleman will know, these topics are currently very live matters of discussion between this country and the EU, and I am not going to comment on that. However, we are, as a Government, very engaged with this issue across a number of different Departments, and we will be looking to support the principles and positions set out in the protocol as we go forward.

Energy-Efficient Homes: Support

The Government recognise the importance of energy efficiency in achieving our climate change objectives and tackling fuel poverty. That is why in July my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced over £2 billion of new funding to upgrade homes through the green homes grant scheme. In addition, we have a range of policies in place to support home energy efficiency improvements.

What assessment has my hon. Friend made of the benefits of this ambitious £2 billion scheme for home insulation, and when will my constituents be able to access it to make those improvements to their homes?

From the end of September, homeowners and landlords across England, including in my hon. Friend’s constituency, will be able to apply for vouchers to fund at least two thirds of the cost of upgrading the energy performance of their homes. In additional, Greater Manchester Combined Authority has the opportunity to bid for part of the £500 million being made available to local authorities to help low-income households directly.

Official Development Assistance

Whether he is responsible for the allocation of official development assistance to Government Departments other than the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. (906057)

Yes, Her Majesty’s Treasury is responsible for the allocation of ODA across all Government Departments. The comprehensive spending review will determine all ODA budgets.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer, but how can we ensure that all money spent qualifies for ODA categorisation and is particularly focused on relieving poverty?

I know my hon. Friend takes a close and expert interest in this issue, not least through her work on the relevant Select Committee. Individual Departments are responsible for ensuring that all money spent as ODA meets the criteria of the OECD Development Assistance Committee, and that it is spent through the powers of the International Development Act 2002, which requires funding likely to contribute to a reduction in poverty.

Low-income Families

The Government are committed to all groups in society, including the most vulnerable, facing the challenges caused by covid-19. That is why we have put in place an unprecedented package of support, including the job retention scheme, the self-employed income support scheme and a package of welfare measures that the Office for Budget Responsibility estimates to be worth in excess of £9 billion.

The commitment of this Government to ensuring that the most vulnerable in our society are protected through this crisis cannot be questioned. The scale of the intervention has been remarkable, but may I encourage the Chancellor and the Treasury team, as they begin making their plans for next year’s spending, to bear in mind the importance of the increase in universal credit that we made at the beginning of the pandemic, and to ensure that we keep it in place, because many more families will be relying on it in the months ahead?

My right hon. Friend is a passionate champion of this issue. He will have seen from the answer given earlier by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor that the distribution analysis at the time of the summer update illustrated that the measures taken by the Chancellor had protected the poorest households the most as a proportion of income. I know that he will have listened closely to my right hon. Friend’s representations.

Local Authority Funding

What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government on the adequacy of funding for local authorities during the covid-19 outbreak. (906060)

Analysis undertaken by 10 Greater Manchester councils and combined authorities shows that the impact of coronavirus and the actions taken to manage the pandemic will be in the region of £732 million by the end of 2021. The Government have promised to level up the country, and it is time to make good on that promise, so will the Minister give Greater Manchester and its councils the resources they need to lead the recovery and build back better?

The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the importance of levelling up across the United Kingdom. It is a key objective of this Government. That is why we are backing councils with the resources they need to meet the challenges caused by coronavirus. That includes more than £3.7 billion of grant funding so far, to address many of the pressures that they face.

Social Care Workforce Special Payment Scheme

What assessment he has made of the implications for his policies of the Welsh Government’s social care workforce special payment scheme. (906068)

Spending on devolved matters is a matter for the Welsh Government. The UK Government do not set the levels of pay for care workers in England, but we are focused on ensuring that the social care system is funded, so that providers pay a fair wage.

Can the Minister tell my constituents who are care workers why, when they have worked their hearts out and been given a £500 thank you by the Welsh Labour Government, this Government see fit to deduct money from them, leaving those on universal credit with around £125? That is just mean-spirited.

The hon. Lady should point out to those same workers that this Government have allocated an unprecedented £4 billion of guaranteed funding to the Welsh Government to enable them to allocate funding under what is a devolved matter. If she is drawing attention to the fact that there is a shortfall in what she feels should be going to care workers in her constituency, she needs to address why more of that £4 billion is not being allocated to care workers in what is a devolved issue.

Manufacturers: Support

What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on sectoral support for manufacturers during the covid-19 outbreak. (906073)

The manufacturing sector has a key role to play in the Government’s ambitious agenda to build back better, which is why last week I met representatives of the UK’s major manufacturing trade associations to hear their views directly. To support the sector, we continue to provide extensive support for research and development as part of our commitment to increase it, economy-wide, to 2.4% of GDP by 2027.

Many of the communities that voted for Conservative MPs for the first time in the recent election rely on our key manufacturing sectors such as aerospace and automotive for jobs. Given that the Government were prepared to create a £3 billion demand stimulus for the housing market, which was not as adversely affected by the pandemic, why will they not do a lot more to protect those jobs and communities with a demand stimulus for aerospace and automotive, which is desperately needed?

The Government are acutely aware of the demands required across various sectors. The hon. Lady mentions the aerospace and automotive sectors, which the Government are supporting with over £8.5 billion through the covid corporate financing facility, grants for research and development, loans and export guarantees expected over the next 18 months. There is also further support in place for the automotive industry through the Budget, in which the Government committed over £1 billion to promote the uptake of ultra-low emissions vehicles, including up to £500 billion to support the roll-out of a superfast charging network. Those amounts will help those various sectors.

Topical Questions

This Government’s comprehensive and generous package of support in response to the coronavirus has protected millions of livelihoods and supported hundreds of thousands of businesses up and down the country. Our plan for jobs announced in July will protect, create and support jobs, notably through our recently launched kickstart scheme, as we look to get the UK economy back on its feet.

Scottish Government analysis has revealed that ending the transition period in 2020 could cut £3 billion from the Scottish economy over the next two years—on top of the impact of coronavirus. With the UK Internal Market Bill making the risk of a no-deal Brexit even greater, what reassurances can the Chancellor give to my constituents and the people of Scotland that there will be no real-term spending cuts that will inflict even greater damage on our economy?

The Government and I remain committed to getting a deal and will continue to engage constructively with our European partners in pursuit of that aim. With regard to funding for Scotland, I can tell the hon. Lady that the Scottish Government have received £6.5 billion in advance of it being called for, so that they can provide the support required to their residents.

Innovation has been at the heart of the story of the Black Country for over 150 years—and nowhere is this more true than in companies such as Thomas Dudley in Tipton in my constituency and Stephens Plastic Mouldings in Oldbury. Given that these are the types of businesses that will help us as we come out of the pandemic, what work is my right hon. Friend doing with manufacturers and exporters in the Black Country, and with local stakeholders such as the West Midlands Combined Authority and West Midlands Mayor Andy Street, to show that they have the support they need to thrive and survive post pandemic? (906105)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Manufacturing and exports, especially from the west midlands and the Black Country, will play a key part in driving our recovery. I am pleased to tell him that the Exchequer Secretary is shortly meeting with the Mayor, Andy Street. That comes on top of our plans to provide £1 billion to develop the UK supply chain for electric automotive vehicles over the next five years, and £850 million of allocations from the local growth fund for his region.

The Chancellor will be aware of concerns that the UK risks a slower recovery than comparable economies for self-inflicted reasons. Despite the devastating impact on jobs, the Treasury Front Benchers have yet again today—six times—rejected targeted wage support. Economists are concerned about this Government’s inability to get a grip on the public health crisis, which evidence from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies suggests stems in part from a failure to adequately support people who have to self-isolate. Rumour has it that the Chancellor is blocking attempts to improve sick pay, so I put it to him: can he put himself in the shoes of those low-paid workers who often have to choose between paying their rent and bills, and putting food on the table for their kids? If these workers are advised to self-isolate, they get £95.85 a week—and that is if they are even eligible for statutory sick pay. Surely the Chancellor must agree with the Secretary of State for Health that statutory sick pay is not enough to live on.

From the beginning of this pandemic, we have made changes to the operation of statutory sick pay and our welfare system to ensure that those who are isolating in any circumstance receive support from day one, and that we improve flexibility, particularly for the self-employed, through the removal of the minimum income floor. As the hon. Lady knows, we are also trialling incentive payments in local lockdown areas.

I did not ask the Chancellor about the precise details of delivery and I did not ask about the scope; I asked him about the value of statutory sick pay. He needs to get a grip on this issue. If he fails to do so—and the blockage appears to be his responsibility—then we will see additional localised re-impositions of lockdown, with all the implications that has for jobs and businesses. Please, Chancellor, get a grip on this issue.

There are two other reasons why economists are worried about the UK’s recovery. First, of course, there is concern about our future as a trading nation. Both of the Chancellor’s predecessors warn that the threat to override the withdrawal agreement could damage our country’s reputation and prosperity. Why do those former Chancellors appear to be more concerned about our country’s economic prospects than the current one? The second reason for concern stems from the prospect of premature spending cuts or tax rises. According to the Financial Times, it is politics that could drive the Chancellor towards early tax rises, so will he rule them out for the rest of this year?

The hon. Lady talks about our place as a trading nation. She may have missed the news last week that this country has concluded an enhanced free trade agreement with Japan. I pay enormous tribute to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Trade for concluding a deal that will be better for British businesses, particularly in the areas of the economy we do so well on such as digital and services. It will protect more of our great agricultural produce, open up more markets for our businesses to sell to and reduce prices for British shoppers. That is what the future of global Britain looks like.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his support for local businesses in Beaconsfield and across the UK. What provision or safety net is he creating for local businesses that may be affected by lockdowns across the country? (906107)

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point and I thank her for it. She will know that some of the interventions we have already put in place last through into next year, for example the removal of the need to pay business rates for businesses in hospitality, which has been particularly affected. She may be reassured to know that we recently introduced the new business support grant for businesses forced to close as a result of local lockdown, where the Joint Biosecurity Centre gold command has instituted that measure, and those grant payments will be available up to £1,500 per few weekly cycles.

The aviation industry is on its knees: airports are deserted, planes are grounded and travellers are frustrated. In large part, the plight of the industry is due to the inconsistent, illogical and contradictory policies being followed by the Government to attack coronavirus. Will the Chancellor consider what actions he can take to support this vital industry, which we depend on for our connectivity, by either reducing or suspending air passenger duty, or through targeted job support? (906109)

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to highlight the importance of the aerospace industry to our economy. It is, in common with aerospace industries across the globe, suffering a deep depression in demand for all the obvious reasons. He can rest assured that we engage regularly with the companies in that sector. In particular, to support their future success, we are investing heavily in R&D alongside those companies to make sure we remain on the cutting edge of advanced manufacturing capability.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the benefits of the Government’s tax-free childcare scheme, which gives eligible families a 20% contribution to the cost of childcare and works alongside the 30 hours funded childcare that is available to working families, cannot be overstated as the economy reopens to my constituents and across the UK? (906108)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the importance of good childcare and he is right to highlight that the Government support people with 20% of their childcare costs up to a cap of £2,000 through tax-free childcare. I can also tell him that, in recognition of the importance of this issue, we made some adjustments to how tax-free childcare operated during the pandemic, so that if someone’s income fell below the minimum income requirement as a result of what was happening they would continue to receive financial support up until the end of October.

At the end of August in my constituency, there were 2,000 more people unemployed than there were in March. The number of 18 to 24-year-old claimants has almost doubled. If history teaches us anything, it is that young people and those living in deprived areas will be more adversely affected by any downturn in the economy. What special measures is the Chancellor considering putting in place for young people in areas like mine, which are the most deprived? (906113)

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to highlight the disproportionate economic impact that this crisis will have on young people. I have spoken about that from the Dispatch Box before, and he is right that we should focus our attention on them. That is why, in our plan for jobs, we outlined the kickstart scheme, which will initially make available fully-funded Government job placements for a quarter of a million young people at risk of long-term unemployment. I am confident that many young people in his constituency, like all of ours, can benefit from that scheme, and I urge him to work with his local businesses to get them signed up to the scheme and take on a young kickstarter.

I recently had the pleasure of visiting Smart Display, a great Calder Valley business in the events and exhibitions sector, which supports over 28 employees. While it praises the sterling work done by my right hon. Friend to support businesses through furlough, CBILS—the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme—and rate relief, many businesses in its sector were among the first to close and will be the last to reopen, with many exhibitions not planned until next year. Can my right hon. Friend take this into serious consideration during the Budget process to see what additional measures he could take to support these businesses, which are the hardest hit financially by the pandemic? (906110)

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the particular impact on that sector. It is something we are engaging on closely with it, and I am very happy to continue to have dialogue with my hon. Friend on the issue.

Tackling the covid crisis relies on us all doing the right thing, but for many that is just an impossible choice financially, as we heard from the shadow Chancellor. The lowest-paid workers who self-isolate must do so on statutory sick pay of £190 in total for two weeks. Can the Chancellor even begin to imagine how impossible it is to bring up a family for a fortnight on about the same amount as the cost of his £180 high-tech coffee cup? (906116)

I think my right hon. Friend addressed this in his reply to the shadow Chancellor. The key issue is to look at the package of measures the Government are putting in place. First and foremost among those is retaining people’s link to employment. That is the most important issue. Alongside that, the measures on welfare, including support for businesses that are in lockdown, are part of the comprehensive response, and statutory sick pay is one of a suite of measures.

Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that the best way to stimulate our economy is through measures that create jobs and help people back into work? (906111)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is the underlying principle behind furlough—to enable the labour market to bounce back, with jobs in businesses that were viable before the pandemic being able to recover quickly. It is also part of the three-phase strategy that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has set out. The second phase is to concentrate on skills to create jobs, protect jobs and support jobs, and to enable those workers to come back into the economy and for the economy therefore to recover quicker.

The Government will be aware of the significance of the sale of Cambridge-based ARM to American chip maker Nvidia. Will the Government intervene both to secure the headquartering and jobs in Cambridge, but perhaps more significantly, to get an exemption from the American CFIUS—Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States—rules, which give the American Government such leverage? Why on earth would we want to throw away such a bargaining chip in advance of trade negotiations? (906125)

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise ARM, which is obviously a key employer in his constituency. The Government are taking a very close interest in this transaction. It was pleasing to see yesterday that parties close to the transaction said that the headquarters would remain in Cambridge. It is a matter we are engaging very closely on, and I am very happy to engage with him personally on any questions arising from that.

Bounce back loans have been vital to many businesses in Crewe and Nantwich. Although they appreciate the help they have had from the scheme, some have been left waiting too long to access the support. For example, Axis Boats in my constituency waited eight weeks. Until it approached me and we worked together on it, it was not able to get the finance. Will my hon. Friend agree to meet me to discuss examples such as this and to ensure that banks are fully playing their part in getting people access to this support? (906112)

My hon. Friend is right to raise this point, which he has raised before. In his constituency, 1,400 businesses have benefited from the bounce back loans from 28 providers across the country, but I am happy to engage with him in relation to the number of cases he has dealt with and see what interventions can be made at this time.

The likes of Amazon, Facebook and Google have seen their profits soar during the pandemic. Using accounting tricks, these companies avoid paying their fair share of tax, which is how Amazon UK’s pre-tax profits have risen by 35%, while its tax bill rose by less than 3%. Will the Chancellor promise to keep the digital services tax and promise that it will be billionaires and the multi- national corporations who will pay for coronavirus spending, not workers and small businesses who have been hit so hard? (906130)

It is right that companies pay the tax that they owe the Exchequer so that we can fund the public services that all our constituents rely on. That is why this Government instituted the digital services tax for online companies, which came into force this year. We remain committed to that tax, although we work with our partners around the world to replace our unilateral one with a multilateral solution through the OECD that will properly tackle this issue once and for all.

Businesses in Rugby and Bulkington have told me universally how they welcome the measures that the Government have introduced for their speed and their breadth, but they know that the coming months will be difficult for trading and there are tough times ahead. Which of the Government’s measures, given limited resources, does the Minister think are the most appropriate to support businesses over the next few months? (906114)

The Government have a range of schemes that have been supporting businesses throughout the pandemic, as my colleagues have mentioned time and time again. If my hon. Friend has specific requests from the businesses in his constituency, I am very happy to discuss those with him so that we can work out the best way to continue to spur economic recovery.

Does the Minister recognise that while the proposed changes to small breweries tax relief may well benefit members of the Small Brewers Duty Reform Coalition, they will work against the interests of fledgling micro-breweries, such as Attic Brew in my constituency? Will the Minister look again at the impact of the changes on those small, but job-creating businesses? (906131)

We have been looking at this relief for several years now, and the changes that we have made are going to benefit the vast majority of brewers. The smallest brewers will be exempt from most of the changes, and those brewers who have been unable to grow will now be able to do so. We had a long consultation and quite a few brewery groups have been very supportive of this change. We will have further announcements to come after the next technical consultation on this relief.

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

Sitting suspended.

Coronavirus

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care to update the House on his response to coronavirus.

Coronavirus exists only to spread, and yesterday the World Health Organisation once again announced a record number of cases globally. France and Spain have both reported daily figures of over 10,000 positive cases and increasing hospitalisations. Here in the UK, we saw around 2,600 new cases yesterday, and last week medical advisers advised that R is above 1. The epidemic is growing.

There are signs that the number of cases in care homes and the number of hospitalisations is starting to rise again, so last week we acted quickly, putting in place new measures—the rule of six, which came into force yesterday. We do not do this lightly, but the cost of doing nothing is much greater.

Testing also has a vital part to play. Everyone in this House knows that we are doing more testing per head of population than almost any other major nation, and I can tell the House that we have now carried out over 20 million tests for coronavirus in this country. As we expand capacity further, we are working round the clock to make sure that everyone who needs a test can get a test. The vast majority of people who use our testing service get a test that is close to home, and the average distance travelled to a test site is now just 5.8 miles —down from 6.4 miles last week; but the whole House knows that there are operational challenges, and we are working hard to fix them.

We have seen a sharp rise in people coming forward for a test, including those who are not eligible. Throughout this pandemic, we have prioritised testing according to need. Over the summer when demand was low, we were able to meet all requirements for testing, whether priorities or not, but as demand has risen we are having to prioritise once again. I do not shirk from decisions about prioritisation. They are not always comfortable, but they are important. The top priority is, and always has been, acute clinical care. The next priority is social care, where we are now sending over 100,000 tests a day, because we have all seen the risks this virus poses in care homes. We will set out in full an updated prioritisation, and I do not rule out further steps to ensure our tests are used according to those priorities. It is a choice that we must make.

Finally, to defeat this virus in the long term needs effective vaccines and treatments. I am delighted to say that over the weekend the trial of the Oxford vaccine restarted, and I can tell the House that we will now be trialling a promising new antibody treatment on coronavirus patients in the UK. The challenges are serious. We must work to overcome them, optimistic in the face even of these huge challenges, and to keep this deadly virus under control.

I am grateful for advance sight of the Secretary of State’s answer. That was decent of him.

Yesterday LBC revealed that there were no tests available in covid hotspots, including Rochdale, Pendle and Bradford. Over the weekend in Bolton, where infections are the highest in the country, a mobile testing centre failed to turn up. Meanwhile, in Bury hundreds queued for five hours for a test. In Walsall, a father with his sick child travelled 76 miles to an appointment in Wales, only to find on arrival that tests had run out. Increasing numbers of teachers and pupils are not in school. In hospitals, operations are cancelled while NHS staff are stuck in limbo, waiting for tests.

The Secretary of State blames increased demand, but when tracing consistently fails to reach 80% of contacts, when less than 20% of those with symptoms self-isolate properly and there is a lack of financial security, infections rise. When schools reopen and people return to workplaces and social distancing becomes harder, infections rise. Extra demand on the system was inevitable. Why did he not use the summer to significantly expand NHS lab capacity and fix contact tracing?

Just as demand is increasing, the ability to process tests is diminishing. Post-graduate students working in the Lighthouse labs are returning to university, so why did the Secretary of State not plan for the inevitable staff shortages in the Lighthouse labs? Those commercial pillar 2 labs, The Sunday Times revealed at the weekend, have a huge backlog of 185,000 tests. Thursday’s data revealed that 65,709 test results were not returned by the end of the week. Care home residents now wait an average of 83 hours for their result. The Prime Minister promised us a 24-hour turnaround for results, so what is going on? What is the current backlog and what is the timeframe for clearing it?

We were promised a world-beating system, so why are we sending tests to Germany and Italy for processing? But, most importantly, people want to know when they will get a test and when this mess will be fixed. Today there will be thousands of ill people trying to book a test, only to be told none is available. When will people be able to book a test online again, or has the online booking system been deliberately disabled? When will ill people no longer have to travel hundreds of miles for a test that should be available on their doorstep? When will pupils and teachers out of school get access to testing, so they can get back to school? When will NHS staff have access to regular testing, so they can focus on their patients and not be sitting at home?

We are at a perilous moment. Imperial College estimates the virus is doubling every seven to eight days. We all want to avoid further restrictions or another national lockdown, but when testing and contact tracing break down, the growth of the virus cannot be tracked. The Prime Minister promised us whack-a-mole, but instead his mallet is broken. The Secretary of State is losing control of the virus; he needs to fix testing now.

Well, the good news, in responding to that, is that capacity for testing is at a record high. The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of testing in the top 10 local authorities—well, I have got the figures here. Yesterday, we processed 9,278 tests just in pillar 2—so outside of the NHS testing capacity—in just those top 10 local authority areas. Just yesterday, we processed 1,428 tests in his own local authority area.

The good news is that capacity is at record levels and that a record number of people are able to get tests. I do not deny that it is an enormous challenge. When a service is free, it is inevitable that demand will rise. The challenge is to make sure that we prioritise the tests that we have as a nation for those who most need them, as I set out in my answer.

The hon. Gentleman asks about the backlog, which is actually falling and is less than one day’s processing capacity. He also asked about our being able to have testing capacity so that we can re-enable the economy and get things going. As he well knows, there is a huge effort to expand—using the next generation of technologies —the tests that we need to deliver to reopen parts of the economy, and we will deliver on that.

We will deliver on the challenges of today. I do not deny those challenges, but I face the facts in order to deliver on those challenges, rather than simply complaining. The hon. Gentleman should welcome the record capacity and the contact tracing, which are playing their part in responding to the virus.

A week ago today, the Secretary of State told the Health and Social Care Committee that he expected to have this problem solved in two weeks. Since then, in my constituency, two Farnham residents have been sent to Bristol for their tests, a councillor has been sent to the Isle of Wight for her test and a teacher who tested positive had to wait a week for her results. Is the Secretary of State, given the efforts that his Department is making, still confident that in a week’s time we will have this problem solved?

I think that we will be able to solve this problem in a matter of weeks. In his constituency yesterday, 194 people got their tests. We are managing to deliver record capacity, but as he well knows, demand is also high, and the response to that is to make sure we have prioritisation, so that the people who most need them can get the tests that they need.

With covid cases doubling every week, it is clear that laboratory capacity for diagnostic testing is not keeping pace with demand, leading to testing slots being cut. For example, only 70 new covid cases were reported in Scotland yesterday, yet 267 were reported today, many from tests carried out over the weekend. With a reported backlog of 185,000 tests, is the Secretary of State not concerned that results will not be received quickly enough to allow timely contact tracing, and that the delay in data means that new outbreaks will not be identified until they are out of control? Last week, the Secretary of State appeared to accept that additional NHS funding could allow hospital laboratories across the UK to rapidly increase their testing capacity, so can he confirm whether he plans such an approach, and on what timescale?

Yes, I think it is important that we expand the NHS labs, and that we work across the whole of the UK to get the testing capacity needed. For instance, in Scotland, when there was a surge in demand for tests last month, we diverted more of the UK’s capacity to support people in Scotland, and we currently deliver more tests per head of population in Scotland than in the UK as a whole. In the tone of the hon. Lady’s question, it is absolutely necessary to work together, across party lines, between the Scottish devolved Government and the UK Government, to make sure that we get the support to the people of Scotland as to every other part of this country.

May I ask the Secretary of State about the rule of six? Many of my constituents struggle to understand why they can play five-a-side football but two connected families of five each cannot meet. Will the Secretary of State look at flexibility when local rates permit, and also at excluding under-12s from the rule? Christmas is just around the corner. I know he has to think of the health of the nation, but I really urge some flexibility on the part of the Government.

Of course, I do worry first and foremost about the health of the nation, and we need a rule that is super-simple. Children do transmit this virus, and we have made the decision to keep the rule as simple as possible considering all those risks. I understand where my hon. Friend is coming from. We take a different approach in different areas according to the extent of cases locally, and that is an important tool in our armoury.

Like many other Members, I have been inundated with emails from doctors, teachers and parents unable to access the tests that they desperately need. Several of them have been advised that if they put an Aberdeen postcode into the system, they can get a test in Twickenham—and they have succeeded. How on earth is a world-beating test and trace system functioning like this, and what is the Secretary of State doing to fix it? In the meantime, does he recommend that I tell constituents who desperately need a test to game the system in that way?

No; in fact, it is incumbent on us all to take a responsible approach and tell our constituents that tests are available in large numbers, that the average distance travelled is 5.8 miles and that people should take this seriously and not game the system.

I am grateful to the Government for all that they are doing to fight covid-19 and keep the population safe. May I ask my right hon. Friend if there is a formal trigger for easing the rule of six and measures like it?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, and it comes to the point that was previously made about Christmas. Of course, we will keep the rule of six in place only for as long as is absolutely necessary for health reasons. The vaccines and treatments that I spoke about and the mass testing regime are all important in trying to find a way through this virus with a minimal impact on the economy, education and people’s social lives. There is not a formal rate at which we will make that review; we keep everything under control, and I have no doubt that we will constantly debate the matter in this House in order to ensure that we come to the right decision.

The Secretary of State is in danger of believing the global figures without looking at the reality on the ground. In my borough, which has been working hard with the Government to keep an outbreak down, we have two walk-in test centres, which have been advertised as such to reach the digitally divided and make sure that people can get tests quickly. Over the weekend, staff from Deloitte—a private company running this public service—told people that they could no longer walk in. That was not communicated to the local authority, so the service was still being advertised as walk-in, and more than 90 people were turned away from one test centre alone. This is a fiasco of the Government’s making, and the Secretary of State could intervene now to make sure that, at the very least, there is communication. I hope he will release the correspondence between Deloitte and the Department of Health and Social Care so that we can see exactly what has happened.

I will happily look at that individual case. Of course, there are many hundreds of tests being done in the hon. Lady’s constituency, as well as across London. I can look at the individual point and make sure that communications occur as necessary.

We have heard case after case of failure when it comes to testing. I have heard from parents, teachers and a vicar in Luton North all saying that there are no walk-in tests, no drive-through tests and no home kits available when they need them. The Secretary of State talks about capacity, but what we need is access to testing. Capacity is nothing without access to testing. When can people with symptoms expect to be able to get tests when and where they need them?

The vast majority of people do. In Luton yesterday, 484 people got tests. I agree with the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) that we should follow the data.

I congratulate the Government on their efforts to increase testing capacity and on working with local authorities to do so. As a result of the soaring number of covid cases in Manchester, however, some people are still unable to get the testing they need. We know that children are back in schools now and that schools are natural incubators of colds and tummy bugs, which mimic some of the covid symptoms. As the flu season gets going, will the Government look at the guidance they are giving to schools and people about how to access those tests?

Yes, absolutely; of course I will do that. We have put significantly more testing into Stockport and my hon. Friend’s constituency: 720 tests just yesterday. One reason for that is the higher rate in Greater Manchester. She makes an important point about ensuring the capacity so that tests can be there when someone has the symptoms of coronavirus, but it is also incumbent on schools to send pupils for testing only when they have the symptoms of coronavirus, to make sure we can prioritise the testing for the symptomatic people who really need it.

I am enormously grateful to the Secretary of State and the Minister for the help he provided over the weekend with Vaughan Gething, trying to get the mobile testing centre in Porth, which has now moved to Clydach, fully functioning in the Rhondda, not least because we have a very high number of infections at the moment and are trying to work out what the specifics look like in terms of a potential lockdown.

Today, however, the best part of 60 people turned up for a test, having made an appointment in Abercynon, only to be told there were no test kits but that there might be some available that afternoon so to try again later that day. Still people are being told to go to Aberdeen. I do not know if it is just the alphabet—people think that Aberdeen is near Abercynon—but it is a very long way away. I also gently say to the Secretary of State: I know he knows there is a problem here, but trying to rebut every argument with, “Honestly, we’ve got more people doing more stuff and people need to get with the programme”, and all of that, just does not wash with the public. There is a danger, if he does too much of that, that people will simply say, “We can’t trust you any more”.

The hon. Gentleman is right: we spoke over the weekend and worked hard to get those mobile testing units into the Rhondda, where there is a significant outbreak. It showed the effectiveness of people working together to deliver solutions. I do absolutely acknowledge the challenge, but I also urge everybody to ensure the message gets through to people in the Rhondda and across the country that tests are available. I use these figures to demonstrate that hundreds of people in every constituency are getting tests. I want people across the country to know that we understand there are challenges and are working incredibly hard to fix them but that tests are available.

My disabled constituent Ian Kenny has been trying to get a home test since 8 September. He cannot drive so he cannot get to a test centre. He has symptoms but has been told there are no home tests available. Until he can prove he does not have covid, he cannot access the hydrotherapy he needs or go back to work. What reassurance can my right hon. Friend give Dr Kenny that he will be able to get a test? He speaks today of prioritisation and difficult choices, but disabled people living in their own homes must be a priority and must not be forgotten.

Absolutely, and I will of course be happy to look into the case in detail. Such cases, where there is a clinical need, should be at the top of the prioritisation. We have set out the prioritisation and will continue to update it to make sure it matches the latest science. My right hon. Friend has made her point and I will make sure the matter is looked into.

The Secretary of State is certainly a very busy person. Will he outline what steps have been taken, in co-operation with the Department for Education, to see that school bubbles that have a positive case are returned to school as a matter of urgency? The reason I bring this to his attention is simply that if one child in a household has a classmate with covid-19, and they are tested and are proven not to have it, they are sent home with their mother, but other children in the same households go to different classes in the school. It seems a bit absurd, does it not?

If somebody tests negative in a school environment, as in the example the hon. Gentleman gives, the school can of course carry on as normal because there is no sign of covid. I will double check that the guidelines around exactly that circumstance are clear and will speak to the Department for Education.

To what extent is there a possibility that it is the exponential increase in testing itself, in identifying genuine new cases, and the very significant possibility of false positives, that is giving a distorted impression of the trajectory of the disease?

I like my right hon. Friend very much and wish that that were true. The reason why the Office for National Statistics does the surveillance testing is to ensure that we are constantly looking, on a national representative sample, at what the case rate is, as well as, of course, using the tests, and as we increase the testing numbers, we will inevitably find more of the cases that are there. The ONS survey published on Friday shows a rise in the numbers commensurate with the rise in the numbers of tests that have come back positive, and that does take into account the point about false positives, which is an important one.

Work is under way to set up a walk-through testing centre at Glasgow Caledonian University in my constituency, but with universities now returning, what additional capacity is being put in place to deal with what could be an additional surge of tests that need to be processed?

We are working with universities to try to ensure that testing is available as appropriate. Of course, that has to follow the wider prioritisation, but it is very important that universities right across the UK are ready for the return of students, including with testing, where that is appropriate, and we are working on that right now.

My constituents are sharing the same experiences as those of my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt), so I encourage my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to do everything he can on testing capacity.

May I ask him about the rule of six? If someone is lucky—or unlucky—enough to have four very young children, under the rules they are not allowed to meet another household at all. I do hope that the Government will keep the rules under careful review and look at every possible way to make them as fair as possible for every family.

I understand my right hon. Friend’s point. We do understand the impact of the rules that we have to put in place. It is the same around the world: the rules that need to be put in place to deal with a pandemic are not pleasant ones or ones that anybody would want to have in force, but unfortunately they are necessary to save lives. Sadly, we are seeing the consequences, including in some of our closest neighbours, of what happens if we do not take the action that is needed.

Although I am sure that many ordinary people were thrilled to learn that the Government’s rule of six does not apply to so-called sports such as grouse shooting, for which up to 29 people can mingle, expectant mothers in my constituency and throughout the country are unable to take their partners to crucial checks during pregnancy. Currently, individual health trusts are left to make decisions on this issue, leading to a postcode lottery. Is it not time that the Government stopped passing the buck, as they did to school leaders, and instead provided national leadership across the country on matters as vital as maternity care?

I have a huge amount of sympathy with the case that the hon. Lady makes. In fact, last week we changed the guidance on this issue to allow partners to go with pregnant women to these sorts of tests and, of course, to the whole of the birth. The Minister for Patient Safety, Mental Health and Suicide Prevention, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Ms Dorries), is responsible for this issue and leading on it, and we have made some significant progress in the past week. I commend the campaigners who are pushing so hard to make sure that each hospital follows the new guidance so that people can have a loving partner with them during these very special moments.

On the rule of six, I completely agree with my right hon. Friend about the importance of clarity and simplicity. Early on in the pandemic, we saw some of the problems that arise when different rules kick in in different parts of the United Kingdom. On that point, is there not a strong case for having one simple, understandable rule of six that applies right across the country and has high levels of public support? To that end, I encourage my right hon. Friend to keep an open mind about the rule of six that is in place in Wales and Scotland and the exemption of small children.

I absolutely keep an open mind on all these things. We are constantly looking at the evidence and data, and updating policy accordingly. We have made the decision on the basis that I explained. Of course, I understand the other point of view, but the cause of simplicity and clarity of explanation won the day.

My constituent in Barnsley has been trying for seven days to get a test for her teenage son after he was sent home from school with a temperature. She has been offered a test in Bolton, Edgbaston and Oldham, and nearly 400 miles away, in Inverness. When will the Secretary of State stop denying that there is a problem, apologise to my constituent and sort out access to testing, once and for all?

I ask the hon. Lady to get in contact with me about that individual case; 686 people in Barnsley got tests yesterday, and I am sure we can ensure that her constituent gets that test.

As demand for testing increases, some of my constituents are struggling to get slots, are having to travel significant distances or are even being turned away from mobile test centres. So will my right hon. Friend confirm whether the Government’s plans to increase capacity are aiming for 10 million tests a day or the 2 million to 3 million that Sir John Bell talked about this morning? As part of that welcome boost, will my right hon. Friend look carefully at my request for a public testing site in King’s Lynn?

I will absolutely look at my hon. Friend’s request on King’s Lynn. Thankfully, after an outbreak a couple of weeks ago, the number of positive test results in Norfolk has come right down. I commend the work of Norfolk County Council, my hon. Friend and colleagues from across Norfolk, who have done so much to ensure that the public messages get through. On the “moonshot”, we do not have and have not had any plans for 10 million tests a day, but we do have a goal to get to the millions of tests a day when we can. That is dependent on new technology, so that is what we need to drive forward. It is vital for this country, for the resolution of exactly the problems we are talking about today, and then for expanding testing availability more widely that we really embrace those new technologies.

Yesterday, I was contacted by an NHS nurse who had spent the weekend unsuccessfully trying to get a test for her symptomatic seven-year-old. On Friday, I visited the new Brinnington test centre in my constituency. It was very quiet, yet it seems to have been unable to offer a test to a nurse, who, it seems, will now need to take time off work. Is that what world-beating looks like? What is going on?

Again, I am happy to try to solve the individual issue for the nurse, not least because the figures that I read out for Stockport do not include the NHS capacity, which is there for NHS staff in order to resolve exactly the sort of issue that the hon. Gentleman talks about.

Cancer Research UK estimates that the screening backlog because of covid-19 might mean that as many as 3 million people are waiting. Will the Secretary of State update us on the work he is doing to ensure that all areas of the NHS are able to carry out screening programmes and on the work he is doing to reassure people that it is safe to attend these screening tests?

That is an incredibly important subject, as we need to make sure we get the screening available. It ties into the questions on testing, because prioritising testing for those about to have NHS procedures, be they diagnostic, such as screening, or an operation of some sort, is so important, for instance, in making sure that we tackle the backlog in cancer cases that inevitably built up. We are tackling that backlog and it is down by about half. I am happy to work with my hon. Friend and all others in this House to make sure that people get the early diagnosis of cancer that can so often be lifesaving.

The Secretary of State will be aware of a recent survey which found that one third of children feel more anxious, sad and stressed now than before lockdown. The charity Action for Children has therefore asked the Government to prioritise children’s mental health in covid-19 recovery planning and provide adequate funding to meet this demand. Could he tell the House exactly what he has done about that and when we can expect him to announce a covid recovery mental health strategy?

This is an incredibly important subject, and I commend the hon. Lady for raising it and for her work on it, along with many Members across the House. We are putting more funding into mental health, and paediatric mental health in particular, to ensure that we tackle the inevitable consequences of the pandemic.

“Hands, face, space” has been the public safety message for weeks now. However, I feel that the public are not as safe as they could be. What thought has my right hon. Friend given to ensuring that face masks and hand sanitiser offer the fullest protection by regulating for the need to meet set safety criteria, whether that be the British Standards Institution standard or the World Health Organisation formula for hand sanitiser, so that we are all as safe as possible using these mitigating factors?

We do have a standard for clinical masks, but for the widespread use of face coverings, we do not set a standard, because the evidence is that for the general public, using a face covering can make a big difference without drawing on the supply of clinical masks for personal protective equipment. Standards are set by the European Union that define what can be put into a hand sanitiser, but I am happy to work with my hon. Friend on the details if that needs to be strengthened.

A world-beating app that is nowhere to be seen, the national R rate rocketing and local testing all but impossible—in Ealing, we would be lucky to get offered a test in Aberdeen—all bode ill for the start of the educational year. With press reports swirling around that there are hundreds of school outbreaks already, can the Secretary of State tell us exactly how many of those there are? Can he up the number of testing kits that schools are supplied with from 10 a piece? As universities go back, which means that people will be moving around bits of the country with different infection rates, can he ensure that everyone on campus gets a test, whether they have symptoms or not? We cannot let education be the next care homes crisis.

The hon. Lady raises important points. It is important to note that in Ealing, 462 people got a test yesterday, so tests are widely available in Ealing. The other issue she raises about ensuring that schools and universities have access to testing is important within the prioritisation. As she knows, we have sent tests to every school for use in exceptional circumstances when they need them. It is very important that those tests are used when people are symptomatic, rather than asymptomatic.

Last week, a mobile covid testing centre was set up in Ashfield, which helped hundreds of my constituents to get a test, but over the weekend, several constituents said that they struggled to book online due to the demand. Will my right hon. Friend advise the people of Ashfield what more can be done to ensure that everyone in my constituency who needs a test gets a test?

We have put the extra capacity into Ashfield that my hon. Friend talks about, and I am delighted that the number of people in Ashfield who are getting a test has therefore increased. We have to get to a position where everybody who needs a test can get a test, ensuring that we follow the prioritisation. I look forward to working with him to fix the problem in Ashfield and across the country.

In Warrington we have seen spiking numbers, with over 200 confirmed cases in the most recent weekly figures. Our rate is now the sixth highest in England, and we have real issues with demand for testing far outstripping local capacity. Can the Secretary of State outline what additional support he will give to Warrington Borough Council to increase our testing capacity, so that we do not have to go back into lockdown like our Greater Manchester neighbours?

Yes, absolutely. The hon. Lady is right to raise the concerns in Warrington about the increase in the number of people testing positive. I am happy to work with her, Warrington Borough Council and my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter) to ensure that we get the best possible response, including putting in that extra testing.

Traditionally, the start of the autumn term is the peak for returning schoolchildren showing signs of colds and sniffles. I am now increasingly getting reports from my constituency of young children being turned away or returned from nurseries and primary schools if they display any cold symptoms. I am afraid that I have to tell the Secretary of State that testing is not at a record high in my constituency, because of capacity being moved up north and to hotspots, despite Worthing now being on the watch list because of a single outbreak of 23 people not abiding by the regulations. I heard yesterday from a constituent who had been referred from the Sussex coast all the way to Aberdeen. Can he not forget those very young children and the huge impact that they can have on families and schools if testing is not properly available for them?

Yes, of course. It is so important in Worthing, as it is across the rest of the country, that we prioritise the testing that we have. My hon. Friend is quite right that, when schools go back, children often do get a cold, a non-coronavirus illness—a normal illness if you like. Obviously, that is contributing to the increase in demand, as well as people who are not eligible coming forward. That is one reason why we have been building capacity throughout the summer, and I look forward to working with him to make sure that we solve the problems in Worthing.

Greater Manchester is a covid hotspot. The nearest testing centres to me are: Hyde, one and a half miles; Ashton, three miles; Brinnington, three miles; Belle Vue, four miles; Etihad Campus, five miles; Oldham, nine miles; and Manchester Airport, 11 miles. They might be testing there, but local people cannot get slots. Instead, too many of my constituents have been allocated: Telford, a 152-mile round trip; Llandudno, 174 miles; Leicester, 216 miles; Glasgow, 450 miles; and Aberdeen, a 716-mile round trip. My constituents do not want to become superspreaders, so why is this world-beating system going so spectacularly wrong for them?

As the hon. Gentleman outlined in his question, we have put an enormous amount of testing into Manchester. There is availability in Manchester because there is a prioritisation on testing. Because it is such an outbreak area, we have put in a huge quantity of tests. As I have said repeatedly, there are operational challenges, but thousands of people are being tested in Manchester every day, to get a grip of the outbreak there.

My right hon. Friend has my sympathy and support as he discharges his duties. He is well aware of the position across the west midlands and, in particular, in the royal town of Sutton Coldfield, where we do have testing difficulties. I am very concerned to hear today that Ley Hill Surgery has no fewer than four GPs who are having to self-isolate and cannot get a test. May I make two points to him? First, I join with those who want an exemption for informal childcare, so that parents in certain circumstances can still go to work. Secondly, I ask him to look at a system whereby all Members of Parliament get access to regular infection rate details both by local government wards and by postcodes?

I am very grateful for my right hon. Friend’s support. I am working very closely with him and with the other Birmingham MPs, because there is a serious challenge in Birmingham and in other parts of the west midlands. On the point about getting the data down to a ward level, I will absolutely ensure that he gets that data. We look at it down to a lower super-output area level, and we publish that data weekly. I will ensure that it gets to him and that we get the full details of exactly how many cases there are in each part of Birmingham. I recognise that, while Sutton Coldfield is in the Birmingham local authority, it has a distinct geography within that area. As he knows, both from our discussions and from how we have acted in other parts of the country, we will take action on a sub-local authority area where that is supported by the data. Unfortunately, for now, we do have that local action in Sutton Coldfield, but we keep it constantly under review.

Has the Secretary of State seen today’s analysis revealing the terrifying scale of the backlog in cancer treatment and diagnostics? It is now clear that it would take the system operating at 135% capacity for six whole months just to catch up with where we were in March. Until then, the tragic reality is that people in my constituency and around the country will be unnecessarily losing their lives. I beg him to urgently meet the clinician-led Catch Up With Cancer campaign so that we can give him the solutions to boost cancer services and save tens of thousands of lives.

I am very happy to meet the campaign. Of course I have seen the reports. I feel very strongly about this. We have worked very hard to get through the backlog, and we are making progress against that backlog. Nevertheless, I am happy to look at anything we can do to speed that up, so I look forward to listening to the details of what we can do.

As my right hon. Friend knows, sporting venues are suffering financially because of the restrictions, and it does not help when planned pilot events are cancelled at the last minute. Who takes the decisions on whether to allow pilot events to carry on—is it done centrally, locally or a combination of both? There is a feeling that there is some confusion.