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Volume 680: debated on Wednesday 16 September 2020

Today marks 400 years since the sailing of the Mayflower, a reminder to us of the beginning of an enduring alliance between our two nations. Around 35 million Americans today trace their ancestry to a Mayflower passenger, and I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in marking this historic anniversary.

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

On National Teaching Assistants Day, will the Prime Minister join me in thanking teachers, teaching assistants and all support staff for the extraordinary work they are undertaking to bring our children back to schools, colleges and nurseries in covid-secure environments throughout Bury, Ramsbottom and Tottington, and will he update the House on the implementation of the national tutoring programme, as many of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children in my seat need this help at the earliest opportunity?

I strongly echo my hon. Friend’s congratulations and thanks to teachers, and just say that I believe passionately in the tutoring programme we are launching. We expect the first group of tutors to be supporting schools from November, with provision ramping up through the remainder of the autumn and spring term.

Many people in the Chamber will think that the battle of Britain is today, but actually we marked the 80th anniversary of those veterans yesterday, and I want to put on record our thanks to all those who fought for our country in the past.

Let me start by reading to the Prime Minister a message that I have received from a man called Keir. Keir was not able to go to work today and his children could not go to school because his family had to wait for their coronavirus test results, despite the Prime Minister’s promise of results within 24 hours. Keir was able to do the right thing and self-isolate and work from home, but other people are not in this position, and many of them are the very people who were getting us through this crisis, such as the care workers, whom I used to work alongside before I was elected to this House. The Prime Minister once earned £2,300 an hour; can he tell us the average hourly rate of a care worker in this country?

I congratulate the hon. Lady on her elevation. She speaks of the constituent Keir, and I can tell her that—allegedly, apparently—he has had a negative test, and I do not know quite why he is not here. But 89% of those who have in-person tests get them the next day, and we are working very fast to turn around all the test requests that we get. I think that most people looking at the record of this country in delivering tests across the nation will see that that compares extremely well with any other European country. We have conducted more testing than any other European country, and that is why we are able to deliver tests and results in 80% of cases where we know the contacts.

The hon. Lady asks about care homes, and I can tell the House that today we are launching the winter care home action plan. She is right to raise the issue of care homes, and we are concerned about infection rates in care homes, but we will do everything we can to ensure that care homes and their workers are protected.

On the hon. Lady’s final point, I am proud that it is this Government who have instituted the national living wage to ensure that every worker in this country, including care home workers, is paid substantially more, thanks to the care and the work of the people of this country.

Ah, he’s finished. The whole country will have seen that the Prime Minister does not know how much a care worker earns—that was my question. The shameful fact is that the average wage in social care is barely more than £8 an hour and half our social care workers earn less than the real living wage. On his first day in office, the Prime Minister said that

“we will fix the crisis in social care once and for all with a clear plan we have prepared.”

Yet still there is no sign of the plan, and the additional funding to prevent infection will run out at the end of this month. So will the Prime Minister commit today to give our social care sector the funding that it needs now to get through the looming winter crisis?

The hon. Lady is asking an important question, and we are concerned about the rates of infection in care homes. Clearly, they have come down massively since we instituted the £600 million care home action plan. Tomorrow, we will be announcing a further winter care home action plan. It will not surprise her to know that we want to see a toughening up of the rules governing the movement of workers from one care home to another. We want to make sure that we protect care homes from further infections, and that is the right thing to do. I pay tribute to all the care home workers in this country for what they have done to help us bring down the disease. We will make sure, as we have done over the past few months, that they get the personal protective equipment that they need, that they get the guidance that they need and that they get the cash that they need, and that is what this Government are committed to doing.

I do welcome the Prime Minister’s comments, but I must say to him, get some skates on it. Those care workers are still not getting the PPE they need. They are still not getting the testing they need. I urge the Prime Minister to get on top of this problem now before the winter crisis hits.

The Prime Minister has put his faith in Operation Moonshot, but, meanwhile, on planet Earth, there were no NHS tests available for several high-infection areas, including Tameside and Oldham in my own constituency. In July, the Government promised that there would be weekly tests in care homes, and they promised this for September, so can the Prime Minister confirm—yes or no—do all care homes in this country have weekly tests?

Yes, to the best of my knowledge, care homes in this country should get weekly tests for all staff members and tests every 28 days for the residents in the care homes. Of course the hon. Lady is right to express the frustration of people across this country about the massive demand there is now for tests—it has hugely increased. Everybody can see just in the past few days a colossal spike in the number of people who want tests and who want to ascertain whether they have coronavirus. What we are trying to do now is meet that demand at record speed. Just in the past couple of weeks, we have increased the capacity of our testing systems by 10%. We have four new labs that we are building in Newport, Newcastle, Charnwood and Brants Bridge. Just so she knows the scale of the ambition, we want to get up to 500,000 tests per day by the end of October. As I have said, that is a huge, huge number. I really do pay tribute to all those who are delivering it. I know that Opposition Members like to make these international comparisons, so I will just repeat that we are testing more than any other European country.

Well, Mr Speaker, I heard what the Prime Minister had to say, but I have to say to him that, yesterday, the chief executive of Care England said,

“We were promised weekly testing for staff. That has not been delivered.” Time and again, the Prime Minister makes promises and then breaks those promises. In June, he told this House that

“I can undertake…now to get all tests turned around in 24 hours by the end of June.”—[Official Report, 3 June 2020; Vol. 676, c. 839.]

The Government have had six months to get this right and yet the Prime Minister still cannot deliver on his promises. The Health Secretary said yesterday that it would take weeks to sort the situation out. Well, we do not have weeks. The Government’s latest figures show that there was an average of 62,000 people tested per day, not 500,000. The Prime Minister has said that testing capacity is at 300,000, but the average is 62,000 a day. How does he explain this?

We have delivered on, as I say, the most thoroughgoing testing regime anywhere in Europe. We now have capacity; I think capacity has gone up from—sorry, the number of tests per day conducted, not capacity, has gone up from 210,000 last week to 240,000 this week. Just to repeat the statistics: per thousand people, this country is testing 2.54, Germany 1.88, Spain 1.91 and France 1.89. In other words, we are delivering exactly what we said we would do. What is happening is that the British people, quite understandably, are responding to that system with a huge, huge surge in demand, so it is very important that everybody follows the guidance about when they should be getting a test—the guidance sent out by Public Health England, which has been sent to schools, and from NHS Test and Trace.

Once again, I see that the Prime Minister says that it is somebody else’s fault—it is the public who are using up the tests. These were the Government’s own figures and their own targets that they failed on. The next time a man with covid symptoms drives from London to Durham, it will probably be for the nearest covid test.

I want to move on to another very serious issue. Alongside the tragic stories we have heard of relatives dying alone in care homes and people not being able to say goodbye to their loved ones, we have heard from mothers who have had to give birth without the support of their partners or their families. The Health Secretary said yesterday that the new guidance had been issued, but even under that new guidance, many birth partners will not be allowed to join until the moment of established labour, leaving women enduring difficult labours or, even worse, traumatic and devastating miscarriages alone without support. Will the Prime Minister agree to meet me and my hon. Friends and work with us to ensure that no woman is forced to give birth without the support that she needs?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise the issue, and I know that Members across the House will share her feelings entirely. I totally agree that birth partners should be able to attend the birth. That is why we changed the guidance in the way that we did. Of course, I am very happy to encourage co-operation between her and my right hon. Friends in the Health Department to take the matter forward. I perfectly understand the point that she makes, and she is entirely right.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s comments; I think that was a yes, but I will follow it up. Thank you for those comments.

Infections are rising. The testing system is collapsing. When you are the Prime Minister, you cannot keep trying to blame other people for your own incompetence. We have the highest death toll in Europe, and we are on course for one of the worst recessions in the developed world. This winter, we are staring down the barrel of a second wave, with no plan for the looming crisis. People cannot say goodbye to their loved ones. Grandparents cannot see their grandchildren. Frontline staff cannot get the tests that they need. And what was the top priority for the covid war Cabinet this weekend? Restoring grouse shooting.

I suppose that is good news for people like the Prime Minister’s friend who paid for a luxury Christmas getaway to a Caribbean island and funded his leadership campaign, and just so happens to own two grouse moor estates. So Prime Minister, is this really your top priority?

While the Labour Opposition have been consistently carping from the sidelines throughout this crisis and raising, frankly, issues that are tangential, if not scare stories about what is going on, we are getting on with delivering for the British public. We are not only massively ramping up. The hon. Lady has not contested any of my statistics today about the extent to which this country is now testing more than any other European country. She has not disputed the massive acceleration in our programme. [Interruption.] I will answer the substance of her question, thank you very much.

We are getting on with delivering on the priorities of the British people: getting us through this covid crisis; delivering on making our country safer, bringing forward measures to stop the early release of dangerous sexual and violent offenders, which I hope she will support; strengthening our Union, which in principle Opposition Front Benchers should support; and building more homes across this country and more affordable homes across this country, which the hon. Lady should support. That is in addition to recruiting more doctors and more nurses, and building more hospitals.

I do not think anybody is in any doubt that this Government are facing some of the most difficult dilemmas that any modern Government have had to face, but every day we are helping to solve them, thanks to the massive common sense of the British people, who are getting on with delivering our programme and our fight against coronavirus. It is with the common sense of the British people that we will succeed, and build back better and stronger than ever before.

The Prime Minister is rightly levelling up across the country, giving that issue both barrels, but I know that the south-west has often been overlooked. Will he reassure the House and Members from across the south-west that we will invest in digital and transport infrastructure, we will turbocharge opportunity, and we will provide the growth that people need in the south-west? To that effect, will he meet a delegation from the south-west to discuss the opportunities before us? (906145)

It is precisely because we believe in my hon. Friend’s vision, which I share, of a great south-west that we are allocating considerable sums to the maintenance and improvement of school estates in his constituency; I might single out West Alvington Church of England Academy and Eden Park Primary and Nursery School, which will benefit from just some of this funding. As for his request, I will happily consult my diary.

In his previous life as a Daily Telegraph journalist, this Prime Minister wrote:

“Devolution is causing all the strains that its opponents predicted, and in allowing the Scots to make their own laws, while free-riding on English taxpayers, it is simply unjust.”

So let me ask the Prime Minister two specific questions, which need two specific answers. First, does he still think that devolution in Scotland is unjust? Secondly, where does he believe full spending and decision-making powers over our NHS, education, infrastructure, economic development, culture and sport should be held—is it with Scotland’s Parliament or with Westminster?

Obviously, there is a very considerable, and has been a massive, devolution of powers to Scotland, and the Scottish people had the opportunity to vote for more in 2014, as the right hon. Gentleman will recall, in a once-in-a-generation event. They chose decisively to reject that. I think he said it was a once-in-a-generation event as well. They now have the opportunity to vote to support the further devolution of powers in the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, and I hope that he will join us in the Lobby in support of that.

My goodness, what nonsense. I never once talked about “a once-in-a-generation” event, and the Prime Minister should withdraw that.

As usual, the Prime Minister is all over the place. He does not remember what he has written, he does not understand his own Brexit deal and he does not even know what is in the Internal Market Bill. I will tell him. Clause 46 allows this Tory Government to bypass Scotland’s Parliament and take decisions on the NHS, education, infrastructure, economic development, culture and sport—it is a blatant power grab. We all know what the Tory Back Benchers are saying behind closed doors: that the Prime Minister is incompetent, that he cannot govern, and that they want him away before the next election. Scotland’s legacy will be in being a fair, decent, law-abiding, independent nation state. Will the Prime Minister’s legacy be leading the UK to break international law and break this failing Union?

I am not quite clear from that question whether the right hon. Gentleman is in favour of the Union or not. I take it from his hostility to me that he wants to support the Union. So do I. The best thing he can do is to support the UK Internal Market Bill, which buttresses a surge of powers transferred to the devolved Administrations in more than 70 areas. I should just remind him that in the recent coronavirus crisis £5.4 billion has been transferred to be spent in Scotland as a result of Barnett consequentials, and I am proud to say that 70% of the testing that has taken place in Scotland has been supported by the UK Government. If he is a convert to the Union, which is what I take from his question, that is just one of the reasons he should back it.

Please allow me to push back against what has just been said. The Prime Minister has done a stellar job in fending off economic depression right across the United Kingdom, including Scotland. Now, my worry turns to a psychological depression. Tighter restrictions have forced more businesses to shut in Bolton and, while 13,900 jobs were saved through furlough, more needs to be done. I invite the Prime Minister, when the time is right, to pound the streets of Bolton North East and, before then, to send in the pennies from the Exchequer and more testing kits from Health. (906146)

Yes indeed, we will do that, and I am delighted to say that, in addition to the £40 billion we have spent on the coronavirus job retention scheme and the £130 billion plan for jobs, Bolton will receive at least £500,000 from the towns fund to spend on its high street and community.

Research by the Disabled Children’s Partnership shows that three quarters of families with disabled children had their care support stopped during lockdown. The Coronavirus Act 2020 is partly to blame, as it relaxed the duties to assess and meet the needs of disabled people. As the father of a disabled child and a patron of the Disability Law Service, I have seen legal advice that suggests that the Prime Minister’s Government broke international law when the Coronavirus Act reduced the rights of disabled people. So before the House is asked to renew the Coronavirus Act, will he meet me to discuss how we can protect the right to care of disabled people and act lawfully?

First, I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing the leadership of his party. I must say that I am not aware of that particular allegation about the legal effect of the Coronavirus Act, and I would be only too happy to write to him very shortly to clarify the matter.

The residents of Amber Valley were relieved yesterday when a proposal for a 1,000-strong festival was finally withdrawn, because it had become clear that the council did not have the power to resist it despite the ongoing public health crisis. Will the Prime Minister ensure that, while covid restrictions remain in place, councils can resist such festivals in the interest of public health? (906147)

I thank my hon. Friend for that important question, because I believe that it illuminates a question that councils are asking themselves. I wish to affirm very strongly that they do have the power to stop such events in the interest of public health, and that the council has taken the right decision.

Last week the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said that the UK Internal Market Bill would breach our obligations under international law. Yesterday the Advocate General for Scotland said that the Secretary of State was wrong to say that. Today the Secretary of State says that the Advocate General was wrong to say that he was wrong. It is of course possible that they are both right in saying that the other is wrong, but surely an important matter such as this requires clarity. For that reason, will the Prime Minister now undertake to publish the advice he has had from all his Law Officers so that the House can make an informed decision on the question of legality, come Monday? (906148)

I thank the right hon. Gentleman. I think he asked substantially the same question last week. As he knows, we do not publish the Attorney General’s advice—Governments do not normally publish such advice—but what I can certainly say is what I have said to the right hon. Gentleman the leader of the Scottish nationalists: that, of course, this Bill is intended to uphold the economic, political and territorial integrity of the United Kingdom, and I believe it should be supported by every Member of this House.

My right hon. Friend has always highlighted the importance of gigabit connectivity, and digital infrastructure has been vital in keeping us connected throughout the pandemic. Could he update the House on the Government’s progress towards the roll-out of gigabit broadband across the country, and in particular whether the £5 billion of Government funding is being used to connect hard-to-reach areas like those in my North Devon constituency? (906149)

Yes, I can. I thank my hon. Friend very much. We are rolling out full-fibre broadband to the North Moor area, investing £10 million in partnership with the local authority, and gearing up to invest over £30 million across Devon and Somerset to target 70,000 premises in her constituency that do not have good enough connectivity.

The figures released this week by the Trussell Trust forecast that we will give out six emergency food parcels every minute this winter. Will the Prime Minister commit to two urgent measures to tackle this humanitarian disaster, which is happening in all our communities? First, will he commit to an additional £250 million investment in local welfare assistance schemes to bring England in line with the rest of the UK, as requested by the Children’s Trust and the Trussell Trust; and, secondly, will he meet me and partner organisations as a matter of urgency to discuss bringing the right to food into UK law? (906150)

I thank the hon. Gentleman. What the Government are doing is, of course, supporting local councils to the tune of £3.7 billion for the extra needs occasioned by coronavirus; £380 million has gone into supporting food, with meals for pupils or for young people who need it; and there is a massive programme of investment—a £9 billion investment—to lift up universal credit to support the neediest in our society. But I can tell the hon. Gentleman that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will continue to apply the maximum creativity to putting our arms around the British people as we go forward through this crisis.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that this Government’s Internal Market Bill will protect our United Kingdom, strengthen our mission to level up, and back our negotiators? (906154)

In the week in which the Prime Minister announced the Government’s new strategy on obesity, the eating disorder charity Beat experienced a 165% increase in the number of people contacting its support services. I am pleased that the Prime Minister is focused on obesity, which is a very serious national health issue, but as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on eating disorders, I have been contacted by many who suffer from eating disorders, and who have approached me with concerns about certain aspects of his obesity strategy and the adverse effects it would have on them. Will the Prime Minister take these concerns seriously and commit to a meeting between sufferers of an eating disorder, myself and the relevant Minister in his Health team? (906151)

Yes. I am acutely conscious that there are no glib, easy answers in this area of public policy, and I happily undertake that the relevant Minister should meet the hon. Lady as fast as possible to understand her concerns and the concerns of her constituents.

Regional airports are going to play a crucial role in our recovery from the pandemic and in levelling up our country, but many of them, such as Cornwall Airport Newquay, have been very hard hit not only because of the lockdown, but because of the demise of Flybe. There is a very real concern that if our smaller airports close at this time, they may never open again, which will make the Government’s levelling-up agenda even harder to deliver. So could my right hon. Friend please ensure that our regional airports get all the help that they need, whether that be through grants or the Government backing more public sector obligation routes, and would he carefully look at reducing air passenger duty, particularly on domestic flights? (906155)

Yes. I thank my hon. Friend for sticking up in the way that he does for Cornwall Airport Newquay—a vital airport, which I have happily used many times. We will continue to consider applications for public service obligations on routes into Newquay and elsewhere. We will certainly look at air passenger duty, although it would be wrong of me to make any fiscal commitment at this stage.

The Prime Minister holds the power to save jobs or sacrifice the livelihoods of my constituents. Currently, 17,700 people living in my constituency are furloughed; their future rests in his hands. Next month, 22% of my constituents could lose their jobs and futures unless furlough is extended. Reformed, yes; more flexible, a must; targeted, absolutely. Extend and review is the only way forward. My question is: will the Prime Minister do that? (906152)

I hope the hon. Lady is not saying that she simply wants to extend the furlough scheme, because I do not believe that that is the right way—the hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) is shaking her head. I do not think that is sensible. We need to get people off furlough and into work, and that is what the Government are doing. That is why we have the £2 billion kickstart fund, in particular to help young people into work, and why we have the job retention bonus to encourage employers to take people back on and continue to employ people. To answer the point of the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) directly, we will continue to apply, as I said just now, the maximum creativity—as we have—in putting our arms round the workforce of the UK.

I recently visited the beautiful Micklefield Hall wedding venue in Sarratt, run by Anna and Jamie Rankin, to listen to their concerns about the wedding industry. Would the Prime Minister consider changing the number of attendees from a blanket limit of 30 and adopting a fairer system that would allow venues to hold a percentage—say, 50%—of their usual licensed activity? That would allow many venues to bounce back and keep on their furloughed staff. (906156)

I so understand and appreciate my hon. Friend’s constituents’ concerns. Similar concerns will have been raised with other Members from across the House, not just about the wedding businesses but about many other businesses that are facing restrictions as a result of the social distancing rules that we have had to bring in. The trouble is that, with all these things, there is an increase in the risk of spread and contagion. We simply have to balance that risk against what we are seeing now with the spread of the virus. I must reluctantly say to my hon. Friend that, although we will work as fast as possible to get our whole economy open and take all these restrictions off, the way to do that is for the whole country to work together, as we have done so far, to enforce social distancing, and obey the basic rules about hands, face, space, getting a test if you have symptoms, and the rule of six, indoors and outdoors. That is the way that we will beat this virus. That is the way we will control it and allow weddings and all other sectors to open up again.

I, too, have had constituents in Cardiff South and Penarth contact me with serious concerns about testing. It is clear that the problems originate not in Wales, but with the UK testing and online system, which is leading to rationing, chaos and confusion, and all the while the virus spreads further. We are told that the Prime Minister’s chum Cummings has a seeing room. Well, it is clearly not working, because this should have been seen coming months ago, like the exams fiasco. The truth is that the Prime Minister has not got control of this. When is he going to get a grip? (906153)

Once again, the Opposition are at risk of undermining the colossal work of NHS Test and Trace. Let me give the hon. Gentleman one statistic: just in the last week, the average distance that people have had to go for a test has come down from 6 or 7 miles to 5 miles. We are continuing to improve this system the whole time, and I remind the House and those who want to run it down that we are conducting more tests than any other European country, testing more people per thousand population than any other European—[Interruption.] Those are the facts. He doesn’t like it; all he wants to do is score party political points.

Every day, I receive messages from Bishop Auckland residents about crime and how they want to see us politicians taking a tougher stance. My own history involves learning about violent crime in a way I never wished to learn about it, and that is part of the reason I stand here today. The first duty of any Government is to protect the public they serve, but for too long our criminal justice system has fallen short of the mark. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that the Government he leads will take all steps necessary to keep criminals off our streets, to crack down on crime and to keep the public safe? (906157)

Yes, and that is why we are not only recruiting another 20,000 police officers, I think about 5,000 of whom have already been recruited, but also—[Interruption.] The Opposition Front Benchers are making a noise. We are also introducing measures to stop the early release of serious sexual and violent offenders. I take it from the noises I hear from the Opposition that they approve of that and will support us in the Lobby.

Given that the 1950s-born women lost their case at the Court of Appeal yesterday, any restitution for the women affected, 350,000 of whom are in Scotland, needs political action. What will the Prime Minister now do to honour his own words from last year and “return to this issue with fresh vigour and new eyes”and see what he can do to sort it out? (906158)

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 suspend the House for a few minutes.

Sitting suspended.