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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 680: debated on Wednesday 16 September 2020


The Secretary of State was asked—

Support for Self-employed: Covid-19

How many self-employed people in Wales have not received support from the Government’s covid-19 support schemes. (905954)

There are 205,000 self-employed in Wales, 110,000 of whom are receiving direct cash grants, totalling over £295 million, through the Government’s self-employment income support scheme. The scheme is one of a range of Government initiatives supporting the self-employed during the coronavirus outbreak.

If you will indulge me, Mr Speaker, I want to pass on my commiserations to everyone involved in the horrific car crash in Trebanog in the Rhondda earlier today. I thank the police and the fire brigade, who have been helping.

The Secretary of State is right that lots of people have received help, but an awful lot of people in the Rhondda have not had a single penny. There are people who set up a company just two years ago and have now lost their business, their home and their livelihood. There are people who have gone from having £3,000 a month in the bank to £300 a month. When we come to the next round of decisions by the Government and the Treasury, we have to do something for the 3 million people who have been excluded from every single scheme. They feel that this has been massively unfair, and we have hundreds of tradespeople in the Rhondda who have not had a single penny off the Government.

I know the whole House will join me in expressing our sympathy for those involved in the accident in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency this morning. I know what a blow it is for him and everybody involved, and our thoughts are with them.

In relation to the schemes, I suspect that we all, as constituency MPs, have examples of people who have fallen through the net. I can only reiterate what the Chancellor has said on numerous occasions, which is that we will always try to look at every possible way to ensure that those who qualify for help, but for some reason, are not getting it, do get it. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to raise any individual cases—which we have all had—I am happy to look at them.

My thoughts are with those caught up in the awful crash in the Rhondda.

Many self-employed people in Wales who have already been hard hit by lockdown now fear the impact on their customer base of the looming spectre of mass unemployment that is hanging over their communities—industrial communities that still bear the scars of the damage wreaked by the Tories in the ’80s. When will this Government grasp the urgency of the situation and bring forward specific measures for sectors such as aviation that need longer to recover, in order to support the thousands of Welsh workers who depend on them?

The hon. Lady makes an unnecessary political point. This Government, along with the Welsh Government, have done everything they can to ensure that the smallest possible number of people in Wales have gone without important assistance during the pandemic. If she is hinting that the extension of furlough is the only answer, I can tell her that it is not. The Treasury has said that that is one option, but there are numerous other options that ought to help people and are already helping people make their way out of covid and back into a properly functioning economy. Of course, the best way to save jobs across the whole of Wales is to get people safely back to work.

Indeed, but there is now barely a month to go until the Government’s job protection schemes end, leaving thousands of self-employed people and others at risk of unemployment. It is not just Labour saying that. Businesses, trade unions and the Treasury Committee have all sounded the alarm. Will the Government accept that a one-size-fits-all approach to this jobs crisis is simply not working, and will they come forward with concrete proposals and a real plan to safeguard jobs for people across Wales?

A third of the workforce in Wales has been supported by the UK Government during the pandemic. We have gone further and deeper than pretty well any Government in the world, with VAT deferrals, mortgage holidays, rental support, increases in universal credit, relaxation of the minimum income floor and VAT reductions. This is not a one-size-fits-all arrangement. This is a whole package of measures that are designed to help as many people as possible to stay in work and get back to work as soon as it is safe to do so. I am surprised that the hon. Lady does not welcome that.

On the issue of the 3 million excluded, my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) is right. When more local areas are facing lockdowns, I would urge Ministers to do far more to help those who have fallen through the gaps, at the very least by addressing the five-week wait for universal credit—it should be a grant, not an advance.

I assure the hon. Lady that there will never be a moment when the Government or the Wales Office sit back and think we have done enough as far as this is concerned. We are always striving and will always strive to ensure that we improve every one of our schemes. Where there are gaps, which we have identified before—Government Members have also been helpful in that respect—we will do everything we can to ensure that they are plugged.

UK Internal Market

What recent discussions he has had with the First Minister of Wales on legislative proposals for a UK internal market. (905957)

The Government’s response to the UK internal market consultation published last week highlighted the broad support for the proposals from businesses and job creators in Wales. The Bill gives businesses the continued certainty of seamless trade across the UK as the transition period ends.

Much of the rhetoric around the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill is that it is a shared asset, yet what is missing are any shared intergovernmental structures. On Owain Glyndwr Day, why will the British Government not be honest for once and admit that they are using consequential legislation resulting from Brexit, such as this Bill, to effectively reassert direct Westminster rule over Wales?

I disagree with the fundamental premise of the hon. Gentleman’s question. These proposals went to public consultation, and I will quote the response from one business in Wales that is promoting Wales, employing people in Wales and contributing to the Welsh Government. It said:

“The UK Internal Market Bill will be the making of the UK.”

It seems to me that those commenting on UKIM are divided into politicians who are anxious to protect their cosy clique in Cardiff, and business, employers and the public in Wales, who recognise that this is an important part of the next stage of our economic recovery.

The proposals in the Bill are designed to make sure that UK businesses can continue to enjoy the ability to trade easily across our four home nations in a way that helps them to invest and create jobs, just as they have done for hundreds of years. It is extremely important, therefore, that businesses are on board and happy with our proposals. What conversations has the Secretary of State had with businesses across Wales about these proposals and what sort of a response has he received?

My hon. Friend raises an interesting point. There have been numerous engagements in person with the Business Secretary and others, and online engagements, and I can safely assure the House that those who have responded have not expressed any great concerns about UKIM. In fact, they see it as a perfectly natural successor to the status quo. They want us to proceed with it, they consider it to be fair, and, more important, they think that jobs depend on it.

Ministers seem to be in a state of denial about what this internal market Bill actually says. It is quite clear that it will give the power to the UK Government to make spending decisions in Wales on matters that are devolved to the Welsh Parliament. Can the Secretary of State tell the House how on earth that respects the devolution settlement?

The hon. Gentleman illustrates my point. It seems that in certain nationalist quarters this is all about politics and power, whereas in fact it is all about jobs and the economy and people grafting their way into a post-covid world. The Welsh Government will not lose a single power—not one—after the Bill is passed; in fact, they will have 70 new ones. The fact that the UK Government will be there as well to contribute to the economy of Wales in a way they have not been able to for 45 years should be welcomed by him and his colleagues in Wales as a major step forward.

Next spring, Milton Keynes theatre will host Welsh National Opera—a great, historic institution in Milton Keynes hosting a great Welsh institution. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is not just the free movement of goods, but the free movement of people, culture, ideas and values between our four nations that makes our Union so strong?

That is a wholly appropriate question because it enables me to say that sometimes when we talk about the strength of the Union, we limit ourselves to talking simply about economic activity, but my hon. Friend is right to point out that the Union is magical for a whole lot of other reasons too. The cultural and social elements he describes sum up why the Union is important. Some of the legislation and ideas we are talking about will enhance and encourage that over the coming years.

I echo the findings of the public consultation on the internal market Bill and reinforce the reality: in mid-Wales and Montgomeryshire, economic activity, transport links and our public services look to the west midlands economy. My constituents and businesses have been watching the progress of the Bill, they welcome it and they want it. They do not want Cardiff Bay or nationalist politicians distracting people’s attention from the fact that they would welcome investment. I look forward to lobbying the Secretary of State and the Department for Transport to build things such as the Middletown bypass.

I am a former resident of my hon. Friend’s constituency and I know exactly what he is referring to. It is worth reminding ourselves that a quarter of his constituency’s workforce cross the border every day to make a living, and cross back again in the evening. The border must be porous. The worst things for jobs and the economy of mid-Wales, or anywhere else, are artificial, political boundaries put up for the advantage of a few people, under a cosy arrangement in Cardiff. We are talking about proper jobs, proper people and proper parts of Wales that require and deserve the support of all the parties, including the nationalists, who make so much noise but never deliver.

On 8 July, the Secretary of State, in response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake), said that ending our relationship with Europe would allow public bodies in Wales to buy more local goods, more local products and more local services, yet his own Government’s UK Internal Market Bill appears to block local measures that would prioritise local goods or services over those from other parts of the UK. How does he reconcile those two positions now?

I reconcile the positions by not recognising the claim that is being made. If the public consultation on the UK Internal Market Bill is anything to go by—forget what we politicians may say—the public welcome the idea, because it secures a market that has been enjoyed for hundreds of years. People see it as logical. They see it as a perfectly reasonable step forward to enshrine in UK law what has for 45 years been conducted in Brussels. They see it as good for jobs, and the right hon. Lady seems to have some objection to that.

Well, he said it, and it was in the White Paper; procurement was mentioned there. Given that that is one of the weapons in the armoury of the Welsh Government with which to support businesses, it would be fair to expect something on it in the Bill—but I will move on.

Today marks, of course, the anniversary of the proclamation of Owain Glyndŵr as Prince of Wales at the first Senedd or Parliament in Machynlleth.

There was a Senedd in Machynlleth. The year 2020 saw the renaming of the Assembly as Senedd or Welsh Parliament. [Interruption.] Maybe the significance is lost on a certain Welsh MP; maybe the significance is lost in translation. [Interruption.]

Order. We are not having a debate across the Benches. Please have the discussion outside afterwards, and let me know the result of that discussion.

Maybe even the debate is lost entirely here or lost in translation, but how can the Secretary of State reconcile this historical serendipity with this Government’s brazen power-grab?

It seems astounding to me that the Labour Opposition consider the UKIM Bill to be a threat to the Union and the nationalists consider it to be a threat to separatism. I think they should continue their debate, so that they could inform the rest of the House of their objection. To describe a piece of legislation that would result in 70 new powers and the removal of none as a power-grab is to use a definition of power-grab that I do not recognise.

Last year, the Tory party promised to strengthen the Union and strengthen the devolved settlements, but their Internal Market Bill does exactly the opposite, as the Secretary of State’s colleague David Melding knows. So will the Secretary of State accept that, rather than being about promising more powers to Wales—promises that we simply cannot believe—the Government’s Internal Market Bill actually rolls back the powers, undermines the devolution settlement and gives comfort to those who want to break up the Union?

The answer to that is no, no and no. The reason is that when it comes to testing the temperature and mood of the people of Wales, I rely on public consultations and my engagement with businesses—employers—north, south, east and mid, and none of them make the claims that the hon. Gentleman has made. They see this legislation as a perfectly natural transition from EU rule to UK and Welsh Government collaborative operations in Wales; that seems to them to be perfectly sensible. It seems to me to be perfectly sensible. It seems that the objection is about politics and power, rather than about jobs and livelihoods.

We all know the interest with which the Secretary of State listens to the No. 10 chief adviser, like every other member of the governing party. The Brexit Minister in the Welsh Government, Jeremy Miles, has been very clear that there are no new devolution powers: the measures are within the existing rules of devolution. Members on the Government Benches may pontificate all they like; the reality is that they are trying to roll back devolution because they do not like what the people of Wales do by electing Labour-led Governments in Welsh Government elections. This is a reversal of 20 years of the Tories’ not liking who is elected to Government in Wales.

The hon. Gentleman needs to remind himself that there was not a single seat in Wales where Labour did not lose votes at the last election. He needs to be a little careful—[Interruption.] With respect, he needs to be a little careful about making accusations based on the political reality. The economic reality is that the people of Wales do not share his enthusiasm for defining the next stage of our post-covid and post-Brexit evolution purely in terms of political one-upmanship. They want to see jobs and investment, and that is what we intend to deliver.

Future Relationship with EU

What recent discussions he has had with the First Minister of Wales on the effect on the Welsh economy in the event that the UK does not reach an agreement with the EU on the future relationship by the end of the transition period. (905958)

The Secretary of State and I have had regular discussions with Welsh Ministers, including the First Minister, on a wide range of matters, including preparations for the end of the transition period. Preparations for the end of the year are well advanced, and build on the plans that we had in place for a no-deal scenario in 2019.

When he has had those discussions with the First Minister, has the Minister discussed how the so-called shared prosperity fund will be spent in Wales? I do not know whether he has seen any opinion polls recently, but far from people in Wales regarding the Welsh Government as a “cosy clique in Cardiff”, as the Secretary of State puts it, they much prefer the Welsh Government running their affairs to a swivel-eyed bunch of incompetents in Westminster doing so. Will the Minister commit to the House, now, that every penny of that money will be allowed to be spent by the democratically elected Government in Cardiff?

There are no swivel-eyes on this side of the Chamber. The hon. Gentleman ought to restrain himself a little; I do not think anyone would want to be looking at his eyes at the moment. The reality is that far more people voted for Members of Parliament in Wales than voted for Members of the Welsh Assembly—the turnout is always high, which rather rebuts the hon. Gentleman’s point. We have already said that the shared prosperity fund will match the amount of money that came from the European Union, and that will of course be spent in Wales after discussions with Ministers in both the Senedd and Parliament.

The Minister will be aware of the news overnight that Hitachi has decided to pull out of the project to build the Wylfa Newydd nuclear power station on Anglesey—a project that is not only of strategic importance to the Welsh economy but will help the UK to meet its net zero target by 2050. Will my hon. Friend leave no stone unturned in the quest to see whether there is a way forward for the project? In particular, will he continue his discussions with ministerial colleagues here and in Cardiff Bay and continue to work with my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie), who has worked so hard to get the project moving?

I am happy to confirm that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already had discussions with Horizon about this matter. The announcement was deeply disappointing for us all and came on the back of Hitachi’s concerns, so I am told, about the covid situation and the Japanese economy. None the less, Wylfa is one of the best sites in the world at which to build a nuclear power station, and I understand that Horizon has already been sounding out the possibility of the project going ahead with other developers.

Business Finance: Banks

What discussions he has had with the Welsh Government on the comparative effectiveness of the (a) Development Bank of Wales and (b) high street banks in providing finance to business in Wales during the covid-19 outbreak. (905960)

High street banks have been at the forefront of lending to firms impacted by covid-19. They have provided support to Welsh firms through more than £1.1 billion-worth of loans under the Government’s bounce back loan scheme and £300 million of loans under the Government’s coronavirus business interruption loan scheme. There has also been an additional £100 million of lending through the Development Bank of Wales, which has been a useful contribution.

Thank you very much from over here in Wales.

The Development Bank of Wales has been found by the Welsh Affairs Committee to be much more effective in the delivery of coronavirus loans to business than high street banks, which have been found to be unresponsive, delayed and risk-averse, and not to understand local businesses. Will the Secretary of State and the Minister impress on the Chancellor the need to provide more funding for the Development Bank of Wales, and to import this excellent idea into England to help all British business?

I suppose it would not come as a great surprise to the hon. Gentleman, or to anyone who understands economics, as he does, that a high street bank is always going to be slightly more risk-averse than a bank backed by the UK Treasury. None the less, I draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to the figures I gave earlier, which show that around £1.4 billion has been lent to businesses in Wales via high street banks utilising Government schemes, and £100 million has come via the Development Bank of Wales. This is not some sort of competition; we welcome every single pound that has been lent to Welsh businesses, no matter where it has come from.

Covid-19 Testing

My hon. Friend will be aware that testing for covid in Wales is a matter for the Welsh Government and we respect their devolved responsibilities. I understand that the Welsh Government have decided to seek support from the UK Government for testing in Wales, which is a responsibility of the Welsh Government, so the Department of Health and Social Care has been working directly with them to offer the help that they need to deliver an efficient testing and analysis programme.

We have made huge progress in rapidly scaling up our testing capacity, and I have witnessed that myself in my constituency of Keighley, but there is always more that we can do. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to explore with the Welsh Government the benefits of repeat population testing, and, if that proves effective, how can it be scaled up across Wales and the rest of the UK?

As my hon. Friend will be aware, we have made enormous strides in increasing the amount of daily testing that is available, but it is not yet enough in either Wales or England, or elsewhere in the United Kingdom, to meet the huge rise in demand that we have seen over the past few weeks. The UK Government have set a target of a 500,000-a-day testing capacity for the end of October, and we are also increasing the number of testing sites to 500 by the end of October. Across Wales and the United Kingdom, Governments of all sorts of different political persuasions are working hard and working together to increase testing and to meet the demand.

Supporting People back into Work

By the end of July, more than 400,000 Welsh jobs had been supported by the coronavirus job retention scheme, while £295 million has been provided to support 110,000 self-employed people. Since the start of March, that is at least 510,000 people in Wales who have been supported directly by the UK Government.

More than 77,000 meals were enjoyed in Brecon and Radnorshire as part of the eat out to help out scheme created by the UK Treasury. This provided a very welcome boost to the hospitality and tourism sectors in my constituency, which I particularly welcome as those sectors largely employ more women than men. Will my right hon. Friend join me in encouraging the Welsh Government to do their part by creating a similar scheme and getting more women back into the workplace?

My hon. Friend makes a really good point. Having visited her constituency twice, I think, in the recent past, I know just how much she has done to promote these schemes. Another value of the eat out to help out scheme is to remind everybody, whether members of the public or, for that matter, Members of this House, of the importance of supporting local businesses in every possible way we can as we climb out of these horrible few months. The work that my hon. Friend has done, and that of the Treasury, has been a pretty good start.

A key element in supporting people back into work is access to high-speed broadband, particularly in rural areas. Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the first broadband USO—universal service obligation—connection in Wales, which was launched last week in Tregeiriog in the Ceiriog valley in my constituency as part of the Government’s across-the-UK USO scheme to improve broadband where it is currently running at a low level?

My hon. Friend is a solid champion of that cause. Some 3,500 premises in Clwyd South and over 200,000 in Wales have access to full fibre connection, but, as he says, this is only the start. For those businesses and individuals who really need high-quality broadband to operate, the clock is ticking in their favour. This will help jobs, families and prosperity in Wales.

Support for the Steel Industry: Covid-19

What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on support for the steel industry in Wales during the covid-19 outbreak. (905967)

The UK Government share the steel industry’s ambitions for a sustainable future in Wales. That is why the Business Secretary, the Chancellor and I worked to reach an agreement with Celsa that saved hundreds of jobs in Wales. I have frequent discussions with Cabinet colleagues about supporting the Welsh steel industry, especially in dealing with the impact of covid-19.

In the debate led by my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) held in this House the other evening, we heard about how the Welsh steel sector has been so adversely affected by this economic crisis. The response from the Minister who replied was yet again, I am afraid, lots of warm words. When are we going to see more action, notwithstanding Celsa, to support this vital industry in Wales to save jobs and the economy?

I would like to think that warm words are better than cold words, but actions speak louder than words, at whatever temperature they come. The fact is that the UK Government absolutely recognise the importance of the sector. That is why we did the deal with Celsa and saved 800 jobs there, and that sends a message to other steel producers in Wales that we mean business. We are not just talking about the survival of the industry during covid; we are talking about having a significant steel manufacturing presence in Wales in five years, 10 years and 15 years. That is why we have continued these discussions. The Celsa deal ought to be a source of encouragement for everyone involved that actually, when it comes to it, we do mean business.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


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.