House of Commons
Wednesday 23 September 2020
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 4 June).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
I remind colleagues that deferred Divisions will take place today on seven statutory instruments in the Members’ Library between 11.30 am and 3.30 pm. Members will cast their votes by placing their completed Division slip in one of the ballot boxes provided. I remind colleagues of the importance of social distancing during deferred Divisions and ask them to pick up a Division slip from the Vote Office and fill it in before they reach the Library, if possible. The result will be announced in the Chamber as soon as possible after the Division is over.
Oral Answers to Questions
Women and Equalities
The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—
Disabled People: Covid-19
The Government are committed to supporting disabled people affected by the covid-19 outbreak. We continue to monitor the impact of covid-19 on disabled people using existing and new data sources.
Between March and July, disabled people, including people with a health condition or impairment, accounted for almost 60% of all covid deaths, yet a survey of disabled people in Greater Manchester revealed that eight out of 10 were not included in the official Government shielded group, in spite of 57% having significant support needs. With the second wave upon us, what is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that all clinically vulnerable people are shielded and properly supported?
That is a really important point. Through my work as the Minister for Disabled People and in conjunction with the Disability Unit, for which I am responsible, where stakeholders identify challenges around support for those who were shielding, we raise that with the relevant Minister. Obviously, shielding has come to an end, and that is kept under review. We must ensure that people feel safe, particularly those who are seeking to work. We expect employers to act in accordance with the Equality Act 2010. Working with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Health and Safety Executive and ACAS, we are publishing helpful guidance to ensure that there is sufficient support for those who are coming out of shielding and returning to normality.
The charity SignHealth has been working to provide British Sign Language translation for covid sufferers in health settings free of charge since the pandemic began. It has submitted a grant application to the Department of Health and Social Care, but so far that has not been awarded. Will my hon. Friend use his best endeavours with colleagues at that Department to get this apparent blockage shifted? As we seek to avoid a second wave of the virus, we also have to ensure that deaf people who are reliant on BSL as their main form of communication are not disadvantaged in their access to information.
I know that, through my right hon. Friend’s work as Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, there is no stronger advocate for accessible communications. Stakeholders rightly raise this issue time and again, and through the Disability Unit, we have reminded all Departments of the importance of it. It sounds to me like SignHealth has provided a wonderful service. I know that the DHSC values good services, and I will encourage the relevant Minister to look at this personally and respond as quickly as possible.
Before I ask my question, I would like to pay tribute to the many people out there with disabilities who have been helping others during the pandemic. It is important to keep saying that having a disability does not stop someone contributing. However, for many people, their disability prevents them from having a job, and they are dependent on social security payments. Sometimes they have to jump through hoops to prove that they are disabled enough to “deserve” those payments. Face-to-face work capability assessments are on hold right now, understandably, but the wait is causing untold stress, so will the Minister represent the needs of those people to the Work and Pensions Secretary and join me in calling for paper-based assessments to be made available to everyone?
That is a really good question. First, the hon. Lady is absolutely right about people wanting to contribute. If we ask any disabled person, they want to have the same opportunities that anyone else would take for granted. Rightly, we had to suspend face-to-face assessments. We have used paper-based reviews where possible, and we are bringing telephone assessments into the WCA in the same way that we have done with personal independence payments, which is warmly welcomed by stakeholders. In the long term, as part of the Green Paper in the coming months, we will be exploring better ways to reform the assessment and increase the likelihood of being able to do paper-based reviews wherever possible, predominantly where we are able to get better-quality medical evidence.
We continue to fund numerous programmes to increase girls’ and young women’s take-up of science, technology, engineering and maths subjects. The number of girls’ STEM A-level entries has increased year on year, despite an overall reduction in cohort size. Since 2010, there has been a 31% increase in girls’ entries to STEM A-levels in England and a 34% increase in women accepted on to full-time STEM undergraduate courses in the UK.
We know that the new core maths course is highly regarded for both its accessibility and its pragmatism, and therefore it can play a huge part in increasing participation in maths. Can the Minister tell me how we are engaging with female pupils in particular to encourage them to take up this fantastic course?
Our advanced maths support programme, worth £8 million per year, aims to increase the number of girls studying level 3 maths, which includes core maths. Out of more than 17,000 students participating in the programme’s events last year, 55% of attendees were female. We will be using research such as our behavioural insight studies to inform future work on how to get more girls studying maths after GCSE.
My constituency is a world-renowned centre of aerospace and defence expertise, so how can the Government help to encourage more women to take up these subjects and apprenticeships in particular so that we can equip the country and them with the skills we need for the future?
Along with the significant measures that I have mentioned on increasing the take-up of STEM subjects among girls and women, we are also raising awareness of STEM careers through programmes such as STEM ambassadors, 45% of whom are women. The Department for Education is also taking steps to engage with the sector through apprenticeships. On aerospace specifically, we are supporting industry’s efforts to increase diversity in the sector through the women in aviation and aerospace charter, recognising that a more diverse sector is good for business, customers and workplace culture.
In the UK, female employment in the technology industry stands at 16.7% and grew less than 1% in the last 10 years. This is one of the most promising and booming industries, but it is one that women hardly find themselves in. What discussion has the Minister’s Department had with her Cabinet colleagues to provide incentives for technology businesses to employ women?
The Government take this issue very seriously. The Government Equalities Office carries out various studies to encourage women into this sector. We know that there are disparities in gender representation in some sector subject areas. Women still account for 6% and 8% of starts in construction, planning and the built environment and in engineering and engineering technologies. This is a space in which we are working very hard. We continue to consult business and I know that my Cabinet colleagues are also working on this issue.
Geographic Inequality of Opportunity
We are determined to tackle geographic inequality and level up our country. The Equality Hub will look at the data to identify the real barriers that are holding people back.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. She will be aware that people in Cornwall have for far too long faced a disadvantage of opportunity because of our geography. Will she ensure that among all the loud political noise at this time, levelling up geographical inequalities will remain at the heart of this Government’s agenda?
I agree. It is vital that we level up across the country and make sure that someone’s postcode does not dictate their life chances. As I saw when visiting Cornwall’s growing lithium mining industry last week, there are real opportunities to level up and help Cornwall to grow economically and benefit all the people of that great county.
BAME Women: Covid-19
The Government have taken a number of steps to protect all those who may be disproportionately affected by covid-19 to reduce the spread of the virus. This includes targeted testing of occupations and groups at higher risk, including ethnic minority women. We have also translated the latest information into multiple languages in accessible formats to help to ensure that our public health communications reach all communities across the country.
Women from black and minority ethnic backgrounds are strongly represented in the workforce in our care system, so will the Minister have a strong focus on keeping care workers safe from covid, with a particular emphasis on the higher risk faced by women from black and minority ethnic communities in those jobs?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right: there are very many BME workers in the social care sector and they must be properly supported. That is why in June, the Department of Health and Social Care published a covid-19 adult social care workforce risk reduction framework to help to manage specific risks to staff, including risk by ethnicity. We are also providing financial support to the Race Equality Foundation to provide additional services to BME communities with dementia during the covid-19 pandemic.
International Trade: Opportunities for Women
Trade and enterprise are vitally important to women across the world to help them take control of their own lives. That is why we are backing programmes such as SheTrades and Female Founders to support women across the Commonwealth.
On Sunday, I was pleased to speak at a United Nations General Assembly event on investing in Africa’s female future. Nimco Ali’s Five Foundation was also represented. It is doing great work to tackle female genital mutilation and bring more economic opportunity for women. In the Department for International Trade, we are currently working on trade continuity agreements with countries such as Kenya to help to build trade and help women in those countries to succeed.
There has been a worrying rise in the amount of abuse, harassment and intimidation online, and women are often disproportionately targeted by such abuse. It is completely unacceptable and, in fact, impacts individuals’ rights to participate online. We set out robust measures to deal with this in the online harms White Paper and will be publishing a full Government response to this later in the year.
I am glad that the Minister recognises this point. Almost one in two women report experiencing online abuse since the start of covid-19. However, the Government have delayed the draft of the online harms Bill until, I understand, the end of 2021. Legislation is clearly needed now, so when will the Government bring the Bill forward?
I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is misinformed. We are absolutely committed to making the UK the safest place to go online. The online harms White Paper will set out how we are going to make world-leading legislation. We intend to publish that before the end of the year and the legislation to follow at the very beginning of next year.
LGBT Action Plan
We want to make sure that everyone in the UK is free to live their lives and fulfil their potential regardless of their sex, gender identity or sexual orientation. We will soon be hosting the Government’s first-ever international LGBT conference to advance LGBT rights across the world.
After an organisation in Anfield in my constituency was exposed for offering “cures” for homosexuality involving rituals and starvation, the Government gave me a commitment in this House that they would ban these so-called conversion therapies. That was back in 2018 and there is real concern that the new Government are backtracking on LGBT rights. So when will the Government bring forward a ban on these harmful practices, as promised in their own LGBT action plan? Following the Minister’s response yesterday on changes to the Gender Recognition Act 2004, which fell well short of what is needed to secure the rights of trans people in the UK, will she make a full statement in the Chamber to allow proper debate on it?
Conversion therapy is a completely abhorrent practice. We are working to end it. We are currently conducting research and I will be coming back shortly to talk about the future and how we do end it, but it is important that research is conducted. As I made clear in my written statement yesterday, it is very important that we protect transgender rights but also improve transgender healthcare. That is what we are doing by opening more clinics and also making the process of gender recognition certificates kinder and more straightforward.
Protected Characteristics: Caste
I would like to make it clear that caste is not a protected characteristic in the Equality Act 2010. Case law has shown that a claim of caste discrimination may already qualify for protection under the race provisions in the Act. We therefore intend to repeal the uncommenced duty in the Act to make caste an explicit aspect of race discrimination as soon as practicable.
I welcome my hon. Friend to her place to answer my regular questions on this particular topic. The fact is that we have had a large-scale consultation of the community. We have had a written ministerial statement making it clear that we are going to remove this protected characteristic from the Equality Act. So I urge her to bring forward, without delay, proposals to remove this unnecessary, ill-thought-out and divisive move in the Equality Act 2010.
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. We do agree with him. The Government completely oppose any discrimination because of a person’s origins, including any perception of their caste, and we do remain committed to repealing the duty as soon as the opportunity arises.
Statutory Sick Pay
Statutory sick pay is increased annually through uprating, which does not require an equality impact assessment. Individuals requiring further financial support may receive it through the welfare system.
Research by my union, the GMB, has shown that a failure to raise statutory sick pay to Liverpool rates has had serious detrimental effects on particular groups in our society. The status quo is disproportionately harming women workers, older workers, disabled workers, black and minority ethnic workers, workers who hold particular religious beliefs and workers who are married or in a civil partnership. Does the Minister agree that the Government should do an equality impact assessment of these policies and do more to ensure that statutory sick pay is set at a liveable rate?
Equality impact assessments are taken when there are policy changes, not part of the annual uprating exercise. That said, statutory sick pay should not be looked at in isolation because individuals, subject to their own circumstances, could access additional support from their employer, universal credit, or new-style employment and support allowance. We have recently concluded the consultation “Health is everyone’s business” in which many of these issues were raised and we will be publishing our reviews. We understand the points that the hon. Member has raised.
Older People: Covid-19
Our priority has been to continue delivering the state pension and pension credit to new and existing customers. We also supported those in the shielding group who would normally have had to rely on cash through the post office to cover their weekly outgoings.
We know that elderly and disabled people, especially those living alone, are less likely to access online platforms. During this covid pandemic, knowing the rules and understanding the ideas and information behind them is critical, so will this UK Government be re-establishing regular briefings, including British Sign Language translation, as we have in Scotland, so that no one misses out on vital information?
The hon. Member is absolutely right to highlight the importance of accessible communications. It was an issue raised particularly in the early stages that we then shared cross-Government. I am delighted that BSL, for example, was then picked up by the BBC and that is then provided. Yesterday, the Prime Minister’s statement to the House was also simultaneously interpreted by a BSL interpreter. That was a very valid point to raise.
Young Female and Disabled Athletes: Covid-19
Appropriately, a question on sport as I sprint to the Dispatch Box.
We remain committed to supporting our young, female and disabled Olympic and Paralympic athletes through this very difficult period. We continue to work with UK Sport to ensure that athletes are assisted and supported in their preparation for the Tokyo games and beyond to Paris 2024.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new role as the spokesperson on digital, culture, media and sport. He asks his question on a very appropriate day as today is National Fitness Day. He is absolutely right: if you can see it, you can be it. We want to inspire the next generation of young people to get physically fit and active not only for their own physical health, but for the mental health and well-being that it brings.
I want transgender people to be free to live and prosper in modern Britain. We will maintain the Gender Recognition Act, protect single-sex spaces, and work to make the recognition process kinder and more straightforward. In line with the priorities of transgender people, we are improving health services and reducing waiting times, and we have also launched the Cass review to ensure that under-18s are getting the right support.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, as well as to the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care and the Prime Minister, for giving backing to my campaign to end the abhorrent practice of so-called LGBT conversion therapy. Will my right hon. Friend kindly update the House on when she hopes to bring forward this vital legislation?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on her leadership on this issue and her work to support women when they are giving birth. Conversion therapy is an abhorrent practice and we are currently conducting research, which I hope will be finished by the end of this month, on how to end it in the United Kingdom. Shortly after that, we will set out steps to end it.
Yesterday, after nearly three years, the Government finally published their response on reforming the Gender Recognition Act 2004; disgracefully, they have let the trans community down. The written statement said that the Government are opening at least three new gender clinics this year. Will the Minister clarify whether the mention of those three clinics was a reference to the pilot services committed to by the previous Government in 2018, or represent a new investment by this Government to improve trans healthcare?
In line with the priorities of the transgender community, we are seeking to reduce waiting lists in the health service by 1,600 people, as well as to improve access to services, with three new gender-identity clinics. We also want to make sure that proper training is available to general practitioners so that we get better services on the frontline.
I did not get an answer to my first question, but I will try this one. The average waiting time for NHS gender services is 18 months, yet the NHS constitution says that the first appointment should be within 18 weeks. The Government have rightly committed to reducing waiting lists by 1,600 people by 2022, but that will still leave an estimated 10,000 trans people on the list. Will the Minister set out what steps the Government are going to take to bring the waiting lists down, to ensure that trans people can access healthcare within the time set out in the legal framework?
The hon. Lady is right that it is a priority to bring down waiting lists and make sure that transgender people get the healthcare that they deserve. That is why the Government Equalities Office has put in extra funding to support Dr Michael Brady as our LGBT health adviser. We are working closely with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care and the NHS to make sure that those services are in place.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend: education is important and it is obviously wrong when girls get married at an early age against their will. My hon. Friend has done a lot of work to raise these issues, and the Government are listening carefully to the debate on the legal age of marriage and continue to keep it under review. Tackling forced marriage is one of our key priorities and I am proud that we made forced marriage an offence in 2014.
Farming is a vital industry in Britain, and I want all farmers to feel supported. I applaud the work of groups such as Agrespect in supporting LGBT farmers to thrive. I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend and his colleagues to discuss what more we can do.
The Prime Minister was asked—
The unanimous decision by Highland Council planning to grant consent for the UK’s vertical space launch site in Sutherland is clearly extremely good news. I hope that the Prime Minister agrees that this will be extremely good for the local economy of the highlands, and will provide a huge opportunity for the UK economy in the international satellite market.
Absolutely; I congratulate Launch UK on what it is doing. As the hon. Gentleman rightly says, the project would create 250 full-time jobs, including 130 at the facility in Forres. I am in no doubt that it will launch the UK on a path to ever greater presence in the global satellite market.
Yes, indeed. My hon. Friend can certainly reassure his constituents that our purpose, and the purpose of the package that carried overwhelming support in this House yesterday, is to continue to drive down the R number while keeping businesses open and pupils in school.
Three months ago today the Prime Minister said that Test and Trace could be a “real game changer” for us. He was backed up by the Health Secretary, who said:
“Finding where the people who test positive are is the single most important thing that we must do to stop the spread of the virus.”
Yesterday the Prime Minister said the complete opposite. Standing at that Dispatch Box, he said:
“Testing and tracing has very little or nothing to do with the spread or the transmission of the disease.”—[Official Report, 22 September 2020; Vol. 680, c. 822.]
Both positions cannot be right. Which one is it, Prime Minister?
It is an obvious fact of biology and epidemiology that, alas, this disease is transmitted by human contact or aerosol contact. One of the great advantages of NHS Test and Trace—which, alas, we did not have working earlier in the pandemic because we simply did not have it in the spring—is that we now have the ability to see in granular detail where the epidemic is breaking out and exactly which groups are being infected. That is why we have been able to deliver the local lockdowns and it is why we are able to tell now, at this stage, that it is necessary to take the decisive action that we are taking and which I think the right hon. and learned Gentleman supports—he did yesterday anyway—to drive the virus down, keep kids in school and keep our economy moving. That is the point.
I hesitate to reprove the right hon. and learned Gentleman for a flaw that he sometimes seems to fall into, which is not listening to my previous answer. I gave a very clear answer. The answer, simply and sadly, is that it is an epidemiological fact that transmission of the virus takes place via human contact from person to person. Test and Trace enables us to isolate the cases of the virus in ever greater detail, which we were not able to do before. Thanks to the efforts of NHS Test and Trace, through many thousands of people—trainee nurses, doctors, young people and members of the armed services—we are not only testing more than any other country in Europe, but capacity today is at a record high. He should pay tribute to that work.
I listened to the answer that the Prime Minister gave to the questions; that is why I asked him the question, because yesterday he said the complete opposite of what he said today. Everybody who was in the Chamber, and everybody who reads Hansard, will see it. He talks about testing. May I remind the Prime Minister that last week, before the Liaison Committee, he admitted that testing currently “has huge problems”? Dido Harding said,
“plainly we don’t have enough testing capacity”.
The Health Secretary said that fixing testing would take weeks. Pretending that there isn’t a problem is part of the problem, Prime Minister.
Let us test what the Prime Minister’s explanation is—it is unclear. Is the explanation for the problems that we do not have enough capacity? [Interruption.] He says, “Which problem?” The problem that he acknowledged one week ago before the Liaison Committee. Is the explanation from the Prime Minister that we do not have enough capacity because nobody could have expected the rise in demand? That is the Dido Harding defence. Or is it that we have all the capacity we need; it is just that people are being unreasonable in asking for tests? That is the Hancock defence. Which is it?
The continual attacks by the Opposition on Dido Harding in particular are unseemly and unjustified. Her teams have done an outstanding job in recruiting people from a standing start, but this is not for a moment to deny the anxiety of those who want a test, which I readily accept. Of course we would love to have much more testing instantly. It is thanks to the efforts of NHS Test and Trace that we are not only at a record high today, testing more people than any other European country, but that, to get to the point that the right hon. and learned Gentleman raises, we are going to go up to 500,000 tests by the end of October. That is the work of Dido Harding and her team.
What we want to hear—what I, frankly, want to hear—is more of the spirit of togetherness that we had yesterday. This is an opportunity to support NHS Test and Trace. This is an opportunity to get behind that scheme—to encourage people to believe in it and its efficacy. Instead, the right hon. and learned Gentleman constantly knocks it from the sidelines. [Interruption.]
Sorry. I will just say to the Whip, the hon. Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (James Morris), that there is a little bit of rowdiness coming from the Opposition, but also from your good self—I would normally never have that from you. I want to be able to hear the Prime Minister. When I cannot hear him, I worry about the people who watch our proceedings. If you have further comment to make, please speak to me afterwards.
The Prime Minister knows that my complaint is not with the NHS; it is with the Government. My wife works for the NHS. My mother worked for the NHS. My sister works for the NHS. So I will not take lectures from the Prime Minister on supporting the NHS.
The Prime Minister says we have capacity—he goes on and on about capacity. Let us test that. Three weeks ago, millions of children went back to school—that is a good thing. Then the inevitable happened. Kids get coughs, bugs, flu. That is what happens; it is in the job description. But there is no effective system in place to deal with it. Many cannot get tests quickly. Schools are allocated only 10 tests, and many wait days for results. The outcome is obvious: child and siblings off school; mum, dad or carer off work; and in some cases, all-year groups off school. How on earth did we get into this mess?
Come on: the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows perfectly well—or he will have read the advice from the four chief medical officers—that there is an exceptionally small risk to children of primary and secondary school age from this disease. He knows that children have a significantly lower rate of infection. That is all in the letter that they published today. But he also knows that we are doing our level best to get every child who has symptoms a test, and further, that thanks to the efforts of teachers in this country, and of parents and pupils, 99.9% of our schools are now back, in spite of all his attempts throughout the summer to sow doubt on the idea that schools were safe. The people of this country had more common sense.
That is such a poor defence. The point is not whether the children have got covid, but that they have got covid symptoms and then they are off school. The Government’s own Department has shown that one in eight children are off school this week. That disrupts their education. Whether it is covid symptoms or other symptoms is not the point. If the Prime Minister does not see that, he is really out of touch with families and what they have been going through in schooling, day in, day out in the last few weeks. The reality is that losing control of testing is a major reason why the Prime Minister is losing control of the virus. As a result, he is phasing in health measures—restrictions that we support—but at the same time, he is phasing out economic support. Health measures and economic measures are now dangerously out of sync. Let me quote the director-general of the CBI:
“there can be no avoiding the crushing blow new measures bring for thousands of firms…It is vital that all announcements of restrictions go hand in hand with clarity on the business support that protects jobs.”
Why was that not announced yesterday?
Let us be in absolutely no doubt that the work that this Government have done to protect this country’s economy and support the jobs of 12 million people through the furlough scheme and overall expenditure of about £160 billion is unexampled anywhere else in the world. The right hon. and learned Gentleman should pay tribute to the Chancellor and his work. We will go forward with further creative and imaginative schemes to keep our economy moving. That is the essence of our plan and proposals. The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about our plans; he supported them yesterday. I hope he continues to support them. The essence of what we are saying is that we want to depress the virus but keep pupils in school and keep our economy moving. That is the single best thing we can do to support firms across the country.
I am not asking about the support that was put in place in the past. We support that. I am asking about the support that is needed now, particularly in light of the restrictions that were announced yesterday. This is not theoretical. Yesterday, 6,000 jobs were lost at Whitbread, one of the major employers in the hospitality sector. The CBI, the TUC and trade unions, the Federation of Small Businesses, the British Chambers of Commerce and the Governor of the Bank of England are all calling on the Prime Minister to stop and rethink, support the businesses affected, not to withdraw furlough. We have been saying it for months. When is the Prime Minister finally going to act?
These are indeed tough times and I have no doubt that many businesses and many employees are feeling a great deal of anxiety and uncertainty and we will do our level best to protect them throughout this period. But we will get through this by precisely the methods that we have outlined and that were agreed upon in the House yesterday. The reality of the Opposition position has been exposed—the cat is out of the bag—because the shadow Education Secretary said of the current crisis,
“don’t let a good crisis go to waste.”
That is the real approach of the Labour party—seeking to create political opportunity out of a crisis, out of the difficulties and dangers this country is going through, while we are taking the tough decisions to get the virus down, to keep our education system going and to keep our economy moving. The right hon. and learned Gentleman supported that yesterday. I hope that, in a spirit of togetherness and unity, he will continue to give it his support.
I know what a passionate supporter of Mansfield Town my hon. Friend is and I want to thank John and Carolyn Radford for all they have done for the club. The Secretary for State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is in active consultations with clubs across the country to see what we can do to help.
Last night, the Prime Minister and leaders of the devolved Governments announced restrictions aimed at stopping the number of covid cases reaching a predicted 50,000 a day by mid-October, but there are other major threats that we face this October. There is another set of numbers—all this is of the Tory Government’s own making—with 1 million jobs at risk if furlough ends early, a £30 billion-a-year bill to the taxpayer from a no-deal Brexit, and today we learn of 7,000 trucks queuing for days at Dover. If those numbers become a reality, the Prime Minister is leading us into another winter of discontent.
Our First Minister has shown leadership on all fronts during this pandemic. However, the responsibility and powers for extending the furlough scheme lie with the Prime Minister and the Chancellor. The Prime Minister must announce an immediate extension—no half-measures, no half-baked projects—of this vital and life-saving scheme. Will the Prime Minister show the leadership required and save the jobs?
I notice that both the leader of the Scottish nationalist party and the Leader of the Opposition now support an indefinite extension of the furlough scheme. [Interruption.] That is what he said. What we will do, as I have said throughout, is continue to put our arms around the people of this country going through a very tough time and come up with the appropriate creative and imaginative schemes to keep them in work and keep the economy moving. That is the essence of our approach.
That is so poor. What we are talking about is protecting the jobs of people today. It is not indefinite and nobody—nobody, Prime Minister—has asked for that. The first step to any recovery is admitting that there is a problem. Even the Governor of the Bank of England is telling the Prime Minister to stop and rethink. The solution for millions of people right now is an extension of the furlough scheme beyond October. The alternative is putting 61,000 jobs in Scotland at risk. Yesterday, the only reassurance the Prime Minister gave those Scottish workers was saying that he would throw his arms around them. I can tell the Prime Minister that the last thing those 61,000 Scots are looking for is a hug from him. They need the security of knowing that they can hold on to their jobs and incomes for themselves and their families. Time is running out. Workers are facing the dole today. Will the Government instruct the Chancellor to extend the furlough scheme and stop 1 million workers being sold on to the scrapheap by this Government?
What I can certainly tell the right hon. Gentleman is that the furlough scheme has already been extended until the end of October, and people should be in no doubt about that. As I have said before, we will continue to provide the best support we can possibly give to keep people in jobs and to get people into work—new jobs are being created—while suppressing the virus. I can imagine that he does not want a hug from me, but that was a metaphor. It is physically incarnated by the £12.7 billion of Barnett consequentials that we are seeing come from the UK Exchequer to support people across the whole of our country.
I have absolutely no idea. It is totally baffling, because it is a Bill that underpins a massive transfer of powers back to Scotland from Brussels. About 70 powers and prerogatives go back to Scotland, which SNP Members would throw away again, as they would throw away again the entire beautiful, glistening haul of Scotland’s spectacular marine wealth by handing Scotland’s fisheries straight back to Brussels. That is what they want to do.
Last week, a Royal Society for the Protection of Birds report noted that the UK has seen a lost decade for nature, with the Government failing to reach 17 out of the 20 targets they had signed up to. There is a major United Nations biodiversity summit next week. It is a vital moment to put this right and to show some real leadership. The EU’s biodiversity summit aims to protect a minimum of 30% of land and sea for nature by 2030, so will the Prime Minister commit now at least to match that goal of 30% of land and sea for nature by 2030 and deliver the funding via the forthcoming spending review?
The hon. Lady simply cannot be unaware that the campaign to get the world’s leaders to sign up to a leaders’ declaration on biodiversity has been led over the past few weeks by this Government. [Interruption.] She knows that, Mr Speaker. It is this Government who devised the charter. It is this Government who are leading the world in protecting biodiversity across the planet, and we will put in the funding. We pioneered the 30% idea, and we will certainly put in all the funding required.
I thank my hon. Friend, and he is completely right that the legal position is currently very difficult because of the inflexible and rigid Dublin regulation on returns. What is happening now is that people think there is a way in that is legally very difficult to resist, and it is tragic for those who are coming across in rubber dinghies or children’s paddling pools and who are being cheated by gangs, as they are. We must find a better way of doing this. Once we are out of the EU and able to make our own return arrangements and settle our own laws on this matter, I have no doubt that we will find a way forward.
The hon. Gentleman is entirely right about the gravity of the situation, and although it is true that some firms are powering through this, many face very difficult circumstances. That is why we have put in the support that we have, and do not forget the job retention bonus at the end of the year that will help firms to keep people in employment. That is also why we are looking at a massive package of investment in jobs and growth in the short, medium and long term. We have already put in place the £2 billion kickstart fund and about £640 billion of investment overall in infrastructure. In addition to the package that I set out yesterday, as I said earlier, there will be creative and imaginative measures from the Chancellor to help people through this crisis.
The cause of education in Tiverton can have no more fervent and effective advocate than my hon. Friend, and although the first 50 schools have not yet been announced, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education will have heard that powerful cry, and I have no doubt that my hon. Friend will be answered.
I thank the hon. Gentleman. Very simply, it is to keep doing what we have been doing, but to intensify our support for every part of the Union and—from spaceports to backing our armed services throughout the whole UK and investing in our healthcare—that is what we will do. The overall Barnett consequentials, as I have said, so far are £12.7 billion, and we will continue to provide that support.
It grieves me to see football clubs—Mansfield, Norwich City and others—not able to go back in the way that they want to right now. I totally sympathise with my hon. Friend and with the fans, and I really wish we did not have to do this now. The best way obviously to get through it, as I say, is to follow the advice and suppress the virus; but in the meantime, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is looking actively at solutions to help Norwich City and other clubs.
The hon. Gentleman is right in the sense that of course the Government are going to come forward with further measures. I do not think that it would be sensible simply to extend the current existing furlough scheme in its present form beyond the end of October, but we will do everything we can to support businesses and to support those in jobs and, indeed, the self-employed, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says.
I certainly can. It was a former Labour Planning Minister who said, “The Green Belt is a Labour achievement, and we intend to build on it.” That is what he said. The Government’s approach is entirely different. Our planning reform will not change. That is what the Opposition want to do. We will not change existing policy to protect the green belt, and our housing targets, which are very ambitious, will focus, as my hon. Friend rightly says, on brownfield.
Unsafe cladding is leaving hundreds of leaseholders across Vauxhall unable to sell or remortgage their properties. The EWS1 forms are not being used as intended, leaving my constituents trapped between risk-averse lenders and irresponsible building owners. They have been waiting three years already, so can the Prime Minister tell me what steps he is taking now to resolve this really dangerous situation?
I thank the hon. Lady, because I am aware of this problem of people facing real disadvantage—leaseholders and others—because of unsafe cladding still on their buildings. I think it is disgraceful, and both ACM and HPL cladding, in my view, should come off as fast as possible. We are investing massively to achieve that as fast as we can, but I sincerely appreciate the problem that she raises.
In 2006, Menheniot parish council was told of improvement plans to the dangerous junction on the A38—something I have long campaigned for. However, two months ago, the regional director of the south-west part of Highways England told me that this was not going to happen, blaming the change from the old Highways Agency. Can my right hon. Friend tell me when, if ever, the people of Menheniot will finally see shovels in the ground?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, because she gave me advance notice of this question. This is really a case for a project speed, and I hope that Highways England, which is currently undertaking a safety study of the A38 between Bodmin and Saltash, will be able to accelerate its work and get on with the Menheniot junction as fast as possible.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady, because she is raising a very important point. Getting kids back into school has been the most important objective that we have had over the last few months, and I am glad that it has got under way, but she is right in what she says about the digital divide. That is why we are investing massively in online education, giving 2,200,000 laptops and tablets, and putting routers in schools across the country. That is what we are going to do, and I want to see a world in which every school in our country has full gigabit broadband, with the equipment that will give pupils the access to the internet that they need.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that, as the UK’s performing arts are a global gold standard that are not only the envy of the world but a vital showcase for UK plc across the world, we should treasure them and look after that industry? We have had the furlough and other job retention schemes, but those who have fallen through the cracks are the freelancers. We must do something to protect the freelancers—the actors, the costumiers, the prop makers and many others. Can we do something to look after those people?
That is a very important point. Obviously the job retention scheme has been very effective in keeping people in work, but there are of course people who do not have employment of that kind. That is why we have given £1.57 billion to support the creative, culture and media sectors, including the theatres. We will do whatever we can to support the freelancers who my hon. Friend describes, because they are the backbone of our theatrical world, which, as he knows, is the jewel in the crown of the London cultural economy.
Like the vast majority of the British public, I support the new restrictions. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said we will get through this, but long term, there are only three routes out of this pandemic: one, eradicate the virus; two, gain herd immunity; or three, suppress the virus and reduce deaths until a vaccine or highly effective treatment arrives, such as the ones that the brilliant researchers of South Cambridgeshire are working on. Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister tell me which of these three routes are the Government taking?
The right hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point of scepticism about the about the medical forecasts. All I can say is that everybody should look at what has already happened in the first phases of this pandemic and be in no doubt that it is possible that such a thing could happen again. It is precisely to avoid that that we are taking the steps that we are now, because a stitch in time saves nine. There would be far more damage to the economy throughout our country if we failed to control the virus now and we were obliged to put in seriously damaging lockdown measures that really affected every business in the country. That is why we are taking the approach that we are now, and that is why I hope it has his support and the support of his party. I can certainly tell him that the advantage of this approach is that it will allow us not just to keep the virus down—if we all follow the guidance; if we all do follow the package that we have set out—but to enable education to continue and our economy to go forward. Of course we will continue to support businesses in Northern Ireland and across the country throughout the period.
End of Eviction Moratorium
I congratulate the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) on securing this urgent question. The Government have taken unprecedented action to support renters by banning evictions for six months, preventing people from getting into financial hardship and helping businesses to pay salaries. We have boosted the welfare safety net and increased the local housing allowance rates to cover the lowest 30% of market rents. We have made available £180 million for the discretionary housing payments this year, for local councils to distribute to support those renters who require additional support. We have now introduced comprehensive measures to ensure that renters continue to be protected over the autumn and winter, following the resumption of possession proceedings on Monday.
However, we must strike a balance so that landlords are able to access justice alongside measures to protect the vulnerable. That is vital to the long-term health of the private rented sector. We have worked with the judiciary to put in place new court arrangements that seek to ensure appropriate support to all parties within the current statutory framework. The judiciary will look to prioritise the most serious cases, including antisocial behaviour, fraud and egregious rent arrears. New court rules also require landlords to reactivate any claim they have made before 3 August and to provide information to the court on the effect of the covid-19 pandemic on the tenant and their dependants. A court would be likely to take a very dim view of any landlord who tried to circumvent this requirement or mislead the court by not disclosing relevant information where known.
To help to keep people in their homes over the winter, we have changed the law, increasing notice periods to six months in all but the most serious cases. Tenants now served notice will not be required to move over winter, while landlords will be empowered to take action where necessary—for example, where a tenant’s antisocial behaviour severely affects their neighbours’ quality of life. To further support renters, guidance has been issued to bailiffs by my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor to ensure that possession orders are not enforced in areas where lockdown restrictions are in place or over the Christmas period, except in the most serious circumstances.
Our package strikes a fair balance, supporting landlords to act in the most serious cases while keeping the public, including renters, safe. Comprehensive guidance has been published for landlords and tenants to explain these new arrangements and the possession process in courts. The Government are clear that all these measures are to protect renters over this period. They are kept under constant review in the light of evidence on public health, and we are prepared to take further measures as they are needed to protect landlords and tenants alike.
I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question.
The ban on possession proceedings has given many private renters protection against the economic impact of coronavirus; at least the roof over their heads could not be taken away. That protection ended on Sunday and now 55,000 households are in immediate danger of losing their homes. They are the 55,000 served with eviction notices between March and August. Their landlords were not required to give six months’ notice, so courts could be processing their eviction orders as I speak. In addition, by the way, asylum seekers who fled to Britain for sanctuary will receive eviction notices with immediate effect. For context, in the same period last year, just 21,000 eviction notices were served. The scale of the hardship that is now being unleashed is unprecedented and no one is ready for it. Shelter estimates that a colossal 322,000 private renters are newly in arrears since the pandemic began, so things will get worse even more quickly. Unless he acts now, the Secretary of State will break his promise made in this place on 18 March that
“no renter who has lost income due to coronavirus will be forced out of their home”.
The Minister insists there are new measures to provide protection. That is not so. The new civil procedure rules require the landlord seeking possession to describe the effect of the pandemic on their tenants’ circumstances, but judges have zero authority to take those circumstances into account. In practice, it provides no protection. We recognise, too, that some small landlords will be unable to pay their mortgages or put food on their tables, so I remind the Minister of his promise to landlords that none should face unmanageable debt. The Minister believed the eviction moratorium was justified as the pandemic took hold in spring, but as we battle a second wave in the harsh depths of winters are not such measures justified still?
I do not ask the Minister to kick the can down the road. Instead, I ask for an extension to the eviction moratorium, so that the underlying problems can be solved. The 55,000 at risk of homelessness today cannot afford to pay their rent now, they are not likely to have the money in a few months’ time, and they are not going to have enough money for a deposit for a new place if they are evicted, so, very briefly, my four suggestions are these.
First, let us enact a further six-month moratorium on the bulk of evictions starting today, but this time do not waste the six months. Secondly, let us amend section 8 evictions to give judges discretion over tenants who are in need. Thirdly, the Minister should, as his manifesto promised, fast-track legislation to repeal section 21 no-fault evictions. Throughout the crisis, the Government have swiftly moved through legislation when they have needed to and there is nothing more urgent than preventing avoidable homelessness. Finally, the Minister should provide a comprehensive package of financial support for those in arrears, so that when the moratorium does end, we do not see the appalling misery of mass homelessness, whether that is in the Lakes or in London.
The British people are united in their decency and in their belief that the virus should not bring families to their knees and dump them on the street. The Minister has the power to prevent a pandemic of homelessness. I beg him to use that power and take the actions I have outlined.
I am grateful, again, to the hon. Gentleman for securing his urgent question. I remind him of the unprecedented series of measures we have undertaken to protect renters during this very difficult time. Court actions have been stayed on eviction for six months, the longest period of intervention in our history. I remind him that it is the courts themselves that wish to reopen and begin to hear cases again, because the Master of the Rolls, Sir Terence Etherington, and Mr Justice Knowles have made it quite clear that they believe that landlords and tenants alike should have access to justice and so the courts should not remain closed. The courts are able to prioritise cases and, of course, that is a matter for them. They will prioritise the most egregious cases first.
The hon. Gentleman quoted some figures. I can tell him that the most recent figures suggest that 3,022 applications have been made to the courts for evictions. That is 89% down on the same period last year. The fact of the matter is that landlords are acting responsibly and talking to their tenants to avoid such actions. Such a low figure for notices made is also due to the unprecedented measures we have introduced. We will continue to keep our policies under review. We will act fairly to landlords and tenants alike.
I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is about achieving an appropriate balance between the unprecedented protection that was rightly provided by this Government and supported by many landlords and the right of landlords, many of whom rely on rents for their livelihood, to protect their properties in the face of egregious behaviour?
I quite agree: it is about striking a fair balance. There are many landlords in this country, with the private rented sector accounting for about 21% of all houses available to live in, and many of those houses are owned by smaller landlords who need the rental income to pay their bills and survive. That is why, while extending the period of notice of eviction under section 21, we have reduced the period of notice to four weeks for the most serious matters, such as antisocial behaviour, domestic abuse and violence, fraud, and egregious rent arrears, which means arrears that predate the covid emergency. I think that is a fair balance, and I suggest the House should support it.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) on securing this urgent question, because it is scandalous that this Government are lifting the ban just as we are heading into a second wave of coronavirus. The chief medical officer gave a stark warning, but 16 public health bodies and charities also warned of a rise in covid infections if the Government force people into homelessness or overcrowding.
In March, as we all know, the Secretary of State promised that
“no renter who has lost income due to coronavirus will be forced out of their home, nor will any landlord face unmanageable debts.”
The Government have reneged on that promise. They have failed to change the law to prevent automatic evictions. The courts might take a dim view, but with section 21 still on the statute book despite the Government saying they would get rid of it, the courts will have no choice. The Government have failed to prevent financial hardship—whatever the Minister says, many people are struggling with rent—and failed to deal with arrears, with the number of people in arrears having built up since the start of the crisis to over 300,000.
The Welsh Labour Government have a plan to prevent evictions and homelessness, but as with testing, this Government had summer to develop their plan and wasted it. They now choose to withdraw the protection of the evictions ban exactly when it is most needed. There have been last-minute chaotic announcements, creating a complex and confusing situation. Will the Minister confirm that the extension of notice periods will not help those who were served notice before 29 August? What steps are the Government taking to help tenants and landlords to navigate this complex situation? Why do lockdown regulations for Newcastle and Gateshead have no rules barring bailiffs from enforcing evictions? What are the Government doing to prevent illegal evictions, which are reportedly up by 50%? Why will they not stick to their commitment to remove section 21 and automatic evictions? Are they trying to collect any data that gives an accurate picture of the problem?
We are likely to see a rise in evictions and homelessness because of this Government’s incompetence. The Government must act now to prevent a wave of evictions just as covid rises this winter, and honour their promise to landlords and renters.
The Government have honoured their promise to landlords and renters. That is why we introduced the most significant package of support in our history for people suffering from the emergency: £35 billion has helped over 9 million people on the furlough scheme. We have introduced the local housing allowance and increased it to the 30th percentile of local market rents, which will increase the annual income of those in receipt of it by some £600. The next steps accommodation programme is providing 3,000 new homes for those who have found themselves homeless, to make sure that they receive long-term help.
The hon. Lady says the Welsh Government have a plan. Well, we would all like to know what it is. They have announced some form of help, but not told us when it starts or what the amount is. We have made the rules in lockdown areas very clear. The Lord Chancellor has written to the association of bailiffs to make the position clear, and further guidance will be issued. We will continue to keep our measures under review, but we will also continue to support landlords and renters alike through this crisis.
I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
There are 2.5 million landlords in this country. Most have just one property, often indebted, and for retired landlords it can form the backbone of their retirement income. Good landlords repair properties, get them back into use and provide millions of properties that would otherwise fall to the public and quasi sectors. Sadly, however, landlords are too often demonised. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is right and fair that we allow courts to exercise due discretion and sensitivity, as they always do, to decide on the correct pathways from now on?
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. Landlords in our country provide a valuable and important service to the many people who rent. Demonising landlords, forcing the good ones out of business, will result only in fewer properties available to rent, and it may result in more of those properties being rented out for Airbnb or by less scrupulous landlords, so he is absolutely right. We have tried to be fair to renters and to landlords; the package of measures that we introduced on 29 August is fair to both. It is important that those landlords who need access to justice are able to get it, that those landlords who are facing egregious rent arrears, antisocial behaviour and issues of domestic abuse are able to repossess their properties, while at the same time those people who through no fault of their own have got into difficulties because of the covid-19 epidemic are helped.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) on securing the urgent question.
We heard from colleagues about the urgency of the situation in England which I can see, as an observer in these proceedings, clearly needs urgent action. I urge the Minister to reflect on that.
As a result of SNP Government action, in Scotland there is a ban on eviction until March 2021. The Scottish Government have also brought forward a new £10 million tenant hardship loan fund, as well as a further £3 million in additional funding for discretionary housing payments. I therefore urge the Minister, once again, to look north to Scotland to see what protecting tenants looks like.
I also want to raise some issues with the Minister about support for asylum seekers on accommodation. Will he agree that no one refused asylum or those with insecure status should be made street homeless, given the public health emergency? Will he further commit that the Government will not follow through on their decision to subject vulnerable asylum seekers to evictions and street homelessness without the explicit consent of the affected local authority and public health director?
The Prime Minister’s announcement yesterday is a sage reminder of the precarious situation we find ourselves in as we head into a second wave. The last thing that people need is for the Government to pull the rug from under their feet. I very much urge the Minister to act now to protect people when they need our help most.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his contribution. As he knows, the Scottish legal system is different from the system in England. He knows that tenancy arrangements are different in Scotland from those here in England. He also knows that the Scottish courts began their actions some several weeks ago, whereas we maintained our stay until 21 September. I note what he said about discretionary housing payments; I am sure he noted what I said about the £180 million that we made available to local authorities in England to help people who have difficulty with their housing needs. He mentioned asylum seekers—I am sure that Her Majesty’s Government will always do their duty by asylum seekers, and so will the courts.
I have two simple asks of the Minister. First, does he recognise that there will be people in dire financial hardship who struggle and cannot pay their rent? I heard what he said about help for discretionary housing payments. Will he continue to monitor that, and if local authorities say they do not have sufficient to help people in real need, will he look at expanding the amount of money?
Secondly, with regard to the issue of discretion, will the Minister confirm that, as long as landlords have talked to their tenants and presented their financial information to the courts, when applying for a section 21 notice or possession on ground 8, of rent arrears, the courts have no discretion at all to reject those applications? Will he further consider those points, do what the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee has asked and strengthen the pre-action protocol to give the courts more discretion?
We always listen with great care to the Chairman of the Select Committee. I can confirm that we will keep all our arrangements, including our financial provisions, under review as the situation develops; it probably has some time to go before things begin to get better. He mentions section 21. He knows that the Government are committed to repealing section 21 in our renters’ reform Bill, and we will do that at the appropriate time, when there is a sensible and stable economic and social terrain on which to do it.
The hon. Gentleman will know that the courts do have discretion to prioritise the cases before them. He will also know that, if landlords do not provide the right information to the courts in pursuit of their section 21 application, the courts have the discretion to adjourn the case and push it to the end of the queue. I am quite sure that Sir Terence Etherton and Mr Justice Knowles will look carefully at landlords who fail to comply with their duties. Our approach has always been to be fair—fair to those who have lost out as a result of the epidemic, and also fair to landlords, particularly smaller landlords, who need their incomes.
The “Everybody In” programme has had unprecedented success in bringing rough sleepers off the streets. Will the Minister assure the House that the Government will do everything they can to build on that success, to engage with rough sleepers and to get them into long-term, stable accommodation, with support to grapple with the problems—substance addiction, mental health issues and others—that contribute to the causes of rough sleeping in the first place?
I am obliged to my right hon. Friend, who is a doughty campaigner for her constituents in Chipping Barnet. I agree that we need to build upon the programme that she mentions. That is why, on 18 July, we announced the next steps accommodation programme, which I referred to earlier. At that point, it had spent about £263 million on 3,000 homes to help the long-term homeless. Dame Louise Casey is tasked with ensuring that we get people off the streets and keep them off the streets. As a result of the measures that we have undertaken, about 90% of those who were homeless at the start of the epidemic are now housed. We will continue to discharge our obligations. That is why, on 17 September, we announced further funds to the tune of £93 million to support the sorts of programme to which my right hon. Friend referred.
York has one of the highest levels of private rent in the country. So many people are falling into rent arrears, and we do not have any capacity in our social housing provision. In fact, the waiting list has gone up by 300—over 20%—over the last six months. How will the Minister ensure that local authorities such as mine have sufficient resources in their discretionary grant to support constituents and stop them becoming homeless?
As I have already described, we have disbursed £180 million in discretionary housing payments to local authorities to support them in supporting those in difficulty. We have spent several billion pounds on supporting local authorities through this pandemic, and we will keep our proposals under review, to ensure that we help everybody who is affected by this crisis, including the hon. Lady’s constituents in York. The measures put in place by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer—described by the shadow Chancellor as a “lifeline”—and by the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), which to date have injected a further £9.3 billion into our welfare safety net, are designed to do exactly what we want to do: keep people off the street, keep them in their homes and keep them in their jobs as we move through this crisis.
The Government took really excellent, strong steps to get rough sleepers off the streets during the first wave of the pandemic. My right hon. Friend might recall that, together with the noble Lord Bird from the other place—the founder of The Big Issue—I wrote to the Government with some suggestions on how we could continue to ensure that rough sleeping becomes a thing of the past. Now, of course, with the end of the moratorium on evictions fast approaching, the risk of people losing their work and then their home is increasing, so will my right hon. Friend agree to look at some of the excellent and practical proposals of the Ride Out Recession Alliance, started by the founders of The Big Issue, and consider taking some of them up to prevent joblessness becoming homelessness yet again?
I have already described the package of measures that we have introduced: we have extended to six months the notice period that landlords are required to give their tenants, which means that tenants will not have to leave their homes over Christmas, and we have made it clear that over the Christmas period and in areas of lockdown there will be no evictions—between 11 December and 11 January there will be no evictions. I think, therefore, that we have taken some steps that my right hon. Friend has described. I am always prepared to look at ideas, particularly if they are supplied by my right hon. Friend.
I find it incomprehensible that the Minister has not taken the opportunity to cut the Gordian knot and deal with section 21 and the need to protect decent, honest tenants who are facing the loss of not only their job but their home. There is another, smaller group of antisocial tenants who are ruining the lives of their neighbours with their behaviour and seem to think that at the moment they are untouchable. Will the Minister ensure that councils and the courts have the power and capacity—and are fully aware of that—to take action against antisocial tenants, and fast?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the points he made, which are apposite. It is for the courts to determine the priority of their cases, but I am sure the House will be reassured to know that they will do so based on matters such as antisocial behaviour, fraud, domestic violence and the like. As a result of the statutory instrument that we laid on 29 August, landlords seeking possession of property because of the antisocial behaviour of their tenants will be able to move much more quickly than the former rules allowed: they will be able to seek possession of their properties in four weeks. I think that is the right balance of fairness between those tenants who fall into difficulty because of no fault of their own, and those tenants who abuse their rights and privileges and against whom the courts should act.
It is right that the Government brought about a moratorium on evictions, but it is also right that landlords’ legal rights can once again be enforced. Will my right hon. Friend share with the House details of the level of unpaid rent in the private sector and what support he is giving to those individuals who rely on rental income as their only income?
I understand from my discussions with the National Residential Landlords Association that about 89% of tenants are paying their full rent; about 4% of tenants have agreed either rent holidays or rent reductions with their landlords; and about 7% are in arrears. My hon. Friend is right to point out that smaller landlords rely on their rents, which is why we have made it plain, through our introduction of the SI on 29 August, that where there are egregious rents, landlords should be able to move quickly to repossess their properties and rent them out again. If they do not, the likelihood is that the number of properties available to rent will fall away as landlords leave the sector. As I said, 21% of homes are in the private rented sector; it is an important part of our economy and we will support it.
Newcastle citizens advice bureau reports a massive jump in housing queries, and no wonder—for most people, after their family’s health and wellbeing, their home is what is most important to them, and the two are often related because, as we know, covid-19 feeds off bad housing, overcrowding and the respiratory conditions associated with that. The Minister is giving a lot of general reassurances, but can he say to me specifically that no one in Newcastle will face eviction, court action or bailiff action as a consequence of arrears due to covid-19?
The hon. Lady has heard clearly the measures that I have laid out to support tenants who find themselves in difficulty. Tenants who have not paid their rents for more than six months, which predates the covid emergency, may well find themselves in receipt of a notice from their landlords, and that notice to move will be much quicker. That seems to me to be a fair balance between protecting people who have got into difficulty through no fault of their own, which is why we have extended the notice period that landlords have to give other tenants, and protecting landlords and the neighbours of antisocial tenants, or tenants who are not paying their rents and have not been paying them for some time, so that we protect people who are doing the right thing as well as landlords who also want to do the right thing.
I welcome the confirmation that as eviction hearings resume, cases of antisocial behaviour will be prioritised. However, to follow on from the question from the right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar), will the Minister confirm that my constituents who are suffering from this blight will now have to wait only four weeks before being put out of their misery?
I can confirm to my hon. Friend that neighbours of antisocial tenants will find that their landlords are able to move much more quickly now to seek justice and to seek repossession of their properties and ensure that that sort of behaviour is stymied.
Housing advisers are reporting a surge in illegal evictions, and indeed, I have had experience of this myself. Do the Government recognise those figures? Do the Government collect data on illegal evictions? Are the Government expecting illegal evictions to continue to rise during the coming months? When was the last time that guidance was issued to police forces across the country on what their duties are to intervene in these cases?
The law is quite clear, and I advise and encourage all landlords to adhere to it. Those who do not may find themselves in receipt of a very dim view from the courts. Of the 7% of tenants who are in arrears, I am told that about 1% have received notices to evict, so landlords, on the whole, are doing the right thing. Those who are not will, I hope, be pursued by the law, because we need to make sure that landlords do the right thing and that illegal evictions of the sort that the hon. Lady notes are not tolerated in any way.
I know that the Government are desperately trying to be fair, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and this is an absolutely clear example. My casework is full of landlords complaining about tenants who are working but have refused to pay their rent, and who are behaving antisocially—but is not antisocial behaviour rather a broad catch-all? What guidance will the Minister ensure that landlords and tenants get so that when they go to court, justice is done, as he wishes?
Urgent action is needed to strengthen support for tenants struggling to pay their rent, and many have joined us in calling for the UK Government to lift local housing allowance rates further to cover average rents. Has the Minister discussed that call with Department for Work and Pensions and Treasury Ministers, and if not, why not?
We keep our policies under constant review, as I say, and I will certainly talk to my ministerial colleagues at the Department for Work and Pensions. We have increased the local housing allowance to the 30th percentile of local market rents. That was called for last year by Crisis and by Shelter, so we have been listening to stakeholders in this area who are concerned about the effect on tenants. As a result of that intervention, we have increased tenants’ incomes by some £600 a year to help them through this crisis.
Yes, I can. My hon. Friend is a hardy campaigner for her constituents. When I came to the House before the recess to answer a similar urgent question, I told the House that we had injected into the welfare system some £6.5 billion of further investment to help people in difficulty. I can now report to the House that, as she has pointed out, we have now spent £9.3 billion on the welfare system. That is a very tangible example of the investment that we are putting in to help people out during this crisis.
Young people have been hit hardest by the coronavirus jobs crisis and receive less local housing allowance. As a consequence, 100,000 young people are now at risk of eviction. What discussions has the Minister had with youth organisations working with young people who are homeless, at risk of homelessness or perhaps sofa-surfing to ensure that they do not face an evictions crisis?
The hon. Lady makes a good point. My Department and my officials are in regular contact with a large number of stakeholders and groups concerned with those affected by this crisis. I myself have taken part in a large number of roundtables with various interlocutors. As I say, we will keep our policies under review to deal with the challenges that people face. I simply point her again to the interventions that we have already made, including the job retention scheme, the help with local housing allowance and the discretionary housing payments that have been disbursed to local authorities to help people in difficulty, including young people.
The Minister will know that a large number of homeless people and those facing eviction are veterans. Although there are many good charities out there working to help homeless veterans, such as Help 4 Homeless Veterans, led by Steven Bentham-Bates and operating in South Yorkshire, what support can the Minister and his Department give to those men and women—our heroes—who are facing evictions?
My hon. Friend will know that anybody who has been a regular member of Her Majesty’s armed forces will receive priority treatment from local authorities with regard to housing and housing need. I certainly commend the work of Help 4 Homeless Veterans, led by its chief executive officer, Mr Steven Bentham-Bates, in my hon. Friend’s constituency. I wish them, and him, more power to their elbow.
In my constituency, the number of universal credit and jobseekers allowance claimants has more than doubled since the lockdown. Almost a third of employees have been furloughed and a third of households in Putney are rented privately. With the evictions ban ending last weekend, the ending of furlough coming up very soon, and yesterday’s announcement of six months’ more restrictions, does the Minister agree that this is the perfect storm? Will he now end section 21 no-fault evictions?
The Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), has, with his Department, increased welfare spending by £9.3 billion since this crisis began. That is helping millions of people who, through no fault of their own, are in need of universal credit. The Chancellor has introduced the job retention scheme and the furlough scheme, which has resulted in our spending something like £35 billion to help 9 million people, so we have taken very tangible steps to help people through this difficulty. We will continue to keep all our policies under review as the epidemic develops. It has some way to go yet, and we shall be watching and reacting as appropriate.
Forty-two per cent. of my constituents are in the rented sector and they have appreciated the moratorium over the past six months, but can I just bring my right hon. Friend back to an answer that he gave some moments ago? Can he confirm that, for areas in my constituency such as Sandwell, which is currently under local restrictions, there will not be any evictions during those local restriction periods?
My hon. Friend is correct. My right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor wrote to the bailiffs’ association to give it clear direction as to its duties and responsibilities in lockdown areas in this crisis. While there is a lockdown where movements are restricted, no evictions will take place.
I would be more than happy to meet the Minister to discuss the forward plan in Wales, which has been in the public domain since last week, so if he wants to take me up on that offer, please do. Hundreds of thousands of people are already in rent arrears and millions more are at risk in the coming months. It is imperative that we prevent evictions and ensure that people are safe and secure in their homes. Does he agree that increasing the local housing allowance, as my Welsh colleagues have asked, to the 50th percentile is the most effective way to achieve this outcome?
As I said in answer to an earlier question, we have increased the LHA and we did so in response to a call from Crisis and from Shelter. We are listening. As I said, that will result in £600 of additional income to people in difficulty. The best thing that we can do is to help people to pay their rents. That helps and also means keeping people in jobs. Our primary focus as we work through this public health crisis is to keep the economy moving and keep people in jobs, ensuring that people can pay their bills.
The Government were absolutely right to protect renters over the last six months but, unfortunately, some people have misused that protection by causing unnecessary levels of antisocial behaviour in streets and law-abiding citizens have had to put up with that. Does the Minister agree that it is the right time now to lift the ban so that people can go back to a good quality of life in their streets and not have to put up with antisocial behaviour?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. The police have powers under the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 to deal with egregious antisocial behaviour, but he is absolutely right: where tenants are behaving irresponsibly, abusing their privileges and abusing their neighbours, not just the police, but landlords and the courts should have the right to act swiftly and that is the power that we have given them.
I know that many of my constituents have warmly welcomed the evictions ban as they have faced severe financial difficulties as a result of the pandemic. So can my right hon. Friend confirm that landlords will still be required to take into account coronavirus issues when starting eviction proceedings?
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. If a landlord wishes to pursue an action through the courts, that landlord will have to give the courts clear and defined information about the status of the tenants and the way in which the covid-19 emergency has affected them. If any landlord fails to do so, or attempts to circumvent those rules, the courts can adjourn the case, pushing it to the end of the queue, which will cost the landlord, if nothing else, probably quite a bit of money. So we have made sure there are tenant protections in place as we move through this crisis.
As of yesterday, Warrington North is subject to local lockdown. The Government have announced that bailiffs will not evict in areas under local lockdown, but the eviction ban has been lifted and the guidance for bailiffs remains unpublished. Given that local lockdown guidance does not clearly rule out bailiff actions, what assurances can the Minister give to constituents of mine in the private rented sector, anxious about losing their homes as we stand on the precipice of a second wave of this pandemic?
As I said in a previous answer, the Lord Chancellor has written to the bailiffs’ association to make absolutely clear what its responsibilities are. Further guidance will be published in due course, but we are absolutely clear that, where there is a lockdown where movement restrictions are in place, evictions should not take place. The Lord Chancellor has made it clear in his letter and I have made it clear from the Dispatch Box.
In Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, I have a constituent who lives with her disabled son in private rented accommodation. She has recently been served a section 21 notice and has until 9 November to find alternative specialist accommodation in a competitive marketplace. Can my right hon. Friend advise me on how we can best assist those who need such specialist accommodation?
I have made clear in my previous answers the work that we are doing through the next steps accommodation programme to the tune of £263 million. I am not aware of the exact circumstances of my hon. Friend’s constituents, so it is probably better if he writes to me with more detail; I will be sure to follow it up.
Ministers will know from my interventions and interests in this place that I am not an enemy of the landlord, but it seems to me that the balance here is totally wrong. Landlords and homeowners have been able to have mortgage deferrals, and they cannot be repossessed without the court looking at circumstances and the mortgage company discussing payment options. Why on earth does the Minister think it is acceptable for courts to have no discretion on section 8 notices on the grounds of rent arrears, and when will he fulfil his manifesto pledge to get rid of section 21 and introduce the renters’ reform Bill?
Given what the hon. Gentleman sometimes says in this place and on social media, one might be forgiven for thinking that he is the enemy of everybody some of the time. We will reform section 21 of the Housing Act 1988 when we bring forward the renters’ reform Bill, which we will do in due course.
It is crucial that we ensure that the most vulnerable in society are supported, especially throughout this pandemic. Is it not also the case that we should recognise that not every tenant is unable to pay their rent? Where necessary, should we not be supporting the landlords who rely on the income from their rental properties to live on or who have mortgages of their own to pay?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Tenants should continue to pay their rent where they can. Where they can but will not, we have changed the Coronavirus Act 2020 to make it easier for landlords to act. We think we have struck a fair balance between the rights of tenants and the rights of landlords, and I ask the House to support it.
The end of the moratorium on eviction strikes fear in my heart, and it should strike fear in most Members’ hearts, because we know what is coming for so many families with children in our constituencies who have done nothing wrong, but are at the end of section 21 evictions. My local authority, the London Borough of Merton, has had 24 two-bedroom properties available since 1 April; that is less than one a week. It has had six three-bedroom properties available; that is one a month. The families who are going to be evicted over the next few months face years in temporary accommodation. What support is the Minister giving local councils to ensure that the temporary accommodation that these families find, which will be long term in anybody’s imagination, is fit for them and allows them to remain in their jobs, in their schools and close to their support networks?
We have invested a great deal of money in local authorities throughout this crisis, as the hon. Lady knows. I have described to her the accommodation programme, which invests £263 million in 3,000 units to house the long-term homeless. We have just announced an affordable homes programme, which will result in something like 180,000 affordable homes being built over the next cycle, about half of which will be for a discounted rent. I encourage her to take up her concerns with the Mayor of London to ensure that he is building out the right number of homes, which he has pledged—and has thus far failed—to do.
As the Minister will know, a number of new restrictions were introduced in my constituency earlier this week to try to bring down the spread of covid. I have received a number of emails from constituents concerned that they may be at risk of eviction. Can my right hon. Friend give assurances that no evictions will take place in areas such as Warrington where local restrictions are in force?
The Government are reintroducing evictions at the same time as scrapping employment support for millions of people, making it highly likely that we will see a very bleak rise in homelessness. Is the Minister aware that, due to covid regulations, many hostels and shelters cannot open to support homeless people this winter? Is it his intention to resource alternative provision or revise those regulations?
We have provided a great deal of resources for local authorities and charities to support people through this emergency. We will continue to keep those policies and programmes under review. If the hon. Gentleman has specific ideas that he wishes to suggest, I am happy to hear them.
I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. It is absolutely right that we should be fair to tenants affected by the covid crisis, and the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), who secured the urgent question, is right to say that we might consider giving the courts discretion over the nature of arrears. But it also has to be right that we should be fair to the neighbours of those guilty of antisocial behaviour, fair to those affected by domestic abuse and fair to landlords who were affected by arrears pre-covid, and that should be the immediate focus of the courts’ attentions.
My constituent Nichola is a key worker. In May, her landlord served her with a section 21 no-fault eviction notice, giving her three months to move out. Housing benefit will cover only a one-bed flat for Nichola and her two teenage daughters. Letting agents demand an above-average income and the details of someone who earns more than £50,000 to guarantee the rent. What does the Minister suggest that people in Nichola’s position do to provide a suitable home for their families during the pandemic?
I have outlined to the House the range of measures that the Government have undertaken to support renters during this crisis. I do not know the specific circumstances that Nichola finds herself in, although the hon. Lady outlined some of them. If she cares to write to me with further information, I will give her a full and considered response.
Many renters in my constituency work in the leisure, hospitality and creative sectors. With the new restrictions coming in, they will continue to see a big shock to their income. The Prime Minister announced that the new restrictions may be in place for another six months, but they have not been matched by any support for renters. Will the Minister reintroduce the evictions memorandum while those restrictions are still in place, and scrap the benefit cap, which is impacting tenants and those who are falling into rent arrears?
Even with the benefit cap, from which there are right and proper exemptions, I think in London there is an equivalent income of £28,000 for a person in receipt of benefits. We keep our policies under constant review—the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), is here listening to the points that the House is making—and of course if we do choose to make future changes, will bring those to the House.
I have information on dozens and dozens of small-scale landlords—not property tycoons—who are now owed several thousand pounds in rent arrears, some due to genuine hardship, some as a result of tenants’ taking advantage of the current situation. This situation is now causing some landlords, particularly those with mortgages, severe hardship. I know that my right hon. Friend has said that the best option is to give the tenant as many options as possible to pay their rent, so will he look at the development of interest-free Government-guaranteed hardship loans for tenants to pay off their covid arrears?
As I said, we will keep our policies under review, to ensure that they take account of the state of the emergency at any given time. The steps that we have already taken, including mortgage holidays and the right to extend those mortgage holidays, also apply to landlords. I am happy to keep in touch with my hon. Friend as we continue to keep our policies under review, to make sure that he is apprised of the steps that we are taking to support landlords and tenants alike.
EU Exit: End of Transition Period
With permission, I would like to make a statement on preparations for the end of the transition period.
There are now just 100 days to go until the United Kingdom leaves the single market and the customs union, and that will be a moment of great opportunity, but also of significant change and challenge. It is vital that we all take the steps required to grasp those opportunities, and to meet and master those challenges. The Government are of course committed to negotiating a new free trade agreement with the EU before the end of the transition period, and those talks are progressing; but whatever the outcome of those negotiations, things will change for businesses and individuals as they trade with and travel to the EU. It is important that we, as parliamentarians, all understand that, and that we all take action to prepare.
Whether we secure a good FTA before January or not, whether we get a Canada-style deal or exit on Australian terms, we will have left the single market and the customs union, and that fact means adjustments for businesses trading with the EU; changes for citizens travelling to the EU; and, of course, new responsibilities for Government in both scenarios.
The superb civil servants at Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and their colleagues across Government are working with business to ensure that exporters and importers are ready for new rules. Every business trading with Europe will need to thoroughly familiarise itself with new customs procedures and, whether they develop their capacity in-house or work with a customs intermediary, enhanced preparation is vital. The Government have invested in increasing customs agent capacity and supported growth in the sector, and of course we stand ready to do more. HMRC is also able to support businesses to secure authorised economic operator, consignor and consignee status, which will ease the flow of goods.
Businesses that are fully ready for life outside the customs union will also be better prepared for the growing number of export opportunities outside Europe, as the UK establishes new trade relationships with partners across the globe following the highly successful conclusion of our new trade deal with Japan. Because preparing for customs procedures will be required with or without a free trade agreement, these adjustments cannot be left until the last minute. More and more businesses are becoming fully prepared, but there are still many that have not quite taken the steps they need to take. Our survey evidence indicates that while 78% of businesses have taken steps, just 24% believed that they are fully ready. Indeed, 43% of businesses believe that the transition period will be extended, even though the deadline for any extension is now long past and the date on which we leave the single market and the customs union is fixed in law and supported across the House.
The Government are taking action to prepare for that date, with the XO Committee—the EU Exit Operations Committee, the Cabinet Committee charged with preparations for the end of the transition period—now meeting almost daily and taking decisions on trader and haulier readiness, border infrastructure and fisheries protection. The Committee has met 136 times since it was established, and it will continue to meet to ensure that we have taken all the steps required to prepare, but we also need businesses to prepare. The consequences of a lack of business preparedness will be not just missed economic opportunities for those companies that do not prepare but potentially much wider disruption.
That is why today we are publishing our reasonable worst case scenario planning assumptions, indicating what could happen if we do not all secure improved preparedness. I should stress that this is not a prediction or a forecast; it is just a prudent exercise in setting out what could, in the worst circumstances, occur if we do not improve preparedness and, of course, if our neighbours decline to be pragmatic. The scenario builds on an estimate that only 50% to 70% of large businesses and just 20% to 40% of small and medium-sized enterprises will be ready for the strict application of new EU requirements. In those circumstances, that could mean that only between 30% and 60% of laden heavy goods vehicles would arrive at the border with the necessary formalities completed for the goods on board. They would therefore be turned back by the French border authorities, clogging the Dover to Calais crossing. In that scenario, flows across the critical short-strait crossings could be reduced by up to 60% to 80%, compared with the normal rate, and such circumstances could lead to queues of up to 7,000 HGVs in Kent. Those queues and the associated disruption and delay would of course subside, as unready businesses that had had their goods turned back at the French border would not want to repeat the experience, but it is clearly far better for everyone to be aware now of what is needed to prepare, rather than face additional disruption next year. This is why we are publishing our reasonable worst-case scenario today: not just because any prudent Government will always prepare contingency plans for the worst, but to illustrate the costs of a lack of preparedness while there is still plenty of time to prepare.
The Government are committed to doing whatever it takes to help business, and we have brought in a comprehensive series of measures to help businesses and individuals to adapt to the changes ahead. We are helping businesses that import by introducing new border controls on imports in stages, and full controls will be imposed only from July of next year. We have produced a comprehensive border operating model, which provides a simplified guide, complemented by the work of gov.uk for business, and we will be publishing an updated version with more granular detail in the coming weeks. We have invested £705 million in new technology, infrastructure and jobs at the border, and we are ensuring extra personnel: Border Force has recruited more than 1,000 additional staff, with hundreds more being recruited now. We have also made available over £80 million in grants for organisations to recruit and train new customs agents to support an expanded customs intermediary sector.
A new network of information and advice sites will help to ensure that hauliers are up to speed with their new requirements and the correct paperwork. They will be able to check that their documentation is export-ready using the new Smart Freight web portal. We have complemented all this activity with a public information campaign to help businesses to prepare. The campaign communicates the actions that all businesses need to take before the end of the transition period, and there is a user-friendly checker tool on the gov.uk/transition page, which details exactly what businesses need to do.
The Government are taking all these steps to help businesses to prepare, because change requires preparation. But change is what the British people voted for because, outside the single market and the customs union, the UK can exercise all the freedoms and flexibilities of a truly sovereign state. Outside the common agricultural policy, we can support our farmers better and enhance our natural environment. Outside the common fisheries policy, we can revive our coastal communities and improve our marine environment.
We can strike new trade deals, which help developing nations to grow faster and lower prices for consumers. We can develop tailored policies to better support new technologies and level up our economy. We can invest the money that we currently send to Brussels in the NHS, in our science base and in improving productivity in all the nations of the United Kingdom. We can develop freeports, which bring investment to overlooked communities. We can regulate more smartly, legislate more accountably and strengthen our democracy.
These are great prizes, and the British people voted in the 2016 referendum and the 2019 general election to make sure they were delivered. This Government are committed to honouring those democratic choices, and I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for advance sight of his statement.
The news today that there could soon be tailbacks of 7,000 lorries in Kent is quite extraordinary. I know that the Government have said that they are committed to building new infrastructure, but I did not realise it meant concreting over the garden of England. Today’s warnings are based on a reasonable worst-case scenario, but given that we have a reasonable worst-case Government, we have to assume that these scenarios could play out quite soon.
In their letter to the road haulage industry, the Government say that business should get ready, but what about the Government? There is a long list of promises for the future in the letter: the UK Government will be contacting haulage companies; they will be running targeted advertising; they will be publishing an updated haulier handbook; and they will launch advice stands at UK service stations. Why are these essential prerequisites for a smooth transition not already here? It is all well and good to tell businesses to act now, but without the systems in place, frankly, it is like telling me to bake a cake but forgetting to turn the oven on.
Sectors from farming to haulage and car manufacturing are crying out for the Government to get this right. These sectors are the backbone of British industry, and they are vital to our everyday economy. If we do not listen to these experts, we will lose exports. I met the Road Haulage Association last week. It is tearing its hair out. It has since met Ministers and described that meeting as “a washout”. Frankly, this is not good enough.
In the summer, I visited the proposed lorry park in Ashford, Kent, where construction had just begun. It was with some dismay that I later read that workmen had encountered a Saxon brick wall in their excavations. I hope this is not a metaphor, but can the Minister assure the House that progress there is on track? Another site apparently earmarked is in Ebbsfleet. It is currently a covid testing centre. With the test, trace and isolate system on its knees, this would be farcical if it were not so serious. Is it really too much to ask for a little bit of joined-up government from Ministers?
On 4 September, the Government granted themselves the power to build additional lorry parks in 29 local authority areas without consulting residents. Can the Minister tell us exactly where those facilities will be? That is the least that local people deserve. Will he also tell the House how many customs agents and intermediaries are trained and in place? This is so important for the system to work.
In the summer, the Government admitted that there would be £7 billion-worth of additional bureaucracy for UK businesses. It is the last thing they need right now, so is that still the most accurate assessment of the costs for businesses?
It has been estimated that 10 new IT systems will be needed to make our new trading relationship with the European Union work. Can the Minister list those IT systems and guarantee that they will be in place and fully operational on 1 January? Given that we were promised a contact tracing app, first in May, then in June and then in July, and it is now September, what assurance can he give that this time the Government will deliver that vital technology and that it will be working and delivered on time? Frankly, the Government’s track record does not inspire confidence.
We have just 100 days until the end of the transition period. Labour’s message to both sides in this negotiation is clear: stop the posturing, and start negotiating. It is in our national interest—it is in all our interests—that the Government get a deal, and get it soon, so that businesses have time to prepare. The Conservatives have had three Prime Ministers and four years since the referendum in 2016. We have seen serial incompetence and countless U-turns. I say to Ministers: get a grip on preparations, and get a grip now. The transition period comes to an end on 31 December. Will the Minister guarantee, not just to this House but to the whole country, that we will be ready?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her questions. She makes the point that there have been three Prime Ministers and four years since the referendum and alleges that there have been some U-turns. This Government have been consistent in our determination to honour that referendum result. If we are thinking of U-turns, I think of the Labour party, which at different times has been in favour of a referendum or of extending the transition period, against our exit from the EU, and it now seems to be resolutely in favour of that exit. I am grateful that the Labour party has now taken the decision to recognise the democratic verdict of 2016, but when reflecting on U-turns, flip-flops and changes of position, we should all exercise appropriate humility.
The hon. Lady asks what is required in order to prepare. We will, of course, be stepping up our intensive co-operation with business, but when the chief executive of the port of Dover appeared in front of the Committee on the Future Relationship with the European Union in June this year, he made it clear that at that point it was possible for any business to know exactly what was required, from the acquisition of an economic operators registration and identification number, to securing a customs intermediary or having in-house capacity. Everyone knew at that stage what would be required on our departure from the customs union and the single market. That information is there, and we want to ensure that more and more businesses, including those who think the transition period will be extended, realise that, as the hon. Lady rightly pointed out, there is no turning back from that date, and we all need to be ready by 1 January.
The hon. Lady asks about our determination to secure a deal. We are determined to do everything we can to secure a deal, but one purpose of this statement is to underline that, whether or not we secure a deal, because we are leaving the single market and the customs union, there are some activities that all businesses must engage in. I hope that Members across the House, whatever their views of the merits of our departure from the European Union, will work with the Government to ensure that businesses are directed towards the information they need and given the support they deserve.