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Volume 680: debated on Wednesday 23 September 2020

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

The unanimous decision by Highland Council to grant planning 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.

Yesterday evening, in order to keep the spread of the virus as low as possible, the Prime Minister announced a series of changes that none of us ever wanted to see; and residents of my constituency are understandably concerned and anxious. Will he reassure us all, and my constituents in North East Derbyshire, that the primary focus of the Government remains protecting both lives and—just as important—livelihoods? (906430)

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.”

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.

So why, yesterday, did the Prime Minister say:

“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.]

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—not only are we 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 problem 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 not only are we at a record high today, testing more people than any other European country, but, 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 any 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 the chief medical officers 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 the 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, to 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.

Our local football clubs are hugely important to our communities and Mansfield Town is a fine example of a club that both works with and invests in our town. Many sports clubs around the country have found that their hopes of welcoming fans back to stadiums next month have been dashed. Given that many Football League clubs are so reliant on gate receipts to be viable, will my right hon. Friend assure me that he will do everything possible to support those clubs, both as businesses and for the communities that rely on them? (906432)

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 for 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 couldn’t possibly, Mr Speaker—not in present company. It is interesting that the leader of the Scottish National party went for jobs, given that on this side of the House, we voted this week and last to protect 500,000 jobs by enshrining Scotland’s most important market—our internal UK market—in statute. Why does my right hon. Friend think the SNP did not support that Bill? (906433)

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 had 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.

There is growing concern in my constituency, and across the country, about the rising number of illegal crossings across the channel. To stop those dangerous journeys, save lives and protect our borders, the UK must deter people from making those crossings. The law in this area is complex. Will my right hon. Friend assure my constituents and the country that, at the very latest, a comprehensive Bill to deal with this problem will be put before the House following the next Queen’s Speech? (906434)

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.

I hope, respectfully, that the Prime Minister is not having problems with his memory. Just yesterday—we have had a recent exchange—metaphorically, he promised to put his arms around the British people and support jobs and the economy. The CBI and the TUC, businesses and unions, employers and workers, and now even the Bank of England, are united in a call for a targeted expansion of the covid job retention scheme. Make no mistake: a tsunami of job losses is in the pipeline within 38 days. Will the Prime Minister please listen to that advice and take urgent action? I would like a yes or no answer. (906431)

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.

Like the Prime Minister, I can say that one of my top priorities is improving education and spreading opportunity, across Devon and the west country. I welcome the new £1 billion school rebuilding programme, which will help to refurbish 50 schools from next year. Tiverton High School in my constituency is currently in a flood zone, but we have permission to build a new school and move out of that flood zone. Sammy Crook, the headteacher, as well as the governors and Devon County Council, are all backing that scheme. May I make an early bid for Tiverton High School? Will the Prime Minister back us to have a new school in the rebuilding programme, and to raise aspiration and opportunity for the great young people of Tiverton? (906435)

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.

Does the Prime Minister understand that as long as these powers are reserved, the Government have to meet the costs that come with the pandemic? He can do that either by extending the job retention schemes, especially for those who are excluded or through sector-specific support, or he can pay the long-term price of long-term unemployment, increased social security and all the damage to the economy and society that comes with that. Which of those is it going to be? What is the Prime Minister’s vision for “building back better”? (906436)

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.

On Saturday, I was at Norwich City’s match as part of the pilot to let fans back into football, and it is disappointing that the reopening has now been postponed. With King’s Lynn Town, Mansfield and many other clubs and sports facing a real threat to their viability, with no fans coming into the grounds, will my right hon. Friend urgently look at a sports recovery fund to ensure their viability and their place at the heart of our local communities? (906440)

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.

Sometimes doing the right thing is not easy, but in this case, it is essential. It is clear that doing the right thing to stop the spread of covid-19 is going to have a social, business and economic impact, but as yet the UK Government have not moved to ensure in this new phase that there is full security for those doing the right thing. So will the Prime Minister do the right thing and look now, as a minimum, at the support available to businesses—in particular, the self-employed, who may need to self-isolate repeatedly or be back in the realm of zero income—extend the furlough scheme, and ensure that the limited universal credit uplift is expanded to legacy benefits and made permanent? (906437)

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.

My constituents in Meriden understand the need for more housing, but the majority of Meriden is green-belt land. Across Meriden—in places such as Balsall Common, Dorridge, Knowle, Dickens Heath, Hockley Heath, Catherine-de-Barnes and Hampton-in-Arden—residents are quite rightly concerned about the pressures on the green belt. Can the Prime Minister confirm that his Government are a “brownfield first” Government, and can he also confirm that he will do everything he can to protect our precious green belt? (906443)

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 for 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.

Before lockdown, children on free school meals finished education on average 18 months behind their classmates and the gap was getting worse. Schools closed and a quarter of these children did less than one hour’s schoolwork a day. Lockdown was temporary, but the impact could be lifelong. To help these children to catch up, and in the spirit of togetherness invoked by the Prime Minister earlier, will his Government give time for my Bill to close the digital divide and give children on free school meals access to the internet in their homes? (906439)

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 whom 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.

The word is that Downing Street is taking control of the upcoming review of gambling legislation. Is this true, and if so, will No. 10 consider all the recommendations made by the all-party parliamentary group for gambling related harm in our report published in June? (906441)

What I can certainly tell the hon. Gentleman is that I am not an enthusiast for encouraging the spread of gambling in this country.

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 in the 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 the Government are taking?

Only time will tell whether the predictions made this week by the medical advisers about coronavirus deaths and infections have any credibility, or whether they are as exaggerated as the claims made at the beginning of the year that there would be half a million deaths within weeks. What is not in dispute, however, is that the scare tactics being used, and the regulatory actions taken, will have an immediate impact on high streets and the hospitality industry, and will cause further devastation for the aviation industry. Since the economic consequences are borne by people, businesses and local economies, will the Government make a commitment to retaining continued support for employment, giving resources to devolved authorities to help local economies, and suspending air passenger duty to stave off bankruptcies and save jobs? (906442)

The right hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point of scepticism 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 the right hon. Gentleman 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.

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

Sitting suspended.