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Volume 681: debated on Wednesday 30 September 2020

I know the whole House will want to join me in expressing our deepest sympathies to the family and friends of Sergeant Matt Ratana, who was tragically killed in Croydon on Friday. It is a reminder of the huge debt we owe to those who put their own lives at risk to keep us safe every day.

Tomorrow sees the start of Black History Month. For generations, countless people of African and Caribbean descent have been shaping our nation’s story, making a huge difference to our national and cultural life and helping to make Britain a better place to be. This is a fantastic moment to celebrate their contribution to our country.

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 events sector, which includes weddings, festivals, conferences and music events, supports nearly 1 million jobs and is worth more than £30 billion to the UK economy. It has been devastated by covid: revenue is down 90% since last year. Will the Prime Minister look at financial support, focusing on grants and not just loans, especially for freelancers, including musicians and performers? Will the Government support proactive, covid-secure testing events to boost confidence and start to allow the events industry to support itself?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to champion the sector in the way that he does. The £1.57 billion culture recovery fund is clearly intended to support the organisations and freelancers he mentions. The vision he lays out, in which people can be tested before they go to events, is absolutely right, and I hope that when that day comes, the public will show their support for this vital sector by visiting theatres as they reopen.

May I join the Prime Minister in sending my deepest condolences to the family and friends of Sergeant Matt Ratana? This was a truly appalling incident. I have to say that every time I contemplate the circumstances, I shudder, and I suspect I am speaking for a lot of people when I say that. It reminds us of the huge debt that we owe to all our police officers and of the risks that they take every day to keep us safe.

More than 16 million—around one in four—people are now living under local restrictions. In recent months, 48 areas in England have gone into local restrictions, but only one has ever come out and stayed out—Luton. Why does the Prime Minister think that is?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is absolutely right to draw attention to the importance of local lockdown measures. I can tell him and the House that since I last updated the House, as he is absolutely right to say, there is now a serious and growing problem with the resurgence of the virus, which is why we brought forward the package of measures that we did last week. The reason for the success of Luton is that local people pulled together to depress the virus—to follow the guidance. That is the way forward for the entire country, that is what we did before, in March and April, and I have no doubt that that is what we are going to do again.

When local restrictions were introduced, the Prime Minister described them as a “whack-a-mole” strategy. That implies that at some stage the mole goes down and restrictions are lifted, but in fact, in some lockdown areas infection rates are still going up, and in towns such as Bradford, Bury and Oldham restrictions have now been in place for months. For many of those communities that are affected, things feel like they are getting worse, not better, so I ask a question on their behalf: what is the Prime Minister’s strategy for bringing these places out of restrictions so that people can see their families again?

Nobody wants to impose restrictions of this kind, whether in Bradford or anywhere else in the country. We work very closely with local authorities to ensure that we have the right mix in the approach that we adopt. Frankly, when we have the virus going up in the way that it now is in some parts of the country, we have to take strong local action. One important difference between the way the virus is behaving this time and how it behaved in the spring is that it does appear, at the moment, as though the illness is more localised. That is why we need direct local action of the kind that we are taking, in addition to the strong national measures that we announced last week, which the right hon. and learned Gentleman supported and whose effect we hope to see in the coming days and weeks.

One of the major problems, as we have seen in the last 24 hours, is widespread confusion about the local restrictions, and I do not just mean the Prime Minister not knowing his own rules. Having sat opposite the Prime Minister at PMQs every week, that did not come as a surprise to me. But let me quote to him the Conservative council leader in Bolton, who said that the Government’s handling of restrictions was “breeding resentment” and:

“It’s become too complex, too complicated…People feel very let down, they feel frustrated…very forgotten”.

If the Prime Minister does not understand the rules and his own council leaders are complaining about mixed messages, how does the Prime Minister expect the rest of the country to understand and follow the rules?

Actually, I think the people in this country do understand and overwhelmingly follow the rules, in spite of the Leader of the Opposition’s efforts continually to snipe from the sidelines and to undermine what we are trying to do.

On the restrictions in the north-east, I cleared that matter up as fast as I could: it is very clear that people should not mix indoors either at home or in a hospitality setting and should avoid socialising outdoors. We need to apply that in the north-east, because that is where the virus is spiking. I think people do understand why we are doing that; I think people get it. I think people want us to defeat this virus, and they want to see us doing it together. Sometimes the Leader of the Opposition backs the Government, sometimes he snipes from the sidelines. May I ask him to be a little bit consistent and show some support. Let’s hear him try to instil some confidence in the British people in the measures that he supports.

The idea that anybody who asks the Prime Minister a question at Prime Minister’s questions is undermining the Government effort is wearing a bit thin. We have openly supported the restrictions, but it is perfectly reasonable to ask why they are not working. I spoke to the leader of Newcastle City Council yesterday. He said the other big problem, apart from Government messaging, is the lack of economic support being provided to local communities under restrictions. Newcastle City Council indicates that by the end of the year 10,000 jobs in hospitality will have been lost. Many businesses are forced to stay closed. Prime Minister, but for these extraordinary restrictions, these are viable jobs. These businesses are doing the right thing. Why have the Government decided that these jobs are not worth saving?

As I have said repeatedly, we are putting our arms around the whole of the UK economy. We will do everything we can to save every job. I must say that I saw the Labour leader of Newcastle and I was rather surprised by his comments because, to the best of my knowledge, they were calling for the measures that we put in. The best way to protect our jobs and our economy is to continue to work together, to comply with the measures, to drive down the virus, to keep our children in education—which is an absolute priority for this country —and to keep the economy moving. That is what we want to do. That is the strategy; that is the approach that the Leader of the Opposition supported last week. He now both simultaneously attacks and does not attack the restrictions. Which is it? He has got to make up his mind. If he supports the Government’s policy—if he supports these restrictions—will he say so now?

I support the restrictions. I have done so every single time the Prime Minister has introduced them; he well knows that. Because of the restrictions, lots of people’s jobs—in Newcastle, it is 10,000 people’s jobs in hospitality—are at risk. I support the restrictions, but the question I asked the Prime Minister is: can the economic support go in for those who will lose their jobs? He did not answer that. There are 10,000 people who wanted an answer to that last question, because they are going to lose their jobs by Christmas. Prime Minister, you really should have answered it.

The reality is that the Chancellor has made a political choice to reduce economic support just when the new health restrictions are coming in. If the Prime Minister does not accept that from me, maybe he will listen to the following example from the Chancellor’s own constituency. This is a business owner. Prime Minister, you might want to listen to what he has to say:

“We own a wedding venue in Richmond, North Yorkshire”.

The Chancellor’s latest plan

“does nothing to help us…We cannot employ people to work events which the government are not allowing to take place. Our events team are therefore looking in the face of redundancy as we simply cannot afford to pay wages when events are in lockdown…The jobs are viable if only the Government would allow us to return to work.”

He goes on to say:

“My events team are talented and fantastic and it is an insult to suggest their jobs are not worth saving.”

This is not about supporting restrictions, Prime Minister; it is about what the Prime Minister has to say to those who are at risk of losing their jobs and businesses. What, on behalf of the Chancellor, does he say to that business owner?

Order. May I just say that it is very important to remind everybody that it is Prime Minister’s questions, not Opposition questions? Prime Minister.

I am very grateful, Mr Speaker.

I think the answer is very clear. Last week, the Labour party supported the package—the winter economic plan—that the Chancellor put forward. I think most people, looking at the £190 billion that we have invested in supporting our people across this country, will recognise that. The furlough plan alone is far more generous than that of any other European country. I think most people around the world can see that the Government are putting their arms around the people of this country and helping them through it. We will help. I know that the wedding sector has had a particularly tough time, and of course I feel for the gentleman in Richmond in Yorkshire to whom the right hon. and learned Gentleman refers, who wants his business to go ahead, but the best way forward for him and for all other businesses in the country is for us all to pull together now, get the virus done, and keep the economy moving. In the meantime, yes of course this Government are able to supply the support that is needed, which by the way is only possible because we have had a prudent, sensible, one nation Conservative party in power over the past 10 years. The Labour party would have bankrupted the country.

It is refreshing to hear the Prime Minister try to dig the Chancellor out of a hole for a change, but I do not think that will wash. The Prime Minister just does not get it. The problem with his argument is this: these are viable jobs, Prime Minister, but for the restrictions. The vacancies for new jobs just do not exist and the training scheme the Prime Minister announced yesterday does not start until April. There is a gap here, and the Prime Minister should not be so tin-eared to those whose jobs are at risk.

Finally, tomorrow marks the start of Black History Month. As well as celebrating the huge contribution black people have made to the UK, we must reflect on the present, and the structural inequalities and discrimination that sadly persist. For example, black women in the UK are five times more likely to die in pregnancy and childbirth. That is truly shocking. Will the Prime Minister commit to addressing that and launch an urgent investigation into the issue?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman knows full well that the Government have launched an urgent investigation into inequalities across the whole of society. We will certainly address them in a thoroughgoing way. I am amazed that he seems ignorant of that fact, absolutely amazed.

It is a quite extraordinary state of affairs. The right hon. and learned Gentleman’s general line of questioning is that one moment he is supporting the restrictions, the next moment he seems to be opposing them. One day the Opposition are theoretically marching side by side with the rest of us trying to defeat coronavirus, the next minute they are off in the undergrowth firing from the sidelines. I must repeat it: it was the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), the shadow Education Secretary, who really revealed what Labour is all about. She said that this was a “good crisis” that they intended to exploit. We see this as a moment for the nation to come together, and that is what we are doing. We are taking the tough decisions that will take this country forward: not just the lifetime skills guarantee, which the right hon. and learned Gentleman was kind enough to mention, but the huge investments we are making in the NHS, in our policing, in affordable housing. This is the Government and this is the party who are taking the tough decisions to take this country forward, while, I am afraid, once again all they want to do is snipe from the sidelines.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is essential that the iniquitous tariffs the US has placed on Scotch malt whisky be removed during the current presidential term? So that that can happen, will he commit the Government, as a matter of urgency, to reaching a bilateral agreement with the US on the Airbus-Boeing dispute? (906855)

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising that important matter, which I have raised several times myself with President Trump and others in the US Administration. We will continue to take a very robust line. It cannot be right that American consumers should continue to pay over the odds for Scotch, or that this discrimination should continue. We will fight it every step of the way.

May I associate myself with the remarks of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition on the murder of Sergeant Matt Ratana? It was a truly shocking incident. We should applaud the efforts of our police and all our emergency services, who do a wonderful job keeping the rest of us safe. Our thoughts are with Matt’s family, friends and colleagues. I also associate myself with the Leader of the Opposition’s remarks on Black History Month and the responsibility we all have to eradicate inequality.

Yesterday, the Scottish social attitudes survey revealed that just 15% of people trust the UK Government to work in Scotland’s interest. Last night, Scotland’s MPs voted overwhelmingly against the Tory power grab Bill, but the Prime Minister forced it through anyway, in the biggest attack on our Scottish Parliament in the history of devolution. If the Prime Minister cares to listen—it is not a difficult question—why does he think the people of Scotland have no trust in him or his Government?

I am afraid the right hon. Gentleman is completely wrong in what he says about the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill. Perhaps the people of Scotland deserve to hear from him a clearer account of what it does. After all, the Bill, which I believe the Leader of the Opposition supports, actually devolves power back to Scotland—it gives power back to Scotland. Not only does it enable Scotland to take back control of its spectacular fisheries, but it opens up markets for Scottish agriculture around the world. I can tell the House that today is an historic day: after 23 years in which every successive Government have failed, this Government have managed to lift the ban on British beef in America. Scottish beef will be going to the United States, thanks to the efforts of the British Government. That is a fact of which the right hon. Gentleman might, with advantage, inform his electorate in Scotland.

I do not know what that was, but it certainly was not an answer to the question. After that performance, it is little wonder that trust in the Government is at 15% and falling. Here we go again—yapping, bumbling, mumbling, but no answer. Since he cannot answer a straight question, I will tell the Prime Minister—[Interruption.]

Order. I expected the Prime Minister to be heard; I certainly want to hear the leader of the Scottish National party.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. We are very used to Scottish voices being shouted down by Tories in this place. A Tory Government who casually and arrogantly break international law and break devolution have shattered any remaining trust in this broken Westminster system. Last night was a defining moment. If the attack on devolution fails to gain the consent of the devolved Parliaments in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, will the Prime Minister withdraw the legislation, or will he force it through against our wishes? Is not the Prime Minister demonstrating yet again that the only way to defend our Parliament and its powers is by Scotland becoming an independent country?

I think the right hon. Gentleman demonstrates once again that his ambition is simply to foment grievance where no grievance should exist. All the Bill does, in fact, is devolve power back from Brussels to Edinburgh; it gives powers back to Edinburgh, which he should welcome. More important than the powers is the fact that the people of this country are not really interested in wrangling between parties. What the Bill does is protect jobs, protect growth and protect trade in the United Kingdom. That is the most important thing and that is why he should support it.

Despite the many challenges of the covid pandemic, one unexpected relief to many of my constituents has been reductions in noise and air pollution from the M25 during lockdown. Runnymede and Weybridge greatly benefits from the connections that our motorways provide, but that comes at a cost. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, as we build our economy, we must ensure that our infrastructure—the backbone of our country—is sustainable and minimises the impact on our communities? (906856)

My hon. Friend is absolutely spot on. He talks about noise and pollution from the M25, and the Government have a vision: we want to accelerate the introduction of electric, zero-emission and quieter vehicles in order to reduce not just pollution but noise. That is what we are going to do.

Diolch yn fawr, Lefarydd. From tomorrow, 2.3 million people in Wales will not be able to travel out of county without good reason, yet people from lockdown areas in England can still visit rural Wales. Travelling from Betws-y-Coed to Beddgelert could land someone with a fine, but Rochdale to Rhosneigr is no problem. I raised that with the Prime Minister last week. Leisure travel from lockdown areas has to stop. Will he make good on that today?

There are different measures in place, as we have discussed already this afternoon. Overall, the UK is proceeding with the same approach. I am very grateful to Mark Drakeford and everybody else in the Welsh Government for the way we are working together to defeat the virus. Yes, there will be some differences and some seeming illogicalities, but that is inevitable in tackling a pandemic. I am grateful for the right hon. Lady’s co-operation.

My constituents in Wendover will be worst affected by the construction of phase 1 of High Speed 2, according to the House of Lords. The best mitigation for the village would undoubtedly be a bored mined tunnel, but that has been refused. Does my right hon. Friend agree with that decision? If so, will he ensure that HS2 Ltd and its contractors works constructively with the Wendover HS2 Action Group to minimise noise pollution and avoid damaging the aquifer by other means? (906859)

As the Prime Minister, I totally support HS2 and the ambition of linking up our country better. As a local MP, I feel my hon. Friend’s pain and I understand exactly where he is coming from. I have been assured in my conversations with HS2 that it is having extensive engagement with the Wendover group. I know Wendover well, as he knows. I will ask the relevant Minister to make contact with him.

The Prime Minister has reportedly said that improving the lives of disabled people is a personal mission, but his Coronavirus Act 2020 has watered down the right to care for the most vulnerable—particularly the disabled, children with special needs and those struggling with mental ill health. How does renewing the Act today in full stack up with his personal mission, never mind his conscience? Will he finally commit to working across parties to replace these draconian laws to ensure that we protect our most vulnerable and safeguard our liberties? (906857)

We are making sure that everybody in our society gets all the protections they need. I am aware of the easements in the Care Act 2014 that the hon. Lady refers to. It was necessary to put them in temporarily, and we now need to make sure we give everybody the protection that they need. That is what this Government will do.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s announcement of the UK’s first hydrogen transport hub in Teesside, which will see the UK embrace a hydrogen-fuelled future and put Redcar and Cleveland at the heart of developing that vital new energy source. Does he agree that that is exactly how we will build back better and greener under this Government, creating new jobs and putting Britain at the forefront of this world-leading industry? (906860)

I am hearing a lot of good stuff from the Government Benches about the clean, green future—the green industrial revolution that this country is embarked on. I am delighted that Tees Valley will be the UK’s first hydrogen transport hub, and I look forward to joining my hon. Friend there before too long.

The Prime Minister will know that next May there are elections to the Scottish Parliament, and I am sure he will agree that the question of how Scotland is governed will be central to that campaign. I know that he is a keen student of the democratic principle, so may I ask him this: if the Conservative party and other Unionist parties were successful in that election in securing a majority of seats in the Scottish Parliament, would he regard that as a mandate for the Union? A simple yes or no would suffice. (906858)

I am a keen student of democratic principles, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says, and I recall that there was a referendum in 2014 in which the people of Scotland—the people of our country—voted overwhelmingly, or by a substantial majority, to keep the Union. It was a once-in-a-generation event, as the then leaders of the Scottish National party acknowledged. I think they were right then, and we should stick with that.

The Prime Minister and I were both elected on a manifesto pledge to increase home building and to level up our country, and there is lots to welcome in the planning White Paper, but the formula that has been used to allocate the homes seems to be doing the opposite. It has overshot in terms of numbers, and the investment is concreting down rather than levelling up, so will my right hon. Friend commit that, when the consultation closes tomorrow, he will pledge to change some of the elements of this—dare I say it—algorithm? (906861)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I can tell her that we are going to ensure that we have a planning system that is fit for purpose and that allows us, for the first time in a generation, to give young people the chance of home ownership, which millions of people are currently shut out from. That is what we want to do, but we think we can do it in such a way as to avoid desecrating our beautiful countryside and our green belt. That is what we are going to do, and I hope very much that she supports it.

With over 7,000 new cases and 71 deaths from covid yesterday, and a seven-day case average of 183 per 100,000 in Oldham, will the Prime Minister tell my constituents what he thinks his biggest mistake has been to date? Is it locking down too late, or lifting the lockdown without a fully operational test, track and isolate system? Is it the billions wasted in backroom deals with the private sector on personal protective equipment that does not fit, on test and trace that does not work, and more? Or is it all of the above? (906863)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady. There will of course be plenty of time to go over all the decisions that the Government have made—for which, as I have said repeatedly, I take full responsibility—but she is right to draw attention to the incidence in her constituency of 183 per 100,000. That is a serious increase. The position is not the emergency of March, but it is serious, and that is why I hope she will encourage her right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition to support more actively—or perhaps more consistently; I will put it that way—what the Government are doing. I hope she will also encourage her constituents to bear in mind that the best thing we can all do is to follow the guidance: hands, face, space; get a test if they have symptoms; and where local measures need to be in place, look at the website and follow that advice.

My right hon. Friend and I have the privilege of representing areas with an honourable history of supporting refugees. What plans does he have to mark the successful conclusion of the five-year Syrian resettlement scheme, which is regarded as giving the UK the international gold standard for refugee resettlement, providing safe legal routes to the UK and bolstering our efforts to deter human trafficking? (906862)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. The UK can be incredibly proud of what we have done to resettle Syrian refugees. We have resettled more than 25,000 through safe and legal routes directly from conflict zones, and we will continue to meet our obligations to those fleeing persecution and war around the world.

The hospitality sector has already suffered hugely as a result of this crisis and is now facing further damage because of the Chancellor’s decision to withdraw support. Nearly 200,000 jobs in the hospitality sector across London are now at risk, including more than 800 jobs in my constituency of Lewisham East. Working people deserve a Government who work for them. Instead, they are being told that their jobs are unviable. Why do the Chancellor and the Prime Minister feel that these jobs are not worth saving? (906866)

We are doing everything we can to save every job in the country. That is why the Chancellor set out the winter economic plan and why we have the job retention bonus at the end of January. But, of course, things are tough. As the Chancellor has said, alas, we cannot save every job, but we have the kickstart funds, with £2 billion to support young people into work, plus we now have a lifetime skills guarantee to ensure that people can retrain for the jobs that are going to be created by this economy.

As co-chair of the midlands engine, all-party parliamentary group I am determined to champion the midlands engine and make sure that the midlands, the largest regional economy outside London, is not left behind in the Government’s levelling-up agenda. Will the Prime Minister commit to investing in the heart of our country and fire up the midlands engine? (906864)

My hon. Friend is completely right in his support for the midlands engine. That is why we are investing another £200 million from the getting building fund in the midlands engine region. I will be happy to write to him in the next few days about what we are doing for levelling up in the midlands.

Last week, the Chancellor made the political choice to write off 1 million jobs as unviable. There are more than 1,000 jobs at risk in my constituency of Birkenhead, and 141,000 jobs at risk in the north-east. This would be unemployment on a scale even worse than under Thatcher. Why do the Prime Minister and the Chancellor think that it is a price worth paying?

That is completely to misrepresent what the Chancellor is trying to do. As I have just told the House, we have already put £190 billion into supporting livelihoods, people and families. We are going to continue to put our arms around the people of this country. The most important thing is to get the economy moving and get people into work, and, at the same time, to keep kids in school, but we can only do that if we suppress the virus in the way that the Government have set out, with the local lockdown measures that we have announced and the national measures that, I hope, are the subject of cross-party support.

Does the Prime Minister believe in the value of local accident and emergency units, and will he work to ensure the return of the A&E at Cheltenham General Hospital? The local hospitals trust has said that it will return, but can he try to ensure that it does so sooner rather than later? (906865)

Yes, indeed. I am assured that the closure to which my hon. Friend refers is only temporary, and I remind him that this is the Government who are putting in the record—the biggest ever—capital investment into the NHS, £34 billion, to say nothing of the investments we have made just in the last nine months.

In January, the Government were still pretending that there were only 5,000 rough sleepers across the whole country. During the lockdown, 15,000 rough sleepers were supported under the Everyone In programme. Will the Prime Minister ensure that the homelessness charities, councils and others who stepped up and provided accommodation in the crisis are funded for every single person they helped?

The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point. One of the consolations of this crisis was that we were able to prevent so many rough sleepers from succumbing in the way that, alas, happened in other countries. That was a great effort by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and the charities, working together. Of course, we will continue to do what we can to support those vital charities, to prevent rough sleeping and homelessness.

The rotary club of Loughborough Beacon would like me to pass on its thanks to the UK Government for being one of the top donors to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, which has made Africa free from wild polio. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating Rotary and its supporters on their monumental contribution to this effort? They have contributed more than $2 billion and helped to vaccinate more than 2.5 billion children around the world. (906867)

I thank my hon Friend, because that is a classic and fine example of the philanthropy and public spirit of the British people, which has been shown clearly throughout this crisis.

I know that the Prime Minister refused to recognise my figures last week, but my local housing provider, Stockport Homes, has a waiting list of more than 7,000 households. With Shelter saying that 200,000 renters are at risk of imminent covid eviction, will he reinstate the ban upon evictions to prevent an even bigger housing crisis in Stockport this winter?

We have changed the law to ask landlords to provide tenants with at least six months’ notice before eviction. We are not going to have evictions in lockdown areas, there will not be any enforcement of evictions over Christmas and we are putting £180 million into discretionary payments for local authorities to help hardship cases. We are also embarking on a huge programme to build hundreds of thousands more homes, particularly affordable homes, which I hope the hon. Gentleman’s constituents will want to buy and to part-buy.

The A47 Acle Straight is the main road—in fact the only road—that links Great Yarmouth to the great city of Norwich. It is a bottleneck and it is notoriously dangerous, and there has been a campaign to dual it for at least 30 years, yet the highways authority has just announced that it has no plans even to consider it for upgrade until 2030 at the earliest. What can my right hon. Friend do to give hope to the people of Broadland, and of Norfolk more widely, that this inexplicable decision will be reconsidered? (906868)

I appreciate the temporary disappointment that my hon. Friend is experiencing, but this Government are immensely ambitious for the improvement of our transport infrastructure, and active consideration is now being undertaken of that project again. I understand that parliamentary colleagues are meeting Baroness Vere, the roads Minister, this week to discuss the options for additional schemes from 2025 onwards.

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 three minutes.

Sitting suspended.