House of Commons
Thursday 1 October 2020
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 4 June).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—
Future UK-EU Relationship
This week the ninth round of negotiations with the European Union is taking place. Since the last round of negotiations, as set out in the terms of reference, UK negotiators have continued informal discussions with the Commission in both Brussels and London. Differences, of course, still remain, but we are committed to working hard to reach agreement within the timeframe that the Prime Minister has set out. On financial services, we are still seeking to provide a predictable, transparent and business-friendly environment for firms that undertake cross-border business.
Stopping illegal crossings of the English channel must be a top priority, but my understanding is that, while we are still in the transition period, our ability to tackle this issue at sea in a robust way is significantly curtailed. Will my right hon. Friend reassure my constituents that a plan is in place to deal with this issue swiftly as soon as the transition period is over?
My hon. Friend raises a very important question that is of concern to constituents across the United Kingdom. We are actively looking at the steps we can take after we leave the transition period to ensure that we can both maintain our commitment to providing a safe haven for those genuinely fleeing persecution and safeguard our borders. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has appointed Dan O’Mahoney to lead the United Kingdom’s response in tackling illegal attempts to reach the United Kingdom.
Financial services are this country’s biggest export sector. The Treasury Committee heard evidence from the Bank of England last month that equivalence could be a real problem, as it could be withdrawn quickly. Could the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster update the House on how negotiations on financial services regulations are going?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that question, as a former Treasury Minister and a very effective advocate for one of the most successful parts of our economy. The granting of equivalence is an autonomous process within the European Union, but we are confident that the high standards of financial services regulation in this country command confidence not only in the EU but elsewhere. It is also the case that it is in the interests of EU citizens and companies that they have access to the broad and deep capital markets in London and across the United Kingdom.
Vauxhall Motors in my constituency exports the majority of its vehicles to the EU, but at the moment it does not know where it stands on rules of origin, and it does not look like that will be a priority in the next round of negotiations. Is it not time that the Government actually supported the UK automotive sector and made that a big priority in the next round of negotiations?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that question. If I may gently correct him, we do put the interests of the automotive sector front and centre. When it comes to rules of origin, diagonal cumulation or seeking a tariff-free and quota-free deal, that is at the heart of our negotiating approach, and the interests of his constituents are at the heart of the approach that Lord Frost is taking.
Yesterday, the Committee on the Future Relationship with the European Union was told by representatives of the UK chemicals industry that the cost to the sector of registering all chemicals under the new UK REACH system after 1 January will be about £1 billion because of the Government’s negotiating decisions. Can the right hon. Gentleman explain why, in the midst of an economic crisis, the Government have chosen to impose such enormous costs and red tape, to no benefit whatsoever, on one of our most important and successful industries?
The right hon. Gentleman is right that the chemicals sector is one of the many economic success stories of the United Kingdom. It is an inevitable consequence of leaving the European Union single market and customs union and freeing ourselves from the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice of the European Union that we have to have our own regulatory systems in place. They will enable us to be competitive and to take advantage of increased autonomy and independence in the future. One of the great prizes of leaving the European Union is that, when it comes to life sciences and other areas, we will be freed from the often anti- science and anti-innovation approach that the EU has had hitherto.
The Government have said repeatedly, and I have heard the Minister say it many times, that they want a Canada-style deal. The Minister will know that Canada’s deal with the EU—the comprehensive economic and trade agreement—contains many commitments on a level playing field, with both parties signing up to an entire chapter on workers’ rights and two chapters on environmental standards. Could he try a straight answer to this question: will the Government be prepared to sign up to similar commitments in their deal with the EU?
Absolutely—we are totally committed to ensuring that there can be reassurance on workers’ rights and environmental protection. In a previous life, I was the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and as a result of our endeavours in the Environment Bill, the creation of the Office for Environmental Protection will mean that the UK is a world leader in upholding environmental standards. We will be upholding them to a higher level than the European Union does. What we cannot accept, however, is the European Union seeking to tie the United Kingdom to its laws and its jurisdiction. We are an independent country. The people voted in a referendum and a general election for us to reclaim our sovereignty. It is a pity that the Labour party thinks that the British people, when they have the freedom to choose, will choose lower standards. That is a lack of faith in this country and a lack of faith in democracy.
Policy on International Law: Strength of the Union
Given that the Cabinet Office refused to answer my written questions within the agreed timescales, will the Minister confirm whether his Department undertakes opinion polling and research into public attitudes to the Union? If that is the case, will he commit to putting that information in the public domain, since it is paid for by the taxpayer?
First, I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for any delay in answering his written questions. I will take that up with the team in the Cabinet Office.
Of course, Government do undertake research, and that research reinforces to us the vital importance of serving every part of the United Kingdom effectively. The research that we undertake, for example, reveals that, across the United Kingdom, people believe it is vital that Governments work together to deal with the current covid pandemic, and it is important that the good co-operation that we have recently enjoyed with the Scottish Government continues.
It seems to be the approach of a slippery fish from the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. How much money—UK taxpayers’ money—is he spending on this private polling? Given that all public polling shows that there is an increase in support for Scottish independence, is it not correct that support for the Union is pretty weak at the moment and it is only a matter of time before Scotland becomes an independent country?
Talking of fish, slippery or otherwise, one of the benefits of leaving the European Union is that we will be taking back control of our territorial waters. As the Scottish Government have pointed out, and as I know the hon. Gentleman is aware, there will be hundreds of thousands of new jobs and millions of pounds of new investment in the north-east of Scotland as a result of leaving the European Union. We do not need any opinion polling to tell us that that is a Brexit boost for the north-east. These are facts, and facts are chiels that winna ding. Therefore, that is a ding-dong for the Union.
This House has approved a Bill that allows the democratically elected Scottish Government to be overruled by the right hon. Gentleman’s Government—happy to ignore laws they have not made, happy to break treaties and hungry to take power from everywhere they can. Alongside this appalling level of respect for the law and for Scotland, can I at least highlight one silver lining and thank him for the contribution he is making towards Scotland’s independence?
It is always flattering to receive compliments from colleagues across the House and across parties, and I am grateful to the hon. Lady for the gracious compliment that she pays me, but it is one that I am afraid I must gently turn down, because the Scottish Parliament will be receiving additional powers—a power surge—as a result of our departure from the European Union. That proves that devolution works. I think, and I think the majority of people in this House think, that devolution provides the people of Scotland with the best of both worlds—a strong Scottish Parliament and a strong UK Parliament. The Scottish National party, I am afraid, would force people to choose between being Scottish and being British, and I do not think that people should be forced to make that choice. They should, as Andrew Wilson, the author of the Scottish Government’s growth commission report, recently pointed out, take pride in being both Scottish and British.
The evidence of my eyes is that support for our United Kingdom across Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and in England, is strong. People recognise that it is the broad shoulders of the UK Treasury that have been responsible for helping to ensure that we can borrow money cheaply and invest in the people of Scotland’s welfare. In the conversations that I have had with Scottish Government Ministers, they always express their thanks and gratitude for the support the Treasury is giving. Whether it is the furlough scheme, Eat Out to Help Out or the support we have been giving to investment in hydrogen technology in Glasgow and in Aberdeen, the United Kingdom Government work with both the Scottish Government at Holyrood and Scottish local government to strengthen our United Kingdom. This has been a partnership for good for hundreds of years, and I know it will endure for many more.
The right hon. Gentleman will not produce his own opinion polls and he will not believe actual opinion polls, so maybe I will give him a few suggestions as to why support for Scottish independence is so high. He can see if he agrees with me in this. How about this? The power grab; the attacks on our democracy in Parliament; the contempt this place shows for our beautiful country; the constantly saying no to a majority of our people in Scotland; taking our nation out of the EU against our national collective will; the Prime Minister; him. Do any of them sound familiar to him at all?
What an impressive list. What a pity that so many of the items in it sadly do not stand up to scrutiny. There is no power grab; there is a power surge as the Scottish Parliament receives additional powers as we leave the European Union. I think the hon. Gentleman used the phrase “contempt”. Actually, one of the things that the beautiful country of Scotland has achieved throughout our time in the United Kingdom is improved productivity, improved competitiveness, improved employment and a stronger health service. Sadly, over the last 10 years, some things have blighted progress in Scotland: a declining level of educational attainment as Scotland has gone down international league tables; a failure to procure the basic ferries that will mean that Scotland’s islands are connected to its mainland; and a failure to invest in the sick kids’ hospital in Edinburgh and elsewhere. All of those are failures of the Scottish Government. It is a sad state of affairs when the United Kingdom Government and the Scottish Government, who have so often committed to working together, are faced with a situation where the Scottish Government have comprehensively failed in these areas, but we stand ready to help the people of Scotland do even better in the future.
End of Transition Period: Ports
We have created a £200 million port infrastructure fund to provide financing support directly to ports. Furthermore, in July, to help the whole of the border industry prepare, we published a border-operating model for the border. An update will be published shortly, providing further details on policies and processes for the end of the transition period.
Can the Minister assure me that, when it comes to imports, we can actually get our ports ready and get imports through? When it comes to exports, this is much more difficult. Of course, our French cousins have form on this. They have stopped British lamb and British beef in the past, when we have been part of the European Union. What reassurances can we have that we will be able to get exports out, so that our great farming, food and all businesses can export into Europe through France successfully?
We think it is sensible to agree reciprocal arrangements to allow road transport operators to move to, from and through the UK and the EU. We hope to secure those arrangements; we do not want unnecessary burdens to be placed on hauliers or other road transport operators. It is in everyone’s interests that we do that.
Cross-Government Communications: Covid-19
We evaluate the effectiveness of Government communications. We constantly monitor and gain insights on public awareness and compliance from regular evaluations. This question affords me the opportunity to pay tribute to the Central Office of Information for its work not just on covid-19, but in preparation for the end of the transition period.
I thank the Minister for that answer. The Cabinet Secretary said that consistency commands confidence. We all heard the Prime Minister last week on TV telling us to work from home again where possible to slow down the second wave of coronavirus. However, according to the Public and Commercial Services Union, civil servants, who have managed stoically, even heroically, during the crisis to keep the machinery of state running while mainly working from home, have now been instructed to return to their offices in order for the Departments to hit arbitrary and outdated Cabinet Office targets. The Government are saying one thing to the country and something entirely different to their workforce. Can the Minister correct this anomaly?
I would be very interested to hear whether the hon. Gentleman has examples of that. As far as I am aware, there are certain areas of government that do require people to come in to work. For example, some of the things that the Cabinet Office deals with have to be done in a secure environment, but we are following the same rules and guidelines that the rest of the UK workforce are. If he has specific examples that he wants me to look at, please send them to me.
Genuine concern has been expressed by the First Minister of Wales about the lack of engagement from the Prime Minister in terms of cross-Government discussions. May I raise a specific point with the Paymaster General? In England, people in restricted areas are able to travel into Wales to go on holiday. In Wales, people in a restricted area, such as in my constituency, are not allowed to travel to go on holiday. This has been asked of the Health Secretary and the Prime Minister this week. Could the Paymaster General, or indeed the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, urge the Prime Minister to say to people living in England, “If you are in a restricted area, please don’t go on holiday, please don’t travel into Wales, please don’t spread the virus”?
I will certainly take that up on the hon. Gentleman’s behalf. One of the benefits of the four nations working together is that we try to have as much consistency as possible and anticipate the impact of one set of rules on others, particularly communities living near the borders. I will follow that up for him and be in touch.
Government communications this week have been quite shambolic. My constituents have been writing to me to ask for more clear messaging. The Cabinet Office has spent more than £50 million on untendered contracts for media and consultancies, yet Ministers have found it hard to explain local measures this week. It has been reported that mask wearing in shops is going down instead of up, in contradiction to communications, and more people have been told to get the flu jab yet cannot get one. How are members of the public expected to understand and keep up with the changes if Ministers cannot?
I fully recognise that the rules have got more complex—were Matt Lucas recreating the “Baked Potato Song” now, he would have to write an opera. They are more complex because we have regional and local lockdowns, as opposed to a blanket lockdown, and I think that is what the nation wants: we want to keep our economy going and to give people as much freedom as we possibly can, while fighting this virus. By and large, although the public are fed up, they are following the rules and they are working together, with collective responsibility, to beat this virus. All Members of this House can help to deliver the messages by putting them on their Twitter feeds and by communicating them. Only by working together are we going to defeat this virus.
Regional Economic Opportunity
Thank you, Mr Speaker. This Chamber has changed in many ways since I went on maternity leave, but I am glad to say that the atmosphere has markedly improved for the better thanks to your warmth and good humour.
The Government are committed to levelling up opportunity in every corner of the United Kingdom, including as we respond to the economic impacts of covid-19. This work has many strands, from the winter economy plan to protect jobs and businesses to the lifetime skills guarantee and the investment we are making in major regional infrastructure. In the Cabinet Office, we are playing our part through our Places for Growth strategy, locating more high-quality civil service jobs beyond the capital so that the Government are better connected to all the communities we are here to serve.
I welcome my hon. Friend to her place on the Government Front Bench.
The Government plan to bring decision making “close to people”. Peterborough is a city just 50 minutes from London. It is on the east coast main line and has a bustling hospitality and retail sector and a hard-working and skilful population, and a university is coming. Can my hon. Friend think of a better place for a civil servant to work than Peterborough? Will she consider the city in the latest round of civil service moves?
I thank my hon. Friend for his passionate pitch for his city. We completely agree with him that Peterborough, with its fantastic transport links, entrepreneurial people and broader economic offering, would be a great place for a new Government hub. That is why we are locating one at Fletton Quays, where I hope to visit next week to demonstrate our commitment to locating more civil service roles in the regions and nations of the UK.
Constituencies such as mine have for too long been left behind, with London taking the lion’s share of infrastructure and small and medium-sized enterprise finance. That means that good, viable businesses in Burnley are left to grow at a slower speed than if they were elsewhere in the country. Does my hon. Friend agree that development banks, which are such excellent mobilisers of capital, could prove a solution to that problem?
My hon. Friend has been a fantastic champion of Burnley’s small businesses since his election. The Government are determined to reduce imbalances in access to finance for smaller firms. Some 83,000 SMEs outside London have already benefited from programmes run by the British Business Bank, which is the UK’s Government-owned economic development bank. Infrastructure is also central to our economic plan, providing opportunities for SMEs throughout the supply chain. We will publish a national infrastructure strategy, including our ambitions on levelling up across the whole UK, later in the autumn.
Pubs and restaurants in Bolton have been harder hit than those in nearly any other of the UK’s 650 constituencies, largely due to an unfairly enforced economic lockdown. Will my hon. Friend assure me that the Government are doing everything they can to support businesses in Bolton? I urge the Government to align our restrictions with those in the rest of the region.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. It is an incredibly challenging time for constituents in Bolton North East and in many other areas of the country, and I know they will appreciate his advocacy. Local lockdown decisions are determined following advice from national medical experts, local leaders and directors of public health, in accordance with data provided by the Joint Biosecurity Centre. We consider case rates, trends in the data and causes, but also local geography, before making judgments about whether restrictions are needed. We of course keep all these measures under constant review.
I share my hon. Friend’s concern for the hospitality sector, and I have spoken to the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), about the taskforce he is setting up as Business Minister to work through some of the issues for the night-time economy in particular.
In Beaconsfield, many of my constituents work in aviation or other sectors directly affected by covid-19. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that anyone who finds themselves unemployed due to businesses having to adapt or close because of covid-19 can find the education and qualifications they need for the future?
The new Member for Beaconsfield is another very refreshing change in this Parliament, and I thank her for her question. She might wish to point her constituents to the Chancellor’s plan for jobs, which is designed to help unemployed people find work through training to develop their skills. That support includes incentive payments for employers to hire new apprentices and funding to triple the uptake of traineeships. The Prime Minister also set out his commitment this week to lifelong learning. As part of that, adults who do not have a full level 3 qualification will be able to take level 3 qualifications in high-value subjects for free from next April.
I also welcome the Minister to her place. Economic growth in the regions will be maximised by the public and private sectors working in partnership. Currently, there are 92,000 civil servants in London, 56,000 in the north-west and only half of that in the north-east—and two thirds of those are in Newcastle, leaving negligible numbers in Durham and the Tees Valley. Does she agree that any relocation of Government Departments to the regions can be a critical lever and that it is important that they do not all now just move to another metropolitan centre? It is imperative that Departments such as the Department for Transport and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government consider locating to areas such as Sedgefield, which sits on the intersection of the Tees valley and County Durham and has all the rural challenges, but also has excellent connections to London.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He also makes a passionate pitch for his constituency. The Government are committed to levelling up across the UK, ensuring that this Administration is much less London-centric. The Places for Growth programme is working with Departments on their relocation plans ahead of the spending review and continuously exploring opportunities to build clusters of civil servants across the whole UK. I welcome my hon. Friend highlighting what Sedgefield has to offer, and I am sure the north-east will benefit from the relocation of civil service roles.
There is an amazing world of opportunities, talents and skills outside London, and nowhere more so than in Teesside. We are on the up. Our airport is reborn. We are leading the green technology revolution. We have the brightest and best entrepreneurs, manufacturers and exporters. We are fighting for a freeport and gagging for growth. Could my hon. Friend confirm not if but when civil service jobs from Whitehall will make their way to Teesside?
Another very passionate case—perhaps a bit too passionate. It is incredible to see how firmly Teesside has been put on the map over the past few years because of its Mayor and hon. Friends in this place, and it is great to see my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) join their number. The Government are committed to relocating 22,000 civil service roles out of central London within the next decade, with the majority going to other regions and nations of the UK. We will continue to engage with the Mayor and others to ensure that the north-east benefits from our ambitions.
Government Contracts: Covid-19
The private sector has played a vital role in the Government’s response to the covid-19 outbreak, such as delivering over 15,000 ventilators in under four months to support the NHS and changing production facilities so that by December we expect that UK manufacturers will be meeting 70% of the demand for personal protective equipment, compared with just 1% before the pandemic. Being able to procure at speed has been critical in providing that response. However, we have been clear that all contracts, including those designed to help tackle coronavirus, must continue to offer quality public services and achieve value for money for taxpayers.
The Minister’s response says more about the Government’s failure to implement the recommendations of Operation Cygnus than it does about their ability to implement an effective response to the pandemic. The Government have bypassed the NHS, outsourcing billions of pounds-worth of contracts in back-room deals with their mates that then failed to deliver—failed to deliver PPE that fits on time, failed to deliver the testing capacity that is needed and failed to deliver a national tracing programme that contacts everyone affected. The Government’s actions are not just incompetent; their failure to comply with transparency obligations is potentially unlawful. Therefore, will they stop wasting more taxpayers’ money defending the indefensible and provide my lawyers with the information on these contracts that my co-complainants and I have requested?
The DHSC has procured over 32 billion items from UK-based manufacturers and international partners—an incredibly difficult task at an incredibly difficult time. We received over 24,000 offers of help from 15,000 individual suppliers, and all were prioritised according to volume, price, clinical acceptability and lead time, meaning the time from an offer being accepted by the DHSC to a supplier delivering the items. Of course I am happy to look into any offer of help from a business that was found wanting, but I refer the hon. Member to the view outlined by the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), who praised the Department’s response to procurement.
Track and trace services, when led by experienced public health teams, have been more effective, and at lower cost, than the outsourced system in NHS England. In Wales, the contact rate for track and trace is over 90%, whereas in England, it hovers at a little over 70%. When will the Government recognise the importance of value for money and redirect their multimillion-pound procurement towards long-established local health networks?
It has been an extremely challenging time, as I have said, and the private sector has been a valuable partner in everything we have done. The contracts awarded have been extremely valuable in ensuring that we can deliver capacity at pace. If the hon. Lady has any concerns, I am happy to look into them.
The Minister will be aware that the Competition and Markets Authority is now investigating the proposed merger of two outsourcing giants in the facilities management industry: Mitie and Interserve. Given that both companies hold Government contracts worth over £2 billion, what steps is she taking to review the implications of the merger, considering the clear risk to public funds, as well as to the terms and conditions and future employment of over 80,000 workers?
I am afraid that the Competition and Markets Authority is not within my remit, but I am happy to look into any concerns, because contracts and procurement performance are within my remit, and I want to ensure that we receive value for money for the taxpayer in everything we do.
I understand that the Government’s contract with Sitel for test and trace is renewed on an eight-week basis, with a two-week notice period. The next deadline for renewal is this Sunday, 4 October. Will the Minister publish all the renewal dates for Sitel and Serco’s contracts, and will she explain what justification the Government could possibly have for continuing with the failed privatised, centralised model of test and trace, by contrast to the effectiveness of local councils and public health teams, who are denied the full funding that they require?
As I have said, without the private sector, we would have struggled to deliver the testing capacity that we now have. Serco and Sitel are approved suppliers on the Crown Commercial Service’s contact centre framework, and they gain their places through fair and open competition via Official Journal of the European Union procurement. Value for money and capability were part of the assessment criteria. But if there are other suppliers that would bid well for the contracts, we are happy to look into that.
Government spending on consultants has risen sharply in recent years, up by around £1 billion since 2016, with contracts worth at least £56 million awarded without competitive tender during the covid crisis. Does the Minister agree with her colleague Lord Agnew that the Government are reliant on consultants who are providing poor value for money because of their vastly inflated cost when carrying out services that could be conducted more efficiently in-house? If so, can she tell the House when the review into current controls and spending limits will begin, and when it will report?
Consultants play an important role in what the Government try to achieve on particular projects, but the hon. Lady is right: we have concerns about the cost of those consultants and whether we are too reliant on them, and we are actively reviewing that. I am working with my colleague Minister Agnew on these matters.
Transition Period: Visas
We want to see visa-free arrangements for tourists and short-term business visitors as part of our future relationship with the European Union. Temporary entry for business purposes, or mode 4, sets out terms under which a business person can move between trading partners. On short-term business specifically, we are only seeking to lock in on a reciprocal basis arrangements that the UK already offers to third-country nationals.
I thank the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster for that answer. He will be aware, because I wrote to him about it, that some European Union countries, such as Portugal, require people to be on a professional register before they can be issued with a visa to work in that country on a short-term contract. Can he give me some assurance that that problem will be resolved before the end of the transition period?
The right hon. Gentleman raises a very important question. He is an assiduous advocate for workers and for his constituents. We are working in these negotiations to ensure that, whether in Portugal or elsewhere, those who have skills have the opportunity to work in the European Union to the benefit of both. I am really grateful to him for being so vigilant on their behalf.
Strengthening the Union
The Government have an unwavering commitment to our Union, as demonstrated by the £190 billion of measures that the Chancellor has already introduced to protect jobs throughout the UK. We are strengthening our Union even further by taking steps to ensure the free flow of trade and ensuring that powers return from the EU directly to the devolved Administrations. In addition, we are committed to concluding the review of intergovernmental relations, to ensure that our structures are improved and adaptable for our Union, both now and in future.
The rich tapestry of our precious Union is woven together by the threads of our individual cultures, languages, traditions and values, creating the most successful political, social and economic Union in the world. So what steps is my hon. Friend taking to reach out to the devolved nations to show how much we value them as part of our great United Kingdom, on a cross-party basis?
My hon. Friend makes the point extremely well. We have confronted the recent pandemic as one United Kingdom and have achieved more together than we could have done as individual nations. That unity has been reaffirmed through the joint statements of 25 September. As I said, we have taken significant steps to protect the economy, providing billions of pounds to protect lives and livelihoods in all parts of the UK. As I mentioned in my earlier answer, the way in which we are taking our intergovernmental relations forward will show how committed we are to those relationships and to making sure that they are positive today and tomorrow.
Local Elections: Registration and Participation
We will be working safely with the Electoral Commission to support its voter registration and public information campaigns ahead of the next elections next May, as we do for every election. Together, we will be able to ensure that people can participate in the polls safely and confidently and in a way of their choice, whether by post or proxy or in person.
It is a great pity that this spring’s elections were postponed because of covid. To reduce uncertainty about the management of our democracy next May, how seriously are the Government considering all-postal voting, which could be a good way to boost safe participation in the coming elections?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. He and I both know that he is an experienced hand at election matters. I welcome his scrutiny of this question because it is important. We want the elections in May next year to go ahead, because it is extremely important that we are able to continue with our normal way of life as a country, rather than seeing any further postponement of important elections.
I do not take the view that all-postal elections would be a wise move, however, for the following reason. It is principally that we have already seen around the world that elections can be run in person safely during this pandemic. We are confident that that can be the case here as well, and I am doing all the work necessary with the electoral community to make sure that is so. Indeed, I published evidence of that only recently, which I am sure the hon. Gentleman has already seen.
Furthermore, it is an important part of our elections that people can actually choose the way in which they vote—as I have already said, by post, by proxy or in person. We think that it is important to maintain that and that there is not a good enough reason to do otherwise.
This week, we have seen thousands of Czechs who are quarantined at home participating in regional and Senate elections by voting at drive-in polling stations. From the Minister’s response to my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith), it is clear that this Government have run out of ideas about how to make sure that the May 2021 elections are both covid-secure and innovative to ensure that voter participation is high at these elections. Is it the case that this Government have really just run out of steam?
Miners’ Strike 1984-85
I am aware that this question was also put to the Home Office earlier this week. I can confirm that there are no plans to establish an independent inquiry into the policing of the miners’ strike in 1984-85 in England and Wales.
More than 11,000 UK miners were arrested during the bitter dispute of 1984-85, and I declare an interest as I was among that number. There were 6,000 put on trial and 7,000 injured, while many were blacklisted—never ever to work again—and others died with an unjust criminal record. There was an independent review in Scotland, where miners convicted in the Scottish coalfield are set to be pardoned. Justice is being served. Can the Minister say if the miners in the UK can expect a pardon from the Government, and does the Minister acknowledge that a full inquiry into the policing of the miners’ strike is the only means of justice for those miners who were the backbone of this nation?
I admire the passion and experience with which the hon. Member speaks. I will say straight off that the report produced for the Scottish Government is a matter for them. I understand that it has reported, but that is not for me to comment on.
The core point is this: since the strike of 1984-85, there have been very significant changes in the oversight of policing at every level. I am not sure that it would be worth the efforts of an inquiry to be able to make sensible comments on that, given the quantity of change, and that the focus should instead be on continuing to ensure that the policing system is the best that it can be. I can also add that all the 33 files the Home Office had held relating to that strike have now been transferred to the National Archives and that these are available for the public to review.
Public Service Changes
Since the Ditchley lecture, I have been working closely with our colleagues in the civil service to ensure that the Government can deliver our ambitious agenda for this country. Like all institutions, the civil service and, indeed, Ministers must constantly seek to improve how they deliver, and our plans for reform for both civil servants and Ministers will be set out in due course.
There is a vital democratic connection between the manifesto commitments that we stand on at elections and the formulation of policies to enact those commitments. In what ways is my right hon. Friend looking to make better use of data and to have better interpretation of data in that vital task?
My hon. Friend is absolutely spot on. One of the things that we need to do is to transform the way in which we use data in the public sector in order to best deliver for all voters. It is crucial to democracy that Government fulfil their manifesto commitments. We are currently advertising for a new Government chief digital officer to help to lead that transformation. If my hon. Friend were not in his current role, then he would be an ideal person to fulfil that very important job.
Covid-19: Discussions with Devolved Administrations
We and the devolved Administrations recently published a joint statement showing our commitment to work together to protect the health of our citizens, to protect our communities, and to enhance our economic recovery. Ministers from all the devolved Administrations attended Cobra on 22 September following bilateral discussions with the Prime Minister the day before. Of course I have regular meetings with the First Ministers of all the Administrations.
On Monday, the Paymaster General and I were in Brussels for the latest meeting of the Withdrawal Agreement Joint Committee, which I co-chaired with my EU counterpart, Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič. We made progress on a number of areas, and specialised committees will meet in the coming weeks to conclude further work.
The Government have confirmed that they are adopting a public health approach to tackling youth violence. This involves a cross-departmental, multi-agency approach, and a long-term strategy over a minimum of 10 years. Can the Minister therefore offer any explanation as to why the serious violence taskforce has not met for over a year?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising this question. She has been a consistent voice in this House, and beyond it, for new, imaginative and effective ways of dealing with the scourge of youth and gang violence. Her attention and focus on this issue has helped to improve the work of Government and others. Some of the issues that she mentions are subsumed within the work of the broader criminal justice taskforce that the Prime Minister has set up. I will ask the Home Office to make sure that there is an opportunity for her to be briefed on its work, and if there is more that can and should be done, then we will benefit from her involvement.
We are told that the two sticking points in the Brexit negotiations are state aid and fisheries, but we have now learned from a leaked letter—not from Ministers—that cars made in Britain are likely to face tariffs from 1 January next year, deal or no deal. Detailed negotiations on automotives or on crucial rules of origin requirements are not on the agenda for the crunch talks taking place this week, and there are no further rounds of negotiations planned. So can the Minister tell the House at what point precisely do the British Government give up on the British car industry?
The hon. Lady, not least during the time when she was Chairman of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, was a strong champion for manufacturing, and indeed this Government are strongly committed to manufacturing, not least in the automotive sector. Of course we are fighting for the best possible deal on rules of origin and diagonal cumulation, and we are seeking a no-tariff and no-quota deal with the European Union. That has always been our consistent aim.
The complacency is staggering. It is the responsibility of the British Government to stand up for British industry. The letter from the Government’s chief negotiator says that they “obviously cannot insist on” tariff-free trade. But our Government should be insisting on the very best deal for car manufacturing and for British industry. There are 150,000 jobs that depend on car manufacturing. I can tell this House that a Labour Government would do that. Will the Minister get out of first gear and prioritise and protect the jewels in the crown of British manufacturing? Will he agree to urgently meet representatives of the automotive sector and the trade unions Unite and GMB to ensure that we do not do away with this vital industry and the vital jobs that depend on it?
I took my final successful test in Aldershot, not County Durham, but still.
On the hon. Lady’s serious and substantive point, she is right and I will happily meet representatives of the manufacturing sector, including representatives of the trade unions. It is our aim to secure tariff-free access. Officials from the Cabinet Office talked to Ford Motor Company only earlier this week to make sure that we could support them through the end of the transition period. The hon. Lady is right to emphasise the importance of the sector, not least as we move from internal combustion engine manufacture and towards electric and other zero carbon vehicles.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. As I said earlier, there was a Cobra meeting just last week at which the First Minister of Wales was an important and constructive participant, and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister talked to the First Minister prior to that. I enjoy my regular conversations with the First Ministers of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland. I think I have probably spoken to the First Minister of Wales more often in the past couple of months than I have to my own mum and dad, and that is a reflection of the high regard in which I hold the First Minister of Wales, not of any lack of regard for my parents in Aberdeen.
Yes of course. I have found that the Road Haulage Association, valuable organisation though it may be, has not always necessarily been the most constructive partner at every stage in the conversations that we needed to have. Nevertheless, I think it is the case that we are having conversations with it and others to ensure that these and the other IT systems that we need for the end of the transition period are in place.
The Government’s campaign to ensure that businesses are ready for the opportunities and to meet and master the challenges that come at the end of the transition period has seen an uptick in the preparedness of UK business, but there is much more that needs to be done. We published our reasonable worst case scenario last week to demonstrate the consequences if we do not all work together to ensure that we are ready for 1 January.
We are undertaking a number of strands of work. One is making sure that we can more effectively disperse key decision makers across the UK—to Teesside and other parts of the UK—and my colleague Lord Agnew is leading work to ensure that new senior civil service posts are located outside central London. Work requires to be undertaken to make us more transparent and effective in how we deliver for all parts of the UK. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller), we are doing more to use data and digital tools to make transparent the work of Government.
Hon. Members for Sedgefield have always been powerful advocates for the north-east, but none more so than my hon. Friend the current Member. He is absolutely right that Teesside, with Sedgefield in particular and County Durham as well, is at the beating heart of the economic future of this country. We need to invest in the next generation of manufacturing excellence; it is the young men and women of his constituency who will be at the cutting edge of that revolution, and they have no better advocate for manufacturing, for growth and for smarter government than him.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has said that over his dead body would he accept United States food standards, so will he take the opportunity to protect our farmers and keep our food clean and safe in a post-Brexit future by enshrining our standards in law when the Agriculture Bill returns to this place?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question and I wish him a happy birthday. I also take the opportunity, while at the Dispatch Box, to wish my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) a happy birthday. It is her birthday as well today, and I hope that she has an enjoyable day and a relaxing weekend. On the broader question of food standards, it is already the case that in law we uphold very high animal welfare, environmental protection and food safety standards, and there will be no compromise on those.
Like many small and medium-sized enterprises, Hydro Cleansing in Carshalton and Wallington provides very specialist services that are not available on the open market, yet it still has trouble getting access to public sector contracts. What more can my right hon. Friend do to ensure that SMEs such as Hydro Cleansing can get access to those contracts?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Small and medium-sized enterprises are the backbone of our economy, and in Carshalton and Wallington there are a number of SMEs, effectively represented by him, who deserve a squarer go when it comes to getting access to Government contracts. We need to simplify the process of procurement, and outside the European Union we can do precisely that.
Given that today we have heard a number of very positive comments from Ministers about the effectiveness and the quality—sorry, I am trying not to laugh here—of the delivery of test and trace by the private sector, is the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster aware of the recent survey that showed that 74% of the public want those services delivered by local public health teams, which have proven to be far more effective in stopping the spread of the virus?
The hon. Lady makes an important point. The important thing to say is that, when it comes to the delivery of all public services, what is right is what works. We need to ensure that we have an effective mix of public sector and private sector delivery. It is the case that we would not have been able to increase testing capacity to the current levels that we have without the involvement of the private sector, and it is central Government, local government and the private sector working effectively together that ensures that we can both test, and track and trace, in the way that is best guaranteed to keep our respective constituents safe. So we look at the evidence, but we also ensure that we do everything we can to have the innovation of the private sector and the compassion of the public sector working hand in hand.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One reason that David Frost is in Brussels today is to seek to ensure that we can get the best possible deal. Progress has been made in a huge number of areas, but, as the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) pointed out earlier, there are still one or two sticking points—on state aid, the level playing field and fisheries. With good will on both sides, we can achieve resolution. I certainly know that the Government are determined to do that, but of course we have clear red lines that we will not cross. It is vital that we maintain our faith with the British electorate, and ensure that on 1 January we leave the European Union, single market and customs union, and take back control.
Covid-19 Update and Hospitality Curfew
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement about the work to tackle coronavirus.
The virus continues to spread. Yesterday, there were 7,108 new cases. However, there are also early signs that the actions that we have collectively taken over the past month are starting to have a positive impact. Today’s Real-time Assessment of Community Transmission study from Imperial College suggests that although the R number remains above 1, there are early signs that it may be falling. We must not let up, but people everywhere can take some small hope that our efforts together may be beginning to work; I put it no stronger than that. Cases are still rising. However, as the chief medical officer set out yesterday, the second peak is highly localised, and in some parts of the country the virus is spreading fast. Our strategy is to suppress the virus, protecting the economy, education and the NHS, until a vaccine can make us safe.
Earlier this week, we brought in further measures in the north-east. However, cases continue to rise fast in parts of Teesside and the north-west of England. In Liverpool, the number of cases are 268 per 100,000 population, so together we need to act. Working with council leaders and mayors, I am today extending the measures that have been in place in the north-east since the start of this week to the Liverpool city region, Warrington, Hartlepool and Middlesbrough. We will provide £7 million of funding to local authorities in these areas to support them with their vital work.
The rules across the Liverpool city region, Warrington, Hartlepool and Middlesbrough will be as follows. We recommend against all social mixing between people in different households. We will bring in regulations, as we have in the north-east, to prevent in law social mixing between people in different households in all settings except outdoor public spaces such as parks and outdoor hospitality. We also recommend that people should not attend professional or amateur sporting events as spectators in the areas that are affected. We recommend that people visit care homes only in exceptional circumstances, and there will be guidance against all but essential travel. Essential travel of course includes going to work or school. I understand how much of an imposition this is, and I want rules like these to stay in place for as short a time as possible. I am sure we all do. The study published today shows us hope that together we can crack this, and the more people follow the rules and reduce their social contact, the quicker we can get Liverpool and the north-east back on their feet.
We are aligning the measures in Bolton with the rest of Greater Manchester, and I would like to pay tribute to David Greenhalgh, the leader of Bolton council, for his constructive support, and to the Bolton MPs for all they have done in support of Bolton. There are no changes to measures in West Yorkshire, West Midlands, Leicester, Lancashire or the rest of Greater Manchester. It is critical that the whole country acts together now to control the spread of this virus, so please, for your loved ones, for your community and for your country, follow the rules and do your bit to keep this virus under control.
By its nature, this virus spreads through social contact, so it has had a terrible impact on the hospitality sector, which in good times exists to encourage the very social contact that we all enjoy. We have had to take difficult but necessary decisions to suppress the virus. The only alternative to suppressing the virus is to let it rip, and I will not do that. I know that many of the individual rules are challenging, but they are necessary and there are those early signs that they are working. In the measures we have introduced, including the 10 pm restriction, we are seeking to strike a balance, allowing people to continue to socialise safely where that is possible while reducing the social contact that the virus thrives on. Elsewhere in the world, they have introduced an evening restriction and then seen their case numbers fall. We know that later at night, people are less likely to follow social distancing.
Of course we keep all our measures under review, and we will closely monitor the impact of this policy, as with all the others, while continuing our unprecedented support for hospitality businesses by cutting VAT, supporting the pay of staff, offering rates relief for businesses and giving billions of pounds of tax deferrals and loans. Our hospitality industry provides so much colour and life in this country, and we will do whatever we can to support it while acting fast to keep the virus under control. I know that these measures are hard, and that they are yet another sacrifice after a year of so many sacrifices already, but there are some signs that what we are doing together to respond to these awful circumstances is starting to work, so do not let up. Let’s all of us keep doing our bit, and one day over this virus we will prevail.
I thank the Secretary State for giving me advance sight of his statement. The Imperial study today is indeed encouraging, but, as the chief medical officer said yesterday, we have a long winter ahead. We know that sustained contact, especially in crowded, poorly ventilated spaces, is a driver of infection, and pubs and bars are an obvious risk. I heard what he said about the 10 pm rule, but my concerns relate to everybody leaving the pub at the same time. What action will he take so that we do not see a repeat this weekend of people piling out into city centres, packing out public transport and sometimes piling into supermarkets to buy more drink?
We completely understand the need for local restrictions, including in Merseyside, as the Secretary of State has just announced. It was probably too late for colleagues from Merseyside to get on the call list this morning, but they would be keen to press him further on the financial support for Merseyside. The region is hugely reliant on hospitality and leisure, and we know that these restrictions exact a heavy social and economic toll. Areas need financial support, otherwise existing inequalities, which themselves have a health impact and allow the virus to thrive, will be exacerbated.
People need clarity as well. Areas such as Leicester, Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire and Bradford have had restrictions imposed on them for months now. Millions of people in local lockdown areas across the north and midlands just need some reassurance that an end is in sight. Many want to know when they will be able to visit their loved ones and whether they will be able to visit their families over the coming school half-term, for example. Can the Secretary of State confirm whether he has now ruled out the so-called circuit break taking place across the October half-term, as was mooted in the newspapers last week?
Some of the heaviest increases in infection appear to be taking place in areas where restrictions are in place, so why are the interventions not working? Why are the moles not getting whacked? Yesterday, the Prime Minister suggested that the success of Luton in leaving restrictions was because of people pulling together. I have no doubt that people are pulling together across Bolton, Bury, Rossendale, and so on, but what additional help will they receive to drive the virus down?
I believe that Ministers lost precious ground in fighting the virus by not having an effective test, trace and isolate regime in place by the end of the summer. Testing and tracing is key to controlling the virus. Increasing evidence now shows the importance of backward contact tracing in controlling outbreaks. Is backward contact tracing routinely happening in areas of restriction, and will the Secretary of State publish data on backward contacts reached? We also support the Health Committee’s calls today for routine testing of all NHS staff. Will he finally set a date for introducing it?
Problems remain with testing generally. I have just heard of a case in the Rhondda where people have booked appointments and turned up at a testing centre, but Serco has pulled the testing centre out and is saying that it needs the Secretary of State to intervene in that area if it is to be reopened. Will he do that?
On 8 September, the Secretary of State told the Health Committee that the problems with testing would be resolved “in the coming weeks.” That was more than three weeks ago, yet it still takes 30 to 31 hours to turn around in-person tests, 75 hours for home test kits, and 88 hours—more than three and a half days—for test results in the satellite test centres, which are predominantly used by care homes, so he has not resolved the problems. When will he?
Today we have learned that Deloitte, which is contracted by the Government to help to run test and trace, is now trying to sell contact tracing services to local councils. The Government’s own contractor, one of the very firms responsible for the failing system in the first place, now sees a business opportunity in selling information and services to local authorities. Authorities should be getting that anyway, and this is in the middle of the biggest public health crisis for 100 years. Is this not an utter scandal? How can it be allowed? Does it not once again show that directors of public health should be in charge of contact tracing?
Finally, this week GPs warned of significant problems with flu vaccine supplies. Boots and LloydsPharmacy have stopped offering flu jab appointments due to issues with supplies. Can the Secretary of State confirm that we have enough flu vaccines available for all who will need one this winter?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support for the measures that we have had to take and for the £7 million of extra financial support for the councils affected—not just Merseyside, and Halton and Warrington, but Hartlepool and Middlesbrough—which is on the same basis as the support for the seven north-east councils announced at the end of last week.
It is true that some parts of the country have come through a local lockdown. In fact, we have lifted many of the measures that were in place in Leicester, for instance. We were not able to lift all the measures, and the case rate there then went back up again, although it has now appeared to have stabilised. Luton is another example where there was a significant local outbreak that was brought under control.
The hon. Gentleman asked about increased testing. Increased testing is, of course, going into Merseyside, and we can do that because we have record capacity, which has increased yet again this week. He also asked about backward contact tracing; absolutely we have backward contact tracing in these areas. And that is one of the reasons we know that, sadly, the highest likelihood of picking up coronavirus outside our own households comes from social settings. Public Health England will be publishing further information today on backward contact tracing to understand how this virus spreads.
The hon. Gentleman asks about the speed of test results. I am glad to say that the turnaround time for test results in care homes is speeding up. He asked about Deloitte and its contact tracing capabilities. Deloitte has done an incredible job in helping us put together the contact tracing and backward contact tracing that we have, and of course it should offer its services to local councils too. He says that local councils should have more impetus and more involvement in contact tracing, but when a company with great experience in contact tracing comes forward to offer its services, he criticises it. He cannot have it both ways. Of course, these services cost money and they have to be delivered, and I pay tribute to Deloitte, which is doing a brilliant job.
Finally, the hon. Gentleman asked about flu jabs. It is absolutely true, as he says, that there is a record roll-out of flu jabs. There are enough for everybody in a priority group who needs them. I stress that this is a roll-out: nobody needs to have a flu jab before the start of December, but people can have it in September or October and it will then cover them for the winter, so we are rolling this out and more appointments will become available in good time. We have 30 million jabs in total, more than we have ever had before and almost double what we typically have had in the past, and those are available. I am really glad to say that record numbers of people are coming forward to get flu jabs, and I welcome that, but, as the Royal College of General Practitioners has said, people will need to have patience. For those in the target group—the over-65s and those with clinical conditions—flu jabs are available, and it will take us the coming weeks in order to ensure that people who need those flu jabs can get them.
Bradford has been in a local lockdown for weeks and weeks, and the number of cases is going up, not down. Is the Secretary of State aware of the damage the arbitrary 10 pm curfew is doing to pubs, restaurants, bowling alleys and casinos? Is he aware of the jobs that are being lost, all just to see people congregating on the streets instead and shop staff getting more abuse? When will the Secretary of State start acting like a Conservative with a belief in individual responsibility and abandon this arbitrary nanny-state socialist approach, which is serving no purpose at all, apart from to further collapse the economy and erode our freedoms?
I am going to pay tribute to my hon. Friend, and for the following reason. There are some people who rail against some of the measures that we have to put in place, and of course I understand the impact they have, but there are reasons for each one of them—and collectively they are vital for the strategy that we are pursuing of suppressing the virus and protecting the economy, education and the NHS until a vaccine arrives. My hon. Friend does not agree with that strategy, and that is a perfectly honourable position; it is just something I profoundly disagree with him on. Indeed, last night he was one of the handful of colleagues who voted against the renewal of the Coronavirus Act 2020. It is perfectly reasonable to make the argument that we should just let the virus rip; I just think that the hundreds of thousands of deaths that would follow is not a price that anyone should pay.
I believe in individual responsibility and the promotion of freedom, subject to not harming others. One of the pernicious things about this virus is that people can harm others, sometimes inadvertently, by giving them a disease that leads to their death, because this virus passes from one to another asymptomatically. So while I understand the impact of these things, especially coming from a small business background—I get it—unfortunately we do have to take action to suppress the virus, because the alternative of letting it rip is not a policy that I would ever want to pursue.
It is vital that we find a balance between taking action to suppress the virus and protecting people’s jobs and their livelihoods. How confident is the Secretary of State that the existing rules for pubs and restaurants on hygiene, face coverings, table service, maximum numbers in groups and the distances between them are being complied with? What happens next if they are not? Does he agree that avoiding mixed messaging is particularly important, and if so, what message does it send that Parliament’s bars are exempt from the curfew? Will he commit to continued co-operation with the devolved Governments under the four-nation plan?
I have not been to the bar recently, but I do not think that Parliament’s bars are exempt from these measures. I think it is wrong to say so, and I would be grateful if you could confirm that, Mr Speaker, because it is a matter for the House, not the Government.
Other than that, the hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly valid point. Of course we keep these measures under review. We want to have the least damaging economic impact, consistent with keeping the virus under control and suppressing it. That is the same strategy of all four Governments—the three devolved Governments and the UK Government. We keep these things under review, but we think that they are necessary to keep people safe.
I will confirm the situation. If the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) had been in the House or spoken to his colleagues, he would have realised that the decision was taken last week. Unfortunately, the newspapers were mischief-making. Those bars were not open after 10 o’clock. Let us get that clear, and I think we ought not to believe sometimes what newspapers say.
The Government have already made more than £190 billion of support available to protect lives and livelihoods. Last week I spoke to Tom and Lindsey, the landlords of the Clumber Inn in Ordsall, to discuss the impact that these lockdown measures are having on the hospitality industry, which I know my right hon. Friend understands. Can he confirm that Ministers will continue to work closely with the sector, to look at what further support can be provided?
Absolutely. I think, if I have spotted it correctly, that my hon. Friend is wearing the parliamentary beer association tie, so he obviously knows that of which he speaks. He is right, and he makes a very important and serious point. Of course we will keep working with the hospitality industry and do everything we can to support it through these times. It is so difficult, but because of the way that the virus spreads, these measures are necessary. We have not gone for a full-blown lockdown as we did in March because we know far more about the virus owing to the test and trace system, the massive amount of testing we are doing and the contact tracing. That means we can be more targeted, and my heart goes out to everybody in the hospitality industry, who are doing so much.
The original urgent question was about the 10 pm pubs curfew, and after this statement it is clear that the Government are simply not listening. They seem to be covering their eyes and ears and singing “La, la, la, la.” The Secretary of State says that this is under review, but the evidence is clear: the 10 pm pubs curfew has been a hammer blow to hospitality, and turfing crowds of people out of covid-secure venues on to the streets is putting lives and livelihoods at risk.
Since reopening in July, businesses on every single one of our high streets have put blood, sweat and tears into making their venues covid-secure, but they are trading at a reduced capacity. Since the pubs curfew was introduced, some of them have seen a further 50% reduction. The Prime Minister announced the blanket 10 pm closing time last Tuesday. Within hours, the industry warned that it would lead to chaos on the streets, and it did. The shocking truth is that this Government have, by their own admission, made no assessment of the cost of this measure to the industry, and SAGE has confirmed that it was never even consulted on whether a 10 pm curfew would be effective. Now, experts are telling us that it is making the risk of covid transmission worse.
Public Health England’s weekly surveillance reports are clear: outbreaks of the virus in hospitality venues are responsible for less than 3% of all cases, and they have not contributed to any of the increase, yet the Government are making thousands upon thousands of hospitality jobs unviable, undermining public health and killing our high streets. The Government like to talk about balance and the tough choices that they have to make between public health and the economy, but the shocking truth is that the pubs curfew is bad for both, and the longer the Government defend it, the more damage it will do.
People are scared. Care homes are becoming prison-like, students are being locked up and businesses are saying that without a further package of support they will be closed by Christmas. I asked for some evidence behind this measure; the Secretary of State has provided none. That is why the curfew must be scrapped today.
I just want to correct the hon. Lady on the point that she made about outbreaks. The updated statistics will be published today by Public Health England. The measures that have led us to understanding that the virus spreads most outside of households, when other households meet together, including in hospitality venues, comes from the very backward contact tracing that the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) asked about. The outbreaks data is about where there is an outbreak with significant numbers within one institution—for instance, within a care home or a school, and that is then raised as an issue with Public Health England—not where individuals go. I am afraid the hon. Lady is using a different set of statistics, which do not make the case that she puts forward. We all understand the concern about the impact of this virus on so many parts of our economy. Our task is to try to limit the impact on lives as well as on livelihoods, and that is at the root of our strategy.
My city has been following the rules. Thanks to the people of Peterborough and excellent council leadership, we came off the watchlist last week. I know that the data can change, and I also know that my right hon. Friend appreciates the issues around the 10 pm curfew, but will he keep the policy under review so that those who are doing the right thing, like the people of Peterborough, can get back to something like normality?
Absolutely. My hon. Friend is an incredible voice for Peterborough. We discussed the local lockdown having its effect in Leicester, and the Prime Minister mentioned Luton yesterday; the work of the people of Peterborough is another example that we could cite—[Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) shouts from a sedentary position, “What about Bradford?” The truth is that we took Shipley out of the measures because the numbers came right down, but unfortunately they then rose again, so in a way he makes my point for me.
The Secretary of State knows that I can get passionate and even angry with some of my questions to him, but not today. He will know that as a West Yorkshire MP I will support anything—any measure—that stops this virus spreading at this perilous time when tens of thousands of students are moving around our county and our country. I will support any measure that is effective. The old social scientist in me suggests that the Secretary of State was right when he said that all these measures should be closely monitored. There is no doubt that experts, whether it is Professor John Edmunds or others, worry that the 10 o’clock curfew has quite serious unintended consequences. Will the Secretary of State give me his word that he will keep it under review, because there seem to be some problems with it?
It is constantly under review. We have shown that we are willing to change the measures to follow what works. This is an unprecedented crisis. I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support for the measures across West Yorkshire. It has been a pleasure to work with him and to hear his voice in this Chamber on what is needed. My message to his constituents in Huddersfield and those across West Yorkshire is that these measures are necessary—we would not have them in place unless they were—and the more that people can abide by them, the quicker we will be able to lift them. I look forward to working with the hon. Gentleman on supporting people in Huddersfield and those throughout the country to keep this situation under control.
I recognise, of course, the value of simplicity on issues such as the curfew for the hospitality industry, but will my right hon. Friend accept that we should allow economic activity where it does not cut across public health objectives? Will he therefore apply an imaginative approach to doing that—for example, looking at how we might be able to allow hotel guests to stay in hotel bars where they are resident in the hotel later than 10 o’clock, recognising that some hotels depend substantially on that income?
I am always happy to look at, as my right hon. and learned Friend calls them, imaginative ideas like that. He will know that there is a tension between the clarity of the rules and bringing additional nuances into the rules. He will have seen how, as a society, we have struggled with that balance all the way through this, because we are in novel circumstances. I am happy to talk to him about his proposal.
The imposition of a 10 pm curfew on the hospitality industry was entirely avoidable, but became an inevitability because of the Government’s shambolic handling of their privatised test and trace system. Last month, I highlighted to the Health Secretary that locals in Slough were being forced to drive hundreds of miles, including catching a ferry to the Isle of Wight, just to access a test, but he retorted:
“On the contrary, the fact is that we are working hard with the local authority in Slough”.—[Official Report, 17 September 2020; Vol. 680, c. 520.]
Well, Mr Speaker, the council has informed me that it has not heard a dickie bird from either the Health Secretary or his team, so perhaps he can advise us this time when the test centre in Slough will go back to being a drive-through and walk-in test centre, so that locals can actually access a test when they desperately need one.
Restricting hospitality hours and venue capacity, although not ideal, can present us with a good opportunity to explore and support our local businesses such as Griffiths Brothers, the excellent gin distillery in the village of Penn in my constituency, which operates a shop where people can sample its high-quality gin made from the best of the best, and in fact take it home to enjoy at leisure, without a curfew. What can the Government do to encourage people to visit these local distilleries and breweries, which are a vital part of the hospitality industry and many of which have had a lean time during the pandemic?
I will do everything I can, both policy-wise and personally, to support our great distilleries, including in my right hon. Friend’s part of the world. One of the wonderful things of the last few years has been the massive expansion in the number of local distilleries and breweries, and I am glad she supports her local gin distillery, no doubt both in her official capacity and perhaps with a tipple at home.
Through you, Mr Speaker, may I say to the Secretary of State that I voted against him last night not because I want the virus to rip through the country? Quite the reverse, I want him to get decisions right, and I do not think he is getting them right at present. The 10 o’clock curfew is bad for jobs and bad for the economy, and it is not controlling the spread of the virus. There is no scientific justification that he has been able to give for it. I believe he would make better and more correct decisions if he consulted Parliament, and the House of Commons in particular, particularly on local lockdowns. Today, Merseyside is being locked down and the Merseyside MPs cannot talk about that. Will he agree, before taking further measures, to bring every new restriction back to this House?
Of course the restrictions will come back to this House in the normal way. As the hon. Gentleman well knows, yesterday we made the further commitment that, wherever possible, all nationally significant measures will be brought forward for a vote before being implemented. I was very pleased that, as a result of that, there was an overwhelming majority of support for renewal of the Coronavirus Act yesterday.
I support the 10 pm restriction as an alternative to hospitality businesses having to close entirely, but it may well hurt certain parts of the sector more than others—for example, wet-led pubs that do not serve food, such as the Wheatsheaf in Faringdon. Will the Secretary of State and his colleagues confirm that they will look closely at whether certain parts of the sector are being hit hard, to see whether they need more support?
Yes, of course we will, and I take my hon. Friend’s point about wet-led pubs. He is right that the 10 pm curfew is far better than the closure of hospitality—not that we want to do that, but we do need to take measures to suppress the virus. He is wise in his description of why we have had to take these decisions, because we cannot will the ends of suppressing the virus without also willing the means, and some of those means are difficult.
Over six months into the pandemic, people in my constituency still see no sign of the world-beating test and trace system that they were promised. Does the Secretary of State feel any personal responsibility for the utter chaos that is putting lives and livelihoods at risk in my constituency and across the country?
I feel personal responsibility for the record number of tests that are being done in this country. I feel personal responsibility for the fact that the vast majority of people in Hull and across the country can get a test within six miles of where they live, and the majority of them get the results the next day. I feel personal responsibility for the biggest contact tracing programme that this country has ever seen, with the support of the armed forces, the NHS, brilliant civil servants and the private sector working together. It is that sort of coming together that we need to get through this virus.
I thank the Secretary of State for another update on covid-19. I am wearing pink today, because October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, so will he take this opportunity to remind everybody how important it is to check for symptoms and to see their GP if they have any, and to tell the NHS how important it is that the screening programme gets back underway, because 1,000 women will die of this disease this month alone?
I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. People must continue to check, and if they think they are at risk of cancer or if they find a lump, they should please come forward, because the NHS is open—help us to help you. The more we can suppress coronavirus and keep it out of our hospitals, the easier it will be to treat more people for cancer and ensure that screening stays open. Efforts to stop the virus spreading directly save lives from cancer, and we need to get that message out as well.
A national curfew in the New Forest is rather unfair, given our very low infection rate. Restaurateurs and landlords have invested a great deal in covid-secure measures and reduced capacity, and the loss of the extra hour reduces throughput, particularly for those that want a second sitting for dinner to come through, because it makes it very uneconomic. Will the Secretary of State consider the possibility of devolving the power to impose curfew locally, even to particular establishments, which would provide landlords with a powerful incentive to ensure that their patrons behave sensibly and properly?
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s constructive suggestion. As we constantly have these policies under review, it is that sort of working together that will help us to improve the response. Of course I understand the impact on the New Forest—some of the finest pubs in the country, outside of West Suffolk, are in the New Forest. We should keep this under review, because the whole point is to suppress the virus while having the minimum negative impact on the economy, and it is that second part that we are mostly discussing today.
Many of the hospitality businesses in my constituency have been deeply upset by the imposition of the 10 pm curfew. OverDraught, a bar in my constituency, told Levenshulme News that it feels that this is a kneejerk reaction by the Government to counteract their own poor handling of the virus and that they are punishing a sector that has reacted seriously, flexibly, and efficiently over the past six months. What does the Minister say to businesses such as OverDraught that feel let down by this Government’s decision making?
What I say is that we do what is necessary because it saves lives and we understand the impact that it has. The message that I would send to everybody in Bradford is that, the more that they follow the rules that are in place, the faster we will be able to get through this.
It does seem strange to think that concentrating trade in a smaller number of hours and making everyone leave a pub or restaurant at the same time, rather than spacing them out over the course of the evening, should suppress rather than spread the virus. Will the Secretary summarise the scientific advice that he has had on this point?
The scientific advice is that the people who are closer together are more likely to spread the virus and that, later at night, social distancing becomes harder. We have all seen the pictures of people leaving pubs at 10 o’clock, but otherwise they would be inside the establishments, and we all know that outside is safer, or they would be leaving later. Of course we keep this under review and of course we are constantly looking at how we can improve these policies, but I think that we have to look at both sides of the evidence to try to get this right.
People will only believe that the 10 pm curfew is the least bad option if they understand the basis on which the decision was taken. The figures for the number of infections linked to hospitality range from the 3% that Public Health England has put for outbreaks, up to nearly a quarter that the deputy chief medical officer has suggested. Will my right hon. Friend make sure that the evidence as to how many transmissions are linked to pubs and hospitality based on test and trace data is available, so that people can reach their own conclusions?
Yes, and the updated evidence that we are publishing today shows that the just under a quarter figure is correct. It is the highest single identified area. The figures on outbreaks, which were also mentioned by the hon. Member for St Albans (Daisy Cooper), are measuring something completely different and are not a measure of how many cases are caught there. The 25% figure is, of course, for those who catch it outside the household. The single biggest place we can catch coronavirus is from somebody else inside your own household, but that is, in a sense, inevitable and very, very difficult to prevent.
The tighter restrictions here in the north-east are already having a severe impact on many businesses that have been left without appropriate financial support. Although it is imperative that we prevent the further spread of coronavirus, it is also important that we protect businesses, workers, livelihoods and jobs. The arbitrary 10 pm curfew has increased the financial pressure on many local hospitality businesses and appears to have had the effect of inadvertently encouraging unregulated gatherings after the blanket 10 pm closing.Would it not be safer for those who are allowed to to sit in safe, regulated premises and adhere to social distancing after 10 pm, rather than to be on the streets or on public transport with significant numbers of other revellers, who may have reduced inhibitions or levels of self-control? Would it also not be better if businesses that are responsibly operating at much-reduced capacity and adhering to the regulations were provided with urgent financial support, as requested by local authority leaders in my area, to ensure that it is at least as viable for them to remain open for business as to close completely—possibly for good?
We have put extra financial support into the north-east, and I thank people across the north-east for what they are doing to stick by the renewed and increased restrictions that we had to put in place earlier this week. The point the hon. Gentleman makes about people’s reduced inhibitions later at night is the critical one, and as I just mentioned to my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), the Chair of the Science and Technology Committee, it is almost certainly true—I think this is one of the few things we know about this virus with great certainty—that transmission is much lower outside than inside, and that also helps with protecting people against this virus.
My constituency thrives on hospitality, and many jobs are dependent on it. It is also low-incidence when it comes to the virus and high-compliance when it comes to the safety measures around being covid secure. My right hon. Friend said in his opening remarks that the second peak is highly localised. In that light, how quickly can we look to move to a more localised, regional approach to the 10 pm curfew?
We are taking a more localised approach to tackling this second peak than we did to the first, for two reasons. The first is that the evidence is that it is much more localised in terms of where the virus is concentrated. The second is that we know far more about where the virus is concentrated, but that extra information also tells us that the number of transmissions is much higher in hospitality than in many other settings—for instance, workplaces. That is why we have made the decision that we have, but the core of my hon. Friend’s point, which is that it is safer in places such as Eastbourne because there are fewer transmissions, is reasonable, and we keep all of this under review.
Last week, I spoke to a lady whose husband has dementia. He was in a care home, and she was unable to visit him. He deteriorated rapidly, until he was deemed a risk to himself and others, and he was eventually sectioned, at which point she was allowed to visit him. Of course I completely understand the difficult balance the Minister must make between protecting our health and the health of others, but could he please look specifically at what guidance can be given on rights to visit loved ones who have dementia?
The hon. Lady makes an incredibly heart-rending and important point. The balance in terms of the rules around visiting those in care homes is one of the most difficult to strike. On this, I rely heavily on the clinical evidence of Jenny Harries, the deputy chief medical officer, who works with the four nations to try to make sure we get this balance right. It is very difficult, and the guidance we have put out includes the permissive ability to allow directors of public health to take decisions that are appropriate in local circumstances. However, this issue is a very difficult consequence of the virus.
I have spoken to landlords and landladies around my constituency, and they have all been incredibly grateful for the unprecedented support that the Government have provided to them, but they have been equally clear that that has just about kept their heads above water, especially at a time when there was warmer weather. I very much welcome my right hon. Friend’s commitment to keep this issue under review, but what reassurances can he give landlords and landladies that, as we head towards Christmas and the nights get colder, there is a timescale on this and they can have hope that they will still be trading at Christmas and not, sadly, closing down for Christmas?
The truth is that the more we all avoid close social contact, the harder the virus will find it to spread and the easier it will be to lift measures. It is as straightforward as that. From that logic, obviously, come many difficult consequences, including the ones my hon. Friend spoke to. However, I am happy to keep talking to him to make sure that we get this balance right in his area and across the country.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his updates, which are always very useful. May I ask him to think for a minute about places with low infection rates, including the Derbyshire Dales? We have some fantastic wedding venues such as Shottle Hall and Eyam Hall, and some great historic pubs that have been around for hundreds of years, such as the Rutland Arms, the Peacock at Rowsley, the Devonshire Arms at Baslow and the Old Dog at Thorpe. Will my right hon. Friend consider opening locally early where people can prove good compliance and where there are very low infection rates, because we have to allow the economy to get up and running again?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to support her local pubs and in what she said about keeping the economy going while we deal with this problem. She is also right that there are large swathes of the country with very low infection rates, including Derbyshire. Our approach is to take the minimum national action necessary to ensure that the rates stay low in Derbyshire and other areas with low rates, while also taking more action in places where the virus is rife. That is an approach that we will be strengthening over the weeks to come.
Although I am sure there is some logic behind the recent 10 pm curfew, other changes put in place, including table service, have led to small hospitality businesses such as the Treaty of Commerce pub on Lincoln High Street in my constituency having to increase staffing overheads, which they can currently ill afford. Will my right hon. Friend acknowledge that the latest changes to the guidance are not entirely suitable for all businesses? I have heard what he has said this morning, but will he commit to reviewing the regulations regularly and at the earliest opportunity to ensure that we protect jobs, the wider economy and the important freedoms of businesses and individuals while also remaining covid-secure?
I have been known to enjoy pubs and hospitality myself, but the reality is that if this sector—in particular, nightclubs and the entertainment industry—is to survive, it is going to need much greater Government support. Does the Health Secretary accept that, and is he having those discussions with the Chancellor? Does he also accept that if Scotland wants to go its own way with a different level of curfew, the Scottish Parliament needs to have, at the very minimum, borrowing powers so that it can make changes for public health benefits and provide the necessary support for these businesses?
As the hon. Member knows, although public health measures are devolved, it is only because we are one United Kingdom that we are able to have the strength of support that is in place right across Scotland. He and his party would do well to recognise that and to welcome the support that the UK has been able to provide in Scotland during these very difficult times.
When my right hon. Friend visited Bishop Auckland during the election campaign, we spent our lunch break in a pub called the Merry Monk. Since then I have been in regular contact with the landlord, Christian Burns, who, alongside a lot of other pub landlords, has written to the Prime Minister expressing concerns about some of the lockdown measures that have been introduced. I recognise and welcome the unprecedented support that the Government have put in place—more than £190 billion is not small fry—but will my right hon. Friend please confirm to Christian and other landlords that Ministers will continue to work with the hospitality industry, particularly pubs? We need to save our pubs, because they are a lifeline for our local communities.
Absolutely. I really enjoyed my trip to the Merry Monk with my hon. Friend. We left before 10 pm, even though at that time we could have stayed longer. Of course we will keep working with the hospitality industry. I wish all the pubs in Bishop Auckland all the very best. We will support them as much as we can.
We are in a never-ending cycle of repeated lockdowns that are deferring the problem because they are not matched by robust testing and clear messaging. It is clear from the Health Secretary’s responses this morning that the 10 pm curfew is yet another example of the Prime Minister plucking ideas out of the air to be seen to be doing something. It has already caused significant damage to the hospitality industry, and, as predicted, is doing nothing to stop the spread of the virus. When will this Government start to understand that a balance needs to be struck to protect those most at risk without complete societal shutdown?
Pubs, such as the New Cross in Ashfield, run by Jay and Mathew, are losing revenue due to the 10 pm curfew. They fully understand the rules that need to be in place to keep us safe, so can my right hon. Friend please explain to the staff and regulars at the New Cross how science has guided the decision to close pubs at 10 pm?
I want to say to all the staff and all the regulars at the New Cross that we would not have this in place unless we thought it was needed. The science is about how, late at night, people end up closer together and therefore spread the virus more, and this will not stay in place one minute longer than it needs to.
If the Government decide to restrict trade or close down trade for pubs or particular businesses for good public health reasons, surely it is for all of us, through the Government, to pay that cost—through borrowing, at historically low interest rates, paid back over time through our progressive tax system—not for individual pubs and businesses to pay it, possibly with bankruptcy, as at places such as Brains brewery in south Wales. Will the Secretary of State therefore have a word with the Chancellor to ask that he provides adequate financial support for both sustainable businesses and good public health?
Of course, this measure is for England, and it is up to the devolved Welsh Administration to decide public health measures in Wales, but the principle that we as taxpayers, as a whole country, should shoulder as much of the economic burden as possible is what underpins the absolutely unprecedented £190 billion of extra support that this Government have put into the economy to get us through these very difficult times.
This week, Burnley recorded the highest covid-19 rate in England, and that has understandably caused concern to residents who are worried not just about the virus, but about the impact on the local economy. Could the Secretary of State reassure them and me that, when we look at further interventions that might be needed, we will keep them as targeted as possible so we can fight the virus where it is really spreading?
Absolutely. There is a lot of virus spreading in Burnley, and we need to all come together to tackle that spread. I know that my hon. Friend has been fighting as hard as possible for the people of Burnley. He has been making this argument to me in private, as well as in public, that we need to make sure that the measures are as targeted as possible and have as low a negative impact as possible, but we do need to get the virus under control in Burnley and across the country. I pay tribute to him for the work that he is doing in supporting and representing his constituents.
The Minister will know that the hospitality sector emerged on its knees from the general lockdown, and I am sure he understands that those in the sector were barely getting to their feet when the 10 o’clock curfew came in. He has given hon. and right hon. Members a lot of assurance today that he will keep this under review. As part of that review, can he assure the licensed trade, particularly those relying on wet sales, that he will take a view on staggered exit times and a more intelligence-led curfew, appreciating that the curfew has value to add? Can he also take a look at the role of off-sales in promoting community transmission not in the hospitality sector?
No constituency in the country has such a high concentration of first-rate pubs as Ipswich, and currently in Ipswich we have very low levels of covid 19. Last weekend, I spoke to the landlord of the Belstead Arms in Chantry, who had to watch as many of his loyal customers, who would have been spending hundreds of pounds in his pub supporting the pub to recover from the previous lockdown, went to the off-licence across the street to buy beer from there. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that at the closest possible time he will review measures and ensure that pubs in Ipswich can stay open later?
Yes, I know the Belstead Arms in Chantry well from campaigning pitstops, and it is true that Suffolk has the finest pubs in the country. My hon. Friend is making his case for Ipswich very strongly. Of course we keep these things under review, and will lift these measures as soon as we can.
I have spoken to many business owners and residents across Newport West in the past few days, and there is increasing concern that the UK Government’s left hand does not know what the right hand is doing. The border between Wales and England is extremely porous and any differences in local lockdown rules and restrictions are confusing for those living along it. So can the Secretary of State outline exactly how, and how often, he is meeting Members of the devolved Administrations to ensure that all parts of the UK are involved and engaged as we chart our way through this crisis?
Constantly, is the answer. I was brought up on the Welsh border, in Cheshire. I know exactly how porous the border is. Of course, public health is devolved and I would be surprised if the hon. Lady was arguing against the devolution of health powers. In fact, I have received a text from my Welsh opposite number during this session, so we have a constant conversation and dialogue to try to minimise exactly the sorts of issues that she talks about.
Public health must be our first priority, but restrictions on pubs, bars and restaurants need to be accompanied by new economic support for workers and businesses; otherwise, people will be pushed into unemployment and destitution, and businesses will be forced into bankruptcy. So, on behalf of hospitality workers and businesses in Coventry South, I urge the Secretary of State to speak with his Cabinet colleagues and bring forward new measures that will support livelihoods and businesses and actually save jobs.
I refer colleagues to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
I understand and support the measures taken to reduce deaths from this terrible disease, and thank Ministers for all they have done to stem the tide of the virus. Please could my right hon. Friend consider allowing pubs, cafés, restaurants and casinos to extend their closing time when customers are still in the process of eating a hot meal? That would allow time for a second sitting of those venues without disturbing the safety elements of table service and social distancing. It would also mean a staggered time of exit from those venues, allowing better social distancing in the local community.
We all agree that suppressing the virus is essential in saving lives, and as a scientific socialist, I think we should apply basic public health principles. It seems absolutely clear to me that it is problematic that we have a 10 o’clock curfew, when large numbers of people are all coming out into the street at the same time. Night-time entertainment businesses such as comedy and live music venues, which are based in covid-secure premises such as pubs and clubs, are seriously impacted, and like—
I represent a central London constituency where many businesses are hurting hard, especially with the 10 pm lockdown. I also have many residents who are only going out for the first time at 8.30 or 9, so do not fit into the idea of going to the pub at 6 o’clock. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that he will review these measures at the earliest opportunity?