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Business of the House

Volume 681: debated on Thursday 8 October 2020

The business for next week will include:

Monday 12 October—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Agriculture Bill.

Tuesday 13 October—Remaining stages of the Fisheries Bill [Lords], followed by motion to approve the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No. 2) (England) (Amendment) (No.5) Regulations 2020, followed by general debate on covid-19.

Wednesday 14 October—Opposition day (12th allotted day). There will be a debate on a motion relating to “fire and re-hire tactics”, followed by a debate relating to covid-19 contracts and public procurement. Both debates will arise on a motion in the name of the official Opposition.

Thursday 15 October—Consideration in Committee and remaining stages of the Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill.

Friday 16 October—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 19 October will include:

Monday 19 October—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill.

Tuesday 20 October—Consideration in Committee and remaining stages of the Non-Domestic Rating (Lists) (No. 2) Bill, followed by business to be determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Wednesday 21 October—Opposition day (13th allotted day). There will be a debate on a motion in the name of the official Opposition. Subject to be announced.

Thursday 22 October—General debate on covid-19.

Friday 23 October—Private Members’ Bills.

I thank the Leader of the House for both the Opposition days, but I am concerned about the consequences. Last time the Opposition voted on an amendment to the Trade Bill, the House Twitter account was suspended and I am not sure why, because all it does is present the facts, the explanatory memorandum and the votes. I do not know why that has been stopped—unless, of course, he is afraid of the competition to his own Twitter account, but he just talks about teddy bears, whereas what the House Twitter account has done since 2012 is inform the public about the procedures and policies of the House and the votes, in a non-political way. It just presents the facts. Could he please ensure that it is restored and given back to the House?

Something is missing: the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care throwing himself down on the green Benches when he has to come and answer questions. We are still entitled to ask questions, are we not? I am just checking, because I would like to ask the Leader of the House where the evidence is for why large parts of the north and the midlands are under lockdown when other areas with higher rates of infection are not.

Let me give the facts: Richmond in North Yorkshire has 73 new cases for every 100,000—no lockdown. Newark and Sherwood District Council has 84 cases—no lockdown. Wolverhampton has 56 cases, a lower figure than the others, but is in lockdown. Barrow and Furness, 112—no lockdown; Darlington, 110—no lockdown; Wakefield, 73—no lockdown, so can we have an urgent statement from the Secretary of State for Health on these inconsistent, chaotic decisions? We need an explanation.

The Leader of the House will know that good public law is based on making a decision and giving reasons, and it is also based on giving the evidence. Otherwise, I am afraid the lefty lawyers and the do-gooders will have to hold the Government to account, as democracy wants us to do. We are quite happy being the do-gooders, although I am not sure what that makes the Government: the no-gooders—a Government up to no good?

I am pleased that the Leader of the House has provided time for the debate on the 10 pm curfew. Let us try again, as the Leader of the Opposition asked yesterday: can we have the evidence published before the debate? That will inform the debate.

We have a series of Departments that are spending £56 million on consultancy fees. Apparently contracts have been given without competition—nobody else has been allowed to compete; they have just been handed out. The Government’s own Minister, Lord Agnew, said:

“Aside from providing poor value for money, this infantilises the civil service by depriving our brightest people of opportunities to work on some of the most challenging, fulfilling and crunchy issues.”

There is chaos and waste of public money. It is a problem of the Government’s own making because they downsized the civil service. They have lost five senior civil servants, including the Cabinet Secretary, from Whitehall this year. Will the Leader of the House therefore ensure, ahead of the Opposition day debate, that all the contracts that the Government have outsourced are in the public domain, with the amounts and the connections with the Government? We would also like to see the measurable outcomes. It is no good giving out the contracts only for people to turn around and say, “It doesn’t work,” and then the Government have to foot the bill again.

We have silence from the Twitter account, silence on the evidence for lockdown, silence on Government contracts. It is as if the Government were sailing adrift at sea with no radio contact. There is also silence on when fans can return to football stadiums. I saw Walsall prepare their ground, taking three weeks to ensure that it is covid-safe so that all our fans can return. Staff have already taken a reduction in wages. Now the Government are holding those businesses with their hands tied behind their backs. They cannot raise income from fans returning, which helps fans’ health and wellbeing. I do not know whether any Cabinet members go to football matches, but there were some fantastic results last weekend. Fans would have wanted to see them. [Interruption.] I meant that I wonder whether Cabinet members had been to football matches previously. There have been dramatic results. We want to go to our local matches at Walsall. There are dramatic matches there, too. May we have a statement on when football stadiums can open safely? There has not been clarity from the Prime Minister or the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

I know that the Leader of the House will say that Foreign Office questions is next Tuesday, but will he ensure that the Foreign Secretary gives the House an update on Nazanin and Anousheh and the meeting with the Iranian Foreign Minister? If he does not give it to the House, will he please give it to the families?

I ask again for a statement on the EU Council meeting on 15 October. It can be given on the Friday or the following Monday.

Mr Speaker, he did it: my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) jumped from a plane. He fundraised for Florence and came out unscathed. Today is Gift Aid Awareness Day and I suggest that all hon. Members use that tick and ensure that the charities get their money. Well done to my hon. Friend and all the best to Florence.

Today is not only Gift Aid Awareness Day; it is also Octopus Day. We will be getting our tentacles into many important issues today. If any of us suffer from polydactyly, we will be able to model ourselves on octopodes—as I think the plural of octopus might be.

Let me go through the various important points that the right hon. Lady raised. First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) on a fine charity-raising achievement. Thank heavens that it has gone safely.

On football, I think that you are not entirely happy with some of the recent results, Mr Speaker, and believe that we should probably have a debate on the unfairness of the result and perhaps have it reversed by statutory instrument. Unfortunately that is not part of the Government’s programme, much though I wish to oblige you, Mr Speaker, whenever possible. Even I have been to football matches. I have been to see Keynsham Town and Paulton Rovers—two fine clubs in North East Somerset. I absolutely understand the issue that the right hon. Lady raises, which is a matter of concern to many Members. The Government are keen to help football clubs and have been working with them, but the question is ensuring that grounds can reopen safely, as the right hon. Lady acknowledged in her question.

Let me come on to Twitter. The right hon. Lady says that I tweet about teddy bears. I do indeed, and about Bath Oliver biscuits and the failures of socialism, which is a regular theme of mine. I try to remind people that socialism is fundamentally dangerous and not in the interests of this country. However, the House of Commons Twitter account needs to be rigorously impartial and there were concerns about simply putting out the explanatory notes, which are written by a side that is interested in the result and parti pris. It is not right for the House of Commons in any sense to intervene in the debate. The votes are recorded and there is an excellent app that people can download. Did you know that, Mr Speaker? There is a terrific app—CommonsVotes—on which you can look up every single Commons vote. You can wander around with your telephone and see exactly how every Member of Parliament has voted. That is provided by the House authorities and is absolutely magnificent.

The right hon. Lady moans that we have not heard enough from the Secretary of State for Health. We have had 40 oral statements from the Government during the coronavirus pandemic. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care has been an assiduous attender at this House to ensure we are fully informed.

Not only when asked. He has made statements. He has volunteered to make statements.

I am very glad to say that we now have a system where issues of national significance will be debated on the Floor of the House. I note the 10 pm curfew is a nationally significant measure. Even though it was not strictly caught by the Health Secretary’s commitment last week, the Government took the decision to move the debate to the Floor of the House in recognition of the level of demand for the debate. We are being responsive to what is being asked for and ensuring proper scrutiny. The fact is that scrutiny helps to improve Government policy. That has always been true and it is one of the key roles of this House.

As regards evidence for individual measures, the Government are acting on the advice of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies. The Government have consistently acted on the advice of SAGE and all measures come in on the best available advice. That is the whole point of having SAGE in the first place.

The right hon. Lady says we have lost five civil servants. It sounds a bit like this:

“James James

Morrison Morrison

Weatherby George Dupree

Took great

Care of his Mother,

Though he was only three.

James James said to his Mother,

‘Mother,’ he said, said he;

‘You must never go down

to the end of the town,

if you don’t go down with me.’”

And they went down to the end of the town and got lost. They haven’t got lost at all! Some have retired, some have moved on. This is in the natural course of events. Out of the many thousands of civil servants, for five to have changed jobs really seems to me hardly excessive.

As regards outsourcing, a motion arises on an Opposition day debate on Wednesday, when that issue can be discussed in all its glorious technicolour detail.

In my constituency, we have light industry and retail to the east and tourism to the west, so transport links are of vital importance to many of my constituents. Although transport is devolved, many aspects of transport infrastructure are not. The A55 in north Wales is arguably one of the most important roads in the UK in terms of international trade. Upgrades to it are therefore of national, as well as local, importance. To date, I have had minimal success with the roads Minister in obtaining those upgrades, which were part of our 2019 manifesto. What options can my right hon. Friend suggest to get this vital project prioritised for my constituents?

There is a massive upgrading of roads programme, with £8.6 billion of infrastructure spending. Sir Peter Hendy has been asked by the Government to consider a range of options to connect the nations within the United Kingdom. The review will be broad in scope and will look at how best to improve road, rail, air and sea connections across the United Kingdom such as the A55, which my hon. Friend mentions and which is indeed a very important road. The Government will take their decisions based on the expert advice of Sir Peter. I encourage my hon. Friend to carry on lobbying and perhaps ask for an Adjournment debate on this important subject.

I begin by commending you, Mr Speaker, and in particular the Doorkeepers, for demonstrating by example earlier in the week the need to wear face coverings when moving around the building. I hope the leadership that was demonstrated by you might rub off on the Government when it comes to looking at the procedures in this place and how we debate things.

I want to start by asking the Leader of the House where he has got to in his consideration of the recommendations of the Procedure Committee with regard to remote voting in this place. This is all the more pertinent given that the coronavirus pandemic is not going away. Indeed, it may well get worse before it gets better. We already have in various parts of the United Kingdom, and particularly in Scotland, quite severe restrictions. They may intensify and that may mean many Members will be unable to travel to this place if they wish to follow the guidance of their local health authorities and their national Government to avoid inessential travel. It seems to me somewhat perverse to be in a situation where the travel of Members of Parliament has to be essential only because we choose to turn off the means by which we can make it inessential. In other words, if we had the ability to participate remotely, we would not need to make journeys to this place. So, first, I would like to know where the Leader of the House has got to in his consideration of that.

Will the Chancellor update the statement he made a couple of weeks ago concerning the continuation of support for businesses that are unable to trade because of the pandemic? The announcement on the job support scheme is relevant only to those businesses that are able to start trading at a reduced capacity. It has no relevance to businesses that are told to close, cannot trade at all and have no income coming in. When can we have a statement on that?

Finally, on a completely different topic, I wonder whether I can tease the Leader of the House to answer a question that the Prime Minister refused to answer. In May next year we have elections for the Scottish Parliament. If the Conservative party and other Unionist parties were successful in gaining a majority of seats in that Parliament in that election, would the Leader of the House regard that as a topical mandate for the Union at that election?

There was a vote in 2014 of the people of Scotland, who decided to remain in the United Kingdom. The SNP at the time was under the leadership of Mr Salmond—a figure SNP Members perhaps do not talk about as much as they used to for reasons I am not entirely clear about. All sorts of interesting things about Mr Salmond and Mrs Sturgeon are currently in the papers—all sorts of conversations between them—to which people may want to pay attention. None the less, SNP Members do not like talking about him much any more. At the time, Mr Salmond said it was for a generation. Now, I know that we have been talking about octopuses on World Octopus Day, but a generation is longer, I imagine, than the lifespan of the average octopus. It is the lifespan of an individual. A generation is 25 to 30 years. It is a good length of time. We have had the referendum, and we won. The Unionists won. Even the Labour party won in that sense. It is therefore something that we can be very pleased about that happened in 2014.

As regards proceedings in this place, it might be helpful if SNP Members were more rigorous in attending to the details of the rules, but, leaving that to one side, we need to turn up to do our job. We are an essential service. I think it is pretty wet, quite frankly, to expect doctors, nurses, police officers, people working in supermarkets, and the cleaners in the House of Commons to do their jobs, and for us to say that we have to stay at home because we are not willing to come here. We have a duty to be here—our public duty. We were elected to be an assembly of the nation, not people sitting remotely throwing stones. There are facilities for people to participate in interrogative proceedings, and there are facilities for people to vote by proxy because of their individual conditions, but, fundamentally, the business of the House needs to go on in the Chamber of the House.

Finally, on the Chancellor and updates, as I said earlier, we have already had 40 statements from the Government during this period. The Government are committed to keeping the House regularly updated on important policy changes.

Leah Sharibu is the only teenage girl of her group not yet released after Boko Haram terrorists kidnapped her and 109 other girls from their school in February 2018. Leah remains in captivity after bravely refusing to renounce her Christian faith. Does the Leader of the House share my concerns about the need for Leah’s plight to be raised with the Nigerian authorities to secure her release?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising a grave and important point, and for her continued efforts to campaign for the rights of Christians and religious minorities. She is one of the House’s true champions of religious freedom across the world. The plight of the young girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria has caused horror around the world. The Government wholly condemn the terrorist group’s attacks in north-east Nigeria in recent years, and have offered the Nigerian Government a range of technical support to help improve the local security forces’ capacity for responding to the terrorist threat. I will ensure that my hon. Friend’s concerns are passed to my hon. Friend the Minister for Africa.

I thank the Leader of the House for notice of the time on Tuesday 20 October, and the Backbench Business Committee proposes that it would be timely for a debate on Black History Month. Could we ask for a minimum of three hours’ protected time or that the debate can run until the moment of the interruption, whichever is the later?

I also want to give notice of another time-sensitive debate application. We have a heavily subscribed application for a debate on International Men’s Day, which is on Thursday 19 November, and it is regrettable that we have not been able to facilitate a debate on Baby Loss Awareness Week, which runs from tomorrow, 9 October, until next Thursday 15 October. We also have another time-sensitive application for a debate on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, which is on Wednesday 25 November.

Any time that the Government think the business may run short, given that speaking lists for debates are known in advance, may I suggest that we could find debates to fill that time to facilitate the House not rising early on particular days?

I also thank the Leader of the House for writing to the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care on my behalf following last week’s exchanges, but he has been at it again. The Health Secretary suggested earlier this week that the Government had put an extra £10 million into local authorities in the north-east to support contact tracing. That came in response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist). I would love to know where the money is, so can we have the cheque as soon as possible? The local authorities and the directors of public health are anticipating it eagerly.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he said about facilitating the debate on 20 October on Black History Month. It is not always possible to provide debates on specific month, day or week events, although the Government try to as far as possible. I note his point about what happens when Government business runs short, and it is a point I am sympathetic to. It is not always possible to predict; it is sometimes frustrating for Members if a Backbench business debate is scheduled and then Government business runs full time, and people find that their speeches have been written in vain. It is a difficult balance to get right, but I am well aware of the need to use the parliamentary time that is available well.

On the £10 million, I am sure that if the Secretary of State has said there is £10 million coming, the cheque is in the post.

Several weeks ago, a number of Football League clubs demonstrated that they could safely welcome back fans into stadiums. Indeed, I was fortunate enough to be at Bloomfield Road to see Blackpool beat Swindon in one of those very successful pilot games. And yet, in spite of those games going ahead smoothly, clubs and fans are concerned that we may go an entire season without welcoming fans back on to the terraces. I am aware that my right hon Friend the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is currently in dialogue with the football authorities, but the perilous finances of many clubs mean that the situation is becoming increasingly urgent. Does my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House feel that it would be in order for the Secretary of State to give a statement to the House on these discussions and the steps that he is taking to welcome fans back on to the terraces?

I have a big list to get through. We are really going to have to speed up questions and answers.

I would like to commend the Football League clubs to which my hon. Friend refers, which have shown that they can manage the return of fans to watch live sport in a safe and effective fashion. The Government know that the decision not to reopen stadiums to spectators on 1 October will have major consequences for sports and clubs across the country that relied on those grounds for income. That is why the Government are working urgently with clubs and their representatives to ensure that as many as possible are not adversely affected by that. I would add that the football authorities are giving a lot of support to smaller football clubs. Nine football clubs in my constituency have benefited, and the Government are certainly grateful for the support that football is finding for itself.

Last month, Nationwide Building Society announced that it was closing its branch in Little Sutton. Since then a number of elderly vulnerable residents have contacted me, alarmed about the closure of their local branch. It seems that, even on Nationwide’s own figures, there has only been a 1% decline in visits to the branch, which, in the current context, is remarkable, and a flimsy basis on which to close the branch. Nationwide says there has been no consultation; it had already made a decision. May we have a debate, please, on what more can be done to ensure that there is greater accountability from large organisations like that to the communities that they are supposed to serve?

First, I commend the hon. Gentleman for bringing that matter to the attention of the House, because I think it does put pressure on large companies when these things are raised in the House. I understand the dissatisfaction when banks close their branches, but decisions on opening and closing branches are taken by the management team of each bank on a commercial basis, and it would be wrong for the Government to intervene in those decisions. But since May 2017 the major high street banks have been signed up to the access to banking standard, which commits them to working with customers and communities to minimise the impact of branch closures. If Nationwide is not following that, I would encourage the hon. Gentleman to ask for an Adjournment debate to raise the matter and keep up the pressure.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that I have argued strongly for the aviation industry to get Government support in order to get going again. I will continue to do that, but I am particularly concerned about one of the consequences of the collapse of aviation and of tourism. In many parts of the developing world, we are seeing a resurgence of poaching and the illegal wildlife trade, and real pressure on conservation projects in a way that I think will have a lasting impact on endangered species and on local resources. Will my right hon. Friend ask the Foreign Secretary, as we head into COP—the Conference of the Parties—year, in which there will be many other major environmental events, to look at what else this country can do through its aid budgets to support conservation in the developing world, lessen the threat to endangered species, and ensure that we are doing the right thing?

My right hon. Friend is right that this crisis has thrown up many problems that continue to develop. I reassure him that Her Majesty’s Government are at the forefront of international efforts to protect endangered animals and plants from poaching and illegal trade. In 2018, the UK convened the largest ever global illegal wildlife trade conference, at which 65 countries signed up to the London declaration, committing them to taking urgent, co-ordinated action against illegal wildlife trade. I will certainly pass on his message to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary.

May I ask the Leader of the House for a debate to review the progress and work of HS2 and its phased priorities? Clearly, the pandemic has led to a restructuring of the economy, a new normal, a change in working practice and so on. Also, some of the practices of HS2, such as the diversion of the A425, which was announced just a couple of days ago and which will take place in three weeks, are having a massive impact on our local economy. There are also the working practices of the National Eviction Team.

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise those issues and bring them to the attention of the House. I remind him that Transport questions will be on 22 October, which will be an opportunity to raise those issues again. There are issues relating to HS2 that are within the House’s consideration in other ways, but he would certainly be entitled to ask for an Adjournment debate or a Backbench Business debate on that matter.

The Kniveden Project offers tailored mental health services to people in the Staffordshire Moorlands, but the covid crisis has had a real impact on the services that it can provide, and I am sure that it is not alone. With World Mental Health Day this week, will the Leader of the House find time for an urgent debate on this very important matter?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. Mental health is an issue taken seriously by all the parties in this House, and overall mental health funding has increased to £13.3 billion in 2019-20. It is at the heart of the NHS long-term plan to see the largest expansion of mental health services in a generation. There will be at least a further £2.3 billion by 2023-24 of additional taxpayers’ support to help 380,000 more adults and 345,000 children. There has been temporary support of £9.2 million to help mental health charities during this crisis. I absolutely understand what she is saying, and I will pass the message on to Health Ministers on her behalf.

May we have a debate on the scourge of fly-tipping and littering, which has sadly increased in my beautiful part of Yorkshire during the pandemic? Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking all the community groups, including Pride in Linthwaite, Holmepride, volunteers from Hade Edge and Honley villages, and many more, who have been out tidying up their communities during this troubling time?

Absolutely I will thank the community groups, including Pride in Linthwaite, Holmepride, the Hade Edge village volunteers and the Honley village volunteers. This is fantastic. This is Britain at its best, with local people doing things to try to make their communities better and cleaner. Fly-tipping is a disgraceful and criminal activity and a blight on local communities. I am sure that many MPs wish to campaign to stop it happening and to reduce the amount of litter that we see. There was an Adjournment debate on that last Thursday, so it is an issue that is being discussed in the House.

We really need another debate on, to my mind, the inadequacy of the UK Government’s job support measures during the coronavirus pandemic. Particularly, we have a jobs emergency across tourism, hospitality and on-sales trade. We have just had to implement new restrictions, very necessarily, across the Forth Valley. They may need to be rolled out in other parts of the UK as well, so we really need to have a discussion about the inadequacy of the UK Government’s support, because we are not out of the woods on this yet.

That question is fundamentally flawed. The Government have provided a huge amount of taxpayers’ money, £190 billion-worth, in support. They have helped 12 million people in jobs, at a cost of £53 billion—£40 billion for the furlough scheme and £13.5 billion for the self-employed scheme. We have provided £19 billion for small and medium-sized businesses and large businesses through the coronavirus business interruption loans; £38 billion via the bounce back loans; £11 billion in business grants; and £10 billion in business rate relief. To call that insignificant and insufficient is to assume that there is a bottomless pit of money. There is not; there is taxpayers’ money, and that has been used to try to preserve jobs and protect the economy.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made an excellent speech earlier this week, when he referred to expanding wind energy. The development of that industry has been of great advantage to my constituency. Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Minister for Business, Energy and Clean Growth to come to the House to give more details on how we can expand the servicing, offshore maintenance and manufacturing capability?

My hon. Friend is such an effective campaigner for Cleethorpes that almost every Government policy is specifically designed to benefit Cleethorpes, as is only right and proper. I am pleased he supports the new plans to build back greener, making the UK the world leader in clean wind energy, creating jobs, slashing carbon emissions and boosting exports. That includes £160 million that will be made available to upgrade ports and manufacturing infrastructure across communities in the UK, and a target to produce more electricity in a year than every home in the country uses now through offshore wind by 2030, with the creation of 2,000 construction jobs, and 60,000 jobs directly and indirectly in ports by 2030. These are exciting plans and he should take credit for pursuing and campaigning for them.

It is almost a month since fire engulfed the refugee camp at Moria on Lesbos, leaving 13,000 refugees homeless. Organisations such as Becky’s Bathhouse, which was established in memory of Rebecca Dykes, who lost her life while working for the UK Government in Lebanon, are doing amazing work there, but what are the UK Government doing? May we have a statement from a Minister please?

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise this concerning issue and to congratulate Becky’s Bathhouse on what it has been doing. We are so lucky in this country that we often have good charitable organisations that take on key work. It is so important that this House recognises those organisations, and business questions is often an opportunity to do so. I do not have a full answer on what the Government’s plans are, but I will get him one.

Last weekend, my constituency suffered one of the wettest October days since records began. Homes and businesses were flooded, and raw sewage engulfed gardens and even a school playground. Will my right hon. Friend advise me of the best parliamentary means to safeguard against similar events in future and to ensure that there are adequate flood defences, given that many thousands of houses are projected to be built in an area of flood risk in Aylesbury and the surrounding villages?

I deeply sympathise with all those affected by flooding. It is a terrible thing to happen and when raw sewage is involved it is particularly problematic for the clean-up that has to follow. The Government are spending record amounts to help to protect communities from the threat of flooding, including £5.2 billion as a long-term package to protect homes, businesses and jobs between 2021 and 2027. I encourage my hon. Friend to take this up with Ministers at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, but I will pass his question on to them directly and encourage him to keep campaigning for Aylesbury.

Now more than ever, when we are promoting all the positive benefits of walking for our mental and physical well-being and for the environment, while still seeing significant costs to the NHS, claims against local councils, and worse, personal injury, and loss of confidence and independence, will the Leader of the House consider a debate on the funding levels and the priority accorded to the humble pavement, which is mission critical if we want to keep people stepping out? This is a matter of particular concern in Eastbourne.

Obviously, that is a matter for local councils, which have responsibility for pavements, but my hon. Friend is right to make herself a champion of pavement politics, because people want pavements in good condition. The Government have made record amounts of taxpayers’ money available to local councils, so urging them to ensure that pavements are in a good state of repair is the right thing to do.

My city of Bath has two successful universities, which the Leader of the House and I share, and so far daily cases remain low. I want to commend and thank the universities, the council and our students for everything that has been done so far, which includes new testing facilities. However, the experience of other cities is that covid cases can rise very quickly and stay high for a prolonged period of time. Therefore, the absolute focus has to be on how to keep numbers low, so can we have a statement in the House about the preventive measures we need in low-covid areas and how the Government intend to support areas to keep their cases low?

The Government have taken many steps, which are clear across the country. The rule of six is in place in the south-west even though cases are currently low. The 10 pm closure of restaurants and pubs is in place in the south-west, so I think the Government have a very consistent record across the country of having rules that help keep levels low where they are already low and that will help to try to lessen the peak in areas where they have been rising. I say again that we have had more than 40 statements from the Government—regular updates to this House—and they will of course continue.

I will touch on the same issue covered by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Scott Benton). As the Leader of the House will know, when it comes to sporting prowess, East Anglia is very much top of the pile, as he would have witnessed at Lords when Essex edged past Somerset in the County Championship final. However, it is not just in cricket that East Anglia is at the forefront, but in football too. He will know that Ipswich Town football club is one of the great clubs of this country, with Sir Bobby Robson part of its legacy, as well as FA cup and UEFA cup wins. However, right now the club is struggling. It was going to be a test case that would have allowed 1,000 season-ticket holders into the stadium but that was cancelled at the last minute. Ipswich is an area with very low levels of covid-19, fortunately, and it is very much the view of Lee O’Neill, our managing director, that we could allow a small number of spectators into the ground very soon to enjoy our soon-to-be promotion to the championship. Will my right hon. Friend—

I did not much like the beginning of the message, about Essex and Somerset. The match was pretty much rained off and it was not a proper County Championship this year anyway, but Somerset still have not won—it is my lifetime’s hope that Somerset will one day win the County Championship, but there we go.

In relation to stadiums and visitors, I reiterate what I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Scott Benton). The decision not to reopen stadiums to spectators will have major consequences for sport and clubs across the country, and the Government are working hard with sport organisations to mitigate the economic consequences. Sport England has provided £195 million to support community sport throughout the crisis and has recently added a further £15 million to its community emergency fund to help grassroots sport further. I absolutely accept that this is a problem, and it is one of the consequences of the coronavirus.

Will the Leader of the House join me in supporting World Osteoporosis Day on 20 October and encourage colleagues to join the soon-to-be newly relaunched all-party group on the issue? This is especially important this year as NHS services to treat people with osteoporosis have been slow to restart following the lockdown and many preventable problems have been building up. Can we therefore have a statement on what the Government are doing to support people with this condition and to restart NHS services as fully and as quickly as possible?

I am more grateful for that question than the hon. Lady may realise, because the Royal Osteoporosis Society is based in my constituency, in Camerton, and it is an absolutely fantastic organisation that does really important work. The disease is one of concern to many people and it is a condition that is very debilitating, so I commend her for raising it. You may have noted that, Mr Speaker, as a request for an Adjournment debate, which—if I have any influence on Adjournment debates as Leader of the House, which I do not think I do—I would encourage you to accept.

On Tuesday, instead of Ministers filling the time with newspeak designed to obscure the blindingly obvious, will the Leader of the House ensure that they focus rigorously on the key question—namely, if lockdown measures are the answer, why are they not working?

My right hon. Friend reminds me of a 1979 Conservative election sticker that said, “If Labour’s the answer, it must have been a silly question.” The lockdown measures have been implemented to try to stop the spread of the disease. A disease that is communicated by people meeting is bound to be reduced in its circulation if people meet less. We saw that with the first lockdown—it stopped people meeting, and therefore the numbers affected by the disease declined. On his main point about whether he will get good answers from Ministers, I can assure him that he will get brilliant answers from them.

May I congratulate the next Member, who ran a virtual marathon and raised over £1,000 for charity?

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

This House will be more covid-safe now that Mr Speaker has required us to wear face masks in shared spaces on the parliamentary estate, but on days when there are votes, the 500-plus of us who are not self-isolating for health or public health reasons are required to be here to vote, crowding into corridors and halls of this building and putting ourselves and staff at additional risk, particularly as so many Members do not seem to respect the Government’s rule on spacing. The Leader of the House keeps saying that we should continue with business as normal, but covid means that all workplaces have had to compromise and adapt. What level of infection here or in the country will it take for the Government to let us return to online voting in this place?

The House has adapted. If you seek a monument, look around—look at this half-empty or quarter-empty Chamber. There is none of the excitement and pizzazz that the Chamber normally has, and I know that it grieves many Members that we have to be like this. We also have to get on and do our duty, rather than democracy being suspended when doctors are at work, nurses are at work and supermarket workers are at work. We are not some priestly caste above the rest of the nation. We are part of the rest of the nation. It is our duty to be here, representing our constituents and voting. Of course Members should be responsible and socially distance in the queues to vote—that is absolutely right—but we have a duty to be here, and I am surprised that Members do not wish to do their duty.

One of the great successes of levelling up under this Government is the towns fund. I am left bemused when Opposition Members bemoan the fact that towns like Kidsgrove, which felt forgotten for decades, are getting up to £25 million, with the Government recently approving a £750,000 advance payment to refurbish Kidsgrove sports centre and improve some of our local parks. Will my right hon. Friend make time for a debate on the rejuvenation of town centres and the important role they play in local communities, such as the historic towns of Burslem and Tunstall?

I agree with my hon. Friend that the £3.6 billion towns fund is central to this Government’s ambition to level up the country and ensure that everyone, wherever they live, can contribute to and benefit from economic prosperity. The towns fund is bringing much-needed investment to towns and high streets across the country, supporting towns that are the birthplaces of our industry. I am excited by Kidsgrove’s plans and those of many other towns that are reaching for this opportunity for regeneration. In due course, we will bring forward a competitive round of the towns fund and will welcome proposals from more towns to be part of this important programme. It will include improving transport and digital infrastructure, supporting skills development and making the most of planning powers to create a good environment for businesses and residents. My hon. Friend should ask the Backbench Business Committee for a full day of debate to celebrate this wonderful Government policy.

Every October in this place, there is a fantastic photo call to celebrate breast cancer awareness and the month that we use to mark it. Obviously, it cannot take place this year, but this is a very serious subject, because the pandemic has seen screening and diagnoses delayed, and it is imperative that we heighten awareness. Will my right hon. Friend give time for a debate so that we can talk about breast cancer in this place, even if we cannot all wear it pink?

My right hon. Friend is so right to raise this important issue. Although over 200,000 people were treated for cancer during the peak of the pandemic and NHS England is now back at a near 100% level of radiotherapy treatment, if I can make one key point from this Dispatch Box, it is this: anyone who is worried that they have symptoms of cancer must visit their doctor, must ensure that they are treated and must have no reticence about feeling the need for treatment. I cannot promise a breast cancer awareness debate in Government time, but it is a subject that Members across the House think ought to be debated. If the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) is still watching our proceedings, I hope that he will have heard this plea for a Backbench Business debate.

Can the Leader of the House find time when we can scrutinise the lamentable performance of the Department of Health and Social Care in answering written parliamentary questions? I now have several questions that have still not received a response after way over a month. For example, at the beginning of September, I tabled question 86714, in which I pointed out that we needed testing in place in cities such as Brighton and Hove—places with low covid numbers into which thousands of students were imminently going to arrive. That question has still not been answered. The level of coronavirus in those towns has increased fivefold, as it has in Exeter, since I asked that question. This is a key way for us to give voice to our constituents—it is not just about MPs asking questions—and to point out to Departments what is happening on the frontline of our communities.

Mr Speaker, I heard your response to a point of order yesterday, and I endorse your comments entirely. It is an obligation of Ministries to respond in accordance with the timelines laid down in Standing Orders in relation to named day questions and to make their best efforts on other questions. Likewise, I have reminded my right hon. Friends about this obligation with regard to correspondence. That the responses to correspondence and written questions are slow is affecting Members across all parties. I am taking up any issues raised in business questions directly with Secretaries of State and trying to get responses for Members that way, but I appreciate that that is a limited palliative. On behalf of the Government, I take this problem very seriously and will do whatever I can to try to ensure that answers are given in a timely fashion. It has been the job of Parliament since 1265, when the House of Commons first came together, to seek redress of grievance, and we do so via questions. I have the greatest sympathy and agreement with the hon. Gentleman.

Yesterday, the World Trade Organisation agreed that the UK will be able to join the agreement on Government procurement as an independent party from 1 January 2021. Will the Leader of the House please reassure the residents of Ashfield that this will benefit businesses, including small businesses, across every part of my constituency—from manufacturing and professional business services, to advertising and construction?

My hon. Friend is quite right to stand up for businesses in Ashfield. The whole country will benefit from joining the WTO agreement on Government procurement as an independent party. At last, we are taking back control. From 1 January, British businesses in diverse sectors, including small businesses, from every part of the UK will be able to bid for procurement opportunities around the world, worth over £1.3 trillion. That is not a misprint or an error. I did not mean billion or million; it is £1.3 trillion a year. That is good news, and I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s support.

We mark Challenge Poverty Week this week, but Save the Children reports today that more than one third of families on universal credit and child tax credit have had to turn to charities for food or children’s clothes over the past two months alone, and their debts now average £1,700. Can we have a debate on how to repair the damage that the Government have done to our social security safety net before winter makes things even worse for children and families?

I am sorry to say that I reject the whole premise of the question. This Government have a proud record on tackling poverty. We saw the biggest ever cash increase in the national living wage this year, worth an extra £930 for over 2 million people. There are more than 1.2 million fewer workless households since 2010—a record low—and 200,000 fewer people in absolute poverty than in 2010. We have put an additional £1.7 billion into universal credit and implemented a total working- age welfare spend of £95 billion of taxpayers’ money. We have taken unprecedented steps during this crisis to help vulnerable people, especially children, by providing £380 million of free school meals, £16 million for food charities to get food to those who are struggling, and 4.5 million food boxes for vulnerable people who were shielding. That is a proud record of an excellent Government.

Has my right hon. Friend seen early-day motion 972 about tackling child food insecurity, which is backed by Marcus Rashford, a former Sports Minister, and a former Prisons Minister?

[That this House believes no child should go hungry; welcomes Government action to provide Free School Meals over the school summer holidays; recognises that families are still struggling to afford food, that 11 per cent of parents and 6 per cent of children have directly experienced food insecurity in the last month and that food bank usage is expected to be 61 per cent higher in winter 2020-21 than last year; believes that further action to protect vulnerable children is needed; calls on the Government to implement the recommendations in the National Food Strategy Part 1 to increase the value of and expand eligibility for Healthy Start vouchers, expand eligibility for Free School Meals, and extend the Holiday Activities and Food programme; and notes that alongside minimising child food insecurity these recommendations will also address inequalities, improve the long-term health and resilience of the population, reduce childhood obesity, improve children’s academic performance, support parents to stay in work during the holidays, and ease the strain on the welfare system.]

The early-day motion notes that 11% of parents and 6% of children have experienced food insecurity in the past few months and urges that free school meal vouchers should be extended over the holidays, alongside an expansion of holiday activity clubs. The Backbench Business Committee has agreed to a debate, but we are waiting for parliamentary time. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that we have that debate in the Chamber on this vital issue?

I had indeed come across early-day motion 972, because my right hon. Friend had the courtesy to tell me about it, so I knew what he was proposing. I also know that he is a great campaigner for young people as a distinguished Chairman of a Select Committee. The work that he does is of great importance, and campaigns he is involved in are often very successful.

Let me reiterate what the Government have done: expanding free school meals to all children aged five to seven, ensuring that a further 1.4 million pupils receive a free nutritious meal each day; a £1 billion fund to create more high-quality affordable childcare; and £35 million into the national school breakfast programme, benefiting up to 2,450 schools in disadvantaged areas. I note that my right hon. Friend has won his debate from the Backbench Business Committee, and I am always aware of demands from the Committee for more Chamber time.

Some £12 billion has been allocated for test and trace. Much of that has been squandered on outsourcing giants, such as Serco, which not only have records of failure but have been fined in recent years for ripping off the public purse. The Leader of the House is a proud advocate of outsourcing and privatisation, but perhaps even he thinks it has gone too far when these companies are putting lives at risk. Will he condemn the private sector companies undermining our test and trace system, and will he grant a debate on this?

Mr Speaker, you will be the first to acknowledge that life here in Westminster has been a bit different for the past few months. Our meetings are virtual; Members are asked by well-meaning members of staff to move their chairs or simply to move on; and of course face masks are now part of our dress code. Does my right hon. Friend agree that these measures are necessary to keep us safe, not least from ourselves, and that Parliament has a clear responsibility to set the right example?

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for that really important question. We do have an obligation to lead by example. I will not begin to pretend that I like wearing a face mask, but, under your guidance, Mr Speaker, I have taken to wearing one when walking about the Palace, partly because we all have a duty as Members of Parliament to set a lead and an example and partly because it may have a benefit and stop the spread of the disease, in which we all share a responsibility.

I am grateful that my hon. Friend mentions staff asking Members to move apart and observe social distancing. I would encourage everybody to recognise that this is done in a spirit of good will and to help us and keep us all in accordance with the rules. Please bear with members of staff when they do this. They are not doing it because they enjoy being officious; they are doing it because they have been asked to by Mr Speaker, by me and by my right hon.—the right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz). I was about to call her my right hon. Friend; in this context, we are all working together. The Commission is very keen that people should observe the rules. This House has done such good work to make this a covid-secure environment. We all have our part to play. We have to lead by example by being here, but while we are here, we must follow the rules.

This week, the National Audit Office released a highly worrying report indicating that taxpayer exposure to the Treasury’s flagship business bounce back loans could be as much as 60%, which is £26 billion, as a result of fraud and debt repayment default. Considering that the scheme was launched in May, well into the crisis, we should expect better due diligence. Therefore, will the Leader of the House arrange for the Chancellor to come to the House to make an oral statement?

It is too early to say, I think, how the various schemes have been allocated, but the Government had to provide urgent resources for businesses to keep them in business. The £26 billion that the hon. Gentleman refers to was a necessary step to take to keep jobs open and to keep the structures of the economy in place. Any fraud is wrong, and any fraud must be investigated and, I hope, prosecuted, but urgency was the priority.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in celebrating the anniversary of the battle of Carhampton, which is in my constituency in Somersetshire? Carhampton was of course the scene of the historic clash between the Danish invaders and King Egbert of Wessex, grandad of the creator of Britain, King Alfred. Our county—our great county—is once again under threat from the divisive plans put forward by the so-called county council, God help us, which does not represent the county at all and has mounted an invasion against common sense. King Egbert and his son King Aethelwulf, and the great King Alfred himself, would have fought against it. Can we have Government time to stand with our great kings and fight this rubbish before it is too late?

Egbert is one of the great kings of Wessex who extended the borders of Wessex and became the bretwalda—that is to say, the high king—of the Anglo-Saxons and put Mercia in its place, at least briefly. That is worth remembering, because Gloucestershire is Mercian territory, so Somerset got one up on Gloucestershire, which we always quite like. With regard to my hon. Friend’s key message, it is worth bearing in mind that he is right to say “the so-called county council”, because the county council does not cover the county of Somerset but an administrative district of the historic county, and people should remember that.

Could we find time to have a debate about heritage buildings in the north of England? When we do, we could celebrate the £250,000 of Government money that is supporting the restoration of Darwen tower, topping up the tens of thousands of pounds that have been raised by Darwen Rotary club. You will agree, Mr Speaker, that up on Winter hill, the boundary between our constituencies, Darwen tower is a building in which we can all take pride.

You are absolutely correct. From my window I look at Darwen tower and Winter hill in the constituency of Chorley.

I can think of no better way of spending £250,000 of taxpayers’ money than improving the view of Mr Speaker.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the importance of local landmarks to Britain’s communities. It is great to hear that the towns fund has supported the imposing octagonal Darwen tower, which has stood over Lancashire for 122 years commemorating Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee. Let us hope, as we approach the 70th anniversary of Her Majesty’s own accession, that we may think of similar grand schemes for celebrating that. I am sure that my hon. Friend will join me in welcoming the Government’s spending of taxpayers’ money in town centres and high streets from the towns fund. This is essential to our efforts to level up our regions and create places across the country where people want to live and thrive. Our local history, as noted in the exchange between me and my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger), is incredibly valuable, and the Government are committed to preserving and enriching our heritage.

Safe and covid-secure pubs, bars and restaurants in South Shields found out from the press last night that today the Government will decide whether or not to close them down again. I have no polite words for our collective anger. Can we have an urgent statement and a vote on these measures?

I reiterate what my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary said in answer to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) when he made it clear that issues of national significance would be brought to the House for a debate and a vote before they are introduced. It is the Government’s intention to honour that commitment. I, too, have read speculation in the newspapers, but as far as I am aware, no final decisions have been made, and if any were to be made, they would be brought to this House.

As the pandemic continues, the mental health of our nation is of particular concern. As a father, I am particularly worried about the impact of covid-secure rules on children, especially in the early years. Will my right hon. Friend, as a father, seek to provide time for a debate or a statement in Government time on the impact on children’s mental health of these measures?

My hon. Friend is right to raise that issue. Early education lays the foundation for lifelong learning and supports children’s social and emotional development. It has been encouraging to see more nurseries and childminders opening to more children each week, and many families sending their children back to early years settings so that they can gain educational and wellbeing benefits of early education. He is also right to raise mental health, because at the heart of the NHS long-term plan is this large expansion of mental health services, which will include additional support for 345,000 children, and I entirely agree with him that this is the right way to be going. As a note, I also remind him that Education questions take place on Monday.

On Clean Air Day, may I raise an issue that the Leader of the House may have seen reported in the media this week, which is research that finds a link between air pollution and the development of Alzheimer’s? It has been some time since we have discussed dementia in the House, and people living with dementia are some of the hardest hit during the pandemic, so can we have a debate in Government time on support for research into dementia and for people living with dementia?

I am personally extremely sympathetic to what the hon. Gentleman is saying. I had the most touching letter from a constituent who has been able to visit her father only three times during the pandemic. He is in an advanced stage of Alzheimer’s, and she had to see him 6 feet 6 inches away with a screen between them. There was no ability to hold his hand or to have any personal contact, and she wrote to me saying that, therefore, her father did not even know that she was there. This is such a sadness in people’s later lives and therefore understanding it better is important. As so often, I cannot promise Government time for this, but my sympathies are very much with the hon. Gentleman’s request.

With more children conducting their studies online, may I ask my right hon. Friend whether the Government intend to implement part 3 of the Digital Economy Act 2017 rather than waiting for the online harms Bill to be brought forward? Currently, serious long-term damage is being done to our children who are being exposed to online adult content, and I believe that what is seen cannot be unseen. I am sure that he will agree that inaction in this area will have devastating consequences.

I assure my hon. Friend that tackling online harms is a main priority for the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Government as a whole. As we announced on 16 October last year, we will not be commencing part 3 of the Digital Economy Act 2017 in its provision on age verification for online pornography as originally intended. Instead, we will repeal part 3 of that Act, and the online harms regime will include provisions to protect children from unsuitable content, including pornography.

The Government’s commitment to protecting children online is unwavering. Adult content is too easily accessed online and more needs to be done to protect children from harm. Protection of children is at the heart of our approach to tackling online harms. This recognises that online harms can be particularly damaging for children and their mental health and wellbeing, and I share my hon. Friend’s view that what is seen cannot be unseen, but I will ensure that his question is passed on to the Secretary of State.

Yesterday morning, in Grantham in my constituency, a Lincolnshire police officer was struck and injured by a vehicle driven by a suspect whom she was seeking to apprehend. Will the Leader of the House join me in sending our best wishes to the injured police officer? Will he agree to a debate on how we can best keep our police officers safe in the line of duty?

Yes, of course, I will send my best wishes. I think the whole House would also wish to send its best wishes to the police officer who has been injured. The right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) nods, as does the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard). Attacks on the police are always very worrying, and we should be so grateful to our brave police who stand on duty courageously, never knowing quite what might hit them. My hon. Friend is right to be asking for a debate on this. Obviously, there will be opportunities as legislation comes forward to debate it in Government time. None the less, the Backbench Business Committee is the main source for debates of this kind along with Adjournment debates, but, as he knows, this is an issue that the Government take very seriously.

Before I conclude, let me say that I forgot one thing earlier: which is my congratulations to the right hon. Member for Walsall South on notching up an important milestone this week—four years as shadow Leader of the House. In the United States, when somebody has achieved four years, often the cry goes up, “Four more years!” I have a feeling that the whole House will be joining me in saying “Four more years” to the right hon. Lady.