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Engagements

Volume 682: debated on Wednesday 14 October 2020

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

During this pandemic, in my constituency of North West Cambridgeshire, I have seen a number of instances of ordinary citizens doing extraordinary work helping the elderly and vulnerable, and that has been repeated across the country in every single constituency, giving true meaning to the words “community spirit”. Would my right hon. Friend take this opportunity not only to acknowledge the fantastic work that has been done by so many people, but to give a huge thank you to each and every one of these unsung heroes of our country?

I thoroughly concur with my hon. Friend, and I congratulate all the volunteers for their spirit and the achievements they have delivered for the people of this country. I was delighted that we had a first chance to honour them in the birthday honours list at the weekend, or just some of them.

On 11 May, the Prime Minister said that the Government’s covid strategy

“will be governed entirely by the science.”—[Official Report, 11 May 2020; Vol. 676, c. 36.]

On 21 September, the Government’s own scientific advisers, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, gave very clear advice. They said that a “package of interventions” —including a circuit breaker—would be needed to prevent an “exponential rise in cases”. Why did the Prime Minister reject that advice and abandon the science?

We will do whatever it takes to fight this virus and to defeat it, but since the right hon. and learned Gentleman quotes the SAGE advice, I might just remind him that, on page 1, it states:

“All the interventions considered have associated costs in terms of health and wellbeing…Policy makers will need to consider analysis of economic impacts and the associated harms alongside this epidemiological assessment.”

The advice that I have today is that if we do the regional approach that commended itself to the House and, indeed, to him on Monday, we can bring down the R and we can bring down the virus. Will he stick to his position of Monday and support that approach?

I do not think that approach goes far enough, and neither does SAGE. The Prime Minister talks of the costs. Since he rejected SAGE’s advice on 21 September, I remind him that the R rate has gone up, the infection rate has quadrupled and hospital admissions have gone from 275 a day to 628 a day in England. Yesterday, 441 covid patients were on ventilators and the number of deaths recorded was, tragically, the highest since 10 June. That is the cost of rejecting the advice. SAGE has a clear view on why that is happening. What is the Prime Minister’s view on why these numbers are all heading in the wrong direction?

I set that out very clearly in the House on Monday. The difference between this stage of the pandemic and March and April, as the House knows very well, is that the disease is appearing much more strongly in some parts of the country than others. In Liverpool, for instance, alas, the figures are now running at 670 cases per 100,000, against 33 cases per 100,000 in Cornwall. There are 540 cases per 100,000 in Newcastle, alas, against 32 in North Norfolk. That is why the three-tiered approach that we set out on Monday, which the right hon. and learned Gentleman supported, is the right way forward. We want to put in the most stringent measures necessary in the places where the virus is surging, in order to get it down where it is surging. That is the logical thing to do. Will he get on to his Labour friends in those parts of the north of England whom we want to work with to put those very stringent measures in place, in order to deliver the reductions that the whole country wants to see? Will he support those measures? He would not support them last night.

I think the Prime Minister is behind the curve again. He probably has not noticed that this morning, the council leaders in Greater Manchester that he just quoted, including the Mayor and the Conservative leader of Bolton Council, said in a press statement that they support a circuit break above tier 3 restrictions—keep up, Prime Minister.

The big problem the Prime Minister has, as the SAGE minutes make absolutely clear, is that his two main policies—track and trace and local restrictions—simply have not worked, and we cannot stand by. In July, the Prime Minister told me that track and trace

“will play a vital part in ensuring that we do not have a second spike this winter.”

Those were his words. Three months later, SAGE has concluded that track and trace is only

“having a marginal impact on transmission”.

It goes on to say—and this is the really worrying part—that this is likely to

“further decline in the future.”

Let us not have the usual nonsense that anyone asking the Prime Minister a question about track and trace is somehow knocking the NHS. This is SAGE’s assessment—the Government’s own advisers. After £12 billion, let us have a straight answer: why does the Prime Minister think that his track and trace system has gone so wrong?

It is thanks to NHS Test and Trace, which is now testing more people than any other country in Europe, that we know where the disease is surging. We know that it is regionally distributed, rather than nationally distributed, at the moment, and that gives us a chance to do the right thing. The right hon. and learned Gentleman wants to close pubs. He wants to close bars. He wants to close businesses in areas across the country where the incidence is low. That is what he wants to do, and he wants to do it now, yet he voted to do nothing last night—nothing—in the areas where the incidence is highest. He says one thing at 5 o’clock about calling for a national lockdown. When it came to a vote in the House of Commons to impose more stringent measures, he failed even to turn up.

I know that, for someone who has been an opportunist all his life, this is difficult to understand, but having read and considered the SAGE advice, I have genuinely concluded that a circuit break is in the national interest—genuinely concluded. It is the failure of the Prime Minister’s strategy that means tougher measures are now unavoidable. That is SAGE’s view. SAGE has advised that a circuit breaker should act to reduce R below 1, should reset the incidence of disease to a lower level and should set the epidemic back by approximately 28 days or more. All three are vital, and that is why Labour backs it, so can the Prime Minister tell us what is his alternative plan to get R below 1?

The plan is the plan that the right hon. and learned Gentleman supported on Monday. The whole point is to seize this moment now to avoid the misery of another national lockdown, into which he wants to go headlong, by delivering a regional solution. Opportunism is, I am afraid, the name of the game for the party opposite, because they backed the rule of six—or he backed the rule of six—and then refused to vote for it. I think at three o’clock, the shadow Health spokesman said that a national lockdown would be “disastrous”; at five o’clock, he was calling for it. Let us go back to the approach that he was supporting on Monday. Let us try to avoid the misery of another national lockdown, which he would want to impose, as I say, in a headlong way. Let us work together—let us work together, as he was prepared to do on Monday—to keep kids in school, who he would now yank out of school in a peremptory way, keep our economy going, and keep jobs and livelihoods supported in this country. Let us take the common sensical regional approach, and will he kindly spell out to all his colleagues across the whole of the country that that is the best way forward, as indeed he did on Monday?

Following the advice is now, apparently, opportunistic. Presumably the Prime Minister will say the same to the leader of Bolton Council, a Conservative leader, who this morning said he supports a circuit break.

I have just listened to what the Prime Minister said about his strategy to get R below 1, but I cannot think of a single scientist who backs it. He will know that the chief medical officer said on Monday that he, the chief medical officer, is—his words:

“not confident, and nor is anyone confident, that the tier 3 proposals for the highest rates…would be enough”.

That is tier 3—the highest tier. So why is the Prime Minister so confident that his approach will get the R rate below 1—so confident—or is that no longer the Government plan?

I am afraid the right hon. and learned Gentleman is misrepresenting the position, doubtless inadvertently. Our advice is that, if the regional measures are tier 3 and at all levels were implemented in full with the support and the active co-operation of local leaders, as indeed we have seen from the leader of Liverpool city region, and I pay tribute to him and I thank him for what he is doing, and if we saw full and proper enforcement and if they were able to conduct proper local test and trace, with the support of the £500 million that we are giving, then yes, those measures would deliver the reduction in the R locally or regionally that we need in order to avert what none of us wants to see—what none of us wants to see, except now the right hon. and learned Gentleman, having performed this extraordinary U-turn—and that is the disaster, in the words of the shadow Health spokesman, of a national lockdown. We do not want to go there. We want the regional approach. He should co-operate with it.

I have supported the Government on all their measures so far, and I have taken criticism on it, but I think this measure is wrong and a circuit breaker is in the national interest. I have read the advice of SAGE and the Government have rejected it.

This is my last question, and I am sure the Prime Minister has his pre-prepared rant ready as usual, but we are at a tipping point. Time is running out. Maybe he can seize the moment and answer a question. This morning, The Daily Telegraph quotes senior Government sources saying the chances of the Prime Minister backing a circuit break in the next two weeks are about 80%. Is that right? If it is, why does he not do it now, save lives, fix testing and protect the NHS?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman claims to be supporting the Government one day, and then performs a dramatic U-turn the next. He claims to support the rule of six one day, then pulls his support the next. He wants tough measures, and then refuses to vote for them. Everybody can see what he is doing. Labour have said it themselves. They see this as a “good crisis” for the Labour party and one they wish to exploit. We see this as a national crisis that we are going to turn around, and the way we are going to do it is—and I rule out nothing, of course, in combating the virus, but we are going to do it—with the local, the regional approach that can drive down and will drive down the virus if it is properly implemented, and that is what I believe he should be supporting. He said he would support it on Monday. This is our opportunity to keep things going: to keep our kids in school; to keep our businesses going. That I think is what the people of this country want to do. This is our opportunity to do that, and to suppress the virus where it is surging. He refuses to accept that approach today. I hope that, not for the first time, he will change his mind and think the better of his actions.

One of the great unsung achievements of the coalition Government was the recruitment of 4,200 extra health visitors. As an experienced father himself, the Prime Minister knows how vital baby-to-baby contact is, as well as support networks for new parents, yet lockdown has made that difficult. At a time when they are most needed, health visitor numbers have dwindled, and they have been diverted from face-to-face contact. Will the Prime Minister urgently look at reversing the decline in health visitors and support the parent-infant premium proposal by the Parent-Infant Foundation to help lockdown babies catch up? (907525)

I thank my hon. Friend, who is not only an experienced father himself but, of course, an experienced campaigner on this issue. I am very pleased that health visiting teams have continued throughout this crisis to prioritise vulnerable families, and that is what they are going to do throughout the winter and throughout the pandemic.

Yesterday, the founder of BrewDog warned that

“the end of the Job Retention Scheme will lead to a tsunami of unemployment”.

BrewDog is just one of thousands of businesses across Scotland and the United Kingdom demanding that the Tory Government U-turn on their reckless plans to scrap the furlough scheme. There are just two weeks left to save people’s jobs and livelihoods, so in the next fortnight the Prime Minister has two choices: extend the full furlough scheme or inflict a tsunami of unemployment on our people this winter. Which is he going to choose?

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the Chancellor has already unveiled the job support scheme, which will go through till next year. Those on low incomes will also have the additional benefit of universal credit, which again is going through, in its uplifted form—£1,000 extra per year—to next April at least.

My goodness. That really does show that the Prime Minister does not get it. Universal credit— is that really what the Prime Minister is saying to those that could be saved? People do not want to hear the boasting and the excuses that we get; they want action. These half-measures do not cover it. Thousands have already lost their jobs. The Office for National Statistics has confirmed that we have the highest rate of redundancies since 2009. We are heading towards a Tory winter of mass unemployment created by the Prime Minister and the Chancellor. We know what the Prime Minister’s Tory colleagues are saying: the Prime Minister’s next job could be on the Back Benches; he just does not know it yet. If the Prime Minister will not U-turn on his plans to scrap furlough, does he realise that he will never—not ever—be forgiven for the damage that he is just about to cause to people up and down Scotland?

As I have said many times to the right hon. Gentleman, this Government are continuing to support people across the whole of the UK, with many billions of pounds in Barnett consequentials—at least £5 billion in Barnett consequentials for Scotland alone. But one thing I will congratulate him on is the Scottish nationalist party’s support for the tiered approach, which I think is still its policy, unlike the Labour party. At least it is showing some vestige of consistency in its normal gelatinous behaviour.

On Monday, I met virtually with the Hendon Cladding Collective to discuss building safety. The EWS1 form was raised. It was designed to support residential valuation and lending on buildings over 18 metres. However, the consolidated advice notes issued by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government extended the scope of the form to buildings below 18 metres. Will the Prime Minister provide specific interim advice around risk prioritisation of buildings below 18 metres, and will he extend the building safety fund to buildings of less than 18 metres? (907527)

I will look at the second point my hon. Friend raises, but what I can tell him is that we are focusing first on buildings with unsafe cladding that are over 18 metres. I understand that the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors is producing a risk matrix to support mortgage valuation under 18 metres, and that, led by the National Fire Chiefs Council, a risk prioritisation tool for blocks of flats will be available shortly.

By the weekend, Northern Ireland will be in an effective lockdown. Under the Chancellor’s new furlough scheme starting in November, a minimum wage full-time employee, a normal worker, will be entitled to £227 per week. I doubt that this Prime Minister could survive on that. How, and under God, does he expect ordinary decent workers to survive on that?

I am proud of what the Government have done to raise the national living wage, which this Government introduced. What I can tell the hon. Gentleman is that whatever happens, a combination of the job support scheme and universal credit will mean that nobody gets less than 93% of their current income.

My constituency has the best nuclear site in the UK. Will the Prime Minister confirm to me and the people of Ynys Môn that he is 100% behind Wylfa Newydd? (907528)

Yes, indeed. I congratulate my hon. Friend on her fantastic campaigning for a nuclear future for Ynys Môn. She has no more fervent supporter in that objective than me.

The Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government has a habit of hitting the headlines, and not always for the right reason. At the weekend, we discovered that his constituency had been awarded £25 million from the regeneration scheme and that that was approved by one of his own Ministers. The Secretary of State returned the favour by approving funding for that Minister’s constituency. We have one Department, two Ministers and tens of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money. Does the Prime Minister think that the approval process is appropriate, or does he think that the public might be right in thinking that this all looks a bit grubby? (907526)

All this was independently approved, but if the hon. Gentleman has some serious allegation to make against my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State then may I suggest that he has the guts to make it?

British wool is a multifunctional versatile product, but sadly farmers across the UK and Montgomeryshire feel frustrated that this highly sustainable natural product is not properly valued and utilised to its full potential at the moment. Will the Prime Minister help to boost the export market, or indeed our domestic demand, for British wool as we build back better? For example, wool can be used as a great insulator for the next generation of sustainable housing. (907531)

I thank my hon. Friend for what he does to campaign for wool. As someone whose family used to farm sheep, I feel the pain of sheep farmers everywhere. The price is on the floor at the moment. Uses such as the one my hon. Friend identifies are extremely interesting and should be pursued. I urge everybody in this country who is thinking of Christmas presents to buy British wool this winter.

Two weeks ago, the Prime Minister told me that he would support charities to be able to open covid-safe accommodation for homeless people this winter, but yesterday the Government announced a £3 million cut in the cold weather fund this year, despite higher covid-related costs. Will the Prime Minister at least guarantee that all Government funds can be used to cover anyone and everyone needing shelter? (907529)

Of course, we will make sure that local authorities get the support they need. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have already put in an extra £3.7 billion into helping local authorities and, I think, a total of £28 billion into tackling the local consequences of covid. We will continue to support people throughout the country.

May I strongly support the aspiration of the Prime Minister, set out last week, to deliver floating offshore wind capacity of 1 GW by 2030? Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is a very substantial scheme being worked up in the Celtic sea that would meet a third of that target, as well as create many jobs in south Wales, Devon and Cornwall? Will he please use his best endeavours to ensure that the Crown Estate looks favourably on that project to help our country to deliver its important climate change commitments? (907535)

I am aware of the incredible prospect in the Celtic sea and I am confident that the Crown Estate, as the landlord of the seabed, will respond positively.

My constituent, Luke Thomas, has recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer. He urgently needs to move closer to his family for support. Luke has a shared ownership flat in a low-rise building with wooden cladding, but he cannot sell it because mortgage lenders require an EWS1 certificate and Luke’s building does not have one. Estimates suggest that it could take 10 years to certify every building affected, but Luke and hundreds of thousands of people like him cannot wait that long. When will the Prime Minister end this scandal? (907530)

I direct the hon. Lady to what I said a moment or two ago to my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) about trying to provide mortgage backing for those who find themselves in that very difficult position, but we must get on and remove the flammable cladding from buildings of all kinds.

Ashfield and Eastwood has been left behind, ignored and forgotten about after decades of Labour-run councils and Labour MPs. Last December, my friends, family and constituents voted for change. They want to see the glory days return to Ashfield and Eastwood, which was once the beating heart of Nottinghamshire through mining, textiles and engineering. Can my right hon. Friend please reassure me that Ashfield and Eastwood will no longer be the forgotten constituency and that he will do all he can to make sure we get the investment that we need to secure better jobs, better education, better training and a better future? (907536)

Yes, indeed. I can tell my hon. Friend, who is a fantastic campaigner for Ashfield, that they are in line for the town deal proposals, as part of the £3.6 billion town deals fund, and the £250 million growth deals announced through to 2021. I hope he will take that good news back to Ashfield.

The Prime Minister has been asked this question before by my SNP colleagues and others but they have never received a direct response. I therefore ask the Prime Minister again: will he confirm that the temporary £20 universal credit uplift will be made permanent after April next year and that those who are currently excluded from the uplift will be included? (907532)

I know that I have given that answer many times, and that is because the answer remains the same, which is that the uplift will remain in place through to April next year. As I said, when we combine the JSS with UC people get 93% of their income. I appreciate that times are tough, but the best thing we can do is keep this economy moving if we possibly can, keep our kids in schools and avert the “disaster”—Labour’s words—of another national lockdown.

Will the Prime Minister join me in thanking the great businesses of Wolverhampton, such as Greg at GI’s Barbers and Baked in Tettenhall, for continuing to serve the community in difficult times? Will he also reconfirm his commitment to invest and level up Wolverhampton, and when we have come through this stronger, may I invite him to come and see those businesses himself? (907538)

I have happy memories of sampling some of the fare in Wolverhampton with my hon. Friend. I can tell him that the Black Country city deal has just seen an investment of £5.8 million and that the West Midlands Combined Authority was just awarded £66 million for projects across the area, including £15 million for the national brownfield institute, which is due to be located in Wolverhampton. Wolverhampton was the birthplace of the first industrial revolution. It is now teeming with opportunity in the latest.

The Prime Minister will be aware that the Northern Ireland Executive have just announced new restrictions to bear down on the virus while still keeping schools open, with the exception of one extra week at Halloween, and keeping most sectors of the economy going, but the sectors that are missing are hospitality, the associated supply chains and the self-employed. What plans does he have to announce something to help these much needed sectors that are in dire need and need assistance urgently? (907533)

I thank the hon. Gentleman. I am in continuous contact, as he can imagine, with the leader and the deputy leader in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland, of course, will receive at least £2.4 billion in additional funding as a result of Barnett consequentials, but we will look at further imaginative and creative measures to support jobs and to support livelihoods across the whole of the UK.

This Sunday marks the 11th Anti-Slavery Day for the United Kingdom, an opportunity for all of us to raise awareness of the heinous crime of modern slavery. Will my right hon. Friend use this opportunity to reinforce the UK’s global leadership on this issue, and can he confirm that treating victims with dignity and respect will always be at the heart of everything this Government do in response to this crime?

Yes, I certainly can confirm what my right hon. Friend says about treating victims with dignity and respect, and she is right to take pride in what this Government have done in introducing the Modern Slavery Act 2015. Thanks to that Act, we are identifying more victims of modern slavery than ever before: 10,000 potential victims of modern slavery were identified in 2019, which is a 52% increase. It is this Government, this House and this country that are leading the campaign against modern slavery.

I entered Parliament this morning and checked in using the contact tracing app, and when I return to Fife on the train tomorrow I will need to manually switch to the Scottish app, as it does not happen automatically. We are facing a second wave of infections across the UK, so test and trace is even more critical. Given the Prime Minister’s support for a four nations approach, what engagement has taken place on app interoper- ability, because that is critical, particularly in border communities? (907534)

I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for pointing that out. I will make sure that there is interoperability; I will do what I can to ensure there is interoperability across all four nations. As she knows, there is a slightly different approach in Northern Ireland already, but in the bulk of the approach that we have so far taken, there is much more in common than sets us apart.

I welcome the Government’s commitment to establish freeports. The port of Immingham in my constituency is, by tonnage, the largest port in the country. Does the Prime Minister agree that it would be somewhat remiss to not include Immingham in the freeport programme?

I thank my hon. Friend for his campaign for Immingham. It is registered, but my hon. Friend should know that he is one of the most successful campaigners in this House already this year, because the new bridge that he asked for at Suggitts Lane crossing is going to be completed between the summer and the autumn of next year, so he can carry that back in triumph to Suggitts Lane.

My lovely 88-year-old constituent Mary feels foolish for falling for it. She is talking about being mis-sold green deal products by Home Energy and Lifestyle Management Ltd, a Government-approved company, in 2013. She is talking about being saddled with a 25-year loan that she must live to 106 to pay off. At the speed with which the complaints are being dealt with by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, I will be 106 by the time we get any kind of resolution. Will the Prime Minister please commit to investigating why Mary, who is watching now, and hundreds of others are waiting years to be compensated for something that happened not because they were foolish, but because they were victims of mis-selling? (907537)

I am afraid to say that what the hon. Lady raises is incredibly important, and she is right to raise it. We must accelerate the process by which these complaints are upheld and dealt with and compensation is delivered, if only because that is the only way to build public confidence in all the retrofitting, insulation and improvements to our homes that we need to deliver across the whole of the country as part of our green industrial revolution, so the hon. Lady is spot on, and I will be writing to her about that case.