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Business of the House

Volume 682: debated on Thursday 15 October 2020

The business for next week 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 a general debate on Black History Month. The subject for this debate was determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Wednesday 21 October—Opposition day (13th allotted day) There will be a debate on a motion relating to “fire and re-hire tactics” followed by a debate relating to social care. Both debates will arise on a motion in the name of the official Opposition.

Thursday 22 October—General debate on covid-19.

Friday 23 October—Private Members’ Bills.

At the conclusion of business, the House will rise for recess and return on Monday 2 November.

The provisional business for the week commencing 2 November will include:

Monday 2 November—General debate on covid-19.

I am not going to pre-empt the statement from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, but if there were to be any subsequent implications for next week’s business, I would of course update the House in due course.

I thank the Leader of the House for the business. I note that it appears from the House of Commons Twitter account that we have not had any votes in the House. He mentioned last week the need for impartiality, but I point him to the “MPs’ Guide to Procedure”, that really handy book, which says that an explanatory statement must

“objectively describe the effect of the amendment”,

so all the Twitter account is doing—the House account; it says it in the name—is using the same words that for centuries have been drafted independently by House authorities and Clerks: the name of the ten-minute rule Bills and the vote. I consider that to be objective. Can the Leader of the House confirm that the Government are not censoring that Twitter account?

Mr Speaker, I am glad that you clarified with the Prime Minister yesterday that it is a matter for the Government whether we go back to a hybrid Parliament and remote voting. May I ask the Leader of the House to be careful how he updates the Prime Minister? He clearly is not doing a good job of it. We are entering a really difficult phase. As we speak, people are isolating, and hon. Members are doing the right thing by staying in their constituencies. The Leader of the House has scheduled two debates on covid-19. May I ask him again if we could return to remote voting and a hybrid Parliament? This is a fast-moving situation, and people have to be very careful.

On a House matter, the Chair of the Committee on Standards, my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), wants to know when the motion on lay members of the Committee will be laid before the House. This is an independent procedure. There was only one Member involved—the rest were all outside, lay members—and they will think it slightly odd if we do not follow the correct procedure.

We must not use the pandemic to hide accountability for public money. According to The BMJ, £100 billion has been spent on Operation Moonshot. No one has come to the House to explain Operation Moonshot, which has been paused. Who is responsible for it? The technology, as I understand it, does not exist, so where is the money going? The Good Law Project would like to know the answers for its pre-action protocol, so I hope it will get them. It is no wonder the Government are looking into a review of judicial review. Judicial review is a way of holding to account people who make decisions on the people’s behalf, using people’s money. May we have a statement from the Lord Chancellor when the review is completed? It is his job to uphold the rule of law, not to dismantle it.

I think it is frightening, and my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) thought it was grubby, this idea of one Minister saying, “I’ll give money to your town if you give money to my town.” I do not know if people are aware of the Carltona principle, but it means that a senior civil servant can stand in the shoes of a Minister and make a decision, which to me would seem an important way of dealing with this and avoiding the perception of Ministers giving money to each other. Given that the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee have both said that there is an issue with the towns fund, will the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government come to the House, as asked by his shadow, and explain this?

The shadow Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) has highlighted the fact that £56 million has been paid to consultants. I think now is a good time to publish the Cygnus report, so that we know whether public money has been spent in the right way.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) has said that public money has been used for legal fees to stop the debt being paid to Iran. At the heart of that are the two victims, Anoosheh and Nazanin, and also Luke Symons in Yemen. At Foreign Office questions, the Foreign Secretary said that all he has done is entertain his counterparts at Chevening; he has not made a statement. The Chair of the International Development Committee has tried to get him to appear before her Committee since June, but he has not done so.

I thank the Leader of the House for announcing that the Backbench Business Committee has a Black History Month debate next Tuesday. My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich South (Clive Lewis) is co-ordinating an appeal for Memorial 2007, to remember the victims of the transatlantic slave trade and slavery. The Government have provided money for other memorials. Will the Leader of the House have a word with the relevant Minister so that in their response to the debate next Tuesday, they can announce that they are also going to put some money into the memorial to enslaved Africans?

Finally, Remembrance Sunday is in three weeks’ time. May we have an urgent statement on the organisational advice and guidance for local authorities for what will happen on that day?

The right hon. Lady is right to ask about Remembrance Sunday, but obviously regulations around the pandemic are changing and it would therefore be too early to commit to anything at this stage. She mentions Memorial 2007, and a very worthy memorial that is. It is worth remembering that in Victoria Gardens there is a memorial to the ending of the slave trade. It was put up in the 19th century, but most people walk past it without even knowing why it is there. We do commemorate, not very far from this House, the great effort that this country made in ending an evil trade.

I entirely agree with the right hon. Lady that all public money should be scrutinised carefully, however it is spent. We can be proud that this country has such a good record on its expenditure of public money. I think we are one of the least corrupt countries in the world, and that is because we have proper scrutiny of how public money is spent. I have every confidence that the way money has been spent by this Government, particularly on the towns fund, has been absolutely proper, because we know that there is scrutiny. That is the role of this House and has been since it came into existence. It is quite right that that should be the case.

As regards the review of judicial review, that manifesto commitment is being carried out. I am delighted that a Conservative Government are carrying out their manifesto commitments—that is why people voted for us, Mr Speaker. It shows that we are people of our word.

I am fascinated that the right hon. Lady raised the issue of the Good Law Project; I seem to remember that that is associated with a fox killer—a fellow who likes to go out into his garden and bash poor foxes over the head. I am surprised that people want to refer to that organisation, which is not necessarily led by the finest people in the land.

On Operation Moonshot, I do not recognise the figure of £100 billion having been spent; I am not sure where that comes from. Figures get bandied about, but £100 billion is a very, very large amount of money and I have to say that it might have been noticed had that much been spent.

The right hon. Lady asked about the lay members of the Committee on Standards. As often happens, motions are brought forward at the right time, and no doubt a motion will be brought forward, or more motions may be brought forward, at a suitable time.

I come to the heart of the right hon. Lady’s questions today: they are about how this Parliament does its business. We have a duty to be here doing our business. It is unquestionably the case that democratic scrutiny is essential, even during a pandemic. We have to be here, holding the Government to account, asking questions, getting answers, legislating and ensuring that statutory instruments of national significance are debated on the Floor of the House, so that our constituents are represented thoroughly, questions are asked, and we seek redress of grievance for the people whom we seek to represent.

As we come here, we have a responsibility to ensure that we act in a responsible way. The House authorities, led by you, Mr Speaker, have made every effort to ensure that we are covid-safe. Look around this Chamber and look at what we have done. We are sitting 6½ feet apart from each other; we are socially distanced. Look at the markings on the floor—I am pointing at things in the Chamber; I hope that that is not too difficult for Hansard to take down. Those markings are set out. People are wandering around wearing masks. I cannot pretend that I like wearing a mask. I cannot pretend that I do not find it slightly tiresome that my spectacles steam up, and therefore one is wandering around somewhat unable to see where one is going. But we are wearing masks because we are showing the nation what we ought to be doing, and we are legislating at the same time. We have a personal responsibility and a duty to legislate. We have a duty to be here. We have to show the way. To suggest that democratic accountability is not an essential service seems to me to be an offence to democracy.

The aviation industry is clearly going through a very difficult time at present, but that does not change the longer-term case for regional airports, such as mine in Blackpool, to increase connectivity, expand tourism and boost jobs and growth. Does my right hon. Friend think it would be in order to have a debate in this place about the role that regional airports can play in boosting growth and levelling up?

The Government certainly recognise that the aviation sector, which provides passenger and freight air services, is vital for domestic and global connectivity. The Government also recognise the importance of regional hubs. Bristol airport is very near to my constituency, so I completely understand the point my hon. Friend is making. We need a thriving, competitive aviation sector in the UK. The sector has benefited from the £190 billion package of job and income support, but it has been particularly badly affected. I think my hon. Friend ought to ask for an Adjournment debate specifically on Blackpool airport to raise any issues that arise with it.

I will not be the only person who was disappointed at the response that the Leader of the House gave to the shadow Leader of the House a moment ago. Three of the four countries in the United Kingdom have introduced tougher restrictions on the public since we last had similar exchanges, and England will likely follow suit. Across all of them, there is a core message of avoiding unnecessary travel and working from home where possible. Surely, it is time for this Chamber to lead by example.

Many people will feel that the attempt by the Leader of the House to equate the role of MPs with that of frontline healthcare staff is somewhat shameless. Doctors cannot treat sick people without being physically present, but that is not the case for MPs. Everything we do could be done remotely; it is just that we choose not to, with the Government instead putting on a show in the Chamber in a vain attempt at normality. With lockdowns intensifying, this cannot continue. When will the Leader of the House switch the remote voting system back on, as recommended by the Procedure Committee, and when will the Government abandon the arbitrary distinction that allows Members to ask questions online but forbids them from moving motions or taking part in debates?

Let me now return to the question of Scottish independence. The Leader of the House may have seen the latest opinion poll that was published yesterday by Ipsos MORI, which shows 58% for independence. When I asked him last week if he would regard victory by Unionist parties at next May’s general election as a mandate for the Union, he did not answer, so I ask him again. If he truly believes that the election has no relevance to the Union because of a prior democratic event seven years before, will he confirm that the Conservatives will not be campaigning on that question at the forthcoming election?

More importantly, if the UK Government are determined to ignore the settled will of the Scottish people, can we have a debate on the consequences for the Union? It seems that we are moving away from government by consent, and that the UK Government desire to keep Scotland in the Union against the will of the people who live there. If so, Parliament ought to be told.

The hon. Gentleman is disappointed with me, and that is a yoke I shall have to bear. It is, I fear, his default position to be disappointed with me, and I am afraid that in my answers today, his disappointment will only grow. I am sorry about that; none the less, I must proceed.

The House made a decision to be back in physical form and voted to return to physical voting—a system that is working effectively and ensures that our business can be done. It is essential for debates that we are here. The whole point of a debate is to challenge, to question, to intervene. That is not possible remotely. For Ministers, when we had that brief period of legislation going through remotely, it could not have been easier: all the Minister had to do was read out the prepared blurb. Nothing could be intervened upon; nothing could be questioned. [Interruption.] When we are here, as I am heckled by the Labour Chief Whip, interventions can come from a sedentary position, which may get the pith and moment of the debate, as the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown) is so good at doing. That leads to proper, informed debate. [Interruption.] Even Mr Speaker is intervening now.

I am very reassured that you are sticking to the rules, Mr Speaker. It is essential that we have debates in person, otherwise the Government are not held to account.

Then we come on to the question of the United Kingdom. The vote was held in 2014, and it was won by the Unionists. The Scottish National party said at the time that it was for a generation. I know that the SNP is now a bit embarrassed about Alex Salmond, its former leader and almost the creator of its success. Its members are cautious about the text messages they have sent and forgetful about some of the meetings that the current leader held with him. It is amusing that, as I understand it, the current leader of the Scottish National party, Mrs Sturgeon, was so busy preparing to answer questions in the Scottish Parliament that she forgot what she had been discussing at other times of the day. I do not find that these memory lapses occur when I prepare for business questions, but never mind that particular point.

It was said that the vote would last for a generation, and a generation is not seven years. What will we campaign on? The success of the Union. Some £7.2 billion has gone to Scotland, and 779,500 jobs in Scotland have been protected in the furlough scheme. The United Kingdom taxpayer is able to afford that because it is the taxpayers of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland coming together for the greater good of our wonderful nation.

Back in March, as the elected chair of the Council of Europe’s Committee on Political Affairs and Democracy, I called on the 47 member states not to let democracy be a casualty of the covid crisis. My default position is usually to support the Leader of the House. It is ironic that in our own Parliament, despite having the technology, elected MPs who cannot attend Parliament for valid medical or other reasons are denied the right to participate remotely in proceedings other than questions, statements and Select Committees. However, it is good enough for the unelected Members of the Lords, who are able to use remote facilities to participate in debate. A vital part of democracy is currently being denied to elected MPs. In the face of the rising tide of covid infections, can we have a debate on the death of democracy in the mother of Parliaments, or will the Leader of the House get off his high horse and remove this restriction, which has resulted in the discriminatory silencing of the voices of so many of his colleagues, leaving them unable to perform their scrutiny function?

I am obviously sympathetic to the position that my right hon. Friend finds herself in—she is a much respected Member of this House—but the truth is that democracy has not died; it is thriving, because we are holding our debates properly. My right hon. Friend does take part—she is taking part now in interrogative proceedings, which is an exception to our normal course of business. Debates do not work without interventions. I know that she wishes to introduce a private Member’s Bill on Friday, but when a Member introduces a Bill, they need to be questioned and cross-examined on what is happening. That does not work in remote proceedings. When we had remote proceedings, there was no facility for interventions. The remote voting system in the House of Lords went down, and they had to do it all over again. We cannot have systems that fail. When we are here in person, the debates work, the legislation is challenged and democracy is upheld.

I thank the Leader of the House for the business statement and for the protected time—as I understand it—for the Backbench Business Committee debate on Black History Month on Tuesday.

I cannot help noticing that the Government continue to schedule general debates of their own, albeit on important issues, with general debates scheduled for both 22 October and 2 November. The Backbench Business Committee currently has 32 unallocated debates on a wide range of subjects, subscribed to by hundreds of Members from all parties. I am saying this not on behalf of myself or the Committee, but on behalf of Members across the House who wait for time for their debates in various states of patience or impatience. Only this morning I was asked by the Chair of the Education Committee, the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), to remind the House that he has an application awaiting time for a debate on food hunger among children. Will the Leader of the House please consider that when he allocates time for general debates in the House?

I can confirm that there will be three hours of protected time for the debate on Black Lives Matter. I appreciate the point that the hon. Gentleman makes, but the Government have to strike a balance and there seems to me to be considerable demand for covid debates. I will of course bear in mind his request for more time for the Backbench Business Committee and our obligations under Standing Orders.

Last month, Her Majesty’s Treasury announced proposals to end tax and duty-free shopping from next year. The sector represents outputs of around £2 billion for our economy and employs around 20,000 people. May we have a debate on the reconsideration of the policy at the earliest opportunity?

One of the great things about leaving the European Union is that we are getting duty-free back, so for the first time in 20 years people will be able to get some cheap alcohol when they travel to the European Union. As I understand it, the VAT reclaim scheme will still apply if goods are posted to the person, even if it will no longer be available if a person takes them out of the country themselves. We had to decide, under World Trade Organisation rules, whether to extend the scheme to all EU nationals or withdraw it from non-EU member state nationals. The decision was taken to unify it in the way that we already have it with the European Union, rather than to extend the concession. The consequences for revenue would have been quite significant otherwise.

Of the 61 areas chosen by Government Ministers for the new towns fund, 60 were in Conservative-held constituencies. May we have a debate in Government time on this scandal?

My right hon. and very sound Friend will recall that I recently asked him about the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority and the fact that it has treated Members departing from this place at different general elections differently and inequitably. I hope he agrees with me, despite IPSA’s letter, that it is wrong and should be righted. Does my right hon. Friend also agree that IPSA should not break employment laws, whether imposed by the EU or by our own lawmakers? Will he condemn the two-tier system that IPSA has decreed in respect of who can or cannot work for Members of Parliament? All Members in this place should be equal, but at present they are obviously not viewed as such by the establishment.

IPSA is independent of Parliament and Government and has sole responsibility for setting and regulating MPs’ salaries, pensions, business costs and expenses. That decision was come to in the wake of the expenses scandal in 2009: it was thought that Members should not themselves be responsible for such issues. I will, of course, take up for any right hon. or hon. Member any concerns they have with IPSA, but the principle of independence is an important one, and therefore as Leader of the House I should not weigh in with heavy criticisms of an independent body.

This morning I attended a virtual conference held by ThinkForward, which provides skills mentoring in my community. It was an exciting collaboration between young people, schools and local businesses, and we discussed how to create better opportunities for people in my community during these challenging times. May we have a debate in Government time on how we maximise opportunities in this difficult period?

The hon. Gentleman should come over to the Government Benches, where he would be extremely welcome, because he is really advocating Government policy for levelling up. I hope we will have many opportunities to debate the success and ambition of our levelling-up programme.

Our Union must be protected at all costs, so can my right hon. Friend confirm that it would be illegal for the Welsh Labour Government to introduce an intensive border within the UK to restrict movement between England and Wales, and that to do so would damage our precious Union and the links between our four great nations?

Mr Speaker, what would you expect of a hard left Labour Government? The approach to putting a border between England and Wales is unconstitutional and will place the police in an invidious position considering that they serve the whole of the United Kingdom. We are one single United Kingdom and we should not have borders between different parts of the United Kingdom. I am afraid that that is what you get when you vote for socialists.

The Leader of the House has already expressed confidence in how money is allocated by the towns fund this morning. If that is the case, why will the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government not come here to answer questions on the subject? I for one would love to ask him why every town that was classed as low priority by officials and that was actually given funding just happened to be a Conservative-held seat or a target seat at the general election last year. That seems to me a remarkable coincidence that demands an explanation by the Secretary of State. Does the Leader of the House agree?

I point out that we won lots of seats at the last election and we won lots of seats in areas that had previously been held by the Labour party, and that seats can change from one party to another, but that is not one of the criteria. Of course, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State makes regular statements to this House. He will be back here for questions on 16 November, but there are other ways of questioning him, including written questions, and the hon. Gentleman knows how to use the procedures of this House.

Can we have a debate on censorship? Then we would be able to discuss the sinister disappearance of the link from Google to the Great Barrington declaration, wouldn’t we?

When I first heard of the Barrington declaration, I thought it was something to do with cricket, but it turns out that it is not. Sir Ken Barrington was a very distinguished cricketer. I will not go into the Barrington rules for children to play under, which are very successful.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the question of censorship. The Government are sceptical about the Barrington declaration, but that does not mean that people should not be free to discuss it, and it is a worrying trend for large internet operators to think that they should be the arbiters of free speech. It is not for them to arbitrate over free speech. It is perhaps even more troubling that they are sometimes slow to take down material that could damage children, but they are not so slow to take down things that they do not agree with politically, and that raises important questions.

Disabled people already faced significant barriers to accessing work before the pandemic. Recent research from Citizens Advice shows that one in four disabled people have reported that they are now at risk of losing their job, or are in the process of doing so. What are the Government doing to ensure that this pandemic does not lead to a rollback in the progress that the UK has made on disability-inclusive employment?

The Government will be publishing a national strategy for disabled people, taking into account the effects of the pandemic and therefore including effects on employment, and that is policy work that is under way. There has also been the announcement of a fund of £1 million for charities supporting people with learning disabilities to help them in this difficult time.

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the treatment of people suffering with endometriosis? On the 19th of this month, the all-party Parliamentary group on endometiosis will present its findings following a survey of more than 10,000 people. I do hope that our recommendations will be acted on.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this issue during business questions again. He has been an admirable campaigner for the treatment of people suffering from endometriosis, which is a disease of considerable significance and concern to a significant number of people, and he is right to raise awareness of it. His report will, I am sure, be welcomed and will be passed to the Secretary of State. If he has any difficulty getting a reply, he may raise it again at business questions and I will certainly help him to ensure that he gets a reply.

On 22 September, I raised concerns with the Prime Minister about holiday companies refusing to recognise the Welsh local lockdown regulations and refusing people refunds when they are unable to go on their holidays. The Prime Minister asked for details because he was unaware of the situation, which I provided to him on that day, but three weeks later I still have not heard anything back. Could we have a debate or a statement from the Government outlining what they intend to do to support people across Wales who are affected by this situation?

Obviously I will try to seek an update for the hon. Gentleman in response to his letter. As I said earlier in relation to Scotland, the United Kingdom taxpayer has given an enormous amount of support to Wales, with £4.4 billion and over 400,000 jobs being supported through the furlough scheme. There are significant amounts of money. This is part of the success of the United Kingdom in being one country and being able to support all parts of it.

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate to ensure that this Chamber remains open in order that each one of us, on both sides of the House, can represent their constituencies —in my case, the beautiful island of Ynys Môn? The House of Commons sat during the war. We must sit now, especially at this most important time for our country.

My hon. Friend asks a really important question. At the beginning of the year, it was necessary for Parliament to sit virtually in order to continue to function and to scrutinise Government during the lockdown. But during remote proceedings it became clear that when working from home MPs were not able to perform their constitutional role as effectively, either in scrutinising the Government or in getting vital legislation on to the statute book. The House authorities have made really first-class efforts to ensure that physical proceedings are in operation in line with Public Health England guidance and are safe both for Members and for staff of the House. Your leadership, Mr Speaker, has been inspirational in these terms. It is the Government’s view that returning to a physical Parliament has allowed proper scrutiny to be restored with better debate and greater progress for legislation. It is only thanks to returning to physical proceedings in that carefully managed fashion that we have been able to scrutinise and pass new legislation effectively, including the new and urgent coronavirus regulations, and complete the essential transition period legislation.

Yes, but a growing proportion of Members simply cannot take part and would be able to if we switched on virtual participation in debates, while those who wanted to come would be able to. For example, we could have a debate on my early-day motion 1001 on the emergency gift aid campaign.

[That this House marks the annual Gift Aid Awareness Day which fell on 8 October 2020; appreciates that Gift Aid Relief is the practical application of the long-established principle that donations to charities should not be taxed; recognises that the charitable sector is in the middle of the biggest financial crisis it has ever faced, with huge falls in income at the same time as increased demand for services; considers that a Gift Aid Emergency Relief Package would go a long way to keeping vital charitable services running; calls on the UK Government to increase Gift Aid from 20% to 25% for two years from the start of the 2020-21 tax year; further calls on the UK Government to introduce changes to the Gift Aid Small Donations Scheme to remove barriers for entry to ensure wider access across the voluntary sector and increase the amount that can be claimed from £8,000 to £10,000; and believes that the cost of such measures need not be prohibitive given that the National Audit Office estimates that £560m of eligible Gift Aid is unclaimed each year and that charities are likely to see an overall fall in donations in the current challenging economic circumstances.]

As the shadow Leader of the House pointed out, this time last week it was Gift Aid Awareness Day. So many charities, big and small, are providing vital services in response to the pandemic but are equally being hit by fundraising difficulties. A short-term uplift in the gift aid scheme, for a couple of years, would allow them to access extra funds in order to deliver those vital services. Could the Leader of the House find time for a debate on that?

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue of gift aid and the difficulties that charities are facing. The Government have provided some extra support for charities to help them through this period. I cannot, I fear, promise him a debate, but, Mr Speaker, you have no doubt heard his application for an Adjournment debate.

6 January 2009 was a sad day in our nation’s history when we said goodbye to a British institution. I worked for Woolworths and loved every minute of it. It sat at the heart of our communities, providing great jobs and some of the best pick’n’mix known to man. Our high streets are fighting for their lives in a battle made ever worse by the pandemic. Will my right hon. Friend consider a debate on the future of our high streets?

Ah, the wonder of Woolies. May I commend my hon. Friend for his incredible ability with pick’n’mix? We are all looking forward to some sweets after business questions. High streets are essential to our towns and our sense of community. The Government are committed to supporting the businesses and communities that make our high streets and towns successful. That is why there is the £3.6 billion towns fund, which Labour does not much like, the purpose of which is to bring much-needed investment to towns and high streets across the country. We are also supporting local leadership through the high streets taskforce, which is giving them the expert advice that they need to adapt and thrive. Adapting and thriving is going to be essential for high streets, and I am glad to say that taxpayer money is there to support it.

The future of the Putney boat race is at stake. Not only that, but the closure of Hammersmith bridge is causing misery to thousands of people across south-west London. Does the Leader of the House remember my asking a question back in February about the restoration of Hammersmith bridge? He advised me to keep on making representations in the House. Well, here I am, keeping on making representations in the House. The Government have set up a taskforce. It has been meeting for five weeks, but there is still no sign of any Government funding, and that is what we need. Will the Government urgently make time for us to debate the funding of the restoration of Hammersmith bridge?

The hon. Lady is right to keep raising this point, and perhaps we can raise it with the Mayor of London, who has lots of money, which he spends extremely badly, or with the socialist Hammersmith Council, which has responsibility as well. Not everything falls on Her Majesty’s Government; there are local authorities that have responsibilities, and they need to fulfil those responsibilities with the funding provided to them centrally from taxpayers.

People throughout the country are benefiting from this Government’s stamp duty holiday. However, given the high property prices in central London, many of my constituents are not benefiting. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need a fundamental review of stamp duty, because ultimately it is a tax on social mobility?

I think that I might cause trouble inside the Government if I started speculating about what might happen with stamp duty. That is a matter for the Chancellor, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this issue, because I completely understand that it affects her constituency differently from many other constituencies in the country. I will pass on her comments to the Chancellor.

Yesterday, I heard that in my constituency of Blaydon, one child in four now lives in poverty, an increase of 7% over the past four years. New research from the End Child Poverty coalition shows that the north-east has the second highest rate of poverty in the UK. Poverty blights the lives of children for the rest of their lives. We urgently need a national strategy to eradicate child poverty, so will the Leader of the House commit the Government to examining this issue? Can we have a debate in Government time on this hugely important issue?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to highlight this important and troubling issue, which shows that there is still more to be done, but the Government have already achieved a great deal. It is worth noting that 200,000 fewer people live in absolute poverty now than in 2010, and absolute poverty rates across the country have fallen in every region since 2010. There are 786,000 fewer children living in a workless household now, which is a record low. Although I absolutely understand what the hon. Lady is saying, and I sympathise with her point and I accept that there is more to be done, a great deal has already been achieved.

Carshalton and Wallington residents have been sending me photos and videos of the chaos that road closure schemes are causing, thanks to their introduction by the Lib Dem-run council. That has included videos of emergency service vehicles having to turn around while on call and find alternative routes to incidents. That is not acceptable, so can we have a debate about the introduction of these road closure schemes and the need for local authorities to consult properly with residents and with the emergency services?

Unfortunately, Lib Dems hate the motorist and therefore they have used this scheme, wherever they have had the opportunity, to make life more difficult for the motorist. Conservatives are supporters of the motorist and the great freedom that motoring brings, but local authorities are autonomous and therefore we must campaign for more Conservative councillors to try to be on the side of the motorist.

Polls released this week suggest that almost 80% of young people in Scotland would vote for Scotland to be an independent country. The Government have used public money to conduct their own polls on support for independence, and in response to earlier questions, the Leader of the House made the case for parliamentary scrutiny, so why will the Government not publish those polls and give answers to legitimate parliamentary questions asked by my colleagues? What have Her Majesty’s Government got to hide?

Her Majesty’s Government have nothing to hide. It is worth reminding the hon. Gentleman that there was a proper poll—a poll where people went with a pencil and cast an X in 2014. X marked the spot, and the spot was remaining in the United Kingdom.

In my constituency, inspire+ is a fantastic local charity that works with schools to provide engaging physical education lessons. It has shown me that active children are healthier, happier and better students. Can we have a debate on the importance of sports and PE in our national curriculum?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question, and I congratulate inspire+ on the work it is doing. PE and sport is a vital part of a broad and balanced school curriculum—in brackets, when I was at school, I absolutely hated it, close brackets—[Laughter.] No, never mind. It has benefits not just for physical health, but for wider wellbeing, attainment and engagement with other children. The primary PE and sport premium provides funding directly to primary schools to make sustainable improvements. The Government have confirmed funding of £320 million for the current academic year, and the first payments will be made to schools, as usual, at the end of this month. I will make sure that my hon. Friend’s views are shared with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education. I confess that, when I was at school, I made Walter the Softy look strong, which was perhaps why I was not so keen on PE personally.

Monzo, Starling, Lloyds and Barclays banks have all made gambling blocks available on their accounts. Introducing this friction is a vital part of the support that banks can provide to help people with a gambling addiction. Will the Leader of the House join me in commending the actions of these banks, encourage others to follow their lead and urge all in the financial sector to do even more to help prevent gambling-related harm?

Indeed, I join my hon. Friend on the very encouraging point she raises. Tackling gambling addiction is a cause that has cross-party support. The Government are committed to protecting people from the risks of gambling-related harm, and we have been clear that we will review the Gambling Act 2005 to ensure that it is fit for the digital age. I do hope that more banks will follow the commendable example raised by my hon. Friend. It is encouraging when businesses act of their own accord to improve the lives of their customers in this way and do not need intervention from the state. My hon. Friend is one of the most successful campaigners in this House, and I know she will continue with this campaign, which has a great deal of support. She has an opportunity to raise it further at Digital, Culture, Media and Sport questions on 5 November.

In last week’s business questions, my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Rob Butler) raised questions about the flooding of raw sewage. This is an issue in many constituencies, including in my own in the historic town of Deal, which has seen inadequate management by Southern Water and ineffective oversight and regulation by Ofwat. Will my right hon. Friend provide time for a much-needed debate on this issue so that we can put an end to the scourge of smelly sewage and filthy flooding?

The distress that sewer flooding can cause is very considerable, and water companies have a duty to drain their areas effectively. I can assure my hon. Friend that the regulator takes this issue seriously. Water companies are expected to reduce the amount of sewage flooding that their customers experience, and they face penalties if they fail to achieve this. We do expect companies to improve their planning in co-operation with others responsible for drainage, so they can take a more strategic approach to reducing sewer flooding as part of the new drainage and wastewater management plans. In the first instance, I cannot promise a debate in Government time, but it may be another Adjournment debate under your auspices, Mr Speaker.

The national data strategy was unveiled recently, and I am sure the Leader of the House knows how important it is that we secure a data adequacy agreement with the European Union soon. He may also have noticed that commentators were surprised at what they termed the “buccaneering” language used in some of it, which I would perhaps attribute to Mr Dominic Cummings. Given the importance of securing data flows with the European Union, can the Leader of the House make time for a statement from a Minister on this very important issue soon?

As I have just mentioned, Digital, Culture, Media and Sport questions will be on 5 November, so “Remember, remember the 5th of November” for other purposes. The national data strategy is a very good strategy. We need to be buccaneering about it because it may determine our economic future, and if that is coming from Dominic Cummings, all power to his elbow.

In 1821, this House passed the Act that brought about the Stockton and Darlington railway, enabling Darlington to become the birthplace of the railways. Our world heritage bridge featured on the £5 note, with Locomotion No. 1 travelling across it, and my constituents are petitioning for that engine to stay in Darlington. We have grand plans to develop a rail heritage quarter, in part funded by a successful towns fund bid. Our nation will have the opportunity to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the railways in 2025. As they are central to our country’s identity and economy, I wonder whether the Leader of the House could find time to debate how our nation might mark and celebrate this significant milestone, highlighting the significant contributions of our railways, past, present and future.

My hon. Friend is right to raise this important anniversary, although neither of us was there for the Bill’s introduction in 1821, it being a little before our time. Locomotion No. 1 in Darlington shows Darlington’s central importance to the story of our railways and the community around that. The Government towns fund will spend £3.6 billion of taxpayers’ money in town centres and high streets to level up our regions and create places across the country where people want to live and thrive. So Darlington has its own bid in, and I wish it good luck. The 200th anniversary is an opportunity for international attention to turn to Darlington, and it is worth noting that Her Majesty’s Government have the biggest railway building programme since that happy era when Queen Victoria was on the throne.

Yesterday, the Government took out a full-page advert in my local paper to inform people of the new covid alert level across Bradford, but the advert got the tier wrong. It said that we are in the medium tier, whereas Bradford and the whole of West Yorkshire is in the high level. From statements via Twitter to late-night announcements, this is more staggering incompetence from a Government who are losing their grip on this pandemic. The very least we can all expect is accurate information on new rules, so may we have a debate in Government time on Government communications during this pandemic?

The Government have done a great deal to support local newspapers through this pandemic by placing adverts in them, and that has been an important way to help a community facility that is very much appreciated. I urge people to look up the regulations on the Government website to find out which tier they are in and what the regulations mean for them, but I am glad to tell the hon. Lady that there will be two debates on covid when it will be possible to raise these issues.

Please may we have a debate on the role of skills in the levelling-up agenda, which is so central to this Government’s priorities? It would be very valuable to explore the role of skills, particularly digital skills. Businesses raise the issue of digital skills with me more than any other issue in the sphere of employment.

I thank my hon. Friend and agree with him that finding innovative ways to advance our digital skills is vital to our levelling-up agenda and building back stronger from the pandemic. The Government have established local digital skills partnerships in seven regions across England to bring together cross-sector regional and national partners to work to improve the skills of the current workforce, advance digital inclusion and build thriving regional economies. In addition, there is a £3 million digital skills programme in Greater Manchester and Lancashire—Lancashire, Mr Speaker—to boost digital training skills. My hon. Friend is raising an important point.

Bearing in mind the tremendous decision in the criminal courts in the Republic of Ireland to sentence the murderer of a Garda Siochana officer for the first time since the mid-1990s with a 40-year sentence, will the Leader of the House agree to a debate to highlight the need for similar changes to be made in the courts of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to ensure that those who murder service personnel will know that they face enhanced sentences, especially in the light of the leniency in Northern Ireland that has left Royal Ulster Constabulary and Police Service of Northern Ireland widows and families feeling that the justice they have achieved for their loved ones is not on a par with the loss they still face today?

The Government unquestionably owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the brave men and women of the RUC and the PSNI for their incredible work in keeping the people of Northern Ireland safe. The hon. Gentleman should be commended for his efforts to ensure that the victims of terrorist violence should receive the justice and support to which they are entitled. The sacrifice of those who have paid the ultimate price in the performance of their duties must not be forgotten. Criminal justice is, of course, devolved in Northern Ireland, but we are aware that under the Northern Ireland Executive’s tackling paramilitarism programme, the Department of Justice has committed to a review of sentencing policy. I urge the hon. Gentleman to get involved with that review and make his views known.

I represent a football-mad constituency with the majority being Leeds United and Huddersfield Town supporters. In Germany, France, Italy and Spain, fans have been allowed back into their stadiums, albeit in much smaller numbers to allow for social distancing in an outdoor environment. I am a proud Leeds United supporter. Will my right hon. Friend consider allowing a debate on getting fans back into football stadiums safely, which would help football clubs at all levels that are struggling financially from the pandemic?

This is clearly an important issue for many Members of Parliament, and the Government are committed to getting spectators back into stadiums as soon as it is safe to do so. We will continue to work with a range of sports to understand how spectators may be allowed back safely. That does include the creation of a new sports technology and innovation group with sporting bodies and health experts to analyse new technologies that might support that. The Government appreciate that more must be done to allow fans back to stadiums safely, and there is good news that the Premier League is spending £50 million to support grassroots football throughout the crisis. I remind my hon. Friend about 5 November when the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport will be at the Dispatch Box.

This week the Council of Europe and its 47 member states adopted the report “Drug policy and human rights in Europe: a baseline study”. It advocates a health and human rights-based approach to drug use and addiction, and recognises that the criminal justice approach that the likes of the UK Government take is failing people across the world. I am the proud author of that report, and I hope that the UK Government will now adopt all aspects of it to save lives and protect communities. Can we have a debate on drugs policy and human rights and ensure that the relevant powers to deal with drug use and addiction are devolved to Scotland, so we can ensure that we meet our international obligations and implement best practice for Scotland and her people?

I am sure the Government will look at the report that the hon. Lady refers to, but it will not surprise her to learn that there are no current plans to change drugs policy.

Lord Frost and the British EU negotiating team have returned from Brussels this morning and are about to brief the Prime Minister on whether to continue negotiations or to call it a day and prepare for a no-deal trade Brexit. Will the Leader of the House say whether there are any plans for the Prime Minister to come to the House tonight to make a statement or whether he plans to make the statement to the House on Monday, which would be a good day as it is my birthday and I would like to know, as a very good birthday present, the decision?

The House will be en fête on Monday in celebration of my hon. Friend’s birthday, the bunting will be up and the state trumpeters will be borrowed, if possible, from Buckingham Palace, so that we may have a proper fanfare, but unfortunately I cannot at this point promise a particular statement.

As it is my birthday tomorrow, can that be done for me first, particularly as the Prime Minister cancelled my birthday party last year because of the special sitting we had to have on a Saturday—because of Brexit? May we have a debate about the growing concern about public appointments and the awarding of contracts by this Government? Government really should not be about a bunch of people lecturing everyone about the spending of taxpayers’ money while organising the state to ensure that they and their friends get a fat piece for themselves.

In the light of the Darren Grimes case, from which it seems it is now permissible for a man to be subject to police investigation for simply asking a question—Orwell come to life—will my right hon. Friend agree that we are endangering a free press by allowing and endorsing censorship disguised in the sugar-coating of social justice?

The police are obviously operationally independent, so I would not want to speak about a particular case. I will say this, however. Freedom of speech is one of the pillars of our constitution. Without freedom of speech we find that democracy fails, because there is no ability to question what people are doing and saying. We know that over the centuries regimes that attack freedom of speech often do so through legal means. We used to have criminal libel in this country, which was used in the 18th century to silence people who said disobliging things about the Government. We do not want to be in the situation where laws are used to stop freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is valuable whether it is responsible speech or irresponsible speech, as long as it does not incite hatred or violence. That is the key, and freedom of speech must be protected by this House.

With bonfire night on the horizon, people across the country will be preparing to celebrate in ways that are likely to differ from celebrations in years gone by. With planned public displays across the country and in my own constituency cancelled left, right and centre, more and more people are likely to want to celebrate at home. Yet we must remember how dangerous using fireworks can be, from both a health and safety and an environmental point of view, with animals suffering from distress, along with those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and mental health conditions. With that in mind, will the Leader of the House please commit to a debate in Government time to discuss the greater regulation of firework sales?

As a Liberal Democrat, who is, coincidentally, also a motorist, can I say that none of us can possibly miss the fact that today is 15 October, the deadline imposed by the Prime Minister for negotiations with the European Union? As recently as last week, one of the UK’s Brexit negotiators, Lord Frost, stood by the Prime Minister’s statement that the UK could walk away from negotiations if an agreement was not reached by today. All we have in this place are rumours about micro-deals and speculation. Will the Leader of the House please explain why we have not had a ministerial statement, and will he tell us when we can expect one?

When the hon. Lady said we must remember it is 15 October, I had a nasty moment because it is, of course, my wife’s birthday. Fortunately, I had not forgotten. It would have left me in a good deal of trouble if I had.

The hon. Lady’s question is a very important one. It is important that the House is updated in reasonable time about what the situation is. Currently, there is nothing to update, otherwise the House would be updated.

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

Sitting suspended.