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Prime Minister

Volume 682: debated on Wednesday 21 October 2020

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

I know the thoughts of the whole House will be with the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi). I am sure Members from across the House will want to join me in wishing her a speedy recovery.

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.

I associate myself with those kind remarks on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi).

My constituents are reeling from the 9% contraction of the economy since March this year. Unemployment has sky-rocketed and joblessness in Haringey is the highest in the capital. Unfortunately, we are at the same time facing the idea that there could be a congestion tax forced on an extra 4 million Londoners by this Government. These Londoners are already facing the double whammy of covid and financial ruin. Will the Prime Minister please immediately stop the imposition of this dreadful plan? I look forward to his answer.

I must respectfully inform the hon. Lady that the current Mayor of London had effectively bankrupted TfL before coronavirus had even hit and left a massive black hole in its finances. Any need to make up that deficit is entirely down to him. It is entirely his responsibility. Any expansion of the congestion charge or any other measure taken to improve the finances of TfL are entirely the responsibility of the bankrupt current Labour Mayor of London.

People the length and breadth of the country have made many sacrifices over the last few months to try to suppress covid-19, but infection rates are increasing fast and Buckinghamshire may soon find itself in tier 2. Can my right hon. Friend tell the people of my Aylesbury constituency how long we would be expected to stay there, what additional help there would be for local businesses, and, crucially, what the route out would be? (907912)

I hope I can reassure my hon. Friend by telling him that the incidence in the Vale of Aylesbury is in fact less than half the England average. The way forward for constituents in the Vale of Aylesbury and everywhere else is for everyone to keep following the guidance, observing the new restrictions and, obviously, washing hands, wearing a face covering in enclosed spaces and keeping a sensible distance.

I thank the Prime Minister for his remarks about my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi).

Prime Minister, how does an area which goes into tier 3 restrictions get out of those restrictions?

The simplest and most effective way for areas to get out of those restrictions is, of course, to get the R down to 1 or below, and I am very pleased to say that some areas are already having a considerable effect with the measures that they are taking.

Can I press the Prime Minister on that answer? If the infection rate, R, in a tier 3 area has not come below 1, will it be possible in any circumstances for that area to come out of tier 3—if the R has not come below 1?

Obviously, the R is one of the measures that we look at. We take a decision based on a number of things including the R—also, of course, rates of infection, rates of admission to hospital and other data. But the most important thing is for areas that do go into tier 3—and I am very grateful to local leadership in the areas that have gone into tier 3, because it is the right thing for them to do, the right thing for their constituents, the right thing to save lives —when they are able to make progress, then, of course, they will come out of tier 3. As the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows full well, the measures that are put in place are reviewed every 28 days.

I am now confused by the Prime Minister’s answer. If it is not the R rate under 1, what is it? Millions of people want to know the answer to that question. Millions of them are in tier 3 and millions more are likely to go into tier 3. They really need to know. On Friday, the chief scientific officer said that tier 3 on its own certainly is not enough to get the R rate below 1. On the same day, the Prime Minister himself said that there was only a chance of getting infection rates down.

That goes to the heart of the issue in Greater Manchester and elsewhere. The widespread fear is that tier 3 is the worst of all worlds: it brings significant economic harm without getting the virus sufficiently under control to exit tier 3. So instead of being a solution, tier 3 is a gateway to weeks and weeks, or more likely months and months, of agony from which there is no likely exit. Can the Prime Minister not see the problem if there is not a clear exit?

I am sorry, but I have made it absolutely clear that a part of the country going into tier 3 is in there only for 28 days; we will review it after 28 days. Areas that have gone into tier 3 are, I believe, already making progress, and areas where there are restrictions in place are also showing signs of progress. We are pursuing a local—a regional—approach, which is the sensible approach for this country. That is what the epidemiology supports. It is what the deputy chief medical officer supported last night.

Again, I want to thank local leadership in Merseyside, in Lancashire, actually in London, in the west midlands and elsewhere for what they are doing. It is a bit incoherent of the right hon. and learned Gentleman to attack local lockdowns when he wants to plunge the whole country back into a damaging lockdown for weeks on end, and he has no clue about how he would propose to get the country out of that—does he?

I appreciate that there will be a review every 28 days, but if the R rate has not come below 1, then the infection rate is still going up, the numbers are going up, the admissions are going up, the numbers in hospital are going up and the deaths are going up. Is the Prime Minister seriously saying that he would take a tier 3 area out of tier 3 with the R above 1? I do not think so.

Let me spell out what that means. On Friday, thousands of people in Greater Manchester—taxi drivers, pub and hospitality workers, people working in betting shops, the self-employed and freelancers—will either be out of work or face significant pay cuts. That is the reality on Friday in Greater Manchester. But their rent and their mortgage will not be lower; their food and their heating bills will not be lower—and that could last for months.

Why can the Prime Minister and the Chancellor not understand that? They should stop bargaining with people’s lives, stop dividing communities and provide the support that is needed in Manchester.

I am very proud that this Government have already given Greater Manchester £1.1 billion in support for business, £200 million in extra un-ring-fenced funding, £50 million to tackle infections in care homes, £20 million for Test and Trace, and another £22 million for the local response that we announced yesterday. Yesterday, the Mayor of Greater Manchester was offered a further £60 million, which he turned down, having had no encouragement to support it, I may say, from the right hon. and learned Gentleman.

I can tell the House today that that cash will be distributed to the boroughs of Greater Manchester. I thank right hon. and hon. Members across the House, including my hon. Friends the Members for Heywood and Middleton (Chris Clarkson), for Bolton West (Chris Green), for Bolton North East (Mark Logan), for Bury South (Christian Wakeford), for Bury North (James Daly), for Cheadle (Mary Robinson), for Leigh (James Grundy), for Altrincham and Sale West (Sir Graham Brady) and for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg) for the support that they have given in this matter.

This is a Prime Minister who can pay £7,000 a day for consultants on Track and Trace, which is not working; who can find £43 million for a garden bridge that was never built; but who cannot find £5 million for the people of Greater Manchester. I really think the Prime Minister has crossed a Rubicon here, not just in the miserly way that he has treated Greater Manchester, but in the grubby take-it-or-leave-it way that these local deals are being done. It is corrosive to public trust to pit region against region, mayor against mayor, council against council and ask them to trade away their businesses and jobs. We need a one nation approach to replace these endless local battles with clear national criteria and proper support for jobs. Labour’s motion this afternoon would do that. Why will the Prime Minister not support it?

I am proud of the one nation Conservative support that we have given to the entire country: £200 billion in support for jobs and livelihoods across the whole of the country already, and a further £9.9 billion now for the job support scheme. It is this Government who have cut VAT for business and deferred business rates. There is no other country in Europe where so much support and so much help has been given to the population to get through this crisis, and we will continue to do that. It is the height of absurdity that the right hon. and learned Gentleman stands up and attacks the economic consequences of the measures we are obliged to take across some parts of the country when he wants to turn the lights out with a full national lockdown, taking kids—[Interruption.] That was his policy last week anyway, wasn’t it? Perhaps he could confirm that that is still his policy. Is that what he wants to do?

At his press conference yesterday, the Prime Minister produced heat maps across the country showing that the infection rate was up in all ages and across all regions, and particularly showing regions that have been in the equivalent of tier 2 restrictions for weeks, if not months, moving into tier 3. If they are moving into tier 3, tier 2 has not worked, because if tier 2 had worked, they should be going into tier 1.

So tier 2 goes to tier 3, and tier 3 has no end, because there is no prospect or confidence in the R rate coming below 1—and I do not believe that a tier 3 region will come out of those restrictions unless R is below 1 and while the numbers are still going up. So we now have a stark choice.

By the way, Prime Minister, Cornwall is the only place—possibly with the Isle of Wight—where the infection rate today is less than it was in Greater Manchester when it went into local restrictions, so this idea that some areas are immune is wrong.

So there is a stark choice: carry on with the Prime Minister’s approach, which will lead to weeks and weeks and months and months of prolonged agony in everyone’s constituencies for millions of people in tiers 2 and 3, with no exit; or put in place a two to three week time- limited circuit break to break the cycle and bring the virus back under control.

Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland—in part—have chosen that path. With half term starting this Friday, this may be the last opportunity for the Prime Minister to put in place an effective circuit break. The Prime Minister was too slow in the first phase of the pandemic; he is being too slow again. We cannot repeat this mistake. Will he act in the public interest and take the opportunity to put in place a circuit break this Friday?

We will do whatever it takes to get this country through the crisis, with or without the support of the right hon. and learned Gentleman. I have explained why I do not believe that his policy is the right one for the country, because it would involve closing schools and shuttering businesses, with all the psychological and emotional damage that a lockdown of that kind brings. He cannot say how many circuit breakers he thinks would be necessary. He cannot say how long they would go on. He cannot say how much damage they would do to the UK economy and to people’s mental health.

We, on the other hand, want to go on with our common-sensical approach, which is a local and regional approach, keeping kids in school and keeping our economy moving, because that is the way to get the whole of our country through this crisis together so that all the regions of the country, particularly those regions that are now, alas, under tier 3 restrictions, bounce back strongly together.

After recent positive progress, covid has disproportionately and adversely affected participation levels in female sport and physical activity. To help to reverse that, will my right hon. Friend lend his support to the development of the first ever women’s and girls’ football national centre of excellence in Winsford in my constituency—a £70 million project that he has previously expressed enthusiasm for—and help to build female grass-roots sport back better? (907913)

This is a very exciting project, and I welcome Cheshire FA’s commitment to providing a new world-class facility for women’s and girls’ football. I look forward to the proposed opening of the centre in Winsford.

My thoughts are very much with the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi). I hope she makes a speedy recovery.

Next week, just as the pandemic is worsening, the Tory Government will scrap the furlough scheme in a move that will cause a wave of mass redundancies across the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, behind closed doors the Prime Minister is complaining that he cannot get by on his £150,000 salary. If the Prime Minister is finding life such a struggle, how on earth does he expect many workers to get by on just £5.84 an hour when the Tory cuts to furlough sink in?

Actually, I am proud of what we have done to support people on low incomes throughout this period and, indeed, before. It was this Government who raised the living wage by record amounts, and we have just increased universal credit by around £1,000 a year. The right hon. Gentleman makes the point about furlough; as he knows, if universal credit is combined with the job support scheme that we have just announced, workers will be getting 80% of their existing salary. We will get this country through this crisis and we will continue to support people of low incomes throughout the period.

I am afraid the Prime Minister just does not get it. Yesterday, we saw his total disregard for the people of Greater Manchester—a Tory attitude that people in Scotland are all too familiar with. Millions of families are struggling to get by and this Tory Government want to cut their incomes in the middle of a pandemic. It is clear that the Prime Minister has made a deliberate decision to let unemployment soar, just like Thatcher did in the 1980s. Time is running out. With one week left, will the Prime Minister finally U-turn on his cuts to the furlough scheme and invest in our communities? Or will he leave millions of people on the scrap heap?

I really must reject what the right hon. Gentleman has just said, because it bears no relation to the facts or the reality of what the Government are doing to support people throughout the country. It is not just the £200 billion investment in jobs and livelihoods; we are also engaged in and will continue to deliver a colossal investment in education, health, housing and infrastructure that will deliver jobs and growth throughout this United Kingdom for a generation.

I congratulate the Prime Minister and his negotiating team on their strong stance in the negotiations with the EU. Does he agree that the EU’s position on fishing and the European Court of Justice demonstrates that it is not treating us as an independent state, that it is not acting in good faith to deliver a free trade agreement and that, in international law, the UK is therefore entitled to leave the withdrawal agreement and make its own arrangements regarding the UK’s internal market? (907918)

Whatever the effect of the withdrawal agreement, I can certainly assure my hon. Friend that the UK’s internal market, which I think everybody on both sides of the House values, is protected and upheld and by the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, which is currently going through the other place. It also, of course, protects the Good Friday agreement.

Mikey is severely disabled. He turned 18 last month, so he is one of the first to see his child trust fund mature, but Mikey’s disabilities mean that he cannot manage his own finances, so he cannot access the savings. Government rules on child trust funds mean that his parents cannot access them either without paying expensive legal fees. This is Mikey’s own money. He wants to use it to buy a specially adapted tricycle. Will the Prime Minister look at the proposals that Mikey’s father has shown me to end this injustice for disabled young people and let Mikey buy this trike?

Of course I will do whatever I can to help in the particular case that the right hon. Gentleman raises. I do not know whether the tricycle he mentions is eligible for a number of the schemes that I can immediately call to mind, but if he cares to write to me, I will of course answer immediately.

Thank you, ground control.My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will be well aware of the negotiations going on between the Department for Transport and the current Mayor of London on a further bail-out for Transport for London. The current Mayor is demanding an eye-watering £5.65 billion to keep TfL running for the next 18 months, yet he refuses to accept any economies because that would offend his union paymasters. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government have not required the current Mayor of London to expand the congestion charge to the north and south circular roads? (907919)

What I can certainly confirm, as I said in my answer to the first question, is that the black hole in TfL’s finances of TfL, the bankruptcy of TfL, which, by the way, was left in robust financial health by the previous Mayor—it certainly was—is entirely the fault of the current Labour Mayor of London, with his grossly irresponsible demagogic fare policies, which, I may say, were never pursued by the previous Mayor of London, and the fault lies entirely with him. I trust that my hon. Friend will make that clear.

Financial support packages, tackling homelessness, rail nationalisation and honouring Marcus Rashford—there is plenty that this Government have done on covid that I applaud, but with winter set to bite and no end to the virus in sight, may I ask the Prime Minister to reconsider the arbitrary end to many of his schemes, which were set months ago when we knew so little? Three million self-employed people were completely left out of all of these measures, a number of whom are now set to face destitution when the minimum income floor ends next month. Furthermore, school dinners for 3,272 kids in his own seat and 2,016 in mine are in the balance. Can he start by voting with us tonight and make sure that that gong does not mean nothing? (907910)

Order. Will the Prime Minister sit down? We must have short questions. I want to get through the list, so we must help each other.

The hon. Lady is quite right to call attention to the difficulties facing many families right now because of the crisis that we have been in. The most important thing—and I hope that this is common ground—is to keep kids in school if we possibly can. That would be vitiated by the series of lockdowns that are being proposed. I do not want to go down that route. What I want to do is to ensure that we continue to support families throughout the crisis so that they have the cash available to feed their kids as they need to do.

Kettering General Hospital

If he will hold discussions with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on involving the infrastructure delivery taskforce in the rebuilding of Kettering General Hospital. (907920)

I am delighted that Kettering General Hospital is part of the biggest hospital building programme in a generation. I can tell my hon. Friend that the infrastructure delivery taskforce is already involved in delivering the health infrastructure programme, which includes Kettering General Hospital.

I thank the Prime Minister for visiting the night shift at Kettering General Hospital in February and seeing for himself at first hand the wonderful work being done by local medics and staff. The hospital could expedite at speed ambitious plans for its rebuild, but only if the time taken for regulatory clearances at NHS Improvement is dramatically shortened. Will the Prime Minister cut NHS red tape, so that local people can have the improvements that we need at our local hospital as quickly as possible?

Indeed. I hope that I can reassure my hon. Friend by saying that clinical modelling work is complete and the site development is now under way as we speak.

Engagements

On 16 June, the Prime Minister agreed to provide free school meal vouchers to hungry children over the summer holidays after claiming just 24 hours beforehand that he was completely unaware of the campaign that was calling for it. Last week, the Liberal Democrat Education Minister for Wales, Kirsty Williams, guaranteed that free school meal provision during school holidays would continue until at least Easter 2021, and yesterday the Scottish Government committed to do the same. Can the Prime Minister confirm that he is indeed aware of these announcements, and, if so, when does he plan to do the right thing? (907911)

Governments of all stripes have supplied free school meals since 1906, and I am proud that it was this Conservative Government who extended universal free school meals to five, six and seven-year-olds. The Labour party was in power for 30 of the past 100 years and never did anything like that. We support kids of low incomes in school, and we will continue to do so, but the most important thing is to keep them in school and not to tear off into another national lockdown, taking them out of school. We will continue to use the benefits system and all the systems of income support to support young people and children throughout the holidays as well.

One lesson that we have all learnt in the past nine months is that the internet is even more important to our lives than we imagined. Will my right hon. Friend therefore confirm today that, despite covid and all the other challenges with which he is grappling, we will deliver on our manifesto commitment to roll out full fibre superfast broadband across the United Kingdom and ensure that we are global leaders in digital connectivity? (907922)

Yes, indeed. I thank my hon. Friend for everything he does to lobby for that. Our local delivery partner in Devon and Somerset has provided connectivity of the kind that he describes to 300,000 premises across those two counties. We are going to be a world leader in connectivity as we build back better.

Can the Prime Minister confirm that his Government are seeking to force the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, to remove free travel for under-18s and for holders of the 60-plus travel card in return for further financial support for TfL to keep the tubes and buses running? How can this be right when many people in London, including in my constituency, already have months of genuine hardship ahead of them? (907914)

It was the Labour Mayor of London who bankrupted TfL’s finances, and any changes that he brings in are entirely his responsibility. I suggest that the hon. Member holds him to account.

I know that the Prime Minister is committed to doubling down on levelling up. Will he join me for a virtual tour of Stoke-on-Trent Central and a roundtable with key partners focused on delivering for the left behind, not least to ensure that the transforming cities fund investment will revolutionise public transport in the city?

That is an easy commitment for me to make, and I am delighted to do so. I can tell my hon. Friend that we are investing nearly £20 million through our city deal in pioneering a new programme of sustainable low-carbon and low-cost heat energy to Stoke-on-Trent.

Three weeks ago the Prime Minister stood at that Dispatch Box praising Luton as the only place to have come out of local restrictions, but praise does not pay the bills. Luton’s proud industries of manufacturing, aviation and events cannot get by on soundbites and figures that bear no relation to what is really happening to jobs and businesses. He knows that entire industries are at stake, so is his inaction indifference or incompetence? Will he support businesses and areas that need it throughout this crisis? (907915)

Yes, indeed. I thank the people of Luton for their hard and heroic work, as I thank people across the country for what they are doing. I want to support businesses in Luton, which is why we want to continue with the sensible, balanced, regional and local approach that we are taking. I hope that the hon. Member agrees with me that it would make no sense at all for hard-pressed businesses in Luton to have their lights turned off and their doors shuttered in a series of multiple lockdowns of the kind recommended by the Labour party.

The people of Aberconwy in north Wales are learning to live with covid-19, but we are frustrated by national Welsh Government policy that seeks to place restrictions on us that are the same in the village of Cwm Penmachno as they are in the capital, Cardiff. Last week, my right hon. Friend agreed that a shared responsibility is the way to tackle this pandemic. Does he see the future of this situation as a series of rolling national lockdowns, or can businesses and residents hope that they will be given more trust to look after their own health and those they care for?

My hon. Friend puts the distinction clearly and sharply, which is that we are following the common-sensical and balanced approach. Where local leaders step up to the plate—I am delighted that South Yorkshire came on board this morning; I had a great conversation with Dan Jarvis last night—and where local leadership is shown, we can really make huge progress in getting the R down. That is the right approach for the country.

May I return to the subject of free school meals? There are 7,108 children in Knowsley who are reliant on free school meals, which are vital to ensure that they are properly fed. Whether to extend provision to Easter is both a moral and political choice. Will the Prime Minister make the right choice and agree to extend free school meals to Easter? (907916)

Of course we have free school meals throughout term time—that is entirely right. We want to make sure that we continue to support people on low incomes throughout the crisis, and that is what we are going to do.

As my right hon. Friend will know, part of my constituency has now been placed under tier 2 restrictions. Can he therefore reassure everyone that if they stick to the rules, observe the “hands, face, space” message, and self-isolate when required, accompanied by suitable enforcement for those who blatantly flout the law, we will come out of these restrictions all the sooner?

My hon. Friend puts his finger on it. That is exactly what we need to do. The areas that go into high levels of concern are reviewed every 14 days, and the restrictions, as I told the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), are reviewed every 28 days. The way to get through this is exactly as my hon. Friend says: to follow the guidance, particularly the “hands, face, space” basics.

The people of Barnes in my constituency have been cut off from public transport routes for some months now by the closure of Hammersmith bridge. Can the Prime Minister confirm reports that the Government are now planning to charge Barnes residents £15 a day to own a car, and charge them extra council tax, to pay for facilities that they cannot use, despite the fact that Transport for London reserves were increasing before the virus hit? (907917)

I can confirm that Hammersmith bridge has been closed thanks entirely to the incompetence of the current Labour Mayor of London, and that Shaun Bailey, the Conservative candidate, is going to reopen it, which is the best thing possible.

As my right hon. Friend leads the country through Brexit and delivers global Britain, will he ensure that the values and policies of his Government to which he first gives consideration are those that will unite and bring our country together, and make all those who voted remain for what they thought were the internationalist values of the European Union proud again of their country in bringing those values to global Britain?

Indeed. That is why we are going to use the G7 presidency and the COP26 summit to champion our values across the world, particularly the one that my hon. Friend mentions—female education, which is the single policy that can really transform outcomes across the planet. Our global objective is to help 40 million girls across the world to get a decent education.

The Prime Minister’s Government lost control of the virus, making extra restrictions inevitable, but with no certainty, no communication and no new financial support, he is killing Nottingham businesses. Castle Rock Brewery is a Nottingham success story, but now it is on the verge of breakdown, with two pubs closed permanently, jobs gone, and worried staff facing the prospect of being laid off with no pay. Countless other bars, restaurants and pubs tell the same story. Will he stop punishing successful Nottingham businesses for his failure and give them the help they desperately need? (907921)

Of course I sympathise deeply with businesses that face difficulties because of the pandemic, although I remind the hon. Lady that the infection rate in her constituency is now running at 815 per 100,000, and we must get that down. I thank the people of Nottingham for what they are doing to get it down. We will of course continue to provide the full panoply of support that we have offered, and more, throughout this crisis.

Following the introduction of tier 2 restrictions in York, can the Prime Minister be more open in communicating the evidence base for York going into tier 2, outline a road map for the city’s return to tier 1, and urgently consider the creation of specific support for York’s hospitality industry, which is suffering losses from the limbo that tier 2 is creating?

Yes, I can tell my hon. Friend that the infection rate in York, alas, is now running at 279 per 100,000, and we must get it down. But we can get it down; we can get it down through the package of measures that we have described. You can see, in areas where people are complying with the guidance, that it is having an effect, because if it were not for the efforts and energies of the British people, the R would be running at 3 or more; it is now between 1.2 and 1.5. It will not take much—compliance in those areas that are hit at the moment—to get that R back down below 1. That is what we are aiming for, and that is the way to get businesses across the country, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), in my hon. Friend’s constituency, back on their feet as fast as possible. It would not be sensible, in my view, to plunge them all back into a sustained series of national lockdowns, particularly in areas where the virus is low.

The Chancellor has decided that people who are unable to work because of coronavirus restrictions should be paid as little as two thirds of the national minimum wage. At the same time, the Government are paying £7,000 a day for consultants to work on the failed Serco track and trace programme. Can the Prime Minister tell the House how on earth he thinks that is justifiable, and is this what he means by “levelling up”? (907923)

The NHS track and trace is now testing more people than any other country in Europe; it has tested, I think, 26 million people so far—or conducted 26 million tests. I am also proud, on the hon. Lady’s other point, that we have been able to support people across the country in the way that we have. She is not correct in what she says about the combined impact of the job support scheme and universal credit, because they work in tandem, and that lifts people’s incomes to 80%, and in some cases more than 90%, of their current incomes. That is the support that we are giving at the moment, but the best thing is to get our country through this crisis, without going back into the social, the psychological, the emotional and the economic disaster—and “disaster” was the word that the Labour party used only a week or so ago—the disaster of a series of national lockdowns.

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 suspend the House for three minutes.

Sitting suspended.