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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 683: debated on Wednesday 11 November 2020


The Secretary of State was asked—

Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme

What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the extension of the coronavirus job retention scheme in Scotland. (908449)

Today, on the 11th day of the 11th month, I am sure the whole House will join me in remembering those who made the ultimate sacrifice in service to our country.

I have regular discussions with my Cabinet colleagues on all aspects of how we support the entire country, including Scotland, through the covid crisis. The coronavirus job retention scheme has always been a UK-wide scheme, and it has now been extended until the end of March 2021, with employees across the UK receiving 80% of their current salary for hours not worked.

May I associate myself and those on the SNP Benches with the comments of the Secretary of State?

At the last Scottish questions, my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) raised a very serious concern about levels of poverty when the job retention scheme ended. The Minister at the Dispatch Box said that November would be the right time to look at a targeted scheme, as if he had some magical powers of poverty prediction. Imagine our surprise, Mr Speaker, when the south of England went into full lockdown and the full force of furlough came back into force. Will the Secretary of State clarify whether the notion of “targeted” is really targeted at the south of England, with a huge disrespect to Scotland and the rest of the devolved nations?

Absolutely not. The Prime Minister was clear from the get-go, following Cabinet on the Saturday when we discussed the new economic situation in England, that it was a UK-wide scheme. It is 80% for the whole of the United Kingdom. It is a simple scheme and it is for our whole country and he has been absolutely clear about that from the start.

The UK Treasury has provided an up-front guarantee of £8.2 billion to the Scottish Government to help protect jobs and to help the Scottish Government tackle coronavirus, yet we are still to hear from the Scottish Government about where more than £2 billion of that funding is to be spent. Does the Secretary of State agree that the Scottish Government need to provide details urgently about how they will use that funding to support Scots?

I agree with my hon. Friend. There has been substantial extra funding, guaranteed funding, to the Scottish Government—£8.2 billion, as he correctly identified. That is money received through the Barnett formula. The Scottish Government must not shirk their responsibility to be open and transparent about how that money is being spent. We need accountability so that the people of Scotland can judge whether it is being spent wisely.

The Minister has recently said that the job retention scheme will last into next year, but he has also said that there will be no referendums on Scotland’s future for a generation. The Edinburgh agreement, signed by a Tory Prime Minister, provided the legal framework for the 2014 referendum, so can the Minister tell where it says in that agreement that there cannot be another referendum?

I commend the hon. Lady for trying to get a referendum into questions about the job retention scheme. While we are all fighting this pandemic and trying to secure and support people’s jobs, it beggars belief that the SNP carries on talking about independence referendums and about separation. I find it really quite disappointing. The answer to her question is that it was mentioned many times in the White Paper that the SNP Government produced in advance of that referendum. The words “once in a generation” were mentioned on a number of pages.

I thank the Minister for confirming that there is no legal basis for his assertion on the timing of a future referendum. Given that it was also agreed cross-party that nothing in the Smith commission prevents Scotland from becoming an independent country in the future, can he tell us whose decision is it whether Scotland has another referendum?

Order. The question must have some relevance. The first question got through, but you were trying to push your luck the second time. We cannot do that. The question must be relevant. Sorry about that. We had better move on.

The extension of the furlough scheme demonstrated again how the UK Government continue to support jobs in all four nations of the United Kingdom, and we need that support and joint working to continue following the positive news about a potential covid-19 vaccine. Will the Secretary of State outline the work done between the Scottish Government and the UK Government to ensure that there is a seamless roll-out of this vaccine that has given us so much hope here in Scotland and across the UK?

We have invested more than £230 million in manufacturing any successful vaccine. The vaccines have been procured and paid for by the UK Government on behalf of everyone in the United Kingdom. Doses will be distributed fairly and across all parts of the United Kingdom according to population share.

A business operator in my constituency contacted me four days before furlough was supposed to end. He operates two bars in my constituency. As a responsible employer, he had kept on his 44 staff and taken on the debt from bounce back loans, but he was absolutely at the end of his tether with this Government and their last-minute decisions. Will the Secretary of State apologise to that business operator in my constituency for the severe stress that the Government’s dithering has caused him and for the distress that it has caused his employees, as well as to the many people who could not keep on their staff or who lost their jobs due to this Government’s incompetence?

The hon. Lady will recognise that this is a dynamic and unprecedented situation, and we have to take decisions as we see what is in front of us. The employers of those who lost their jobs after 23 September, but were in employment and furlough up until 23 September, are allowed to bring those employees back and put them on furlough.

Co-ordinated Response to Covid-19: Devolved Administrations

What recent steps he has taken to ensure effective co-operation between the Government and the devolved Administrations. (908450)

What recent steps his Department has taken to help ensure co-ordination between Scotland and the other nations of the UK in response to the covid-19 outbreak. (908452)

What recent steps his Department has taken to help ensure co-ordination between Scotland and the other nations of the UK in response to the covid-19 outbreak. (908458)

An effective response to covid-19 does indeed need to be a co-ordinated response across the UK. On 25 September, the UK Government and the three devolved Administrations published a joint statement on our collective approach to responding to covid-19. There are very regular meetings at both ministerial and official levels.

What is the Minister’s understanding of the application of the furlough scheme in Scotland and the other nations of the UK, given that Scotland is operating under a different tier system and different lockdown restrictions?

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has not vaporised into thin air. The lockdown scheme extends across the UK and is available whether a part of the UK—or a part of each nation within the UK—is in lock- down or not. It is there for everyone.

The Scottish Affairs Committee described a deteriorating relationship between the UK and Scottish Governments on joined-up covid-19 policy making, with the main issue being trust. What work has the Secretary of State undertaken to improve awareness and understanding of devolution among Whitehall officials, so that policy makers have mutual understanding of the impact of decisions on each nation of the UK?

The hon. Lady raises an important point. As I said in my initial answer, there are very regular discussions between all Government Departments and devolved Administrations at many levels—be that in Health, Transport or Education. I think that there is a widespread understanding of the need to balance UK-wide interventions with allowing local flexibilities where circumstances dictate.

Will the Minister confirm or deny that taxpayers’ money is being used to employ consultants with the sole purpose of producing and promoting negative propaganda to encounter the increasingly successful campaign for Scottish independence? Is that not to the detriment of co-operation between the nations?

Forgive me, Mr Speaker, but I am not quite sure what that has got to do with the response to coronavirus.

I join the Secretary of State in recognising that it is the 11th day of the 11th month, lest we forget those who gave their lives so that we could live freely today. We will always remember them.

I am disappointed that the Secretary of State did not congratulate President-elect Joe Biden on his wonderful election in America. Given that in a recent poll 75% of Scots said that they would vote for Joe Biden, they have eventually got the Government they would have voted for.

The announcement this week of a potential covid vaccine is incredibly positive. While it certainly does not mean, of course, that we have reached the end of this crisis, it does perhaps signal some hope for the public. If the vaccine is approved, the country will face an unprecedented logistical challenge. If mass vaccination is to be done successfully, we will need all levels of government working together. However, a poll just yesterday found that two thirds of Scots were dissatisfied that the Scottish and UK Governments do not work together and a majority wanted closer co-operation. Can the Minister inform the House what work the UK and Scottish Governments are undertaking together to build an infrastructure that will be able to distribute and administer any future vaccines to everyone?

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s question. Referring to his initial comments, I was delighted that President-elect Biden spoke to our Prime Minister ahead of any other European country, contrary to what some of the naysayers in the media were predicting.

The hon. Gentleman’s substantial question is a very important one and it illustrates the extent to which the UK Government and the devolved Administrations can and should work together. The vaccine—as he said, we are not quite there yet, but it gives very strong hope—is purchased by the UK Government on behalf of the whole UK. The distribution, the prioritisation, of the vaccine will be a matter for the devolved Administrations. However, we are in regular contact and stand ready to assist with any logistics that will be required to make sure that it is distributed on the basis of clinical priority and not any other needs.

I appreciate what the Minister said, but I think the public would look on it very unfavourably if both Governments did not work together to ensure that this vaccine is distributed.

But we also must not lose sight of today’s challenges. While the Chancellor’s latest plan to extend furlough until March is very welcome, there remain millions of people across the UK and in Scotland who have not received any support as lockdowns continue. The 3 million taxpayers excluded from Government support include countless self-employed people, pay-as-you-earn freelancers, and many, many others. It is understandable that there may have been some cracks in hastily designed schemes announced in March, but not to fix those and to continue to exclude millions from any support is inexcusable. I raised this with the Secretary of State in the House on 1 July and 7 October, so, for the third time: will the Scotland Office demand that the Chancellor reconsiders and provides support to those taxpayers left without any help from this Government?

The hon. Gentleman’s question would have greater potency if furlough were indeed the only scheme that was available, but a wide range of support is available for businesses and individuals across the UK, including bounce back loans, tax deferrals, mortgage holidays and the like. In addition, the Chancellor has provided the Scottish Government with unprecedented levels of support, going up by an additional £1 billion. It is up to the Scottish Government, if they wish to provide additional support over and above the UK-wide schemes, to ensure that they have the resources to do so.

Order. Can I just say that I am very concerned that the question was a substantive question that was within this grouping? The problem is that the grouping is not good, but it was the Government who put the grouping together. So I think the Minister ought to try to see if he could answer the question from Allan Dorans, because it is within that section.

If I remember the question correctly, it was, “Are we spending taxpayers’ money on fighting the independence referendum?” My answer to that is that we do not wish another independence referendum. The last thing that the people of Scotland need, and businesses and jobs in Scotland need, is the uncertainty that another independence referendum would create.

Voluntary and Community Organisations: Funding

What recent discussions he has had with Scottish Government Ministers on the adequacy of funding for voluntary and community organisations in Scotland. (908451)

I regularly meet Scottish Ministers to discuss matters of importance to Scotland. Funding for the voluntary sector and community organisations in Scotland is a matter for the Scottish Government. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the enormous work that charities and voluntary organisations do, in Scotland and the UK, to support our communities through this very challenging period.

Charities and social enterprises have never been more needed across the UK, but may I correct the Minister? The Government put forward a fund of £60 million for charities within the devolved authorities, so I would like to know how much the Scottish charities have received from that fund and what representations he has made for its extension, because charities have never have been in more need.

The funding that is given to the Scottish Government does not necessarily have to be used exactly for those purposes. They can supplement that as well out of the general funds that are transferred—the £8.2 billion. I am very happy to look into how that money is being spent, and I refer back to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) made about the questions over how the £2 billion has been spent.

I join the Minister on behalf of those on this side of the House in praising the voluntary sector and charities across Scotland, which have stepped up to support so many people right across the nation. At the same time, however, charities face an existential financial crisis. The Minister will be aware that a report earlier this year from the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator found that a fifth of Scottish charities were facing uncertainty because of poor finances over the next 12 months. With new restrictions now coming in across Scotland in different phases, will the Minister commit to working with the Secretary of State, with Scottish Ministers and, importantly, with the Chancellor of the Exchequer to ensure that these voluntary sector organisations get any additional funding that they may need to support the people of Scotland during the pandemic?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. He is right. I have had a number of meetings with the Association of Chief Officers of Scottish Voluntary Organisations and they have an unprecedented leadership challenge. One of them put to me the analogy that they are trying to fix the wings of an aircraft when it is in flight. There is an enormous challenge for all of us, whether in government, in the charities themselves or in the private sector, to work closely together, for us to help them through this and for them to help us to rebuild our economy and society better than when we went into this period.

Economic Support: Covid-19

What discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the economic support available for Scottish businesses during the covid-19 outbreak. (908454)

This question, No. 16, has been withdrawn, so the substantive question will be from David Mundell. Secretary of State to answer.

Let us carry on then. If the Secretary of State does not have the answer, it is easy—I call David Mundell.

There are many different ways in which the Government can provide economic support to Scottish businesses during covid-19. For the Scotch whisky industry, the biggest help in retaining jobs and supporting its businesses would be for the Government to resolve the US tariffs dispute, rather than escalate it by applying further retaliatory tariffs. Can my right hon. Friend update the House on progress on this vital issue for Scottish businesses and jobs?

From memory, question 16—it has been withdrawn altogether from the papers I was given this morning—was about transport, and I will say on that—

Order. Secretary of State, the question is on the Order Paper, and I can assure you it is not about transport. Answer the question from David Mundell.

To answer my right hon. Friend’s question, the Secretary of State for International Trade last night had a Zoom call with MPs from across the House, and I know that she stressed that the UK Government are determined to settle this issue as soon as possible and to mitigate the effects for those who are impacted by it. In short, we continue to raise the issue with the highest levels of the US Administration.

Strengthening the Union

The good news is that I did bring this answer with me. This Government have always stressed the importance of the Union. The UK is a family of nations that shares social, cultural and economic ties that together make us far safer, more secure and more prosperous. As we have seen throughout the covid crisis, it is the economic strength of the Union and our commitment to the sharing and pooling of resources that have supported jobs and businesses throughout Scotland. It is the strength of our Union that will enable us to rebuild our economy following the crisis.

I am delighted to hear the Secretary of State support the Union. The Prime Minister’s review into boosting transport links across the country is very welcome. Does the Secretary of State agree that this review of quality transport links will go a long way to levelling up economic opportunity wherever we are in the UK?

There are no flies on my hon. Friend—he spotted that I am a Unionist, and he has been able to highlight the importance of improving transport links. That is why I am so disappointed that the Scottish Government are not engaging in Sir Peter Hendy’s review of connectivity across our United Kingdom. That attitude is letting down the people of Scotland, who would benefit from those improvements.

My great grandfather served in the infantry regiment of The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. Will my right hon. Friend join me in commemorating all those Scottish servicemen who fought in the British Army for the freedom of the United Kingdom and the world, and in thanking servicemen and women in Scotland today who are engaged in our fight against the virus?

I am more than happy to join my hon. Friend in thanking today’s servicemen and women, and I am sure the whole House will join me in remembering all those who laid down their lives in defence of our country and the freedoms that we enjoy today.

I represent a constituency that is geographically distant from Scotland, but I know people from Scotland who have made East Devon their home. They, like me, believe we are stronger together and cherish our precious Union. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the UK Government’s efforts during the pandemic—not least the furlough scheme and the £8.2 billion to Scottish public services—show that we have a common drive to defeat the virus, whether in Edinburgh or Exeter, and the SNP needs to focus on delivery, not division?

What measures is the Department taking to strengthen economic ties and promote business opportunities between Scottish communities and English communities such as those in my constituency of Leigh?

The Union connectivity review that I referred to earlier and the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, which is currently going through Parliament, will both promote the economic ties that my hon. Friend refers to. They will protect vital trading links and improve transport links.

The Secretary of State is doing such a fantastic job of strengthening the Union that support for independence is at a historic high and has been at a sustained majority all year. Saying no to a majority in Scotland is only going to drive support for independence even higher. Apparently, he was only joking when he said that there would be no indyref for 40 years, just after John Major said that there would be two referendums in the next few years. The Secretary of State is renowned for his legendary wit and humour, but the Scottish people are not finding this democracy denial funny any more. What is the difference between denying a majority in the Trump White House and denying a majority in the Scotland Office?

That is quite a tenuous link, but I will answer the question. To be quite simple, my belief is that we should stick to the referendum from 2014 and respect it. It was very clear—the SNP said it at the time —that it was a once-in-a-generation referendum. I do not believe that we should go into a process of neverendums, which are divisive, unsettling and bad for jobs in Scotland. We should respect democracy, and that is what I am doing—democracy that was handed out by the Scottish people in 2014.

The Prime Minister described last December’s general election as “once-in-a-generation”, but I hope the Secretary of State is not suggesting that there will not be another one for 40 years. He seems to think that the way to strengthen the Union is by forcing a hard Brexit on Scotland against our will, taking an axe to devolution with the internal market Bill and denying any democratic choice on Scotland’s future until adults like me are dead. On that basis, does he think that the best recipe for a happy marriage is to lock up the wife, take away her chequebook and just keep refusing a divorce?

No, I think that it is quite straightforward. I think that people should respect democracy, as I said in my previous answer to the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart). We are respecting democracy. We are acknowledging this is once in a generation; we do not believe Scotland should be thrown on to the uncertainty of neverendums. It is very straight- forward: a generation, by any calculation, is 25 years and, frankly, SNP Members just have to accept that and focus on what matters, which is recovering from this pandemic and us all pulling together.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


I know the whole House will want to join me in sending our deepest sympathies to the family and friends of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks Lord Sacks, who sadly passed away on Saturday. His leadership had a profound impact on our whole country and across the world. May his memory be a blessing.

This morning, I attended the service at Westminster Abbey to mark the centenary of the tomb of the unknown warrior. Armistice Day allows us to give thanks to all those who have served, and continue to serve, and those who have given their lives in service of this country.

According to Home Office figures, just 12% of Windrush victims have received compensation and nine people have died waiting. This is two and a half years after the Windrush taskforce was set up. What will the Government do and what will the Prime Minister do both to rectify this injustice and to ensure that no others who have come to the UK to live and work suffer in the same way as the Windrush victims?

The hon. Lady is right to raise this issue. What happened to the Windrush generation was a disgrace and a scandal, and we are doing our best collectively to make amends. I can tell her I have met members of that generation, and this Government are taking steps to accelerate the payments and to make sure that those who are in line with payments are given every opportunity and all the information they need to avail themselves of the compensation that they deserve.

May I associate myself with the Prime Minister’s remarks in respect of our servicemen and women, past and present, in protecting our peace? With regard to our battle against covid, senior Church leaders have this past week issued a call for prayer across our nation. The Prime Minister, I know, is very well aware of the persecution suffered by countless people of faith across the world for wanting to pray and manifest their faith. Will he join me in supporting our Church leaders’ call for prayer and in championing the universal human right of freedom of religion or belief wherever one lives? (908620)

Yes, indeed, and I thank my hon. Friend for the work that she does to champion that cause. We all know that wherever freedom of belief is under attack, other human rights are under attack as well. We will continue to work closely with like-minded partners to stand up for members of such marginalised communities.

May I join the Prime Minister in his comments about Jonathan Sacks? May I also send all our thoughts to those affected by the terrible events in Saudi Arabia this morning? May I welcome the victory of President-elect Biden and Vice-President-elect Harris—a new era of decency, integrity and compassion in the White House? May I also welcome the fantastic news about a possible breakthrough in the vaccine? It is early days, but this will give hope to millions of people that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Today is Armistice Day, and I am sure the whole House will join me in praising the remarkable work of the veterans charities such as Help for Heroes and the Royal British Legion. Like many other charities, Help for Heroes has seen a significant drop in its funding during this pandemic, and it is now having to take very difficult decisions about redundancies and keeping open recovery centres for veterans. So can the Prime Minister commit today that the Government will do whatever they can to make sure our armed forces charities have the support that they need so that they can carry on supporting our veterans?

I echo entirely what the right hon. and learned Gentleman says about Help for Heroes; it is a quite remarkable charity and does wonderful things for veterans. In these difficult times, many charities are, of course, finding it tough, and in addition to what the Government are doing to support charities by cutting business rates on their premises and cutting VAT on their shops, I urge everybody wherever possible to make online contributions to charities that are currently struggling.

I thank the Prime Minister for his reply. The truth is that the Chancellor’s package for forces charities was just £6 million during this pandemic, and that is just not sufficient. May I ask the Prime Minister to reconsider that support on their behalf, because at the same time we have all seen this weekend that the Government can find £670,000 for PR consultants? And that is the tip of the iceberg: new research today shows that the Government have spent at least £130 million of taxpayers’ money on PR companies, and that is in this year alone. Does the Prime Minister think that is a reasonable use of taxpayers’ money?

I think the right hon. and learned Gentleman is referring to the vaccines taskforce, and after days in which the Labour party has attacked the vaccines taskforce, I think it might be in order for him to pay tribute to it for securing 40 million doses. By the way, the expenditure to which he refers was to help to raise awareness of vaccines, to fight the anti-vaxxers and to persuade the people of this country—300,000—to take part in trials without which we cannot have vaccines. So I think he should take it back.

Nobody is attacking individuals—everybody is supporting the vaccine—but £130 million, Prime Minister: there is a real question about the way that contracts are being awarded and about basic transparency and accountability. I know the Prime Minister does not like that, but this is not the Prime Minister’s money; it is taxpayers’ money. The Prime Minister may well not know the value of the pound in his pocket, but the people who send us here do, and they expect us to spend it wisely.

Let me illustrate an example of the Government’s lax attitude to taxpayers’ money. Earlier this year, the Government paid about £150 million to a company called Ayanda Capital to deliver face masks. Can the Prime Minister tell the House how many usable face masks were actually provided to NHS workers on the frontline under that contract?

We are in the middle of a global pandemic in which this Government have so far secured and delivered 32 billion items of personal protective equipment; and, yes, it is absolutely correct that it has been necessary to work with the private sector and with manufacturers who provide such equipment, some of them more effectively than others, but it is the private sector that in the end makes the PPE, it is the private sector that provides the testing equipment, and it is the private sector that, no matter how much the Labour party may hate it, provides the vaccines and the scientific breakthroughs.

The answer is none: not a single face mask—at a cost of £150 million. That is not an isolated example. We already know that consultants are being paid £7,000 a day to work on test and trace, and a company called Randox has been given a contract, without process, for £347 million; that is the same company that had to recall 750,000 unused covid tests earlier this summer on safety grounds.

There is a sharp contrast between the way the Government spray money at companies that do not deliver and their reluctance to provide long-term support to businesses and working people at the sharp end of this crisis. The Chancellor spent months saying that extending furlough was

“not the kind of certainty that British businesses or British workers need”—[Official Report, 24 September 2020; Vol. 680, c. 1157]

only then to do a U-turn at the last minute. Yesterday’s unemployment figures show the cost of that delay: redundancies up by a record 181,000 in the last quarter. What is the Prime Minister’s message to those who have lost their jobs because of the Chancellor’s delay?

With great respect to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, he knows full well that the furlough programme has continued throughout this pandemic. It went right the way through to October; it is now going through to March. It is one of the most generous programmes in the world, with 80% of income supported by this Government and an overall package of £210 billion going in to support jobs, families and livelihoods throughout this country. I think this country can be very proud of the way we have looked after the entire population, and we are going to continue to do so. The right hon. and learned Gentleman should bear in mind that the net effect of those furlough programmes—all the provision that we have made—is disproportionately beneficial for the poorest and neediest in society, which is what one nation Conservatism is all about.

The Prime Minister must know that because the furlough was not extended until the last minute, thousands of people were laid off. The figures tell a different story: redundancies, as I say, at a record high of 181,000; 780,000 off the payroll since March; the Office for National Statistics saying unemployment is rising sharply—so much for putting their arms around everybody. The trouble is that the British people are paying the price for the mistakes of the Prime Minister and the Chancellor. If they had handed contracts to companies that could deliver, public money would have been saved. If they had extended furlough sooner, jobs would have been saved. If they had brought in a circuit breaker when the science said so, lives would have been saved.

Let me deal with another mistake. The Chancellor has repeatedly failed to close gaps in support for the self-employed. Millions are affected by this. It is bad enough to have made that mistake in March, but seven months on, the Institute for Fiscal Studies says the scheme remains—its words—

“wasteful and badly targeted for the self-employed”.

The Institute of Directors says:

“Many self-employed…continue to be left out in the cold.”

After seven months and so many warnings, why are the Chancellor and the Prime Minister still failing our self-employed?

Unquestionably, this pandemic has been hard on the people of this country, and unquestionably there are people who have suffered throughout the pandemic and people whose livelihoods have suffered, but we have done everything that we possibly can to help. As for the self-employed, 2.6 million of them have received support, at a cost of £13 billion—quite right. We have also, of course, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows, uprated universal credit. That will continue until next year. He now champions universal credit, by the way, and calls for its uprating to be extended. He stood on a manifesto to abolish universal credit.

The Prime Minister just doesn’t get it. I know very well that the self-employment income support scheme has been extended, but the Prime Minister must know that that scheme simply does not apply to millions of self-employed people. They have been left out for seven months.

There is a real human cost to this. This week on LBC, I spoke to a self-employed photographer called Chris. He said to me:

“Our…industry has been devastated… Three million of us that have fallen through the cracks… Our businesses are falling—absolutely falling—and crashing each day.”

He asked me to raise that with the Chancellor. I will do the next best thing. What would the Prime Minister say to Chris and millions like him who are desperately waiting for the Chancellor to address this injustice?

What I would say to Chris—and what I say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman and to the whole country—is the best way to get his job working again, the best way to get this country back on its feet, is to continue on the path that we are driving the virus down. It is a week since we entered into the tough autumn measures that we are now in. I am grateful to the people of this country for the sacrifices that they are making, and I am particularly grateful to the people of Liverpool and elsewhere—tens of thousands of people in Liverpool are taking part in the mass testing work that is going on there. It is fantastic news that we now have the realistic prospect of a vaccine.

Science has given us two big boxing gloves, as it were, with which to pummel this virus, but neither of them is capable of delivering a knockout blow on its own. That is why this country needs to continue to work hard, to keep discipline and to observe the measures that we have put in. I am grateful the support that the Labour party is now giving for those measures. That is the way to do it: hands, face, space; follow the guidance, protect the NHS and save lives.

As we and all countries across the world tackle the pandemic, is it not right that we also have to secure our post-EU future? Are we not doing that by securing help for our rural communities and securing our borders? (908623)

Absolutely; I thank my hon. Friend. I can tell him that the landmark Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill receives Royal Assent today, thanks to this House, paving the way for the fulfilling of our manifesto commitment to end free movement and have a new, fair points-based immigration system—one of the advantages of leaving the European Union that the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) would of course like to reverse.

May I associate myself with the remarks of the Prime Minister on the death of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks? This being Armistice Day, we commemorate the day 102 years ago on the eleventh hour of the eleventh month when the guns fell silent and all those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice in conflict since then. I also want to send our best wishes to Joe Biden and Kamala Harris on winning the election in north America. I look forward to the leadership they will show on the issues of climate change and fighting back against covid among other things.

The figures published by the Office for National Statistics yesterday demonstrate what the SNP has been warning about for months: that the UK faces a growing Tory unemployment crisis. It is now beyond doubt that the Chancellor’s last-minute furlough U-turn came far too late for thousands who have already lost their jobs as a result of Tory cuts, delays and dither. UK unemployment has now risen to 4.8%. Redundancies are at a record high and nearly 800,000 fewer people are in employment. To support those who have lost their incomes, will the Prime Minister now commit to making the £20 uplift to universal credit permanent and to extending it to legacy benefits, so that no one—no one, Prime Minister—is left behind?

I am delighted that the right hon. Gentleman, the leader of the Scottish nationalists, is now supporting universal credit. He was opposed to it at the last election. Yes, of course that uplift continues until March. I am delighted to say that the furlough scheme is being extended right the way through to March as well. That will support people across our whole United Kingdom, protecting jobs and livelihoods across the whole UK in exactly the way that he and I would both want.

May I respectfully say to the Prime Minister that the idea is that he tries to answer the question that has been put to him? It is shameful that the Prime Minister still refuses to give a commitment to the £20 uprating of universal credit. The SNP will continue to demand a permanent U-turn on Tory plans to cut universal credit.

Another group who have been left behind by this Prime Minister are the 3 million people who have been completely excluded from UK Government support. Since the start of this crisis, the Prime Minister has repeatedly refused to lift a finger to help those families. In the run-up to Christmas, those forgotten millions will be among those who are struggling to get by and are worried about their future. Will the Prime Minister finally fix the serious gaps in his support schemes to help the excluded, or will he make it a bitter winter for millions of families across the United Kingdom?

The right hon. Gentleman knows, I hope, that we are not only continuing with the uprating of universal credit until next year, but have invested £210 billion in jobs and livelihoods. We have also just brought forward a winter support package for the poorest and neediest: supporting young people and kids who need school meals, and supporting people throughout our society throughout the tough period of covid, as I think the entire country would expect. That is the right thing to do and we will continue to do it.

As we continue to protect the NHS to help to save lives, regional airports are playing a critical role in delivering medical supplies and equipment across the UK, yet at Exeter airport in my constituency overall passenger numbers are at some 5% of normal. Regional airports are facing multibillion-pound business rates bills and they are asking for a payment holiday similar to the one for businesses in retail and hospitality, including supermarket giants. What assurances can my right hon. Friend give East Devon’s aircraft engineers, cabin crew and pilots that the Government will look at temporarily scrapping business rates, so that our regional airports can keep the country connected throughout the pandemic? (908624)

I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will have heard my hon. Friend’s words. I thank him for what he said; he is quite right to champion regional airports and the aviation business. The Bank of England’s covid corporate financing facility is helping to support the airlines’ current liquidity problems, with the sector drawing down £1.8 billion in support. The Department for Transport is also looking at giving bespoke support to particular regional airports to keep them going in these tough times.

West Wales and the valleys received over €2 billion in direct EU economic investment during the 2014 to 2020 multiannual financial framework. That support will come to an end in a matter of weeks, yet the British Government have yet to publish their alternative proposals despite all the promises of “not a penny less”. When will the Prime Minister level with the people of Carmarthenshire and the rest of Wales about the British Government being about to pick our pockets? (908621)

On the contrary, the UK Government are continuing to support all parts of the UK. We will now, as the hon. Gentleman knows, have the opportunity to fund projects with our own money, rather than siphoning it through Brussels. The quantum will be identical and, in addition, through the Barnett formula, the UK Government have already given the Welsh Government £2.4 billion in capital funding alone this year.

While we are rightly focused on battling covid, we should not ignore humanitarian injustices and the plight of persecuted minorities. On Remembrance Sunday, 82 year-old Mahboob Ahmad Khan was shot dead, the fourth Ahmadi recently slain in Peshawar. His crime under Pakistani law: to call himself an Ahmadi Muslim, whose creed is love for all, hatred for none. Does my right hon. Friend agree that hatred preached in Pakistan ends up on the streets of Britain and that it is in the interests of our own security that Her Majesty’s Government should make it clear to Pakistan that state-supported persecution must end?

I agree passionately with my hon. Friend. I can tell him that that is why the Minister for South Asia and the Commonwealth recently raised this very issue with Pakistan’s Human Rights Minister and we urge the Government of Pakistan to guarantee the fundamental rights of all their citizens.

Unfortunately, we have recently seen the largest increase in Welsh unemployment for nearly 30 years. The Prime Minister will know that the hospitality and events sectors have been dealt a heavy blow by covid-19, but we cannot forget about the businesses in their supply chains. Many have not been eligible for grant support and, although welcome, bounce-back loans and the furlough scheme do not offer them support to cover running costs through the winter months. Will the Prime Minister therefore raise this matter with the Chancellor and bring forward a package that offers businesses in the supply chain some hope of seeing the spring? (908622)

The hon. Gentleman raises an excellent point. One of the things that we are looking at, together with local authorities and the Welsh tourist authorities, is ways of making sure that we keep a tourist season going throughout the tough winter months.

Christmas is a time for joy and the celebration of hope. In Rother Valley, we have a renowned Christmas scene. From the Christmas festival in Dinnington to Christmas wreath-making in Todwick, the Maltby Lions Santa sleigh ride, carols at All Saints in Aston and even my new annual Christmas card competition, there is something for everyone in Rother Valley. In the spirit of Christmas and giving, will the Prime Minister assure me that families and friends will be reunited and able to celebrate this most important, happy and holy occasion, as we usually do? (908627)

All I can say is that the more intensively we together follow the rules and the more we follow the guidance in this tough period leading up to 2 December, the bigger the chance collectively we will have of as normal a Christmas as possible and getting things open in time for Christmas as well.

On Sunday, a constituent emailed me about the track and trace system. Her family had received multiple calls asking for the same information and there was confusion, as the operative admitted that they were struggling with London postcodes and local school names. Last week, the former Health Secretary and Conservative Chair of the Health and Social Care Committee, the right hon. Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt), said:“Centralised contact tracing is always going to be less effective than a” localised model. Will the Prime Minister now admit that the current outsourced model has been a waste of time and taxpayers’ money? (908626)

We are looking into the issue of repeat calls, but to say that the test and trace system has been a waste of time and money, which I think is what I heard the hon. Member say—I could not disagree more. It has enabled us to locate where the disease is surging, to take appropriate measures and to allow people in huge numbers to get tested. More people have been tested in this country than in any other country in Europe. The PCR tests that NHS Test and Trace is conducting are of real value in fighting the disease, and now we are rolling out the lateral flow rapid turnaround tests as well.

With yesterday’s positive news on the covid vaccine and the roll-out of mass testing, and as York’s virus figures continue to fall well below the level at which we were put into tier 2, can the Prime Minister give York some hope of sustaining our great city by clearly outlining the criteria under which from 2 December we can escape immediately into tier 1? Will he also urge York council to take up the Government’s offer of mass testing? (908629)

Yes, indeed I urge York council and councils across the land to take up the offer of mass lateral flow testing—it is a very exciting possibility. It is, as I said, one of the boxing gloves we hope to wield to pummel this disease into submission—the other is the prospect of a vaccine—and that is what we will do continuously throughout the weeks and months ahead. But I must stress that the way to get ourselves in the best position to achieve that is to make the current restrictions work so that we can come out well, back into the tiers on 2 December.

The Prime Minister will doubtless recall meeting my constituent Ronnie Norquoy on board his crab boat Carvela when he visited Stromness and Orkney in July. I know Mr Norquoy told the Prime Minister about the problems caused by the Migration Advisory Committee classing deckhands as unskilled labour. Since that conversation—which must have landed quite well, because he was allowed back on to dry land safely —the Migration Advisory Committee has changed its advice so that deckhands are now regarded as skilled labour for whom visas can be issued. The Home Secretary, unfortunately, refuses to implement that advice. Will he put the Home Secretary straight on this one, please? Get it sorted. (908628)

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. It is a subject in which I have a keen interest, because I had a wonderful morning on that crab boat where there were fantastic, prodigious quantities of crabs that, as I recollect, were being sold to China. I will make sure that the Home Secretary is immediately seized of the matter and that we take it forward. That is one of the things that we are now able to do thanks to taking back control of our immigration system, which, alas, his party opposed for so long and would reverse if it could.

I strongly welcome the introduction of the National Security and Investment Bill today. Does the Prime Minister agree that when countries trample human rights at home and threaten our allies abroad, they should not expect to be able to buy up strategically important industries in this country with no scrutiny, not least when they refuse such investments in their own countries? (908632)

Yes. One of the many merits of the excellent conversation I had yesterday with President-elect Joe Biden was that we were strongly agreed on the need once again for the United Kingdom and the United States to stand together and stick up for our values around the world: to stick up for human rights, to stick up for global free trade, to stick up for NATO and to work together in the fight against climate change. It was refreshing, I may say, to have that conversation, and I look forward to many more.

The Prime Minister spoke for many of us when he took a call yesterday to congratulate President-elect Biden and Vice-President-elect Harris on their emphatic win in the US presidential election, so does the Prime Minister now have any advice for his erstwhile best friend, President Trump, whose continuing refusal to accept the result is both embarrassing for him and dangerous for American democracy? (908630)

I had, and have, a good relationship with the previous President. I do not resile from that—it is the duty of all British Prime Ministers to have a good relationship with the White House—but I am delighted to find the many areas in which the incoming Biden-Harris Administration are able to make common cause with us. In particular, it was extremely exciting to talk to President-elect Biden about what he wants to do with the COP26 summit next year, in which the UK is leading the world in driving down carbon emissions and tackling climate change.

This Armistice Day, restrictions mean that we cannot mark the occasion with services as we normally would. However, in Heywood and Middleton, veterans associations are following the guidance to mark the day in a covid-safe way. Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister join me in praising them, the Royal British Legion and, indeed, all those across the United Kingdom who are doing their best to ensure that we can pay tribute to those who made the ultimate sacrifice?

Yes indeed. It was really impressive to see the way the Royal British Legion organised covid-secure memorials across the country. As we salute our veterans, I just want to remind the House that we have launched a new railcard for our veterans and their families that will entitle them to substantial reductions in rail fares, and that we are introducing a national insurance break for employers of veterans in their first year of employment.

Every day, there is a new story about dodgy contracts signed by this Government. Research by Tussell, the data provider, shows that the Government take an average of two and a half months to publish covid-related contracts, exceeding the legal limit of 30 days. Will the Prime Minister commit to publishing all contracts within the legal limit, and does he accept that the failure to address this scandal affects his Government’s awarding of public contracts? (908631)

Of course we publish all contracts, and quite right too. I would just respectfully remind the hon. Lady, as I reminded the Leader of the Opposition earlier, that it is absolutely necessary in a massive global pandemic to work with those in the private sector, not to scorn them or despise them, and to understand that it is they who make the PPE and the tests. Indeed, it is thanks to the researches of giant conglomerates—which Labour would break up if it could—that we have the possibility of a vaccine.

On Armistice Day, as we remember those who gave their lives for our country and those who still serve, will the Prime Minister give a positive response to the “Living in our shoes: understanding the needs of UK Armed Forces families” report on making life better for our armed forces families? These wonderful people put up with more separation, moving of family homes and worry about the safety of their loved ones than anyone else, and looking after them should be a national priority.

Our armed services simply could not function without the support of their families, and I thank my hon. Friend for what he is doing to raise this issue and for the comprehensive piece of research that he refers to. We are making good progress on increasing childcare provision for armed services families and on our support for employment of partners of members of the armed services.

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 a few minutes.

Sitting suspended.