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Volume 683: debated on Wednesday 11 November 2020

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.