House of Commons
Wednesday 18 November 2020
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
The House entered into hybrid scrutiny proceedings (Order, 4 June).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme
I am quite surprised by the hon. Lady’s question, as the Government have extended the coronavirus job retention scheme to the end of March. It continues to protect millions of employees across the United Kingdom and has supported over 400,000 jobs in Wales, and in fact 700,000 in Scotland, too.
I did welcome and continue to welcome the fact that the job retention scheme has been extended until March, but in fact we would ask that it is extended until June 2021, as that would give businesses sufficient time to plan and to be able to build, considering that we will also come to the end of the transition period. Does the Secretary of State also recognise the need to extend furlough and support to those small companies that so far have had nothing and the self-employed who have been excluded from all support?
We have to be serious about this, and it seems to me odd that each time we extend the scheme, we are asked to extend it even further. I think that if we extended it to 2050, the hon. Lady would be saying that 2051 would be a more appropriate date. The fact is that the Chancellor has attempted to be as flexible, versatile and dynamic as possible, and hundreds of thousands of people’s jobs have been saved as a result of that flexibility.
Financial Support: Covid-19
I have regular discussions with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor on our economic response to covid-19. We have directly provided over £500 million to the self-employed in Wales on top of the £5 billion additional funding guarantee given to the Welsh Government.
The pandemic, as the Secretary of State will know, is putting huge financial pressure on constituents right across Wales. Families and communities are hugely impacted, and none more so than those who have been impacted by flooding and by living underneath what are arguably unsafe coal tips. Can the Secretary of State tell us what representations he has made to the Chancellor to make true the Prime Minister’s promise that additional funding will come to Wales to help those families who have been impacted by flooding and to secure the coal tips, including the ones in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant).
As I hope the hon. Gentleman knows, there has been significant movement on the guarantee for the initial important works around Tylorstown. The rest of the funding that has been requested by the Welsh Government is the subject of a national reserve, and that has to be part of the normal estimates process. We have asked the Welsh Government to come forward with their numbers, and a decision on that will be made in due course. However, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury has already indicated that he will look favourably on an application provided it meets the necessary criteria.
The lockdown in England of course came after the firebreak in Wales, so will the Secretary of State ensure that Wales gets its full equivalent of the England lockdown through the Barnett consequential formula, so that we get our fair share of funding that can be best deployed by the Welsh Government?
The sums of money that have been already made available to the Welsh Government under the Barnett scheme are substantial. As the hon. Member knows, at least £5 billion has formed the major bulk of that. What I should also say is that, as far as the additional sums are concerned and the point he makes, the significance of doing this on a UK-wide basis is to minimise the complications and the divergences in policy between the UK Government and the Welsh Government, because that makes that even spread so much more difficult. However, the Chancellor has made available substantial sums of money in advance of the normal Barnett formula, and £1.8 billion is still being sat on by the Welsh Government and is available to spend.
Sadly, this week we have seen the Prime Minister’s utter contempt for devolution, yet it is only because of the devolved powers that the Welsh Labour Government were able to heed the scientists’ advice and actually go into the firebreak at the time it could be most effective. As the Secretary of State knows, the Welsh Government called on the Chancellor to extend furlough to support businesses from day one of the firebreak, so why was it that the Secretary of State failed to secure that support for workers in Wales and why was it only made available after England belatedly followed Wales’s lead into lockdown?
Again, it is a strange question to be levelling at the UK Government, given the level of support that has been provided. I should remind the hon. Lady that the infection rates per 100,000 in Wales are actually higher than they are in England and testing rates per 100,000 in Wales are lower than they are in England, so this notion that she is attempting to put forward that somehow it has all gone swimmingly well in Wales and not so swimmingly well in England is completely untrue. What it demonstrates is that actually a competition between the two Governments is not the answer; the answer is working together more collaboratively. As far as the Chancellor’s statement is concerned, he made it very clear in a phone call to the First Minister exactly what was possible and what was not, yet for some reason the First Minister decided to press ahead with plans that he knew could not be met by the Treasury in the timescale available.
It is strange, and the question is about making such support available for Wales when it needed it. After this Conservative Government’s dither and delay led to a crisis-point lockdown in England, the Chancellor suddenly made the 80% furlough available, but it was not backdated to 23 October for Welsh businesses, whose closure at that point helped to turn the tide on covid numbers in Wales. That is of no help to workers who have been made redundant because of the Government’s refusal to extend furlough, up until the very last day. What will the Secretary of State do to get that furlough backdated and give Welsh businesses and workers the support they deserve?
The hon. Lady has clearly not had the conversations with Welsh businesses that I have had. I will not go into too much detail on this issue, because we would be going all day, but I have pages of numbers on the contributions that the UK Government have made to Welsh businesses and employees: £1.6 billion of direct support to businesses; 401,000 people protected by furlough, accounting for one in three jobs; £1.47 billion in bounce-back loans; and £530 million in support for the self-employed. The hon. Lady should be getting to her feet and saying, “This is why the Union is important. The UK Government have come to the rescue of so many people and businesses in Wales and the rest of the UK, and that is why they should be collaborated with, assisted and, indeed, thanked for some of the work they have done.”
On top of the economic hardship inflicted by the pandemic, there are only 43 days until the end of the transition period, yet the replacement of key EU funding in Wales remains shrouded in mystery. The shared prosperity fund will reveal where the Government’s principal interests lie. Does the Secretary of State respect Welsh devolution, and if so, will he guarantee that funding decisions will be fully devolved? Anything else will stink of political expediency.
For the first time in a while, I am rather grateful for the right hon. Lady’s question, because it enables me to point out that of course I thoroughly support devolution, but that does not mean simply transferring power from Westminster to Cardiff. Devolution means getting decision making done at the closest possible level to where it matters, which is across Wales. That is why I have had conversations with local authorities and the Welsh Local Government Association about the shared prosperity fund, as well as with others, including the Welsh Government. They should be playing a much more active part in the decision making and prioritisation of SPF spending than they have done so far.
Through all those words I will take that as a “no” for devolution in Wales. The Prime Minister and the self-monikered Minister for the Union has said that devolution is a “disaster”, yet a YouGov poll found that 72% of Welsh people do not trust Westminster to look after their best interests. With support for independence gaining speed and traction across Wales, how can the frippery of a Union taskforce overcome the disastrous realities of Westminster’s track record in Wales?
Devolution is only a disaster when it is hijacked by separatists and when people who expect devolution to deliver jobs and livelihoods discover that all it delivers is a pet project of nationalists to try to break off one part of the UK from another part. If the right hon. Lady wants to talk about polling, I might remind her that the last barometer poll showed that support for Plaid Cymru had dropped by 4% and that support for independence in Wales had dropped by 2%. She should not get too excited about the direction of travel.
The UK Government work closely with the devolved Administrations to ensure a broad UK-wide approach in our response to covid-19. There is consistency across the United Kingdom in the restrictions implemented to tackle the virus, with some divergence to reflect differing rates of transmission.
I thank the Minister for his answer. We will get through this pandemic only with a measure of trust between the public, the Government and the Welsh Government. Does he agree that the Welsh Government were wrong to introduce their nanny-state ban on supermarkets selling non-essential items during their lockdown?
My hon. Friend makes a very useful point. Any policy that allows members of the public to buy vodka but not baby food is patently devoid of common sense. By needlessly testing the public’s patience and sowing confusion, the Welsh Government have undermined this Government’s efforts to tackle the virus across the United Kingdom.
Following the Welsh Labour Government’s decision to introduce a firebreak lockdown in Wales, coronavirus cases have begun to fall across the board. At the time, the leader of the Welsh Conservatives described the 17-day lockdown as “unnecessary” and “disproportionate”, yet just days later, the Minister and his Welsh Conservative colleagues voted for a lockdown in England that is at least a fortnight longer and may last longer still. Will the Minister finally join me in welcoming the Welsh Government’s decision? Is it not time for him and his Welsh Conservative colleagues to put party politics to one side and support responsible actions to combat the pandemic that are in the interests of the people of Wales?
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that it is the UK Government who have been trying to put party politics to one side. That is why we have invited Ministers from the Welsh Government and the Scottish Government to come to the many meetings that we have been holding in order to develop ways to tackle this virus. The fact of the matter remains, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already pointed out, that cases are higher in Wales and testing is lower than that it is in England, so I urge the hon. Gentleman to do whatever he can to encourage the Welsh Government to work more collaboratively with the UK Government to tackle this virus.
As my hon. Friend will know, the border between England and north Wales is densely populated, with many thousands of people travelling across it in both directions every day for work, social and business purposes, and many other purposes too. However, the Welsh Government have sought to close that border, causing considerable inconvenience and disruption to those people. What future arrangements can be put in place to ensure that there is no repetition of this disruption?
My right hon. Friend is certainly right that these closures have caused a certain amount of confusion for people living along the border—confusion about whether or not people can travel to and from work, confusion about where they can go to do their shopping, confusion about what sort of shopping they can buy, and confusion about whether or not those who are in a household bubble can go on holiday with each other. The fact of the matter remains that the Welsh Government’s actions have been legal, but I am not sure that they have been sensible.
Job Protection: Covid-19
This Government have taken a broad set of measures to protect jobs in Wales and right across the UK during the covid-19 outbreak. We have shown flexibility, most recently by extending the furlough scheme until the end of March.
To what extent have jobs and livelihoods in Wales been protected by the Government’s financial support through the Chancellor’s furlough and self-employed schemes and business grants and loans? Are there other ways that the Welsh Senedd has been supported by the UK Government?
The short answer is that they have been protected to an enormous extent as a result of measures brought forward by the UK Government. Over 400,000 people in Wales have benefited from the furlough scheme, £2 billion-worth of financial support has been provided through the UK Government’s self-employment income support scheme, and £5 billion extra has been given to the Welsh Government. Not all that money has yet been spent, so there is plenty more that the Welsh Government could be doing to support businesses and jobs in Wales.
EU Trade Negotiations
The Secretary of State for Wales and I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues and Welsh Ministers on a range of issues, including EU trade negotiations. The Joint Ministerial Committee on EU negotiations meets regularly, and my ministerial colleagues frequently discuss the EU trade negotiations with Ministers from all the devolved Administrations.
The comments by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on Sunday that sheep farmers should just switch over to beef in the face of higher tariffs have been widely ridiculed in Wales and, indeed, in Scotland—quite a “let them eat cake” moment. Lamb exports are vital not only to farmers but to wider rural communities. What confidence can hill farmers have that the British Government have their interests at heart when it comes to EU trade negotiations after such a ministerial blunder?
First of all, I assure the hon. Lady that this Government are working very hard indeed to ensure that we get a full trade deal with the European Union. The second point to remember is that her party has voted against or abstained on every single trade deal that has been put forward for the last 15 years. The third point that I put to her is that the UK Government have already shown over and again how much support they will give to any industry that gets into any kind of trouble as a result of covid, or indeed, as a result of anything else. She can rest assured that we are doing everything possible, and if she is worried, perhaps she would like to explain to her constituents why she and her party voted against a deal that would have kept us inside a customs union and a single market. I voted for it; she and her party rejected it.
I know that the Minister is a strong supporter of devolution and he will acknowledge that the UK Government’s conduct of reserved matters such as trade will have significant implications for devolved competences such as agriculture. With that in mind, what concrete steps are the Government taking to develop the capacity of the Joint Ministerial Committee so that it fosters greater trust and transparency among the four nations?
The hon. Gentleman is being quite kind to me, because I was on a slightly different side of the argument in 1999, but I have reformed. I am a changed man. I recognise that the people of Wales voted twice for devolution in referendums and I believe that when the people of Wales vote for something in a referendum, that choice needs to be respected. I respect and will support devolution and I welcome his suggestion of closer co-operation between the UK and Welsh Governments over important issues such as agriculture.
Local Sports Teams: Covid-19 Support
On a recent trip to Flint Town United in my constituency, who were successfully promoted to the Welsh premier league last year, the chairman was telling me that they need only 15% to 20% of their ground capacity to be allowed in to watch matches in order to cover costs and keep their heads above water. They have done a lot to enable a small number of supporters to return in a covid-secure way. Does my right hon. Friend agree that getting supporters back into grounds in a safe and secure way is the best way to make sure that we do not lose clubs in Wales, which provide vital recreation services for all ages and act as a focal point for the local community?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point and I absolutely agree with him. This is also a good moment to congratulate, I think, Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney on their recent purchase of Wrexham football club. What an exciting future they have, no doubt. My hon. Friend’s point is a good one. Of course we want to see a successful vaccination programme and a successful testing programme—that will help in his ambitions—but some funding from the National Lottery and from the Welsh Government will also ease the way to returns to stadiums, and complete capacity stadiums, of the sort that he wishes.
On 10 November, the difficult decision was taken to cancel the remaining games of the women’s rugby Six Nations 2020, due to the impact of coronavirus. While we live in unprecedented times, what assurances can the Secretary of State give that international women’s sport will be given the same priority as men’s, and what message does he think the decision gives to women’s and girls’ sport in Wales?
The hon. Lady is probably the only person in the Chamber who has represented a sport at national and international level, so I take her question very seriously in that regard. Of course, there should be no disparity between the sports that she refers to. I am absolutely with her and link arms with her in our determination to make sure that that is the case and that we get back to sport of all different sorts as soon as possible, as safely as possible. We will work with her and others to make sure that that is the case.
Although football matches are being played again, it is behind closed doors and with no associated matchday income. Will my right hon. Friend encourage Sport Wales and the Football Association of Wales to work together to ensure that clubs such as Rhyl in my constituency receive the support that they need at this really difficult time?
It would be remiss of me not to give a substantial name-check to Rhyl, having given one to Wrexham—that would seem unfair. I agree with my hon. Friend’s position and the basis of his question. National league funding in England has come up with significant funds, which should be replicated in Wales. We will certainly do anything we can to get money channelled into the sport to see it through this difficult time.
Manufacturing Industry Support
On top of the £5 billion guarantee given to the Welsh Government, we have provided an additional £1.96 billion in direct support to businesses in Wales and protected over 400,000 Welsh jobs. We have also extended the £1 million annual investment allowance to stimulate investment in UK manufacturing.
Several of my constituents work at the Airbus plant in Broughton in north Wales. In July, it was announced that more than 1,400 jobs would be cut there and earlier this month we heard that there could be more than 400 compulsory redundancies. This is a time of immense uncertainty for the aerospace sector, so what action is the Secretary of State taking to work with the Welsh Government and the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to ensure that my constituents’ jobs are secure?
The hon. Lady appropriately points out the cross-border implication of the effect of coronavirus on Airbus, and I am very aware of that. That is why we are working together with the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Welsh Government, other stakeholders and, in particular, with Airbus, which has been incredibly co-operative, forward-looking and—I would like to think—grateful for the support already given by the Chancellor to it in particular and to the industry. The plan is to ensure that there is a future for Airbus at Broughton not only for the next few months but for the next few years. All the planning is about having a sustainable business over a long period of time in addition to seeing people through this immediate period with the most limited amount of hardship that we can achieve.
Covid-19: UK-wide Approach at Christmas
The UK Government have been working closely with the Welsh Government and indeed all three devolved Administrations to tackle covid-19. We have had numerous meetings—in fact, we stopped counting at 200, because it seemed they were becoming so numerous as to be impossible to record. The co-operation has therefore been substantial.
The Secretary of State will agree it is essential that any new coronavirus vaccine is both safe and effective and rolled out as quickly as possible in Wales and across the UK so that we can put an end to these disastrous lockdown policies and get back to normal. Therefore, what discussions will he have with Welsh Ministers on co-ordinating national vaccine supply chains and the UK-wide vaccination roll-out strategy?
As my hon. Friend knows, an equitable spread of vaccination across the UK is absolutely essential. That is why we are having regular, daily meetings at official and ministerial level with the Welsh Government and others to ensure that that is achieved. In addition, the testing regime announced today for the county of Merthyr Tydfil, which involves, I think, 165 military personnel provided by the UK Government, is in indication of how we are determined to act collaboratively in dealing with this disease.
I know how committed the hon. Gentleman is to steelmaking from our time on the Welsh Affairs Committee. I reassure him that the UK Government are similarly committed to a long-term sustainable future for steelmaking in Wales. We have already met Tata and the Welsh Government, and BEIS will continue to work with the company as it shapes its business strategy in the future.
The Minister will be concerned by the recent news that Tata Steel is selling its Dutch operations to a Swedish company. The steel industry is helping so much in the current crisis, and it is the basis of our entire manufacturing sector, so can the Minister please give us a bit more detail about what discussions are taking place with the Government and with Tata Steel, and when we can hear some positive good news, because we need our steel industry?
I agree with the basis of the hon. Gentleman’s question. I cannot go into great detail about what discussions are taking place, but I can reassure him that discussions have taken place with Tata and with BEIS, and the UK Government stand ready to work with all to ensure that we have that steelmaking future in Wales. If the hon. Gentleman has any doubt at all, he only needs to look at the work that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State did to ensure that Celsa received a £30 million loan—a loan that has saved 800 jobs in Wales and demonstrates firmly our commitment to the Welsh steelmaking industry.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Mr Speaker, I know that you have been updated by my officials on Privy Council terms on the leak investigation that you also referred to in the House on 2 November. As you know, Mr Speaker, I take this matter extremely seriously and I commit to returning to update the House in due course.
This morning, I had virtual meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my virtual duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
This pandemic has shown how interconnected we are and how vulnerable we are to global challenges. When we are still grappling with covid, the climate emergency and growing hunger, why are this Government reported to be breaking their own manifesto commitment and cutting the aid budget, which saves lives and builds resilience? Will the Prime Minister stop this retreat from the global stage and take this opportunity to rule that out, here and now?
I can tell the hon. Lady that everybody in this country can be immensely proud of the massive commitments that this country has made, and will continue to make, to tackling poverty and deprivation around the world. I think they can be even prouder of the commitment that we are now making, leading the world to tackle the threat of climate change. The investment we are making, whether through official development assistance or other means, in tackling that problem is second to none across the world. It is the UK that is leading the world in tackling one of the greatest problems that this planet faces.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that it is the current Labour Mayor of London who blew TfL’s finances, which were left in remarkably good condition by the previous Mayor of London, even before the pandemic struck. I can assure my hon. Friend that the Department for Transport will be working with TfL to see what we can do to resolve the problem at Gallows Corner that he mentions, and we will update him in due course.
May I start by sending my best wishes to the Prime Minister and all those across the country who are doing the right thing by following the rules and self-isolating?
Devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is one of the proudest achievements of the last Labour Government. Until now, whatever our disagreements, there has been a very broad consensus about devolution, so why did the Prime Minister tell his MPs this week that Scottish devolution is, in his words, “a disaster”?
I think what has unquestionably been a disaster is the way in which the Scottish nationalist party has taken and used devolution as a means not to improve the lives of its constituents, not to address their health concerns or to improve education in Scotland, but—I know this point of view is shared by the right hon. and learned Gentleman—constantly to campaign for the break-up of our country and to turn devolution, otherwise a sound policy from which I myself personally benefited when I was running London, into a mission to break up the UK. That, in my view, would be a disaster. If he does not think that would be a disaster, perhaps he could say so now.
The single biggest threat to the future of the United Kingdom is the Prime Minister, every time he opens his mouth almost. When the Prime Minister said he wanted to take back control, nobody thought he meant from the Scottish people, but his quote is very clear. He said
“devolution has been a disaster north of the border”.
This is not an isolated incident. Whether it is the internal market Bill or the way the Prime Minister has sidelined the devolved Parliaments over the covid response, he is seriously undermining the fabric of the United Kingdom. Instead of talking down devolution, does he agree that we need far greater devolution of powers and resources across the United Kingdom?
Tony Blair himself, the former Labour leader, has conceded that he did not foresee the rise of a separatist party in Scotland and that he did not foresee the collapse of Scottish Labour. I think the right hon. and learned Gentleman is quite right: there can be great advantages in devolution, and I was very proud, when I was running a devolved administration in London, to do things in which I passionately believed, such as improving public transport, fighting crime and improving housing for my constituents, and we had a great deal of success. What disappoints me is that the Scottish National party—by your ruling on its correct name, Mr Speaker —is not engaging in that basic work. Instead, it is campaigning to break up the Union, an objective that I hope the Leader of the Opposition will repudiate. Will he say so now—that he opposes the break-up of the United Kingdom?
Of course I do not want the break-up of the United Kingdom, but if anything is fuelling that break-up, it is the Prime Minister.
Turning now to the Prime Minister’s handling of the pandemic, the Prime Minister is doing the right thing by self-isolating after being notified by track and trace, but does he think he would have been able to do so if, like so many other people across the country, all he had to rely on for the next 14 days was either statutory sick pay, which is £95 a week—that is £13 a day—or a one- off payment of £500, which works out at £35 a day?
It is good finally to hear something from the right hon. and learned Gentleman in praise of NHS Test and Trace. I think it has secured at least one of his objectives, which is to keep me away from answering his questions in person. I believe that the package that we have in place to protect people and support people throughout this crisis has been outstanding and exceptional. The UK has puts its arms, as I have said many times, around the people of this country—a £200 billion package of support; increasing the living wage by record amounts; uplifting universal credit; many, many loans and grants to businesses of all kinds, and £500 of support for people who are self-isolating in addition to all the other benefits and support that we give. I think it is a reasonable package. I know it is tough for people who have to self-isolate, and I am glad that after a long time in which the right hon. and learned Gentleman simply attacked NHS Test and Trace, he seems now to be coming round and supporting it.
I am not going to take lectures on support—the lockdown measures were passed the other week with Labour votes. Thirty-two of the Prime Minister’s own MPs broke a three-line Whip, and I hear that about 50 of them have joined a WhatsApp group to work out how they are going to oppose him next time around. He should be thanking us for our support, not criticising.
As the Prime Minister well knows, so far as the £500 scheme is concerned, only one in eight workers qualify for that scheme. The Prime Minister always does this: he talks about the number of people he is helping but ignores the huge numbers falling through the gap.
Members here may be able to afford to self-isolate, but that is not the case for many people across the country who send us here. It is estimated that only about 11% of people self-isolate when they are asked to do so—11%. That is not because they do not want to; it is because many do not feel that they can afford to do so. For example, if someone is a self-employed plumber, a construction worker or a photographer and they do not qualify for social security benefits, or if they run a small business and cannot work from home, they are likely to see a significant cut to their income if they have to self-isolate. This is affecting many families across the country. Does the Prime Minister recognise that if we want to increase the number of people who isolate, we need to make it easier and affordable for people to do so?
Again, I think it is extraordinary that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is now coming out in favour of NHS Test and Trace when he has continuously attacked it. In fact, the numbers that he gives for the success rate of the NHS self-isolation programme are, according to my information, way too low. We continue to encourage people to do the right thing—it does break the chain of transmission of the disease. As for the self-employed groups that he mentions, we have given £13.5 billion so far in support for self-employed people and have uplifted universal credit in the way that I described.
What we want to do is to get the virus under control, get the R down below 1, which is the purpose of these current measures, encourage people to self-isolate in the way that I am, and thereby stop the disease from spreading so that the firms, professions and businesses that the right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about can get back to something as close to normality as soon as possible. In the meantime, we are giving them every possible support.
The Prime Minister must understand that there is a huge gap in the system, because if someone cannot afford to isolate, there is little point in their being tested or traced.
While the Prime Minister and the Chancellor will not pay people enough to isolate properly, we learned this week that they can find £21 million of taxpayers’ money to pay a go-between to deliver lucrative contracts with the Department of Health and Social Care—£21 million. I remind the Prime Minister that a few weeks ago he could not find that amount of money for free school meals for kids over half-term. Does the Prime Minister think that £21 million to a middleman was an acceptable use of taxpayers’ money?
When this crisis began, we were urged by the right hon. and learned Gentleman to remove the blockages in our procurement process to get personal protective equipment. As he will remember, we faced a very difficult situation where around the world there were not adequate supplies of PPE. Nobody had enough PPE. We shifted heaven and earth to get 32 billion items of PPE into this country. I am very proud of what has been achieved: 70% of PPE is now made, or capable of being made, in this country, when it was only 1% at the beginning of the pandemic. It is entirely typical of Captain Hindsight that he now attacks our efforts to procure PPE. He said then that we were not going fast enough but now says we went too fast. He should make his mind up.
The Prime Minister talks about hindsight; I say catch up. I called for a circuit breaker; the Prime Minister stood there at the Dispatch Box and said it would be a disaster and he was not going to do it. Then he caught up and did exactly that just a few weeks later. We now have a longer, harder lockdown as a result of his delay, so I will not take that from him.
Last week, the Prime Minister could not explain how his Government ended up paying £150 million on contracts that did not deliver a single piece of usable PPE; this week, he is effectively defending the paying of £21 million on a contract with no oversight. This morning, the independent National Audit Office concluded that the Government’s approach was, in its words, “diminished public transparency”. It reported that more than half of all contracts relating to the pandemic, which, Mr Speaker, totalled £10.5 billion, were handed out without competitive tender and that suppliers with political connections were 10 times more likely to be awarded contracts.
We are eight months into this crisis and the Government are still making the same mistakes. Can the Prime Minister give a cast-iron assurance that from now on all Government contracts will be subject to proper process with full transparency and accountability?
All Government contracts are of course going to be published in the due way and they are already being published. Again, I must say that it is extraordinary that the right hon. Gentleman now attacks the Government for securing personal protective equipment in huge quantities. I want to thank again all the people who were involved in that effort: Lord Deighton and literally thousands of others who built up a mountain of PPE against any further crisis.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about transparency and moving too fast to secure contracts. He should know that the shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves), wrote to the Government, attacking us for failing to approach various companies, including a football agent who was apparently offering to supply ventilators and a historical clothing manufacturing company that offered to make 175 gowns per week and whose current range includes 16th century silk bodices. Again, at the time, he bashed the Government for not moving fast enough. It is absolutely absurd that Captain Hindsight is now once again trying to score political points by attacking us for moving too fast. I am proud of what we did to secure huge quantities of PPE during a pandemic. Any Government would do the same.
I can tell my hon. Friend that we do not want any football team to go out of business as a result of this pandemic and that we are doing everything we can. I understand the frustration of fans, and we want to get crowds back into the ground as soon as possible. As for his invitation to come and watch the Imps, I will do whatever I can to oblige as soon as possible. I will bear his invitation in mind.
May I wish the Prime Minister and all those who are self-isolating well? Over the past 20 years, Westminster has imposed an extreme Brexit, an illegal war in Iraq, £9,000 tuition fees, the Windrush scandal, the rape clause and the bedroom tax, and a decade of Tory austerity cuts which have pushed millions into poverty. At the same time, the Scottish Parliament has delivered free prescriptions, free tuition fees, free personal care, free bus travel, the baby box, the Scottish child payment, and world-leading climate action, all of which make Scotland a fairer and more equal place in which to live. Does the Prime Minister understand why the people in Scotland think it is he and his Parliament that are the real disaster?
I respectfully refer the right hon. Gentleman to the answer I gave to the Leader of the Opposition. I do think that his policies of wanting to break up the Union are a disaster and I wish that he and his party would focus on the real priorities of the people of Scotland—on education, on health, on tackling crime, on housing, and on the issues that matter to all our people. That is what a devolved Government should do. I was very proud to run a devolved administration and that is what we focused on. We did not endlessly go on about constitutional change and the break-up of the UK.
My goodness, I am not sure if the Prime Minister was listening, because I just charted some of the achievements of the Scottish Government delivering on behalf of the people of Scotland. We have seen no apology and no regrets from this Prime Minister. His attack on devolution was not just a slip of the tongue; it was a slip of the Tory mask. The chasm between Westminster and the Scottish people has never been bigger. We know that these were not just flippant remarks, when Scotland faces the biggest threat to devolution with the Tory power grab Bill.
The fact is that Scotland has been completely ignored by Westminster. We now face an extreme Brexit, a power grab and another round of Tory cuts, all being imposed against our will by a Tory Government that we did not vote for. Is it not the case that the real disaster facing the people of Scotland is another 20 years of Westminster Government? Is it not clearer than ever that the only way to protect Scotland’s interests, our Parliament and our place in Europe is for Scotland to become an independent country?
I could not disagree more with the right hon. Gentleman; he is totally wrong. What the UK does as a whole is far bigger, better and more important than what we can do as individual nations and regions. Let us look at the way in which the UK has pulled together during the pandemic: the way in which the armed services have worked to get testing throughout the whole UK; the way in which the furlough scheme has been deployed across the UK; and the billions and billions of pounds that have been found to help people across the whole UK, and businesses in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England. The UK has shown its value and will continue to show its value.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about wanting to take Scotland back into the European Union. That seemed to be what he was saying just now. What he and the people of Scotland should understand is that that is a massive surrender of power by the people of Scotland straight back to Brussels, just as this country and the people of Scotland have taken it back again. That is power not just over many aspects of their lives and regulations, but, of course, to control Scottish fisheries as well. All that would be lost under his programme, and I do not believe that it will commend itself to the Scottish people. That programme was decisively rejected in 2014. I believe that it is something that they would almost certainly reject again, but, as he said before—
We are certainly working very fast to see whether we can replace the current quarantine arrangements for every category of self-isolation. Whether it will come fast enough for me, I do not know, but I will keep my hon. Friend informed of developments. We certainly want to help the airline industry.
The people of Northern Ireland will today see again the benefits of the Union, with £165 million invested in rural broadband across Northern Ireland—the result of our agreement with the Government during the last Parliament. Following on from the current population testing initiative in Liverpool, does the Prime Minister agree that Northern Ireland’s 1.8 million population, which is spread across 11 local government districts, would prove ideal for the next phase of the Government’s ongoing programme of work on large-scale covid testing?
I have deep sympathies with people who face this problem. It is not right or fair because if your building is under 18 metres you do not need one of these EWS1 forms, and you would hope that lenders would understand that. But we are working as fast as we can to make sure that all the buildings in question are identified and that we remove cladding wherever it is necessary and give assurance and security wherever that is necessary too.
That is exactly what we announced only a few weeks ago with the lifetime skills guarantee. The purpose of the lifetime skills guarantee is this: if you are over 23, you are not currently eligible for support from the Government in getting a new skill or a new qualification, but we will now pay you for that skill—we will support you. Particularly in the context of this pandemic, we want to help to train and retrain people throughout their lives so that they can adjust to our changing economy. The hon. Lady makes a very good point.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he is doing to campaign for Grantham and Stamford and for Lincolnshire. I can tell him that we are putting another £125 million into Greater Lincolnshire through the growth deals and another £25 million through the Getting Building fund. We will be bringing forward further measures—I take his point on board very sincerely—to boost investment in UK infrastructure in due course.
This is a global pandemic and one in which the UK has, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says, been badly affected, and we mourn every life that has been lost. Of course we are supporting businesses with all the firepower of the UK economy. But I have absolutely no doubt that we will get through this strongly by next spring, as the scientific advisers and the medical officers have said. We have the tools to do it and we have the scientific weaponry to do it. That is why we are engaged in the current restrictions to get the R down to suppress the virus now and to try to get the economy moving in a way that I am sure he would like.
I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes and the feeling of unfairness that he describes. What we are trying to do with the business rates holiday and all the other measures we have announced is to help all retailers. The best thing we can do is to get through this tough period as well as we possibly can and allow all retailers to reopen and give them our support with our custom. That is what we are aiming for.
Yes. I am very pleased that Facebook, Twitter and Google have committed that no company should profit from or promote vaccine disinformation and that companies should respond to that kind of content very quickly. We are going to publish our response shortly to the online harms White Paper consultation and will be setting out our plans for legislation.
The hon. Lady is right in what she says about the impact of child poverty, and that is why this Government have worked so hard to combat child poverty. That is why we did indeed uprate universal credit, which is right for the exceptional circumstances we are in. That was £1,000 a household, and we will continue to support people throughout the country, but the most important thing we can do is to ensure that we get people into work and support families to get the jobs they need. It is the record of this country in creating jobs, and new jobs in particular, that has meant that 400,000 children have been lifted out of poverty in the past 10 years. That is progress. It is not enough, but it is progress.
More than 1 million fellow citizens have recovered after testing positive for covid-19. On 2 November, The BMJ reported that all those people will have protection from their T cells, which will ensure that they cannot be reinfected for at least six months. In light of that, will my right hon. Friend follow the example of Sweden and exempt from all the covid regulations those who have tested positive within the past six months and thereby show that he is following the science and also common sense?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the question and for his campaigning on behalf of the disabled but I must reject what he says. We have done everything we can to reach out to disabled and vulnerable groups of all kinds, to give them all the advice that we think is necessary and all the support that we possibly can throughout the pandemic. I know that this has been very tough for people, and I thank them for the way that they have pulled together and followed the guidance. It has been particularly tough, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says, for disabled people. That is why we have given huge quantities in support, as I said before, to the NHS and to vulnerable groups of all kinds. The way forward now is to keep the virus under control, to come out of the current measures on 2 December, to allow our economy to start moving again, and to use testing and the prospect of a vaccination next year, ready to get the disease under control.
The Prime Minister is aware of the success we have seen across Scotland through city region and growth deals. Moray is set to benefit from both the Scottish and the UK Governments’ working together on our local deal. However, will my right hon. Friend agree that the benefit to Moray could be even greater if the UK Government’s contribution was spread over a shorter period than the current 15 years—say, 10 or less? Will he agree that that would be very worthwhile, beneficial and welcomed by everyone involved in the Moray growth deal?
I thank my hon. Friend for this campaign. He has raised the idea with me before. What I can say is that while we will certainly look at what he says, I am very glad that we have signed the heads of terms on the Moray growth deal, delivering over £30 million of investment. I thank him for the lobbying that he has been doing.
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue of food poverty and of poverty generally. That is why, in answer to the previous question from the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah), I made the point that we have actually been successful, as we have been championing work and employment, in getting large numbers of families out of poverty. That is what we are going to do. As he knows, we are putting up £170 million to support local councils throughout the winter, so that no child goes hungry this Christmas or over the winter season through any inattention of this Government. I am grateful to him for raising the issue with me.
As the Prime Minister will know, the Scottish cashmere and whisky industries are being hammered by the tariffs imposed by the United States as a result of the trade dispute with the European Union. Those tariffs are now doing serious harm to such iconic Scottish products, costing us jobs in the Scottish borders. Will the Prime Minister reassure me that the Government are doing everything they possibly can to find a resolution to the dispute?
My hon. Friend is entirely right to raise that issue. It continues to be a cause of grave concern, and I raise it repeatedly with our American friends. I am working with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Trade to reach a negotiated solution as fast as we possibly can.
The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point, and we are thinking about this issue in government right now. As he knows, in response to the early data that we saw about the impact on black and minority ethnic groups, we brought forward enhanced testing procedures for particularly vulnerable groups—those who are exposed to a heavy viral load, perhaps in the course of their work. There are other factors at play in the prevalence of the disease among black and minority ethnic groups. I am sure that the point he makes will be among the considerations that the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation takes into account in the course of deciding how to roll out the vaccine and where it should go first. He makes an important point.
Northern Ireland Protocol: Implementation Proposals
My Secretary of State is on the way to Northern Ireland this afternoon, and has asked me to respond to this question on his behalf. We continue our work to implement the protocol in a pragmatic and proportionate way that minimises the disruption to people’s day-to-day lives and preserves the gains of the 22 years since the Belfast/Good Friday agreement was signed. We are helping traders to prepare for the end of the transition period. We published business guidance in August, and are updating it all the time as arrangements are finalised. We have established the trader support scheme, backed by £200 million of Government funding. More than 7,000 businesses have signed up, and hundreds more are joining them every day. We are considering further support measures for agrifood traders, with further details to be announced shortly.
We are getting on with the work that we need to do so that our systems and facilities are ready. We are putting in place the IT systems that are needed to process goods movements, supported by £155 million, which we announced in August. We are working with the Northern Ireland Executive on the delivery of expanded points of entry for agrifood, with the contract now awarded and work under way on arrangements on day one and thereafter.
We are getting on with putting the legislative framework in place for manufactured goods and food safety among many other issues, and our programme is well on track to be delivered in full by the end of the year. We are delivering on our unequivocal commitment to unfettered access. We have provided for robust protections in the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill for mutual recognition and a prohibition on new checks and controls. We will re-table those clauses when the Bill returns to the House.
We laid a draft statutory instrument in Parliament, which was approved on 10 November by this House, and is scheduled for debate in the other place on 30 November. That will ensure that on 1 January Northern Ireland businesses can continue to move their goods as they do now. We are working with the Executive to introduce a longer-lasting second phase of that system, to focus its benefits on Northern Ireland businesses, to be introduced in the course of 2021.
We are working intensively and in good faith through the Joint Committee to pursue the solutions that we need to support our approach. We have already agreed a phased approach for medicines rules in Northern Ireland, ensuring that those critical goods can continue to flow. We have agreed an approach to scoping the application of the electricity directive in respect of Northern Ireland’s single electricity market that will ensure that the single electricity market continues to deliver for Northern Ireland.
We are working to ensure that UK internal freight is not subject to tariffs, and to remove export declarations from Northern Ireland to GB trade. We continue to pursue specific solutions for supermarket trade, noting the huge social and economic importance of avoiding disruption. That essential work will continue at pace in the coming days but, of course, I cannot give a running commentary on discussions with the European Union.
Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker. There are 43 days until the end of the transition period, and it is hard to express the frustration, anxiety and fears that have been relayed to me and to the Minister by countless businesses and communities in Northern Ireland, as the clock has started to tick. Northern Ireland needed every second of this transition year to get ready for the biggest changes to its trading relationship that it has ever known, but vital time has been squandered, first with the denial that any checks would take place at all and then with the extraordinary spectacle of the Government threatening to tear up their own oven-ready deal and breach international treaties that they had signed into law—an approach that the Minister has just confirmed they are sticking to when the Bill returns to the House from the other place.
The result of that recklessness and incompetence is that thousands of businesses still do not know the bare basics of how they will trade with Great Britain in just six weeks’ time. As the president of the Ulster Farmers Union said this morning, we are in a transition, but we do not know what we are transitioning to. The whole purpose of the protocol was to protect the Good Friday agreement in all its dimensions, and the relationship east-west is as important as the relationship north-south. The Government’s reckless approach to negotiations and their incompetent failure to prepare risk significant disruption, a maximalist interpretation of the protocol and completely unnecessary checks. Ministers should take their heads out of the sand and give businesses the answers for which they have been begging throughout this transition year.
First, on the customs declaration service, which will handle over 1 million declarations in January alone, experts say that they need 18 months to get traders ready for the new system, so why has the industry not had the final version? Given that those experts now say that it is simply too late for the system to work, what are the contingency plans to avoid widespread disruption on 1 January? Will there be flexibility to allow businesses to adapt to new systems? What is plan B?
On the trader support service, which the Minister mentioned and which is supposed to guide businesses through the complex new customs arrangements, can he confirm that the Government are not seriously considering leaving it until 21 December for that system to go live? Why have businesses had no information whatsoever on the tariff rebate system, as confirmed by the chief executive of Manufacturing NI this morning? Where is the border operator model promised by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster over summer? Without it, traders are completely in the dark on what data they will need to provide in order to move goods.
Finally, on food imports, which the Minister referenced, a compromise is now desperately needed—and the EU has a huge responsibility of its own to deliver this—in order to reduce checks that some supermarkets and food producers say could lead them to pull out of Northern Ireland altogether. It is absurd that food destined for Northern Ireland supermarkets should be considered a risk to the EU single market, so is either a temporary waiver requirement or a permanent trusted trader scheme about to be confirmed? Again, why have the Government refused to engage directly with Northern Ireland retailers?
Northern Ireland desperately—
Delivering on the protocol is a crucial part of operations for the end of the transition period. Providing certainty is urgent and we will continue to prioritise this. As we implement the protocol, it is important to keep in mind that it was designed as a way of implementing the needs of our exit from the EU in a way that works for Northern Ireland and, in particular, as the hon. Lady says, maintaining the Belfast/Good Friday agreement in all its dimensions—the gains of the peace process and the delicate balance across communities that explicitly depends on the consent of the people of Northern Ireland for its continued existence.
For the protocol to work, it must respect the needs of all Northern Ireland’s people, respect the fact that Northern Ireland is an integral part of the customs territory of the UK, and be implemented in a way that protects Northern Ireland’s economy. Our approach does that, focusing on implementing the protocol in a way that is flexible and proportionate, and protecting the interests of both the whole of the United Kingdom and the EU. As I have already referred to, the Government have already taken practical steps to do this, working in partnership with the devolved Administration.
The hon. Lady referred to the delivery of IT systems. I can confirm that the delivery of IT systems necessary for the end of the transition period is on track. The recent National Audit report confirms that since May, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has made progress, putting in place the core elements of the IT services required. As a responsible Government, however, we continue to make extensive preparations for a range of fall-back scenarios. We have been working with key delivery partners to support preparations for IT systems delivery, and we will continue to support their preparations for the end of the transition period.
We are reaching agreement with the EU on individual areas of approach—for instance, the phased approach to medicines that I referred to, and agreement on the process for identifying Northern Ireland traders for VAT purposes and enabling them to reclaim VAT through existing IT databases when trading in goods with the EU. However, the hon. Lady is right to reflect that there remain important outstanding issues to be resolved in discussion with the EU. For example, we are seeking, through the Joint Committee, specific solutions to supermarkets and on the classification of which goods are at genuine and substantial risk of entering the EU market. Those are still subject to discussion and need to be agreed with the EU. There are real-world consequences for businesses and consumers if they are not, which we believe would be contrary to the intentions of the protocol. We have agreed with the EU to intensify the process of engagement, to resolve all outstanding issues. These discussions are ongoing and we continue to act in good faith and in line with the approach we have adopted throughout.
The Government are committed to ensuring that businesses and communities are ready for the end of the transition period, and our intensive programme of engagement with industry has continued at pace. The business engagement forum has now met 20 times since May, and this month the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster formed a UK-wide business readiness task- force. The hon. Lady talked about the importance of supermarkets and food producers, and I can confirm to her that one of the most recent meetings was between the Secretary of State and supermarkets in the industry.
We have also made considerable progress in the provision of guidance, publishing over 25 pieces of sectoral guidance in recent weeks for moving goods between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. We will continue to work with businesses in this manner and ensure that they are provided with the guidance and support they need to be ready.
It is 43 days until 31 December and covid-hit businesses are exasperated —and I share that exasperation. Every witness the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs has heard from says that they wish to obey the rules, whatever they are. When are they going to know definitively what they have to do and how they have to do it, in order to keep themselves in business and on the right side of the law?
I absolutely recognise the concern that businesses have, which has been reflected to me and to the Secretary of State in our meetings, and their desire to have absolute certainty on this. As my hon. Friend will recognise, some of these things are still subject to ongoing negotiations with the EU; of course, I would much rather that those things had already been resolved, as I know he would. However, we want to ensure that for those things that are within our gift, we provide that certainty, and the UK Government are doing that when it comes to unfettered access. For those things that stand to be resolved, we continue to negotiate in good faith to resolve them so that we can put that information in front of businesses, but what we are doing already is progressively providing guidance where agreements have been reached. We will continue to pursue that.
I really am appalled by the lack of seriousness with which the UK Government are taking issues in Northern Ireland. We have warned about it for long enough: even this morning, this House’s Committee on the Future Relationship with the European Union heard from Victor Chestnutt, the president of the Ulster Farmers’ Union, who has no axe to grind politically in this. He said that we are approaching 1 January
“with both arms tied behind our back and a blindfold on.”
The other place heard last week from the Police Service of Northern Ireland that there is a real risk that there are bad men on all sides of the discussion in Northern Ireland ready to take advantage of chaos, and that internationally, we could see organised crime focusing on Northern Ireland because of the lack of preparation and uncertainty. This just is not ready yet, Minister. Northern Ireland needs an adjustment period: are preparations ready for that? Failing that, what plans are there for a relocation of police officers to Northern Ireland on a massive scale, in order to assist with such procedures as will need to be enforced because of his Government’s failure?
I simply do not recognise the picture that the hon. Gentleman paints. The protocol will ensure that many of the key issues about which his party has warned over the years are addressed with respect to the end of the transition period, and that there be no disruption at the border, as some have suggested in the past that there could be. We will absolutely deliver on that, and I am looking forward to giving evidence to the Select Committee on the issue of cross-border co-operation. I am convinced that strong co-operation to tackle crime, including organised crime, can continue between the UK and the Republic of Ireland.
This morning, the Committee on the Future Relationship with the European Union took evidence from the Ulster Farmers’ Union, the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium and Manufacturing NI. Their message was clear: Northern Ireland businesses and the supply chain will not be ready for 1 January, because they do not know what to plan for, they do not know what goods will be identified as being at risk, and they are not confident that customs facilities, checks and software will be ready in time. As the Minister knows, the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs itself says that it will not be possible to complete the necessary work by 1 January. Given the length of time the Government have had to prepare for the bits they do control, how on earth has it come to this?
I recognise the meticulous and detailed work that the right hon. Gentleman does on his Select Committee, and the importance of all those stakeholders he has mentioned. We do want to provide the certainty and the structure, and I have already given an update in my statement on IT systems and some of the support we are providing through the trader support service. However, he will recognise that some of these issues are not yet resolved due to ongoing negotiations with the EU, and I am sure he would join me and the First Minister and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland in urging them to work with us to resolve those in a pragmatic manner.
The very point of the protocol is to uphold the Good Friday agreement, and also to protect consumers in Northern Ireland. The First Minister and Deputy First Minister recently made this clear when they wrote to the European Union. Does my hon. Friend agree that if the EU is as serious as we are about peace, prosperity and the people of Northern Ireland, it must take a pragmatic and proportionate approach to all negotiations?
My hon. Friend is spot on. It is also important that both parties to the protocol bear in mind the wording in that protocol about protecting the everyday life of people in Northern Ireland. That is absolutely crucial to this, and it is something that we should both be working to deliver.
The Minister will be aware that the protocol enables the UK Government to act unilaterally where that is necessary to protect the economy of Northern Ireland. In relation to the single market Bill and the Finance Bill, will he assure the House that he will bring forward those proposals and measures that are necessary to protect Northern Ireland’s place in the internal market? Does he recognise that there is cross-party and cross-community support for a period of time for the implementation of those measures, to allow our businesses, supermarkets, and others to prepare properly?
The right hon. Gentleman makes an incredibly important point. He mentioned our approach to the return of the UK Internal Market Bill to the Commons and a Finance Bill later this year, and although I do not have specific control of that, I am happy to make those commitments to him and to all parties in Northern Ireland. It is crucial that we resolve these issues, and he has set out one of the most sensible ways to do that.
Does the Minister agree that the European Union’s threat to refuse to list the UK as a fit country to export food to the European Union, and the de facto ban that that would involve on transporting food between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, contravenes its duty of good faith towards the withdrawal agreement and the protocol? Will he press strongly in the Joint Committee for the EU to take the proportionate approach to sanitary and phytosanitary checks that is required of it by its international WTO obligations?
My right hon. Friend makes a powerful point, and in fairness, it is right to acknowledge that some of the threat that she talks about has since been withdrawn. We must ensure that the EU meets its commitments—again, I return to the point about protecting people in Northern Ireland from the impact of the protocol on everyday life, and flows of food are incredibly important in that respect.
I congratulate the Minister on a bravura performance today. It is absolutely without parallel, and Sir Humphrey himself would be proud of what we have heard from the Dispatch Box. Essentially, he is telling us that those farmers, business organisations and everybody else who say that they are not ready for this move are wrong and that he is right. If, come January, it turns out that they are right and he is wrong, will he resign?
The right hon. Gentleman is typically charming in the way he asks his question. We all ought to focus on delivering what the protocol promised in the first place to the people of Northern Ireland and, accepting its unique circumstances, on delivering the flow of goods north, south, east and west, and protecting and respecting its place in the UK internal market. That is what businesses want, and that is what I want.
Work is continuing at pace to get Northern Irish businesses to sign up to the trader support service, but how confident is the Minister that all qualifying businesses will have signed up by the deadline? Will he consider a temporary concession for any businesses that, come January, say that—for whatever reason—they were unaware of this service, or failed to sign up in time?
My hon. Friend makes an interesting suggestion that I will happily take away and consider. Progress so far with 7,000 businesses having signed up is good, but of course we want to see more. She is right to say it is important that all businesses in Northern Ireland, particularly the many small businesses that form the backbone of the economy, are aware of this scheme, and we should continue to encourage them to sign up.
If there is no deal on data sharing with the EU by the end of the transition period, there is a real risk that health services in Ireland will not be able to carry out cross-border contact tracing. Brexit is a total mess of this Government’s making. The pandemic—covid—is a mess and a crisis made worse by this Government’s handling of it. Lives and livelihoods are at real risk because of the ineptitude of this Government. When will people in Northern Ireland have some confidence that contact tracing will be able to continue across the border?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the importance of north-south co-operation, and east-west co-operation, with the Republic of Ireland in dealing with the covid pandemic, and we should continue to support that. The UK Government are clear that we will give data adequacy to the EU, and given that all the legal instruments are in place to meet its requirements, we think there is no reason for there not to be a joint agreement on data adequacy. I hope that will be achieved in the weeks to come.
Edwin Poots, Northern Ireland’s Agriculture Minister, has made it clear that he does not believe that the new border control posts necessary to control the movement of goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland will be in place by 1 January. The Association of Freight Software Suppliers has made it clear that it does not believe that the customs declaration service will be operable by 1 January. That would be massively disruptive for businesses on both sides of the Irish sea, in Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Who will take responsibility if those who fear this is going wrong prove to be right?
I have worked closely with Minister Poots, and I recognise that he comes at this with a very different attitude to the protocol—it is not something that he necessarily wanted in the first place—but he and his Department are working pragmatically to deliver on this. We will continue to work with the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs to ensure that the requirements are met and that, where necessary, infrastructure is upgraded. The UK Government have offered to cover the cost of some of that, because we recognise that this relates to an international agreement for which we are responsible. With regard to customs systems, it is for the Treasury to respond on the detail, but I reiterate what I said in my statement: IT systems are on track.
Can the Minister confirm that the Irish tax authorities and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs are working together to put in place common-sense arrangements that can help to address the unique issues arising from Northern Ireland’s status in both the UK and the EU customs areas? Some sensible interpretations and information sharing could avoid some of the more extreme proposals being put forward by one side or another in this debate.
My hon. Friend makes an interesting proposal. In the absence of an agreement and a deal between the UK and the EU, clearly we would need to explore everything that could be done at a bilateral level. I am not aware of those discussions as of now, but I am happy to discuss that with Treasury colleagues and write back to him if that is the case.
I am concerned that the conclusion of the Joint Committee work is being overly conflated with the future relationship negotiations. There is also an emerging issue around the loss of access to the VAT margin scheme for used cars sourced in Great Britain for sale in Northern Ireland, which entails VAT on the full value, rather than just the profit margin. Will the Minister undertake to have urgent discussions with HMRC to find a resolution to that problem?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about not conflating the future relationship with delivery of the protocol. The protocol is agreed between the parties, and we need to deliver on it in all circumstances. I think that many of us in this House hope that an agreement on the future relationship will make that more straightforward. On his point about VAT, I am happy to have those discussions with HMRC and look into that issue in more detail.
Northern Ireland will always be as much a part of our United Kingdom as my constituency, so the notion of businesses in Ulster facing barriers to trade with those in Blackpool and elsewhere is completely unacceptable. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need “flexible and imaginative solutions” around Northern Ireland to ensure that we can maintain unfettered access? Those are not my words, but those of the EU’s negotiating team.
My hon. Friend is right about the huge importance of flexible and imaginative solutions to deliver on this. That is something to which the EU is committed and the UK is absolutely committed. He is right, of course, that Northern Ireland is as much a part of this United Kingdom as his constituency.
Under this protocol, the European Union appears to have even more say on trade and services within the United Kingdom than when we were actually members of the EU. It is dictating that Northern Ireland cannot benefit from VAT margins, as already discussed. It is dictating higher food prices to Northern Ireland, which will increase poverty. Unfettered access will be hindered because of more red tape and the additional costs outlined today. Indeed, in the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, we heard this morning from the Justice Minister in Northern Ireland about how she is completely out of the loop when it comes to the negotiations on how we manage criminality and justice matters. Will the Minister admit that this protocol is a complete and total disaster and that it should be set aside if it damages good business between Northern Ireland and GB? The Secretary of State previously spoke on this matter. Will he match his busting at words with busting at action?
We cannot talk about the Good Friday or Belfast agreement without thinking of my predecessor Dr Mo Mowlam, who was instrumental in achieving the agreement in 1998. Today, preventing a hard border east-west in the Irish sea is just as important as preventing one north-south on the island of Ireland. Does my hon. Friend agree that the EU must take a pragmatic and proportionate approach to any discussions to ensure continued peace and prosperity for all parts of our United Kingdom?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and he is right to pay tribute to his constituency predecessor in this respect. The Good Friday agreement has always been a careful balance of the interests of the communities in Northern Ireland and the importance of east-west and north-south co-operation. It is vital in delivering the protocol that all parties should continue to respect that.
Peter MacSwiney, the chief executive of a customs agency, has said there is a
“totally unacceptable level of risk”
in getting the vital customs declaration service ready for 1 January and that it risks paralysing all of Northern Ireland’s trade movements. Ministers were warned in summer 2019 that industry will need a year to test, trial and implement this new system, so how can it be right, with 43 days left, that the final version has still not been delivered?
The hon. Gentleman will recognise that, when we talk about customs, the protocol is there, in part, to ensure the absence of customs requirements on goods going between GB and Northern Ireland and on goods coming from Northern Ireland into GB. It is essential that we deliver on that. His question on implementation could perhaps more appropriately be discussed with Treasury Ministers. However, I refer him to the point I made in my statement about the IT systems being on track.
For all the issues that the Government face on the protocol—caused by Brexit, it should be said—and all the concerns raised by Members in the House this afternoon, are they now tempted to agree with the comments made by their own Brexit negotiator, David Frost, who concluded in 2016 that it
“simply isn’t worth jeopardising access to the single market for the sake of global trade”?
The First Ministers wrote jointly to the EU regarding the application of the protocol, saying it was not intended to impose new costs on food for consumers in Northern Ireland. Will my hon. Friend tell the House when the First Ministers last agreed on a matter relating to Brexit?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The Executive have always taken a responsible approach to working together in the interests of Northern Ireland. It says something that there is cross-community agreement on the importance of addressing this. It is therefore vital that both parties work as hard as they can to resolve the issue and make sure that the protocol delivers on what it promised about not impacting everyday life for people in Northern Ireland.
Can I say to the hon. Member for Blackpool South (Scott Benton) that it is not up to him whether Northern Ireland remains in the UK in perpetuity? That is a matter for the people of Northern Ireland under the Good Friday agreement.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster told the Future Relationship with the European Union Committee on 8 October that border infrastructure in Northern Ireland would be ready for exit day, but the permanent secretary in charge of the project to deliver that infra- structure in Northern Ireland’s Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs has said that the project is unachievable and will not be finished until June by 2021. What is the Minister’s explanation for the difference between those two statements?
All I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that we continue to work closely with DAERA both at ministerial and official level to deliver the necessary arrangements. He will recognise that we are not talking about new customs infrastructure. We are talking about an expansion of existing facilities to make sure that we can meet the SPS requirements, and I think that it is something on which we can absolutely deliver.
Assuming there was a free trade agreement, I suppose there will still have to be some checks—for example, on quality of goods—within the United Kingdom. Will the Minister reassure me that any official who works doing such minimal checks is actually British?
My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. The UK is responsible for the implementation of the protocol in the United Kingdom, and therefore we want to make sure that any checks and processes are streamlined and do not interfere with unfettered access for Northern Ireland goods coming into GB. Any internal checks are the responsibility of the UK Government and their employees.
I am sorry that the Prime Minister and the Minister still seem to be living in some sort of Trumpian fantasy land about the consequences of the clauses in the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill. I would urge them to listen to the voices on all sides in both Houses and, indeed, President-elect Biden on that issue. It is absolutely crucial that they do that.
Will the Minister give me a cast-iron guarantee that traders operating between the Welsh ports—Pembroke, Fishguard and Holyhead on Anglesey—and either the Republic of Ireland or with Northern Ireland in internal UK trade that transits the Republic of Ireland in either direction will not face any difficulties with IT systems, checks or processes come the end of the transition period?
As the hon. Member knows very well, I would love to be able to give him that cast-iron guarantee, but some of it is dependent on negotiations that are ongoing with the European Union. He is talking about trade between the UK and an EU member state. What we will ensure is that we meet our commitment to unfettered access. In that respect, I think his comments on the UKIM Bill are a little naive. We have to ensure that we can deliver on that commitment under all circumstances.
As someone who has links to South Down, can I ask my hon. Friend to assure me that everything is being done to ensure a smooth transition both for businesses and for individuals, and that we are trying to reach agreement with the EU as soon as possible?
Yes, I can give that assurance. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point to the importance for real people living in the real world in places such as South Down. We want to ensure that there is delivery on the intentions of the protocol, and that it can be seen through so that people can go about their lives and their business without having been impacted negatively.
The agrifood sector in my constituency provides some 3,000 production jobs, so it is very important. Can the Minister of State outline what specific inroads have been made on information for agrifood producers about the Northern Ireland protocol to ensure that, in six weeks’ time, their perishable valuable goods can continue their journeys in a smooth manner not only to EU countries, but to the UK mainland? Furthermore, what discussions have taken place with DAERA for that very smooth transition?
The hon. Gentleman raises a hugely important point. I have met many farmers and agrifood producers in Northern Ireland, and I recognise the crucial importance of that industry. The protocol ensures that movements of Northern Ireland produce into the European Union—into the Republic of Ireland—are protected. We deliver on the movement into the rest of the UK through our unfettered access commitment, and we continue to work very closely with DAERA on all these issues.
The Government frequently claim that Brexit will not lead to a lowering of standards on foods, medicines and rights, so presumably the resistance to agreeing a level playing field is just to have the theoretical power to lower standards. We have just been hearing how Northern Ireland is grappling with the protocol, which is, of course, a necessary consequence of Brexit. Is the risk of such deep economic damage and political instability really a price worth paying just so that this Government can have a power that they can boast about, but which they claim they are not going to use?
I recognise that the hon. Lady has strong views against our leaving the EU which she has been consistent in demonstrating. It is essential that we deliver on a protocol that is there to protect the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland, and that is absolutely what we will do.
I recently visited a manufacturer in my constituency called Thumbs Up, which highlighted its concerns about export summary declarations and their impact not only on its business, but on its customers. What work is the Department doing to maintain the frictionless and unfettered movement of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland to mitigate any impact on businesses such as Thumbs Up in Radcliffe?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. Where British businesses are selling into Northern Ireland and the intended use of their goods is clearly in the Northern Ireland market, it is, of course, important that we do everything we can to protect them from unnecessary bureaucracy. Discussions on this issue are ongoing with the Joint Committee, and I assure him that we will do whatever is in our power to deliver that frictionless access for businesses in order to ensure that the crucial trade between Britain and Northern Ireland can continue.
There was a time when the Conservative party was proud of the fact that it was the party of business, but those days seem to be long gone: we have a situation where business is telling the Government about the problems that these arrangements will cause. Businesses need certainty and time to put in place measures to make such fundamental changes. We have a Government who seem to be passionate about the fact of Brexit, but ignorant of the facts around it. Will the Minister just come to the Dispatch Box, take seriously the concerns that have been put in front of him by a whole array of business bodies, and try to sort this out?
We absolutely take seriously the concerns of business. We are engaging with businesses all the time on this and we want to deliver for them. One of the key concerns is the delivery of unfettered access. That is one of the issues on which businesses in Northern Ireland have repeatedly pressed me and my colleagues. The hon. Gentleman’s party is currently failing to support that in its approach to the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill.
Any assistance by the EU on the need for export summary declarations for goods moving from Northern Ireland to the rest of the UK would not only be contrary to the Good Friday agreement and the 1800 Acts of Union, but would fly in the face of the clear commitment in the withdrawal agreement to ensure unfettered access to such movement. Will my hon. Friend ensure that this unfettered access is protected in all circumstances, whether or not we conclude a trade agreement with the European Union?
What assessment has the Minister made of the remarks of Northern Ireland’s chief veterinary officer, who has said that it would be impossible to check all food products after exit day given that construction has not even begun on any of the three new border control posts in Northern Ireland? What contingency plans are being put in place for SPS controls for goods entering Northern Ireland from GB, specifically if there is no waiver or no phased implementation from 1 January?
It is not my role to make assessments of officials, but let me be clear that we are working with DAERA on delivery of these SPS checks. We are talking not about building totally new infrastructure, but upgrading existing arrangements. As the hon. Member will know, there are already arrangements in place in some respects between Great Britain and Northern Ireland to protect the single epidemiological unit of the island of Ireland. Work is continuing, and we will continue to work hand in hand with DAERA and its officials to deliver it.
My hon. Friend is right to point out that it is crucial that the UK should be able to determine how goods move within its own customs area and internal market. That is why we have taken the steps that we have in respect of the UK internal market to make sure that we have a fall-back and an absolute guarantee that we can deliver unfettered access. I am hopeful that we will be able to reach agreement with the EU on the outstanding issues, and we continue to negotiate in good faith in order to do so and to make sure that unfettered access, as was envisaged in the protocol, is delivered.
Notwithstanding the fact that the abilities of this Government are clearly quite limited, will the Minister outline specifically how he expects this Government to make trade deals with the likes of the United States while simultaneously seeking to break international law in respect of the Northern Ireland protocol and putting at risk the Good Friday agreement?
I have been clear on our intention to deliver on the protocol and to meet both our international commitments and our commitments to the people of Northern Ireland in that regard. Indeed, we have already discussed in these exchanges the fact that the protocol is there to protect the Good Friday agreement and the peace arrangements. That is exactly what the US Government have urged us to do, and we shall continue to discuss with them how we are absolutely determined to protect the peace process.
The recent focus on the Northern Ireland protocol has not just raised questions about our commitment to uphold international law but shone a light on our wider commitment to play a more influential role on the international stage. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, when it comes to re-establishing greater western resolve, 2021 could be a big year for the United Kingdom, as we host COP26 and take on the presidency of the G7, but that that can happen only if we secure a trade deal with the EU, protect our overseas aid budget, complete a costed integrated review and bury the myth that we might consider deliberately breaching international law?
My right hon. Friend is very kind not only to promote me to right hon. but to try to give me responsibility for things way beyond my brief. The UK has a vital role to play on the international scene and it is vital that we meet our commitments with regard to the protocol, which I believe we will do.
The Minister has assured us that he wants the Government to meet their international commitments, their commitments to the Northern Ireland protocol and their commitments to the Good Friday agreement, and to maintain their relationship with the United States. Will he tell us, then, what the Government have done in reconsidering their position since President-elect Biden has made it absolutely clear that he is not happy with the current situation and that that will be taken into account in any trade talks once he enters the White House in January?
Although, again, I am not responsible for trade negotiations or the relationship with the United States, I recognise that the United States is a crucial investor and partner in Northern Ireland: more than almost any other country, it has invested in the peace process and provided jobs and prosperity in Northern Ireland. We should continue to support that, to work closely with the United States and to make absolutely clear to them our determination to support the peace process and the Good Friday agreement, part of the principles of which the protocol is delivering in terms of the importance of both east-west and north-south arrangements.
The protocol anticipates progress by the Joint Committee on the issue of fisheries relating to Northern Ireland and Ireland; what assurances does the Minister anticipate will be forthcoming on the future relationship that will ensure that UK boats that land fish and shellfish in Northern Ireland will not be subject to tariffs, customs demands or other technical impediments?
My right hon. Friend raises an important point. We will pursue specific solutions for Great Britain vessels with the EU separately. The approach to landing for GB vessels in Northern Ireland is linked to, but not subject to, ongoing discussions with the EU regarding Northern Ireland landings for Northern Ireland vessels within the Joint Committee process.
When I was a shadow Transport Minister, I debated the significant risk of documentation, IT infrastructure and systems not being ready at the end of the transition period. My concerns were dismissed, but here we are in a state of chaos, 43 days before we leave the current arrangements. Further to the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), in light of the fact that the Northern Ireland Department for the Economy has said that 20% of Northern Ireland trade with Great Britain transits via Dublin port, what facilitations are the UK planning to ensure unfettered access for Northern Ireland goods arriving into Holyhead from Dublin port?
The hon. Lady raises an important point, and we want to ensure that all Northern Ireland goods that are coming to GB to be used in GB can have that unfettered access. This is still subject to discussions with the EU, and we would hope to make progress on that front, but in the meantime we are delivering on our commitments legislatively through bringing forward the statutory instrument on the definition of Northern Ireland qualifying goods. That will be the first stage in a process to make sure that all Northern Ireland qualifying goods can enjoy unfettered access to the rest of the UK.
The SNP is always seeking to exploit this issue just to further its separatist agenda. Does my hon. Friend agree that the SNP should welcome the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, which will protect over half a million jobs in Scotland that rely on trade with the rest of the UK, particularly north-east England?
My hon. Friend is right that Scotland, like Northern Ireland, benefits enormously from its trade with the rest of the United Kingdom. It is incumbent on Members from all parts of the House to work together to make sure that we protect and increase that trade.
Will the Minister confirm that the vital trader support service, desperately needed to remove the burden on businesses from custom checks, will launch only on 21 December? Does he accept that leaving seven working days is an insult to businesses whose livelihoods depend on this system working seamlessly?
The service is already signing businesses up, and as I said earlier, more than 7,000 businesses across Great Britain and Northern Ireland have signed up so far. We are seeing hundreds more registrations every day, so I do not recognise the point that the hon. Lady makes, but it is vital that the service is in place for the end of the transition period and the beginning of the new arrangements, and it is vital that it reaches as many businesses as it possibly can.
There are concerns that the end of the margin scheme could destroy the Northern Irish second-hand car market because VAT would then have to be paid on the full purchase price of cars from GB, not just the profit. Does the Minister think that we can expect this to be resolved during negotiations, or if not, what impact does he think that it will have on the car market in Northern Ireland?
Will my hon. Friend update the House and clarify for us what the position will be on live animal exports from the Republic of Ireland to Northern Ireland, and from Northern Ireland to the rest of Great Britain, following 1 January?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. We want to ensure—and the protocol will ensure—that animals can continue to move between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. That is important and reflects existing patterns of trade between the two. With regard to goods coming from Northern Ireland into Great Britain, we of course want to make sure that we provide unfettered access for Northern Ireland qualifying goods, and the definition of that is the crux of my hon. Friend’s question. That is an issue on which we continue to work closely with the agriculture and agrifood industry.
The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee was today warned by Aodhán Connolly and Stephen Kelly, who represent sectors of business in Northern Ireland, of the great difficulties that their sectors are going to face. Ironically, both gentlemen are partly to blame for the restrictions that they are now complaining about, because they led the charge in propagating the mythical problems that will exist across the Irish border after Brexit. Will the Minister give us an assurance that if the EU insists on its interpretation of the withdrawal agreement—which will disrupt food supplies, supplies to farmers and supplies to manufacturers in Northern Ireland—as it is entitled to under article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol, the Government will act unilaterally to protect the Northern Ireland economy and Northern Ireland’s position within the United Kingdom?