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.