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Engagements

Volume 684: debated on Wednesday 25 November 2020

Good morning, Mr Speaker. I hope very much that our connection works today. This is my last day of virtual meetings with ministerial colleagues and others before I come out of isolation. In addition to my virtual meetings and duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.

Can the Prime Minister guarantee that in any agreement that he reaches with the European Union, British sovereignty will be protected for the whole United Kingdom and that the UK will exit the transition period on 31 December as a whole?

Yes, indeed; I can make that guarantee. Our position on fish has not changed. We will only be able to make progress if the EU accepts the reality that we must be able to control access to our waters. It is very important at this stage to emphasise that.

Today is International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and Girls. On average, a woman is killed by a man every three days in this country. It is a shocking statistic; and, sadly, the pandemic has seen a significant increase in domestic abuse. I will join those marking this day, and I am sure that the whole House would agree that we need to do far more to end domestic violence.

The Prime Minister may remember that in August last year, he wrote the foreword to the ministerial code. It says:

“There must be no bullying…no harassment; no leaking… No misuse of taxpayer money…no actual or perceived conflicts of interest.”

That is five promises in two sentences. How many of those promises does the Prime Minister think his Ministers have kept?

I believe that the Ministers of this Government are working hard and overall doing an outstanding job in delivering the people’s priorities, and that is what we will continue to do. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman waits a little bit longer today, he will hear some of the ways in which this Government are going to take this country forward, with one of the most ambitious programmes of investment in infrastructure, schools and hospitals for generations. If he wants to make any particular allegations about individual Ministers or their conduct, he is welcome to do so. The floor is his.

I did not really hear an answer there, so why don’t we go through these commitments in turn, starting with bullying and harassment? The now former independent adviser on ministerial standards concluded that the Home Secretary’s behaviour was, in his words,

“in breach of the Ministerial Code”,

and, he said,

“can be described as bullying”,

which means:

“intimidating or insulting behaviour that makes an individual feel uncomfortable, frightened, less respected or put down.”

What message does the Prime Minister think it sends that the independent adviser on standards has resigned but the Home Secretary is still in post?

Sir Alex’s decisions are entirely a matter for him, but the Home Secretary has apologised for any way in which her conduct fell short. Frankly, I make no apology for sticking up for and standing by a Home Secretary who, as I said just now, is getting on with delivering on the people’s priorities: putting, already, 6,000 of the 20,000 more police out on the streets to fight crime and instituting, in the teeth of very considerable resistance, a new Australian-style points-based immigration system. She is getting on with delivering what I think the people of this country want. She is showing a steely determination, and I think that is probably why the Opposition continue to bash her.

The reality is that any other Prime Minister would have fired the Home Secretary and any other Home Secretary would have resigned, so I think we will chalk that up as one broken promise.

On to the next: no leaking. Over the summer, we saw repeated leaks about which areas would go into restrictions. The Prime Minister’s plans to go into a second national lockdown were leaked all over the national papers, resulting in a truly chaotic press conference, and we have seen more leaking in the past 24 hours. This serial leaking is causing huge anxiety to millions of people about what is going to happen next. I know there is supposed to be an inquiry under way, but can the Prime Minister tell us, is he any closer to working out who in his Government is leaking this vital information?

I have already told you, Mr Speaker, that as soon as we have any information about anybody leaking, we will bring it to the House. But I may say that I think the right hon. and learned Gentleman is really concentrating on trivia when what the people of this country want is to see his support, and the support of politicians across the House, for the tough measures that we are putting in to defeat coronavirus. He makes various attacks on, I think, my leadership and handling of the ministerial code. I would take them a lot more seriously, frankly, if the Leader of the Opposition could explain why the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) is still a member of the Labour party. Does he support the right hon. Gentleman’s continued membership of the Labour party—yes or no? Why doesn’t he answer that question?

I think I will just answer that with the fact that it is actually Prime Minister’s questions, not Leader of the Opposition’s questions.

I think I will make that decision, Prime Minister. Thankfully we have got the sound—we do not want to lose it. [Laughter.]

Thank you, Mr Speaker. The difference, of course, is that I am tackling the issues in my party and the Prime Minister is running away from the issues in his. I take it from his answer that he has no idea who is leaking from his Government, so I think we will put that as another one in the “no” column.

Moving on, to perhaps the most serious of the promises under the code: no misuse of taxpayers’ money. For weeks, I have raised concerns about the Government’s spraying taxpayers’ money on contracts that do not deliver. The problem is even worse than we thought. This week, a Cabinet Office response suggests that the Government purchased not 50 million unusable items of protective equipment but 180 million, and a new report this morning by the National Audit Office identifies a further set of orders totalling £240 million for face masks for the NHS that it cannot use. So will the Prime Minister come clean: how many hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money has been wasted on equipment that cannot be used?

Actually, to answer the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s question directly, 99.5% of the 32 billion items of personal protective equipment that this country secured conformed entirely to our clinical needs, once we had checked it. Of all the pathetic lines of attack that we have heard so far, this is the feeblest, because if you remember, Mr Speaker, we were faced with a national pandemic on a scale that we had not seen before and the Government were being attacked by the Labour party for not moving fast enough to secure PPE. I remember the right hon. and learned Gentleman saying that we needed to unblock the blockages in the system and that we needed to shift heaven and earth to get it done. That is what he said at the beginning of the pandemic. Then he complained that we moved too slow. Now he is saying that we moved too fast. He has got to make up his mind what his attack is.

It is obvious that either the Prime Minister does not know how much taxpayers’ money has been wasted, or he does not care. So far, we have bullying, harassment, leaking and the misuse of taxpayers’ money. I must say to the Prime Minister that it is not looking good so far, but let us press on. The next one is

“no actual or perceived conflict of interest”.

Where do I start on this one? Last week, we learned that suppliers with political connections were 10 times more likely to be awarded Government contracts, and this week The Sunday Times reports that the Health Secretary appointed one of his closest friends to a key advisory role. This friend also is a major shareholder, as it happens, in a firm that specialises in lobbying the Government on behalf of its clients, and some of those clients have secured tens of millions of pounds of Government contracts during the pandemic. Was the Prime Minister aware of this apparent conflict of interest?

In so far as there are any conflicts of interest, they will be evident from the publication of all the details of all the contracts. Again, the right hon. and learned Gentleman just seems to be attacking the Government for shifting heaven and earth, as we did, to get the medicines, the PPE, the equipment and the treatments that this country needed. What it reveals really is a deep underlying Labour hatred of the private sector, and it is actually thanks to the private sector and the Government working with the private sector that the UK was able to produce the world’s first usable treatment for the disease in dexamethasone and has worked hard to secure huge numbers of doses of the world’s first usable room-temperature vaccine. That is the private sector working to deliver for the people of this country and it is this common-sense Conservative Government working with the private sector, rather than abominating it and relying exclusively on some deranged form of state control. How else does he think we could possibly have done it?

No one is knocking the private sector; the Government are knocking the taxpayer, and that is not trivial. So I think it is a clean sweep: bullying, harassment, leaking, wasting public money and obvious conflicts of interest. It is the same old story: one rule for the British public and another for the Prime Minister and his friends. Just look at the contrast between his attitude to spraying public money at contracts that do not deliver and his attitude to pay rises for the key workers who kept the country going during this pandemic. If you have a hotline to Ministers, you get a blank cheque, but if you are on the frontline tackling covid, you are picking up the bill. Will the Prime Minister finally get his priorities right, stop wasting taxpayers’ money and give police officers, firefighters, care workers and other key workers the pay rise they so obviously deserve?

It is this party and this Government who have given key workers and public sector workers above-inflation pay rises this year, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows, whether that is the police, the Army or nurses, who are now getting 12.6% more than they were three years ago. It is this Government who will continue to increase the living wage, as he will discover if he can just contain his impatience for a few minutes.

Indeed, it is this Government who have not only delivered free school meals and a vast increase in spending on development around the world but have looked after the poorest and the neediest. One of the most important facts about the £200 billion coronavirus package of support that the Chancellor has devised for lives and livelihoods across the country is that the benefits overwhelmingly prioritise the poorest and neediest in the country. The reason we can do that is because we have a Government who understand how to run a strong economy and who ensure that they take the tough decisions now that will allow our economy to bounce back—that is what this Government are doing.

I welcome the promised increase in education funding, and I look forward to hearing the detail this afternoon. Can I ask the Prime Minister that some of that money be spent on school building repairs, particularly for voluntary controlled and multi-academy trusts such as Orchards Academy and West Kingsdown in my constituency? Those types of school were unable to apply for the most recent round of funding and are in urgent need of repair. (909240)

Yes, indeed. That is why we have allocated an additional £560 million this year for essential maintenance and upgrades in the school estate, on top of more than £1.4 billion. In Kent, £20 million is going to the local authority, including for West Kingsdown Church of England Primary School, and nearly £6 million is going to Kemnal Academies Trust. I encourage my hon. Friend to continue her excellent campaign.

Protecting the foreign aid budget has long been a source of unity and agreement across this House and across the four nations of the United Kingdom. At the last general election, every major party recommitted to that moral mission of helping the world’s poorest and most vulnerable. Indeed, a senior Government Minister said that it

“paved the way for Britain to meet the UN target of spending 0.7% of national income on aid…and that remains our commitment.”—[Official Report, 16 June 2020; Vol. 677, c. 667.]

Does the Prime Minister agree with that senior Government Minister?

Mr Speaker, listening to Opposition Members talking about the 0.7% commitment, you would think that they invented it. It was a Conservative Government who instituted it, and this country can be incredibly proud of what we have delivered for the poorest and neediest people in the world. That will continue. On any view, this country is one of the biggest investors or donors overseas in all its forms—I think we are the second biggest in the G7—whether in percentage terms or cash terms, and that will continue. We have seen a massive increase, as the House will know, in spending on our collective overseas commitments. By the way, as the right hon. Gentleman will know, that is also of huge benefit to Scotland, where there are people in East Kilbride who do a fantastic job in development overseas.

I am glad that the Prime Minister seemed to agree with the quote, because the words I quoted were his—it is exactly what he told the House of Commons less than six months ago. I take it that the briefing that has gone on is not true and that the 0.7% commitment will remain in place.

We need to recognise that covid-19 is a global pandemic, and while we are all in the same storm, some nations have better life rafts. The World Bank estimates that the pandemic will push 88 million to 150 million people into extreme poverty. In the world’s poorest countries, hunger and cases of malaria are rising, and the UN projects that as many as 11 million girls may never return to education after school closures. The UK Government cannot eradicate the threat of covid-19 if there is still a threat around the world. Does the Prime Minister agree that keeping the 0.7% commitment is not only the right thing to do morally but is the sensible thing to do in helping with the eradication of covid-19?

Of course I agree that the UK should be playing a leading role in eradicating covid-19 around the world. That is why one of the wonderful features of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine, if it is approved, is that it is going to be sold at cost to partners around the world. I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman knows quite how much the UK has already given to COVAX—to the global Vaccine Alliance. I can tell him. It is more than virtually any other country in the world. We should be proud in this country of what we are doing: I think about the $800 million to support COVAX, to say nothing of what we are doing with Gavi and CEPI—the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations—and other organisations. We are in the lead in promoting and in inventing vaccines, but also in making sure that the poorest and neediest around the world get those vaccines. I think the people of this country should be very proud of what they are doing—what you are doing.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s pledge in the 10-point plan to plant 30,000 hectares of trees a year by 2025. Farmers will play a crucial role in meeting this target. What financial incentives will be available to encourage them to make this long-term commitment? (909241)

My hon. Friend is dead right. What we are going to do is use the new freedoms we have after leaving the common agricultural policy to support farmers to beautify the landscape to make it less prone to flooding, and we are putting £640 million from the nature for climate fund into helping to support the planting of 30,000 hectares of trees by 2025—every year by 2025.

Three weeks ago, I asked the Prime Minister to support unpaid carers, who are facing extreme hardship during covid, by raising carer’s allowance by £20 a week. It is very disappointing that Ministers have not found that money for carers, but have found hundreds of millions for contracts handed out to Conservative party cronies. It is Carers Rights Day tomorrow, so can I ask the Prime Minister again: will he raise carer’s allowance by £20 a week, as Liberal Democrats are campaigning for, or will he explain why Conservatives think unpaid carers do not deserve extra help?

I would be happy to look at that specific grant again, but I have to say that if the right hon. Gentleman looks at what we have done so far with supporting universal credit and the substantial increases in the living wage, we are doing our best to support families who are the neediest across the whole of the UK. As I say, one of the stunning and one of the most remarkable features of the package that we have given to support lives and livelihoods is that the benefits do fall disproportionately, and quite rightly, on the poorest and the neediest.

I am sure that, like me, the Prime Minister welcomes the incredibly valuable contribution of our essential workers in keeping our supplies actually moving, our economy turning and keeping us safe, but we know that many of our constituents are facing challenges through covid. So, on that note, does the Prime Minister agree with me and many colleagues that, as we are having intense discussions on how to balance the nation’s finances, now is not the time for an MPs’ pay rise? (909242)

Yes, I do agree with that, and that is why we have frozen ministerial salaries this year, as indeed they have been frozen by successive Conservative Governments since 2010. I know that the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority will have heard my hon. Friend and I would encourage it not to proceed.

The Northern Ireland business community is extremely concerned that it is now impossible to be ready to fully implement the protocol from 1 January. Its top priority is to ask the EU for an adjustment or grace period. This request is based on respect for the protocol, and is not about an extension to the transition period. Will the Prime Minister give his support to this ask? (909243)

Of course we are not going to extend the transition period, but we want to make practical arrangements to help businesses in Northern Ireland. We have agreed, for instance, a one-year adjustment period so there is no disruption to the flow of medicines, and we have already launched a £200 million trader support service to help agrifood businesses and others. More details will be announced shortly.

Flood risk from new development is a key concern for many of my constituents, as highlighted by a case in Ickford, where developers promised that flood risk would be a once-in- 100-year eventuality, yet the village has flooded three times this year alone. With that in mind, will my right hon. Friend commit to seriously beefing up the way flood risk is assessed and treated as part of the planning process? (909244)

I have deep sympathy for Ickford in my hon. Friend’s constituency and the flooding it has suffered; I know Ickford. It is very important that local authorities follow the rules in making their planning decisions, as I am sure he would agree, and we are making a huge investment—£5.2 billion—in flood defences to protect the 300,000 homes at risk across the country.

The Greater Manchester Metrolink tram system cuts carbon emissions, improves air quality and reduces congestion on our roads. As part of the post-covid recovery plan, will the Prime Minister commit funding to extend the tram network from East Didsbury to Stockport town centre in order to improve access and give much-needed support to businesses and communities in my constituency? (909245)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I will study the plan he proposes with care, although I should tell him that a massive infrastructure programme is already under way, as the Chancellor will shortly announce, and it may be that in due time the scheme the hon. Gentleman proposes could benefit from those investments.

With the London area potentially entering stricter tier 3 or tier 2 lockdown measures and the devastating consequences that will have on jobs, livelihoods and businesses, and indeed the effects on physical and mental health, as the Prime Minister is committed to following the evidence, will he agree to a full public cost-benefit analysis of the impact on our economy and public health before he introduces anything that will lead to years of economic harm that could end up being worse for people’s lives than the virus itself? (909246)

I have high regard for my hon. Friend, and he is right to call attention to the dangers and damage that lockdowns can do. Of course, they have to be weighed against the damage to health caused by a wave of coronavirus that drives out all other patients from our hospitals and affects the health of non-covid patients as well so very badly. We will of course be setting out an analysis of the health, economic and social impacts of the tiered approach and the data that supports the tiering decisions, as we have done in the past.

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 25 November. When 72 Londoners burnt to death at Grenfell because of a cladding defect we all said, “Never again” but for hundreds of thousands the living nightmare of waking watch and the non-existent EWS1 form continues. So will the Prime Minister commit that no leaseholder anywhere should foot the bill for what is no fault of their own and make good on the 2017 Communities and Local Government Secretary’s promise to end this neo-feudal absurdity of a tenure once and for all? (909247)

The hon. Member is right to call attention to the difficulties many people are facing because of the EWS1 form, and I sympathise very much with them. Mortgage companies should realise that they are not necessary for buildings of under 18 metres; it is absolutely vital that they understand that while we get on with the work of removing cladding from all the buildings we can, and that is what this Government are continuing to do.

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 25 November. I welcome the plans for a green industrial revolution, particularly the commitments to public transport. Delivering sustainable rural bus services has always been a challenge, but in my constituency South Pennine Community Transport is trialling a new low-cost, low-carbon bus service that we believe could be a model for transformed rural bus services across the UK. So will my right hon. Friend meet me and South Pennine director, Kevin Carr, to discuss this model and look at how some of the Government’s £5 billion commitment to buses can be used to transform rural services? (909248)

My hon. Friend asks an excellent question, and we are developing a national bus strategy that will look at the needs and how to get more people to use our buses. In addition to championing green zero-carbon or low-carbon buses, we are providing £20 million for a rural mobility fund to support demand in rural areas.

Food bank use in my constituency has been increasing steadily as working families, including public sector key workers, struggle to make ends meet. Can the Prime Minister therefore tell us whether he thinks the median pay of teaching assistants of just under £14,000, and of nursing auxiliaries of £18,000, is enough to live on? I will ask him again: instead of delivering a public sector pay freeze later today, will he give those key workers a well-deserved pay rise? (909252)

The hon. Lady is right to value key workers and the amazing job that they do—particularly teachers and teaching assistants, who have done fantastic work in getting our kids back into school over the last few months and continue to do an amazing job. I am proud not just of the work we have done to increase public sector pay, with an inflation-busting package in July for the third year running, but of what we are doing to support the record increases in the living wage—delivered by a Conservative Government, invented by a Conservative Government. Conservative Governments can do these things because we understand how to run a strong economy.

Lincolnshire has one of the highest populations of veterans in our country; as such, I warmly welcome the recent announcement to boost funding for our armed forces. Does the Prime Minister agree that one of the best ways we can help our veterans is to encourage employers to hire a hero? (909249)

Absolutely. I thank my hon. Friend for the campaigns that he is running to support veterans. We support schemes such as that run by Gerry Hill and his team at Hire a Hero, and we are encouraging businesses to hire veterans with a new national insurance tax break for businesses that do so and, of course, making it easier for veterans to join the civil service.

BioYorkshire will place York at the heart of the global bioscience economy. It will cut carbon by 2,800 kilotons, create 4,000 green-collar jobs, upskill 25,000 workers and return £5 billion to the Treasury. The Government are supportive but are delaying investment until at least the devolution deal. Unemployment in York is soaring. We need this investment now. Will the Prime Minister start the recovery by investing in BioYorkshire? (909253)

As the hon. Lady knows, the Government are committed to the 10-point plan for a green industrial revolution, which will generate 250,000 jobs across the country just in the immediate term. I hope very much that BioYorkshire will be among the beneficiaries, and I cannot see any reason why it should not be.

The news of the covid vaccine is great for both my constituents in Wimbledon and people across the country, but I believe that when my constituents get sick, they should have the right to access the highest-quality healthcare. The plans to improve and invest in St Helier Hospital would do just that. Will the Prime Minister work with me to ensure that those plans are brought forward as quickly as possible, despite the opposition from local Labour politicians? (909250)

Yes, indeed. How typical of Labour politicians locally to oppose what they call for nationally. I am proud that we are going ahead with a brand new state-of-the-art hospital to be built in Sutton, with most services staying put in modernised buildings at Epsom and St Helier. The new hospital will come as part of the Government’s commitment, as I say, to build 48 hospitals by 2030 in the biggest hospital building programme of a generation.

In the summer, we stood on our doorsteps and clapped for all our key workers; today, they will be hit once again with a real-terms cut to their wages by the Chancellor’s pay freeze. I really do wonder, does the Prime Minister actually realise that claps do not pay the bills?

The hon. Lady will recognise, at a time when the private sector—when the UK economy—has been so badly hit, and when private sector workers have seen falls in their income, that it is right that we should be responsible in our approach to public finances, and that is what we are going to be. She should be in no doubt that the commitments we have made have been outstanding so far: above-inflation increases for public sector workers just in July; a 12.6% increase for nurses over the past three years; the biggest ever increase in the living wage—and more to come in just a minute if she will contain herself.

Last month, year 6 students at the Edward Peake Church of England Middle School in Biggleswade wrote to me about the impact of lockdown and their ideas for promoting a healthier planet, which include encouraging people not to put waste into the sea; planting more trees; building more electric cars; making more nature reserves; cleaning up the waterways; encouraging more local electricity production, and reducing air pollution so children can see the stars. Will the Prime Minister join me in thanking the students and their teacher, Miss Twitchett, and tell the House whether their ideas can play a part in his green plan? (909251)

It is quite uncanny; it is as though Miss Twitchett and her class were standing over my shoulder as I wrote the 10-point plan, and I thank them for their telepathic inspiration. I passionately agree that that is the right way forward for our country. It will mobilise about £12 billion of Government investment and possibly three times more from the private sector, and create 250,000 to 300,000 jobs. It is a fantastic way forward for our country.

I am sure that the Prime Minister will share the pleasure that we all have in the great engineering skills that are displayed in our country, especially in the north, and agree that one of the great jewels in the crown are the engineers at Rolls-Royce. Is he aware that Rolls-Royce is about to offshore 350 jobs from the north of England? That will be a devastating blow to that part of the country and remove part of our national industrial infrastructure. Does he agree with the workforce, who are campaigning, that it is in the national interest to retain those jobs in our country? Finally, will he use everything in his power to ensure that that offshoring does not take place?

The hon. Gentleman is so right to support Rolls-Royce, one of the great companies in our country. Obviously, at the moment Rolls-Royce is suffering from the problems in the aerospace sector—the fact that no one is flying. When a company makes a lot of its money from servicing aero engines, as Rolls-Royce does, it is a very difficult time at the moment. We are keen to work with Rolls-Royce to ensure that that company has a long-term future as a great, great British company. He makes an excellent point, and I can assure him that the Government are on it.

I am aware that there are obviously no perfect options at the moment, but may I raise with the Prime Minister the issue of pubs and bars that will be affected by the tier 2 restrictions? Many, such as Yorkshire Ales in Snaith in my constituency, have invested considerable amounts of money in being covid-secure, and are now to be denied access to their valuable pre-Christmas trade. Will the Prime Minister look again at those tier 2 restrictions, and if not, look at what other financial support can be offered to those bars and pubs that cannot provide a substantial food offering during this period?

My hon. Friend is completely right about the need to support local business, particularly in the hospitality sector. He should know that, in addition to the £3,000 grant for businesses that are forced to close, we have another grant of £2,100 a month for businesses that are in the hospitality and accommodation sector. That is on top of the support that we have given via furlough, obviously, and via business rates and the cuts in VAT, which were intended to support the hospitality sector as well. I am keenly aware of how difficult it is for those pubs, bars, restaurants and hotels that will face a tough time in the tiers as we come out next week. We will do our level best to support them. I should say that we are also giving £1.1 billion to local councils to help them support businesses that are facing difficulties.

I just want to say one thing to the House. As we come out of the lockdown, the way forward is not just through the vaccine, which we hope we will be able to start rolling out in the course of the next few weeks and months, but through the prospect of mass community testing. I pay tribute to the people of Liverpool, who have really stepped up in huge numbers. Hundreds of thousands of people in Liverpool have been tested and that seems to have helped to drive the virus down in Liverpool. We want to see that type of collective action—stepping up to squeeze the disease—happening across the country. That, I think, is a real way forward that will enable the hospitality, accommodation and hotel sector to come out of the restrictive measures quicker than has been currently and recently possible. We have two new very important scientific developments—

I think you have managed to answer the question, Prime Minister. I am very pleased that the House of Commons has been able to help to deliver an improvement to the sound and vision from No. 10 today, but we would like our kit back this afternoon, Prime Minister! [Laughter.]

In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am suspending the House for three minutes.

Sitting suspended.