House of Commons
Tuesday 1 December 2020
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 4 June).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—
Universal Basic Income
We have supported those on the lowest incomes throughout this crisis by investing more than £7 billion in the welfare system, and we are focused on helping people to get into work by making up to £30 billion available through our plans for jobs.
Councils throughout England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland have asked for support to run basic-income pilots, designed to increase our knowledge of the pros and cons of basic income. Five hundred and twenty elected politicians from across the UK sent a letter to the Chancellor on this subject and got a frankly derisory response. Does the Chancellor honestly believe that he knows everything there is to know about a basic income and would not learn from such pilots? If he does not, will he back the basic-income pilots and let us learn together and make evidence-based policy?
I am happy to learn from the 2017 Work and Pensions Committee report that said it was
“difficult to see how”—
a universal basic income—
“would substantially alleviate poverty”,
or from the OECD, which said that a universal basic income could “increase poverty” and negatively affect the poorest. If the hon. Gentleman is putting forward this proposal, he should set out what the specific amount is. I note that to date the SNP has refused to do that.
Ineligibility for Covid-19 Financial Support
Before I start, I know that Members from around the House will join me in commemorating World AIDS Day and the many organisations that make this day happen. As we remember those we have lost to HIV and AIDS, we also remind ourselves of the need for further action. I am proud that this Conservative Government’s policy is to end new HIV transmission by 2030—a commitment reaffirmed today at the launch of the HIV commission.
Throughout this crisis, the Government’s economic priority has been to protect jobs, livelihoods, businesses and public services, and we have spent more than £280 billion in doing so.
Given that the Chancellor has accepted that the job retention scheme and the self-employed income support scheme need to be in place until March, does he think it is right that those who have fallen through the gaps in those schemes—highlighted by the Federation of Small Businesses—will have been without support for an entire year by then? Why have Ministers not had the decency to meet groups such as ExcludedUK?
My right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary is meeting that group and other Members, and I and other members of my team have met various representatives of the self-employed and other employed people who would like to make representations. It is fair to say that I do not agree with the idea that those people have been excluded: the Government have provided support in many different ways to many people in different circumstances. We remain committed to that support throughout this crisis.
Surely the Chancellor can understand that these people do not have any money—they have not benefited from the Government schemes that Members from all parties welcome. How can it be that the Musicians’ Union, ExcludedUK, the FSB and various other organisations and trade unions can be wrong, and that the people who have not benefited from the schemes can be wrong, and the Chancellor can be right? Why does he not accept that he has made a mistake and introduce additional funding to support those people who have been excluded from the schemes?
I am not making the point that every single person can access every single scheme that the Government have put in place. That is not what I am saying; everyone will have different circumstances. What I am saying is that across the suite there is a range of support—a sum total of £280 billion-worth—designed to protect businesses, the employed, the self-employed and public services. Indeed, councils have been given large amounts of funding—billions of pounds—to help those in their communities who need it most, and they are well placed to make those decisions.
In the summer, one of my constituents opened a new bar in a previously thriving area, but she shut it on 23 October as we went into tier 3. She paid her workers for that week, but she could not get furlough support until 1 November because, as hers was a new business, her staff were not eligible for registration with the previous scheme. She is just one of many who the Chancellor will know have fallen through the gaps in his support schemes. Will he recognise the problem, act to close the loopholes and provide the support that is needed, particularly in the hospitality sector and its supply chain?
The hon. Gentleman mentioned support for the hospitality sector and bars; he will of course know that support has been provided through initiatives such as the business rates holiday, which I am sure his constituent benefited from for this entire year up until the point she was struggling, as well as the cash grants for businesses earlier in the crisis, the VAT discount, eat out to help out and the further support provided to local authorities to support the supply chain. There is a significant amount of resource to help businesses like that of the hon. Gentleman’s constituent, which I know have had an extremely difficult time.
I was recently contacted by David and Alice, a couple with four young children. They are both directors of Around the Box Limited, but have seen their income slashed this year as a result of the pandemic. Around the Box sells boxes of puzzles and games to encourage families to laugh and connect. I trust the Chancellor will agree that such companies, which bring joy to families in times of real hardship, should be protected. Why, therefore, have my constituents, David and Alice, along with millions of people like them, been excluded from all Government support and left to fend for themselves?
I feel very bad for David and Alice with the difficult situation that they are facing. However, I am sure that their small business, like a million other small companies across the country, has been able to benefit, I hope, from the bounce back loan programme, one of the most successful small business loan programmes that we have seen throughout this crisis. It has provided tens of billions of pounds to a million small and medium-sized businesses—up to £50,000—to help exactly those companies to get through this difficult time.
While the Government have provided support for creative institutions through the culture recovery fund, they are running the risk of losing our world-renowned elite west end musicians who are excluded from financial support due to being freelancers or limited companies. We risk losing these elite skills altogether and damage to the industry would have a negative impact on the ability of young musicians from working-class towns such as Luton being able to pursue a career in music.
Considering the sector provides more than £5 billion to our economy, can the Chancellor update the House on what barriers remain to getting support to musicians?
There is no barrier to support for anyone to access any of the various things that we have put in place. I am glad that the hon. Lady mentioned the culture recovery fund. At £1.5 billion, it is something that I do not believe any other country has done at such a scale, coupled to which is our further support for the creative arts and the film and TV production industry, which my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury will be talking about later. We agree that this is an important sector and we want to ensure that it can get back to work.
I would never accuse the Chancellor of misleading the House, but he certainly seems to have misled “Good Morning Britain” when he told viewers that he had spoken to, and had back and forth with, representatives of excluded groups. Those groups are clear that he has not. Will he apologise for the oversight and make amends by meeting MPs and representatives of all groups that have been denied financial support?
I know that my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury is meeting with that particular group. In that interview, I was making a general point about the fact that I and my team had met with various representatives of those who are self-employed. It is something that we did right at the beginning of this crisis as we looked to design the self-employed scheme and we have continued to do so throughout.
We all understand that it was hard back in March to get every detail right on Government support schemes, but nine months on, why does the Chancellor still have absolutely nothing new to say to those millions of people right across our country who have been shut out from support since the beginning?
Perhaps the hon. Lady could let me know whether she thinks that it is right to target support on those who are majority self-employed. She refers to the millions of people, but, as I have explained from this Dispatch Box, 1.5 million of the 5 million people who file self-employed tax returns are not majority self-employed; they earn the majority of their income from things such as employment, which means that they can access, for example, the furlough scheme. That was a decision that was made because we are targeting support in a certain way and we do not know what individuals are doing. By the way, the principle of our decision was supported by every organisation that I spoke to as we designed the scheme. Indeed, they were all supportive of a much higher threshold—a less generous threshold—than the one that we ultimately used, which was a majority of 50%. They were all supportive of something higher— 60%. Rest assured, Mr Speaker, that those who are in that category have median self-employment earnings of between £2,000 and £3,000; it is not the primary source of their income. At that level, all the various other things that we have done will be of some help to them.
Fiscal Policy: Household Income (Scotland)
This year, the Government have put in place an unprecedented package of support to protect incomes and jobs right across the UK. Analysis published earlier this year shows that our interventions significantly protected people’s incomes, with the least well-off in society supported the most.
How are those who have been excluded from support so far seeing their household incomes protected when they are getting no support from this Government at all? What plans does the Minister have to meet members of the ExcludedUK group to make sure that those who have had no support at all can actually survive Christmas?
As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor set out a moment ago, the Financial Secretary to the Treasury will be meeting that group, but we have also targeted the support, including on those who are majority self-employed. Through that targeting, we have been able to confirm an additional £2.4 billion of support for the Scottish Government.
In his spending review statement last week, the Chancellor failed even to mention Brexit, but the Office for Budget Responsibility was not quite so shy; indeed, it painted a particularly bleak picture. So can the Minister clarify this: does he accept the OBR’s findings, and if so, does he therefore agree that the Scotland’s economic future will be detrimentally impacted by any Brexit on the watch of this Tory Government?
What economic analysis has always shown is that Scotland’s trade with the rest of the United Kingdom is much more important than its trade with Europe. However, Government Members have always been clear that we seek a deal. The asks that the negotiating team have put forward are extremely reasonable, and Lord Frost and the team continue to work to that effect.
Bounce Back Loan Scheme
As of 15 November, the bounce back loan scheme has supported nearly 1.4 million businesses with facilities totalling over £42 billion. This includes the extra amounts received from our bounce back loans, which have been topped up to a higher amount, providing further help to businesses that are in need of monetary support.
The scheme has been a huge success, but according to research by the all-party parliamentary group on fair business banking and Funding Xchange, about 250,000 businesses were locked out of the scheme because they banked with non-bank lenders and the banks that have liquidity to provide funds in this way either closed to new customers or have no appointments left until the end of January, when the scheme closes. What action is my hon. Friend taking to address this very important issue?
The Government cannot force lenders to open to new bank customers for bounce back loans, but we have repeatedly encouraged lenders to open when it is operationally possible for them to do so. Indeed, nine lenders have managed to open to new customers for a period, and two are currently open, although for limited services. Their efforts, combined with the fact that accredited lenders account for a very high proportion of business in personal current accounts, mean that the vast majority of businesses should be able to get a bounce back loan through their existing relationship. Following the decision by the Chancellor to extend the scheme to 31 January, there are now two and a half months left to apply for a loan, after which we will be introducing a new guarantee scheme.
This weekend, we will mark Small Business Saturday, when we all have the opportunity to praise the work of the fantastic small businesses that contribute so much to our local economies and have been through a tough time this year. Bounce back loans have helped small businesses, but because of the ongoing pandemic, they have, by definition, also left some businesses with debts that they may not be able to pay. What is the Government’s estimate of the likely rate of default on bounce back loans, and what further support can the Government give to small businesses whose trading conditions will continue to be severely impaired for months to come?
The right hon. Gentleman rightly praises the work of small businesses up and down the country, and I echo his sentiments. He asks about the provision we have made for the future of bounce back loans. Those who have taken out the loans will not be starting to repay, because there is an interest-free period until May next year. Indeed, we have decided to extend the time to pay for up to 10 years. Clearly, we keep these matters under review and are very sensitised to the burdens that small businesses face. That is why, as the Chancellor said earlier, we have introduced a number of measures in addition to the bounce back loans to support small businesses at this time.
The Minister talked about the default issues on the loans but also about extended payback. Has he or the Treasury done a calculation about whether that will reduce the up to 80% expected potential for default on the payback of these loans, which obviously businesses need but will hit taxpayers very dearly?
There have been a range of estimates due to the considerable challenges in verifying data. What I would say is that our priority has been to protect as many businesses and jobs throughout with this intervention. We have always considered the fraud risks and the need to maintain a sense that the loans need to be paid back, but the Cabinet Office and the British Business Bank are continuing to work on that mitigation strategy, where we have a mandatory system to detect multiple applications. The default risk is an evolving picture that we will keep very close to.
Aviation Sector: Financial Support
It is great to see you in the Chair, Mr Speaker. I thank my right hon. Friend for his very constructive engagement with the Government on this important issue. The Government have recently announced, as he will be aware, a package of financial support for English airports and ground handlers. This support, which will shore up jobs and reinforce local economies, will be equivalent to the business rates liabilities of each business up to a maximum of £8 million per site. It has been warmly welcomed by the Airport Operators Association.
I thank the Minister for that additional support for regional airports, which is very welcome, but the steps taken by the Government generally to move a small distance towards reopening the aviation sector last week go nowhere near what is needed. We face a situation in January when the Brexit transition period will be open, but our principal airports and our principal aviation links to key business centres around the world will effectively still be closed. I urge the Chancellor and the Minister to use every influence they have in government to get that dealt with and at least to get airport testing and what is necessary available on those key strategic routes.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to focus on testing. As he will be aware, the “test to release” regime combines a much shorter self-isolation period with a real focus on public health. As he will also know from the global travel taskforce report, we as a country are continuing to explore pre-departure testing with partner countries on a bilateral basis, including different models by which that might be delivered.
Covid-19: Public Finances
The economic impacts of coronavirus and the substantial fiscal support provided have meant a necessary increase in our deficit and debt levels this year. That is the right thing to do to combat the pandemic, but once the economic recovery begins and uncertainty recedes, we will return our public finances to a sustainable and strong position.
There are reports that the Treasury has created an economic impact analysis, providing significant detail on the effect of coronavirus across the various sectors of the economy. For each sector, this analysis allocates red, amber and green ratings for revenue, jobs and financial stability. Given the vote tonight, may I ask my right hon. Friend why that analysis has not been published?
My right hon. Friend will have seen the analysis we did publish, which talked specifically about sectoral impact. In the document, there were specific links to the various places that people can find GVA and employment by sector and, indeed, the financial resilience of local businesses at some stages by sector and by region. It is that analysis, as we have said, that will determine the particular economic impact in an area. That information is all provided in the report for people to look at.
Self-Employed People: Covid-19 Support
As my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Felicity Buchan) will be aware, the Government have taken unprecedented steps to support the self-employed during this crisis, and that includes through the self-employment income support scheme, which has been extended up to April, with details of the third grant published last week.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the importance of innovation. She will be delighted to know that the Government are protecting innovators and start-ups from the impact of covid through almost £900 million of future fund loans to date, £79 million for innovation loans as well as other grants, and that comes on top of more than £5 billion of support through research and development tax credits claimed for 2018-19 so far, which support more than £35 billion of R&D expenditure.
I thank my right hon. Friend for all he has done so far to support the self-employed, but will he keep an open mind when it comes to future support? As he will be aware, millions have benefited from the schemes he has introduced, but there is a minority who have not. As the pandemic is lasting longer than we had imagined, will he look again at what else can be done for those who have had no income for nine months?
I should make it perfectly clear to my hon. Friend, as the Chancellor has, that we take these points extremely seriously. We have been given many different suggestions over the past few months for ways in which we could accommodate these concerns. We have looked at them very closely, and so far we have struggled to find one that meets the need to avoid the fraud risk that bedevils this concern. I responded last week to the latest request to meet from the Federation of Small Businesses, the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants and Forgotten Ltd to explore the latest of these schemes. I have also said that I would be happy to meet the all-party parliamentary group, alongside ExcludedUK, to address these questions.
When will the recently announced increase in the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme term from six to 10 years come into effect? That is of particular importance to businesses that have been hard hit by the crisis, such as the wedding venue and hospitality sectors in Clwyd South and elsewhere in the UK.
We of course recognise the concerns that my hon. Friend raises. We should be clear that the purpose of this extension is not simply to allow borrowers to request a 10-year term. It is that the guarantee offered by the Government on these schemes should be extended up to 10 years where lenders deem that a forbearance tool that borrowers may need and benefit from. My colleagues are working at pace with the British Business Bank to implement the policy in line with state aid rules.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that self-employed people and freelancers—many of whom are formed as limited companies, not because they choose to but because they are required to do so by the agencies or contractors they work for or by insurers—continue to fall through the net? Would it not be a good idea for him to meet directly some of those who work in these sectors? I suspect that many of those who advise him in the Treasury have no understanding of how self-employment actually works.
As my hon. Friend will be aware, I have a history of being closely involved with the performing arts sector. As I have indicated, I will be meeting many of the groups representing people in this situation. He should be aware that, in addition to the £1.57 billion culture recovery fund, the Government have put in place the film and TV insurance scheme, to which more than 150 applications have been made so far. The Government do and continue to take these issues extremely seriously.
The situation for the self-employed is especially difficult in areas with additional restrictions and for those working in the hardest hit sectors. The Government’s additional restrictions grant must go further in areas that have been in restrictions for longer. What plans do the Government have to improve this situation?
The hon. Lady will be aware that we have backdated business grants to address some of these concerns. It is also worth mentioning that the third phase alone of the self-employed scheme is expected to cost more than £7 billion. As the Chancellor said, it is part of a wider package of support that we are trying to give to businesses and individuals affected by the crisis.
Hydrogen Technology: Fiscal Support
The Government are supporting the development of the early fuel cell electric vehicle market through the £23 million hydrogen for transport programme. The spending review confirmed an automotive transformation fund to help industry transition to low-carbon vehicles. At the spending review, the Chancellor also announced £240 million over the next four years to support the aim of 5 GW of low-carbon hydrogen by 2030.
I thank my hon. Friend for her answer. The West Midlands Rail Executive and I are both very keen to re-establish passenger traffic on the Lichfield to Burton railway line, which currently is used just for freight traffic—it would stop, too, at the National Memorial Arboretum. The plan is that the locomotives will be powered by hydrogen fuel cells. Does my hon. Friend not agree with me that the levelling up fund would be ideal for that project?
My hon. Friend is, as ever, a great champion for his local area. I understand that Transport for West Midlands, in partnership with Staffordshire Council and the local rail executive, has already engaged with the Restoring Your Railway fund. Regarding the specific proposal he is referencing, the Department for Transport has announced that there will be a further round of bidding for the fund. Other aspects of the proposal might be eligible for support from the £4 billion levelling- up fund; the Government will set out more details on eligibility in due course.
Disguised Remuneration Schemes: HMRC Contractors
Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs are aware of 15 contractors who have used disguised remuneration schemes while engaged either by the department or by Revenue and Customs Digital Technology Services. In each of the cases, the contractors were engaged via an agency or a company providing this service. It is important to be clear that Revenue and Customs does not engage in or enter into disguised remuneration schemes. It is possible for a contractor providing services to HMRC to use a disguised scheme without the department’s knowledge or by participation through a third party.
I am amazed at the Minister’s answer—that firms can use methods of payment that HMRC then declares to be illegal and that no checks have been done by HMRC on those contractors. Does he not accept that it is unfair to put the burden on taxpayers who first of all entered into payments through disguised remuneration because we were forced to do so, and who declared that on tax returns which HMRC did not challenge, yet HMRC is now telling us that it did not even check that contractors it employed were paying in that way? How many of these contractors have HMRC actually pursued for forcing employees to use schemes that have been deemed illegal?
I think the right hon. Gentleman is slightly unclear on this. HMRC takes careful steps to ensure that the people whom it deals with as agencies employ on a proper and appropriate basis. When, in very rare cases among hundreds and hundreds of contractors in a fast-moving market, it may become clear that someone has in fact been hired under such a scheme, it takes immediate steps to end that relationship and then to follow up, of course, and to pursue as may be required under law. If he is concerned about the interests of taxpayers, may I remind him that many of the people who benefit from disguised remuneration have not been paying tax, from which our public services benefit, and it is those taxpayers whose interests we are also seeking to protect.
Loan Charge: Support
Revenue and Customs has been clear on its commitment to support all taxpayers who might need help paying their loan charge liabilities. Where someone cannot afford to pay in full on time, it will seek to agree payment by instalments. Revenue and Customs has a dedicated helpline for those seeking to leave avoidance schemes, and the disguised remuneration and debt management teams are trained to identify taxpayers who may need extra help and support, and to refer them, if necessary, to outside organisations for support.
As my right hon. Friend rightly recognises, there are a number of people who cannot pay the amount either in full at the beginning or in instalments. Given that HMRC has now recognised that many of these people were victims of mis-selling, is it not time to have another review of the people who have been mis-sold these schemes, and would it not be right and appropriate for those who mis-sold the schemes to make some contribution to those demands?
As my hon. Friend will be aware, a long and detailed review process has been conducted by Sir Amyas Morse. It is, of course, the individual’s responsibility to ensure the accuracy of their tax returns and to understand the consequences of their decisions, although of course the Government very much sympathise with people who have been caught in that position. My hon. Friend may have noticed that we have been taking very vigorous action against promoters of tax avoidance schemes—most recently, in an announcement we made last week, HMRC and the Advertising Standards Authority are getting together to crack down on misleading promoting of tax avoidance schemes.
Following the loan charge review, the Government promised in March that this year would bring both legislation and the announcement of additional policy measures against those who promote tax avoidance schemes. As neither has happened, will the Minister confirm when the promised changes will become law?
Support for Businesses: Covid-19
The Government recognise the extreme disruption that the pandemic has caused to business, employment and the nation’s economy, and our goal remains to protect people’s jobs and livelihoods. That is why we have provided one of the most comprehensive and generous packages of support, worth £280 billion.
I commend the Treasury on what it is doing at the moment to support businesses across the UK. Is the Treasury willing to extend the VAT cut to the hospitality, leisure and personal care sectors, and will it perhaps encourage businesses to pass on that VAT saving to consumers?
The temporary reduced rate of VAT was introduced on 15 July to support the cash flow and viability of more than 150,000 businesses and protect 2.4 million jobs in the hospitality and tourism sectors, and it will run now until 31 March next year. This obviously comes at a considerable cost to the Exchequer, and while we keep all taxes under review, there are no plans to extend it further. Although the Government want businesses to pass on the benefit to customers if they can, obviously decisions on prices are ultimately for businesses rather than the Government.
Legacy Benefits: Universal Credit
The £20 per week increase to universal credit and working tax credit is benefiting claimants by a total of £6.1 billion this year and is just one part of the wide-ranging package of Government support during this crisis.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation points out that raising social security benefits not only helps hard-pressed families, but boosts the economy because the increase is likely to be spent. Does the Chief Secretary recognise that raising legacy benefits in line with the £20 a week increase he has referred to that has already been introduced in universal credit would boost the economy while also addressing the current unfair discrepancy between them?
I recognise that the right hon. Gentleman has, as Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, raised this issue on a number of occasions, and he will know that the uplift continues until the end of March; the benefit to which he refers continues until then. The Government are not ruling anything out for the future, but it is right that we wait for more clarity on the national economic picture before making any further decisions.
Support for People on Low Incomes: Covid-19
The Government’s approach throughout the pandemic has been to try to support all families, but especially those on low incomes. We have announced a £30 billion plan for jobs to help people back into work, alongside wider measures including the furlough schemes, plus catch-up funding for schools and a substantial increase to the welfare safety net for this year, but it is important to say too that the Government are also supporting the lowest paid by increasing the national living wage to £8.91 and providing a minimum £250 pay increase for public sector workers earning less than £24,000 a year.
I welcome the national living wage and minimum wage rates going up in April despite the difficult economic backdrop. Does my right hon. Friend agree, however, that what happens to people on low incomes is not just about what Government do? It is also about what employers do, and we need them to provide good work with the right number of hours and the right skills and progression strategies, because that is what will help people on low incomes to earn more.
I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that it is important to focus on skills, and of course that is what the plan for jobs does. Our goal is to try to make sure that everyone, at whatever stage of life, has the opportunity and encouragement to improve their position in employment, and of course we also want employers to support them in doing that. It is well known that supportive and encouraging employers ultimately have more productive workforces because of the extra engagement they get. That is why the Department for Work and Pensions launched the in-work progression commission in order to try to understand better what those barriers to advancement might be and how they can be overcome both by the support of Government and by changes to the way in which employers develop and encourage staff.
In addition to the extra support provided during this pandemic, as my right hon. Friend has already said, the introduction of a national living wage and changes to the tax system have ensured that the lowest paid are up to £6,000 per year better off under this Government. Does he agree that protecting those people who are in work but on low incomes must remain an absolute priority for this Government when difficult decisions have to be made at the Budget?
We certainly, of course, share the view that it is important—very important—to protect the low-paid. The purpose of supporting them through the national living wage was precisely in order to raise their incomes, and that increase is worth some £345 a year for a full-time worker. However, it is also important to say that the Government remain fully committed to their longer-term target for the national living wage, which will make an enormous contribution itself towards ending low pay in the UK, and that is before, as I have mentioned, the support we are giving to 2.1 million public sector workers earning less than £24,000 a year.
Loan Charge: HMRC Settlement
About 11,000 employers and individuals settled their use of disguised remuneration schemes between Budget 2016 and 31 March 2020. As I indicated earlier, HMRC is currently preparing a report to Parliament on the implementation of the recommendations of the independent loan charge review, and that is due imminently. The report will include figures up to the 30 September 2020 deadline for taxpayers who settled their use of disguised remuneration tax avoidance schemes.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. In circumstances where process failings, errors and delays on the part of HMRC effectively denied people the possibility of settling their claims by 30 September, will he commit to offering an extended settlement period to allow individuals the chance to settle their debts?
As my hon. Friend will know, the settlement date has already been extended by eight months. That was a very important recognition of the impact of covid and has given individuals the chance to settle their schemes. He should also be aware that we do not merely seek to support those who are settling; we are also taking robust action against promoters and other enablers of tax avoidance schemes.
Net Zero Carbon Economy
The Chancellor’s announcement at the spending review will help us meet our net zero 2050 target by providing the right incentives for individuals and businesses. The spending review commits £12 billion of public investment, kick-starting our transition to net zero and boosting the UK’s global leadership on green infrastructure and technologies ahead of COP26 next year. It also included funding that will encourage protection of the natural environment, including for planting trees, restoring peatland, creating natural habitats and investing in national parks.
A robust carbon price is essential to achieving a net zero carbon economy, yet despite the transition period ending in just 30 days’ time, companies still have no precise idea what will replace the EU emissions trading system, which the UK will cease to participate in at that point. The House has already passed the legislation required to establish a stand-alone UK ETS, but there is no sign of the order necessary to fully implement a UK-wide carbon tax. With just 12 sitting days remaining, can the Minister confirm that the Government have determined that a stand-alone UK ETS is the fall-back option for 1 January and that the Treasury has abandoned a carbon emissions tax?
The hon. Gentleman will know that this has been the subject of negotiations, which are still ongoing. We legislated for a UK-linked ETS as well as a carbon emissions tax, and we will be announcing shortly which of those options we will be taking. We know that a UK-linked ETS is the preferred option at the moment, and that is the one that we are currently hoping we will be able to negotiate for during this period.
Everyone in the House knows that the Chancellor of Exchequer does not like green waffle, so may I challenge the Front-Bench team to stop the rhetoric and start producing policies? We already have an Agriculture Act that says we should have public money for public good; what about public money for environmental good? Let us have the taxation—the systems—that they have already introduced in the Nordic countries, but for goodness’ sake let us get on with it.
The hon. Gentleman asks an interesting question and I believe we are getting on with it. The Prime Minister’s 10-point plan, announced just two weeks ago, outlines quite a lot of that. If the hon. Gentleman is talking about the costs, he should look at the announcement we made about the net zero interim review, which will be coming out before the end of the year. That will look at the options for a balance of contributions between households, businesses and the taxpayer, and how to maximise economic growth opportunities from the transition to net zero.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. Many businesses in Arundel and South Downs, such as hospitality, events, beauty and wedding venues, have been hit terribly hard by the pandemic. It is no exaggeration to say that the support he has offered so far has been an absolute lifeline. But as my constituents now find themselves in tier 2, with all the uncertainty and restrictions, will he continue to do what he can to protect the very enterprises this nation will need—
My hon. Friend is right to champion his local businesses, something he knows well from his own experience. I can give him that reassurance. I know it has been a very difficult time for his small and medium-sized companies. They have my assurance that I will keep working hard to support them. He knows, better than most, that they will drive our recovery.
Last week, the Chancellor said that public sector workers on less than £24,000 would be guaranteed a pay rise, but then said that they would receive a fixed increase of £250. Will he correct the record to confirm he is delivering a real-terms pay cut for many teaching assistants, prison officers and police constables?
Even if no deal is avoided, we appear to be headed for a thin-as-gruel deal with the EU. The Office for Budget Responsibility says that that would lead to a long-run loss of output of about 4%. That is on top of the slowest recovery from covid in the G7, as predicted by the OECD today. The Chancellor previously said that his Government’s deal would reduce costs for ordinary working families and promised its impact would be modelled. Will he provide that modelling and is he confident that it will show that positive impact?
I would not want to pre-empt the outcome of the ongoing talks, which I can say are constructive and proceeding with full intensity. I am very hopeful that they can reach a positive conclusion. More broadly, regardless of the exact nature of our trading relationship with our European friends and allies, I remain very confident in the economic future of our country and the opportunities that will come our way.
I am happy to provide that information. The new national infrastructure bank will invest in projects like transport, digital infrastructure and renewable energy through a series of loans, guarantees, equity and other hybrid products. The levelling-up fund will fund what I call the infrastructure of everyday life—projects up to £20 million that can be delivered quickly—make a tangible difference to our constituents and increase the pride we feel in the places we call home.
Yesterday, Scotland’s First Minister announced her intention to award a £500 thank you payment to Scottish health and social care staff in recognition of all they have done throughout the pandemic. Powers over tax allowances, exemptions and national insurance are reserved to the UK Government, so will the Chancellor do the right thing and ensure that this festive gift of good will is not clawed back by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs?
As the hon. Lady should know, the income tax on these payments is actually paid to Scotland, not to Westminster. The Scottish Government have the power and the funding to gross up the payment if they wish. The UK Government have provided over £8.2 billion extra funding for the Scottish Government this year to support people, businesses and public services.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to focus on the specific impact that he and we all, as constituency MPs, have in our constituencies. I think he knows—we have discussed this at some length—that we are always happy to look for more schemes and more suggestions, if he would like to write to me with some details of what he has in mind. He will also be aware that, as I said, I am meeting the Federation of Small Businesses, the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants and, in due course, I hope the all-party group to discuss these issues in more detail.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will listen carefully to what the Prime Minister and the Health Secretary have to say immediately after these questions, and I believe there is hope for all parts of our country as we fight against this virus. With regard to this dashboard, I would refer him to the document published, which contains a sectoral dashboard and, as I said, links to further information that people can find about the regional composition of their local economies, sectoral business resilience and employment outcomes.
The covid-19 winter plan, published on 23 November, sets out the Government’s plans for the coming months, and our objective is to find new and more effective ways of managing the virus to enable this route back to normality. That will be achieved through the deployment of vaccines, but also through improved medical treatments, expanding the capacity of the test and trace programme and using rapid testing to quickly identify and isolate cases. These measures will provide confidence as we approach spring that life will get back to normal.
The hon. Lady raises a good point. Obviously, the news about Arcadia and Debenhams will be deeply worrying for employees and their families, and the Government stand ready to support them. With regard to various things that are ongoing, there are negotiations between various parties in the companies at the moment, particularly with regard to pensions, and it would not be right for me to comment specifically on those, but she can rest assured that we keep an eye on the situation.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. Throughout the crisis, as he has acknowledged, the Government have spent over £280 billion. He referred to the self-employment income support scheme. Support for the grant has recently been increased from 55% to 80% of average trading profits from November to January, capped at £7,500 in total, and the claims window will be open until 30 November. Obviously, a range of additional support mechanisms have been put in place, including the additional restrictions grant. As my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary said earlier, we will continue to look sympathetically and constructively at all other representations made.
I know about the difficulties that the hospitality sector is experiencing at the moment. The hon. Lady will know that the various measures she spoke about—the business rates holiday and the VAT cut—last all the way through to next spring, so they will provide support during the winter, and we have in place a grants programme that provides grants to businesses in the hospitality sector, whether they are open in tier 2 or closed, with further support provided to local authorities for discretionary support, as they see fit.
My hon. Friend is right to raise this important issue. The Treasury recognises the role that enterprise zones play in our economy. This is an area specifically of interest to me and I will be delighted to meet him to discuss it further.
First, the approach of the United Kingdom Government to these Scottish payments is exactly the same as applied recently in Wales. To further reinforce the point that I made a moment ago, while decisions on whether to exempt these payments are reserved, the Scottish Government will keep all the income tax receipts from these payments, so if they wish NHS and care workers to receive £500 net of tax, which is what they say is their wish, they can simply increase the value of the payments going to them. That is the point of substance. That is the point they do not want to engage on.
That is music to my ears. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right: this is a Government who believe in a low-tax dynamic economy. He will also appreciate that, in the midst of the crisis that we are facing, it is incumbent on the Government to provide unprecedented support to preserve the economic capacity of our country. But as soon as we get through this, I, like him, look forward to returning to that dynamic free market economy that we both passionately believe in.
I assure my right hon. Friend that I agree with her. The Government remain committed to improving health outcomes during the first 1,001 days and early childhood. At the spending review, we confirmed an additional £25.8 million to increase the value of healthy start vouchers to £4.25, in line with the recommendation of the national food strategy, to help combat child food poverty and to give children the best start in life. I am very supportive of her review into early years health and I look forward to reading her final recommendation.
As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor set out earlier, and as the Office for Budget Responsibility set out last week, the total package of support comes to over £280 billion. In the spending review last week we also signalled further support as part of our covid response, with an additional £55 billion next year. Of course my right hon. Friend continues to keep under review the specific support to the charity sector, but as he set out in his earlier response, a comprehensive package of support has already been allocated. We will of course keep that under review.
My right hon. Friend will know that pubs in tier 2 areas such as York will be hit particularly hard by the Government’s requirement to serve alcohol only with a meal. Given that pubs were already struggling prior to the pandemic, does he agree that now, more than ever, we need a fundamental reassessment of the way we tax beer and pubs?
As the Chancellor set out in the Budget, we are undertaking a comprehensive alcohol duty review, which will provide an opportunity to look at this issue in depth. My hon. Friend will also be aware that in six of the last seven Budgets the Government have cut or frozen beer duty, meaning that it is now at its lowest level for 30 years, but as part of our wider support package we will obviously keep that under review.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I hope that you will indulge me, because I have two points of order on two separate questions. My apologies in advance for that. First, further to the question that I raised and that my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) raised, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury seems to have missed the point entirely on grossing. The Scottish Government do not receive income tax revenue in-year. Income tax is collected by HMRC and accrues to the Treasury, and it is reconciled in 2023. Grossing means a net loss to the Scottish budget this year—
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You will recall that on 19 November you were kind enough to grant me an urgent question on the performance of the Department of Health and Social Care in answering written questions. The Minister, in responding, said:
“We have instituted a parliamentary questions performance recovery plan”.—[Official Report, 19 November 2020; Vol. 684, c. 461.]
I then put down a question asking for that plan to be put in the House of Commons Library, so that we could all see it. Late last night, I received a reply saying that it was not possible to answer that question yet. Surely this now means that the whole issue of stonewalling has become farcical, particularly when we take into account that a lot of the other outstanding questions are highly relevant to the debate we will be having this afternoon.
I have a lot of sympathy with Members. All Members are answerable to their constituents, and if they cannot get answers their constituents are not getting the service that should be provided. I do not think that that was a satisfactory answer, and the hon. Gentleman will no doubt wish to put in for another urgent question if the situation does not improve later today.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. This one relates to the answer given by the Financial Secretary to the Treasury and the accuracy of his answers. Is it in order for Ministers not to be clear on who they are meeting with? Excluded UK claims that it has had no such contact as was referred to by the Financial Secretary to the Treasury.
Unfortunately that is not a point of order for me. It is a continuation of the debate. I am sure that, through the hon. Lady’s good offices, she will find other ways in which to ensure that her views can be expressed, and they will also be on the record.
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 shall now suspend the House for a few minutes.
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for the effect of an apology in certain legal proceedings; and for connected purposes.
Let me start by declaring that I am an associate of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators, since the heart of the Bill lies within the dispute resolution and dispute prevention system. I will also say what the Bill does not do: it does not take away any rights that we may have to go to court on any issue, but it does introduce an element of civility and common sense back into society. It allows an apology to be given that is genuinely and sincerely meant without creating a legal liability that would run into millions of pounds.
Simply put, an apology that does not create a legal liability will often settle a dispute, rather than being seen as a way to take the accused for every penny they have. It should be the mark of a mature democratic society and of its dispute resolution system that an apology, whether made publicly or privately, can and should be allowed to be meaningful and helpful rather than simply a necessary yet tokenistic gesture. An apology can truly change atmospheres, the nature of conversations and outcomes. Used appropriately, it can help to avoid a dispute going to court. Equally, it can assist the resolution of a case by changing the approach being taken.
The policy driver behind the initiative is that apologies can often unlock disputes and lead to settlements without recourse to formal legal action. Since parties may be reluctant to do anything that may be construed as an admission of liability, apologies have to date seemingly been sparse, except in cases of NHS clinical negligence. A culture has emerged of people and organisations not wanting to offer an apology in case it is detrimental to their legal position or deemed to be a weakness. With tragic incidents such as that of Grenfell Tower, and the need to improve multicultural community cohesion, the time has come to extend the current limited legislative provisions.
A fresh apologies Act would be a clear statement from Westminster and a simple legal mechanism to help to improve our country’s conversations. It could incentivise disputing parties to make apologies whether in the direct aftermath of an accident, mistake or other dispute, or further down the line, should the dispute escalate, with a view to achieving a more amicable resolution.
An NHS publication, “Saying sorry”, published in June 2017, reminds of a little-known provision in the Compensation Act 2006, which provides that:
“An apology, an offer of treatment or other redress, shall not of itself amount to an admission of negligence or breach of statutory duty.”
More significantly, in the same medical context, there is the duty of candour under the Health and Social Care Act 2008, which is more fully described in a leaflet published by Action against Medical Accidents and endorsed by the Care Quality Commission. The General Medical Council and the Nursing and Midwifery Council advise that that means that healthcare professionals must tell the patient when something has gone wrong; apologise to the patient; offer an appropriate remedy or support to put matters right, if that is possible; and explain fully to the patient the short and long-term effects of what has happened.
How has such common-sense advice worked in practice? A search during the preparation of this speech found that there was limited empirical research through acknowledgements of the benefits and anecdotal examples of its successes. In fact, the most helpful insight into the successful outcomes of medical apologies comes from an article in the National Law Review, a US professional publication, dated 6 November 2018. Although the majority of US states have, on the one hand, apology legislation, but on the other, a highly litigious approach to life’s adversities—from the current President downwards —none the less:
“Physicians typically recall, with stunning clarity, the moment a patient’s treatment went wrong. Following an adverse event, physicians often are tormented by competing desires to apologize and instincts to forge ahead without acknowledgement. A patient’s decision to file a malpractice action may be triggered by the physician’s response to a problem—or lack thereof…Apologies may decrease feelings of frustration and anger that drive some plaintiffs to file lawsuits. A study published in the Journal of Patient Safety and Risk Management found that”
those engaging in a
“‘collaborative communication resolution program’ experienced a significant decrease in the filing of legal claims, defense costs, liability costs and time required to close cases…Events with medical errors were resolved by apology alone in 43% of the cases. Similar programs have cut the number of malpractice lawsuits and yielded dramatic litigation cost savings.”
Not only do the majority of US states have apology statutes, but so do Australia, Canada and even Hong Kong, whose legislature was the first jurisdiction in Asia to enact apology legislation through the 2017 ordinance, but was unable to put its best intentions into effect due to the growing restrictions from mainland China on its governance and judicial systems.
Closer to home, there is the approach taken by Holyrood with a short yet powerful statement: the Apologies (Scotland) Act 2016, which contains only six clauses, including its commencement and short title. It defines an apology as:
“any statement made by or on behalf of a person which indicates that the person is sorry about, or regrets, an act, omission or outcome and includes any part of the statement which contains an undertaking to look at the circumstances giving rise to the act, omission or outcome with a view to preventing a recurrence”.
For an apology to be constituted within the terms of the Scottish Act, it must include an acknowledgment that there has been a bad outcome, an expression of regret, sorrow or sympathy, and a recognition of direct or indirect responsibility. In addition, there may also be an undertaking to review the circumstances of the incident with a view to making improvements or learning lessons. The Act applies to all civil, not criminal, legal proceedings, with some exceptions.
The following considerations are worth noting. Qualifying apologies may be oral or in writing. The core element of an apology as defined in the Act is an indication
“that the person is sorry about, or regrets, an act, omission or outcome”.
Where the statement includes
“an undertaking to look at the circumstances…with a view to preventing a recurrence”,
it qualifies as part of an apology. An apology does not include statements of fact or admissions of fault, so in any statement that includes both an apology and a statement of fact and/or an admission of fault, only the apology is inadmissible as evidence of liability. The Act makes it possible to apologise without fear of prejudicing the person making the apology or of the apology being used to attribute blame in litigation. It applies to all civil proceedings except four types of specific actions. As I said, it does not apply to criminal proceedings.
In a subsequent article written by Scotland’s most high-profile mediator, John Sturrock QC explains how that piece of legislation achieved the rare distinction of attracting enthusiastic cross-party support:
“Over more than two years, Margaret Mitchell”—
a Conservative MSP—
“has piloted this legislation through the Scottish Parliament with skill and tact…As one member noted: ‘…Both sides have been pretty consensual in trying to ensure that we end up with something that the Parliament can be genuinely proud of.’”
The essence is
“that apologies have the great value of acknowledging that something has gone wrong and demonstrating that lessons have been learned. We all know that mistakes happen—that is a sad fact of life—and that they can often have tragic and long-lasting consequences. However, it is how we deal with those mistakes that makes the difference.”
John Sturrock continues:
“It is clear that legislation alone cannot remove social barriers to apologising, but the bill is an important step in changing attitudes to apologies.”
As my fellow officer of the all-party parliamentary group on alternative dispute resolution, the right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar), and I learned and wrote about in our recent APPG report, “Securing the UK’s position as a global disputes hub: Best practice lessons between Singapore and the UK”, policymakers and institutions in the UK and Singapore should foster a paradigm shift so that disputes are not viewed solely through a legalistic lens. An ever-wider and ever-deeper range of dispute resolution options should be pursued. We must also think about disputes in a way that goes beyond the legal conceptual framework and encompasses all aspects of commercial relationships.
I commend the Scottish approach to the House. It is short, focused and yet of profound effect, much like the speech I have just given.
No apologies then!
Question put and agreed to.
That John Howell, John Spellar, Greg Clark, Chris Grayling, Chris Bryant, Kenny MacAskill, Sir Paul Beresford, Sir Roger Gale, Sir Robert Neill, Mrs Heather Wheeler, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and Rob Butler present the Bill.
John Howell accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 5 March 2021 and to be printed (Bill 221).
Business of the House (Today)
That, at today’s sitting, notwithstanding the provisions of Standing Order No. 16 (Proceedings under an Act or on European Union Documents), debate on the Motions in the name of Secretary Matt Hancock relating to the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (All Tiers) (England) Regulations 2020 (SI, 2020, No.1374) and the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Local Authority Enforcement and Amendment Powers) (England) Regulations 2020 (SI, 2020, No. 1375) may continue until 7.00pm, at which time the Speaker shall put the questions necessary to bring proceedings on each Motion to a conclusion; and Standing Order No. 41A shall not apply.— (Mr Rees-Mogg.)
With this we shall take the following motion:
That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Local Authority Enforcement Powers) (England) Regulations 2020 (S.I., 2020, No. 1375), dated 30 November 2020, a copy of which was laid before this House on 30 November, be approved.
I want to begin by telling the House that I was hugely encouraged by a visit I paid only yesterday to a vaccine plant in north Wales, where I saw for myself the vials of one of seven vaccines backed by the UK Government that could turn the tide of our struggle against covid, not just in this country but around the world. It is the protection provided by those vaccines that could get our economies moving again and allow us to reclaim our lives. That one plant in Wrexham could produce 300 million doses a year. Yesterday was the momentous day when it began to manufacture the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, and it was a very moving moment. I talked to one of the brilliant young scientists there, and she described the extraordinary moment in her life of being part of an enterprise that she thought was truly going to offer humanity a route out of this suffering.
But we have to be realistic, and we have to accept that this vaccine is not here yet—no vaccine is here yet. While all the signs are promising, and almost every scientist I have talked to agrees that the breakthrough will surely come, we do not yet have one that has gained regulatory approval, and we cannot be completely sure when the moment will arrive. Until then, we cannot afford to relax, especially during the cold months of winter. The national measures that are shortly ending in England have eased the burden on the NHS and begun to reverse the advance of the virus. Today the R is back below one, and the Office for National Statistics survey shows signs that the infection rate is levelling off. Imperial College London has found that the number of people with covid has fallen by a third in England since 2 November.
But while the virus has been contained, it has not been eradicated. The latest ONS figures suggest that, out of every 85 people in England, one has coronavirus—far more than in the summer. Between 24 November and yesterday, 3,222 people across the UK lost their lives. Despite the immense progress of the last four weeks, our NHS remains under pressure, with hospitals in three regions—the south-west, the north-east and Yorkshire—all treating more covid patients now than at the peak of the first wave.
The right hon. Gentleman is, of course, completely right. Containment is the objective of the tiering scheme that the Government are announcing, and I hope the Opposition will support that tonight, in spite of what I gather is their decision to abstain, which seems extraordinary to me. We cannot simply allow the current restrictions to expire, for the reason he gives, with no replacement whatever. With the spread of the epidemic varying across the country, there remains a compelling case for regional tiers in England and, indeed, a compelling necessity for regional tiers.
The latest rate in my area is 79 per 100,000 people. A week ago, it was 178. We went into lockdown in tier 1 and will come out in tier 2. Pubs and restaurants in my constituency are in the worst of all worlds. In asking me to support these regulations tonight, what hope can the Prime Minister give them?
Indeed, and I will come in just a moment to what more we hope to do for pubs, restaurants and everybody in the hospitality sector, whose anguish and difficulties everybody in this Chamber understands and appreciates.
I hope the House is clear what I am not asking for today. This is not another lockdown, nor is this the renewal of existing measures in England. The tiers that I am proposing would mean that from tomorrow, everyone in England, including those in tier 3, will be free to leave their homes for any reason. When they do, they will find the shops open for Christmas, the hairdressers open, the nail bars open, and gyms, leisure centres and swimming pools open.
My constituency sits entirely within the Borough of Allerdale, where our rates have declined to just over 70 per 100,000, and we are due to enter tier 2 restrictions. Will the Prime Minister commit to a more local tiering system, so that the hard work of my constituents is rewarded?
Yes, indeed. This is a point that many of my hon. and right hon. Friends have made to me and to the Government with great force and eloquence over the past few days. We want to be as granular as possible as we go forward to reflect the reality and the human geography of the epidemic, and we shall be so. What I can say is that, from tomorrow, across the whole country, not just gyms, leisure centres and swimming pools will be open, but churches, synagogues, mosques and temples will reopen for communal worship, organised outdoor sport will resume and, in every tier, people will be able to meet others in parks and in public gardens, subject to the rule of six. Every one of those things has been, by necessity, restricted until today. Every one of them will be allowed again tomorrow. Of course, I accept that this is not a return to normality—I wish it were so—but it is a bit closer to normality than the present restrictions. What we cannot do is to lift all the restrictions at once or to move too quickly in such a way that the virus would begin to spread rapidly again. That would be the surest way of endangering our NHS and forcing us into a new year lockdown with all the costs that that would impose.
I thank the Prime Minister for giving way. After the inconsistencies and controversies of the previous tiering system, what was required this time round was more fairness, clarity and transparency. We were promised a regional approach. However, what the powers that be have done is to place little old Slough in tier 3, despite the fact that we have been segregated from the wider region and that there are areas in neighbouring London and Essex with higher covid transmission rates. Why does the Prime Minister hate Slough? What have we done to annoy him so much?
I love Slough, but I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying. I appreciate people’s feelings of injustice, and people do feel it. There is no question but that people feel that they have been unfairly attracted by proximity into a higher tier than they deserve. People also feel that the tiering is not working for them. I want to repeat the answer that I gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mark Jenkinson), which is that, as we go forward—I mean this very sincerely —the Government will look at how we can reflect as closely as possible the reality of what is happening on the ground for local people, looking at the incidence of the disease, looking at the human geography and spread of the pandemic, and, indeed, looking at the progress that areas are making in getting the virus down. We will try to be as sensitive as possible to local effort and to local achievement in bringing the pandemic under control.
I want to make a little bit of progress, because I want to say something now about our hospitality sector, which I know the House will want to hear. We all accept that the burden on the hospitality sector has been very great, and we feel this deeply, because our pubs, our hotels and our restaurants are, in many ways, the heart of our communities and part of the fabric of our identity as a country. Everybody can see that the hospitality industry has borne a disproportionate share of the burden in this crisis. There is no question about it. That is obviously because we want to keep schools open and we have to take such measures as we can. I just remind the House, however, that we are not alone in that: in France, bars, restaurants and gyms will not reopen until 20 January at the earliest; and in Germany, the hospitality sector will remain closed in its entirety over Christmas.
We will do everything in our power to support our hospitality sector throughout this crisis. We have already extended the furlough scheme for all businesses until the end of March. We have provided monthly grants of up to £3,000 for premises forced to close and £2,100 for those that remain open but have suffered because of reduced demand. We have allocated £1.1 billion for local authorities to support businesses at particular risk. Today, we are going further, with a one-off payment of £1,000 in December to wet pubs—that is, pubs that do not serve food, as the House knows—recognising how hard they have been hit by this virus in what is typically their busiest month. We will also work with the hospitality sector in supporting their bounce back next year.
I want to stress that the situation is profoundly different now, because there is an end in sight. I am not seeking open-ended measures this afternoon; on the contrary, the regulations come with a sunset clause at the end of 2 February, at which point we will have sufficient data to assess our position after Christmas. Though I believe that these types of restrictions will be needed until the spring, they can be extended beyond 2 February only if this House votes for them.
In the week up to 25 November, Market Rasen ward had six cases and is to go to tier 3; East Ham ward in London had 40 cases in that week and is to go into tier 2. What I want from my right hon. Friend is an absolute personal commitment that he and his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care will look personally at the case of Lincolnshire and do their level best to get us out of tier 3 by Christmas.
Indeed, I can certainly give my right hon. Friend that assurance: we will look in as much granular detail as we can at the incidence throughout the country. These points have been made with great power by Members from all parties. We will review the allocation of tiers every 14 days, starting on 16 December.
I just want to make an important point to my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) and to all Members who are rightly concerned about the position of their constituencies—our constituencies—in these tiers. Members have it in their power—in our power—to help to move our areas down the tiers by throwing their full weight—throwing our full weight as leaders in our communities—behind community testing and seizing the opportunity to encourage as many people as possible to take part.
Kent is the biggest county by population in Britain and there are vast differences in the rate of covid within it. In Tunbridge Wells, we have one of the lowest incidences in the country. Will the Prime Minister commit that at the first possible review on 16 December, if a particular borough meets the five criteria that he has set, he will move it down to a lower tier?
My right hon. Friend is quite right to raise the position of Tunbridge Wells, and I know that the feelings of the people of Tunbridge Wells are shared by many people across the country who feel this sense of being unjustly attracted into the wrong level of tiering. I repeat the assurance that I have given to my hon. Friend the Member for Workington and my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough: we will look in granular detail at local incidence—at the human geography of the pandemic—and take account of exactly what is happening every two weeks. To repeat my point, it is in the power of Members to help their local area to move down the tiers.
We are rolling out lateral flow testing across the country and it is open to people to get a lateral flow test, but in general the testing system is available at the moment for people who have symptoms. I urge people who are worried that they may need to be in the company of those who are elderly or vulnerable to seek to get a rapid-turnaround test. [Interruption.] The one thing the right hon. Gentleman could do for his constituents if he wants to help them to move out of the tier they are in is to encourage them all to take part in mass community testing of the kind that the Government are rolling out.
This depends very much on the co-operation of local leaders and local authorities of the kind that we have seen in Liverpool, where, since 6 November, over 284,000 tests have been conducted, and, together with the effect of national restrictions, the number of cases fell by more than two thirds. This is the model that I would recommend. We are now proposing that from tomorrow Liverpool city region and Warrington should be in tier 2 whereas previously, obviously, they were in tier 3. We want other regions and other towns, cities and communities to follow this path. That is why, with the help of our fantastic armed forces, we will be offering community testing to tier 3 areas as quickly as possible.
What assessment has the Prime Minister done of compliance with previous lockdowns? Does he share my concern that people have just had enough and that the risk of non-compliance is very great, and that those who are compliant will then have the added frustration of watching those who will not comply doing whatever they want while they have to sit at home?
I normally find myself in agreement with my right hon. Friend, but I must say that I do not think she is right in this instance. If we look at what the British people have achieved in the past few weeks by following the guidance, and by deciding to work together to get the R down, they have done just that. Collectively, the people of this country have got the R back down below 1. That was not by non-compliance—it was by the people of this country deciding to follow the rules, do it together, and get the virus down.
I find it extraordinary that the official Opposition, represented by the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), currently have no view on the way ahead and are not proposing to vote tonight.
I am very pleased to hear it. Many Labour Members believe that there should be restrictions but believe that the Prime Minister’s tiers are wrong. He is explaining very well why he is going to come back on 16 December and come up with a system that we might be able to vote for, but the system he is coming up with today is totally inadequate. How is it possible that in Chesterfield, with 118 cases per 100,000, we are in tier 3, but London constituencies like the one he represents, with a much higher level, are in tier 2? It is because our pub owners and our restaurateurs are worthless to him.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will really think carefully about what he just said. We are trying to look after pubs, restaurants and businesses across this entire country, and no one feels the anguish of those businesses more than this Government.
I do think it is extraordinary that in spite of the barrage of criticism that we have, we have no credible plan from the Labour party. Indeed, we have no view on the way ahead. It is a quite extraordinary thing that, to the best of my knowledge, the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras, who said that he would always act in the national interest, has told his party to sit on its hands and to abstain in the vote tonight. The Government have made their decision, we have taken some tough decisions, and the Labour Opposition have decided tonight, heroically, to abstain. I think that when the history of this pandemic comes to be written, the people of this country will observe that instead of having politicians of all parties coming together in the national interest, they had one party taking the decisions and another party heroically deciding to abstain.
In the story of 2020, there are two great feats from which we can take a great deal of comfort. First, our country has come together in an extraordinary effort that has so far succeeded in protecting our NHS and in saving many lives, while our scientists have been zeroing in on the weaknesses of covid, telescoping 10 years of work into 10 months, and now their endeavours are about to deliver the means, as I say, to rout the virus. That is clear.
The Government are backing not one potential vaccine but seven. We have ordered 100 million doses of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine, which is now seeking regulatory approval; we have ordered 7 million doses of the Moderna vaccine, which has almost 95% effectiveness in trials; and we have ordered 40 million doses of the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine, which, if approved by the regulator, could start being administered before Christmas.
No, I am coming to the end.
In total, our vaccines taskforce has secured more than 350 million doses—more than enough for everyone in the UK, the Crown dependencies and our overseas territories. All we need to do now is to hold our nerve until these vaccines are indeed in our grasp and indeed being injected into our arms. So I say to the House again, let us follow the guidance, let us roll out mass testing, let us work to deliver mass testing to the people of our country, let us work together to control the virus, and it is in that spirit that I commend these regulations to the House.
May I start by welcoming the fall in infection numbers, with the drop in the number of people being admitted to hospital, and crucially that the national R rate is now below 1, and below 1 in many parts of the country? That is very welcome news across the House. Before this lockdown, the infection rate was doubling every two weeks, the R number was above 1 in every part of England and rising, and the number of people in hospital was going up sharply across the country. In other words, the virus had been allowed to get out of control.
If anyone doubts that a lockdown was necessary, I would point out that since 2 November, when this lockdown started, 10,711 people have tragically died within 28 days of testing positive for covid-19. In the past week alone, that is an average of 460 deaths per day. Those are appalling numbers, and every one is a tragedy. So we can argue about why this lockdown did not happen earlier, when the infection rate was lower, as we argued for on this side of the House, but whatever view was taken of the timing, it is clear that the lockdown was necessary and has helped to reduce infections.
May I also welcome the progress on vaccines? I have nothing but admiration for our scientists and the amazing progress that has been made. This is a great moment for our scientists. I went to Oxford University the week before last, to see the vaccine group there and to see the remarkable work that it was doing, just before it announced its results. A vaccine may now be in sight, and we must do everything we can to encourage take-up and make sure that it is rolled out quickly, fairly and safely.
However, the questions before this House today are these: how can we save as many lives and livelihoods as possible until we reach the light at the end of that tunnel, and are the measures that the Prime Minister has announced today going to control the virus and provide the right support to the communities worst affected by these restrictions? Labour has supported the Government in two national lockdowns. I recognise the need for continuing restrictions and I do recognise that the tiers have been toughened, as it was obvious to everyone that the previous tiers were a one-way street to tier 3, but I am far from convinced by what the Prime Minister has said today. In particular, the economic package is nowhere near sufficient to support the communities most affected, and they have been suffering for many months.
I will just make some progress, and I will come back to my hon. Friend.
I also fear that without the right health measures in place—in particular, a working trace and isolate system—there are real risks that this plan is incapable of controlling the virus this winter. I want to set that out in a bit more detail, but before I do so I will give way.
I thank the Leader of the Opposition. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the support for businesses, especially in tier 3, that are struggling—in the hospitality and in the arts sectors specifically—is just not enough, because many of them are on the brink of collapse?
I do agree, and I will come on to business support in a minute, but let me make the points in support of the case we make today.
The first point is this: we have been here before. On 10 June, the Prime Minister told us for the first time of his “whack-a-mole” strategy to control local infections. He told us it would be so effective that restrictions would only be for a few weeks or even a few days. That was far from reality; Leicester, for example, has just gone into the 154th day of restrictions, and by the time these regulations run out on 2 February, Leicester will have been in restrictions for 217 days. So that 10 June proposal did not work.
Roll on to 22 September: by now, infections are rising in 19 of the 20 areas then under restrictions. The Prime Minister announced new restrictions, including the rule of six. He told the House that the rule of six would
“curb the number of daily infections and reduce the reproduction rate to 1”.—[Official Report, 22 September 2020; Vol. 680, c. 798.]
That is what he said about the rule of six. So that did not work.
Two weeks later, on 12 October, with the precise opposite happening, the Prime Minister stands up again—for the third time—and introduces a three-tier system. Again, he said that this will work: he told the House that this would deliver the reduction in the R rate locally and regionally that we need. That did not work.
Nineteen days later—the fourth attempt now—in a hurried press conference on a Saturday, the Prime Minister announced that the tier system had failed, the virus was out of control and a national lockdown was now unavoidable.
The reason that this all matters is that there is a pattern here. The Prime Minister has a record of overpromising and underdelivering—short-term decisions that then bump into the harsh reality of the virus.
And then a new plan is conjured up a few weeks later—we are now on at least the fifth plan—with an even bigger promise that never materialises. After eight months, the Prime Minister should not be surprised that we and many of the British people are far less convinced this time around.
I have a biology degree and I am going to take a wild punt that I am one of the few Members of this House to have used the word “epidemiology” in anger before January this year. We have choices to control this virus: we can have a lockdown, we can have a tiered system, or we can have no lockdown, where lives, such as those of John and Ken, family friends who we have just recently lost, are lost to this awful covid. Why will the right hon. and learned Gentleman and the Labour party not tonight support these measures that are saving lives?
I am grateful for that intervention and I am setting out exactly why not—and I will take interventions along the way so that what I say can be challenged—but the first point, which I have just finished making, is that we have been here before; this is at least plan no. 5 and the first four have not worked. So I think everybody would forgive the British public for being sceptical about the fifth plan.
I will go on now and set out the second point I want to make, which is that the public health risk of the Prime Minister’s approach is significant. The prevalence of the virus remains high; even if the R rate is below 1, it is only just below 1, and we know that the virus is at its most deadly during the cold winter months, exactly when the NHS is under the most strain. So if we are to keep the R rate below 1 during winter and not waste the progress that has been made in the past four weeks, we need to proceed with precision and caution. But instead of levelling with the British public, the Prime Minister spent the weekend telling his Back Benchers that the plan is all about, in his words, loosening restrictions across the country, and he has been fuelling a promise that within two weeks or so local areas have a real prospect of dropping to a tier below the one they are in.
We need to level: in my view, that is highly unlikely, and we might as well face that now. It is obvious that the new tier 1 may slow but will not prevent a rise in infections, and it is far from certain that the new tier 2 can hold the rate of infection. [Interruption.] I hear the mutterings, but let us just see where we are in two weeks. I look across the House to Members who think that perhaps, in two weeks, their area is going to drop down a tier just before Christmas. Let us see.
This isn’t hindsight; I am telling you what is going to happen in two weeks. We know where we will be in two weeks. I have no doubt that there will be Government Members getting up and saying, “I thought my area was going to drop a tier just before Christmas.” That is not levelling—that is not being straight —because that is not going to happen. The new tier 1 may slow the rate of infection, but it will not prevent it from increasing, and tier 2 will struggle to hold the rate of infection. I hope that it does. I hope that I am wrong about this, and I think that all Members hope I am wrong about it, but tier 2—[Interruption.]
Tier 2, crucially, depends on all other factors falling into place at exactly the same time. Although we all welcome the chance to see our loved ones at Christmas, I am not convinced that the Government have a sufficiently robust plan in place to prevent a spike in infections over the new year.
Of course this is difficult, and all systems would have risk, but that brings me to my third point. The risks we face in the decisions we make today are much higher because the Prime Minister has failed to fix the major problems with the now £22 billion track and trace system. Before the Prime Minister simply brushes the point aside again, let me remind him and the House that one of the major reasons that the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies advised a circuit break back in September was that track and trace was only having, in its words,
“a marginal impact on transmission”.
The great thing that was going to control the virus was not working then. If we are to control this virus, that really matters, and the Prime Minister having his head in the sand is not helping.
I know that the Prime Minister will say, “We’ve made advances in testing.” I recognise that, and I genuinely hope that it helps to tackle the virus, but let me quote the chief scientific officer, who said that
“testing is important, but of course it only matters if people isolate as well.”
That is blindingly obvious, but only a fraction of people who should be self-isolating are doing so, and the Prime Minister still has not addressed the reasons for this, including the huge gaps in support.
I know that there has been an announcement about the change for those notified by the app—a ridiculous omission in the first place—but it does not affect basic eligibility. Only one in eight workers qualify for the one-off £500 self-isolation support. Anyone not receiving that has to rely on statutory sick pay, which is the equivalent of £13 a day. That is a huge problem that needs to be addressed. People want to do the right thing, but for many there is a real fear that self-isolation means a huge loss of income that they simply cannot afford.
I think—I cannot prove this—that one of the main reasons that people are not passing on their contacts in the way we want is that they fear that those they pass on contacts for will not be able to afford to self-isolate. That is a real problem, and we cannot carry on ignoring it.
I will come to that. I have accepted the case for restrictions—we were very clear about the need for a circuit break; we are clear that we need to go into restrictions—but we need a scheme that works, and I am explaining what the problem is with this scheme as we go through it.
Let me stay with track and trace. We know the claims the Prime Minister made about this at the beginning of the year and in the middle of the year. On tracing, which is crucial, the latest figures show 137,000 close contacts were missed by the system in one week. That is the highest weekly figure yet. This is not a figure that is going down; it is a figure that is going up. Over 500,000 close contacts have been missed by the system in the past month. That is not a statistic. That is half a million people who should have been self-isolating, but instead of self-isolating, they were with their friends, their families and their communities—half a million people in one month. That is a huge gap in the defences. I raise this issue every week, and the Prime Minister pretends it is getting better, but it never does. The Prime Minister has almost given up on it and put mass testing in its place, but again, that is blind optimism, not a plan. The idea that we can go through the next few months and successfully keep the virus under control when 500,000 people a month are wandering round when they should be self-isolating is not a sensible plan going forward.
My fourth point is the level of economic support that is provided. I have to say to the Prime Minister that it is hard to overstate the level of anger about this out there in our communities, many of which have been in restrictions for months on end. Yesterday, I did a virtual visit to local businesses in the north-west. Their emotions range from deep disappointment with the Government to raw anger that the Prime Minister and Chancellor just are not listening and do not get the impact of months of endless restrictions and the impact they have had on local communities. In March, the Chancellor vowed to do whatever it takes to support households and businesses, but there have now been six economic plans in nine months, and the level of support is still insufficient.
For these reasons, and let me spell them out—[Interruption.] The Prime Minister mumbles, but let me spell them out. First, the scheme does not fairly reflect the difficulties faced by businesses across the country. [Interruption.] I would be surprised if Government Members are not picking that up from their constituents and businesses. Let me start with the additional restrictions grant, which gives a flat figure to local areas, regardless of how long they have been in restrictions. That means Greater Manchester, which will be on its 40th day of severe restrictions when it enters tier 3 tomorrow, has received the same one-off support as the Isle of Wight, which went into restrictions far later and will emerge tomorrow into tier 1. That is unfair, and everybody knows it is unfair, and everybody in this House is being told by their constituents and by their businesses that it is unfair, so to pretend it is not just is not real, Prime Minister.
The second aspect—[Interruption.] The second aspect is that the grant does not take account of the number of businesses that need support in each area. Our great cities are being asked to spread the same sum far more thinly, and that is also clearly unfair. Our constituents know it is unfair, our businesses know it is unfair, and nothing has been done about it.
The third aspect—even allowing for today’s announcement on pubs, which is the definition of small beer—is that many businesses are now receiving less support than they did during the first wave. That is a huge strain for businesses, particularly those that have been so long under restrictions, and it makes no economic sense for the Government to allow them to go to the wall.
Putting the grant system to one side, the second major point about the economic support is that millions of self-employed people remain unfairly excluded from the Government support schemes. Again, nothing is being done about that. I have raised it so many times with the Prime Minster, as have others, and every time he chooses to talk about those who are within the scheme, ignoring those who are not in the scheme. It is eight months on, and we are facing another three or four months of this. That will mean 12 months without the support that is needed in those areas.
I am extremely grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for giving way. He talks about those people who have been excluded from support. To focus in on who those people are, they include people who set up their own businesses 18 months ago, directors of very small limited companies, taxi drivers, hairdressers and the like. These are the entrepreneurs we need to build Britain back as we recover from the economic wreckage of the coronavirus. Does he agree we should be investing in those people, not excluding them and leaving many of them in deep and dangerous debt?
I do agree, and their cry still has not been heard. I accept that in putting together a support package in a hurry back in March, there may have been reasons why certain groups were overlooked, but this is eight months on. It has been pointed out over and over again, and here we go into a tiered system and there is still that gap in the system, and it is being very strongly felt out there.
The third point about the economic package is this: the Government must remove the uncertainty about furlough and rule out changing the scheme again in January. That is crucial, because businesses are beginning to make decisions about what they do in January. The Chancellor made this mistake before. By the time the furlough was extended, many businesses had laid people off because it came too late. We know what happens in that circumstance. The uncertainty has already caused real economic damage and we cannot afford the same mistake again. So, taken together, the business and economic support just does not stack up.
I want to make a wider point about the economic damage that this pandemic and the Government have done to our economy. Last week’s autumn statement laid bare the huge and worsening economic cost of the crisis. I know there are those who say, “That is the reason to end restrictions”, but the reality is that we cannot protect the economy if we lose control of the virus—that just leads to more uncertainty, more restrictions and more long-term damage to the economy. The failure to get control of the virus or take a long-term approach to shielding our economy has left the UK with the worst economic recession of the G7 and the highest death toll in Europe.
The fifth reason for scepticism about the Government’s approach is this: managing and priorities. The past 48 hours have been a summary of the mistakes the Government have made in this crisis. The Prime Minister is fatally split between appeasing his Back Benchers and following the science, and he is ending up pleasing nobody. I think the Prime Minister knows that tough restrictions are now needed, but he pretends that the restrictions might not be in place for very long. He pretends that it is quite possible that everybody will be in a lower tier in two weeks’ time. The reality is that tough restrictions will be needed until the vaccine is rolled out, and that may be months away. The Prime Minister will doubtless be back in a few weeks with another plan, but he does not make that case today or provide the certainty or the consistency that we need. So in the past 48 hours we have had concessions, letters and promises to his MPs, not clear and reliable messaging to the public, and that is symptomatic of the problem.
Coronavirus remains a serious threat to the public’s health, our economy and our way of life. We recognise the need for continued restrictions, but it is not in the national interest to vote these restrictions down today and we will allow them to pass. But it is another wasted—
We accept the case for restrictions. We want a plan that is going to work, we are on plan 5 and this one is full of holes; we have been there so many times. So many times the Prime Minister has stood there and said, “This is the plan, this will solve the problem.” This is the fifth time around and we still have a plan with holes that have been there for months. Why is track and trace still not working? Why are the gaps in the support still there? Why are those we are excluding not included? Why are those who have to self-isolate not given the support to do so? Those are huge gaps in the system and to simply vote through a plan without recognising those problems is not going to help.
I accept the case for restrictions—we will not stand in the way of these regulations; we do not want the restrictions to come off—but I am not going to stand here and pretend, as the Prime Minister does: “This is the plan that will solve it all. Vote for this and it will all be fine through to Easter.” That is not going to happen and nobody should vote on that basis today.
I have to say that, although there are many points of merit in what the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) has just raised, he has left the House and the public with the impression that he is happy for these restrictions to go through, he just will not vote for them. As for the idea that that is the kind of atmosphere the public want or that they will be encouraged to comply and co-operate when there is disagreement between the main parties on these fundamental issues that cannot be resolved in a sensible way, I think the public will be disappointed with that.
Well, there might be a different interpretation of the events just passed, might there not, which is that a lot of us are very concerned that the Prime Minister does not give the full story to the House and to the nation. The truth is that we are almost certainly going to see another lockdown in January—a full lockdown across the whole of the United Kingdom. [Interruption.] I hear the Prime Minister say, “It is not what we want.” Nobody wants any of this—of course we do not—but we have to be honest and straightforward with the British people, and these measures today are not sufficient to the day.
I did not hear my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister make the promise that the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that he made. I think my right hon. Friend is being perfectly honest with the House on this. I think it is very difficult, and I will come to that point, but I want to concentrate on what we agree about.
We all agree that we want to keep the R rate below 1, while minimising the restrictions on people’s lives and limiting the economic damage. If the R rate rises above 1, it becomes much too difficult to predict or control. It has a multiplier effect, even if the R rate remains constant. It is perfectly legitimate for colleagues on the Conservative Benches to press the Government for more clarity about why the Government believe the NHS is at risk of being overwhelmed. Data for much of the country does not suggest that at the moment, but it is not uncommon for hospitals to become overrun during the winter months, even without the addition of covid. It is also reasonable for Government to anticipate that the rising rate of covid infections would lead to exactly that in some areas, or much worse, unless we can keep R around or below 1; and that is all that these measures can be expected to achieve.
It is right to press the Government for more analysis of the economic impact of these measures, but maybe the Government were wrong to raise the expectation that they could provide that degree of certainty where so much uncertainty exists. Equally, it must be agreed that it is impossible to predict the economic consequences of a rapid spread of the virus. I understand the frustration of representing a low-virus constituency included in a tier 2 area, and the need to provide the right support to business that is being badly hit, but such frustrations are not about alternatives to the fundamentals of this policy, which I believe the Opposition are trying to avoid.
The real question—it is also a legitimate question—is will the tiers be enough. I hope that tier 2 will keep Essex below the R of 1, but there is doubt: tier 2 did not work before. We must look upon this period as a further period of transition to when vaccines begin to become available. We should look ahead at the challenges that the vaccine programmes will present, and give thought to how reassurance is provided that the vaccine that each person is invited to accept is right for that person. In the meantime, the challenge is to ensure that we can move down the tiers, and not just into tier 1, but to remain in tier 1, even if it takes time for the vaccines to become effective and to be rolled out at scale. That will depend on how we all behave, the example that we set, and what we do to encourage confidence and co-operation with test and trace operations.
There is much to ask the Government that time does not allow today—about how to improve trace and isolate operations, particularly at local level, and about how the community volunteer hubs could help support people who should isolate. That is vital work now.
The last thing I want is to vote for these restrictions today, but until there are better alternatives we have no alternative, and should support them. I am sorry that Her Majesty’s Opposition are trying to avoid that truth. The Government have also the opportunity to learn by continuing to listen, and to gain public confidence from that.
The motions before the House relate exclusively to England, but that does not mean that they do not have consequences across these islands, so it is important that the voice of the Scottish National party is heard in this debate, although in line with our long-standing practice on matters that are devolved, we will not take part in any Division this evening. I am sure that is of some assistance to the Government Whips Office.
Perhaps the first thing the Government need to consider is why they have got to such a stage. Scotland has passed similar but not identical regulations, with a far greater degree of cross-party and intra-party consensus than seems to have been managed here in Westminster. Perhaps that is because the First Minister and her Cabinet Secretaries and senior public health officials have always taken a commendably frank and honest approach with the people of Scotland about the challenges of the virus and the difficulty of the decisions that must be made.
In the summertime, the First Minister initiated a national dialogue with people across Scotland on what a road map out of the initial lockdown should and could look like. Instead of promising moonshots and world-beating systems, and that it would all be over by Christmas, the Scottish Government and the other devolved Governments have worked to take people with them, whether that is the public at large or their own Back Benchers; and we have always been clear that public health and saving lives must be the priority. Whatever the pain —and real pain is caused to the economy and livelihoods by such restrictions—that pain is as nothing to a life ended too soon, to a family or community bereaved by this dreadful disease. As always, the Scottish National party sends its deepest sympathies to all those who have lost a loved one as a result of the pandemic.
That, however, is not to minimise the impact and effects of the economic pain. I see it first hand in Glasgow North, which thrives on the hospitality, entertainment and events sector. I will be interested to find out what the consequences will be north of the border of the Government’s announcement today on support for pubs. My constituency is home to thousands of creatives, start-ups and entrepreneurs who have all been left behind, forgotten and excluded from the Chancellor’s support package. We hear the impact from the families who are genuinely terrified that the £20 universal credit uplift will not be extended beyond March and from those on legacy benefits who have yet to see a similar uplift. And we all feel the struggle of the frontline public sector workers busting a gut to keep the services we all depend on going in the most difficult of circumstances.
On support for all those groups and for those who need to isolate, which is absolutely critical to stopping the virus, the Government have been found wanting. The Prime Minister was chuntering to the Leader of the Opposition, saying, “How do we get people to self-isolate?” Well, as he said, start by paying a decent rate of statutory sick pay. Make it affordable for people to stay at home and stay safe. Perhaps if the Government had made more effort to support those people—to support the excluded, to support families who are struggling—they would not be feeling the heat they are now from their own Back Benchers.
We just need to compare that with what we have heard in the last few days in Scotland: a £500 bonus for all NHS and social care staff. For 10 weeks, we all clapped for carers, but that was never going to be enough. This is a gesture of thanks for extraordinary service, and I really hope the Prime Minister and the Chancellor will have the decency not to level tax on this well-deserved reward. For the families who need it most, there will be a £100 one-off payment before Christmas to households with children in receipt of free school meals and a commitment that all primary children will receive free meals—breakfast and lunch—at school all year round if the SNP is re-elected next year. That is the difference that devolution makes.
For NHS workers and families in receipt of these payments, that is not a disaster; that is a Scottish Government working for and delivering for their best interests and the interests of our society as a whole. If it means that we are using our share of money that the UK Treasury has borrowed on Scotland’s behalf, well, that is the point of devolution. [Interruption.] If the Tories do not like it—I hear some chuntering—the solution is very simple. Independence for Scotland would have meant that we could have raised our own finance on our own terms and spent it on our priorities in our own time. We certainly would not have had to wait for the south-east of England to be placed into lockdown before the furlough scheme was extended across the whole of the UK.
If the Prime Minister is feeling pressure from his own side today, he only has himself to blame. Real leadership is about being able to make the hard choices and being honest with people when mistakes are made, especially in a time of crisis. People do not want bluster and false hope; they want honesty, determination and empathy. The devolved Governments have always sought a four nations approach wherever possible. We have seen that agreement can be reached in the provisions being made for those who need to travel to see loved ones over Christmas. While that period of easing will be welcomed by many, all of us will have an extra responsibility to be extra vigilant to minimise risk, practise social distancing and good hand hygiene, wear face coverings and take all the other steps we have become familiar with.
That familiarity, however, cannot become complacency. The threat of the virus to overwhelm our health service and to undermine the economy, and to individual lives across the country, has not gone away. We welcome the light at the end of the tunnel as vaccines come online, but that light must be approached slowly and carefully. That is why Scotland will continue with its tier system and the difficult decisions we need until the virus is beaten. The other devolved nations are making similar decisions and Members representing England in this place have a responsibility to do likewise.
May I say at the outset that I think the Prime Minister’s instincts in this matter are not so different from mine, and that I recognise the difficulty and the burden that he carries? This is a difficult matter and there are difficult decisions to take.
Freedom is not an absolute, but it should be regarded as precious. There should be always the strongest possible presumption in its favour. If the Government are to take away fundamental liberties from the people whom we represent, they must demonstrate beyond question that they are acting in a way that is both proportionate and absolutely necessary. Today, I believe the Government have failed to make that compelling case. The benefit of the doubt that this House extended to Government in March and since is harder to take for granted in December. Six weeks ago, many of us made the case that the curfew policy at 10 pm was not just unnecessary, but counter- productive. Today, the Government apparently agree that the 10 pm curfew makes no sense. A month ago, the Government insisted that golf, tennis, bowls and gyms were unsafe. Now it seems that they are not.
Before the second lockdown, I invited the House to consider whether Government had the right to make it illegal for people to see their children, their grandchildren or their elderly relatives, and whether Government had the right to ban collective worship or to take away the right to work to support your family. Different people—different Members of this House—will draw the line in different places, but we must all accept that these are fundamental freedoms of our constituents, and we should insist on compelling evidence before we allow them to be compromised. That is why I ask