House of Commons
Wednesday 2 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.]
Order. I remind colleagues that a deferred Division will take place today. Members should be aware that the timings have reverted to between 11.30 am and 2 pm, though they continue to take place in the Members’ Library. Members will cast their votes by placing the completed Division slip in one of the ballot boxes provided. If a Member has a proxy vote in operation, they must not vote in person in the deferred Division; their nominated proxy should vote on their behalf. I also remind colleagues of the importance of social distancing during the deferred Division and ask them to pick up a Division slip from the Vote Office and fill it in before they reach the Library if possible. The result will be announced in the Chamber at a convenient moment after the Division is over.
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Structural and Investment Funding: Transition Period
The UK shared prosperity fund will help to level up and create opportunities for people and places across the United Kingdom. The Government will co-ordinate funding on a UK-wide basis, working with the devolved Administrations and local communities to ensure that it is used most effectively. The Northern Ireland Executive and the other devolved Administrations will be represented in the fund’s governance structures to help target this funding to the people and places that are most in need.
The spending of the shared prosperity fund, according to clauses in the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, would override devolution, with no duty to consult on spend in devolved areas. We know that the internal market Bill intends to breach international law, and yesterday it was indicated that a further breach of international law was likely to come in the taxation Bill. Far from being limited and specific, it seems that disregard for the Good Friday agreement is unlimited while people desperately want certainty and a deal. Can the Secretary of State give us any assurances that next week’s Bill will not further undermine the Northern Ireland protocol and the chances of a deal and the certainty and the stability that people so desperately want?
If the hon. Lady looks at the clauses in the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, she will see that they are about protecting and delivering on the Good Friday agreement to ensure that there are no borders. To deliver that, it is important that we have no border not just north to south, but east to west as well. On the UK shared prosperity fund, if she looks at my answer to the substantive question, she will see that I was very clear that the devolved authorities would be part of that, but of course this is money over and above; this is extra money that we will be looking to spend—in the same way that the EU has always been able to spend— once we have left the EU to ensure that those communities have the support that we have said they would have.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that any spending requirements and demands made by and within Northern Ireland would be enhanced and likely to receive a more welcome ear in the Treasury and elsewhere were the Executive to crack ahead and create the independent fiscal council, which would act as a very convincing mouthpiece for those pleas?
My hon. Friend makes a hugely important and very accurate point. I think we sometimes forget this but the fiscal council was actually first agreed back in the “Fresh Start” agreement of 2015 and recommitted to in the “New Decade, New Approach” deal of January this year. I have been talking to the Executive about this. I had hoped to see it up and running by the autumn. I think it is important that the Executive and the Department of Finance get on with this and deliver on it. It will help them for budgeting purposes and ensure that, in the same way that we have the Office for Budget responsibility and the Irish Government have an independent fiscal council, people can be clear about the transparency and understanding of the money being spent in Northern Ireland. I think it would be the right thing to do, and I am looking forward to seeing the Executive deliver it as quickly as possible.
UK-EU Future Relationship: Businesses
We want a relationship with the European Union that is based on friendly co-operation between sovereign equals and centred on free trade. We will have a relationship with our European friends—one that is inspired by our shared history and values. The whole of the United Kingdom, including, of course, Northern Ireland, stands to benefit from such a trading relationship with the European Union. In fact, Northern Ireland businesses have a huge potential under the Northern Ireland protocol, and of course Northern Ireland will continue to enjoy tariff-free access to the EU market, alongside unfettered access to the whole of the UK.
I hope you are well, Mr Speaker.
Scotland is the largest exporter of seed potatoes in the single market. It is a product on which a great many Northern Irish potato farmers rely. This has been placed under threat by the lack of equivalence between the UK and the EU after the transition period. When will the Minister confirm a date on our attaining equivalence on seed products? If he cannot give us a date, is that not more evidence that the Government do not care about Scotland’s farming communities?
Actually, it is quite the contrary. The hon. Gentleman can look at the delivery of money last week, for farmers particularly. That is evidence of the Government’s determination to deliver on our commitment to, and our understanding of the importance of, the agriculture and farming community across the United Kingdom, with £315 million going to Northern Ireland farmers. Through the Joint Committee, we are working with the European Union on some of these final issues to ensure that we do have that free flow. We have been saying to our partners and colleagues in the EU that they need to play their part in being pragmatic about ensuring that we continue to see that sensible free flow of trade across the United Kingdom, as a sovereign nation.
You look well, Mr Speaker.
The Secretary of State will recognise the importance to Northern Ireland businesses of getting agreement on the classification of qualifying goods and qualifying businesses as they relate to trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland within the UK single market. What progress has been made on securing such agreement and on defining at-risk goods, and what measures will the Government bring forward in legislation to ensure that Northern Ireland businesses really do have unfettered access to the UK internal market?
I should put it on record that I also think you look well, Mr Speaker.
On an equally serious note, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, this Government are committed to ensuring that Northern Ireland businesses have unfettered access to the rest of the United Kingdom. That is why we have taken the steps that we have taken in legislating for the first phase of unfettered access; that is what those clauses in the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill are for. We are building on and learning from the discussions that we have had with businesses and the Northern Ireland Executive. We are pushing hard to secure agreement with the EU on a number of outstanding issues that relate to the protocol, including that of at-risk goods. We accept that tariffs should be paid on goods moving from Great Britain into the EU, but there should not be any tariffs on internal UK movements that begin in Great Britain and end in Northern Ireland; they are internal movements. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will understand that I am not able to comment on the progress of the negotiations, although we are keen to move through them as quickly as possible. I reassure him that we are focused on those issues and are determined to deliver in full on our commitments to the people of Northern Ireland.
I thank the Secretary of State for that helpful response. I am sure that he will agree that those who talk loudly about the Good Friday agreement are the people who are threatening the economic prosperity of Northern Ireland by insisting on measures that are completely unnecessary in terms of protecting the agreement. Will he therefore indicate what progress has been made in securing a commitment from the EU to a significant grace period to allow Northern Ireland businesses sufficient time to adjust to the new arrangements that will be introduced when the transition period ends on 31 December?
The right hon. Gentleman identifies, quite rightly, the importance of ensuring that there is no border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We have accepted the sanitary and phytosanitary checks. We are working with the EU, and both the UK and EU have committed to that intensified process, as colleagues will have seen, and to resolving all outstanding issues with the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol, including securing the flexibilities that we need for trade from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
As I said, the discussions are ongoing. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will continue to understand that I am limited in what I can say as I do not want to pre-empt the outcome of those discussions, but we continue to work closely with the Northern Ireland Executive around the practical implications and operational delivery. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has been working with the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland, and with industry, traders, representative bodies and local authorities to ensure that they are engaged, supported and ready for trading from January 2021. I encourage any business that has not already done so to sign up free with the Trader Support Service.
The Secretary of State will know of the anger among Northern Irish businesspeople over the accusation by the ironically titled Minister for Efficiency and Transformation that they have their
“head stuck in the sand”
on Brexit. Only 30 days from the hard Brexit cliff edge, does the Secretary of State appreciate that most people will have far more sympathy with Northern Irish businessman, Stephen Kelly, who suggests that it is the Government who have their “head stuck somewhere else”? Is it not the case that Northern Ireland businesses have simply been an afterthought in his Government’s chaotic hard Brexit?
If only the hon. Lady was talking to Northern Ireland businesses directly, as my team and I do regularly, most weeks. The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), also engages with businesses in Northern Ireland, as we have been doing consistently throughout this process—including Stephen Kelly, who I do know. It is the information from businesses that fed into the Command Paper that we issued earlier in the year, as well as the guidance that we issued and the work that we are doing to ensure not just that we have unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses to mainland Great Britain—I hope that she and other colleagues will support us in ensuring that it is in the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill to deliver unfettered access, which she claims in her question to support—but also that we get a good free flow of access to ensure that the whole UK internal market can work together, including Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
Given the fact that the Secretary of State has already admitted that the clauses removed by the Lords from the UK Internal Market Bill will break international law, and that the Irish Government, the new US President-elect and the people of Northern Ireland believe that those clauses breach the Northern Ireland protocol, will he commit today to not reinstating them in the Bill next week?
Actually, what those clauses have been about is ensuring that we have unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses to Great Britain. That is something inherent in the protocol. It plays a part in delivering on one of the key sentences in the first few paragraphs in the Northern Ireland protocol that says we will ensure that we do not disrupt the everyday lives of people in their communities. I would have hoped that the hon. Gentleman would support us in ensuring the Northern Ireland businesses can trade in mainland Great Britain as part of the United Kingdom. That is what those clauses are about, as an insurance policy, but obviously our main focus and aim is to secure the right agreement for a wider free trade agreement with the EU, and, indeed, to work with the specialist Joint Committee.
Transition Period: Business Preparedness
We have published guidance throughout the year and are providing extensive support to Northern Ireland businesses. For instance, as I mentioned, we have the Trader Support Service, which is backed by £200 million of funding from the UK Government, and has been well received—it has now had over 16,000 registrations. As we approach the end of the year, we will continue to provide detailed sectoral guidance and information on Government support, and we will step that up as we approach the conclusion of the negotiations to ensure that clear, accessible messages and guidance are provided as soon as possible.
With barely 700 hours to go until the end of the transition period, it is absurd that so many issues still need to be clarified. Does the Secretary of State recognise that Northern Ireland businesses require a clear legal framework in which to operate, and as such, any changes or mitigations have to be agreed with the EU under the protocol, including potentially any grace period, and that doing the opposite places Northern Ireland businesses in a very uncertain legal position going forward and will create long-term problems for them arising from such unilateral action by the Government?
There is a range of things that businesses can be doing and should be doing now, regardless of what the outcome may be, such as signing up to the Trader Support Service. We are intensifying, and have intensified, our work with the specialist Joint Committee. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join me in supporting the clauses in the UK Internal Market Bill that will give businesses certainty by delivering unfettered access to the whole of the UK.
I have been contacted by a large number of my constituents who are involved in the agrifood sector and other businesses. With special reference to the packaging of products and the new labelling structure, I am ever mindful of the approach of 31 December, which has a cost factor for the labels as well. What information has been released for manufacturing companies to have certainty over their packaging?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point that underlines why we are working with him to provide as much certainty as possible. On this particular matter, I am pleased to be able to tell him that we have recently updated our guidance on labelling changes that are required at the end of the transition period. That guidance is now available on gov.uk, and I will make sure that my office sends him the link so that he can send it on to any of those businesses that are inquiring already.
UK Transport Connections
The Secretary of State and I have regular conversations with ministerial colleagues regarding transport connections, which are particularly important for Northern Ireland, given its unique geography. The recently announced independent Union connectivity review will consider how connectivity across the UK can support economic growth. Both the Secretary of State and I have met Sir Peter Hendy and look forward to hearing his recommendations in the summer.
Does the Minister agree that good transport links between all parts of the United Kingdom are vital, and it is therefore extremely disappointing that the Scottish Government are refusing to engage with the Union connectivity review, thereby depriving my constituents of good transport links in all parts of Scotland and better links with other parts of the United Kingdom?
I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend. Every part of the United Kingdom can benefit from investment in our shared infrastructure and connectivity. Unwillingness to engage with the review risks Scotland missing out, and I would certainly urge the Scottish Government to rethink. They should follow the example of the Minister for Infrastructure in the Northern Ireland Executive, who has been engaging constructively with the review.
My father left Northern Ireland in the 1950s and settled in Wolverhampton, which has a large Northern Irish community. It is the same for many communities across Great Britain, including in Scotland. Does the Minister agree that excellent transport links to Northern Ireland are absolutely crucial, and will he make that clear to Sir Peter Hendy as part of the Union connectivity review?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and I recognise, having many Irish and Northern Irish constituents myself, that it is vital that there are excellent transport links across the Irish Sea for trade, for tourism, for the Union and to bring families together. The review will make recommendations on how best to improve connectivity across the UK, including across the Irish Sea, and in the long term certainly we will be making that case to the review.
The main threat to our connectivity between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom over the winter is the unprofitability of airlines due to the covid restrictions. In the medium term, new routes need to be opened to business centres in Europe. Can the Secretary of State give an assurance that he will discuss with the Treasury, first, the reduction or suspension of air passenger duty for a limited period of time and, secondly, what help can be given to opening new routes between Northern Ireland and business centres in Europe?
The Secretary of State and I work closely with colleagues across Government and in the Executive to support the Northern Ireland economy and make the case on air connectivity. There have been discussions with the Department for Transport and, indeed, the Treasury on those matters. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the Treasury is reviewing the air passenger duty issue.
Covid-19: UK-wide Response
The Government and the devolved Administrations continue to work closely together to ensure a co-ordinated approach across the United Kingdom. As set out in our joint statement of 25 September, the UK Government and the devolved Administrations hold a
“shared commitment to suppressing the virus to the lowest possible level and keeping it there”.
Today’s news about a vaccine will be welcomed across every part of the United Kingdom. I was pleased we could agree a united approach to Christmas planning last week. Although each devolved Administration control their public health policy, we have been co-ordinating positively on our response to covid throughout the year.
Coronavirus knows no boundaries, and it is absolutely vital that the UK Government, the Irish Government and the Northern Ireland Assembly work together to deal with it. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is absolutely crucial that we have effective co-operation—north-south and east-west—and a co-ordinated approach to dealing with this pandemic?
I strongly endorse the words of my hon. Friend. This Government are determined to work together with the Northern Irish Executive and the Irish Government to ensure that measures safeguard the health and wellbeing of UK and Irish citizens. There is an existing memorandum of understanding between the chief medical officers for Northern Ireland and for Ireland, which formalises co-ordination and co-operation between the Irish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive in relation to covid-19. The Secretary of State continues to hold regular discussions with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, as well as the Irish Government, to co-operate on covid issues.
With the positive news that the UK will commence covid-19 vaccinations from 14 December, will the Secretary of State commit that if logistical support from Her Majesty’s armed forces is required in Northern Ireland, it will be provided speedily and with the same resources as the rest of our nation?
I would just like to take a little bit of a liberty, Mr Speaker, and take this opportunity to express my deep disappointment that once again the six-time world superbike champion and South Antrim native Jonathan Rea MBE was overlooked for the shortlist of the BBC’s sports personality of the year. I am sure that the Secretary of State will agree with me on that.
The Minister might, as well.
I fear to tread in such a contentious area. The hon. Gentleman is right that the news on a vaccine is good news for the whole United Kingdom. We want to ensure that it is rolled out effectively across the whole United Kingdom, and we shall certainly make representations to ensure that that includes Northern Ireland.
The Government continue to be committed to integrated education in Northern Ireland, which is why we provided £500 million of funding to the Northern Ireland Executive for the development of integrated and shared schools as part of the “Fresh Start” agreement. The Executive have confirmed that they have so far spent £31 million to the end of 2019-20, and the full £500 million of “Fresh Start” capital has been committed to the end of 2025-26. We want to see investment delivered quickly in Northern Ireland, and the establishment of an independent fiscal council would support the Assembly to hold the Executive to account on delivery, as well as on other fiscal and budgetary matters.
Who we learn with and live alongside could scarcely be more fundamental to how we see the world. Integrated education is one of the major unfulfilled legacies of the Good Friday agreement. Is it not time to seize the opportunity presented by the “New Decade, New Approach” deal and together drive real progress on shared education that will build a fairer society?
The short answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is yes.
Last March, I was pleased to host the Integrated Education Fund here in Westminster. We had a very positive cross-party discussion with the fund about how we all support our shared desire to ensure that every child in Northern Ireland gets a good education in a good school. Despite the pandemic, good progress is being made on the ground with the parties to support children. Will the Secretary of State and the Minister commit to doing all they can to support them in delivering this long overdue legacy work?
I agree with the hon. Lady about the importance of this issue. As she knows, under the “New Decade, New Approach” agreement, the Executive agreed to establish a programme for government, including an
“Enhanced strategic focus and supporting actions on educating our children and young people together in the classroom, in order to build a shared and integrated society.”
I have met some of the Northern Irish parties to discuss progress on delivering shared and integrated education, and I share their ambition to speed up delivery. I believe that the establishment of an independent fiscal council would help to accelerate that delivery.
Transition Period: UK Trade
Our commitment to unfettered access for Northern Ireland goods to the rest of the UK, as outlined in NDNA and the 2019 manifesto, remains unequivocal. We have brought forward draft regulations that establish the definition of qualifying Northern Ireland goods, ensuring no changes in how Northern Ireland businesses move goods directly to the rest of the UK from 1 January 2021. The UKIM Bill will ensure that qualifying Northern Ireland goods will continue to be placed on the whole UK market, even where the protocol applies different rules in Northern Ireland. Our priority for a longer-term qualifying goods regime is to confer the benefits of unfettered access specifically on Northern Ireland businesses. That is being developed in close co-operation with Northern Ireland businesses and the Executive and will come into force in 2021.
More than 100,000 freight units destined to and from Northern Ireland transit through Holyhead port each year. Unfettered access is key to not only the Northern Ireland economy but the Anglesey and Welsh economy. Can the Minister confirm that at no stage will this Government allow a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and that that is just as important as avoiding a tariffs and customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK?
My hon. Friend is right, and I know that her constituency of Ynys Môn plays a vital part in the links between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. The protocol was designed to address a particular set of problems in a way that upholds the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. It is a practical solution to avoid a hard border with Ireland, while ensuring that the UK, including Northern Ireland, leaves the EU as a whole. The protocol is also clear that the UK must function as a single customs territory in practice, and that means fulfilling our commitment to delivering unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses to the rest of the Great Britain market as well.
Good Friday Agreement: Implementation
The Government remain steadfast in our commitment to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, and we will continue to support the institutions in delivering peace and prosperity for the people of Northern Ireland. A key institution created as a result of the agreement is the Northern Ireland Assembly, which was restored this year following the “New Decade, New Approach” agreement in January. The best way forward for Northern Ireland lies in strong devolved institutions that support the Executive and Assembly to deliver on the issues that matter to the people of Northern Ireland.
The Good Friday agreement comes of age today, as it became effective 21 years ago. It provided a platform for the development of excellent economic and social relationships between Northern Ireland and Merseyside. What conversations has the Secretary of State had to ensure that nothing that happens in the next month puts that progress at risk?
The hon. Lady makes an excellent point. That is exactly what the clauses in the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill are about—ensuring that businesses in Northern Ireland continue to trade as part of the United Kingdom with unfettered access, which is of benefit to companies in Liverpool, so I hope she will support the Bill when it comes back to the House.
Last week alone, three journalists were issued with violent threats by loyalist paramilitaries. The BBC has seen evidence that loyalist paramilitary groups have over 12,500 members, and there are more dissident groups than during the troubles. Does the Secretary of State agree that a toxic combination of deprivation and a failure to deal with the legacy of the past has created a fertile breeding ground for paramilitary groups?
I am sure the hon. Lady would agree with me that obviously there is no place for violence or threats of any description to anybody in Northern Ireland, including media and political players in Northern Ireland. It is completely unacceptable. There is no excuse for it, and actually arguing that it is in any way acceptable because of any other particular issue is, I think, a fallacy and the wrong position to take. I have to say that we are making huge investments. There has obviously been about £20 billion for the Northern Ireland Executive this year, between the block grant and the extra support that the UK Government have put in, on top of having what are financially the biggest city and growth deals in the United Kingdom to ensure that we are levelling up. That is something we are determined to do for the people of Northern Ireland, as we are for the rest of the United Kingdom.
On Monday, the Secretary of State told the House that he had ceased engaging on legacy issues at the request of victims groups, but he knows that the largest cross-community victims group in Northern Ireland, the WAVE Trauma Centre, has expressed serious concerns at his lack of engagement and, indeed, has described him as “dangerously deluded”. Can he confirm to the House exactly when he will meet those at the WAVE Trauma Centre and when he will present an update on legacy proposals to this House?
I am a little bit surprised by what the hon. Lady just outlined, as it was actually the WAVE group that, back in March, asked us to pause on engagement as it and its members were focused on covid, which I think was a reasonable position. I think it was right, as people were focused on covid. However, as I have said a few times to the hon. Lady and to this House, I think that action on legacy, which is such a sensitive and important issue, to make sure we can help Northern Ireland move forward and put the troubles in the past is an important thing to do. It is also important to get that information for the victims and the families of victims who have been looking for that information now for far too long. We are determined to do that by engaging with the people of Northern Ireland, as well as our partners in the Irish Government and the United States and the political parties in Northern Ireland, and when we have done that, I will come back to this House. However, this has to be something that is done with the support of and engagement with the people of Northern Ireland.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Today, I am proudly wearing purple to celebrate the International Day for Disabled People, which is of course tomorrow. Next year, we will publish our national strategy for disabled people, which will be the most ambitious intervention in this area for a generation, putting fairness at the heart of the Government’s work and levelling up so that everybody has the opportunity fully to participate in the life of this country.
I know that the whole House will want to join me in welcoming the fantastic news that the MHRA—the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency—has formally authorised the Pfizer vaccine for covid-19. The vaccine will begin to be made available across the UK from next week. I would like to pay tribute to and to thank all those who have made this possible. It is the protection of vaccines that will ultimately allow us to reclaim our lives and get our economy moving again.
This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
I would like to share in the congratulations of the Prime Minister on the creation of this new vaccine and the speed with which it has been got out, and to give those congratulations especially to the engineers, technicians and scientists who have delivered it. I believe that we should support the widest distribution and take-up of safe and effective medicines, but does my right hon Friend agree with me that it should always be taken on a wholly voluntary basis by individuals and families?
Absolutely. I strongly urge people to take up the vaccine, but it is no part of our culture or our ambition in this country to make vaccines mandatory. That is not how we do things.
May I join the Prime Minister in his comments on disabled people?
Like the Prime Minister, can I start with the fantastic news about the licensing of a vaccine? This pandemic has caused so much grief and so much loss, but we are now a big step closer to the end of the tunnel. Like the Prime Minister, can I express my thanks and the thanks of everyone on these Benches and across the House to all the scientists who have worked on this and to everybody who has taken part in the trials. Delivering a vaccine fairly, quickly and safely will now be the next major challenge facing the country, and whatever our differences across this House, we have all a duty to play our part in this national effort and to reassure the public about the safety of the vaccine.
This morning, a priority list has been published for the first phase of the roll-out. We understand that around 800,000 doses will soon be available, and that is good news. Because of the two doses that will be required, that means 400,000 people can be vaccinated in the first batch. So can the Prime Minister tell the House: who does he expect to receive the vaccine next week?
I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for his point about the roll-out, and I will perhaps update the House on what the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has concluded so far. The priority list will be: residents in a care home for older adults, and their carers, in order to stop transmission; those of 80 years of age or older; front-line health care and social care workers; all those of 75 years of age and over; all those of 70 years of age and over; and clinically extremely vulnerable individuals. There is then a list that I am sure the House will want to study closely, but that I believe represents common sense.
It is important at this stage for us all to recognise that this is unquestionably good news—it is very, very good news—but it is by no means the end of the story; it is not the end of our national struggle against coronavirus. That is why it is important that the package of moderately tough measures that the House voted for last night—the tiering system—is followed across the country, because that is how we will continue to beat the virus.
The Prime Minister has referenced the priorities for the first phase, and as he said, the top two priority groups are residents in care homes for older adults and their carers, all those of 80 years of age and over, and front-line health and social care workers. I am not criticising that list in the slightest, but it is obvious that that is more than 400,000 people. The Prime Minister will understand how anxious people in those particular groups are, after having sacrificed so much. Will he give the House the answer to the question that they will be asking this morning, which is: by when does he expect that all people in those two top groups can expect to be vaccinated?
At this stage it is very important that people do not get their hopes up too soon about the speed with which we will be able to roll out this vaccine. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care said, it is beginning from next week, and we are expecting several million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine before the end of the year. We will then be rolling it out as fast as we possibly can. That is why I put so much emphasis on the continuing importance of the tiering system and of mass community testing, at the same time as we go forward through these tough winter months. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is right to ask about timetables, but at the same time as we roll out the vaccine over the next few weeks, we will need to keep that tough tiering and testing regime in place.
May I press the Prime Minister a bit further about the plan for care homes? I do so because we all want this to work. The top category is residents in care homes, and this will obviously be a huge concern for many people. This morning the Welsh Government have already raised some serious practical problems about the delivery of vaccines into care homes, bearing in mind the temperatures at which the vaccines have to be stored. The Prime Minister must know that this is going to be a four-nation problem, and he must be aware that this problem will arise. We all want to overcome that problem, and in that spirit I ask the Prime Minister what plans he has put in place to address the particular problems of getting the vaccine safely and quickly into care homes, given the practical difficulties of doing so, and the anxiety that those in care homes will have about getting it quickly?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman is entirely right to raise the issue of care homes and our ability to distribute this particular type of vaccine rapidly into care homes, because it does need to be kept at minus 70°, as I think the House understands, so there are logistical challenges to be overcome to get vulnerable people the access to the vaccine that they need. We are working on it with all the devolved Administrations in order to ensure that the NHS across the country—it is the NHS that will be in the lead—is able to distribute it as fast and as sensibly as possible to the most vulnerable groups.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman is right to raise that particular logistical difficulty. That is why it is also important that we get the AstraZeneca vaccine, which we hope will also come on stream. While he is paying tribute to those who have been involved in the vaccines, perhaps he could also pay tribute to the work of the vaccine taskforce, which secured the deal with Pfizer and which he, I think, criticised only a few weeks ago.
I pay tribute to everybody who has got us this far, and we will work with all of them to get us where we need to go next. This has to be something that we all pull together to deliver as quickly and safely as possible over the next few months. I have made that offer to the Prime Minister before, and I do it again.
It is in that vein that I turn to the next question, which is about public confidence in the vaccine. That is a real cause for concern, because it is going to be crucial to the success of getting this rolled out across the country and getting our economy back up and running. As the Prime Minister knows, we have the highest regulatory and medical safety standards in the world, but it is really important that we do everything possible to counter dangerous, frankly life-threatening disinformation about vaccines. The Opposition have called for legislation to be introduced to clamp down on this, with financial penalties for companies that fail to act. Will the Prime Minister work with us on this and bring forward emergency legislation in the coming days, which I think the whole House would support?
We are, of course, working to tackle all kinds of disinformation across the internet. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is right to single out the anti-vaxxers and those who I think are totally wrong in their approach, and he is right to encourage take-up of vaccines across the country. We will be publishing a paper very shortly on online harms designed to tackle the very disinformation that he speaks of.
May I also urge the Prime Minister, once the Government have a communications plan for the vaccine, to share it with the House so that we can all say the same thing in the same way to the country and thus encourage as many people as possible to take up the vaccine?
The arrival of the vaccine is obviously wonderful news, but it will come too late for many who have lost their jobs already. I want to turn to the collapse of the Arcadia Group and Debenhams in the last 48 hours. That has put 25,000 jobs at risk and obviously caused huge anxiety to many families at the worst possible time, and it threatens to rip the heart out of many high streets in our towns and cities. Can the Prime Minister tell the House what he is going to do now to protect the jobs and pensions of all those affected by these closures?
We are looking at what we can do to protect all the jobs that are being lost currently across the country. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has written to the Insolvency Service to look at the conduct of the Arcadia directors, and we will be doing everything we can to restore the high streets of this country with our £1 billion high streets fund and the levelling-up fund. But I must say that I think it is a bit much that the right hon. and learned Gentleman should attack the economic consequences of the fight against coronavirus when last night neither he nor his troops could be bothered to vote for measures—sensible, balanced measures—that would open up the economy and allow businesses to trade. How can he attack the economic consequences of our battle against coronavirus when he will not even support measures to open up the economy?
When I abstain, I come to the House and explain. When the Prime Minister abstains, he runs away to Afghanistan and gives the taxpayer a £20,000 bill.
On the question of jobs, there are serious questions that need to be answered about the collapse of these businesses. I do not want the Prime Minister to deflect from that and what it means for these many families. This is not an isolated incident; over 200,000 retail jobs have been lost this year—that is 200,000 individuals and their families—and 20,000 stores have been closed on our high street, and that is before the latest restrictions. I suspect that if we had seen that scale of job losses in any other sector, there would have been much greater action already.
I urge the Prime Minister to take this seriously; do not deflect. As well as providing emergency support, will he work with us, the trade unions and the sector to finally bring forward a comprehensive plan to save retail jobs and to provide the sector with the much greater support it needs through this crisis? These are real people, Prime Minister, with real jobs and families, who are facing the sack. They really need to hear from you.
We are, of course, supporting every job we possibly can, as well as supporting every life and every livelihood, with a £200 billion programme. I would take the right hon. and learned Gentleman more seriously, frankly, if he actually could be bothered to vote for a moderate programme to keep the virus down and open up the economy. We are getting on with our programme of rolling out the vaccine and sensible tiering measures, in addition to which we are delivering 40 more hospitals and 20,000 more police officers. He talks about abstention. When it came to protecting our veterans from unfair prosecution, he chose to abstain. When it came to protecting the people of this country from coronavirus at this critical moment, he told his troops to abstain. Captain Hindsight is rising rapidly up the ranks and has become General Indecision. That is what is happening, I am afraid, to the right hon. and learned Gentleman. He dithers; we get on with the job.
My hon. Friend is a magnificent and doughty campaigner for Wakefield. I know that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will listen very closely to his call for the national infrastructure bank to be established in Wakefield. My hon. Friend should wait on events.
This morning, for the first time in months, people have woken up with a genuine sense of hope. The news on the vaccine approval is the news we have all been waiting for. For many, however, that hope on the horizon remains far too distant. There are millions who still have not had a single penny of support from this UK Government. As others rightly received help, they received none. Prime Minister, yesterday I met ExcludedUK, which represents many of those 3 million citizens. For the past nine months, the excluded have been living without any help and without any hope. It is now, tragically, costing lives. Prime Minister, they told me something genuinely shocking. They are aware of eight people who have taken their lives in the past 10 days—eight people in 10 days. Prime Minister, we are now a little over three weeks from Christmas. These people need help. Will the Prime Minister commit to looking again at the support package for the excluded, to ensure that no one, but no one, is left behind?
I obviously sympathise very much with those who have taken their lives and their families. This has been a very tough time for the country. We are investing massively in mental health support across the country, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, which flows through, in Barnett consequentials, to Scotland. We have put in a huge package of support. He knows this, but I must repeat this for self-employed people across the country. I know there are hard-to-reach people, but they are also supported with the increases in universal credit and the many other means of support that are currently on offer. When we look at the overall level of support this Government have given the people across the country, it compares favourably with any other Government around the world.
I have to say, and I do this with regret, that that simply is not good enough. These people need help, and I am asking the Prime Minister to think very carefully about this. This has been an abject failure by this UK Government, and the Prime Minister has been missing in action. The Government have U-turned on almost everything else, so why cannot the Prime Minister and the Chancellor change their minds on their support for these 3 million people? These are people working in construction, creative industries, events, education, hospitality, retail and healthcare. They have not just been left behind; they have been ignored for nine months. The Chancellor has repeatedly dodged this issue. ExcludedUK has not been offered one formal meeting with a Government Minister. Will the Prime Minister commit today to a meeting and working with ExcludedUK on a meaningful package of support, or is he simply going to abandon these people three weeks from Christmas?
We have abandoned nobody and we are continuing to support people. In addition to the support I have already mentioned, we have announced nearly £400 million to support vulnerable children and their families through the winter. We have increased universal credit, as I just mentioned to the House, increased the local housing allowance and provided billions more to local authorities to help those who are hardest to reach. I may say to the right hon. Gentleman that the best way to help the self-employed, and to help the economy of this whole country, is to get us moving again with the package of measures that the House voted for last night to allow retail to start up again and to allow business to start up again—
The hon. Gentleman says it is shameful. We on the Government side of the House do not think retail is shameful. We want businesses to open up again, and that is the nature of the package that was voted for last night, which I think was quite right. It is a great, great shame that the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) could not bring himself to support it.
Yes, I can, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on his campaign. Any decision to allow for the sale of the hospital is, of course, a matter for the local clinical commissioning group, but I know that he fully supports the £12 million that we put in for the development of a new health and wellbeing centre for Edenbridge.
I call Liz Saville Roberts.
Diolch yn fawr iawn, Mr Llefarydd. I would like to add my voice to those welcoming the licensing of the vaccine; this really is a ray of light in dark times.
Last week, the Prime Minister’s Government published their statement of funding, showing a reduction in the amount that Wales receives from transport spend in England, from 80.9% to 36.6%. This reveals in black and white the iniquity of the rail betrayal being inflicted on Wales. Welsh taxpayers are paying for English transport and HS2, but we do not get a fair return. Will he inform the House how much investment he is funnelling away from Wales due to his Government’s decision to label this white elephant an England and Wales scheme, despite not a single inch of the railway being in Wales?
I simply fail to recognise the characterisation that the right hon. Lady makes of investment across the whole of the UK. The Welsh Government will receive an additional £1.3 billion next year. We are providing £240 million more to support Welsh farmers and £2.1 million to support fisheries in Wales. The last time I looked at transport in Wales, the Welsh Labour Government spent £144 million on plans for an M4 bypass, which they then junked.
Yes, indeed. I congratulate the three female entrepreneurs whom my hon. Friend mentioned. They will be helped by the vaccine, they will be allowed to do business again, and what a shame it is that our programme, which was sensibly and safely to open up the economy, was not supported by the Leader of the Opposition.
If the hon. Gentleman wants to keep this country in the EU, which I think was the gist of what he was saying, he will be sorely disappointed and so will the Labour party.
Yes, indeed. My hon. Friend reminds me that it is Small Business Saturday this Saturday. Everybody should be shopping local. I can also tell him that the Treasury is considering the responses to the call for evidence on business rates ahead of the review’s conclusion in the spring.
We are doing a huge amount to support our aviation industry, but I appreciate the stress and difficulties that many families are in at the moment because of the threats to that sector, which are global, alas, because people are just not flying in the way that they were before the pandemic. I have every hope that it will bounce back very strongly, particularly in this country, which is a world leader in aviation, once we get the economy moving again, as I hope we can.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his excellent suggestion. He is a great champion of small business. Every measure that the Government produce is judged by the effect or impact it will have on businesses large and small. As he knows, we are also providing for these particularly difficult circumstances about £100 billion in business support—the bounce back loans and many other forms of support—but the best thing for businesses large and small is for us to shop local, as I said earlier, and to allow the economy cautiously and prudently to reopen.
I would take the hon. Lady’s point more seriously if she and her party could be bothered to vote for measures—[Interruption.]
I am sorry—she defied the Labour Whip. Forgive me, Mr Speaker. She defied the injunction to dither from the ditherer-in-chief. She did not obey his instruction to dither. I would take her more seriously if her party leader would vote for measures that would open up the economy while protecting lives across the UK.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I repeat what I said to the House several times yesterday afternoon. Of course we want to reflect local conditions as closely and accurately as we can in taking our decisions about tiering, but we must look at the entire national picture. On his point about internal combustion engines, I would just remind him that a hydrogen engine can also be an internal combustion engine.
I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s question. She is raising an important issue. I know that many people suffer from the syndrome that she describes, and I will ensure that she gets a proper meeting with the relevant Minister to discuss her objectives.
Yes, indeed. My hon. Friend is completely right about the importance of the new UK shared prosperity fund. It will be different from the levelling-up fund and we are going to work closely with him and with people in Cornwall to ensure that we use the additional funding best for the needs of people and communities in Cornwall.
On the last point, that is a matter for the Scottish Government, who have the fiscal freedom to do that. I thank health and social care workers in Scotland and across the whole country, and I am proud of the increases we have been able to put in—12.8% over the past three years, and a pay rise for 1 million people in the NHS, as part of the biggest ever investment in the NHS, even before covid began. This investment will continue under this Government.
I am proud that the UK led the way in instituting a target of net zero by 2050; of all the developed nations, we were the first. We are looking at our nationally determined contribution, which will be extremely ambitious and will be published around the time of the climate summit on 12 December this year.
I just repeat the point I made earlier about the huge sums the Government have invested in looking after families’ lives and livelihoods across the whole of the UK—this is well north of £200 billion now. As the hon. Gentleman rightly says, there has been a UC uplift of £1,000. We will continue to support families across this country throughout the pandemic, but the objective must be, as I hope he would agree, to get the economy moving again and get people back into work in the way that everybody would want. It is a fact that under this Government, despite all the difficulties we have faced, the unemployment rate is lower than that in France, Spain, Italy, Canada and the United States. We will continue to work to look after every job that we can.
In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am suspending the House for three minutes.
Arcadia and Debenhams: Business Support and Job Retention
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to make a statement on support for business and the retention of jobs on the high street in light of the announcement of Arcadia entering administration and Debenhams going into liquidation.
Speaking as the retail Minister, let me say that I hope the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) realises that although the Secretary of State is not here, we take this incredibly seriously. That is why I want to focus on the detail, because it is a worrying time for the retail sector, particularly for those affected by the announcements this week.
On Monday, Arcadia Group Ltd, which employs approximately 13,000 people, appointed administrators, who are assessing all options available to the group. They will honour orders made over the black Friday weekend. No redundancies have yet been announced and existing sales channels will continue to operate while administrators evaluate options. The Secretary of State has written to the Insolvency Service asking that it expedites consideration of the administrators’ report. Yesterday, Debenhams, which employs approximately 12,000 people, announced the decision of administrators to wind down the company. No redundancies have been announced and existing sales channels will continue to operate while administrators evaluate options. We know that this will be a worrying time for employees and their families, and we stand ready to support them. I pay a particular tribute to the hard-working staff, who have kept these well recognised businesses going in difficult times for so long.
Although the Government have no role in the strategic direction or management of private retail companies, we are in regular contact with both companies and the administrators in order to understand fully the situation they are facing. The coronavirus crisis has made life difficult for retailers such as Arcadia and Debenhams, particularly those that were already facing challenging trading conditions before the pandemic. We acted quickly at the start of the pandemic to deliver one of the most generous and comprehensive economic packages in the world. It included: the coronavirus job retention scheme, which up to 30 September had provided £7.7 billion-worth of support to companies in the retail and wholesale sector; removing all eligible properties in the retail, hospitality and leisure sectors from business rates for 12 months—that is worth more than £10 billion; cash grants of up to £25,000 for retail, hospitality and leisure businesses with a rateable value of between £15,000 and £51,000; more than £50 billion in business loans, which supported 9.6 million jobs and provided flexibility; and legislation to protect commercial tenants from eviction.
Through the plan for jobs, we have also announced a series of measures to protect, support and create jobs, including our £2 billion kickstart scheme and a doubling of the number of frontline work coaches, which will be important in this situation in particular. The Government have committed to supporting the retail sector, and we are working closely with industry through these unprecedented times, particularly to ensure the safe reopening of non-essential retail today. On Monday, my right hon. Friend the Communities Secretary encouraged local authorities to allow shops to open for extended hours, to accommodate more shoppers safely in the lead-up to Christmas. I will continue to work with the sector to meet future challenges. Indeed, I will co-chair the next meeting of the Retail Sector Council tomorrow to discuss our strategic approach to the sector. I have regular retail calls, including one last week, with representatives from Arcadia among the retailers on that call. We are confident that the sector has the skills, knowledge and drive to bounce back.
Let me join the Minister in expressing deep sympathy for those who are at risk of losing their jobs. The test of Government, and indeed the House, is whether that sympathy translates into action, so I have four specific questions for him.
First, Philip Green owes workers at Arcadia a moral duty. His family took from the company a dividend worth £1.2 billion, the largest in UK history, more than three times the size of the pension deficit. Workers at Arcadia should not pay the price of Philip Green’s greed, so will the Minister now publicly call for Philip Green to make good any shortfall in the pension scheme, and will he ensure that the Pensions Regulator takes all possible steps to make sure that that happens?
Secondly, we need to learn lessons. In the summer, Labour tabled amendments to the Corporate Governance and Insolvency Bill to make pension fund holders priority creditors when businesses went bust. The Minister said it was not necessary. Does he now agree that that was a mistake, that that change would have better protected the pensions at Arcadia and that this should be put right through legislation in the future?
Thirdly, on the workers at Debenhams and Arcadia facing redundancy, given the scale of redundancies and the grim economic backdrop, will the Minister look at providing specific and targeted help for them to get back into work? Fourthly, we have an emergency on our high streets, with an estimated 20,000 shops closing and 200,000 workers losing their jobs since the economic crisis began. While we welcome the support that has been provided, will he recognise that the Government must do more: extend the rent evictions moratorium beyond December, when it is due to expire; increase support for hospitality businesses, which was called for across the House yesterday; and address the massive disadvantage that high street businesses face around business rates compared with online retailers?
Today is a day of great news on the vaccine, but the Government have a massive responsibility to preserve the businesses and jobs we will need on the other side of this crisis. They are still not acting on a scale that meets the economic emergency our country faces. They need to do so.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising some really important points. On pension schemes and support for those facing redundancy, the majority of defined pension schemes are run effectively. We are fortunate to have a robust and flexible system of pension protection in the UK. The independent Pensions Regulator has a range of powers to protect pension schemes, and it works closely with those involved. For schemes where the employer goes insolvent, the Pension Protection Fund is there to help protect the members. Anybody already in receipt of a pension will continue to be paid, and other members will receive at least Pension Protection Fund compensation levels. The Pension Protection Fund is confident that its funding plan investment approach positions it well to weather the current market volatility and future challenges.
It would not be appropriate at this stage for Ministers to comment on individual cases, which are a matter for the regulator. However, in respect of staff facing possible redundancy, the Department for Work and Pensions’ rapid response service has been in ongoing conversations with Debenhams and has now been in contact with Arcadia. Both have been offered support by the rapid response service, including connecting people to jobs in the labour market, helping with job search—including CV writing, interview skills, where to find jobs and how to apply for them—helping to identify transferable skills and skills gaps linked to the local labour market and what benefits they may get and how to claim. I talked about the fact that we have doubled the number of workplace support staff in Jobcentre Plus. Clearly, knowing where the big stores are, for Debenhams in particular, we will be able to offer that sort of targeted support.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about his proposed changes to the Corporate Insolvency and Governance Bill. This was a matter of balance, because elevating pension debts, which can often be quite large, will by its very nature dilute the amount available to trade and credit suppliers, but also to other suppliers, including people with unpaid wages. It is trying to get that complexity and balance right.
Finally, the right hon. Gentleman talks about hospitality and support for other sectors. Clearly, the high street is an ecosystem—it is not only about shops and retail. We need to make sure that we do as much as we can to continue to wrap our arms around the economy at this particularly challenging time. As he acknowledges, there is light at the end of the tunnel, but we must not take our foot off the gas. We must remain alert, in terms of our own behaviours, as community members going up and down the high street, shopping local where we can to support retailers as they remain open, but also as a Government, making sure that we support the retail and hospitality sectors through both the support that I mentioned but also through encouraging them to be able to trade and remain open in all three tiers as best we can.
I am sure the thoughts of the whole House will be with employees of Debenhams and Arcadia, who face huge uncertainty this week, particularly in the run-up to Christmas. These are long-standing bastions of the high street. However, both organisations have been struggling for quite some time; indeed, Debenhams has been in administration since January. While no redundancies have yet been announced, many of my constituents will be affected. Can my hon. Friend assure me that, if the worst were to happen, the Government are ready to support anyone affected, whether through jobcentres or universal credit?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I know her constituents will be concerned about this. We are prepared to step up concentration within Jobcentre Plus. We will make sure there is support for people in finding jobs and for retaining as many jobs as possible on our high streets.
I am sure the Minister agrees that there is a great deal of public affection for the Arcadia brands and in particular for Debenhams. While we must hope that redundancies can be avoided wherever possible, this is a sad day for our embattled high streets. All our thoughts are with the thousands of workers, including those in my constituency, many of whom have given years, or even decades, of service in retail, who will be devastated by this news. They must be given all the help they can get to ensure that all their pension rights are retained. Will the Minister ensure that Sir Philip Green’s obligations to pensions are met, and will his Department work with trade unions to make sure that the workers are treated fairly and adequately supported through the process?
Like others, many of the workers will face difficulty in putting food on the table and finding a new job or retraining in a crowded market. They will need the safety net of universal credit to make ends meet. I urge the Minister to use his best efforts and to work with colleagues to retain the £20 a week uplift and to scrap the planned benefit cap that will cost an average of £250 a month. Universal credit is already not enough; taking away the uplift is taking food from people’s tables.
We need to remember that many small businesses in local supply chains will be affected by the news. Some of them will not survive without support, while the owners of others will be joining the 3 million people who have been excluded from support. The Government cannot continue to ignore them. I urge the Minister again to finally get support to this group, who are becoming increasingly desperate.
The existing commitments made to the Pensions Regulator do indeed need to be kept—it is important to say that.
The hon. Gentleman talks about support for employees. If people need financial support quickly, they may be able to claim universal credit and/or employment and support allowance. Our plan for jobs includes a series of measures to protect, support and create jobs, because it is important to get the people affected back into work as soon as possible. We have our £238 million job entry targeted support programme to support that.
The hon. Gentleman also talks about the possibility of suppliers losing out. Administrators will take over the company and seek to establish the position regarding suppliers. The trade credit reinsurance scheme is designed to support businesses coping with the economic impacts of covid-19 and to ensure that there is adequate confidence and credit in supply chains.
As my hon. Friend is aware, the Arcadia Group is headquartered in my constituency and its brands, including Debenhams and Topshop, have their flagship stores on Oxford Street. Covid has the potential to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back for bricks-and-mortar retailers. The New West End Company and I welcome the continuing support of my hon. Friend and his Department for the retail sector. I note the Government’s announcement this week on extending shopping trading hours for Monday to Saturday until January but, particularly in the short term, an extension of Sunday trading hours would be of huge benefit to retailers. Will my hon. Friend support me, The Sun on Sunday newspaper, retailers such as Marks & Spencer and others who are campaigning to extend Sunday trading?
I look forward to joining the New West End Company and, I assume, my hon. Friend on Saturday to celebrate not only Small Business Saturday but traffic-free shopping in the west end. The west end accounts for 3% of the entire UK economy and many, many jobs. We do not propose to extend Sunday trading at this stage, but we are extending shopping hours throughout the weekdays. We want to work with local authorities to make sure that they can support the safe return of shoppers to high streets up and down the country, including in the west end.
The collapse of Arcadia and Debenhams are two big examples of the broader challenge of survival in the high street-based retail sector. Every job lost and every store closed is devastating for families and communities across the entire country. The Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee has today written to the Secretary of State, and I know we will have full answers in due course, but may I ask the Minister one specific question about support for small businesses in the retail supply chain? I wish to push him a bit further on whether there will be specific support—perhaps a taskforce—for small retail businesses, to help with the hundreds of millions of pounds of orders that could go unpaid.
I cannot give specifics on a taskforce or any other group, but we will look acutely at what we can do for supply chains and the future of the high street. When flagship stores like the 200-odd-year-old Debenhams leave our high streets, it is so important to make sure that we have a co-ordinated response. I will happily work with the hon. Gentleman on that.
My hon. Friend, and the whole House, is concerned about the numbers of jobs potentially lost in the Arcadia Group, but we also have to be concerned about those employed by microbusinesses, perhaps without premises, who have so far not benefited from Government schemes to support them. Will he think again about those who so far have not had Government support and may well be adversely impacted by the news we have heard about Arcadia if they work in the retail supply chain?
My right hon. Friend raises a really important point. We have wrapped our arms around the economy, but clearly it is very difficult to do things at pace to cover everybody. We will always make sure that we reflect on what happens, to help as many people as we can and try to fill the cracks as best we can.
I, too, express my sympathies to all those employees of Debenhams and the Arcadia Group who find themselves out of work so close to Christmas and in such an uncertain time. Will the Minister’s Department work with local authorities to support them to offer more flexible rates terms to new businesses that want to come in and set up in the large voids that a lot of town centres will be experiencing in their retail spaces? Those voids affect town centres and communities. What can the Department do to work with local authorities to lower the barriers to new entrants into the retail sector?
There are plenty of things on which we can work together with the sector and, indeed, the whole gamut of British high street businesses, including by talking about getting the rent balance right between landlords and tenants, as well as rates, as the hon. Lady says. The Economic Secretary to the Treasury is joining me on tomorrow’s Retail Sector Council call that I mentioned, to talk about the fundamental business rates review. I hope we will be able to work with local authorities to get that flexibility.
Does my hon. Friend agree that Dudley Council and other local leaders in my constituency will play an instrumental role in rebuilding and revitalising the high street? Will he confirm that the high streets taskforce will stand ready to provide whatever advice may be needed in this endeavour?
I know that my hon. Friend works tirelessly for his constituency and local economy. It is so important that we get together to look at the high street, because many of these conversations were about what the high street will look like in 10 or 15 years’ time, but now they are about what the high street will look like next year and maybe only the year after. We have to get a speedy but holistic response.
The business rate relief for retailers this year has been welcome, but it was obviously not sufficient for Debenhams and Arcadia and all their employees, who will tragically lose their jobs just before Christmas. There is a fundamental unfairness in the fact that Amazon pays only 0.7% of its turnover in business rates and high street retailers pay 2% or more. Last year, the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee suggested that the Government look at bringing in a digital sales tax and use the money to provide long-term business rate relief for retailers on the high street. Given that the Government promised to look at business rate reform in 2015, will they now get on with it and give that certainty of reduced business rates to the high street as a matter of urgency?
That is an important question, and it is exactly why we are doing fundamental business rates reform. The first stage of the consultation has ended, and we will respond in the new year, but we need to have a comprehensive approach to tackle this both online and offline.
The Risborough basket is an innovative scheme founded by Princes Risborough Town Council in my constituency, with a mission to keep the pound in the town, enabling local shoppers to buy from small independent retailers and have their purchases personally delivered. It is a real boost to those high street businesses, but in setting up the scheme, they have come across a number of regulatory burdens. Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating everyone who set up the Risborough basket and commit to working with them, so that we can get rid of those regulatory burdens and ensure that such schemes can help high streets up and down the land?
The Risborough basket is one of those brutally simple schemes that are from the grassroots up. It is fantastic to hear about that innovation, and I would love to see what we can do to spread it across the country, never mind working with the council to get rid of some of the burdens in bureaucracy and regulation to help it prosper.
Mr Speaker, thank you so much for the opportunity to ask this young Minister to take a message back to No. 10 and the Chancellor of the Exchequer. As someone who worked in retail as a young man, and as a Co-op Member of Parliament, I know about retail. We have a workforce facing redundancy and hardship at Christmas. What we want from this Government is a strategy and leadership, not crocodile tears. A fifth of young people have lost their jobs. With 20,000 jobs, the kickstart programme has hardly touched young people’s lives. Will he get on with it and take that message back to No. 10?
The hon. Gentleman talks about me being young, which he can do many times over, but as he says, retail is largely staffed by young people and those on comparatively low pay, so there is so much we can do. The strategy comes not just from Government but from working with the sector. The Retail Sector Council can take a long-term view, but we can also work with retailers on the short-term covid response. This is something for all of us to tackle.
Not many of my constituents will shed a tear for Philip Green, but we should be profoundly concerned about the 25,000 jobs at risk of redundancy. The high street has been under unprecedented pressure. I welcome the remarks that my hon. Friend made about the business rates review, but will he commit this afternoon to an extension of another six to 12 months in which rates are either reduced or reprieved, to give the high street the best chance of recovery?
I know that those in the Treasury will have listened to that, and they are very aware, particularly in relation to retail and hospitality, of the cliff edge that comes when business rates are due to return at the end of April. We will certainly look at that, and an announcement will be forthcoming.
In 1791, Susannah Towsey, a draper and haberdasher, moved to more commodious premises on Eastgate Street in Chester. She became Susannah Brown, and Browns of Chester still trades today at the retail heart of Chester, as part of Debenhams. As with other retail premises, it has been undermined by dodgy sale and leaseback property deals led by private equity firms, which has not helped the situation. Browns is one of Debenhams’s stores that trades well, at a profit. Will the Minister speak to administrators and support them, so that where there is potential for shops to continue as a going concern, that is explored and supported?
I agree that it is so important that we continue a viable business where it is possible, and I know that the administrators will have that at heart.
The news about Debenhams and Arcadia will cause many concerns as we head into Christmas. Can my hon. Friend reiterate the support that the Government will make available to the employees who face an uncertain future? Further to that, this year alone in Barrow, we have lost M&S and Topshop, so Debenhams will be another heavy blow. What support will the Government provide to offer hope to the high street in future?
In terms of employees, as well as universal credit and access to other support through Jobcentre Plus, we will connect people to jobs in the labour market, help with their employment skills, such as CV writing, interview skills and so on, and identify transferable skills. It is, though, so important that we do more than that for our high streets to create the opportunities for those people to take up, through the future high streets fund and the work that we are doing with the Retail Sector Council and others at every level of government.
The Minister will be aware that a third of all retail jobs are held by people under the age of 25, and that a huge number of retail workers are women, because it allows flexible working and part-time hours. He will also be aware that many jobs in retail are highly skilled. It is a complete misconception that working in retail is not skilled and that, in years gone by, it was not a job or a profession for life. What specific support will the Minister put in place to offer to young people and to women, who will be more disproportionately affected by this and who have also been more disproportionately affected by the covid pandemic, to ensure that we do not have a lost generation of young people when it comes to finding their first job?
Essentially, it is about creating those jobs and opportunities on the high street to ensure that we can keep retail and expand the offering on our high streets. Clearly, though, we need to ensure that we have that skills transfer work at jobcentre level and elsewhere to encourage our young people to take up those opportunities.
Order. Before we go to Bob Blackman, let me try to help, because I know how important it is to everybody to get on with the Order Paper, by saying that we need to speed up the answers and speed up the questions. I do not want to miss out people, but we may have to if we do not speed up. I am sure that Bob Blackman will provide us with a good example of speed.
Debenhams in Harrow town centre is an anchor store to the town centre. When Debenhams went into administration, 20 stores across its network were due to close. Fortunately, Harrow was not one of them. However, this has a long-term effect on the entirety of Harrow town centre, so will my hon. Friend—[Inaudible.]
Minister, can you pick out the best of that?
I think my hon. Friend was talking about anchor stores and the effect on the high street. I know him very well, so I can predict his question. Yes, if we take out an anchor store, we hollow out a high street, so it is so important that we look at this holistically, work together with local government, national Government and with retailers themselves to build up our high streets and shape them anew.
Ellesmere Port, like many places, has seen an exodus from the high street over the past decade, which has been accelerated in the past year. Of course, it is no coincidence that, at the same time, online retail is booming, but my constituents do not judge the vibrancy of an area by the number of delivery drivers up their street; they judge it by the number of boarded-up shops in their town centres. Therefore, we need a consistent funded plan for the high street, but, just as importantly, we need a level playing field so that high street shops have a chance of competing. Can the Minister assure us that we will get that?
Indeed, high streets will certainly change, but we need to get the balance right between online and bricks and mortar as well, because both have a really important position to play in our retail offering.
In just three towns in my constituency, 27 shops have either closed or are about to close because of the pandemic. Will my hon. Friend commit today to use the Government’s very generous package of measures to retail businesses at all levels of Government—from central Government to local government to local enterprise partnerships—to follow the Prime Minister’s lead to encourage a massive return to the high streets now that we are allowed to do so under the guidance?
It is really important that, as we extend hours for retailers to be able to open up for Christmas, we rip up and peel back on our bureaucracy as well. We must also encourage local authorities to do more such as offering free parking and other such things.
The high street is facing utter devastation in the next few months, unless drastic action is taken. Will the Minister undertake, in conjunction with the Treasury, to discuss a proposal that I put to the Chancellor three months ago? The banks and building societies are currently sitting on almost £200 billion in current accounts and deposit accounts, paying 0% interest. A 1% voucher would release £2 billion to be spent on the high street only, at no cost to the taxpayer, and would bring a benefit equivalent to that which was seen in Jersey in the summer and which hopefully will be seen in Northern Ireland next month, as a similar voucher scheme is going to be discussed and released there.
It is certainly something that I will ask the Treasury to look at and discuss with me.
As my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend will be aware that many Carshalton and Wallington residents work in Debenhams and Arcadia stores, particularly the flagship store at the St Nicholas Centre in Sutton. Will he join me in meeting the affected workers should the worst happen at that flagship store in Sutton, and reassure them that the Government are doing all they can to support them?
Indeed. As well as being a Minister, I am clearly a constituency MP, and Debenhams is also at the heart of my high street. I will certainly continue to meet constituents affected by this and other issues around the high street.
The Government’s support for business has been unprecedented and unparalleled, particularly in the retail sector. The Minister is right to call it an ecosystem, because it does have a far-reaching effect on the economy. Does he agree that we have seen incredible creativity and resilience in our local communities and on our high streets, including from residents and retailers in Hertford, who have formed the Hertford hub and the Bishop’s Stortford business improvement district; and that, while we should look at business rates and so on, it is working with and supporting those communities that will let the sector create, thrive and survive?
It is so much about a “grassroots up” approach. It is great to hear about the Hertford hub and the Bishop’s Stortford BID. There are some brilliant examples of BIDs and initiatives; I would like to hear more.
Retail trade union, the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, has said that it is seeking urgent meetings with Arcadia’s administrators in a bid to preserve jobs. It is crucial that the voice of staff is heard over the future of business in all circumstances. What reassurance can the Minister give that this request will be met?
Clearly, the administrators will do their work under their own purview, but I encourage them to ensure that they look at the whole issue to keep as many viable jobs going and as many viable parts of the business going as possible, so as not to hollow out our high streets.
This is an awful situation for every high street and retail park across the country, and even more so for the 25,000 people at Arcadia and Debenhams who are at risk of losing their jobs just before Christmas. In outlining what action the Government are taking to support the people affected, will the Minister specifically highlight any discussions that the Government are having with the Welsh Government, so that any support packages from both Governments can be co-ordinated?
Given that these businesses are big brand names, this is clearly an issue for the whole UK. We will continue to work with and listen to the devolved Administrations, and to speak to them about what support we can look at across the UK as a whole.
Hospitality businesses are a vital part of our high streets. Winter is the time that these businesses, like many others, make their plans for the next season. They are currently planning in the dark, having been singled out for restrictions and excluded from the Christmas bubble proposals. Therefore, many will have no option but to make some very difficult decisions this Christmas. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to consider a longer-term recovery for this vital component of the high street, and that there is a case to make the 5% VAT rate more permanent—extending it to the end of the financial year—which might help to address the issues of rent, debt and an uncertain cash flow going into 2021?
My hon. Friend is working hard for his hospitality sector offering in Broxtowe. I will be leaving this place to speak to hospitality sector representatives immediately after this urgent question, and they will have a number of those asks. I look at this sympathetically because, as I have said, the high street is an ecosystem; we must all work together to support the business community as a whole.
It is a very worrying time for those employed by Debenhams and Arcadia stores in Denton, Stockport and Manchester, and indeed right across the country. Greater Manchester’s independent prosperity review identified structural changes in the retail sector due to the rise of e-commerce, and sadly we are seeing a rapid acceleration in these changes due to the pandemic. What are the Government doing to put in place a strategic plan for the sector, including retraining and reskilling into digital roles in the sector and in adjacent industries?
We are working with the retail sector itself, including online businesses like Amazon and Asos, and bricks and mortar businesses providing the retail brands that we all know and love, to make sure that we can get the whole gamut of retail together as one and look at the long-term prospects, including digitisation and increasing the skills of retailers and those wanting to go into the sector.
Workers at Debenhams, Dorothy Perkins, Evans, Miss Selfridge, Burton, Top Man and Top Shop in Dudley South face a really worrying time, but the challenges facing retail go much wider. Can my hon. Friend therefore confirm that the £1 billion future high streets fund will be accelerated, and will he join me on a visit to Brierley Hill so that he can see for himself how much our bid will transform the town centre and help to support retail jobs in my constituency?
Owing to the restrictions it is nice to be offered a trip anywhere, so I will be more than happy to take that up. Yes indeed—the future high streets fund is a really important initiative along the way of tackling the issues in retail and our high streets as a whole. I wish my hon. Friend well in his bid. The results will be announced shortly.
There is a Debenhams in my constituency and my thoughts are with the staff at this time, but sadly it is not the only business going to the wall. Yesterday I spoke to Barry, who runs the Bee Hive pub in Blackburn, and he described the Prime Minister’s announcement of £1,000 for pubs as a slap in the face. Barry has spent thousands on making sure that his pub was covid-secure, and with no evidence of spread of the virus in the pub sector, he will now have to throw away thousands more in stock. He is now wondering whether he can survive. So I ask the Minister: did he pluck the figure out of the air, and does his Department think that £1,000 will really be able to save our pubs and, in turn, our high streets?
Wet-led pubs have a particular issue where they are not offering food, and £1,000 does not go far enough in itself, but it does go alongside the other payments such as the forbearance on rent, the moratorium that is still in place until the end of the year, business rates relief, and VAT relief on certain areas of food—although not necessarily in that pub. I will continue to work with the hospitality sector. It is important to say, as the hon. Lady said, that those in hospitality should not be scapegoated, because they have done so much work to make sure that they can offer a covid 19-secure and warm welcome to their customers.
Guildford High Street is not only picturesque but is home to one of the finest retail offerings in the south-east, including Debenhams and Arcadia brands. We acknowledge not only the difficult uncertainty for employees today but the significant square footage that these businesses occupy and the gaps that they will leave behind. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government must actively work to help the high street to recover from coronavirus and also adapt to the long-term changes that will make our town centres sustainable for the future?
I know Guildford very well. It is a destination for residents around Surrey and further afield. Yes, we must all work together to get the balance right so that we do not hollow out our town centres, including Guildford.
The Debenhams liquidation is a tragedy not only for the thousands of Debenhams employees but for all retailers in shopping centres like Warrington’s Golden Square, where Debenhams is the anchor department store driving footfall for the whole centre. With Arcadia brand stores in Golden Square also at risk, and confidence in the wider retail sector waning, what specific support will shopping centres like Golden Square get to protect all its retailers, their employees, and the vibrancy of our town centres?
In terms of shopping centres it is really important that we get the balance right between landlords and tenants. The moratorium helps tenants but clearly does not help landlords, so we have to get the balance right. We will work with the retail sector to try to achieve that balance in the weeks and months to come.
The Dorothy Perkins in Newcastle-under-Lyme was already closed earlier during the pandemic, and we have also lost major tenants such as Laura Ashley and Edinburgh Woollen Mill during this pandemic, so I welcome what we are doing with the future high streets fund. We have a bid in with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. Can the Minister confirm that it will be accelerated? We need to hear about that bid as soon as we can so we can get our towns fund bid in as well.
I wish my hon. Friend every success in that bid—the announcement will be forthcoming. It is important that we have small business Saturday coming up this Saturday, and we must make sure independent stores thrive. However, the brands he talks about that are going do drag footfall towards those smaller businesses, which is why we need to look at the high street as a whole.
Debenhams is a cornerstone employer in Bangor city centre. Its closure will be a severe blow to the staff who have worked there loyally for many years, and even more so now, I am afraid, because North Wales Mersey Dee Business Council reports that, across the region, 17% of businesses in retail and hospitality have already made redundancies. Thinking creatively, what consideration has the Minister given to material Government support specifically for repurposing large retail spaces into smaller, short-term, start-up units?
We always work with local authorities to see what initiatives can come up. We work closely with them because it is typically the local authorities, local enterprise partnerships and other business groupings in each local area that know their local economy, and we are always happy to look at any initiatives.
As a student, I worked for the then Burton Group, and I know how vital retail jobs are, especially for students and young people. Can my hon. Friend confirm for my constituents in Darlington who worked at Topshop, Burton and Dorothy Perkins the steps he is taking to provide support, advice and assistance to them?
I thank my hon. Friend, and I commend his work in retail before; many others around the House have done such work. Yes, as well as offering them support through universal credit and other benefits, we will work with them through the Jobcentre Plus and its frontline workers to help them with CV writing, creating opportunities for and sharing opportunities with them, and ensuring that transferable skills have a massive role to play in that.
Up and down high streets in Nottingham, businesses big and small are really worried about their viability in the early parts of next year. They look at us talking about Debenhams and Arcadia today, and they think we will be back in January, February and March talking about them unless something changes. I ask the Minister the same question they are asking me: beyond reviews and promises of reform in the future, what support is coming now to keep our high streets viable?
We are keeping our high streets viable by giving people business rates relief and giving businesses a moratorium to make sure they cannot be evicted and cannot be chased for rent debts, but, most importantly, by keeping retail open in all three tiers so that they can actually trade their way out of this. What they want is not handouts, ideally, although they do need the support; they want customers. They want customers for long- term support.
But our high streets need all the help that they can get, and the towns of Crewe and Nantwich are facing the highest parking charges in the region, while other towns in the area face none. Would the Minister agree that the local authority should at least ensure there is a level playing field, and perhaps reconsider its decision to reject some initiatives for December to introduce free parking to encourage people back on to the high street?
I thank my hon. Friend, and he is absolutely right. When people are bringing back their heavy bags—after a long evening’s shopping, hopefully, in the lead-up to Christmas—just a simple token like free parking or cheaper parking can really help drive footfall and support our local high streets.
Debenhams workers have expressed concern about the performance of the administrators. There has been a lack of communication and delays in registering redundancies with the redundancy payments service, which in turn has led to delayed payments to the workers themselves. What can the Minister do to ensure that the rights of workers are protected in these situations?
Clearly, as I have said, there are measures in place that govern the administrators, but we will keep on top of this. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already written to the administrators to expedite the report. We will also follow up to make sure we keep an eye on them to support workers not only through the administrators and redundancy phase, but back into good work.
As my hon. Friend will know, I was a furniture retailer for many years prior to arriving in this place. This year has been hugely challenging for our high streets, and my thoughts are first and foremost with the employees of Arcadia and Debenhams. Does my hon. Friend agree with me that the Government must continue to actively work to help high streets both recover from coronavirus and, more importantly, adapt to the more long-term challenges that our town centres are facing at the moment?
I know that my hon. Friend’s experience as a retailer, and his other work, will be massive in the months to come. Yes, we must ensure that we shape the change of high streets. We must allow businesses to pivot to allow for that change, so that our high streets can survive and thrive.
Like many others, I am concerned about the many workers across Edinburgh and in my constituency who will today be worried about their jobs with Arcadia. My constituency also contains a number of independent shops that are struggling and need a level playing field with the online behemoths of this world, such as Amazon. I have a suggestion and plan to offer postage support for those independent businesses, in the same way as the Government helped the hospitality sector. Would the Minister be prepared to meet me to discuss that?
I will happily meet the hon. Lady. She mentioned independent retailers, and it is important to realise that big anchor stores have a massive effect on smaller businesses if they hollow out the high streets. It is important to look at both sectors alike.
I too earned my spurs in retail at Woolworths and Home Bargains. This year has been incredibly challenging for high street retailers, and my thoughts are with the employees of Arcadia and Debenhams. Does my hon. Friend agree that we must not only work actively to help high streets recover from the pandemic, but also consider all the other long-term issues they face, from car parking charges to businesses rates? I co-chair the all-party parliamentary group on the future of retail, and we would very much like to see the Minister at its next meeting to discuss those issues.
I thank my hon. Friend—his experience will be valuable, and I would be happy to join him at the APPG. It is important not just to consider the immediacy of this, but the fact that with the new normal there is a new reality—a behaviour change that is baked into people’s approach to the high street. It is important to get right that long-term strategic view.
I am deeply concerned by the situation facing Debenhams, which is a key part of Glasgow city centre, as well as the stores operated by Arcadia. My thoughts are with the staff, and I know that the Scottish Government stand ready with a pay scheme if it is required. Has the Minister established whether HMRC’s Crown preference rules, which came into force yesterday, had any bearing on the decision by Arcadia to go into administration on Monday? Has he calculated how much HMRC stands to lose as a result?
I have not had any information or consideration of that issue as yet.
Does the Minster agree that the best way to save these businesses is for people to keep shopping at them? Can he assure people that their rights are protected if they buy vouchers, shop online, or want to return items after Christmas?
That is a really important issue, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that these businesses want people to trade. At the moment, both Arcadia and Debenhams have said that they will accept vouchers, and I encourage anybody who is shopping at either store to use their credit card if they are spending more than £100, because then the Consumer Credit Act 1974 kicks in. At this moment, vouchers are accepted.
Will the Minister accept that although Putney high street is very much loved and the centre of our local community, people are concerned about the fact that covid is accelerating the number of shops that are going? Will he consider a reform of the business rates, and of the meanwhile use rules, so that we can have more community activities in our shops on the high street?
There is a really good community in Putney—I was there a few months ago at the business improvement district—and the more we can strip away through encouraging innovation through meanwhile use provisions, the better. I have spoken about the fundamental review of business rates, and it is important that we look at the whole thing.
In Harlow, we have an excellent Topshop that has done very well, and clearly the staff are worried about their pensions and their jobs. Surely, the time has come for legislation to stop these robber barons who own these big companies, who plunder the assets, with the taxpayer left to foot the bill and anxious employees losing their jobs and pensions. We should make sure that we seize the assets of those big vulture capitalists and get the money that the hard-working employees deserve.
My right hon. Friend raises some important points. There is already legislation and regulation in place to look at this. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has written to the administrators to make sure that they can expedite the report looking at directors’ behaviour, not just in the immediate weeks but looking back to see if anything untoward has happened.
The job losses resulting from what is happening at Arcadia and Debenhams are on top of a series of devastating job losses across the north-west. Vacancies are scarce and people have few places left to turn. In Liverpool, West Derby, we have had increases of over 100% in both youth unemployment and universal credit claimants since March. Will the Government now commit to cancelling their heartless plan to cut universal credit, which will take £20 a week from struggling families in my constituency?
To flip the question slightly, I know that a number of people up and down the country have been appreciative of the Government’s increase in universal credit to make sure that we can help them through this particularly acute time. Clearly, as I say, we will continue to work not only to support people who are out of a job but to make sure that we can create jobs and opportunities for them to get back into good work.
Retail is at the heart of our local high streets, and the Government’s huge programme of support has been vital in keeping it going. Will my hon. Friend join me in encouraging my constituents to back Barnet and to come out and shop local on small business Saturday?
My right hon. Friend absolutely nails it, as usual, in supporting her independent retailers—her small businesses. They are the backbone; 99.7% of businesses in this country are small and medium-sized enterprises. She is absolutely right, and I encourage everybody, both in Barnet and across the country, to shop local and get out there and spend money where possible to make sure that there is a high street to enjoy for years to come.
Arcadia entering administration and Debenhams going into liquidation is devastating news, with thousands facing the risk of losing their jobs, but this is also an issue of greed, with Philip Green having paid his family a tax-free dividend almost three and a half times more than Arcadia’s current pension pot deficit. Does the Minister agree that while Philip Green retains his fortune, employees should not end up paying the price with their pensions?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. Clearly, as I say, the Pensions Regulator has significant powers here, and we will make sure that it has the space and ability to do its job.
My heart goes out to all those affected by the collapse of Arcadia and Debenhams, both of which affect my Workington constituency—particularly Workington town centre, which has a Debenhams anchor. Alongside the stronger towns fund, the Government’s future high streets fund will be crucial to helping town centres not only recover but adapt in the future. In the light of unprecedented challenges this year, can my hon. Friend confirm that future high streets fund decisions are imminent and that the Government will get the cash out of the door quickly so that it can have a positive impact as soon as possible?