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Volume 686: debated on Wednesday 16 December 2020

Yesterday, I made a written ministerial statement updating the House on the latest position on the leak investigation,

as you requested, Mr Speaker.

I am sure the whole House will want to join me in wishing all Members and staff a merry Christmas and a happy new year. Members from across the House will also want to join me in sending our warmest wishes to all our armed forces, both in the United Kingdom and those who are stationed overseas. Members will also, I hope, want to join me in sending our very best wishes to all members of the emergency services, health and care workers, and those who will be working over Christmas.

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.

May I join the Prime Minister in those good wishes for Christmas and add my own good wishes to you, Mr Speaker, and to the Prime Minister and hope that you both have a peaceful and safe Christmas period?

Look, on the subject of Christmas, my constituents in Lichfield and Burntwood and those in the rest of the country have had a torrid year with the covid pandemic, and we have this very small break over Christmas. People must use common sense, of course: do not start hugging granny; do not go wild over Christmas; and, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister previously said, let us be jolly careful over Christmas. I want to say to my Prime Minister that it would not be helpful if some smarmy lawyer, or somebody now at this late stage, were to argue for a change in the laws. May I ask my right hon. Friend, here and now, who is neither smarmy nor a lawyer—

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He is right in many ways, but right to stress the importance of people taking care this Christmas, because although some things are unquestionably going well—I am very pleased to tell the House that we have had a good start with the roll-out of the vaccination programme and in just seven days 108,000 people in England and 138,000 across the whole of the UK have received their first vaccination—we must remember that transmission takes place asymptomatically in so many cases: one in three people are currently asymptomatic with covid. That is why my hon. Friend is absolutely right that we should exercise extreme caution in the way we celebrate Christmas. We can celebrate it sensibly but we have to be extremely cautious in the way we behave.

May I join the Prime Minister in his good wishes to all the staff, the armed forces and our emergency services, and thank you, Mr Speaker, and the House authorities for doing all that you have done this year to keep Parliament safe, and open, in challenging circumstances?

Since this is—probably—the last PMQs of the year, I want to look at some of the decisions that the Prime Minister has made in the last 12 months. Let me start at the beginning of the pandemic, when images from hospitals in Italy and Spain were being shown on our televisions and the infection rates were rising in the UK. Does the Prime Minister now accept that his slowness to respond led to more deaths, a longer lockdown, and deeper economic damage?

No, because at every stage we followed the scientific guidance, and continue to do so. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is right to draw attention to what is happening across the whole of Europe, and indeed there are spikes now taking place across the whole of the EU. Thanks to the tiering system that we have in place in large parts of the country, and thanks to the heroic efforts of the people of the north-west, the north-east and Yorkshire and the Humber, we are seeing those rates coming down. Yes, it is true that we have spikes now in some parts of London and the south-east, but we will make sure, with our adjustments to the tiering that we conduct over the next weeks, that we will address those issues. That is the right way forward for this country, and that is how we will defeat the virus—with vaccines, with community testing and with tough tiering. I think that what people would like to hear in this season of good will to all men is a little bit of support from the right hon. and learned Gentleman for what the Government are trying to do to beat coronavirus, and perhaps just a little less carping.

If the Prime Minister will not listen to me, let me quote his own spending watchdog, the Office for Budget Responsibility. It said that the UK locked down later and for longer than some of its European neighbours and experienced a deeper fall and slower economic recovery. This is not bad luck. It is not inevitable. It is the result of the Prime Minister’s choices. But if the Prime Minister disagrees, perhaps he can tell us why Britain, the sixth-richest country in the world, with all our brilliant scientists and amazing NHS, ends the year with one of the highest numbers of covid deaths in Europe—over 64,000, each one leaving a grieving family—and the deepest recession of any major economy. Why does he think that has happened?

The House will have noted the slight change of tune in the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s criticisms of the UK’s performance. But perhaps he could tell me why the UK is the first to produce a viable treatment for coronavirus in the form of dexamethasone or the first country in the world to roll out a clinically tested stage 3 vaccine. This is a pandemic that has affected the whole of Europe, and this Government have continued to take the tough decisions necessary to beat it. If I may say so, without wishing to cast aspersions on the point of the view of the right hon. and learned Gentleman, I would take his criticisms of the UK Government’s decisions a little more seriously, frankly, if he had been able to decide last week, or the week before, whether he even supported the approach we were taking or opposed it. He could not do either: he abstained.

I said two weeks ago at this Dispatch Box that I was very concerned that tier 2 would not be strong enough to hold the virus. The Prime Minister said, “Don’t worry about that. Just support us. Throw away the problems.” Two weeks later, what have we got? The virus rising in tier 2 and tier 3, and I will come back to that. If the Prime Minister thinks that the highest death numbers and the deepest recession is somehow delivering for the British people, he is a long way removed from the truth.

The problem is that the Prime Minister makes the same mistakes over and over again. Two weeks ago, he unveiled the latest covid plan. He told the House, as he has many times before, that his plan would suppress the virus, but the latest figures show the opposite. The Prime Minister talked about spikes here and there. Let me tell the House that in three out of four tier 2 areas, infections are going up. In over half of the tier 3 areas, infections are going up—exactly the concern that I put to the Prime Minister two weeks ago, when he said, “Just back us anyway.” As a result, this morning 10 million people moved into tougher restrictions—exactly what we said would happen: areas going up the tiers. Does the Prime Minister not recognise that his latest plan has once again failed to control the virus and protect the NHS and our economy?

Once again, the right hon. and learned Gentleman criticises the Government’s plans without producing any kind of plan of his own, except I seem to remember that he was the mastermind author of the Labour firebreak in Wales. If we look at what is happening across the country, it is thanks to the efforts of the British people that we are seeing significant reductions in the virus in some of the areas where it was really surging. That is because of the hard work of the people of this country. We will, of course, continue to reflect that as we go forward with the tiering approach, and we will continue to roll out the vaccine and community testing. I think that his time would be better employed supporting those wonderful initiatives, supporting community testing, encouraging people to get a test and encouraging people to get a vaccine, rather than continually attacking what the NHS and the Government are trying to do.

I have encouraged everybody to have the vaccine every time I have stood up and talked about it. The Prime Minister is avoiding the issue. In some places, the infection rate has gone up 70% in the last seven days. Everybody knows that this is a problem. The Prime Minister is yet again pretending that it is not.

Another major mistake of the last 12 months was losing public trust. We all know what the tipping point was: the 520-mile round trip to Barnard Castle and the humiliating way in which the Prime Minister and his Cabinet chose to defend it. Now we learn that, while the Prime Minister and the Chancellor are telling the armed forces, police officers, careworkers and firefighters that they will get a pay freeze, Dominic Cummings has been handed at least a £40,000 pay rise. How on earth does the Prime Minister justify that?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman totally trivialises the efforts of the British people in getting the virus down. He says that none of the lockdown measures have worked. That is absolutely untrue. From 5 November to 3 December, the people of this country came together once again to get the virus under control, and they have made a huge amount of progress. We will continue with that tiering system, and we will get the virus down. That is the best way forward for this country. All he wants to do is to lock the whole country down—he is a one-club golfer; that is the only solution he has—and then, all he does is attack the economic consequences of lockdowns.

Mr Speaker, you could script that from October and November, when the Prime Minister was saying that a lockdown was the last thing the country needed and would be disastrous. Two weeks later, he put it on the table and voted for it—ridiculous! This is exactly the problem: not learning from mistakes. Obviously, we know that for Dominic Cummings, it was not performance- related pay. I think that the British people will find it pretty hard to understand why it is one rule for our key workers and another for his advisers.

It is now likely that the next big mistake will be over the easing of restrictions over Christmas—and it is not smarmy lawyers saying this. Let me tell the House what the British Medical Journal has said. The British Medical Journal said yesterday:

“we believe the government is about to blunder into another major error that will cost many lives.”

The Prime Minister should listen to that advice, not just ignore it as usual. If he really is going to press ahead with this, can he tell us what assessment has been done of the impact that it will have on infection rates and increased pressure on the NHS? What is the impact?

I wish the right hon. and learned Gentleman had had the guts just to say what he really wants to do, which is to cancel the plans people have made and cancel Christmas. That is really, I think, what he is driving at. He is looking a bit blank; I think that is what he is driving at. But I can tell him that, as of today—just this morning—there is actually, as I say, unanimous agreement across the UK Government and across all the devolved Administrations, including members of all parties, including his own, that we should proceed, in principle, with the existing regulations, because we do not want to criminalise people’s long-made plans. We do think it is absolutely vital that people should at this very, very tricky time exercise a high degree of personal responsibility, especially when they come into contact with elderly people, and avoid contact with elderly people wherever possible. That is how, by being sensible and cautious, not by imposing endless lockdowns or cancelling Christmas, as he would appear to want to do—that is the only implication I can draw from what he has said, unless he wants to announce some other idea—we will continue to work together to keep this virus under control, to defeat it and take the country forward.

Here we go again: ignoring the medical advice, and we know where that leads, because we have seen what happened in the last nine months. Whatever the Prime Minister says, there is no escaping the brutal facts that Britain has one of the highest numbers of covid deaths in Europe and the worst economic damage.

This is the last PMQs of the year, and I for one often wonder where the Prime Minister gets his advice from. Well, now I know, because I have here the official newsletter of the Wellingborough Conservative party. It is not on everyone’s Christmas reading list, but it is a fascinating read, because it gives a lot of advice to wannabe politicians. It says this:

“say the first thing that comes into your head… It’ll probably be nonsense… You may get a bad headline… but… If you make enough dubious claims, fast enough”,

you can get away with it. The December edition, includes the advice:

“Sometimes, it is better to give the WRONG answer at the RIGHT time, than the RIGHT answer at the WRONG time.”

So my final question to the Prime Minister is this: is he the inspiration for the newsletter, or is he the author?

I think what the people of this country would love to hear from the right hon. and learned Gentleman in this season of good will is any kind of point of view at all on some of the key issues. This week, he could not make up his mind whether it was right for kids to be in school or not, and havering completely. He could not make up his mind last week whether or not to support what the Government were doing to fight covid, and told his troops, heroically, to abstain. He could not make up his mind about Brexit, we all seem to remember. We do not know whether he will vote for a deal or not. He cannot attack the Government if he cannot come up with a view of his own. In the words of the song, “All I want for Christmas is” a view, and it would be wonderful if he could produce one.

This Government are getting on with delivering on the people’s priorities, with 20,000 more police, 50,000 more nurses, 48 new hospitals and—although it has been very tough and very difficult, and everybody appreciates the suffering and hardship that the people of this country have been going through—by rolling out the vaccine, by community testing and by tough tiering, which I hope the right hon. and learned Gentleman supports, we are going to defeat coronavirus and we are going to take this country forward into a great 2021.

At the beginning of this year, the Prime Minister delivered the historic British people’s votes for Brexit. Regardless of the outcome of the current talks with the EU, does he agree with me that this great outward-looking nation has a world of global opportunities ahead of it? (910386)

I thank my hon. Friend, who has campaigned nobly in that cause. As he knows, already we have not only set up a points-based immigration system, taking back control of our borders, but we will ensure that—and we have already done many free trade deals—we will use the economic advantages of Brexit, coming out of the European Union, to do free ports, to make this country the most attractive place for investment for business and for enterprise around the world and, above all, to resist the depredations of the socialists opposite, who would destroy that opportunity and do everything they possibly could to take us straight back into the lunar pull of the European Union, which is the true ambition of the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer).

May I wish you, Mr Speaker, and all colleagues, staff, essential workers, health workers, and everyone in these nations all the best for Christmas? I hope everyone does their best to keep everybody safe.

In the past few hours, the President of the European Commission has said that the next few days are going to be “decisive” in the Brexit negotiations. With just two weeks to go, it is a disgrace that businesses and people have been left with that crippling uncertainty, and the real threat of food and medicine shortages come the new year. One year ago, at the general election, Scotland rejected this Prime Minister. It rejected this Tory Government, and it rejected their extreme Brexit. People in Scotland now need to know the price they will be forced to pay. Ahead of any vote in Parliament, will the Prime Minister commit to releasing a detailed economic impact assessment of the cost to the UK of his extreme Tory Brexit plans?

Notwithstanding the slight uncharacteristic air of gloom from the right hon. Gentleman, there is every opportunity—and hope I have—that our friends and partners across the channel will see sense and do a deal. All that takes is for them to understand that the UK has a natural right, like every other country, to want to be able to control its own laws and its own fishing grounds —I would have thought that would be important to the right hon. Gentleman. Whatever happens in the next few days, I know that this country will prosper mightily on the terms that we agree with our European friends, and whatever those terms may be—whether they are Australian or Canadian—he can go forward with a high heart and confidence into 2021, knowing that there are great opportunities for Scotland and the rest of the UK.

I am not quite sure what that was, Mr Speaker, but it certainly wasn’t an answer to the question. I am not surprised, because the Prime Minister did not want to answer the question. He knows that the United Kingdom is poorer and worse off as a result of the extreme Tory Brexit, and the costs continue to soar. The Warwick study estimates that Scotland has already lost £4 billion as a result of Brexit, and Bloomberg Economics estimates that the UK will have lost £200 billion by the end of this year. Scottish Government analysis estimates that every person in Scotland will, on average, be worse off to the tune of £1,600.

Scotland has been completely ignored by Westminster throughout the Brexit process, and we are now being kept in the dark over the devastating price that we will be forced to pay. People in Scotland are not willing to suffer the consequences of this economic vandalism, and 16 consecutive polls have shown a majority for independence—that is little wonder, Mr Speaker. Is it not as clear as day that the only way left to protect Scotland’s interests and our place in Europe is for Scotland to become an independent country?

Again, despite the gloom that the right hon. Gentleman seeks to spread about Scotland and the rest of the UK, the UK currently has the highest youth employment in the G7—I could perhaps have made that point to the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer)—and lower unemployment than France, Italy, Spain, the United States and Canada. There is a threat to the Scottish economy, sadly, and that is the high tax regime and mismanagement of the Scottish nationalist party. That is the problem that Scotland faces, and I hope that the people of Scotland can see it.

As my right hon. Friend knows, the tourism and hospitality sector in constituencies across the country, but particularly in Derbyshire Dales, has been severely affected by the pandemic and the national restrictions. That includes places such as the Flying Childers Inn in Stanton in the Peak. What support and hope can the Government give that sector in the weeks and months ahead? (910387)

I thank my hon. Friend for everything she does to campaign for Derbyshire Dales and for hospitality. It has been a terrible time for hospitality. We all share the anguish of those who work in the hospitality sector. That is why we have cut VAT overall, as she knows, from 20% to 5% in those sectors until the end of March, and we are going to develop, with her help, a tourism recovery plan to help people come to see the beauties of the Derbyshire Dales in particular.

Last week, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said that Northern Ireland would have the “best of both worlds” as a result of the talks with the European Union. For that to be true, we need access to both UK and EU trade deals. Will the Prime Minister confirm whether he is pushing for that in those talks?

Of course, as the agreement with our friends has already made clear, the whole of the UK, including Northern Ireland, will participate fully in all trade deals that the UK does, and Northern Ireland will continue to have unfettered access to the whole of the UK market.

At the recent spending review, over £14 billion was allocated for research and development. That was excellent news, but there is a concern that charity-funded medical research, which has been hit hard by the pandemic, will still be left behind. Will my right hon. Friend intervene to ensure that some of that funding is used to set up a life sciences charity partnership fund to boost medical research, protect thousands of skilled jobs and promote the UK’s position as a science superpower? (910389)

Yes indeed. I know that my hon. Friend, as a doctor, knows the vital importance of medical research and pure science. That is why this Government are investing record sums in science R&D—£14.6 billion in 2021-22. That is going to support all the life sciences sectors. If anybody wants evidence of why it is so vital to support those sectors, they have only to look at the events of the last few months.

HS2, in full, will transform the east midlands and the north, reversing a 40-year trend of losing skilled work. In February, the Prime Minister promised that it would be built in full. Yesterday’s National Infrastructure Commission review reduces the eastern leg to a small line between Birmingham and the disliked station at East Midlands Parkway. That will not deliver the connectivity or the economic uplift that the midlands and the north need. Will the Prime Minister reaffirm his previous commitment and reject the NIC’s plan, or is this yet another broken promise to our community? (910385)

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is quite wrong. What the NIC is saying is that there are other things we can do as well, including massively improving the midland main line—I think everybody would want to do that—but the ambition to do the eastern leg, as I have said in the House before, remains absolutely unchanged.

Like schools and teachers across the country, those in South Cambridgeshire have been working miracles to continue providing education throughout the pandemic. They are grateful for the support they have had from the Government, they welcome the new exams regime and they also very much welcome the new testing regime for coronavirus. But schools in Cambridgeshire started with some of the lowest funding of any in the country, and many have been left with deficits that they cannot fill. Will my right hon. Friend work with me to make sure that schools in Cambridgeshire get the resources they need? Will the Prime Minister be Santa for Cambridgeshire’s schoolkids? (910390)

Mr Speaker, the whole of the country and the taxpayers of this country play that role; it is our job to make sure that we spend the money sensibly, and that is what we were doing. I am delighted that, thanks in part to the campaigning by my hon. Friend, his constituency is attracting an average of 3.8% more per pupil next year compared with this year through the national funding formula—a total of £4.8 million more, in addition, of course, to our commitment to pay every teacher a starting salary of £30,000.

The hospitality sector, and in particular pubs in my constituency such as the Black Bull in Blaydon, a wet pub with a fine live local music tradition, has been devastated by the restrictions placed on it, in our case since September. Pubs such as the Black Bull are at the heart of our communities. The various compensation schemes do not offer enough support to allow those pubs to survive. Will the Prime Minister commit to bringing forward a financial support scheme that will allow our pubs and hospitality sector to survive? (910388)

The hon. Member is quite right to raise the problem in the hospitality sector. We are committed to doing everything we can. She knows about the £3,000 grant, the additional £2,100, plus the £1,000 for wet pubs. But the best thing of all—in addition to the cuts in business rates and VAT that I have already mentioned—is for areas in the west midlands to work together—

Sorry; forgive me. The best thing is for areas in the north-east to work together to reduce the virus through community testing in the way that Liverpool has succeeded in doing. I appreciate that the hon. Member’s constituency is in in tier 3 and things are very, very tough, but if we all work together, we can get the virus down and get our pubs open again.