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Business of the House

Volume 686: debated on Thursday 17 December 2020

The business for the week commencing 4 January will include:

Monday 4 January—The House will not be sitting.

Tuesday 5 January—Remaining stages of the Financial Services Bill.

Wednesday 6 January—Opposition day (14th allotted day). There will be a debate on a motion in the name of the official Opposition. Subject to be announced.

Thursday 7 January—Business to be determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 8 January—Private Members’ Bills.

Subject to the House’s decision later, we will rise for the Christmas recess at close of business today. Hon. and right hon. Members will recognise that talks with the European Union continue and, should a deal be secured, it is the Government’s intention to request a recall so that Parliament may pass the necessary legislation. Parliament has done and continues to do its duty, and has long shown that it can act quickly and decisively when needed. I am sure that the whole House will agree that the country would expect nothing less.

The Government realise that that duty falls not just on MPs and peers but on the parliamentary staff who make this place function, and to whom we are very grateful. While we may therefore sit again in the coming days, I would like to take this opportunity to thank the staff of the House, civil servants and Members’ assistants for the commitment and dedication they have shown in keeping the parliamentary show going throughout this extremely difficult year. Hon. Members are always grateful for the hard work of the ever-informative Doorkeepers, the cheerful cleaners who have gone about their work regardless of the perception of risk, which was particularly high at the beginning of the pandemic, and the wise Clerks, whose intelligence does not seem to have been affected by the loss of their wigs, which I used to think were essential to keeping their brains warm and up to full speed—

I am glad to note your intervention, Mr Speaker, which has, I hope, been recorded.

We are grateful to the smartly behelmeted police officers, who cheer us with their badinage and keep us safe with their blunderbusses; to the catering staff, who have not lost their appetite for keeping us well nourished; the broadcasting team, who have probably been under more pressure than any other part of our community but have none the less gone about their work quietly and effectively; and the Hansard team, who always correct my errors and smooth away the knots and gnarls of an extempore text.

I hope that all those whose work supports the smooth running of the United Kingdom Parliament feel proud of their contribution in tackling the pandemic this year. I know that should the House be recalled, they will continue their dutiful service to our democracy. For that, Mr Chri—I mean Mr Speaker, not Mr Christmas. You see, Mr Speaker is a very Father Christmas-like figure, spreading goodness and cheerfulness wherever he goes. For that, Mr Speaker, they deserve the highest praise and a restful Christmas. I can deliver the first, but I fear that I cannot promise the second.

That is a very long business statement. I thank the Leader of the House for the statement and for the Opposition day. I know he is a person of his word and he will not take it away, as he has done previously. It will be Epiphany and he knows that the Opposition will come riding to the rescue of the House and the country with gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Normally we have advance sight of the business statement, but I will not thank the Leader of the House for the advance speculation about when we would rise because that is a ridiculous way to do business. Nick Watt speculated on “Newsnight” on Tuesday about what the Leader of the House would say, when the date has been announced for quite some time.

In his podcast, the Leader of the House said that he wanted to “retrospectively correct” domestic law to recognise the agreement. May I ask him when and why? He went on to say:

“Normally, you would expect a treaty to be ratified before it comes into force”—

yes, that is the legal way—

“but if both sides accept that ratification is done in a different way, that is theoretically possible”.

This is a democracy, not a tutorial. The European Parliament might agree the deal on 28 December. What will happen? What is the legal position if the House does not come back between 31 December and 5 January? Why was this slipped out in a podcast and not said in the House? Despite the Government’s majority, they clearly do not have confidence that the deal will be passed by the House.

Why is the Equalities Minister making statements outside the House about no unconscious bias training and how equalities will change?

The Minister for vaccines has not bothered to come to the House to tell us how many vaccines have been administered. That is so important. Last week, the Health Secretary said he did not know and the Department for Health and Social Care said tens of thousands. Why do we not know? If we can keep track of our parcels, why cannot we keep track of our vaccines? It is important because we need to know whether the Government’s criteria are being applied, and because we have the most deaths in the whole of Europe.

We also have the worst growth. We will hear later in a statement that taxes will be passed on to our constituents—that local authorities will be tasked with raising taxes from our constituents.

I know that the Leader of the House wants to be transparent and accountable. On Tuesday the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution said in a written statement:

“Transparency is a key principle of public procurement. Openness underpins accountability for public money, anti-corruption and the effectiveness of procurement.”—[Official Report, 15 December 2020; Vol. 686, c. 14WS.]

Not for now, but for future pandemics. That is the theory. Will the Leader of House therefore explain why Fleetwood Strategy, run by a person who played a key role in the last election, was given £123,500 for research into Government communication? We do not need research; we just need the Government to communicate. A former Tory director of communications during the election campaign received £819,000 for focus groups. Will we see the results? What about special advisers—those friends of the Government, or FOGies—getting a 50% pay rise when our teachers, our public service workers and our police officers are not? Worse still, £200,000 of costs for a FOGey who wanted to continue with action against a person he had sacked would pay for six nurses.

The Leader of the House has been assiduous in responding to our questions, particularly on Nazanin and Anousheh. He will know that Ruhollah Zam was an Iranian journalist who was executed. While the Foreign Secretary is on his tour to India, hopefully sorting out our constituents’ relatives—the farmers in India—will he also look at whether Anousheh and Nazanin can come home for Christmas? Of course there is also Luke Symons.

Sadly, I must pay tribute to David O’Nions, who used to work for this House and died in March. His colleagues, friends and family have not had a chance to pay tribute to him. I hope we will get an opportunity to do that.

Finally, I thank you, Mr Speaker, all the Deputy Speakers and all your staff for getting this House together. You set up the taskforce. Marianne Cwynarski was absolutely brilliant in keeping us safe. The Clerk of the House, the Clerk Assistant and everyone in the Table Office have worked continuously to make sure we do our work. John Angeli in the Broadcasting Unit actually got better as we went along. I thank the Serjeant at Arms, Phil Howse and all the Doorkeepers, who also kept us safe, and the Official Reporters. The catering staff kept us fed and watered, and of course, the building has been cleaned so thoroughly. I thank all our Chief Whips on all sides, and the Whips, who have worked really hard—I know it is hard work casting all those 200 proxies—as well as every right hon. and hon. Member, and all their families. I hope they have a peaceful Christmas and a very happy new year.

If I may continue in the spirit of good will, I thank the right hon. Lady, who is an absolute pleasure to deal with in the way that things have to be dealt with. She is a very important advocate for her own party, but does so with enormous charm. I am not winning her over to conservatism, but it is always a pleasure doing business with her, and indeed with the Scottish National party spokesman, the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard). It is a pleasure working with all the people we work with in the House.

The right hon. Lady paid tribute to David O’Nions—may the souls of all the faithful departed, by the mercy of God, rest in peace, and I hope that he will be commemorated properly. She also raised, quite rightly, the people held illegally. I do write to the Foreign Secretary every week after business questions to ensure this is highlighted, and will do so again. I am very grateful to her for raising these points, because I think it is important that they remain at the forefront of the political debate.

The right hon. Lady made a point about Opposition day. Yes, it is indeed the feast of the Epiphany, and we are hoping—though this may be the triumph of hope over experience—that we will see some wisdom from the Opposition on that day. It is a hope that has been dashed many times in the past.

The right hon. Lady also asked about how business has been organised. Business has been organised so that the key Bills will receive Royal Assent today: therefore, we have achieved what we needed to achieve, and the one thing outstanding is an unknowable. We have to wait and see whether or not a deal will be achieved, in which case there will be legislative consequences. I am very flattered that she listens to the Moggcast—informative and interesting podcast that it is, done fortnightly through the auspices of ConservativeHome—but that is not a statement of what is going to be going on in the House. It is a discussion about theoretical aspects, and the question that was raised was “Theoretically, could a treaty be ratified ex post facto?” The answer I gave was that this would be legally extremely abnormal and open to challenge, so I am not sure that the right hon. Lady paid as close attention as she ought to have done, although the episode is still available to be downloaded and listened to should she wish to spend Christmas paying closer attention to precisely what I said.

As regards the vaccines Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), he was here in the House a couple of days ago for questions. The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care has been absolutely assiduous in updating the House, and there will be a statement from the relevant Ministry after I have spoken. The right hon. Lady suggested that taxes were going to be going up; I do not know how she knows this, because the Chancellor guards these matters very closely to his own chest in the period before a Budget, so that will be a matter for him. However, the manifesto commitments of the Conservative party were extraordinarily clear in relation to our being the party of low taxation.

Regarding procurement, the procurement had to be done quickly. The right hon. Lady has criticised the communications, but it was absolutely essential to see that the messages were getting across effectively—to see whether they were the messages that worked, that persuaded people to change their behaviour, because it was the most extraordinary level of change in behaviour ever known in this nation. People were not allowed to visit each other’s homes; people were not allowed to go to the shops, or to restaurants. We had to know that the message was getting across effectively, and therefore having a degree of focus group and research into how effective it was seems to me a sensible use of Government—taxpayers’—money.

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of an excellent Teams call with the wonderful Sam, Vicki and Lindsay, who are local district nursing students who will be working over Christmas. Tomorrow, I will be out with the friend-to-friend volunteers in my constituency, delivering 80 afternoon cream teas to elderly and vulnerable people in our community. Can my right hon. Friend please join me in thanking all our amazing key workers and volunteers, who will be going the extra mile this festive season to support our wonderful communities?

I thought my hon. Friend was going to invite me to a cream tea; I feel rather let down. He is absolutely right to highlight the heroic contribution of all our key workers, and to mention Sam, Lindsay and Vicki and the fact that they will be working over Christmas. Key workers have shown a huge amount of dedication throughout the pandemic; whether they are public servants or essential workers in the private sector, they are the ones who have kept our economy turning under immense pressure. They have shown great dedication to their work and to the nation, be they supermarket staff, cleaners, teachers or bus and train drivers. We should be really proud of the contribution made by the subjects of Her Majesty during this pandemic.

What a sad and inglorious end for the Brexit adventure: days before the end of transition, we are limping to the finishing line with no idea whether there will be a deal or, if there is, what will be in it. I understand the Government’s intention is to recall Parliament if there is a deal to discuss, but what if the Government fail to get a deal? Are we not to consider the consequences of a hard break in trading with the EU? Have the Government no plans to present to Parliament to mitigate that disaster?

What if there is a deal? When will we see an economic assessment of its provisions? When will the devolved Administrations be consulted on the many areas within their purview? How on earth are hon. Members seriously expected to digest and analyse 1,600 pages of text? Is it not the truth that the Government are preparing to railroad through a grubby little deal, using their majority to avoid scrutiny?

Mr Speaker, this is the season of goodwill, and I wish you, the Leader of the House and all hon. Members a happy Christmas. However, it is also a time to reflect on the big changes of 2020. This is a year in which support for this Government evaporated in England, and in Scotland, this is the year in which the long-standing majority of people who have been opposed to the Tories for 70 years have coalesced around the prospect of independence.

Hon. Members know I like to keep the House updated on Scottish public opinion, and in recent weeks there have been further opinion polls that report a majority for independence. The latest today is in The Scotsman newspaper, which puts yes at 58%. That is the 17th poll in a row recording a majority for Scotland to take control of its own affairs, so I repeat the question I have been asking all year. When will this Parliament have the opportunity to consider changing opinion in Scotland and, if people vote in the coming Scottish general election to review the way Scotland is governed, will this Government respect that vote? Perhaps, since it is Christmas, the Leader of the House might give me an answer this time.

What a pleasure it is to see that the joy of Christmas has spread to Edinburgh and to have the hon. Gentleman’s joyful, happy countenance shine down upon us once more, wishing us all a merry Christmas, which I heartily reciprocate. I hope he heard me say earlier what a pleasure it was—I mean this genuinely—dealing with him over the course of the year.

The hon. Gentleman mentions the deal that is being done, or not being done, and the need for it to be ratified. He criticises the Government for potentially using their majority to pass any consequent Act of Parliament. I would point out that that is how democracy works: you get a majority and then you use that majority. It is not particularly shocking—it is what is done in Parliaments across the world. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister pointed out, it is going to be a great opportunity for Scotland. He pointed out that Mrs Sturgeon is going to have more fish than she could eat in a lifetime, because we will have control of our fishing waters. Indeed, I think they are going to need to get a bigger boat in Scotland to collect all that essential fish.

The strength of the United Kingdom grows every day. Have we not just heard that Aberdeen City Council wants to separate from Edinburgh, to avoid the machinations and failures of the SNP—the failures in education, the failures in policing and the failures in the health service in Scotland, led by the SNP? What is Aberdeen saying? “Let’s cut out this failed Administration run by the SNP—why don’t we go directly to London to have our settlement done with London?” Is it not fascinating that the failures of the left-wing SNP are making councils in Scotland try to escape from its auspices and authority? The strength of the United Kingdom has provided £8.2 billion to keep the Scottish economy going. Together as one country, one group of taxpayers have helped every part of the country with a depth, a strength, a thoroughness that would not be possible if they were separated.

When the Scottish people had a vote, a real vote, not a gossip with an opinion pollster, and they went to a polling station and put a cross in a box, how did they vote? They voted to remain part of the United Kingdom. We should be proud of that and delighted about it, and we should celebrate. We should have an extra glass at Christmas to celebrate the one United Kingdom.

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the relationship between alcohol and homelessness? Shelter has done some work whereby it found out that two thirds of respondents cite drugs and alcohol as a reason for their being homeless. Southend HARP has done a fantastic job in reducing rough sleeping during the coronavirus pandemic. Particularly as we move towards Christmas, I hope that the Government will continue to work hard on the issue of homelessness. I wish everyone a very happy Christmas and a far better 2021, when I hope Southend will become a city.

I have been waiting for that last bit, though I might remind my hon. Friend that a jubilee is coming in 2022 and that sometimes is an occasion when more cities are made—but I am not promising anything. To come to his very important point, alcohol and substance abuse have long been associated with homelessness, and I would like to join him in commending the charity Southend HARP for reducing rough sleeping during the pandemic. With Christmas approaching the need to end rough sleeping is thrown into even sharper relief. I commend my right hon. Friend the Communities Secretary for the effort he and his Department have made this year to support the homeless and end rough sleeping. The Government have taken unprecedented action to support the most vulnerable people in our society during the current pandemic, backed by more than £700 million of taxpayers’ money to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping this year alone. On Monday, the rough sleeping Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst), announced £23 million of funding for this year to provide substance misuse treatment and recovery services for people sleeping rough. That will be backed by additional spending of £52 million in 2021-22.

I thank the Leader of the House for the business statement. The Backbench Business Committee will meet this afternoon for the second time this week to determine what will fill the time allocation just given to us for 7 January. Can he confirm that the House will indeed meet in the week beginning 4 January, even if the House is recalled next week? This is important to give Back-Bench Members some certainty before accepting time for debates being offered to them.

I declare an interest, as chair of a primary school governing body here in Gateshead. I gather that this morning the permanent secretary at the Department for Education told the Public Accounts Committee that discussions about the school return in January are still ongoing and Ministers have not communicated a decision yet. Can the Leader of the House arrange for the Education Secretary to come to the House to make a statement to explain what is being proposed, so that before the term ends tomorrow headteachers, their staff, parents and pupils will know what is expected of them in the first week of January?

Mr Speaker, may I wish you, the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader of the House, Members across the House, parliamentary staff and, of course, our excellent Backbench Business Committee staff a very happy, peaceful and restful Christmas, as we look to put 2020 well and truly behind us?

I hope the Committee meeting this afternoon is a useful and successful one. I am very grateful for the work the Backbench Business Committee does to ensure that this House debates matters that are of the greatest interest to Members. The time has been allocated for the first week back, and that is the week we intend to be back. As regards education, the Government have been absolutely clear about the importance of schools being open and of people going to school to receive their education in person. In some ways it has been like the House of Commons, in that both legislating and education work better when you are physically present.

Thanks to sound financial management, Conservative-controlled Nottinghamshire County Council plans to set a balanced budget in the next financial year. That rather contrasts with Labour-controlled Nottingham City Council, which is £1 billion in debt, lost nearly £40 million and 200 jobs after its energy firm Robin Hood Energy collapsed, and set up a Christmas market that closed after one day. Its own report said:

“the council recognises the significant shortfalls in its governance and management practice”.

Could we have a debate to explore the many shortcomings of Nottingham City Council, which affect not only residents in the city but those in surrounding areas such as Gedling?

It is a well-known fact that socialists ultimately run out of other people’s money, which is why I welcome my hon. Friend’s question. It is a delight to be able to congratulate good and efficient Conservative councils on their sound financial management. He is not the first Member to allude to the hare-brained schemes and insolvent energy companies cooked up by left-wing councils in recent years. It is a great shame that the people of Nottingham have to suffer under such mismanagement. They must look on in envy at their neighbours living in the county council area who enjoy a proper return on their council taxes. Our local authorities, like us in this House, must remember that they serve their electors and their taxpayers, and they should always be clear that they have a duty to manage their finances properly. I hope that their voters take note.

Yesterday we heard from all Governments across the UK about the need to revise the Christmas restrictions given the increased risk of spreading coronavirus. Parliament is about to rise, but we are aware that we may be returning before 5 January. I know that Christmas is the season for giving, but I am sure the Leader of the House will agree that we do not want to be giving covid to ourselves, our loved ones and the critical staff we have been thanking here today. If we do return during the Christmas period and in January, will he support testing for MPs and any staff who have to return to the estate?

The hon. Lady raises an interesting point. That matter has been considered by the Commission, and it will be kept under review. It is a reasonable thing for her to suggest, because this is a covid-secure workplace, and the authorities have worked very hard to ensure that, but we should certainly consider taking further measures that may help. I am sorry that I cannot give her a clearer answer than that it is under consideration.

Good morning, Mr Speaker.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree that the misuse of public funds is tantamount to theft. Somerset County Council is squandering public money to promote this ghastly nightmare plan for a single unitary authority. The latest lunacy, believe it or not, is a glossy full-page newspaper advert full of lies, but the scandal is that we have to pay for it. The leadership are behaving like Danish Vikings, pillaging the public purse. They have even used money earmarked to fight covid to balance their books. They have no interest in reuniting Somerset. Can we have a debate on greedy thugs wasting money? King Alfred would be appalled. Rudyard Kipling had the answer:

“We never pay any-one Dane-geld,

No matter how trifling the cost;

For the end of that game is oppression and shame,

And the nation that plays it is lost!”

Merry Christmas!

My hon. Friend is as forthright as ever. We should remember the great contribution to the world from the victory of Alfred the Great, the refusal to give in to the Danes and all that he did when he was in the Somerset levels. My hon. Friend is right to attach great importance to the use of public funds. We all have a duty to ensure that taxpayers’ money is spent well. I look back to the halcyon days when Somerset County Council was run by Henry Hobhouse, my late godfather, who was a great leader of the council. When he was in charge, things were done properly.

Tonight I will join Disability Talk for the results of its poetry competition. Will the Leader of the House join me in congratulating the 126 people who submitted such heartfelt poems? Will he pledge to ensure that Parliament is more accessible for disabled and clinically extremely vulnerable people, which has sadly not been the case during the pandemic? With that in mind, does he have any plans to ensure remote participation during any possible recall of Parliament while we discuss the crucial topic of Brexit? I would love to be able to tell tonight’s winners that Parliament is accessible for all—would the Leader of the House?

I of course congratulate the 126 people who have entered the poetry competition, and I hope that the hon. Lady will use future business questions to read out selections to the House; I think that would be enjoyed. We had poetry from my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) and I hope the hon. Lady will follow in his footsteps.

As the hon. Lady knows, I tabled a motion to allow the extremely clinically vulnerable to participate in our debates; unfortunately, it was talked out by Labour Members, with the support of the SNP. That is a matter of considerable regret.

As this may well be the last time that I speak in the Chamber this year, I have reflected on my first 12 months as an MP, and what stands out more than anything is the strength of communities across Crewe and Nantwich. We saw charities, community groups and volunteers respond fantastically to the challenge of coronavirus. I am sure that Members from all parties have seen the same in their constituencies. Will the Leader of the House join me in paying tribute to the so many individuals who have gone above and beyond this year for their neighbours and their communities?

Yes, I will indeed. My hon. Friend is right to pay tribute to the volunteers in his constituency and the millions of volunteers across the country who have made such an important contribution throughout the pandemic. In my own village of West Harptree, as the restrictions came in in March a note was sent round to every household asking whether people wanted help. It was quite remarkable to see such community spirit. It is a testament to the voluntary spirit and civic mindedness of the British people that hundreds of thousands of Britons volunteered to assist the vulnerable throughout the pandemic. I am sure that that is true in Crewe and Nantwich as well and that my hon. Friend is right to thank his local volunteers.

For the first time ever, UNICEF, the UN agency responsible for providing humanitarian aid to children, is having to feed working-class kids in the UK. While children go hungry, a wealthy few enjoy obscene riches: from Tory donors handed billions in dodgy covid contracts, to people like the Leader of the House, who is reportedly in line to receive an £800,000 dividend pay-out this year. Will he give Government time to discuss the need to make him and his super-rich chums pay their fair share, so that we can end the grotesque inequality that scars our society?

I do not like to personalise too much in the House. I understand that Members want to get things on the record, but I want to show at least some kind of Christmas spirit at the moment.

It is a real scandal that UNICEF should be playing politics in this way. It is meant to be looking after people in the poorest and most deprived countries in the world, where people are starving and there are famines and civil wars, and it makes cheap political points of this kind, giving £25,000 to one council. It is a political stunt of the lowest order.

What have this Government done about child poverty? We are committed to our manifesto pledge to reduce child poverty. We have expanded free school meals to all five to seven-year-olds, benefiting 1.4 million children. We doubled free childcare for eligible working parents and will establish a £1 billion childcare fund, giving parents the support and freedom to look after children. We are spending £400 million of taxpayers’ money to support children, families and the most vulnerable over winter and through 2021. Between 2010 and 2018-19, there were 100,000 fewer children in absolute poverty in this country. This is a record of success of conservatism and UNICEF should be ashamed of itself.

Last Christmas, Father Christmas came early for me, as I had the honour of being elected the first ever Conservative Member of Parliament for Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke. Twelve months on, I am proud that, while tackling a global health pandemic, we continue to level up, with up to £29 million for rail and bus services in Stoke-on-Trent and £25 million for the Kidsgrove town deal, of which £300,000 has so far gone towards the start of refurbishing and reopening Kidsgrove sports centre. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the people’s Government were given a resounding mandate to deliver their manifesto, and whatever challenges we face as a nation, we must honour the promise that we made to the electorate?

First, I congratulate my hon. Friend on his excellent first year in the House and on putting his constituency on the map—it took a Conservative Member to put it on the map. I welcome the Government’s commitments to Stoke; it is clear that we are delivering on the promises made to its voters, and we will continue to do so throughout this Parliament. My hon. Friend raises a crucial point: the 2019 manifesto is the foundation of this Government. It is a bond with our voters and it is incumbent on all Ministers to make sure that is honoured—and we are doing so. From the towns fund to the thousands of new police officers and nurses, a landmark new immigration system, safeguarding the United Kingdom’s internal market and, of course, delivering Brexit, we are keeping and will continue to keep our promises as we level up and improve the opportunities for everyone across this country.

Despite its being the largest infrastructure project in Europe, we seem to lack any debate on the HS2 programme. That is despite it costing a huge amount of public money and despite the fact that the pandemic has changed the way that people will be using rail in the future. The only debate on the matter seems to be in the other place. Earlier this week, a report from the independent National Infrastructure Commission, chaired by Lord Armitt, provided an assessment of rail needs for the midlands and the north. It emphasised greater investment in the north specifically and in regional lines. Given the rumours that the eastern leg of HS2 has been cancelled as part of the HS2 project, can we have an urgent debate about the future and viability of the project?

The HS2 Bill is in their lordships’ House, so, understandably, that is why the Lords are paying particular attention to it. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to ask for a debate on such an important infrastructure project. It is an enormous amount of taxpayers’ money that is being spent. I cannot promise him a debate in Government time, but I imagine that there is widespread interest across the House on this subject and I would have thought that an application to the Backbench Business Committee would be in order.

One level playing field on which we might all agree is the similar treatment of similar businesses in terms of Government support during the covid emergency, so may we have a statement in the new year, if not sooner, about the plight of food and drink wholesalers who do not get business rates relief, whereas supermarkets do? That seems to me and many others to be inequitable.

My right hon. Friend has raised this point with me before, and it is one that I completely understand and have a degree of sympathy with, though there is a difference with wholesalers between the retailers, and some of them have managed to change their supply customers quite effectively. They also benefit from the other schemes—the furlough scheme, bounce back loans and many other schemes—that the Government have introduced. Although he is right to raise the point, there are things that the Government have done to help that sector.

The Leader of the House did not answer the question earlier about what the permanent secretary at the Department for Education said this morning. In case he has missed it, I will read it out to him. She said:

“There are conversations going on about exactly how parents and pupils will go back at the beginning of January, but I am afraid I cannot speak to the Committee about that this morning.”

Parents, children and school staff all need to know now what the arrangements are, so can the Education Secretary give a statement to MPs in the House today to clear up this latest confusion and mess?

I disagree with the hon. Gentleman: I did answer the question earlier. The Government’s policy is that it is important for people to be educated physically and to be back at school. That remains Government policy and has not changed.

Reflecting on the past 12 months, it occurs to me that many of the difficulties faced by residents and businesses in Aberconwy are actually reflections of some of the biggest questions that any Government can face. Right now we are looking at when consent by Government reverts to Government by consent. We are wrestling even this morning with questions about the UK’s place in the world, and we have heard from my right hon. Friend that there are tensions and questions to be asked about the relationship between different layers of Government in the Union, so will my right hon. Friend consider giving some time in the new year to a general debate on the limits of government?

In the 18th century, there was a debate which I think was called “The powers of the Crown have increased, are increasing and should be reduced”. It is commonplace in this House that we should always jealously guard the powers of this House against the Executive. It is in the nature of Government to want power, and it is in the nature of a legislature to ensure that that power is proportionate. My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point, though I would say one thing, which is that all that has happened in relation to the pandemic has continued to be Government by consent. It is both remarkable and reassuring how in this country, unlike many others, the need for zealous enforcement has been remarkably low, because we are a country that is governed by consent, and people have complied with the restrictions by their own consent rather than by compulsion.

For many of the most vulnerable folk in Motherwell and Wishaw, and across the UK, their Post Office card account is their main access to cash. In this Schrödinger’s Parliament, I must ask for a Government statement on the managed decline of services provided through post offices, as, if I ask for a debate in Government time, I am unable to take part. Will the Leader of the House fulfil my Christmas wish and allow me, and so many others, to take part in vital debates like this virtually in 2021?

I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. She has of course made the point about Post Office cards in business questions. I reiterate that I brought forward a motion that would have allowed the extremely clinically vulnerable to participate remotely, and it is deeply unfortunate that it was talked out by the Labour party in cahoots with the SNP.

May I take this opportunity, Mr Speaker, to wish you and your staff a very merry Christmas and new year—and, in particular, the broadcasters and my Committee staff? I thank them for all they have done to keep Parliament working for those online.

On Saturday, our Education Committee will publish a report on adult skills and lifelong learning. Nine million working-age adults in England have low literacy or numeracy skills, or both, and 6 million adults are not qualified to level 2—equivalent to GCSE level. Following the publication of the Committee’s report, can we have an urgent debate on our plan for a revolution in adult skills and lifelong learning?

Those figures are absolutely shocking—that 9 million working-age adults in England have low literacy or numeracy. I therefore very much welcome the work that my right hon. Friend and his Committee have been doing. Investment in skills is vital to giving people the opportunity to improve their skills, and to change their skills, to advance into higher-wage employment, and to support adults who will need to retrain at different points throughout their lives. Starting next year, the Government are spending £2.5 billion of taxpayers’ money—£3 billion when including Barnett consequentials—on the national skills fund. This is a significant amount of money that has the potential to deliver new opportunities to generations of adults who may previously have been left behind. From April 2021, we will be supporting any adult aged 24 and over who wants to achieve their first full level 3 qualification—broadly equivalent to two A-levels—or a technical certificate or diploma, with access to nearly 400 fully funded courses. This will be the key in reducing that 9 million number.

I know the Leader of the House will be as concerned as I am about the increasing numbers of people who deem themselves to be vaccine-hesitant. Only today, The Times says that there has been a 4% increase in the number of people in the UK saying that they are concerned about taking the vaccine. I have raised many times with him, with the Health Secretary and with the Cabinet Office the need for a Government programme on key messaging to tell people that the vaccine is safe, as I know he agrees it is. Could he arrange for one of the Departments of State to make a statement on what the plan is to tackle the anti-vaxxers to ensure that people who are concerned about vaccines get their questions answered and are not exploited for the profits of anti-vaxxers?

The hon. Gentleman raises a point of the greatest importance. We have to win the argument and reassure people that the vaccine is safe. Part of that will be leading by example. I am absolutely delighted—I cannot tell you how pleased I am—that my mother is getting the vaccine on Saturday. For those of us who have older parents, it is a real reassurance that they are going to be vaccinated. But it also shows that I, at least, am genuinely confident, because I would not be encouraging my mother to have the vaccine if I did not think it was completely safe. We also, less anecdotally, need to look at the statistics, the risks and the reports. The risks are tiny and the benefits are overwhelming, both to the individual and to society at large. The hon. Gentleman makes a really important point. We have a great job to do, all of us, in leading the way and making the argument about why vaccines are safe, not a risk, and how they open up the possibility of life getting back to normal.

Earlier this week, the Government published their energy White Paper, whose policies are crucial to my constituency. As my right hon. Friend knows, we have major facilities for serving the offshore renewable sector. Page 57 of the White Paper specifically refers to the revival of the port of Grimsby, part of which falls in my constituency. The Secretary of State made a statement earlier this week, but because of the importance of the policies in the White Paper, could the Leader of the House find time for a full-scale debate on this?

Thanks to my hon. Friend’s efficient campaigning, I think all Government policy is now devoted to improving the opportunities in Cleethorpes, and that is only right. I am glad to say that our plans to build back greener see an increased ambition of 40 GW of energy from offshore wind by 2030 and a new target for floating offshore wind to deliver 1 GW of energy by 2030, supporting up to 60,000 jobs. The location of the port of Grimsby close to the majority of the UK’s offshore wind farm developments presents a major opportunity for the port and the town, with around £10 million going to be invested. The port is now recognised as the centre for operations and maintenance services for the offshore wind farms, and I hope that my hon. Friend will soon be able to see the fruits of these efforts. The people of Cleethorpes and Grimsby should be so pleased that they have such a strong advocate in this House who always ensures that Cleethorpes and Grimsby are at the forefront of Her Majesty’s Government’s mind.

A happy Christmas to you and all your staff, Mr Speaker, as well as to my constituents in York Central. Many of my constituents and businesses are incredibly worried. Six deadlines have passed, with the final one in just two weeks’ time, and we still do not know the contents of this possible deal. In the light of that, does the Leader of the House not agree that it would be a contempt of this Parliament and our constituents if someone from the Cabinet did not come to the House to make an urgent statement before the close of business today to say exactly what point the talks are at and what the contents of the talks are, so that my constituents can start planning for their futures in just two weeks’ time?

We have just had Cabinet Office questions, when there would have been an opportunity to raise questions about this, but the negotiations are, as everybody knows, not yet finalised. When they are finalised, that will be the right time to make a statement. It is also worth bearing in mind that there will be changes regardless of whether there is a free trade agreement between the UK and the European Union, and businesses should be getting ready for those changes irrespective of whether anything is agreed in the next few days.

This year, pressure on local mental health services has increased tenfold, with covid-19 bringing local challenges and new challenges. Having raised this issue with the Government on numerous occasions, I was delighted to welcome a record £15 million for mental health services in Stoke-on-Trent, which will allow Harplands Hospital in my constituency to benefit from a new crisis care centre and detoxification suite. Will the Leader of the House make parliamentary time available to discuss investment in local health services in communities across the UK, following the unprecedented impact of covid-19?

My hon. Friend is right to raise this issue, and I am glad that mental health services in her constituency are being fully supported. It is vital that we do not forget the impact that this pandemic has had on people’s mental health. Overall mental health funding increased to £13.3 billion in 2019-20. The Government have provided £10.2 million of additional funding for mental health charities during this crisis, including £1 million donated to charities across the country, inspired by ITV’s “Help our Helplines” campaign. I am aware that the subject was debated in Westminster Hall on 8 October. My hon. Friend may wish to apply for an Adjournment debate or Westminster Hall debate in the usual way, but this is of fundamental importance and it is at the forefront of the Government’s thinking.

The ports infrastructure funding announced yesterday distributes £194 million. Rightly or wrongly, our Welsh ports are getting just £2.25 million, and Holyhead, the second busiest roll-on roll-off port in the UK, gets less than £0.25 million. Given this experience, may we have an early statement on having fair, sensible and readily understandable principles behind investing public money under the Government’s forthcoming shared prosperity fund?

Obviously all spending of Government money has to be scrutinised extremely carefully. The ports fund is there to help ports across the country to improve their capacity and flow. It will be allocated in a way that is fair to all the ports involved. I know the hon. Gentleman is a great campaigner for his local port, and if he wanted to raise the matter in an Adjournment debate, I think that would be a suitable next step.

It is apparent from the Leader of the House’s announcement of the business that if we do get a deal with the EU, there will be very little time for this House to consider it. Will he at least ensure that the Select Committee established to scrutinise the future relationship with the EU can scrutinise that deal and report to the House?

I know what the question was, because my hon. Friend spoke to me about it yesterday, which is an advantage, given the weakness of the connection just then. I am aware of his concerns about the Committee on the Future Relationship with the European Union winding up in early January, but there is of course also the European Scrutiny Committee. It might be a very good step if the two Chairmen discussed with each other the issues that came out of any agreement that may be made. As there is a Committee, it may well be able to learn from the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn). The Chairman of the future relationship Committee and my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) may have a lot of shared interests that they can exchange with each other.

Yesterday, an inquest found that air pollution was the cause of death for nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah, who lived just 30 yards from the busy London south circular and was admitted to hospital 30 times in three years for air pollution-induced asthma attacks before she ultimately died. Therefore, for Ella’s sake and in the light of this verdict, will the Leader of the House urge the Government to ensure that legally binding World Health Organisation air quality limits are not just included in the Environment Bill but are enforced from 2021 and not delayed, so that tens of thousands more children are not put at unnecessary risk, but have the protection of the law? It could be called Ella’s law, following her tragic death and this historic verdict.

I know that the thoughts of the House remain with Ella’s family and friends, and I think it is best if I reiterate what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said yesterday. Our understanding of the major public health risk posed by air pollution has improved significantly over recent years, and we are always working to raise awareness among the public and health professionals. Air quality has improved significantly over recent decades. We are continuing to take urgent action to curb the effect of air pollution on communities across England through our ambitious clean air strategy and landmark Environment Bill and the delivery of our £3.8 billion plan to clean-up transport and tackle nitrogen dioxide pollution. We are going further in protecting communities from air pollution—in particular, fine particulate air pollution, which we know is particularly harmful to people’s health—through our landmark Environment Bill, where we are setting ambitious new air quality targets with the prime focus on reducing public health impacts. I will add that one of the great scandals of modern politics was the encouragement of diesel engines with the particulate and nitrous oxide emissions that they were giving out, which I am afraid is a scandal that long predates this Government.

The excellent Children’s Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), has spoken of a

“family-shaped gap at the heart of national policy”,

so will the Leader of the House rejoice with me at the good news that the Government are to fund a new national centre for family hubs to support local communities across the country to set up a family hub locally? Will he encourage every Member of Parliament to find out more from the Family Hubs Network about how they can champion a family hub in their constituency, perhaps by holding family hubs fairs, to help close that family-shaped gap in their area?

My hon. Friend, as so often, is absolutely right. I do indeed rejoice that family is being put at the centre of public life. The Department for Education has announced it will be launching a procurement for a national centre for family hubs, whose role would be to champion family hubs and to work with councils to develop and spread best practice, and an evaluation innovation fund to build the evidence base on integrated family service models. I think my hon. Friend’s idea that we should all go out and have family hubs and support family hubs is a very good one. I do my bit: I have got six children, so my support for the family is unstinting.

Mr Speaker, may I take this opportunity to wish you and the House staff a merry Christmas? For a number of my constituents, this Christmas will not be a merry one, because they are living in properties that still have unsafe cladding. They are having to face enormous costs because of the waking watch. They will not have a good Christmas, so can we please, in 2021, have an urgent debate on this really important issue in the House?

The hon. Lady raises a point that the Government have been tackling. We have brought forward the most significant building safety reforms in nearly 40 years. We are providing £1.6 billion to speed up the removal of unsafe cladding, making homes safer sooner. Almost 80% of buildings with dangerous Grenfell-style cladding have had it removed or are in the process of doing so, and that rises to 97% in the social housing sector. More than 100 buildings have started remediation on site in 2020 so far, despite the backdrop of the global pandemic, and that is more than in the whole of 2019. We are clear that works to remove unsafe ACM cladding must be completed by the end of 2021. I hope this will be some reassurance to the hon. Lady’s constituents.

Can my right hon. Friend confirm that, as the roll-out of the vaccine progresses, he will make Government time available to ensure that Members of this House are able to monitor and scrutinise the process and ensure that it is effectively reaching all of our constituencies?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care has gone to great lengths to keep this House updated throughout the pandemic, and there will be a statement later from the Department on the latest state of affairs, when these issues can be raised. It is worth saying that, last week, we took a huge step forward in our collective fight against coronavirus, rolling out an initial 800,000 doses of the approved Pfizer vaccine, which is a considerable achievement. We have done remarkably well against our European friends. I notice that the Germans are getting a little bit antsy because we are ahead of them, and that is because we have a very efficient regulator.

We are seeing the emergence of a very worrying pattern of sports and leisure facilities in areas with the biggest pre-existing health inequalities also being at the greatest risk of closure due to the impact of covid. In Newcastle upon Tyne North, we are very concerned about the future of West Denton pool, which closed when lockdown first began in March and has not yet reopened. It is vital that those living in the outer west of Newcastle can fulfil their new year health resolutions and that their children can learn to swim, like anywhere else. Can we have a debate in Government time on how we prevent this pandemic from deepening pre-existing health inequalities and ensure that facilities such as West Denton pool can reopen once again and become a hive in our community?

The Government have provided enormous funds to local authorities that help them to pay for the services they ought to be providing, including £4.6 billion across the country of funding that is not ring-fenced, which local councils can use as they see fit. I encourage the hon. Lady to lobby her local council to try to ensure these facilities are available.

Can we have a debate on the way we can use nature-based solutions to tackle climate change? I want to highlight the efforts to restore the Peak district’s beautiful moorlands. Raising the water table by restoring peat bogs has many benefits. It increases carbon capture to tackle climate change, it reduces the risk of fire and flooding, it improves water quality and it also enhances biodiversity. It really is a no-brainer, and I am proud to have helped secure a significant increase in funding for these vital local projects.

My hon. Friend raises an important point. Indeed, we know that better management of our peatlands can improve biodiversity, carbon storage and flood protection. We have always been clear about the need to phase out rotational burning of protected blanket bog, and we are looking at how legislation could achieve this. We have already allocated £10 million over the last three financial years that will restore over 16,000 acres of peatland. We have committed to restoring a further 85,000 acres of peatland as part of the new £640 million nature for climate fund, announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor during the most recent Budget. Later this year, we will be publishing an England peat strategy to manage, protect and restore our peatlands so that they deliver benefits for climate and for nature.

I echo all the thanks and good wishes to everyone who has kept us safe this year.

I am increasingly concerned about how the Leader of the House defines and understands the parliamentary sovereignty for which he has campaigned for so long. He knows, first of all, that if a motion like the one on virtual participation gets talked out, that means the House wants more time to discuss it, and as Leader of the House, he should be providing that time. Now, it seems that he wants to bring us back on a recall to bounce through the biggest decision about our future relationship with Europe, which will define that relationship for decades to come. And this morning, he has issued guidance about how Members of Parliament should travel safely under the covid restrictions, precisely because he recognises the risks that must be associated with it. The solution to all this is, like the Christmas lights on a tree, to switch back on the remote participation that we were able to use earlier in the year.

The hon. Gentleman asks for things to be switched back on, but we have to be here to do our job properly. It seems to me that under any definition, parliamentary sovereignty is not when members of his flock wander up to the Table, lift up the Mace and prance about the Chamber with it because they are a bit crotchety. That was one of the most ridiculous sights in this House in recent years. I thought that on behalf of the SNP, the hon. Gentleman, who is a fine parliamentarian, was going to stand up and apologise for that really silly, childish, babyish display yesterday, rather than complaining that we are going to have to do our job and our duty and come in and vote on important matters of public business.

Individuals are being listed as covid fatalities if they die within 28 days of testing positive, even when the main reason for their passing was another long-term health condition. That is totally wrong, for two reasons. First, on a national level, it is skewing our fatality figures, providing inaccurate data upon which decisions are based. Secondly, it means that families of deceased former mineworkers are receiving inaccurate post-mortems and therefore missing out on the compensation that is owed to them. This is causing considerable hardship and distress to those families. Will the Leader of the House arrange for a Minister to come to the House to make a statement after our return in January?

The second point that my hon. Friend raises is of the utmost importance. In a constituency such as his—and indeed my own, where there is a former mining community—this must be a matter of the greatest local concern. I assure him that I will pass this matter on to my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary immediately after these proceedings, because my hon. Friend has raised a fundamentally important point and he is right to seek redress of grievance.

Let us head over to Wales with Kevin Brennan. Can I just say that there is a dress code for Members who are not in the Chamber as well as those who are?

I thank the shadow Leader of the House for mentioning Luke Symons, who is still being held captive by the Houthis in Yemen. May I press the Leader of the House to ensure that his colleagues in the Foreign Office are doing all they can to secure his release?

My constituent Bailey Williams turns 19 this week. He suffers from multiple seizures, except when controlled by medical cannabis. He can get hold of his medicine, but many children and young people in that position cannot, because the Department of Health and Social Care has confirmed that after 31 December it will be impossible to import that important medicine from the Netherlands. May we have an urgent statement from the Department of Health and Social Care, in writing if necessary, to indicate what it thinks families who are faced with the prospect of their children losing their vital medicine should do?

I will indeed take up the case of Luke Symons with my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary after business questions, as I do every week.

The Government obviously sympathise with those families dealing so courageously with challenging conditions, particularly in their children. Two licensed cannabis-based medicines have been made available for prescription on the NHS, following clearly demonstrated evidence of their safety and their clinical effectiveness and cost-effectiveness. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, which is rightly independent of Government, has said that there is a clear need for more evidence to support routine prescribing and funding for unlicensed cannabis-based products. As regards the supply of drugs into this country, a great deal of planning has been done to ensure that that supply will not be disrupted.

We all know that the true way we can level up is through education, so I was horrified to read in the press recently that, in my borough of Sandwell, attendance rates of 37% had been recorded in some instances. I have some of the areas with the highest rates of child poverty in the west midlands. May we have a debate in Government time about how we can ensure that our children can get into school and stay in school and that we support education, particularly in areas such as Wednesbury, Oldbury and Tipton that suffer from some of the highest rates of child deprivation?

My hon. Friend raises a really serious point. It is vital to their educational progress, wellbeing and wider development that children and young people attend school. It is appalling to hear about the attendance record at schools in his constituency—37% is an atrociously low figure. We must do all we can to reverse this, so that children in West Bromwich can take advantage of the opportunities available to them. Approximately 99% of schools have been open each week since the start of the term, and it is important that schools continue to remain open, despite the restrictions brought about by the pandemic. I shall pass on my hon. Friend’s concerns to the Secretary of State for Education, but it is primarily a local authority matter.

The Leader of the House, you, Mr Speaker, and other right hon. and hon. Members know that Christmas is very much a family time, but I wish to highlight a place where that will not happen. Will the Leader of the House ask the Foreign Secretary to update the House at the earliest opportunity about the urgent situation in Nigeria, in particular the kidnapping on 12 December of more than 300 schoolboys in the north-west state of Katsina and what specifically Her Majesty’s Government are doing to support efforts to secure their safe release? I would be grateful if we could get them home for Christmas, but we had better get them home some time in the new year.

May I begin by wishing the hon. Gentleman a very happy Christmas? I have a feeling that he is the only Member of this House who is disappointed that I have announced the recess dates, and would prefer that we were sitting on Christmas Day itself, which would be the best way he could celebrate. [Interruption.] Well of course one goes to church first and then comes into the House. I do wish him and all his family a very happy Christmas.

The hon. Gentleman has raised a deeply concerning subject—the reports of armed men attacking a secondary school in Katsina in north-west Nigeria and abducting over 300 children. Violence against children studying in school is a despicable act. To go back to an earlier question, one does wonder whether UNICEF might think a bit more about this than faffing around in England. The Minister for Africa tweeted on 14 December expressing our concern, and we are monitoring the situation closely. The UK is providing—this is important—a comprehensive package of support to Nigeria to help tackle insecurity challenges, including serious and organised crime and terrorism, but there is clearly a great deal more to do. Over Christmas, both the hon. Gentleman and I will remember those children in our prayers.

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

Sitting suspended.