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Commons Chamber

Volume 686: debated on Thursday 17 December 2020

House of Commons

Thursday 17 December 2020

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 4 June).

[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]

Oral Answers to Questions

Cabinet Office

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Strengthening the Union

What assessment he has made of the effect of trends in the level of support for Scottish independence on his policies on strengthening the Union. (910453)

Mr Speaker, may I wish you and the whole House a safe and happy Christmas, on this, the last scheduled day of the Session?

The Government are committed to protecting and promoting the combined strengths of our Union, building on 300 years of partnership. It is vital that we continue to work across the UK on the challenges that we all face together, such as our recovery from covid-19, and to focus on issues such as protecting jobs and supporting the NHS.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Perhaps he will agree that there can be no better example of the strength of our Union and of all four nations—the awesome foursome—working together than the successful funding, deployment, roll-out and creation of covid-19 vaccines, keeping communities safe across all four nations.

My hon. Friend makes a vital point. Across all four nations of the United Kingdom people are being vaccinated thanks to the energetic efforts of the vaccine taskforce, my right hon. Friend the Secretary State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and, of course, our superb NHS. It is a source of particular pleasure to me that Scotland is enjoying that vaccine thanks to the efforts of the UK Government: proof that our NHS means that we are stronger together.

Today, a poll revealed that 58% of Scots would vote for independence. This is the 17th consecutive poll to show a positive result and we are seeing a rise in support for independence across all age groups. The Cabinet Office can hoist as many Union flags as it wants, but what part of “We are leaving” does the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster not understand?

Of course, surveys of opinion are always fascinating, but the figures that I am interested in are those which show that the UK Government are spending more per capita in Scotland than they are in other parts of the United Kingdom and that thousands of Scots are now being vaccinated thanks to the efforts of the UK Government. If we look at a map of the world to see which countries are having their citizens vaccinated, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and England are ahead of the pack: stronger together.

You most certainly can, Mr Speaker, and thank you.

I listened carefully to the right hon. Gentleman’s answer, and yes, we are grateful for the vaccine, but I did not hear a response as to why he thinks that Scottish independence has now become the settled will of the Scottish people. This is not like him. He is usually quick to give his views about certain things, so why does he think that Scottish independence has sustained majority support, reaching a height of 58%, and is now the settled will of the Scottish people? Why is that the case?

It is great to have the hon. Gentleman here, live and unplugged, rather than having to rely on a distant video screen, because his performance is always one that we savour. Sadly, however, I fear that his reliance on opinion polls is no substitute for his aversion to hard arguments. Why will he not engage with the facts? The facts show that, in Scotland, per capita spending including on our shared NHS is greater as a result of the broad shoulders of the UK Treasury. As I pointed out earlier, but as he declined to acknowledge, folk in Scotland are being vaccinated now, thanks to the efforts of the UK Government in a world-leading programme. I hope that, in the spirit of Christmas, he will acknowledge that this is a time for giving, and that he will, just once, give the benefit of the doubt to the UK Government.

I am likely to be the ghost of Christmas future, because it is not going the right hon. Gentleman’s way. Let me try to give him a few reasons. Let us see if he agrees with any of these: the disastrous Brexit that Scotland did not vote for; the attacks on our democracy; the undermining of our Parliament; and the Prime Minister—him. Maybe they are some of the reasons that we are now in the lead, but the main one is the arrogantly Trumpian way in which the right hon. Gentleman says no to a majority in a democracy. Does he think that constantly saying no to a majority in Scotland will drive support for independence down, or will it only further drive support for independence up?

The Scottish Parliament is enjoying more powers now as a result of our departure from the European Union. Those powers allow the devolved legislature to have its own agriculture and environment policy, to supplement the leadership that it has been showing in other areas. As we move towards the elections that are coming next year, many people will focus on the record of the Scottish Government. Of course there are admirable Ministers in the Scottish Government, but people will be asking why the UK Government are responsible for vaccinating people in Scotland and yet the Scottish Government are responsible for a decline in educational achievement in Scotland’s schools and a growing divide between the well-off and less well-off. Social justice matters, and that is why, in the forthcoming Scottish parliamentary elections, the Scottish Conservatives will be making gains at the hon. Gentleman’s expense.

UK-EU Negotiations

What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of negotiations on the UK’s future relationship with the EU. (910431)

What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of negotiations on the UK’s future relationship with the EU. (910433)

What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of negotiations on the UK’s future relationship with the EU. (910443)

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will take questions 5, 6 and 7 together, because they are such good questions. They really are superb questions, and it is only right that they be taken together, in a one-er, in a group, as a collective. Intensive talks are ongoing, with both negotiating teams working day and night to reach a deal. We are going the extra mile and continuing the negotiations to see whether an agreement can be reached, and we will of course continue to keep Parliament informed on our progress.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his slightly delayed answer. He showed last week how successful the UK Government can be in negotiating with the EU, in their successful agreement in the Joint Committee. Will he therefore confirm that, although he has shown that the UK can do a deal with the EU, the Government will only conclude a deal on a free trade agreement that is in the best interests of our country and will be willing to walk away if they have no other choice?

My hon. Friend is right; even if sometimes results are coming later than we might have wanted, I know that we will be doing everything to secure a good free trade agreement in the interests of the whole United Kingdom. The electors of Bishop Auckland, whom she represents so brilliantly, were clear when they voted to leave the EU that we need to do so by 31 December, and we will.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Opposition’s apparent position of agreeing a deal no matter what is a ridiculous one to take during any negotiation?

My hon. Friend is right; the Opposition party has taken a number of different position on Brexit over the past few months, weeks and perhaps even days, but one thing that has never been clear is where exactly its red lines are. Ours are clear: we will always stand up for the United Kingdom. May I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the magnificent way in which she stood up for our coastal communities and fishing sector? Outside the common fisheries policy they will prosper, thanks to her.

Fishing is reportedly a sticking point in the negotiations. My local fishermen in Hastings and Rye need to have faith that this Conservative Government will not sacrifice them, as previous Governments have, for free trade with the EU. Can I be confident in reassuring them that this Government will provide the basis for trust to be restored and built upon?

Yes; my hon. Friend does an excellent job in standing up for her constituents in Hastings and Rye. The fishermen she represents so effectively know that we, as an independent coastal state, will be in control of our waters at the end of the transition period. Of course we want to make sure that we manage shared stocks in an appropriate way with all of our neighbours, including those outside the EU, but as an independent coastal state we are in control.

We all wish the negotiators well in this final stage, as they demonstrate that sharing sovereignty—gaining benefits by accepting obligations—is what will be required in order to reach the agreement that the Government say they want and which we all want. Can the right hon. Gentleman tell the House whether the legislation that will be required to give effect to any agreement will need to pass all of its stages in Parliament by 31 December this year in order to provide clarity to individual businesses about what they can do from 1 January next year, which is, after all, only 15 days away?

The right hon. Gentleman reminds us all of the importance of seeking to conclude these negotiations as quickly as possible. If they are concluded satisfactorily, we will request that the House returns in order to make sure that we can legislate effectively. We believe we can pass the necessary legislation before 31 December to give businesses legal certainty for the future.

This is how the Prime Minister described his oven-ready deal last November:

“put it in Gas Mark 4, 20 minutes and Bob’s your uncle.”

The Minister is nodding. Clearly, the Government have delivered half of it—leaving the European Union—but we have now passed six of the Prime Minister’s deadlines for the other half, which is the agreement on our new relationship with the EU. In those same comments last November, the Prime Minister promised to end “dither and delay”. This week, we have heard of companies that have stopped exporting to the EU because of the uncertainty created by the Government’s handling of these negotiations. Has the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster made an assessment of how many jobs have been lost through their incompetence?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reminding us that the Prime Minister not only secured a handsome election victory just over a year ago but did so on the basis of having secured a withdrawal agreement that passed this House, which meant that we left the European Union in January. Part of that withdrawal agreement was a protocol on Northern Ireland; some doubted that we would be able to reach a satisfactory conclusion, but we did. Others doubt that we will be able to have a satisfactory cause for celebration at the end of this year, when the transition period ends; I invite the hon. Gentleman to wait and see on that.

I think we are all waiting to see.

Let me ask the Minister about a different part of the negotiations. When I have asked him previously, he has been unable to confirm that we will have access to the real-time information systems that we need to identify foreign criminals at our borders. We both understand why the Government’s position has prevented him from giving that confirmation. This morning, speaking on Radio 4 just over an hour ago, the Home Secretary was pressed on the issue and said:

“All the type of channels that we have used in the past we will continue to use going forward.”

Was she right? Anything less than an unequivocal endorsement will indicate that she was not.

Blind and Partially Sighted People: Voting

What assessment his Department has made of the accessibility of voting for blind and partially sighted people. (910432)

The Government are committed to ensuring that elections are accessible for all those eligible to vote and have been working with the Royal National Institute of Blind People to improve the voting process for blind and partially sighted people.

What steps is the Minister taking to introduce the recommendations made in the RNIB’s most recent report, which found that only one in 10 blind voters and less than half of partially sighted voters could vote independently and in secret in the 2019 general election?

I thank the hon. Lady for raising this important issue and for the work she has done on improving the situation. We have been working intensively with the RNIB. Any systems and reforms that are brought in do need to be tested, and it is unfortunate that the cancellation of the elections this year has meant that we have not had that opportunity. But we will do next year. We are determined that, whether someone wants to vote in person or via post, they have a method of doing so that meets their needs and is secure.

UK Preparedness: End of Transition

If he will negotiate a phased period of implementation for new trading rules after the end of the transition period. (910434)

What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of the UK’s preparedness for the end of the transition period. (910437)

What steps the Government are taking to (a) maintain jobs and (b) support businesses at the end of the transition period. (910470)

The Government have been clear that the transition period will end on 31 December. We have made extensive preparations for a wide range of outcomes, including through a package of support for border infrastructure and the customs intermediary sector, and, of course, the phased implementation of border controls. A trader support service is also in place to help businesses trading under the Northern Ireland protocol, and we are scaling up the provision of Government helplines.

A great deal of concern has been expressed to me by local businesses in Edinburgh West, and there are national concerns among industries such as the whisky sector, about the difficulties businesses are having with things like not knowing how they should label products given that there is, as yet, no clarity about our future relationship with the European Union. Anything that the Government can do to extend the period of adjustment would be appreciated by businesses and would help to offset the Scottish National party drive towards breaking up the United Kingdom, about which I know the Government share my concern.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right; we need to do everything we can to support businesses in Scotland and elsewhere. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Trade is doing everything she can to help the whisky sector, not least through discussions with the US trade representative, Robert Lighthizer. More broadly, we want to make sure, in the free trade agreement that we seek, that there can be a smooth glide path for businesses in Scotland and elsewhere. I look forward to continuing to work with the hon. Lady. She has been a consistent voice for Scotland’s businesses, both in the House and before she came to the Commons, and her advocacy, free of any partisan agenda, is something of which her constituents should be proud.

The Minister is forever the smooth talker, as we saw in his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), but how exactly will our police access those real-time Schengen most-wanted criminal databases in 14 days’ time? With 15,000 UK extradition requests in both directions last year alone under the European arrest warrant, how can he guarantee that, when we leave, Britain does not become a safe haven for murderers, rapists, terrorists and other cross-border criminals? People want precision on prosperity and security and, frankly, his one-liners are not good enough.

I try not to weary the House with over-long answers. On the hon. Lady’s substantive point, it is the case that we have extensive security and law enforcement and justice co-operation with our friends in the European Union and, indeed, beyond and we will make use of all the instruments necessary in order to keep people safe.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster will know that, last week, my Ogmore constituents received a hammer blow with the news that INEOS has decided to pull out of building their 4x4s, which had been promised by the ardent Brexiteer, Jim Ratcliffe. The irony that INEOS’s owner was such a vocal supporter of Brexit and has now fled to France to build his 4x4s has not been lost on any of my hard-working and highly skilled constituents. What assurances can the Minister give me that he is working to try to bring about more support for job growth in highly skilled manufacturing that can work for the people of south Wales?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. It is the case that, in South Wales, there is a concentration of skilled workers in advanced manufacturing who are the pride of the world. It is also the case, of course, that General Dynamics in Merthyr Tydfil, which is new to his constituency, is receiving support and investment from the defence industrial strategy. I look forward to working with him and indeed with the Welsh Government to ensure that his constituents can prosper in the future. It is absolutely vital that we work together to ensure that the skilled workers of the valleys have the bright future that they deserve.

UK-EU Negotiations: Devolved Administrations

What recent discussions the Government have had with the devolved Administrations on the UK’s trade negotiations with the EU. (910435)

It is the case that I have regular contact with Ministers in the devolved Administrations in order to ensure that we can work effectively together in our negotiations with the EU, the last of which was on 3 December, when the Joint Ministerial Committee on EU negotiations met.

Despite its warm words about being pro-trade, the Scottish National party has consistently voted against or abstained on trade deals coming before this House. Does the Minister agree that international trade is essential for supporting jobs across Scotland, and that by failing to support these trade deals the SNP is letting down workers across Scotland?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As has been pointed out by the Minister of Trade at this Dispatch Box on a number of occasions and, as he has reminded us, the SNP has never found a trade deal that it could vote for or like at any point. It is also the case that it wants to erect barriers between Scotland and its biggest trading partner—the rest of the United Kingdom. Trade brings prosperity. The SNP is not in favour of trade and therefore not in favour of Scotland’s prosperity.

Regional Equality

It is just over a year since the general election and this Government are as committed to regional equality and creating economic opportunity as we were last December. In the face of covid-19, the Government have taken unprecedented fiscal action to support all regions and nations of the UK through the crisis, working to ensure that we protect jobs and businesses, minimise damage to the economy and deliver the right support as needed.

The Calder Valley has more than 19% of its workforce in the manufacturing sector and a further 26% in the financial sector. Both sectors have been hard hit by the pandemic. Can my hon. Friend say what steps the Government have taken to boost employment in the Calder Valley and in West Yorkshire, particularly as we emerge from the shadow of the pandemic?

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for his question on the importance of employment in the Calder Valley. I am sure that he will be pleased to learn that the Conservative party will be personally boosting employment in West Yorkshire when we open our new headquarters in Leeds next year. More broadly, the Government have announced unprecedented support across the whole of Britain to help unemployed people find a job, including the £2 billion kickstart scheme for young people and the £2.9 billion restart programme to help those unemployed for more than a year. We are doubling the number of work coaches.

High Peak has a covid case rate lower than the national average yet is in tier 3. This is having a very severe effect on our local hospitality industry, which is so central to our economy. Can the Minister assure me that she is working with colleagues across Government to provide all necessary support to those businesses and to work to get High Peak out of tier 3 as fast as possible?

My hon. Friend is a very strong voice for his constituents in High Peak. Tier 3 restrictions were introduced based on evidence from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies about what was required to bring the R rate below 1 in a targeted way, thereby bringing transmission under control and reducing pressures on the NHS. Local authorities under tier 3 measures such as those in High Peak also receive additional funding for local public health initiatives to help to contain the spread of the virus and pave the way for local restrictions to be eased.

Covid-19: Consultants

What plans he has to review the value for money of the Government’s use of consultants during the covid-19 outbreak. (910438)

What plans he has to review the value for money of the Government’s use of consultants during the covid-19 outbreak. (910450)

What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of Government outsourcing during the covid-19 outbreak. (910457)

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will croak through these Questions together.

Working effectively with the private sector, including external consultants, has undoubtedly helped us to address some of the huge challenges the pandemic served up, but contracting authorities must extract value for money for taxpayers when working in this way. The outsourcing playbook updated in June includes many key policies to improve the quality of contracts in place with industry, but also to build internal civil service capability to reduce our reliance on external consultants.

The National Audit Office’s investigation into Government procurement during the pandemic reflects the chaotic culture of outsourcing across Government. Contracts have been awarded after work has begun without competition and without any meaningful due diligence checks. How can the public have any trust in the Government’s response if the Government are not transparent with them?

The National Audit Office set out a number of recommendations that we will be looking into, but the idea that we did not need to contract under emergency terms during the pandemic is inaccurate, and there are rules in place to allow us to do that. We have been slow to publish contracts because we experienced some problems, which I set out in the Westminster Hall debate last week, but we now have 100% of those contracts for the relevant bodies.

The Good Law Project estimates that £1.6 billion-worth of contracts for covid-19 services have yet to be published, and details of contracts are consistently being published late. This is despite the fact that there is a legal requirement for those details to be published no more than 30 days after the contract is awarded. The Government are clearly failing in their duties. What is the Minister going to do to improve transparency in Government procurement?

We have now published in full all the contracts for personal protective equipment. There are some difficulties in doing that, which, as I say, I set out last week in the Westminster Hall debate. This week we have launched a Green Paper on public procurement, and we will be introducing a number of changes to our existing procurement regime when the transition period is over, which will improve the way we do things in future.

The Minister mentions the Green Paper on procurement, which the Government published this week. The foreword to the Green Paper acknowledges the need to

“strengthen our longstanding and essential principles…of transparency, ensuring value for money and fair treatment of suppliers.”

With serious concerns being raised about the multiple contracts awarded by the Government, with no competition, to companies with strong connections to the Tory party and no clear track record of delivery, will the Minister put those warm words into action now and extend the Freedom of Information Act to all private companies, such as Serco, delivering public services?

I am not sure what the implications of extending FOI would be in terms of commercial confidentiality, but I am happy to look into that for the hon. Lady. The Green Paper is there to reassure and to deal with some of the problems we have had during the pandemic, where we have either had a full-fat tender that takes far too long in an emergency situation, or a situation of direct award. I am happy to look into her suggestion.

Let us head back to Norwich South and hope Alan Partridge does not get in the way of me hearing Clive Lewis.

Thank you, Mr Speaker; I can be heard at last. Given that this Government have doled out £10.5 billion of our money without any competition, according to the National Audit Office, and frittered hundreds of millions on consultants and individuals whose main qualification seems to be that they are friends with members of this Government, does the Minister agree that in any other part of the world it would be called corruption, plain and simple?

I would not agree. It is very important to understand that every contract went through the same eight-stage process, where it was looked into. The contracts were done on the grounds of commercial sense, rather than anything to do with any connections. As the NAO report said, Ministers declared all interests and there was no evidence of any wrongdoing.

May 2021 Local Elections: Covid-19

What plans the Government have to ensure that the May 2021 local elections are covid-19 secure. (910439)

The UK Government are working with local returning officers, the Electoral Commission and public health bodies to identify and resolve the challenges involved in delivering the elections next May.

The May 2021 elections will see a record number of different elections with various different voting systems all taking place on the same day. In normal times this would pose an immense logistical challenge, without the added complications brought about by the pandemic. Will the Minister outline why the Government have ruled out an all-postal ballot and refused to make any legislative changes to consider any new forms of voting, as we have seen across the globe?

I thank the hon. Lady for pointing out the extreme challenges that exist to ensure that the elections can take place in a covid-secure environment. They are considerable, but they cannot compromise the security and integrity of the ballot, and we feel that by moving to an all-postal system, that may be the case. We want people to be able to vote in person or by post, and we want them to do that in a covid-secure way, and that is what we and our partners are working towards.

I know from my own experience that a large proportion of electoral staff and volunteers is made up from the demographic that would be considered vulnerable, with many retired and older people volunteering. If the Government have refused to provide any more funding for the running of the May 2021 elections, what steps are they taking to ensure that there is not a huge shortage of electoral staff?

One of the partners we are working with is public health organisations and authorities, and the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: we want to ensure that everyone, whether they are officers or volunteers, is safe. We also anticipate, for example, that we will have extra demands on postal votes and so forth, and we are determined to ensure that we have the supply to meet that demand, but the issues that he raises are at the forefront of our minds.

My hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) set out the scale of these elections very clearly. With less than five months to go until these major polls right across the United Kingdom, I hope the Minister will be able to respond to some questions that are on the minds of electoral administrators, campaigners and, most importantly, voters. Will voters be required to wear face coverings in polling stations? If so, will polling clerks be expected to enforce that, and what resources will they get to do that? If they are not required to wear face coverings, what protections will be put in place to protect staff in polling stations? What steps are the Government taking to ensure that we have adequate staffing at polling stations? As my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) set out—and I do not think the Minister adequately answered his question—so many of our volunteers are from an older demographic, and if the vaccine programme is not sufficiently rolled out, we face a shortage of staff.

I thank the hon. Lady for raising those issues. Hopefully, we will be in a happier place when the elections arrive because of the vaccination programme, but she raises some important issues. Just as retailers, healthcare settings and so forth have put in place measures to make them covid-secure, whether those are public health-related measures or the enforcement and policing of them, we will do the same at polling stations and at counts. We will ensure that there will still be the transparency that people want through scrutineers and so forth. We will also introduce some slight legislative changes to enable, for example, somebody who has to isolate very close to the election to still be able to cast their vote. We are working through all these issues with those organisations methodically, and we will have those elections. They will be safe, and they will still have integrity.

Electoral Fraud

Ministers and officials engage with the Electoral Commission on a regular basis about work to support the effective and secure running of elections at a local and parliamentary level. We will continue to work with the Electoral Commission to ensure that all elections that take place in the UK are both fair and free of any electoral fraud or attempted electoral fraud.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her answer. In his judgment against the former Tower Hamlets Mayor Lutfur Rahman for electoral fraud, Richard Mawrey QC found that one council candidate had, in the space of six weeks, fought two wards in the same borough using two different names and two different false addresses. That fact came to light not through investigation by the authorities but because local residents were able to inspect copies of the electoral register under supervision. That right seems to have been thrown into doubt because of confusing guidance issued by the Electoral Commission. Could my right hon. Friend get in touch with the chief executive of the Electoral Commission to ensure that clear guidance is issued, so that members of the public looking into these measures do not find themselves prevented from accessing copies under supervision and that further cases they are looking into can come to light?

My hon. Friend raises a very important issue. Let me be crystal clear: the law is absolutely clear on this. Anyone can inspect copies of the current register under supervision. The register is a public document to enable concerned citizens, such as those he refers to, to check that registers only include those who are properly eligible. I will, of course, look into the matter that he raised, because we want clarity on this very important point.

British Nuclear Test Veterans

What criteria was used by the Advisory Military Sub-Committee to inform its decision not to recommend a service medal award for British nuclear test veterans. (910442)

The independent Advisory Military Sub-Committee first considers whether there are exceptional circumstances that merit a review. The criteria for historical recognition are the exposure of deployed personnel to a significant degree of risk to life and limb and to arduous conditions, in excess of what might be expected as part of normal service duties.

The UK is the only country that performed nuclear tests that has not formally recognised the contribution of its 20,000 nuclear test veterans. These elderly veterans, who were exposed to ionising radiation with no protection, have heard decades of rhetoric about their bravery, but without formal recognition, those are simply hollow words. Members on both sides of the House know that these veterans deserve a campaign medal, but his Department continues to refuse that modest request. Why does the Minister consider these veterans unworthy of a medal?

I am afraid that there were a number of inaccuracies in the hon. Member’s question. It is not my Department, and we are not the only country in the world that has this view. Only this summer, I met the chairman of the veterans group concerned and asked Veterans UK—this is separate from the medallic recognition scheme—to revisit and redesign the support available to our nuclear test veterans. I understand the disappointment at this decision. It is not within my gift. My job is to make sure these people are looked after properly. I am confident we are doing that. Again, I am happy to meet campaign groups to see what more we can do.

Civil Service Jobs

We want to make the administration of government much less Whitehall-centric and more reflective of the country as a whole. The Government are committed to an ambition to relocate 22,000 civil service roles out of the capital and into the regions and nations of the UK by the end of this decade. Our Places for Growth programme envisages a series of hub locations, with additional aligned offices within travelling distance of those hubs, and we hope this will deliver on our levelling-up ambitions.

Does my hon. Friend agree with me that the west midlands is the perfect place to welcome a Government Department, and will she pay tribute to the Mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street, who has been working with Cabinet Office Minister Lord Agnew to make sure that we can take advantage of the economic investment and employment opportunities that relocation would bring to the west midlands?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He has a fantastic record of championing employment and investment in his region from his time with the Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce and with the launch this month of his business forum. It is great to see him working hand in glove with the West Midlands Mayor, Andy Street, and I am very confident that, when we are ready to make the announcements on Places for Growth, the west midlands will benefit from this very exciting agenda.

Does my hon. Friend agree with me that for Government to be able to make the best decisions for local communities, civil servants and Government Departments should be based across the whole country, including in Blackpool, as this will allow the Government to truly represent the diverse nature of many of the communities across our United Kingdom? In that vein, will my hon. Friend meet me to discuss the different opportunities that relocating Government Departments can bring to Blackpool?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He is a fantastic champion of Blackpool, and it has been great to see icons of civic pride, such as the Tower ballroom, secure culture funds thanks to his efforts. I wholeheartedly agree with him that the Government must be better connected to the communities we serve, and that really is the thrust of the Places for Growth programme. I am happy to meet him if he wishes to set out how his town can help in that agenda.

Office for Veterans’ Affairs

The Office for Veterans’ Affairs has fundamentally changed this country’s offer to our veterans, pulling together all functions of Government to really understand the veterans’ experience in this country. Briefly, I would like to pay tribute to all my colleagues who have supported us in that endeavour this year, particularly in this most difficult of years, during which I am confident that we have changed more than ever as we try to do our duty by those who have served.

I thank my hon. Friend for what he is doing for veterans. Service leavers since 8 January this year will have been given their veterans ID cards to mark their time in the armed forces, but will veterans who left before December 2018 still be able to apply for their card by the end of 2020? Will he update the House about those veterans who are looking forward to getting their card?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. The veterans ID card is an important policy that this Government have brought forward. He is absolutely right that those who leave now will get an ID card. What we have struggled with is the verification of those who have served. The military, unfortunately, has been dealing with paper records for a number of years. That is changing, with the significant investments that we have funnelled into organisations such as Veterans UK. The ambition is to deliver this project once we have got to a place where we can prevent fraud and similar things, so that every veteran who has served gets their veterans ID card and is recognised in the way that this Prime Minister would want.

United Kingdom Internal Market Bill: Strength of Union

What assessment he has made of the effect on the strength of the Union of the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill. (910455)

For centuries, the ability to trade freely without barriers across the United Kingdom has been the cornerstone of our shared prosperity, and the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill will help to maintain this integrated market to ensure the free flow of goods and services throughout the UK.

The majority support for independence in the last 17 polls in a row—58% this morning—is in part due to how Scotland has been treated by the Minister and his colleagues since the Brexit referendum. It is exemplified by the dictatorial United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, which rips the devolution settlement apart and is now the subject of legal challenge. Why are the UK Government unilaterally legislating without legislative consent with the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill when the required common frameworks could have been negotiated with the devolved nations, as they are still at the table?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. As he knows, I am a great admirer of him and of his colleague Alex Neil. One of the things about the approach that we are taking is that common frameworks work alongside the internal market Bill. Indeed, the House of Lords confirmed that approach just this week.

Topical Questions

The House will know that last week I made a statement confirming that vice-president Maroš Šefčovič of the European Commission and I had reached agreement in principle on the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol. As set out in my written statement issued yesterday, I am pleased to say that vice-president Šefčovič and I shall be meeting again later today in a formal session of the withdrawal agreement Joint Committee. I look forward to updating the House on the outcome of that meeting.

I was contacted late last night by a businessman in my constituency who is reliant on imports from the continent. He cannot find a haulage firm willing to carriage on his behalf, due to the current delays at the ports. He is very concerned; unless this issue is resolved, his business will not survive into the new year. What is the Minister’s advice to my constituent?

I know what a diligent constituency Member the hon. Gentleman is. If he gets in touch with my office, I will be directly in touch with the business concerned.

The recent announcement by the Chancellor of a £220 million pilot scheme for the shared prosperity fund is a welcome step forward. However, there are some in Cornwall who claim that this is a sign that the Government will break their commitment to match the funding that places such as Cornwall received through the EU. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government are committed to replacing EU funding, which amounted to £1.5 billion per year, in full, and that, as the Prime Minister has stated, Cornwall will receive its share in a dedicated pot? (910400)

I can absolutely reassure my hon. Friend that, as set out at the spending review, funding for the UK shared prosperity fund will be increased so that it at least matches the EU receipts on average, which reached around £1.5 billion a year. We will publish a UK-wide framework in the spring, which will set out full details, and to help local areas prepare for the introduction of the SPF, we are providing the additional £220 million that my hon. Friend referred to. Of course, we will work closely with Cornwall to ensure that it gets the funding that it needs and for which he is such an effective advocate.

The UK’s ports are our gateway to the world. Yesterday, the port infrastructure fund was finally announced. We found out that Dover did not get the £33 million that it asked for; instead, it got just £33,000. Portsmouth faces a shortfall of £8 million. The Minister recently visited that port, so he knows its huge importance. Why have the Government short-changed vital infrastructure critical to the everyday economy, while at the same time wasting millions of pounds on consultants and middlemen as part of Tory cronyism?

The hon. Lady raises an important issue. The funding in the port infrastructure fund was specifically available for projects that were due to be delivered by July next year, when full import controls will be in place. Dover was bidding for some infrastructure that would be complete by 2023, which is intended, of course, to take advantage of the new opportunities that control over our borders will bring. We are working with Dover to ensure that a new approach towards juxtaposed controls can be in place.

We are also working with Portsmouth. Portsmouth port is not unique, but it is certainly singular in that it is owned by the local authority, which does a very good job. We are working with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, the Department for Transport and others to ensure that not just the port but the broader infrastructure in Portsmouth and that part of Hampshire is sufficient for the needs of port users.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but he needs to give greater assurances that there will not be the delays and disruption that we all fear. A letter from the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Julia Lopez), to my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan) states:

“Ministers…decided that all bids which are recommended to be supported will be funded to 66%”.

Not 100%, but just 66%. What a false economy given the cost to British businesses and consumers of delays and disruption at the border. Will the Government publish the full rationale for each of their 53 port decisions, not least since some companies received next to nothing while one port company, which coincidentally pays a former Tory Cabinet Minister £100,000 a year, was awarded £26 million yesterday by this Government?

Of course, we would be delighted to make sure that the full assessment criteria are shared with the hon. Lady and with all constituency Members. The port infrastructure team had an independent team to look at the eligibility of all the ports that applied and to assess all the bids. They were done on the most rigorous of bases. It is the case that a number of ports have welcomed the additional funding and the additional infrastructure support it will give, but we will continue to work with all ports to ensure we can have a world-class border. The publication today of our future border plan for 2025 lays out the means by which we will do so.

The year 2021 will bring significant opportunities for coastal communities such as Lowestoft to drive forward the covid recovery in the energy, fishing, food and trade sectors. Will my right hon. Friend outline the steps he is taking to ensure that the promotion of investment in ports, manufacturing and processing infrastructure is fully and properly co-ordinated between his and other Departments, including the Departments for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, for Transport and for International Trade? (910401)

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Lowestoft is a hugely important port. All the ports in Suffolk and those that serve the North sea are ports in which we wish to invest, because, as he rightly points out, their potential, not just when it comes to increased access to our own fishing waters but new investment in renewables, is growing all the time. Our border strategy, which we published today, has been published in consultation with other Government Departments. He is absolutely right that we need to continue to work with them to take advantage of the opportunities of the future.

Happy Christmas, Mr Speaker. We will not be in the single market or the customs union, but the deal on the table offers free trade without tariffs, minimum environmental and worker protection, and sovereignty to diverge for selective adjudicated tariffs if, and only if, we undercut EU standards. Why then, on the last day of Parliament, is the Minister continuing to threaten UK business with no deal, plunging them into immediate tariffs for no divergence in just two weeks’ time? (910405)

Bore da, Mr Speaker, and to the hon. Gentleman. It is the case that the UK Government have been clear about the importance of maintaining sovereignty, the right to diverge and full control over our waters. We shall not be ambiguous about that, but we are determined, if we can, to reach a free trade agreement. Our negotiators are working hard to that end.

I am sure that you, Mr Speaker, and colleagues across the Chamber are aware that the world’s finest ceramics are made in the potteries of Stoke-on-Trent, and that the ceramics industry, both traditional and advanced ceramics, are integral to the UK’s economy. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, whether the outcome of the talks with the EU is Canada or Australia, Stoke-on-Trent companies such as Churchill China and Steelite will continue to remain world leaders in manufacturing and production? (910402)

Not just the company my hon. Friend mentions, but Royal Doulton, Wedgwood, Spode and of course more recently Emma Bridgewater. Those are names that are known across the globe. They shine a light on the brilliant ceramics sector that is housed in Stoke-on-Trent and the potteries towns. We will ensure in the future, as we leave the European Union, that across the world people have the chance to dine off and to drink from the first-class products made in his and his neighbours’ constituencies.

Under the coalition Government, great progress was made to improve Government procurement practices. There is still much more that can be done, particularly in the NHS, by taking advantage of national procurement where it does not currently exist. Given the scale of the debt that our country is now in following the covid crisis, will my right hon. Friend the Minister reassure me that the Government will redouble their efforts to improve Government procurement practices going forward? (910403)

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. May I take this opportunity briefly to thank him for the work he has undertaken as vice-chairman of the all-party group on coronavirus and the work he continues to do on the NHS frontline. He has shown real leadership in the fight against this dreadful virus. He is absolutely right that we need to improve procurement. The procurement Green Paper published earlier this week is a part of that, but I hope to work with him and others on the frontline to ensure that the Department of Health and Social Care does even better in the future.

In his previous response to me, the Minister talked about looking after the nuclear test veterans. Since they have not received compensation for their exposure to ionising radiation, this is frankly laughable. Is not the real reason these veterans have not received their medal that this would be an admission by the UK Government that they were placed in an extremely hazardous situation? (910417)

That is not the real reason at all. This is a very clear process that is rightly outwith the control of Ministers. There is an independent committee that looks at medallic recognition. They have looked at this again and come to the decision that they have. It would be worthwhile funnelling energies into how we look after this special cohort of people. This decision does not diminish their service in any way and, again, I am happy to meet both the hon. Lady and the chairmen of the campaign groups to make sure that we are doing all we can to look after those who have served.

Matt Vickers—not here. Oh dear, it is not a good day. Dr Rupa Huq—not here. It is definitely not a good day.

Yesterday, Emma McClarkin, the chief executive of the British Beer and Pub Association, told the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee of the frustration in her industry at not being privy to data or being involved in the drafting of guidance related to restrictions on hospitality. Seventy million pints were lost in the first lockdown. As brewers and publicans try to understand changing and complex data, will my right hon. Friend consider ways to involve the industry at as early a stage as possible and share as much data as possible so that clear guidance can be issued and the industry can plan ahead? (910407)

May I, first, join you, Mr Speaker, in lamenting the absence of the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq)? I hope that she is well and—[Interruption.] Anyway, we are all rooting for her.

You are absolutely right. I lament all these absences, but I am even more grateful for the presence of my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Tom Randall), who has asked his second question in this session. It is a very good one because he is absolutely right. The increasing and welcome support for the spread of real ale has meant that necessarily, as pubs have closed and moved towards takeaway, we have lost some of that production, and those in the hospitality sector have faced very difficult times. He is absolutely right that we need to work more closely with the hospitality sector to understand the pressures that they face at this very difficult time, and I am grateful to him for raising this issue.

Derbyshire is a fantastic place to live and work. It has an all-round economy and great culture. Will the Minister tell us what steps he is taking to increase the proportion of the civil service based outside London and when they will be coming to Derbyshire? (910408)

I can only agree with my hon. Friend: Derbyshire is a great place to live. It rivals Lancashire in the many attractions that it has for people of good taste. Early in the new year, we will be announcing steps that we are taking to move more jobs and more civil service responsibilities out of Whitehall and into locations such as Derbyshire, Lancashire and, of course, Teesside.

Listen, Dominic Cummings, the man who single-handedly destroyed the nation’s trust on covid-19, was booted out of No. 10 with a £40,000 pay increase. This is at a time when hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people have lost their livelihoods, and many more will follow. Millions of other people are facing a real-terms pay freeze. Does the Minister agree that this is totally and utterly immoral—in fact, obscene? And at a time of good will, does he recognise that good old British saying, “What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander”? (910421)

I am very grateful for the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. He is a brilliant campaigner and a doughty fighter. He has been at the frontline of the trade union movement and at the heart of the Labour party for many years. He puts his case very, very well. I respectfully disagree with him on the particular case that he mentions, but I do agree with him on the broader need for us all to recognise the significant sacrifice that the working people across this country have been making during the covid pandemic, and I thank him for the way in which he has fought for his constituents to ensure that our NHS is there for them. I look forward to working with him outside the to and fro of this Chamber because I know what a great-hearted man he is.

Several businesses in my constituency of Kensington are major importers; I think, for example, of Innocent Drinks, which is a large importer of fruit juice. Clearly such businesses do not want to have to pay tariffs. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that no stone is being left unturned in trying to negotiate a free trade agreement with Europe?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. The constituency she represents is home to a variety of innovative businesses, many of which trade successfully with Europe. This is why we are doing everything we can to secure a free trade agreement, but of course it cannot come at any price. I am grateful to her for endorsing Innocent Drinks, although at this time of year I hope we all have the chance to indulge in some not-so-innocent drinks as well.

The Government’s plans to mimic the Republican party’s voter suppression tactics risk denying millions of people the right to vote. Hardest hit will be already marginalised groups such as the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. Despite their already being one of the most discriminated against groups in the country, neither the Government’s equalities impact assessment nor the Electoral Commission’s evaluation of voter identification pilots make reference to Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. Instead of at best ignoring those communities, and at worst demonising them, will the Government scrap plans to create further barriers to their democratic participation?

We will continue to work with charities and civil society organisations, including those that represent Traveller and Roma communities, to ensure that voter ID is inclusive of all eligible voters, but we have no plans to scrap it. It is extremely to protect the integrity of our democracy and I fully support it.

In order to ensure 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 a few minutes.

Sitting suspended.

Business of the House

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.