House of Commons
Wednesday 13 January 2021
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Orders, 4 June and 30 December 2020).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Oral Answers to Questions
Women and Equalities
The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—
Covid-19: Disabled People
The Government are committed to supporting disabled people affected by the covid-19 pandemic. We are ensuring that disabled people continue to have access to disability benefits, financial support, food, medicines and employment support, as well as updated guidance in accessible formats.
I thank the Minister for her answer. We know that in the last lockdown over half of families with disabled children found that their essential care support was stopped, with a third of parents reporting no specific support for their child’s remote learning needs. That left many families in crisis with no respite. What steps are Ministers taking to ensure that both care and access to learning are made a priority for disabled children during this lockdown?
The pandemic has been extremely challenging for families with children and young people with special educational needs. Supporting them is a priority for this Government and their wellbeing remains central to our response. We have our £37.3 million family fund to help more than 75,000 low-income families raising children. The hon. Lady will note that the Minister for Children and Families, my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), is partaking in this session, and I am sure that she will be keen to update her further.
National Autism Strategy
I thank the hon. Lady for raising this important issue and congratulate her on all the work that she does for autistic people. We are working across Government and particularly with the Department for Education to develop a new impactful all-age autism strategy. This will set out specific actions to address the significant inequalities that autistic people and their families face.
We aim to publish the strategy in the spring.
I was not really able to hear the Minister’s answer, but there was a report from the Care Quality Commission in October last year that was quite damning in its account of the experiences of people with autism and learning disabilities in mental health facilities. What work is the Minister doing—particularly in terms of the review of the Mental Health Act 2010 that we will hear about later today—to ensure that people with autism are treated sensitively when they end up encountering mental health services and having to spend time as an in-patient?
I know that the report to which the hon. Lady refers, which was commissioned by the Secretary State for Health and Social Care, did indeed have some very serious findings. We absolutely will take action based on that report. We are also working on the Transforming Care agenda to ensure that people with learning disabilities and autism are not inappropriately in in-patient settings. There is, of course, also the reform of the Mental Health Act, which will mean that it should no longer be used for the detention of people with learning disabilities and autism beyond the 28-day period for assessment.
Covid-19: BAME Communities
My first report on the disproportionate impact of covid-19 on ethnic minority groups in October concluded that there is no evidence suggesting that ethnicity itself is a risk factor. Rather, the evidence suggests that a range of socioeconomic and geographical factors, as well as pre-existing health conditions, largely explained the disparities. The report set out the range of measures that the Government had put in place as well as recommendations to target those risk factors, which we are carrying out across Government. We are also working with stakeholders, including the British Medical Association and the Community Advisory Group, specifically in relation to adult social care.
The disparities impact report did not say that race was not a factor. What it actually said was that data were not being collected. Has the Minister ensured that ethnicity data, including test-taking, positive tests, vaccinations and deaths at a national and regional level, are being collected to enable the robust monitoring of the impacts of covid-19 on black, Asian and minority ethnic communities? If she has, we will see whether her deep-rooted reluctance to acknowledge the role that structural racism plays is actually justified.
I am afraid that the hon. Lady seems to have completely misunderstood the report. I encourage her to re-read it. There is no evidence to suggest that structural or institutional racism is the cause of the higher infection rate for ethnic minority groups. In fact, data published by the Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre shows that from September to December, the direct impacts of covid-19 have improved for ethnic minorities overall when it comes to the percentages of critically ill patients and deaths in England by ethnicity when compared with the first wave. We need to understand that this is a health crisis, and it is really sad that Opposition Members continue to politicise the issue and to look for racism, when medical experts have supported our report and shown what is driving these disparities.
We are determined that everyone in Britain should be treated fairly and have a fair chance in life, whether they come from Redcar or Reading. That is why we have a new approach in the Equality Hub that is focused on the scourge of geographic inequality.
The Minister knows that Redcar and Cleveland rely a lot on our chemicals, manufacturing and engineering industry, and, like me, many young lads in Teesside go on to study apprenticeships in our industry. However, there remains a lot of work to do to address the gender imbalance that faces our industry. What more can the Government do to encourage young people of all backgrounds, but especially young women, to access engineering and help to level up places such as Redcar and Cleveland?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. We know that 35% of the gender wage gap can be explained by the different occupations done by men and women. I am delighted that he is doing a lot to support Teesside’s chemical industry and to attract more young people, including women, into it. I am pleased to say that since 2010 there has been a 31% increase in girls studying science, technology, engineering and maths subjects.
The Government are committed to ensuring that everyone who is clinically prioritised to receive a vaccine has access to one as soon as possible. As part of the Government’s vaccine confidence campaign, briefing sessions are being held with community and faith leaders, with an expert panel of speakers taking questions and countering misinformation. That is part of an integrated campaign across multiple channels to improve public knowledge.
A recent survey carried out by the Royal Society for Public Health revealed that only 57% of respondents from BAME backgrounds were likely to accept the vaccine, compared with 79% of white respondents. I know, based on emails that I have received from constituents across Keighley, that there is an element of nervousness about vaccines among the BAME community, so will my hon. Friend outline how she will increase efforts to support vaccine take-up among BAME communities and reassure all that the vaccines are completely safe?
The NHS will provide information to promote the take-up of the covid-19 vaccines among all communities, and will support anyone who has questions about the vaccination process. We are doing a lot of work across Government on this issue. We have had meetings with multiple stakeholders, including last week with the National Pharmacy Association, with which I and the Under-Secretaries of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friends the Members for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi) and for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill) discussed options to tackle vaccine hesitancy among minority communities.
Disinformation about the safety of vaccines has caused great alarm for many people. This scaremongering is hugely damaging when mass inoculation is the route out of the current crisis and will enable us to return to normal life. What steps is the Department taking to work with other Government Departments to ensure that accurate information on the safety of vaccines is conveyed to communities for whom English is not their first language?
The vaccine confidence campaign is a cross-Government one, and it includes work to translate key messages and guidance in over 10 different ethnic languages across radio stations and publications. I reiterate my hon. Friend’s point that vaccine disinformation is harmful and dangerous. It is everyone’s responsibility to access information from authoritative sources and not to share misleading information. The Government are also working to help social media platforms identify and take action against incorrect claims about the virus and vaccinations.
Thankfully, we expect uptake of the vaccine among older people to be high, but uptake in that group of people is low when it comes to pension credit. The NHS will have face-to-face contact with almost every older person on these islands this year. I see an ideal opportunity to work with the Department for Work and Pensions to get the message across that billions of pounds of pension credit is going unclaimed by older people. Will the Minister agree to meet to look at how we can do something about that?
It is crucial that the vaccine confidence campaign is accessible to those with learning difficulties, those with hearing impairment, those with visual impairment, and those without English as their first language. Will my hon. Friend outline what the Government are doing across all Departments to make sure that the campaign is as accessible as possible to those who are among the least advantaged in our society?
My right hon. Friend will know that the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation is giving advice on how to prioritise those most in need. The vaccine confidence campaign is specifically to do with vaccine hesitancy, which is not one of the issues that we have found among the groups she mentioned. We want to make sure that they are prioritised according to their need and vulnerability. However, I take the point that she has made and I am assured that that work is taking place across Government.
Equality of Opportunity: Children
Spreading opportunity is a top priority across Government. That is why we are levelling up school standards, investing over £7.1 billion more in schools by 2022-23 than we did in 2019-20. We are committed to providing extra support for the education of disadvantaged children throughout the pandemic, including through our £350 million national tutoring programme; continuing to provide eligible children with free school lunches during term time; and securing over 1 million laptops and tablets, of which over half a million have already been delivered.
Coastal communities such as Lowestoft face particular challenges in improving social mobility. I would be most grateful if my hon. Friend outlined the co-ordinating action being taken to ensure that all Government Departments work together to ensure that children in seaside towns have every opportunity to realise their full potential.
Clearly, what we need to do for coastal communities—as we are doing, working with the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford)—is to make sure that childcare is available for every child. That is why we are, in particular, keeping early years open, and why the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is working to make sure that we protect jobs and create new job opportunities for those in coastal communities.
Economic Recovery: Employment for Women
The Government have taken significant steps to support employment opportunities for women, starting with protecting jobs. The coronavirus job retention scheme has supported 4.5 million jobs done by women, the self-employed income support scheme has issued grants to 1.4 million women, and we are providing an extra £4.6 billion to support sectors required to close during the lockdown, which predominantly employ women.
Female employment is highest in the services sector and has been hit particularly hard by redundancies in hospitality, retail and leisure. The new deal announced by the Prime Minister in June focused on house building, road building and infrastructure—all vital sectors, but heavily geared towards male employment. Can my hon. Friend confirm whether there are equivalent plans to stimulate female employment in the months ahead, and will he meet me to discuss this?
I thank my hon. Friend for what she is doing to encourage such employment. We are committed to having a fair recovery for all. During the crisis we have rolled out unprecedented levels of support to protect jobs for both women and men. Yes, of course I would be happy to meet her to discuss what more we can do to stimulate employment, including female employment, in the months ahead.
Research by the Trades Union Congress shows that about 90% of mothers have taken on more childcare responsibilities since the pandemic began, with 43% having to balance childcare with working from home. This is a particular pressure for single-parent households, the majority of which, research shows, are headed by women. With women at greater risk of redundancy and disproportionately employed in sectors hardest hit by shutdowns, will the Minister commit to creating a legal, enforceable and immediate right for parents to request paid, flexible furlough?
I want to make sure that the equality agenda moves beyond just protected characteristics. Instead, we will make sure that we are focused on every individual in Britain having a fair chance in life and fair access to public services.
I really welcome the Government’s agenda on women and equalities, and I commend my right hon. Friend for her outstanding leadership, but could I please also ask her to reassure me that we will never bow to those who suggest that white people should feel guilty for being white or to those who peddle the notion of white privilege? We are in this together, so will she please undertake today to write to other Government Departments to reinforce that?
Britain is one of the best places in the world to live, no matter what a person’s skin colour, sexuality, religion or anything else is. We need to be positively empowering people in Britain to succeed so that everyone has access to opportunity, and not using positive discrimination. That is the approach we are taking right across Government.
A very happy Lohri for the Dogra community, who are celebrating today. I agree completely with my right hon. Friend on the need to ensure that we move beyond the Equality Act 2010, but first we need to reform it. Will she bring forward proposals to remove caste as a protected characteristic from the Equality Act 2010, so that we can ensure that Hindu, Sikh, Jain and Muslim communities are not disadvantaged in our society?
Equalities Policy: Evidence Base
We can and must have an equality agenda that is driven by evidence, and that is why we have launched an equality data project, which will look at the life paths of individuals across this country and deliver hard data about the barriers that people face.
Over the Christmas break, I was disappointed to read comments in The Guardian by Halima Begum of the Runnymede Trust, who ridiculously claimed:
“I think the government’s long-term plan is to work up white nationalism for the next elections”.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that not only should that insulting thinking have no place in the setting of Government policy, but it should have no place in mainstream discourse?
I agree with my hon. Friend—these comments are appalling. They reflect an attitude on the left of politics that says, “If you’re not from an oppressed group, you’re not entitled to an opinion”, and I think that is fundamentally wrong. I believe that equality is for everyone, and I am not going to let this debate be dominated by a few campaign groups.
As we recover from covid, we need to make sure that everyone in Britain has a chance to succeed and is being treated fairly in the workplace. We are broadening the focus of the Equality Hub from protected characteristics to equality for all and, in particular, tackling the scourge of geographical inequality. I will shortly be saying more about our new fight for fairness, delivering a better deal for everyone and standing up for fundamental human rights and freedoms across the world.
I very much welcome the fact that the equality agenda will be looking beyond simply protected characteristics. One key problem has been white pupils eligible for free school meals and how they have underperformed academically compared with other low income groups. Does the Minister feel that the equality agenda we have been working with, which has been almost exclusively focused on protected characteristics, may be an explainer in why that is the case?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. The attainment score at GCSE for white British children who receive free school meals is lower than the equivalent for black and Asian children. At the Equality Hub, we are conducting a life path analysis to understand where the real issues are, and we are working closely with the Department for Education to take action on this issue.
The impacts of 10 years of austerity are stark: 14 million people are now in poverty, figures out today show that 45% of disabled people in work at the start of last year reported no earnings by summer, and figures from the Department for Work and Pensions show that there are more women likely to live in poverty. In 2010, the Tory-led Government scrapped the Equality Act 2010’s socioeconomic duty. Addressing class and other inequalities is not an either/or. Given the Minister’s new-found passion for addressing class and poverty, will she now enact the socioeconomic duty?
We have made significant progress since 2010 in addressing disparities—for example, closing the attainment gap in education—but we recognise that, during the covid crisis, more needs to be done to address inequality and help to level up our country. The way we are going to do that is to focus on equality for everyone across our country, making sure that everyone has a fair chance—including addressing the issue of geographical inequality, which is severe in this nation.
We are finalising consultations across Government on the ratification of the ILO violence and harassment convention. Once complete, we will inform Parliament of our intentions regarding ratification. The Government share the “Safe Spaces Now” campaign’s goals to see street harassment stamped out and are committed to tackling all forms of abuse against women and girls.
In a speech last month, the Minister for Women and Equalities stated that she wanted to focus on “facts”, not “fashion”—she has made reference to that today—and to concentrate on “data and research”. The overwhelming body of evidence of structural racism is clear. It is a fact that black Caribbean children are more likely to be excluded from school. It is a fact that black women are five times more likely to die in childbirth. This is not fashion: they are facts. Does this evidence not point towards the need for action, rather than the continual denial and dismissal of the realities of systemic racism?
My hon. Friend the Minister for Equalities has already presented the clear evidence on the covid crisis. My point is that, rather than looking at equality through the prism of groups, we should be focusing on making sure that every individual in this country—regardless of their race, their background, their sexuality or their sex—has the opportunity to succeed. That is what the data project we are working on will look at.
The Prime Minister was asked—
I am sure Members of the House will want to join me in offering our condolences to the family and friends of our former colleague Brian Binley, who died over Christmas, and who was an irrepressible Member of this House.
Today, we are publishing our proposals for reforming the Mental Health Act. For too long we have seen rising rates of detention that not only had little beneficial effect, but left some worse off, not better off. That is why we are making sure the Act works better for some of the most vulnerable in our society and gives them more of a legal right in deciding what treatment works best for them. My right hon. Friend the Health Secretary will update the House shortly.
This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
I know the whole House will want to associate itself with the Prime Minister’s remarks about our dear Brian Binley.
One of the groups hit hardest by the pandemic is young people in full-time education, especially those facing exams last year and this, with all of the mental health challenges that come from such uncertainty. Does my right hon. Friend agree that those for whom exams have been scrapped this year would now benefit from the utmost clarity about how exactly they will be assessed? A clear plan announced early, without last-minute changes, would help teachers and students prepare for an even more challenging experience.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is clearly a problem of differential learning that has grown over the last few months and risks being exacerbated now by the current lockdown. We will do everything we can to ensure that exams are fair and that the ways of testing are set out in a timely way, and the Department for Education is launching a consultation with Ofqual to ensure that we get the right arrangements for this year.
Can I join in the condolences expressed by the Prime Minister, I am sure on behalf of the whole of the House?
Could I begin by paying tribute to all those involved in the vaccine programme? I went to the Newham vaccine hub last week, and it was really uplifting to see the NHS, the Red Cross and lots of volunteers all working together and giving real hope. They had a simple message to me, which was if they had more vaccine, they could and they would do more, and I am sure that is shared across the country.
I welcome news that has come out this morning about a pilot of 24/7 vaccine centres. I anticipate there is going to be huge clamour for this, so can the Prime Minister tell us: when will the 24/7 vaccine centres be open to the public, because I understand they are not at the moment, and when will they be rolled out across the country?
I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for what he says about the roll-out of vaccines. I can tell him that we will be going to 24/7 as soon as we can, and my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary will be setting out more about that in due course. As he rightly says, at the moment the limit is on supply. We have a huge network—233 hospitals, 1,000 GP surgeries, 200 pharmacies and 50 mass vaccination centres—and they are going, as he has seen himself, exceptionally fast, and I pay tribute to their work. It is thanks to the work of the NHS and to the vaccine taskforce that we have secured more doses, I think, per capita than virtually any other country in the world—certainly more than any other country in Europe.
I obviously welcome that, and urge the Prime Minister and the Government to get on with this. We are all happy to help, and there are many volunteers who are. The sooner we have 24/7 vaccine centres, the better for our NHS and the better for our economy.
The last PMQs was on 16 December. The Prime Minister told us then that we were seeing, in his words,
“significant reductions in the virus.”—[Official Report, 16 December 2020; Vol. 686, c. 265.]
He told us then that there was no need for “endless lockdowns” and no need to change the rules about Christmas mixing. Since that last PMQs, 17,000 people have died of covid, 60,000 people have been admitted to hospital, and there have been more than 1 million new cases. How did the Prime Minister get it so wrong, and why was he so slow to act?
Of course, what the right hon. and learned Gentleman fails to point out is that on 18 December, two days later, the Government were informed about the spread of the new variant, and the fact that it spreads roughly 50% to 70% faster than the old variant. That is why it is correct to say that the situation today is very troubling indeed: we have 32,000 covid patients in hospital, and the NHS is under huge strain.
I wish to take this opportunity to pay tribute to all the staff, doctors, nurses, and everybody working in our NHS. They are doing an extraordinary job under the most challenging possible circumstances to help those who so desperately need it. I thank them for what they are doing. At the same time, I also wish to thank all those involved in what is the biggest vaccination programme in the history of this country. Once again, the NHS is in the lead, working with the Army and the legion of volunteers and everybody else. That programme of vaccines shows the way forward, and shows how we will come through this pandemic. I repeat my gratitude to all those involved, because they have now vaccinated 2.4 million people and delivered 2.8 million doses, which is more than any other country in Europe. This is the toughest of times, but we can see the way forward.
The Prime Minister says that effectively two days after that PMQs the advice changed, but the truth is that the indicators were all in the wrong direction at that last PMQs. Be that as it may, the Prime Minister says that he got that advice on 18 December, two days after PMQs, and we have all seen the SAGE minutes of 22 December, confirming the advice that was given to the Government. The Government’s advisers warned the Prime Minister that the new variant was spreading fast, and that it was highly unlikely that November-style lockdowns would be sufficient to control it. That was pretty clear advice on 18 December to the Prime Minister from SAGE: a tougher lockdown than in November is going to be needed. I have the minutes here; everybody has seen them. Yet instead of acting on 18 December, the Prime Minister sat on his hands for over two weeks, and we are now seeing in the daily figures the tragic consequences of that delay. How does the Prime Minister justify delaying for 17 days after he got that advice on 18 December?
I must disagree very profoundly with what the right hon. and learned Gentleman has just said. He knows very well that within 24 hours of getting the advice on 18 December about the spread of the new variant, we acted to put the vast part of the country into much, much tougher measures. Indeed, we are now seeing—it is important to stress that these are early days—the beginnings of some signs that that is starting to have an effect in many parts of the country, but by no means everywhere. It is early days, and people must keep their discipline, keep enforcing the rules, and work together, as I have said, to roll out that vaccine programme. I recall that on the day that we went into a national lockdown and, sadly, were obliged to shut the schools—even on that day—the Labour party was advocating keeping schools open. That was for understandable reasons—we all want to keep schools open—but I think it a bit much to be attacked for taking tougher measures to put this country into the protective measures it needed, when the Labour party was then calling to keep schools open.
Just for the record, I wrote to the Prime Minister on 22 December—I had not seen the SAGE advice at that stage—saying to him that if the advice indicated that there should be a national lockdown, he should do it immediately and he would have our full support. I will put that in the public domain so that people can check the record.
More fundamentally, the Prime Minister says, “We took measures straightaway; we put people into different tiers.” The advice was that a November-style lockdown was not enough. How on earth was putting people into a different tier system an answer to the advice that was given? Is not the situation that every time there is a big decision to take, the Prime Minister gets there late?
The next big decision is obvious. The current restrictions are not strong enough to control the virus; stronger restrictions are needed. There is no point Government Members shaking their heads; in a week or two, the Prime Minister is likely to be asking Members to vote for this. Can the Prime Minister tell us, when infection rates are much higher than last March, when hospital admissions are much higher than last March, when death rates are much higher than last March, why on earth are restrictions weaker than last March?
We keep things under constant review and we will continue to do so, and certainly, if there is any need to toughen up restrictions, which I do not rule out, we will of course come to this House. But perhaps, as is so often the case, the right hon. and learned Gentleman did not listen to my earlier answer, because I pointed out to the House that actually, the lockdown measures that we have in place, combined with the tier 4 measures that we were using, are starting to show signs of having some effect. We must take account of that too, because nobody can doubt the serious damage that is done by lockdowns to people’s mental health, jobs and livelihoods.
To listen to the right hon. and learned Gentleman over the last 12 months, you would think he had absolutely no other policy except to plunge this country into 12 months of lockdown. As for coming too late to things, it was only a few weeks ago that he was attacking the vaccine taskforce, which has secured the very doses—the millions of doses—that have put this country into the comparatively favourable position that we now find ourselves in.
That is just not true. Every time I have spoken about the vaccine, I have supported it. The Prime Minister says we are balancing health restrictions and the economy, yet we ended 2020 with the highest death toll in Europe and the deepest recession in any major economy, so that just is not a good enough answer.
I want to turn to the latest free school meals scandal. We have all seen images on social media of disgraceful food parcels for children, costed at about £5 each. That is not what the Government promised. It is nowhere near enough. Would the Prime Minister be happy with his kids living on that? If not, why is he happy for other people’s kids to do so?
I do not think anybody in this House is happy with the disgraceful images that we have seen of the food parcels that have been offered. They are appalling; they are an insult to the families who have received them. I am grateful, by the way, to Marcus Rashford, who highlighted the issue and is doing quite an effective job, by comparison with the right hon. and learned Gentleman, of holding the Government to account for these issues. The company in question has rightly apologised and agreed to reimburse.
It is because we want to see our kids properly fed throughout this very difficult pandemic that we have massively increased the value of what we are providing—another £170 million in the covid winter grant scheme, £220 million more for the holiday activities and food programme, and we are now rolling out the national free school meal voucher scheme, as we did in March, to give parents the choice to give kids the food that they need. This Government will do everything we can to ensure that no child goes hungry as a result of the privations caused by this pandemic.
The Prime Minister says that the parcels are “disgraceful”, but it should not have taken social media to shame the Prime Minister into action. Like the Education Secretary, he blames others, and he invites me to hold him to account, so let me do that because blaming others, Prime Minister, is not as simple as that, is it?
I have checked the Government guidance on free school meals—the current guidance, published by the Department for Education. I have it here. It sets out an
“Example parcel for one child for five days”—
the Department for Education, Prime Minister; you want to be held to account—
“1 loaf of bread…2 baking potatoes…block of cheese…baked beans…3 individual”
yoghurts. Sound familiar? They are the images, Prime Minister, you just called “disgraceful”. The only difference I can see with this list and what the Prime Minister has described as “disgraceful” is a tin of sweetcorn, a packet of ham and a bottle of milk. He blames others, but this is on his watch. The truth is, families come last under this Government, whether it is exams, free school meals or childcare. Will the Prime Minister undertake—he wants to be held to account—to take down this guidance by the close of play today and ensure that all our children can get a decent meal during the pandemic?
I do not believe anybody is a hypocrite in this Chamber. I think we need to be a little bit careful about what we are saying to each other. There was a “not true” earlier and there were also comparisons to others. Please, let us keep discipline in this Chamber and respect for each other. We are tidying up how this Parliament behaves and I certainly expect the leadership of both parties to ensure that that takes place. Prime Minister, would you like to withdraw the word “hypocrisy”?
I am delighted to be advised by you, Mr Speaker. Let me confine my criticism to the absurdity—which I hope is acceptable, Mr Speaker—of the right hon. and learned Gentleman attacking us over free school meals when it was a Conservative Government that instituted free school meals—universally approved— not a Labour Government. Of the £280 billion that we have spent securing the jobs and livelihoods of people across this country, uprating universal credit and, in addition, increasing the living wage by record amounts this year and last year, as well as increasing the local housing allowance, the overwhelming majority of benefits—the bulk of the measures—fall in favour of the poorest and the neediest in society, which is what this House would expect.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman takes one position one week and one position the next. That is what he does. That has been his whole lamentable approach—if I can get away with lamentable, Mr Speaker—throughout this pandemic. He says he supports the vaccine now. He says he supports the vaccine roll-out, and he tries to associate himself with it because he senses that it is going well, but be in no doubt, that that was the party that wanted us—this country—to stay in the European Union vaccine programme. That is absolutely true. He stood on a manifesto, which he has not repudiated, to dismantle the very pharmaceutical companies that have created this miracle of science, which is true—
Prime Minister, there are questions and sometimes we have got to try to answer the question that was asked of you. To run through the history is one thing, but in fairness, it is Prime Minister’s questions. It was the final question. We have lots of others to go through, so I think I am now going to move on to Simon Jupp in Sidmouth, who is desperate to ask a question of you, Prime Minister.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I know that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has done everything he can to help businesses throughout this pandemic, and that is why he has extended the grants and why we have the cuts for both the VAT and for business rates. We will do everything we can to help as we go forward, but the best thing would of course be to ensure that we roll out this vaccine programme and bounce back as fast as possible. Any further announcements my right hon. Friend makes will be well ahead of 31 March, by which time we intend to have a Budget.
My constituent in Lochaber, a producer and exporter of shellfish, is experiencing his worst nightmare. After loading a lorry of fresh local seafood on Monday, as he has done for 35 years, his driver faced bureaucracy and delays. Brexit red tape meant that £40,000 of his fresh, high-quality produce was lost, unable to be sold. That £40,000 of produce is income for more than 100 local families in many remote and fragile communities. Will the Prime Minister tell my constituent where the sea of opportunity is that he and his Scottish Tories promised?
We are putting £100 million into supporting the fishing industry in Scotland and across the whole of the UK. It is the policy of the Scottish nationalist party not only to break up the United Kingdom under its hare-brained scheme but to take Scotland back into the EU and hand back control of Scottish fisheries to Brussels, thereby throwing away all those opportunities in a way that I think even the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) would say is totally absurd. I am amazed that the right hon. Gentleman continues on this track.
I am amazed that the Prime Minister continues to traduce the name of the Scottish National party. He has been told before, and he really should get it right. Frankly, that answer was an insult to all the fishermen today facing loss. The reality is that a third of the Scottish fishing fleet is tied up in harbour; some boats are landing in Denmark, rather than Scotland, to avoid Brexit bureaucracy; and Scottish seafood exporters are losing upwards of £1 million in sales a day. Seafood Scotland says all the extra red tape is an almost impossible task—it has even forced ferry operators to pause load deliveries to the continent. The European Union has put in place a €5 billion fund to support businesses with the costs of Brexit. Last night, it was revealed that Ireland will receive €1 billion of that. Will the Prime Minister tell Scottish businesses when they will get the same level of support? Where is the compensation for my constituent who is losing £40,000 today?
The right hon. Gentleman continually advocates the break-up of the Union of the United Kingdom and going back into the European Union, even though that would be immensely destructive to the Scottish economy—to jobs, livelihoods, pensions and the currency. So far as I understand it, the Scottish nationalists are already spending money in Scotland on what they call indyref2 when they should be getting on with fighting the pandemic. That, I think, is what the people of Scotland want to see. He might pay tribute, by the way, to the merits of the United Kingdom in rolling out a vaccine across the whole country. I am told that they cannot even bring themselves to call it the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. Perhaps he could just say that he likes the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine?
I can confirm that we are going to go down the top four priority groups, who sadly count for 80% of covid deaths. The target, as he knows, is that by 15 February there will then be an opportunity to look carefully at the measures we have in place. We will try to reverse the restrictions as soon as we reasonably can, in a way that does not involve overwhelming the NHS.
The Prime Minister promised us that Northern Ireland would continue to have unfettered access to the UK internal market, yet consumers in my constituency are facing empty supermarket shelves and cannot get parcels delivered from Great Britain, small businesses cannot bring spare parts and raw materials into Northern Ireland from Great Britain, steel importers are facing tariffs and we have many other problems, all caused by the Northern Ireland protocol. What I and the people of Northern Ireland need to know from the Prime Minister, as leader of the United Kingdom, is what his Government are going to do to address this, and whether he will consider invoking article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol to resolve these issues. The trader support service is welcome, but it alone is not the solution. We need direct Government intervention to deal with this now.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman, and I can tell him that, at the moment, goods are flowing effectively and in normal volumes between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. So far, no lorries have been turned back. Yes, of course there are teething problems, but I can confirm that if there are problems that we believe are disproportionate, we will have no hesitation in invoking article 16.
I certainly thank the GP vaccination centre in St Albans for what it is doing and for its wonderful work. It is thanks to primary care networks across the country that we have done 2.8 million vaccines for 2.4 million people. The constraint is not the distribution network; it is the supply, but don’t forget that we have a bigger supply than all other European countries—indeed, we have virtually done as many vaccines as all the other European countries put together—and we will be ramping up that supply in the days and weeks ahead.
Of course I am familiar with the superb workforce in Shropshire to which my hon. Friend refers. There is a competition currently going on, and negotiations are going on with the modernisation that he speaks of. As he knows, we have made the biggest investment in our defences since the cold war with the recent spending review, but it would not be right for me to comment on those negotiations at this stage.
Not only have we uprated universal credit by £1,000, but, as I have said, we have increased the local housing allowance, the living wage and many, many other benefits. We will keep all this under constant review. I know that the hon. Lady speaks for the Labour Front Bench. Current Labour policy, as far as I understand it, is to abolish UC. Many people in receipt of UC, knowing how important it is, will find that stunning, in view of what she has just said.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point about the need to improve flood defences, which is why we are investing £2.6 billion in 1,000 flood defences in England in the next six years. The Humber estuary, the area he represents so well, is one of four areas that will benefit from trials on long-term ways of making all our country more resistant to flooding.
I will, of course, ensure that there is a proper meeting with the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues on this subject, which is extremely important. I know that our friends in the EU will be wanting to go further to improve things not just for musicians, but for business travellers of all kinds, because there is a mutual benefit.
There has been a bit of a theme to the interventions from my brilliant free port campaigners behind me. They are absolutely right. We do not hear about it from the Labour party, but Mr Hydrogen, as I think my hon. Friend is now known, makes an excellent point. As I said earlier, the bidding process is under way and it would be wrong of me to comment any further.
There are 9,000 fantastic community pharmacies across our country. They do an amazing job. What we want to ensure is that we get doses to the places where they are going to be distributed most effectively the fastest. I am sure the hon. Gentleman would not want to see doses distributed to many places where they might not all be used in the course of the day. We need at this stage to avoid any wastage at all. That is why we are concentrating on the 233 hospitals, 50 mass vaccination sites and 200 pharmacies already, and we will wrap that up. It will be particularly important as we come into the phases when we need to reach people who are harder to reach in local communities, and there, local pharmacies will, as he rightly says, play a vital role.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the extraordinary work done by carers and social care workers up and down the country. They have got through this pandemic. We must continue to look after them in any way that we can and we must commit, as we have done, to reforming the sector and giving people the certainty they need. We will be bringing forward proposals later this year.
As the hon. Gentleman says, we believe that using threats of firing and rehiring is unacceptable as a negotiating tactic, and there are laws in place to ensure that contractual conditions cannot discriminate against people on grounds of race, sex or disability, but I will take up his point by saying that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is working with ACAS, businesses and employee representatives to discuss what more we can do.
Jay Fathers died in hospital having been stabbed in the early hours of new year’s day. Last week, the killers of Dom Ansah and Ben Gillham-Rice were sentenced to life imprisonment. Knife crime is destroying lives in Milton Keynes, across the Thames valley and across the UK, even during a pandemic. Can my right hon. Friend outline what support the Government are giving to provide police forces with the tools they need to make our streets safer?
First, we are introducing knife crime prevention orders, which are placing curbs and limits to deter young people from going equipped and getting involved in knife crime. We have made sure that we deliver on the serious violence strategy, engaging with young people and steering them away from knife crime, but what it takes is continuous and serious law enforcement, making sure that people who carry a knife do get the sentences they deserve. That is why we are also putting more police out on the streets of our country and have recruited almost 6,000 of the additional 20,000 that we committed to at the last election.
In so far as that was the gentleman’s intention, he has failed in that. Possibly the best thing I can do is repeat what I said to the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands), who has already raised the subject of the strike. We regard fire and rehire as unacceptable, and we will continue to make that point and seek further means of redress.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for the opportunity to chair an early years healthy development review on behalf of the Government. He knows only too well how awful the lockdown has been for new parents and their families, in addition to the existing pressures under which new parents find themselves. Can he assure me that the recommendations of this important review will form a core part of his ambition to build back better and make sure that every baby gets the best start in life?
For many years now I have been listening to my right hon. Friend making her points with the passion and knowledge that she does, and I know she is right. I look forward very much to her review, and to her submitting her findings, and I look forward to working together with her to achieve the change that we want for early years children.
I thank very much all the schools in Hammersmith, and indeed throughout London and throughout the country, who are working so hard to look after vulnerable kids and to look after children of key workers. At the moment the percentage in school is about 14%, which is, as the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, higher than it was in March. I think the gist of his question was that schools should be closed altogether. I do not think that is right. I think what the country wants to see is the children of key workers and vulnerable kids getting the education that they need. I thank very much the teachers and all the staff involved for making that possible.
Northern Ireland Protocol: Disruption to Trade
(Urgent Question): To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office if he will make a statement on the disruption to trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland as a result of the Northern Ireland protocol.
I am grateful for the chance to update the House on the operation of the Northern Ireland protocol. The protocol exists to recognise Northern Ireland’s unique position as the only part of our United Kingdom to have a land border with the EU. It was designed to ensure that no customs infrastructure is needed between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, while protecting unfettered access for Northern Ireland’s businesses to the rest of the UK market and the gains of the peace process and, of course, respecting Northern Ireland’s position as an absolutely integral part of the United Kingdom.
As with any new trading arrangement, the protocol undoubtedly generates challenges as well as providing solutions. The Government are committed to addressing those challenges by providing pragmatic solutions to any problems that arise and working with the Northern Ireland Executive in the interests of all the people of Northern Ireland.
UK Government Ministers are in daily contact with Ministers in the Executive, and with businesses in Northern Ireland and Great Britain, to ensure the effective operation of the protocol. Inevitably, the impact of covid and the steps taken by the French Government at their border have affected retail businesses across the United Kingdom, but it is important to stress that freight volumes into Northern Ireland’s ports are at normal levels for this time of year. There have been no significant queues, and supermarkets are now generally reporting healthy deliveries of supplies into Northern Ireland.
None the less, the new processes that the protocol asks of businesses that are moving goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland require the Government to do more. We are working with companies across Great Britain to help them understand the new requirements for moving goods, and the extensive Government support includes the trader support service, to which more than 25,000 businesses are now signed up, yet we know that still more needs to be done.
That is why we are stepping up direct engagement with suppliers to ensure they have access to the realtime guidance they need, and we are also working closely with industry to address specific problems of moving mixed food loads from Great Britain to Northern Ireland through the process known as groupage. In the coming days, the Government will issue new guidance on the practical mitigations that have been developed with industry to enable this important practice to continue and to support hauliers and suppliers.
We also recognise that a number of hauliers have been affected by significant issues at Dublin port. We welcome the easements that have been introduced by the Irish Government, but movements via Dublin are substantially lower than normal, so we have to intensify our engagement with the Irish authorities.
More broadly, the grace periods for supermarkets and their suppliers are now working well, but we are already planning for the streamlined replacements that will follow. A dedicated team within DEFRA, working with the Cabinet Office, is also in touch with the industry to promote readiness, supported by new specific Government funding.
Ultimately, the future of the protocol is in the hands of Northern Ireland’s people, and its renewal is a question of democratic consent. The responsibility of this Government is to ensure that it operates in an effective, legal and pragmatic way, and that is the spirit in which we approach its implementation.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for the opportunity to put this urgent question. I thank the Minister for his response. He has sought to address a number of the issues that I wish to raise. I have to say to him, however, that the difficulties encountered by Northern Ireland consumers and businesses may be greater than he recognises. I am still being contacted by constituents who are finding it difficult to order online items from Great Britain. There are many parcel companies and others that will not deliver to Northern Ireland and will not even accept orders from Northern Ireland as a result of the Northern Ireland protocol.
Businesses in Northern Ireland are also having difficulty ordering spare parts for equipment and importing raw materials. Just this week, our steel manufacturers in Northern Ireland have been informed that they face a 25% tariff on some steel imports as a direct result of the Northern Ireland protocol, because we cannot align with the UK quota on that.
Consumers continue to face difficulties in supermarkets. It is not the case that all supermarket shelves are fully stocked. Yesterday, we met some of the main supply chain people in Northern Ireland, who talk of ongoing difficulties in bringing goods in from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. Those issues need to be resolved.
The Minister referred to haulage and specifically groupage. I welcome his commitment to find a practical solution to that with DEFRA. We need to continue to work on that, because we have seen at least 40% of hauliers returning to Northern Ireland with empty trailers because of the Northern Ireland protocol and its impact. Although the trader support scheme is welcome, more needs to be done to inform and assist businesses in Great Britain about the operation of the protocol and how they can continue to send goods into Northern Ireland, because our experience is that that is clearly not well understood.
What do we need the Government to do? We need immediate intervention on this matter. It is important for our economy. It is having an impact on the economy of Northern Ireland and, in some instances, it is resulting in a diversion of trade, so we need steps to be taken to address what is becoming a cliff edge at the end of March for our supermarkets and others. I welcome what the Minister has said about the ongoing discussions, but we need an assurance that it will be resolved before the end of March or that the grace period will be extended further. We also need to ensure that hauliers get the support they need and that we find practical solutions to the whole question of groupage. Above all else—
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising those issues. Members of Parliament from across Northern Ireland, representing all parties, and indeed Members of the Assembly and Northern Ireland businesses, have been in touch directly with me and others to provide detailed information about the challenges that individual companies face. We are grateful for that, because we want to do everything that we can to resolve those problems.
On the specific questions that the right hon. Gentleman raises, there have been some online sales organisations that temporarily paused the distribution of goods to Northern Ireland, but the majority of parcel distributors continue to distribute goods. We are working with those who have paused—a small number, admittedly—to ensure that they resume normal service. It is important to recognise, as he pointed out, that although Northern Ireland’s businesses have been well prepared for the protocol, there are businesses sited in Great Britain, which operate in Northern Ireland, that we need to work more closely with to acquaint them with the guidance to provide the necessary reassurance.
The right hon. Gentleman made a point about steel tariffs; those tariffs would provisionally apply only to steel from the rest of the world, not to steel from Britain or the EU entering Northern Ireland, but we are looking at ways in which we can provide, through either the quotas or appropriate rebates, an automatic guarantee that businesses will not pay those tariffs for the steel that they need.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the concern that customers have had about the shortage of specific goods in supermarkets. There was initial disruption, but I am pleased to say that Andrew Opie of the British Retail Consortium confirmed earlier today to the Future Relationship with the European Union Committee that those shortages have now been overcome, pretty much. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, though, that we need to make sure that we have a sustainable approach for the end of the grace period at the end of March, and I will be working with Helen Dickinson of the BRC, and others, to do just that.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned some of the difficulties that businesses have had with the trader support service; 95% of queries have been answered within 15 minutes, but we still must do better in order to ensure that every business gets the support that it needs. I have been in touch with the Road Haulage Association and Logistics UK to deal with some of the specific problems that hauliers face, and we are contemplating what more might be required to support them.
On one final point, I know that the right hon. Gentleman and a number of other Members have been deeply concerned about the operation of additional VAT costs on second-hand vehicles being sold in Northern Ireland. I can confirm today that Her Majesty’s Treasury and HMRC will reinstate a margin scheme in order to ensure that Northern Ireland customers need pay no more than those in any other part of the United Kingdom.
Will my right hon. Friend introduce urgent legislation to ensure the smooth flow of goods between Northern Ireland and GB? Is it not crucial to our Union, in respect of both Northern Ireland and Scotland, that the Government keep their promise to take control of our laws and borders and to demonstrate a more prosperous internal market for the whole UK?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. We want, first of all, to make sure that we are doing everything technically and administratively in order to ensure the smooth flow of goods but, as the Prime Minister confirmed to the House earlier, if we need to take further legal steps, then of course we will.
The disruption to trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland is serious and it is unacceptable. We have seen the empty supermarket shelves, the lorries from Northern Ireland that have been stuck in Britain or that are returning empty, and the unnecessary checks on everything from guide dogs to people moving house. These problems were foreseen time and again in this House and elsewhere and they are, I am afraid to say, the inevitable consequence of the Government’s shambolic preparations for the protocol and the last-minute guidance given to business.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has acknowledged that British business was not prepared for the changes to the trading relationship—and little wonder, when the main Brexit advert running in Britain does not mention Northern Ireland at all, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland sends tweets denying that there is a border of any description, and the Prime Minister just claimed that there was no disruption whatsoever. This denialism is incredibly frustrating to those dealing with the consequences of this Government’s actions.
Although the protocol is far from perfect, it must be made to work, so I would be grateful if the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster could set out what explicit steps he is taking to support British businesses, and how many British-based businesses have accessed the trader support service. Will he set out the plan for the Joint Committee to resolve the many outstanding issues, and how he will avoid the cliff-edges to the grace periods in April and July? Will he confirm whether any easements have been sought with his counterparts on sanitary and phytosanitary or customs checks?
Of utmost importance to us today is that the protocol explicitly commits all parties to ensure that it impacts as little as possible on the everyday life of communities in Northern Ireland. As it stands, those communities are currently facing shortages and price rises, which will only get worse unless the Government are honest about the challenges that we face, engage with business and take the urgent action that is required.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for all the points that she raises; they are all legitimate. It is important, of course, to recognise that some of the problems that were identified in the very first few days of the operation of the protocol have been addressed. As I mentioned, Andrew Opie of the British Retail Consortium explained to the FREU Committee earlier today that the supply of goods to supermarket shelves is now pretty much as normal. It is also important to recall that, as the Prime Minister stated earlier, no trucks have been turned away and that we now have normal traffic for this time of year. But the hon. Lady is right to say that there are and will remain challenges that it is the Government’s responsibility to address.
The hon. Lady asked specifically about engagement with the trader support service. As I mentioned earlier, more than 25,000 businesses have engaged with TSS, but there is more that the Government must do to ensure that all businesses are acquainted with the new procedures that the protocol requires and that our departure from the European Union requires when it comes to trade across the short straits.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right: the protocol should impact as little as possible on the lives of the citizens of Northern Ireland. That is why I will be working not just with businesses and representatives in Northern Ireland, but through the Joint Committee to ensure that we have a pragmatic approach towards grace periods and the operation of the protocol, because we want to make sure that the citizens of Northern Ireland, who are integrally part of the United Kingdom, are valued in the same way as her own constituents and mine are by everyone in this House.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s remarks. I particularly welcome the confidence that he is planning to give to UK businesses to continue to trade in Northern Ireland—a fantastic base for their products and services. Will he confirm that the protocol is a joint UK-EU responsibility and, in that light, will he look at setting up immediately the joint working group, beneath the Joint Committee, and also use his negotiating talents and the relationships that he built up last year in completing the protocol to make 2021 a grace period for supermarkets in Northern Ireland? I think the EU will be up for that deal, so let us make it happen.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. No one has better negotiating skills than him. We remember that it is almost a year to the day since the “New Decade, New Approach” agreement was concluded, which restored democratic government to Northern Ireland. That was secured thanks to his leadership as a superb former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that the protocol is a joint responsibility and I will be talking to my colleagues in the Commission as well as to representatives of the Government in Dublin to ensure that we do everything possible to smooth life for citizens of Northern Ireland. He is absolutely right: it is a wonderful place in which to live and to do business, and in this year of all years we must do everything possible to support the citizens of Northern Ireland.
Having lectured businesses for months about being prepared, it seems that the UK Government themselves have failed to prepare for this hard Brexit. When the Minister promised Northern Ireland the best of both worlds in trade, I wonder whether he envisaged lorries trapped in red tape at a border that he and the Secretary of State have claimed does not exist.
Does the Minister accept that businesses are facing greater uncertainty and greater administrative burdens than promised? Will he explain what is being done to help Northern Ireland hauliers and facilitate groupage? Can he explain why Scottish Government warnings over the need for greater flexibility on grace periods are being ignored? That is particularly vexing considering the democratic outrage at the disregarding throughout of Scotland’s position.
Does the Minister acknowledge the difficulties being caused for businesses, consumers and communities in Northern Ireland, just like the grave damage being done to the Scottish seafood and food and drink industries among others, and what will he do to resolve these issues? Finally, will he commit the UK Government to working with all the devolved Administrations to address the damage being done to businesses across the UK?
I thank the hon. Lady for her points. It is important to stress that no lorries have been trapped in red tape. Lorries have been able to get into Northern Ireland without let or hindrance, which is why, as I mentioned earlier, Andrew Opie pointed out that supplies on supermarket shelves are as they should be. However, she is right to raise the question of groupage. It is a specific issue that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Cabinet Office are seeking to resolve when there are mixed loads from a number of different locations, all of which require appropriate SBS certification. We will be coming forward with proposals to address that specific problem in due course.
The hon. Lady is right to raise the specific issue of seafood supplies. Owing to their perishable nature, it is absolutely vital that we ensure the smoothest possible access to European and other markets. I am very grateful for the constructive approach that has been taken by the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) who, unlike those in the SNP, has come forward with some specific pragmatic solutions to this issue.
The final thing I would say is that, although many of the hon. Lady’s points are legitimate, as I mentioned, I cannot help reflecting that there is a certain irony in the Scottish National party complaining about barriers to trade within the United Kingdom when its signature policy, which it is pursuing even at this time of covid, is to erect new trade barriers within the United Kingdom and, indeed, to impoverish Scotland’s people. I know that that is not what she wants, but it would be the effect of her policies.
Is this chiefly an issue of valid applicability of the protocol, or over-zealous—and perhaps erroneous—interpretation? If it is the former, when will my right hon. Friend take steps to address it with our European counterparts? If it is the latter, what will the Government do to better explain what hauliers and others in the industry can do to follow the rules and get it right?
The truth is that it is a combination of factors. The first and most important thing is to make sure that all businesses, particularly businesses in Great Britain that trade and do business in Northern Ireland, understand what is required of them. That responsibility rests on my shoulders and on the Government’s; that is the first and the single most important item. The second thing, as my hon. Friend quite rightly points out, is not so much that there is an over-zealous application—for example, by the Northern Ireland Executive—but that there is, in the way in which some of the rules apply, a rigidity, which we need to address. That is why we are taking the action that we are—for example on VAT, on steel imports and on groupage.
The right hon. Gentleman has received a letter from the big supermarkets warning of the risk of further disruption to Northern Ireland food supplies from April, and this morning the Committee on the Future Relationship with the European Union heard evidence from the British Retail Consortium that unless there are changes, the system will not be workable for supermarkets. Of course, he cannot guarantee that the current three-month grace period—in which, for example, export health certificates are not required—will be extended, because that is a matter for the Joint Committee. What will happen if it is not extended? What would that mean for choice and prices for consumers in Northern Ireland?
The right hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. As I mentioned earlier, I am grateful to his Select Committee for the exchanges with Andrew Opie, which provided reassurance about the operation of the protocol at the moment, but he is right to raise the letter that was sent to me by Helen Dickinson of the British Retail Consortium on behalf of a range of supermarkets. We are working intensively with those supermarkets and the Commission to address the problems. So far in my experience, Maroš Šefčovič, the Vice-President of the Commission, has always taken a pragmatic approach. As the shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) reminded us, it is the responsibility of both the UK and the EU to ensure that the protocol impacts as little as possible on the lives of Northern Ireland citizens.
Given that almost 100% of the Republic’s roll-on roll-off lorry traffic to the rest of the EU travels through GB, how many of these problems have actually been caused by the protocol, or have they instead been caused by the French closure of trade across the short straits and the problems that my right hon. Friend identified at Dublin port?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. There have been problems at Dublin port, and the Irish Government have responded to concerns and introduced easements. His first point is an even more important one. I do not want to shift any responsibility away from my own shoulders and those of my colleagues in dealing with specific protocol issues, but he is absolutely right; covid—and, in particular, the French Government’s understandable but robust response to it—has affected trade overall. It is important that we put that into the picture in order to provide the necessary context.
I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that I have lost count of the number of occasions on which he has stood at the Dispatch Box and given us all sorts of assurances that there would be no barriers to the free movement of goods between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. It gives me no pleasure to reflect that that is manifestly now not the case. We do at least, though, have a grace period to get things right, and it is up to the right hon. Gentleman to ensure that that happens. Will he confirm whether the changes to groupage regulation to which he referred will also be effective for traders exporting from the rest of the United Kingdom to the European Union, especially for seafood exporters? And while he is at it, why did we not have a grace period for exporters of perishable goods such as seafood? Surely that would have been sensible—with the benefit of hindsight, at least.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his points. It is important to stress first that it is the case that there is unfettered access for goods going from Northern Ireland to Great Britain. The new processes that the protocol has created are about trade from Great Britain into Northern Ireland, and it is those specific challenges that we are addressing at the moment.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a point about groupage that is entirely right. Our response to the challenges faced by hauliers and traders must be one that works not just for access to Northern Ireland but for access to the rest of the EU. It applies particularly to those who are responsible for perishable goods, including the many outstanding companies in his constituency which, thanks to his kindness, I have had a chance to talk to about the challenges and opportunities of Brexit. On his final point about hindsight, let us wait and see for a wee while yet before we can all definitively say what has been successful and what has not.
I join my colleagues in thanking my right hon. Friend and his team for all the work they have done to secure a deal for the UK, which of course includes the residents and businesses of Northern Ireland. Many pressing operational considerations arise from that deal, but the withdrawal agreement was never intended as a final word. Indeed, an alternative arrangements commission reported favourably to Government in September 2019 on alternative deliverable measures. What progress are the Government making towards the delivery of alternative arrangements and any other complementary approaches, such as mutual enforcement?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Few people in this House are doing as much as he is doing at the moment to uphold the integrity of our United Kingdom. He is right that much work was done before the withdrawal agreement on different ways of resolving the challenges that we face on the island of Ireland, and some of those most intimately involved in that work, such as the distinguished trade expert Shanker Singham, are now involved in making sure that the trader support service delivers. He is also right that we will have to keep constantly under review, while respecting our legal obligations under the protocol, what more we can do to make sure that businesses in Northern Ireland can flourish and prosper.
People living in Northern Ireland—those living with the consequences of this protocol—will be amazed at the complacency that the Government have shown as to the economic damage that has been done by the wrecking ball of the protocol. This week, the Chancellor indicated that he had seen no problems. The Prime Minister has said that there are no problems. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland says that there is no border in the Irish sea. And yet my constituents are bringing me hundreds of examples on a daily basis of goods that they are denied by suppliers and of additional costs. We see empty supermarket shelves, lorries are being delayed for long periods and people cannot even move their furniture from a house in England to Northern Ireland. Will the Minister explain why the Irish Government could take immediate action to set aside some of the requirements of the protocol and the EU requirements, and yet our Government are still insisting that they have to obey the full legality of the protocol?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising these issues. I should stress that the Government are seeking to acknowledge that there are challenges but that some of those challenges are being overcome by good working by Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive and by businesses. As I mentioned earlier, some of the initial disruption in the first few days to supermarket supplies has now effectively been addressed, but there are a number of other issues that we are working through. I know that the right hon. Gentleman will, as other members of his party have been doing, be giving me granular information on precisely which businesses may have suffered from disruption, so that we can immediately act to support them and deal with any of the problems that they have identified. I look forward to carrying on that conversation.
I am afraid that this is an amplification of what the right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) raised. The Minister is clearly aware of issues affecting GB to NI traffic, which I consider to be contrary to the guarantee of unfettered access in the Northern Ireland protocol, the Good Friday agreement and, indeed, the Act of Union. As he just heard, the Republic of Ireland is sensibly using a light-touch approach, but it seems that our HMRC is enforcing draconian customs measures on people simply trying to move home. Can he please ensure that HMRC does not gold-plate rules, that it acts sensibly and that the Joint Committee solves these issues forthwith?
Absolutely. My hon. Friend makes a very important point. I should say that colleagues in HMRC and other Government Departments have been working hard to meet the new requirements of the protocol, but I will be vigilant, and I know my colleagues will, for any unintentional inflexibility or gold-plating of any of these rules. That is why I am so grateful to him and others for bringing specific examples to my attention, because then we can act as an administrative Dyno-Rod in order to clear these blockages.
On 30 September, the Northern Ireland Secretary acknowledged to me in the House that there were going to be checks in Northern Ireland, but on 1 January he tweeted:
“There is no ‘Irish Sea Border’.”
Is not this default position of denial, denial, denial by Ministers hampering businesses in dealing with the reality of new checks and failing, failing, failing the people of Northern Ireland?
Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that we have to keep faith with the Northern Ireland protocol, which—long term—shows every sign of benefiting Northern Ireland in its commercial neighbourhood? Will he, however, signal early on to the Joint Committee our willingness to extend the grace period for food, noting the highly pragmatic easement that Dublin has applied? Long term, will he deal with the nonsense—the bureaucratic nonsense—of requiring highly qualified veterinary surgeons to do basic routine sanitary checks?
Very good points. It is in the interests of the European Union to make the protocol work because, as I mentioned earlier, it is subject to democratic consent, and if it is not working then the people of Northern Ireland will reject it, but it is important. It is my responsibility, in the meantime, to do everything possible to make the lives of people in Northern Ireland easier, and my right hon. Friend’s points both about easements and grace periods I entirely endorse.
The SDLP certainly did not wish for Brexit or its consequences, but in the interests of consumers and businesses we are working very hard to ensure that the protocol operates successfully. People here find it very difficult to listen to those Members who campaigned for Brexit and blocked every single alternative, and who explicitly said they do not care what the circumstances are so long as we are out of the EU.
Will the Minister take this opportunity to confirm that further disruption is not the answer and that he will not agree to the DUP’s reckless calls to trigger article 16 and end the protocol? While people here find it very difficult to know what they can believe from the Government, will he commit to close working with the EU, business groups and, indeed, the dedicated Cabinet Office working group to ensure we do not face a further cliff edge at the start of April?
I quite agree with the hon. Lady that we do need to work very closely to provide against the eventuality of the cliff edge she mentions. I should also say, however, that article 16 is part of the protocol, and it is there should circumstances require it, as the Prime Minister pointed out earlier.
The other thing I would say is that I do not believe that any member of my party has been reckless in their position on maintaining the integrity of the United Kingdom. That is absolutely what we have sought to do throughout. The protocol is a means of doing that, but of course we must work to make sure that it operates effectively every day.
Can the Minister confirm that anyone wanting to take personal goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland will not be restricted in any way, and will he make sure that HMRC actually understands that that is an integral part of the Northern Ireland protocol?
Article 16 is a simplistic answer, and it is currently not being sought by the Northern Ireland business community. There is no solution apart from the EU and the UK working together to resolve problems. However, some of the issues also relate to the trade and co-operation agreement. It is a disappointment, for example, that the EU-New Zealand agreement on SPS checks was not replicated. Can the Minister confirm that this is something the UK Government will still continue to ask the EU to deploy, which would massively help movements across the Irish sea?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. Some of the specific aspects of the negotiation with the EU with regard to SPS matters meant that the EU was asking for dynamic alignment in specific areas, and that is not something that we can accept. However, more work can be done in order to smooth the passage of food into the European Union and vice versa.
Given that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said “No, no, no” a few moments ago, may I remind him that Margaret Thatcher once famously said that Northern Ireland was as British as Finchley? That must always remain the same. That being the case, can he reassure the House on three points?
First, if we find that the EU is responsible, perhaps even inadvertently, for some of these problems, will he raise those matters politely but firmly with Mr Šefčovič in the Joint Committee? Secondly, if, as some of my colleagues have suggested, some of these problems may be down to over-zealous interpretation by our own officials, will we stamp on that? Thirdly, as some firms in GB appear to be nervous about their legal position and are perhaps over-interpreting the situation, will the Government work very closely to consider easements to reassure them, as the excellent Shanker Singham has suggested, with my right hon. Friend’s very welcome announcement on cars being one good example?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right on those three things, which are absolutely at the heart of the approach that we are taking and that we have to take. We must make sure that there is no over-zealous interpretation on the ground; we must make sure that the European Union, along with the United Kingdom, lives up to its obligations to the people of Northern Ireland; and we must work with businesses in order to remove any misunderstandings and confusion that arises by affirming—as he did, quite rightly—the integral part of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom.
If the Minister says that much of the problem is businesses understanding what is expected of them, and that is a responsibility that falls squarely on his shoulders, then that does rather prompt the question of what he has been doing. My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast South (Claire Hanna) suggested a working group. Why does he not bring one forward?
Can I ask the Minister about the issues raised by a number of Members about grace periods? How will he assess whether he thinks things are in a good enough state for him to press for those grace periods to be extended, which a number of Members have called for? It is fine for grace periods to expire if we are in good shape, but people will not understand if we are still having teething problems some way into this year.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The way of doing so is by working with supermarkets and other major suppliers in order to make sure that they are ready. Of course we will make it clear to the European Commission what the consequences would be if supermarkets were not in a position to carry on with the service they provide to Northern Ireland consumers.
Ferry traffic between Dublin and north Wales has diminished markedly as exporters apparently opt for alternative routes. Can the Minister tell me how many Northern Ireland exporters are now choosing direct ferry services from the Republic to the EU rather than using the UK land bridge? Is he aware of any Government assessment of the economic impact of this new routing on the port of Holyhead and on the wider economy of north-west Wales?
The hon. Gentleman is right. There is new route from the Republic of Ireland to France, but there is no evidence yet that it has taken anything but a small fraction of the trade that goes through the land bridge. I will be talking to colleagues in the Welsh Government later this afternoon about everything we can do to make sure that Holyhead flourishes in the future.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement—for the seriousness with which he is taking this, but also for the context that he set out. Does he agree that the issues we are experiencing, while regrettable, were actually anticipated by the Government, and that a limited degree of disruption was always going to be the inevitable consequence of unwinding our membership of the European Union after over four decades and delivering on the clear mandate of the 2016 referendum?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I have tried throughout to stress that there would be some initial disruption—some teething problems or bumps in the road—as we left the European Union. Many of the predictions that many made about the consequences of leaving the European Union have not come to pass, and it is important to put that in context, but it is also important not to be in denial about any of these specific problems but to ensure that we smooth them away. So far we have been able to tackle these issues one by one, and we remain vigilant as we do so because we are making a success of our departure from the EU.
Brexit is not the problem; the problem is the implementation of the protocol. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster seems to be saying that there are fewer problems than we are experiencing on the ground. Will he indicate whether, in a socially distanced way, he will visit the ports in the next week or so, to see the problems at first hand? Will he then try to get a resolution, so that everyone can move forward with better security than they have had over the past few weeks?
No, the hon. Gentleman is right. We must ensure that we have granular information about what is happening on the ground. We are working with Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive and with businesses in Northern Ireland to do that, and I will visit Northern Ireland at the earliest safe opportunity.
Thank you, Mr Speaker; I was slightly surprised and had to take my mask off.
There are six commercial ports and harbours in Northern Ireland. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that the infrastructure is in place, as well as the Government officials required to ensure that traffic coming into or out of Northern Ireland is dealt with speedily and with as much efficiency as possible, perhaps even getting better in the future?
My hon. Friend is right, and we all recall his distinguished service—not just on the Northern Ireland Committee, but in keeping people safe in his previous career, when he served with such distinction. The infrastructure and the individuals are in place to ensure the smooth operation of the protocol as far as possible. In particular I thank Edwin Poots, the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in the Northern Ireland Executive who, notwithstanding his own understandable personal reservations about the protocol, has done everything possible to help Northern Ireland’s farmers and food producers.
I welcome the news to remedy the VAT margin scheme for second-hand cars, as that will bring great relief to many who work in the industry. I want to thank the Minister and his team, and all those in the Northern Ireland Office, for their proactive engagement with me on that issue.
I welcome that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is listening and taking action, but some issues remain. What hope and reassurance can he give to a young mother in my constituency whose 11-week-old baby for health reasons requires a specific milk formula produced in the Netherlands? Because of the protocol, she now cannot source that product to feed her child, and her local pharmacist, who sells around 50 packs a month to local families, cannot source it from any wholesaler in Northern Ireland. The milk is stuck somewhere in transit because of the protocol, while my constituent’s baby cries in pain and hunger. What will the right hon. Gentleman do today to address that serious health and welfare issue?
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that rather than the rigorous implementation of the protocol championed by the hon. Members for Foyle (Colum Eastwood) and for North Down (Stephen Farry), which causes such problems, we need the Government to fix the problems caused by the protocol, and restore the integrity of the UK’s internal market?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that terrible case. We will get straight on it and look specifically at how we can ensure that her constituent receives the products she needs.
On the broader point about working to ensure that the protocol operates effectively and safeguards the integrity of the United Kingdom, I thank the hon. Lady for her work; as well as Minister Poots, I also thank Minister Diane Dodds and the First Minister, Arlene Foster, for raising these issues with me in a timely and urgent fashion.
Yes, absolutely. Let me stress again that many of us in this House had reservations about aspects of the protocol, but now that it is in place, we have to do everything possible in order to ensure that it works for the people of Northern Ireland. They are an integral part of the United Kingdom. It is our moral duty to do everything to stand up for them.
I must say I feel vindicated today in not voting for the protocol. I must ask: what did we do to Members on the Government Benches to be screwed over by this protocol? Ask your hearts, every single one: what did we do? What has happened with the protocol is that it has ruined trade in Northern Ireland, and it is an insult to our intelligence to say it is a teething problem. Tell that to my constituents. Tell that to my constituent who tried to move home on Sunday from Essex to Broughshane and was turned back at Cairnryan because she had products in her white van that were her own personal products—disgraceful.
This grace period needs to be extended by at least 12 months. We need to upgrade the training of people in GB who are involved in trade. We need to remove the requirement for health certificates at all product levels, not just at single levels, and we need to remove the groupage recertification and relax things in the way they have been relaxed immediately in the Republic of Ireland.
I welcome what the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has said about VAT margins, but I want to see the meat on the bone on that. I welcome what has been said about steel tariffs, because if those go ahead, the Government will have ruined manufacturing businesses in Northern Ireland. I cannot attract them in if we have a steel tariff. I ask the Minister to move on these other matters that are being listed—the list is growing—and to move immediately.
I am sorry to hear about the distress faced by the lady who was moving from Essex to Broughshane. We will do everything possible to investigate the specific case and ensure that sort of thing does not happen again. On the broader points the hon. Member makes, I am grateful for the constructive approach he has taken to the steps that we have taken so far, but he is absolutely right that more needs to be done, and I look forward to working with him to do that.
Last year, my right hon. Friend reached an agreement with the EU on a grace period to apply to supermarkets for the first quarter of this year. Can he confirm that this agreement is being respected in full by the relevant authorities? How many supermarkets and suppliers are benefiting from these arrangements?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this issue. Supermarkets are benefiting from it—Asda, Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s and Iceland among others—but it is important that we do everything we can to monitor its effective operation, and that is why I am so grateful to the British Retail Consortium for reaching out today with some specific suggestions as to how we can improve things. I am also grateful to him, because I know that like all my colleagues he is a dedicated upholder of the integrity of the United Kingdom and its citizens.
We clearly must make the protocol work and work well. It seems to me, certainly from evidence that the Select Committee has been hearing, that many of the problems have been created, understandably, by the late agreement of the protocol, leading to a lack of understanding, knowledge and confidence for businesses in GB exporting into NI. Can the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster assure me that the issues of lack of knowledge and understanding are being addressed not just by his Department but by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, because when GB business knows what it needs to do, it will do it well and Northern Ireland will succeed?
My hon. Friend is precisely right. The responsibility is mine, but it is also that of my colleagues at BEIS, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, the Northern Ireland Office and elsewhere, and we are working together with the trader support service. We hope to ensure that some of the misunderstandings and confusion that may have arisen are addressed. I am grateful for the work of his Select Committee in helping in that endeavour.
Elections: May 2021
Safe and secure elections are the cornerstone of any democracy, and Parliament’s decision, as set out in primary legislation, is that these polls should go ahead in May. Due to the pandemic, many of these elections have already been delayed by a year, but voters have a right to be heard and to decide who governs them. During the pandemic, local authorities will have taken many serious decisions impacting directly on residents, on matters from council tax to road closures, and those are important issues on which elected representatives should be held to account.
Given the situation, however, we are, as the Prime Minister set out last week, keeping this position under review. Any change would require very careful consideration, including by this House, and would need to be based on robust evidence. There should be a high bar for any delay.
I remind the House that we have already seen polls go ahead despite coronavirus, in this country—for example, council elections in Edinburgh and Aberdeen—and internationally, with other countries holding general elections. Since the announcement of the postponement of the 2020 elections, we have been working towards holding them in a covid-secure manner, and we will put in place a strong set of measures to support this. Voters have a choice as to how they participate in elections—at the polling station, by proxy or by post. We want to maintain that choice, but we recognise that the pandemic may change people’s needs and preferences. We actively encourage anybody who is shielding or who would prefer not to attend a polling station to apply for an absent vote instead of going in person. We will bring forward additional measures to support absent voting, including extending the ability to appoint a proxy, so that anybody who might be affected by covid-19 in the days before the poll is still able to make their voice heard. The Government this week set out our plan to roll out vaccines at pace, which will ensure that the most vulnerable are protected and provide a route map towards relaxing the restrictions when safe to do so.
We have worked closely with the Electoral Commission on the production of guidance to aid all involved. This guidance is based on the latest public health advice and will be updated as necessary ahead of the polls. We have been working across Government to ensure that any activity required for participation in and the delivery of the polls is technically allowed under covid regulations. I thank local government officials, who have stepped up to the mark enormously in dealing with new and challenging issues, in many cases since last March. That should be recognised. We are grateful to them for all the work they have done, and we will continue to work closely with them and all involved in elections to support them in delivering the elections successfully.
Finally, hon. and right hon. Members will know very well the importance of campaigning and providing information to voters. As well as the technical aspects of elections, voters rightly expect that campaigning activity should only be carried out safely. I can confirm that the Government have also worked with the parliamentary parties panel to ensure that we are aware of the views from political parties, and we will continue to do that. We recognise the importance of parliamentary scrutiny of this area. We will continue to keep the House updated on the preparations for the safe holding of these elections, which are an important upcoming moment in our shared civic life.
It is a pleasure to see the Minister respond to the urgent question. I wish her well with her continued recovery.
As the Minister set out, elections have been suspended for more than a year, and a record number of polls are now set to take place on the same day, with every elector able to cast a ballot in one election or another. It is deeply disappointing that the Government have failed to provide clarity on how these polls will be covid-secure.
Clarity is urgently needed by local councils, electoral staff, candidates, campaigners and, of course, the public. This is yet another example of the Conservative Government being too slow to act. Ministers have had many months to make the necessary changes to protect our democratic process. Instead, they are treating these elections like business as usual. Across the world, countries have demonstrated that elections can take place safely with the right safety measures in place. National elections were held in the US, New Zealand, Singapore, Iceland and Lithuania last year. Labour has consistently called for safer voting methods to be introduced, including voting over multiple days and an all-postal ballot. Will the Minister explain why the Government have taken no action so far? Will she also confirm whether the Conservative party chair took advice from Conservative party candidates about the timeframe for a possible delay? The scheduling of elections should come above party political advantage.
Will the Minister confirm, in no uncertain terms, that these elections will not be postponed in an irresponsible, last-minute U-turn? Unless councils are informed of changes in good time, unnecessary expenditure will be wasted on the printing of poll cards and other preparatory work. Given the crippling Government cuts, councils simply cannot afford to be caught on the hoof here. Electoral staff have expressed deep anxiety about running these elections safely without additional funding, so will the Minister produce clear guidance and training for local authorities about how to make polling stations and the count covid-secure?
High numbers of electoral staff are volunteers, with many in the high-risk category under covid-19 guidance. Does the Minister expect at-risk people to risk their health to support the safe running of these elections? The Welsh Labour Government have been working to ensure that elections can still go ahead safely. What steps have the Government taken to co-operate with the devolved nations? Finally, does the Minister share my concern that the Government’s lack of preparation will force many people to choose between their health and their right to vote?
Before I call the Minister to answer, let me say that the hon. Lady took rather longer than the time allocated to her. I simply warn everyone taking part in the statement today that I will not allow long questions or speeches from people who are meant to be asking questions. I know that the Minister will give short answers. I am determined that in one hour, we will get all 25 people on the Order Paper in to ask their questions. If we do not, those who do not get to ask their question can blame those who took too long in asking theirs.
I will do my best to help you to get this moving as quickly as we would all like, Madam Deputy Speaker. First, on a personal note, may I thank the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) for her support? It is nice of her to say. I have been grateful for lots of support from across the House as I have treatment for breast cancer.
On the hon. Lady’s questions, however, I am afraid that she is wrong to take a party political position on this issue. The Labour party has perhaps been so busy telling itself a story that it has been spinning that it has not looked at how we can actually get it right. It is simply not the case that there has been no action. If she had listened to my opening statement, she would have heard that loud and clear. I absolutely agree that it needs to be done in good time, and it has been. As I have set out in the House, in parliamentary questions and in working with, for example, the election administration sector, there is a record of all the preparation that has been done and that is being taken careful account of ready for May.
The hon. Lady asked specifically whether there will be clear guidance. As I said, there will be. She rightly asked about staff, who are of course a concern. Naturally, we want to make sure that staff in any employment sector are protected in their workplace, as has been the case during the pandemic across the breadth of business sectors, public and private, up and down the land. That is being accounted for in the careful planning.
The hon. Lady also understandably asked about co-operation with the devolved Administrations, because elections are taking place in England, Scotland and Wales. Although it is naturally not my responsibility to answer for the polls in Wales and Scotland, I hope that a sensible position can be achieved that allows voters the clearest opportunity to go to the polls and, as I said, to hold those who have the privilege of governing them to account. That is important in these elections. It is my intention to carry on working in the collaborative way that I do with my counterparts in those Administrations to assist that happening across the Administrations wherever it is needed.
Finally—I will not dignify it with more of a response than this—the very idea that somebody would be forced to choose between their health and their vote is simply not an issue in this case. It degrades the debate we ought to be having about how to have sensible elections, and it undermines the sensible work that has gone on by those who are responsible for running elections across the country, to whom I pay tribute.
On behalf of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, I send our best wishes to my hon. Friend for her recovery. I ask her to reflect on the legal maxim that justice delayed is justice denied, and that democracy delayed is democracy denied. Will she ensure that, if there is any possibility of delay, it will be for the shortest possible time? After all, this is one situation to which an algorithm, no matter how finessed, will not be the answer. Can she confirm that any delay to elections in England will require new primary legislation?
It is the case that a new election date would require a change in legislation. For that reason, we can all understand that the bar for change would have to be quite high. I pray in aid the point that elections have already been held in this country and other countries, so we have seen that elections can be held. As I say, the bar for change ought to be set fairly high, in addition to the point about primary legislation.
I thank the Chair of the Select Committee for his kind words and for all his and his Committee’s work. I also thank him for his important underlining of the maxim that democracy is very important indeed and should not be delayed disproportionately.
We look forward to seeing the Minister back at the Dispatch Box; much as I like the Leader of the House, he was a poor substitute throughout the final stages of the Parliamentary Constituencies Bill.
Last month in Holyrood, legislation was endorsed by all parties to establish contingency measures in respect of May’s elections. The legislation was developed with the Electoral Management Board for Scotland and the Electoral Commission and makes provision for an earlier deadline in respect of postal voting applications, given the increased demand that would be expected. Dissolution will not take place in March but instead on the eve of the poll, to allow Parliament still to function and pass emergency legislation in what is clearly a very volatile situation. There is scope to allow polling to take place over more than one day, if needed, to support physical distance in polling stations.
At the moment, it is our expectation that elections can go ahead as planned, but I think we would all agree in this House that it is prudent and responsible to ensure that we have planned for every eventuality, so that the poll can be conducted safely and indeed fairly during the pandemic. Although we in the SNP have no skin in the game in terms of what happens at elections in England, it is clear that this Government are less well prepared for an election that cannot be treated as business as usual. Has the Minister looked at the measures adopted in Scotland, and will the Government be following suit with similar primary legislation to ensure that voter safety and confidence can be maintained during this year’s election?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his words; it is good to see him, and I look forward to being back. I also thank him for making sure that our House is kept informed of what is going on in Holyrood. It is important that we have that mutual awareness, but may I gently pick him up on the idea that this Parliament and this Government are in some way less prepared? That is simply not the case.
There is a very full record of preparation that has gone on to ensure that the elections for which we are responsible will be a success. I laid that out in my statement and, as I undertook, I will be keeping the House further updated with more as it comes forward, for example in terms of guidance. However, I can certainly assure the hon. Gentleman that I am aware of those parallel plans and, as I said in an earlier response, I also intend to continue working collaboratively with my opposite numbers in the two other Administrations to ensure that, wherever sensible, we have the right kind of co-operation.
Over the past year, as the Minister mentioned in her opening remarks, elections have successfully been held in the United States and across Europe, and indeed Germany is set to hold its elections in a few months’ time. Does my hon. Friend therefore agree that if these countries are able to successfully hold their elections, there is no reason for us not to do so?
That is a very important point. We have these examples going on, and elections have successfully been held both inside our country and around the world. It is important therefore to remember that people have that appetite to cast their vote and that it can be done safely, and that is what we are working towards.
It is great to see the Minister; on behalf of my colleagues, I wish her all the best for a full and speedy recovery. I am personally very keen to have elections in May and even keener that the Government make the decision now and stick to it. Clarity is important to stop the uncertainty that leads to instability within local authorities up and down the country. What adds to that instability, in three parts of England—Somerset, Cumbria and North Yorkshire—is a ludicrous plan for a top-down reorganisation of local government in the midst of a pandemic. Does the Minister agree that it is far wiser for those authorities to focus on delivering social care, education, housing and economic development, rather than labouring under a pointless, badly-timed, top-down reorganisation?
My hon. Friend will be well aware that it is about not just 6 May when elections are held, but the deadline date of 29 March when the elections are advertised. Will she undertake to keep the House updated on the position so that, if these elections have to be delayed at all, that is done in a timely fashion and everyone can plan for them appropriately?
Yes, I certainly am giving that undertaking to the House today, and I am keen to do that because it is extremely important. My hon. Friend makes the right point about the lead-in that there is to any election. To the example of the date he gave I can add that there is a huge tail of logistical organisation that has to go on, to ensure that there are the right venues; that the right materials have been produced, printed or distributed; and that staff have been recruited. All that is the stuff of running elections. It is a huge amount of work, for which, as I say, I thank officials across the country. His point reminds us that we therefore have to give people guidance in good time, which is what I am undertaking to do. That is in addition to the preparation that has already been ongoing for the past year to ensure that we are looking at covid-secure elections this May.
I, too, extend my best wishes to the Minister. Bristol has a particularly complicated set of elections coming up. We have the all-outs for councillors; the mayoral election; the West of England Combined Authority metro mayor election; and the police and crime commissioner election. That would be difficult enough for people to get their head round in ordinary times, so what extra support will the Minister be able to give to local authorities such as Bristol’s to try to ensure that people understand what they are voting for and quite what is up for election? I am thinking, in particular, of those who perhaps do not have the best command of the English language, and those who have visual disabilities or other reasons why this would be particularly tricky for them.
I am grateful for that point and for the hon. Lady’s personal wishes. She rightly says that at any election there is a need to make sure that the public are well informed of what it is for, how to go about it and how to have their voice heard. The Electoral Commission, will, as always, be performing that role ahead of this election. That is in addition to dealing with the specific circumstances of this year, where, as I have said, we will be working together to ensure that there is the right guidance to help people approach these elections with safety, as well as the usual election issues, in mind. All of that together is absolutely the work ahead of us. This is made a little more complicated by the fact that this is already, in part, a postponed set of elections. This House took the decision to postpone a set of elections not at all lightly, in the knowledge that greater complexity would arise later, and that we cannot keep postponing elections and then have to be able to lay the plans and deliver them successfully. That is what we are now doing.
Obviously, candidates for these elections are keen to get their message across. The Conservatives have rightly suspended in-person campaigning, and I believe the Labour party has taken similar action. Does the Minister share my concern that Liberal Democrat activists are being encouraged to do face-to-face campaigning at the moment? Will she seek agreement between parties to put candidates on a level footing and ensure that all campaigning is absolutely safe?
I thank my hon. Friend for that point, as it is important. This goes to the heart of the fact that voters expect to be able to participate safely in elections, and at a time such as this they expect everybody to play their part in that, so I fully endorse the way she has put that question. What I will be able to do assist voters in this case is to work with the Electoral Commission to provide guidance on the safe, technical delivery of polls. I am also inviting political parties to play a responsible role, in ensuring that they are providing information to voters in a safe way that does them the credit they deserve of an important moment of choice, but one that takes place in unusual times.
There is a history with this Government of treating disabled and vulnerable people as an afterthought, so it is not surprising that today the Minister has not offered any real detail on how they are going to ensure that everybody who is shielding can play a full part in these elections. When will that detail be forthcoming?
I referred to this in my opening statement, and proudly so. I am pleased that the hon. Lady has emphasised it once again; she is right to do so, and I fully share her concern that it should be delivered. Therefore, I will be bringing to the House the relevant piece of secondary legislation that allows people to extend their application for proxy voting. I look forward to discussing the details with her. But prior to such a change, I think the first point is actually to say that absent vote arrangements already exist. As I said in my opening statement, I encourage anybody who is concerned about physically attending the polling station this year to apply now for a postal vote so that they have it in hand. Those are the ways in which we can help everybody to be confident and comfortable at these elections, which is what we must do. These elections are a very important moment and should not be delayed. They should be supported to be a success, and that is precisely what we are doing.