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.