The business for the week commencing 18 January will include:
Monday 18 January—Opposition day (14th allotted day). There will be a debate on a motion relating to universal credit and working tax credit, followed by a debate on access to remote education and the quality of free school meals. Both debates will arise on a motion in the name of the official Opposition.
Tuesday 19 January—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Trade Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the High Speed Rail (West Midlands - Crewe) Bill.
Wednesday 20 January—Remaining stages of the National Security and Investment Bill, followed by a motion relating to the appointment of an electoral commissioner.
Thursday 21 January—Debate on a motion relating to errors in payments made to victims of the Equitable Life scandal, followed by general debate on the operation of the child maintenance service during the covid-19 outbreak. The subjects for those debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 22 January—The House will not be sitting.
The provisional business for the week commencing 25 January will include:
Monday 25 January—Opposition day (15th allotted day). There will be a debate on a motion in the name of the official Opposition. Subject to be announced.
Tuesday 26 January—Remaining stages of the Environment Bill (day 1).
Wednesday 27 January—Consideration of Lords amendments.
Thursday 28 January—General debate on Holocaust Memorial Day 2021. The subject for that debate was determined by the Backbench Business Committee. It will be followed by a further debate to be determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 29 January—The House will not be sitting.
May I start by reiterating your comments, Mr Speaker, about Steve Jaggs? On behalf of the Opposition, I thank him for all the work that he has done. He has spent 30 years here, and, I understand, spent five years at Buckingham Palace—a great, long time of public service. We thank him and wish him a very happy retirement. I just hope that he did not get a clock as his leaving present!
I thank the Leader of the House for the forthcoming business. It is right that there should be clarity for the next few weeks, until the end of January. The motion on private Members’ Bills was passed last night, so I am keen to ask him whether he will ensure that the list of private Members’ Bills will stay in place when they return. There was some concern that Members would fall off the list, so could the Leader of the House tell us when the end of the Session will be?
The Opposition thank you, Mr Speaker, the Clerk of the House and John Angeli for finding a solution for Westminster Hall in another venue, so that we can continue to hold the Government to account. The Leader of the House will know that ministerial responses have been of great concern to our colleagues, and the deputy shadow Leader of the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan), has conducted a survey of hon. Members. I will write to you, Mr Speaker, with further information, but to give you a flavour, one of our colleagues wrote in April about childcare providers and has not yet received a response. Some of them say that Departments leave the responses so long that it is not necessary to make a response.
The Government should have anticipated this issue. These questions are one of the tools that we have to hold the Government to account. I have to say that the Cabinet Office and the Leader of the House are very assiduous. I think they are the best performers—the quickest responders. The worst are the Treasury and the Department of Health and Social Care. That is all the more reason why the Government should have provided extra support, given that we have the worst economic record of all the major economies and the worst death record.
This is a shambolic Government because, right to the wire, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government has made a U-turn on evictions for renters. He said that no one will be evicted because of coronavirus, but the new statutory instrument is watered down. It is an affirmative instrument, so could we have a debate on the Floor of the House, so that we can debate the new watered-down provisions?
Another broken promise: the Secretary of State said that the Government would reimburse all councils for all the money they spent on measures in the pandemic, but they have not, so could we have a statement? The burden should not fall on our constituents from an increase in council tax or a cut in services.
Either the Government are not speaking to each other or the Health Secretary is not reporting to Cabinet. He told the World Health Organisation on 14 December that there was a new variant, so it is a bit weird that the Secretary State for Education did not know that there was a variant. It is probably a worse excuse than “the dog ate my homework”. Given that we have Education questions on Monday, could the Education Secretary make a statement on whether he knew about the new variant? Also, one of my constituents, who is a supply teacher, has said that, according to her agency, she does not qualify for furlough because schools are open. Could the Secretary of State address both those points in his statement?
It seems that the Prime Minister does not take his own advice to exercise locally. I do not whether it was the letters from his Back Benchers who said what a terrible Prime Minister he was; they must have said, “On yer bike,” and he took it literally. Many of my constituents want clarity. They are asking why angling is allowed and not golf. One of them asked me whether they can drive to the arboretum in Walsall to exercise, so could we have a statement to clarify those coronavirus issues?
My hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones) tabled a written question, and was told that the last time the Foreign Secretary raised Nazanin’s case was on 13 December. That is a month ago. Every minute spent away from family is a wasted minute in the middle of this coronavirus. The Foreign Affairs Committee report on the UK’s relationship with Iran published on 16 December said that the current approach to seeking the release of detainees is not working. Could we have a debate in Government time—not a report for 20 minutes, where a Minister does not respond, but a full debate? Anousheh needs diplomatic protection. Luke Symons needs to be protected. There was an attack on Aden airport, a place I know very well from my childhood. We need a full statement.
It is Martin Luther King Day on Monday. What a difference in the rhetoric and the march for jobs and freedom in 1963 compared with last week. Quite rightly, the outgoing president will be impeached. We are on the side of the incoming Biden-Harris Administration, who want to form allies of democracy.
Finally, just for you, Mr Speaker: Chorley 2, Derby County nil.
Mr Speaker, I think that was a reference to association football, so I congratulate you as well.
Before I respond to the right hon. Lady, I pay tribute to Godfrey Cameron, whose death was referred to in the Chamber yesterday, but not by name. Mr Speaker, you referred to him earlier today. He has been one of our security personnel. He worked incredibly hard for the House. He died suddenly at the age of 55. He was an heroic figure; he managed to stop a young lady jumping off Westminster bridge. He is a model of the type of service we have been so fortunate to have in this House. His death will be much mourned by his family, his wife, Hyacinth, and his children, and we pray for the repose of his soul. Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and may light perpetual shine upon him. May he rest in peace.
May I now move to happier news? I have not had a chance to congratulate all those who were rewarded in the new year’s honours. It is a fine list: the Counsel for Domestic Legislation, Daniel Greenberg, has been made a Companion of the Order of the Bath—that is well deserved, and for one of the cleverest people I have ever had the opportunity to engage with; Marianne Cwynarski has been made a Commander of the most excellent Order of the British Empire, which is most thoroughly deserved, for all the work she has done in keeping this place covid-secure and operating; John Angeli has been made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for services to Parliament, particularly for broadcasting; John Owen, Director of Strategic Business Resilience at the House of Commons and House of Lords, has been made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for services to Parliament; David Smith, Deputy Managing Director of the Parliamentary Digital Service, has been made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for services to Parliament; Matthew Stutely, Director of Software Engineering, Parliamentary Digital Service, has been made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for services to Parliament; Avi Dussaram, Member Services Officer, Parliamentary Digital Service, has been made a Member of the Order of the British Empire for services to Parliament; Rupert Hay-Campbell, Head of Architecture, Parliamentary Digital Service, has been made a Member of the Order of the British Empire for services to Parliament and to the community in Essex; Barry Underwood, Head of Distribution Services, Vote Office, House of Commons, has been made a Member of the Order of the British Empire for services to Parliament, particularly during the covid-19 response, and for voluntary services to football—you will like that bit, Mr Speaker: as I understand it, that is one of your great interests. I really take pride in congratulating all of them, as this is symbolic of the wonderful service that this House receives from so many dedicated members of staff.
How fortunate we are to have Mr Jaggs in the Chamber so that I can add my tribute to him. I think the title “Keeper of the Great Clock” is most wonderful; it is hard to think of one that could be better—many people would swap the title of “Prime Minister” to be known as Keeper of the Great Clock. The enormous amount of work that is done is something for which we are very grateful. Thirty years’ service in this place is terrific—I did not know about the five years in Buckingham Palace, but I note Mr Jaggs’ affection for royal palaces, as well as his willingness to turn his hand to everything.
It is a comment on the enthusiasm and support we have in this House that before I came to the Dispatch Box today, Mr Jaggs, our very distinguished Keeper of the Great Clock, was cleaning the Dispatch Box—he was doing everything. When we had a leak in the ceiling, it was Mr Jaggs who dealt with it. I do not really know how this place is going to run after your retirement, so if you get an urgent call to come back, you will know that we need you as a matter of priority. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”]
I am sorry for that long preamble, Mr Speaker, but I think it was important. Let me move on to the right hon. Lady’s questions. The end of the Session will be announced in the normal way. She will ask about this every week and I will give the same answer every week: it will be announced in the normal way.
The news on the developments for Westminster Hall is encouraging. As I said yesterday, it is important that we maintain scrutiny. I take extremely seriously the right hon. Lady’s questions on ministerial responses. It is my aim to help any Member of the House who is not getting responses to try to speed the process up. I am grateful for her praise of my own office, although I must confess that the volume of correspondence that I receive is on an entirely different and lower scale from that received by the Treasury and the Department of Health and Social Care, so it is perhaps a little easier for me. One should have had sympathy for them at the beginning of the pandemic, but I think answers should now be coming through much more swiftly.
As regards the statutory instrument on repossessions, there always has to be a balance between renters and landlords; it needs to be a fair system to ensure not only that people’s rights of property are protected, but that people, during the pandemic, have their housing protected. It is all about getting that balance right.
The right hon. Lady raised the issue of council funding, which has been enormous, with £3 billion of additional support to councils announced in the spending review, more than £10 billion in additional covid funding, more than £22 billion for their local businesses and £4.6 billion of additional un-ringfenced funding. Councils have received the money that they need, and this has been an important part of what the Government have been doing with taxpayers’ money.
The right hon. Lady mentioned that the Education Secretary is here answering questions on Monday, which is the opportunity to raise those questions, rather than using me as the postbox between Thursday and Monday. I am sure he will answer all those questions if they are of interest to other Members.
The Prime Minister was clearly exercising reasonably within all the rules—both the spirit and the letter of the rules. This game of trying to pick holes in what people are doing when they are obeying rules is undignified, and I think there is clarity in the rules; I think people know what they are supposed to do. People are allowed to exercise, and at the moment they are allowed to meet one person while exercising. These rules are absolutely clear, and the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis said that she did not believe people do not know the rules by now. They do, and the rules are being followed.
I obviously share the right hon. Lady’s concern about Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe; that is a truly important issue. I raise it every week after business questions, and I will continue to do so. I hear her request for a debate. I am not sure I will be able to grant that, but I certainly think that keeping the pressure up via the House of Commons is the right thing to do.
Finally, on the US Administration, we are right to be allies of democracy. It is really important that we get on with the incoming American President. I must confess that the actions of the outgoing President were a matter of the gravest concern. I do not think it is the business of Government Ministers to criticise the leaders of friendly countries, but what happened in Capitol hill is a reminder of how delicate and fragile democracy is and the responsibility of politicians to protect democracy and not to be what one might call an accessory before the fact to disorder. That is a real problem, and let us hope for better things in the United States and that our special relationship will be able to flourish.
I do not know whether the Leader of the House is a fan of “The West Wing”, the fictitious political drama about an American President, but in that drama C. J. is the press secretary to the President, and every day she strides to the podium, announces the President’s policy and answers questions.
Apparently there is now a television studio built in Downing Street, and we are going to have our own C. J.: Allegra Stratton. However, we have a very different system of government. Ministers are supposed to come to the Dispatch Box to announce new policy first in the House of Commons and answer questions from MPs, not announce new policy to the media and take questions from journalists. Could we have a debate on this new situation in Government time at the earliest possible moment?
As it happens, I very much enjoyed “The West Wing”. I found it compelling TV watching and even bought the DVD set, which may sound surprisingly modern. Allegra Stratton’s role is one that has been carried on in the shadows for an extremely long time with the lobby briefings. Of course the Government have to brief journalists from both the newspapers and electronic media, to ensure that Government policy is advertised to the world at large. There are two lobby briefings every day; one of them will now be filmed and in public. This is open government, which I thought my hon. Friend might like, but it will not in any way change the requirement of the ministerial code that policy announcements are made to this House first.
First, may I associate my party with the comments made regarding Godfrey Cameron and send our condolences to his family? I also take this opportunity to note the sad passing of the Archbishop of Glasgow, Philip Tartaglia, who died suddenly yesterday. I know that the House will join me in sending condolences to his family and to the Catholic community of Glasgow.
I will start with two agenda points. First, I note that the Labour Opposition have been allocated two debate days in the current business statement. When might my party expect one? Secondly, the debate on the House of Lords Trade Bill amendments is scheduled for next Tuesday, yet the amendments themselves will not be published until after the Lords finish their debate late on Monday night. Can I ask why there has been this undue haste in the scheduling?
Turning now to the Brexit fishing disaster, boats are confined to harbour, lorryloads of seafood have been destroyed, and the industry is losing £1 million a day as firms go bust. This is all the result of Brexit red tape imposed by this Government, yet when asked about this yesterday the Prime Minister refused to answer. When asked this morning how long this would last, the Government Minister contemptuously replied, “How long is a piece of string?” When can we have a debate about compensation for the Scottish seafood industry for the havoc that has been wreaked upon it by this Conservative Government? The Select Committee that oversees our relationship with the European Union is being scrapped. What parliamentary mechanism will replace it?
Finally, let me turn to the question that the Prime Minister refuses to answer. Can we have a debate on what democratic mechanism is available to the people of Scotland if they wish to change the way in which they are governed? I ask because today’s The Scotsman newspaper has published a poll stating that 57% of people in Scotland wish to become an independent country—the 18th poll in a row to report a pro-independence majority. It is no use the Leader of the House repeating the “once in a generation” mantra, as if expressing a view seven years ago means that people are forbidden from doing so again. What happens if a majority in Scotland take a different view and vote to have the right to choose an independent future? We need to have a debate on what this Parliament’s response to that outcome will be, and whether it still believes in the claim of right for Scotland, which states that people have a right to choose how they are governed.
Once again, the hon. Gentleman repeats his question, and I will therefore repeat the answer: it is very clear that the people of Scotland made their views clear in a vote in 2014, which was said to be a generational vote. That was the democratic mechanism that they had, the democratic mechanism that was used, and the democratic mechanism that was accepted by the Scottish National party at the time.
What is going on in the SNP is interesting, is it not? I thought the hon. Gentleman might want to tell us a bit about that—about the rows between Mrs Sturgeon and Mr Salmond, with one accusing the other of not being entirely accurate in her evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s Committees. I thought he might be asking for a debate on that. Would it not be interesting to understand all the shenanigans that are going on—the accusations of forgetfulness, of money being spent, and of breaches of the ministerial code? Not a word of that: just the old complaint that the referendum in 2014 was not a valid referendum. It was: it was authoritative, and it was a once-in-a-generation vote. That is absolutely right, and we see the benefits of the Union. The figure I have previously given for UK taxpayers’ support for Scotland has gone up: it is now £8.6 billion. The strength of the United Kingdom is helping Scotland face this pandemic, and that is why the United Kingdom is so strong and is to the advantage of all its people.
As regards bringing forward amendments to the Trade Bill, it is an important piece of legislation, and we want to get it through as swiftly as possible. People are well aware of what has been going on in the House of Lords, and will be quite capable of discussing those issues. I am always happy to have discussions about an Opposition day for the SNP with the hon. Gentleman, as well as with the SNP Chief Whip, and I am sure those discussions will take place. I am aware of the Standing Orders commitments.
The fishing issue was covered a moment ago by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should have tuned into that debate, rather than bringing it up at business questions, but the Government are tackling this issue and dealing with it as quickly as possible. The key is that we have our fish back: they are now British fish, and they are better and happier fish for it.
The Government have put levelling up at the heart of their agenda for this Parliament, but the fundamentals that underpin many of our structures are sometimes contrary to that aim, not least the Equality Act 2010, which embeds identity politics and physical characteristics into everything that we do but ignores the socioeconomic and geographical inequalities that really drive disadvantage. Can my right hon. Friend find the time for us to debate that in the House, and to debate how we might reform things to seek equality of opportunity and fairness rather than to artificially equalise outcomes?
My hon. Friend makes an important and good point. He is a dogged campaigner on this issue, and I commend him for raising ways in which we can improve our approach to equality and disparity. I refer him to the words of the Minister for Women and Equalities, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), who said in December:
“We will not limit our fight for fairness to the nine protected characteristics laid out in the 2010 Equality Act”,
which have arguably led to a narrowing of our discussion about inequality, neglecting factors such as socioeconomic status and geography. I hope my hon. Friend will join me in welcoming the Minister’s announcement that an equality hub is being established. It will truly broaden our understanding of equality in the UK today and it will work closely with the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, so excellently led by the Minister for Equalities, my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Kemi Badenoch).
I thank the Leader of the House for the business statement and say that I very much welcome the return to a two-week statement, which really does assist with planning. I also thank him for announcing the Backbench debates on Thursday 21 January, when we have a long-awaited debate on errors in payments made to victims of the Equitable Life scandal and a debate on the operation of the child maintenance service during the pandemic, and also on Thursday 28 January, when we have a very timely debate on Holocaust Memorial Day, the date of which is the 27th, as Members will know. The Committee has asked me to request protected time for that debate because, as we know, urgent questions and statements by Ministers eat into the time available for Backbench Business debates.
With the closure of Westminster Hall for the time being, may I echo the sentiments of the Chairs of the Procedure and Petitions Committees regarding the need to ensure that there is appropriate time for Backbench and Petitions Committee debates, which should be protected during the duration of the Westminster Hall closure? As always, the Backbench Business Committee would be very happy to facilitate the filling of any time that might become available on days other than Thursdays.
Lastly, youth unemployment rose in my constituency by 58% between March and November—the last date for which we currently have figures. Notwithstanding the pandemic, this highlights the precarious nature of employment for all too many young people under 25 years old. Can we have a debate in Government time on rebalancing the economy, levelling up and the need urgently to address the scourge of youth unemployment in places such as Gateshead in the north-east of England?
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments and very pleased to see that the Backbench Business Committee has decided to have a debate on 28 January for Holocaust Memorial Day. That is a wholly appropriate debate to be having and a very important one. I note his appeal to fill any time that may become available if business falls early. That has the risk of being unpredictable, but I know what he is asking for.
I am sorry to hear about the youth unemployment figures in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, which are a matter for concern. It is worth pointing out quite how much has been done to support employment during the pandemic, including the £280 billion of taxpayers’ money that has been given in support. He is right to argue for levelling up. I am delighted that he is becoming so supportive of the Government’s policy objectives. They will be the major themes of what the Government are doing in the rest of this Parliament.
Potholes drive us potty in the Potteries, so, in advance of National Pothole Day tomorrow, I hope my right hon. Friend will join me in applauding the engineers at JCB who, earlier this week, after extensive trials in Stoke-on-Trent, launched an all-new British innovation called the JCB Pothole Pro, which can repair potholes four times faster and at half the cost of conventional methods. Will my right hon. Friend enable us to have parliamentary time to celebrate this British ingenuity and encourage local councils to back British innovation as we strive to rid the country of the blight of potholes?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this, though I am not convinced that National Pothole Day is the most celebrated day across the country at large. None the less, what JCB has done is terrific. I read about it in the newspapers—the machine can fill potholes faster, as my hon. Friend says. It is a wonderful British innovation to deal with, it has to be said, a widespread British problem. This will shock right hon. and hon. Members, but there are even a few potholes in Somerset, that county of glory and bliss. I therefore hope to see the JCB machine working across the various Somerset councils.
The Government are providing local highway authorities in England outside London with £1.125 billion, including £500 million for the pothole fund for highway maintenance. As JCB can do it for half the price, should we say that this £500 million is worth £1 billion, or could we save £250 million of taxpayers’ money? I will leave that for the House to deliberate upon.
Last week, I finally received the answer to a written parliamentary question that I tabled on 22 September asking for an update on the serious violence taskforce. The response stated that the taskforce is being discontinued, but I can find no statement from Home Office Ministers to that effect. Does the Leader of the House agree that the delay is unacceptable, and will he please ensure that the Home Secretary provides the House with a full update?
I apologise to the hon. Lady for the delay in the reply to her written parliamentary question. That has taken too long, and I reiterate, if hon. Members find that there are unacceptable delays, please will they notify me and my office and I will do whatever I can to facilitate faster responses? As regards the taskforce, my hon. Friend the Minister for Crime and Policing set out that there will be another taskforce, which will report directly to the Prime Minister, so I think that the position has now been made clear.
For over 100 years, in one form or another, the Ashbourne bypass in Derbyshire Dales has been endlessly discussed, debated, consulted on and promised. The residents of Ashbourne, which is a quintessentially English medieval town, suffer from more 7,000 vehicles a day, including many heavy lorries from nearby quarries, rumbling through the town. With the expected post-Brexit boom and the promise of levelling up, rural communities such as mine should not be forgotten. May we please have a debate on the processes around how we build key infrastructure projects, not least the Ashbourne bypass?
I commend my hon. Friend’s advocacy for the people of the Dales and her efforts in the campaign for the Ashbourne bypass. I understand from the Derby Telegraph that there has been progress towards making the bypass a reality, with the local authority considering the results of a consultation. That ties in with the Government’s announcement of a £27 billion package to spend on our strategic road network. It will provide essential upgrades and new roads across the country.
I remind my hon. Friend that the Parliament Act 1911 refers to itself as a temporary measure, and it is 110 years old this year. A hundred years seems like a long time, but in a parliamentary context, perhaps not always.
I add my voice on behalf of our party to wishing Steve Jaggs well on his retirement. I understand that, as Keeper of the Great Clock, he was responsible for more than 2,000 clocks in this place and making sure that they are all synchronised and on time. The Leader of the House said that the job was perhaps more jealously desired than that of the Prime Minister, though I do not know whether we would ask the Prime Minister to wind up 2,000 clocks. Anyway, we congratulate Steve Jaggs and wish him all the very best. I know that he will find, as St Paul did, that time is undoubtedly short and we need to get on with life.
When Mr Johnson was Foreign Secretary, he commenced the process of appointing William Shawcross to investigate the victims of Libyan—
I beg your pardon, Madam Deputy Speaker. When the Prime Minister was Foreign Secretary, he commenced the process of appointing William Shawcross to investigate how victims of Libyan-sponsored IRA terrorism should be compensated. On 3 January, a letter calling for the publication of the Shawcross report was published in The Daily Telegraph. The letter was signed by members of the Conservative party, the Labour party, the Liberal party, the Social Democratic and Labour party and my own party, so it really did attract cross-party support. Yesterday, the Prime Minister said that it was too complicated and some way off finding a solution. Will the Leader of the House arrange a full statement on this matter? If that is not possible, will he agree to allow the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee to call the author of the report, Mr Shawcross, to give evidence, and ensure that that is not prohibited or blocked by the Foreign Office?
The House has wide powers, subject to a small number of limitations, to call people in front of it to give evidence, although the evidence they can give is sometimes limited by the confines of confidentiality. It is for the Select Committee to decide who it wants to call. Regarding the activities of the Prime Minister and his interest in this, I think the fact that he ordered the report when he was Foreign Secretary, is paying close attention to the report now and is ensuring that the report is thorough and full indicates the concern of Her Majesty’s Government about this whole area and does, I hope, give the hon. Gentleman some reassurance.
My right hon. Friend and I agree about the risk of paying danegeld to anybody, but Somerset County Council was given £32 million to fight covid and the Vikings in charge of the council have stashed £10 million away to spend on whatever they fancy. They have even bankrolled a fund for the car parks and financed publicity for their “One Somerset” half-baked unitary plan, even though we are facing a public health disaster down here. Local government reform must be shelved now and all covid grants must be ring-fenced to be spent on covid. Somerset’s Vikings have to be stopped. Let us bring to bear the spirit of King Arthur—I mean King Alfred—and have a debate on this subject immediately.
King Arthur is a bit before my time, so I am glad we are not going to dwell on the once and future king.
My hon. Friend is right to hold to account all public bodies that spend taxpayers’ money. Taxpayers’ money should not, as a general rule, be spent on the propaganda of the political interests on any individual council, so he is right to hold the council to account for that. I think it is important that the Government work through existing local authorities during this pandemic to deliver the policy needed to help people locally, and that needs to be done while, at the same time, watching carefully over how taxpayers’ money is spent.
I have been contacted by a foster carer who wants to know whether the Government have considered putting foster carers in a higher priority group for the covid vaccine. I tabled a named day question to the Health Secretary on 1 December and still have not received a response. My office has written to him to chase it up, but Ministers at the Department of Health and Social Care are taking months to respond. Will the Leader of the House tell me how best to raise this issue in Government time and update the House on what conversations he has had with Cabinet colleagues who continue to dodge MPs’ questions and correspondence? We need answers for our constituents.
The hon. Lady does not need my advice on how best to raise this subject publicly, because she has done so, very effectively. Immediately after this session, I will take up with the Department of Health and Social Care the question she has put down and try to get her an answer punctually. On her specific question about foster carers, it is absolutely right that the highest-risk categories are vaccinated first—that is to say the people who are most at risk of death if they catch covid. That is the right priority and is widely accepted. There is inevitably more discussion about who should be vaccinated once those highest-risk categories have been reached.
The Leader of the House will be aware that I have been working with my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan) on a private Member’s Bill to look at drugs testing in prisons, and also on my own private Member’s Bill to end the barbaric and medieval practice of virginity testing. I understand the situation at the moment with the pandemic, but will the Leader of the House make every effort to ensure that Back-Bench Members will be able to start their private Members’ Bills days again at the earliest opportunity?
I can indeed give that undertaking, as I did yesterday. We will seek to bring back both Westminster Hall and private Members’ Bills as soon as is both possible and practical. Having the right to introduce legislation is such an important way in which Members represent their constituencies, and it is something of which I am very supportive.
May I, too, convey my deep condolences to the family of Godfrey Cameron, the parliamentary security officer who died yesterday?
The extended furlough scheme covers employees returning from maternity or other statutory leave so long as their employer made a PAYE submission for the employee between 20 March and 30 October 2020. However, for new mothers on maternity allowance, rather than statutory maternity pay, there will be no such submission and therefore many new mothers are being now refused furlough by their employers. Will the Leader of the House raise this with Government colleagues and ask that the guidance is clarified as a matter of urgency?
The hon. Lady obviously raises an important point. It is worth saying that the furlough and self-employment schemes have protected 12 million jobs, at a cost of over £56 billion of taxpayers’ money, but it is important that this should be fair in its application, and the point she has made is one I will certainly take up on her behalf.
Many constituents have raised the proposed use of Kooltherm K15 on flats at Zenith Close in my constituency. This is a type of cladding that was found to have been used in Grenfell Tower before the fire occurred. As thousands of leaseholders across the country continue to face demands for remedial works to replace cladding, can we have a statement from a Minister setting out guidance on the types of cladding for which safety concerns remain, and can we have a commitment from the Government that an amendment to the Fire Safety Bill to ensure that leaseholders are not held responsible for the costs of remedial works is accepted?
The Government are naturally working hard to make sure people are safe and feel safe in their homes. The Government are determined to learn the lessons from the Grenfell tragedy, and we are bringing forward the most significant building safety reforms in almost 40 years. It does remain building owners’ responsibility to address unsafe cladding on buildings of all heights. The Government have provided expert advice on the measures building owners should take to ensure their buildings are safe. It is worth adding that 84% of buildings with Grenfell-type cladding have had it removed, rising to 99% in the social sector. However, I understand from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government that, in some circumstances, combustible insulation materials such as Kooltherm K15 can be retained. I will ask for further details on how this can happen and why this can happen for my hon. Friend, so that he has a full explanation.
On the Fire Safety Bill, the Government are naturally keen to reduce the burden on leaseholders. However, in the Government’s view, the amendment would have some unintended consequences, but I can assure my hon. Friend that the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government is very focused on this issue. Michael Wade’s work is under way, and the Communities Secretary has committed to address this as soon as we are in a position to do so.
During the Christmas period, on 27 December, a young women in my constituency was tragically murdered by her partner. She was 26 years old. As the right hon. Gentleman may know, the media have rightly exposed the appalling practices of some GPs who are charging victims of domestic abuse over £150 for a letter confirming their injuries to enable them to get legal aid and other vital support. Legal aid is a lifeline for women fleeing domestic abuse, but as I said in the House last November, the legal aid sector has faced many cuts over the years and the demand for it is growing. At a time when we should be removing barriers, we are making it much harder for victims to come forward to get support. Can we have a debate in Government time to look at the impact that cuts to the legal aid sector are having on our most vulnerable constituents?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady, whose question is well timed because the responsible Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), has just joined me on the Front Bench. The Domestic Abuse Bill will be looking into the legal aid matter, and the Government are looking into the charge being made to victims of domestic abuse who need to go to their GP to get certificates. Immediately following this session, my hon. Friend the Minister will be answering questions in greater detail.
As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Tamils, I know that my right hon. Friend will want to join me in wishing Tamils in Carshalton and Wallington, in the UK and around the world a very happy Thai Pongal. As we approach the UN Human Rights Council sessions in the spring, may we have a debate about human rights in Sri Lanka, especially given the recent worrying reports of the destruction of a memorial in Jaffna?
Vanakkam and happy Thai Pongal to everyone in Britain’s Tamil community and around the world. I hope that their happiness on Thai Pongal has not been reduced by the fact that we bowled the Sri Lankans out so quickly earlier today in the test match. I feel rather guilty that, on a day that should be celebratory for them, we have taken so many wickets. I would like to thank the Tamil community for all they are doing in our struggle against covid throughout this crisis. Their values of hard work, discipline and community spirit have shone through. Regarding the destruction of the memorial monument at Jaffna University, the Minister for south Asia, my noble Friend Lord Ahmad, expressed his concerns on 9 January. The UK has long supported efforts to promote peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka, including in our role as penholder on Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council—UNHRC. We regret Sri Lanka’s announcement in February that it no longer supports the UNHRC resolution on post-conflict accountability, and we made clear our commitment to the resolution in statements at the UNHRC in February, June and September 2020. We are working alongside our international partners on how best to take forward this issue at the March session of the UNHRC.
Can we have a debate on the report today from the TUC, “Working mums: Paying the price”, which calls for a temporary legal right to furlough for parents and others with caring responsibilities who cannot work due to covid-19 restrictions? It is clear that parents, and perhaps women in particular, are among the biggest losers as a result of covid. Seven out of 10 women requesting furlough following school closure are turned down. This is a proposal that needs urgent action from the Government. Can we please have an urgent debate on it?
Furlough is available for firms to use for their employees, but furlough in any individual circumstance must involve a discussion between the business concerned and the employee concerned. It is much better done at a local and immediate level so that the needs both of the firm and the individual employee can be accommodated in a way that ensures that economic activity continues, but also that families are able to take their responsibilities for their children into account. This is much better done at a local level and at a business level rather than by a heavy-handed intervention by the state.
A new freeport next to East Midlands airport would provide a massive jobs boost to Ashfield, Eastwood and the whole of Nottinghamshire. My hon. Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Ruth Edwards) has done a fantastic job in bringing together politicians of all colours to champion a bid for this much-needed facility. Will my right hon. Friend please allow time in the Chamber to debate the merits of freeport in our area, and will he please commend my hon. Friend the Member for Rushcliffe for pushing this all the way?
I commend both my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson) and my hon. Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Ruth Edwards) for pushing for freeports. Freeports are a really exciting initiative. They will be national hubs for trade, innovation and commerce, regenerating communities across the United Kingdom. They can attract new businesses, spreading jobs, investment and opportunity to towns and cities up and down the land. I welcome efforts that Members are making to ensure that they have freeports in their areas, and I will pass on specific requests to the Treasury. The Government have published their bidding prospectus for freeports and the bidding period will close on 5 February. This is the opportunity for these bids to go in and for the success, the opportunity and the excitement of freeports be trumpeted up and down the land.
Next Monday—18 January—is generally thought to be the day when most of us feel at our lowest post Christmas, and this year all of us have been affected by social isolation arising from coronavirus. Each year, Samaritans volunteers seek to repurpose the day, calling it Brew Monday, where we talk to people at places such as stations and shopping centres. In fact, we have had our own event here in Parliament. I believe that you came along last year, Madam Deputy Speaker. This year we cannot meet face to face, but we can meet virtually. Will the Leader of the House join me online on Monday morning for our virtual Brew Monday, and help to get the message out that it is good to talk when we feel low? I also extend the invitation to other hon. Members in the House.
May I really thank the hon. Lady for raising this issue in the House? I join her in thanking the Samaritans for the absolutely amazing work that they do that saves so many lives, and the commitment of Samaritans volunteers who take on the incredibly onerous responsibility and burden of speaking to people and encouraging them when they are at their lowest point, and having to deal with the tragedies that sometimes occur; they do remarkable work. The initiative to have an online brew day is absolutely first class, and if I possibly can join the hon. Lady, I will—although I am not sure that everybody would be that cheered to hear from me, so it would have to be a very selective audience that I talked to. [Laughter.]
Sorry; I did not mean to laugh. I am quite sure that the Lord President will have an excellent response on Monday. The hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) has worked very hard on this. I recall it being an excellent day last time. Let us hope that we can do the same on Monday.
Can we have a debate on access to healthcare in rural areas? This is particularly important given the roll-out of the covid vaccine. I pay tribute to three brilliant local charities—the New Mills and District Volunteer Centre, Connex Community Support in Buxton, and The Bureau in Glossop—which are all offering High Peak residents free transport to attend vaccine appointments. This is a really important service, and I want to put on record my thanks to all involved and to all those working so hard to roll out the vaccine.
I very much welcome my hon. Friend’s tribute to the three charities in his constituency. During the pandemic we have seen the most amazing national effort to tackle the coronavirus. It has been our nation at its absolute best. As of Friday, 96% of the population in England will live within 10 miles of a vaccination site, and by spring we will have 2,700 vaccination sites across the United Kingdom. On top of the 1,000 vaccination sites that are already on line, this will include, in England: an additional 206 active hospital sites; 50 vaccination centres; and around 1,200 local vaccination sites, including primary care networks, community pharmacy sites and mobile teams. I join my hon. Friend in praising the work of these charities and all that they are doing to support this vital roll-out.
As we fight to eradicate covid, I am sure that the Leader of the House would wish to congratulate the Valneva team in my Livingston constituency, who, alongside the Oxford-AstraZeneca team, are doing their bit to develop a vaccine. We hope very much that the Livi vaccine will be with us very soon. Does he agree that we need a debate on how to ensure that no one is left behind in the race to get our population vaccinated? I am sure that he would agree that women who are pregnant and other groups who are considered at risk should very much be a focus for us all as the clinical trial frameworks are developed.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady, who makes a really important point. I join her in congratulating the Valneva team for the work that they have been doing. The Government are making great efforts to reach the hard-to-reach groups, including by dedicating an extra £10 million to homelessness in order to try to reach people who have no particular home and ensure that they are registered with a GP so that they have access to the vaccine. The point that she makes a really important one. It is well understood by the Government and I am sure that it will be raised in this House on many occasions.
Bringing down the cost of school uniforms for parents and carers is more important than ever in these challenging economic times. What intervention can the Leader of the House make with the Government to ensure that my Education (Guidance about Costs of School Uniforms) Bill, which is supported by the Government, Members across the House, the Sunday Mirror, the National Education Union and the Children’s Society, is given parliamentary time in this Session?
I refer the hon. Gentleman to what I said earlier about private Members’ Bills. I am keen that they should come back as soon as is possible and practical. We had to suspend them under current circumstances, but I hope we can get back to them as soon as conditions allow—those conditions are outside my control—and then his Bill can come to the Floor of the House in the normal way, according to its priority, and be considered.
I am speaking from a very snowy Derbyshire today. Could the Leader of the House facilitate a statement by the most appropriate Cabinet Minister to give the country some good news about covid? I am concerned that, even when we are vaccinated, we are not going to be allowed to visit other vaccinated people, and I think that the country needs to see a light at the end of the tunnel. Could the Leader of the House please facilitate that as soon as practically possible?
There was good news in the papers today indicating that a study shows that people who have had covid maintain an immunity. The report I read said that that lasted for at least five months, but that was the extent of the study, so that is not a maximum; it is very much a minimum. There is some good news, with the roll-out of the vaccine and that sort of information. It is really a matter of achieving critical mass and having enough people vaccinated, at which point life will change and we will get back to normal, which is something we all welcome, but the lesson of the last few months is that putting a date on things is tempting fate.
The last time I asked a business question, I asked the Leader of the House whether MPs could have more than the scheduled one hour to debate amendments to the Fire Safety Bill designed to protect leaseholders from the cost of fire safety remediation. However, in the last few days, we have seen reports of gagging clauses being put into cladding removal contracts and of Grenfell insulation being used to fix flammable homes, and last night I found out that in my constituency of St Albans, it is going to cost £7 million to remove the cladding on just one block of flats. That is more than £150,000 per flat. May we have an urgent statement or debate in Government time on how the Government think cladding remediation work will be funded, so that all MPs are fully informed before we debate the amendments to the Fire Safety Bill?
If I may give the hon. Lady good news, the Daily Mail reports today that the gagging clauses have been lifted by order of the Secretary of State; as soon as he heard about them, he said that they should stop and that freedom of speech is important. I reiterate the point I made earlier: 99% of Grenfell-style cladding has been removed already from social housing, and 84% from properties in total. Good progress is being made, although the hon. Lady is obviously right to continue to raise this important topic.
It is snowing up here in Staffordshire as well.
I have two contrasting problems regarding air quality in my constituency of Newcastle-under-Lyme. The Government have asked the council to institute either a clean air zone or some other mitigating factors in one part of my constituency, but there is very little appetite for that, and it is clear that the changes wrought by coronavirus mean that the mitigation seems already to have largely happened. Conversely, we have an issue with odour coming from the site of a landfill, which is causing a great deal of concern to my constituents, and we have been unable to get the requisite action from the Environment Agency. Would my right hon. Friend be willing to schedule a debate in which we can raise issues of air quality more generally and hold the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to account in responding to the needs of my constituents?
My hon. Friend is battling for his constituents and is absolutely right to do so. Improving air quality is one of the most tangible and beneficial things we can achieve with a sensible environmental policy. Newcastle-under-Lyme and Stoke-on-Trent have jointly identified a package of measures, including bus gates and bus retrofit, to bring nitrogen dioxide exceedance in their local authority areas within legal limits. It has to be said that restrictions on motorists are always deeply tiresome. Stoke-on-Trent requested, and has been granted, a short period—to 15 February—to model alternatives to the proposed bus gate on Victoria Road. A clean air zone is not being imposed by the Government.
As regards the odour from the landfill, I understand that the Government are aware of this. I know from my own constituency that the Environment Agency has experts trained to sniff out odours from landfill sites to see if they are within permissible limits and whether there is a problem.
A report published by Christian Solidarity Worldwide on Tuesday 12 January claims that, in 2020, Cuban authorities continued to routinely and systematically violate the right to freedom of religion or belief. I know that the Leader of the House and I have a similar opinion on this. Documented violations include arbitrary detention, threats, harassment, surveillance of religious leaders, efforts by the Government to block overseas humanitarian aid, defamation of religious leaders online and the targeting of church properties. Will the Leader of the House agree to a statement or debate on this matter?
I am always grateful to the hon. Gentleman for campaigning for religious freedom around the world. It is clear that Christians in Cuba face appalling discrimination from the country’s communist totalitarian regime. Communists have always been anti-Christianity and anti-religion. The UK is committed to defending freedom of religion or belief for all and to promoting respect between different religious and non-religious communities. Promoting the right to freedom of religion or belief is one of the UK’s long-standing human rights policy priorities.
The Government regularly speak to the Cuban Government, in both London and Havana, about a range of human rights issues, and also address these issues through multilateral human rights forums, including the UN periodic review. While we welcome the new protections that underpin freedom of religion or belief in the 2019 constitution, we call on the Cuban authorities to confer in practice those rights that the constitution enshrines. This is a reminder to those who like the idea of a written constitution that what is written is not always what is done.
I receive emails every single week from residents concerned about speeding in their local area, from Manchester Road to Colne Road to Padiham Road and many more. This is not only a nuisance to local residents but risks serious injury or even death to the victims, be they drivers or pedestrians. Could my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on how we can tackle this issue, particularly as we see traffic increasing in the months ahead?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. Excess speeding is a risk on the roads and may lead to death or serious injury. The enforcement of speeding offences is ultimately a matter for local chief officers. The Government are clear that anyone who breaks speed limits should expect to face penalties, as set out in law. Fortunately, the United Kingdom has some of the safest roads in the world, with deaths steadily declining throughout the 21st century. While every death is one too many, we are making good progress.
Yesterday, 1,564 people tragically died of covid-19—the highest death toll on record—and in York, infection rates are still rising sharply. This half-hearted approach to the lockdown is hurting the economy and causing the virus to spread at an alarming pace. Can we have an urgent statement from the Prime Minister to announce a proper, comprehensive lockdown with no ambiguity, with only critical work in direct response to the pandemic, or related food or services, to be undertaken and a full economic support package put on the table?
There is a full economic support package available: £280 billion of taxpayers’ money has been provided and the furlough scheme extended to the end of April. The lockdown is quite extraordinary. The infringements on people’s liberties are unprecedented in this country. People cannot have visitors in their own home. A lady yesterday, it was reported, knocked on the window of her mother in an old people’s home, her mother having Alzheimer’s, and she was fined by the police, although the fine was subsequently remitted. The restrictions on people are extraordinary. That is because of the threat that the pandemic has created. People know the rules. They are absolutely clear and people, by and large, are following them. The overwhelming majority of people in this country are following the rules in both the spirit and the letter. We should recognise that this country operates by consent with our laws, and that is something we can be proud of—that people have gone along with what the Government have suggested because they knew it was the right thing to do. We have not required the type of aggressive enforcement seen in other countries because the British people have joined in with this effort as a whole. The restrictions are already very tight, they are very clear, and the economic support package is enormous.
May I welcome the Leader of the House’s robust answer to the previous question? Mine is on a different subject. Monday’s non-partisan debate in Westminster Hall referred to the need for a dedicated Minister with status in both main Departments that deal with the hospitality sector—the third largest in our economy. In his well-received response, the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), was naturally rather reticent about restructuring the Government to reflect such an enhanced role for himself. May we therefore have a statement from the Cabinet Office Minister on the need for a dedicated and upgraded Minister for the hospitality sector and the promotion of its survival and recovery?
My right hon. Friend noted that the Minister responding was diffident about the reorganisation of Government. He may not be surprised if I am diffident too in this regard, because that is a right that belongs to the Prime Minister. I would like to commend the debate on Monday, because the Government fully recognise the importance of the UK hospitality sector, which makes a vital contribution to the UK economy. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising this, because in my own constituency I have had certain correspondence and great concern from a wedding services company that has found maintaining its livelihood during this pandemic so exceptionally difficult.
Ministers in both the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport have worked closely with business leaders across the hospitality sector throughout the pandemic to ensure that their interests are represented. That engagement has helped to form the Government’s comprehensive package of support, including measures such as the reduction in VAT, the job retention scheme, the hospitality grant, and indeed the eat out to help out scheme. I will obviously pass this matter on to the relevant Secretaries of State, but my right hon. Friend might want to write to the Prime Minister directly with his suggestions for the reorganisation of Government.