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Volume 687: debated on Wednesday 20 January 2021

Before I call the Prime Minister, may I express, on behalf of the House, our best wishes to President Biden and Vice-President Harris on this, their inauguration day?

Mr Speaker, I know Members from across the House will want to join me in echoing you in congratulating President-elect Biden on his inauguration later today. I said when I spoke with him on his election as President that I looked forward to working with him and his new Administration, strengthening the partnership between our countries, and working on our shared priorities for tackling climate change, building back better from the pandemic, and strengthening our transatlantic security.

Our sympathies also go out to those affected by the latest floods, and I want to thank the Environment Agency and our emergency services for the work they are doing to support those communities. I will be chairing a Cobra meeting later on, to co-ordinate the national response. This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others, and in addition to my duties in this House, I will have further such meetings later today.

May I start by fully associating myself with all the Prime Minister’s opening comments? Will he join me in welcoming the fact that free school meal pupils in Elmet and Rothwell will continue to receive free lunches over the forthcoming school holidays, thanks to the winter grant fund provided to Leeds City Council by this Government?

Yes, indeed. I can confirm that eligible pupils in Leeds will continue to receive free school meal support over the February half-term. This Conservative Government have given over £2 million to Leeds City Council through the covid winter grant scheme to support vulnerable families in the coldest months, and it is the intention of this Government, on this side of the House, that no child should go hungry this winter as a result of the covid pandemic.

May I also welcome the inauguration of President Biden and Vice-President Harris? This is a victory for hope over hate, and a real moment for optimism in the US and around the world. I also thank all those on the frontline helping to deliver the vaccine, including the NHS, who are doing so much to keep us safe under the most extraordinary pressure.

It is 10 days since the Home Office mistakenly deleted hundreds of thousands of vital criminal records, including fingerprints, crime scene data and DNA records, so can the Prime Minister tell the House how many criminal investigations could have been damaged by this mistake?

The Home Office is actively working to assess the damage. As the right hon. and learned Gentleman will know from the urgent question that was held in the House only a few days ago, it believes that it will be able to rectify the results of this complex incident, and it hopes very much that it will be able to restore the data in question.

That is not an answer to my question, and it was the most basic of questions. It was the first question that any Prime Minister would have asked of those briefing him: how many criminal investigations have been damaged? So let me ask the second basic question that any Prime Minister would have asked of those briefing him. How many convicted criminals have had their records wrongly deleted?

I answered the first question entirely accurately. We do not know how many cases might be frustrated as a result of what has happened, but I can tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman that 213,000 offence records, 175,000 arrest records and 15,000 person records are currently being investigated because they are the subject of this problem.

I have a letter here from the National Police Chiefs Council. It makes it clear that 403,000 records on the police national computer may have been deleted. In addition to that—[Interruption.] Prime Minister, this is from the National Police Chiefs Council. I am sure he has been briefed on this. In addition to that, we are talking about 26,000 DNA records from the DNA database and 30,000 fingerprint records from the fingerprint database, so this is not just a technical issue. It is about criminals not being caught, and victims not getting justice. This letter makes it clear that data from criminals convicted of serious offences is included. This has impacted live police investigations already, and it includes records, including DNA, marked for indefinite retention following conviction for serious offences—the most serious offences; that is why it is marked for indefinite retention. It has been deleted.

Is the Prime Minister seriously telling us that 10 days after the incident came to light, he still has not got to the bottom of the basic questions, and cannot tell us how many cases have been lost, how many serious offenders this concerns, and how many police investigations have been investigated?

It is becoming a feature of the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s questions that he fails to listen to the answer I have just given. Let me repeat this, because I think he gave a figure of 413,000. I have just done some maths briefly in my head, and if you add 213,000 to 175,000, plus 15,000, you get to 403,000. If only he had bothered to do that swift computation in his head he would have had the answer before he stood up and claimed not to have received it. It was there in the previous answer.

Of course it is outrageous that any data should have been lost, but as I said in my first answer, which I hope the right hon. and learned Gentleman heard, we are trying to retrieve that data.

The Prime Minister complains about not listening to answers, but the figure I quoted was 403,000—that will be in Hansard. [Interruption.] I said 403,000, plus 26,000, plus 30,000.

Prime Minister, let me try the next most simple question that you would have asked of anyone briefing you. How long will it take for all the wrongly deleted records to be reinstated to the police database?

That will depend on how long it takes to recover them. I can tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman that people are working around the clock, having been briefed on this both by my staff and by the Minister for Crime and Policing. We are working around the clock on this issue. Any loss of data is, of course, unacceptable, but thanks to the robust, strong economy that we have had for the past few years, this Government have been able to invest massively in policing to drive crime down, and that is the most important thing of all. I have no doubt that we will be able to continue to do that by relying on excellent data.

This morning, the Home Secretary said that the Home Office is still washing through the data. She said it does not know where the records are and, if you can believe it, they may have to be “manually re-entered”, which will obviously take a long, long time. The letter from the National Police Chiefs’ Council also makes it clear that the obvious places to reinstate from—the DNA and fingerprint databases—have themselves been compromised, so the Prime Minister’s answers need to be seen in that light.

Let me turn to another of the Home Secretary’s responsibilities. Last night she told a Conservative party event, and these are her words:

“On ‘should we have closed our borders earlier?’, the answer is yes, I was an advocate of closing them last March.”

Why did the Prime Minister overrule the Home Secretary?

I think, last March, the right hon. and learned Gentleman, along with many others, was actually saying that we did not need to close the borders, but as usual, Captain Hindsight has changed his tune to suit events.

It is interesting that his first few questions were about a computer glitch in the Home Office, which we are trying to rectify as we are in the middle of a national pandemic. This country is facing a very grave death toll, and we are doing everything we can to protect the British public, as I think he would expect. That is why we have instituted one of the toughest border regimes in the world. That is why we insist that people get a test 72 hours before they fly. They have to provide a passenger locator form, and they have to quarantine for 10 days, or five days if they take a second test.

I am delighted that the right hon. and learned Gentleman now praises the Home Secretary, which is a change of tune, and I am delighted that he is now in favour of tough border controls, because last year he was not. Indeed, he campaigned for the leadership of the Labour party on a manifesto promise to get back to free movement.

The Prime Minister talks of hindsight. What the Home Secretary said last night is not disputed. It is not disputed—this is not hindsight—that she said last March that you need to shut the borders. She was saying it, so I repeat the question that the Prime Minister avoided. Why did he overrule the Home Secretary, who claims that she said last March that we should shut our borders?

We have instituted one of the toughest border regimes in the world, and it was only last March that the right hon. and learned Gentleman, along with many others in his party, was continuing to support an open border approach. I must say that the whole experience of listening to him over the past few months has been like watching a weather vane spin round and round, depending on where the breezes are blowing. We are getting on with tackling this pandemic through the most practical means available to us, rolling out a vaccine programme that has now inoculated 4.2 million people in our country, whereas he would have joined the EU scheme, I seem to remember. He attacked the vaccine taskforce, which secured the supplies on which we are now relying. And he stood on a manifesto at the last election to unbundle the very pharmaceutical companies on whose breakthroughs this country is now relying. The Opposition continue to look backwards, play politics and snipe from the sidelines. We look forwards and get on with the job.

The national roll-out of covid-19 vaccinations is a tremendous success story, but it is only in the past few days that over-80-year-olds in Aylesbury have been able to get their first jabs. Many of my constituents have contacted me to say that they are frustrated and worried that they have been either forgotten or pushed to the back of the queue. Can my right hon. Friend assure them that everybody in the Aylesbury area in the most vulnerable groups will be vaccinated by the middle of February? (911065)

I thank my hon. Friend for everything he does to fight for the interests of the people of Aylesbury. I can confirm that we are on track to deliver our pledge, although I must stress to the House that it is very hard because of constraints on supply. We are on track to deliver a first vaccine to everyone in the top four cohorts by mid-February, including the people of Aylesbury.

This afternoon, millions around the world will breathe a massive sigh of relief when President Joe Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris are sworn into office. The democratic removal of Donald Trump gives us all hope that better days are ahead of us—that days will be a little bit brighter. Turning the page on the dark chapter of Trump’s presidency is not solely the responsibility of President Joe Biden; it is also the responsibility of those in the Tory party, including the Prime Minister, who cosied up to Donald Trump and his callous world view. This morning, the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) accused the current Prime Minister of abandoning moral responsibility on the world stage by slashing international aid. So if today is to be a new chapter—if today is to be a new start—will the Prime Minister begin by reversing his cruel policy of cutting international aid for the world’s poorest?

I think it is very important that the Prime Minister of the UK has the best possible relationship with the President of the United States—that is part of the job description, as I think all sensible Opposition Members would acknowledge. When it comes to global leadership on the world stage, this country is embarking on a quite phenomenal year. We have the G7 and COP 26, and we have already led the world with the Gavi summit for global vaccination, raising $8.8 billion. The UK is the first major country in the world to set a target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050—all other countries are following, and we hope that President Biden will join us. We are working to promote global free trade, and of course we will work with President Biden to secure the transatlantic alliance and NATO, which of course the Scottish nationalist party would unbundle—I think they would; I do not know what their policy is on our armed services, but I think they would break them up. Perhaps they would like to explain.

It is the Scottish National party, Prime Minister. I know you keep having a memory lapse on it.

I call Ian Blackford. [Interruption.] I think we have somehow lost Ian Blackford; we will come back to him.

I call Nicola Richards.

Good afternoon Mr Speaker. May I add my warmest of welcomes to President Biden and Vice-President Harris on their inauguration in Washington today?

In answer to my question in July, the Prime Minister promised an independent inquiry into the UK’s response to covid. In the six months since, covid cases have soared, our NHS is on its knees, and 50,000 more people have died. The UK now has one of the highest death rates in the world—higher, even, than Trump’s America. To learn the lessons from what has gone so devastatingly wrong under his leadership, will the Prime Minister commit to launching this year the inquiry that he promised last year?

The right hon. Gentleman answered his own question with the preamble that he set out. The NHS is under unprecedented pressure. The entire British state—including virtually every single arm of officialdom—is trying to fight covid and to roll out the biggest vaccination programme in the history of our country. The idea that we should consecrate vast state resources to an inquiry now, in the middle of the pandemic, does not seem sensible to me, and I do not believe that it would seem sensible to other Members. Of course we will learn lessons in due course and of course there will be a time to reflect and to prepare for the next pandemic.

I think people would find the Prime Minister’s claims about the UK’s global leadership a bit more believable if last night he had not ordered his MPs to vote down an amendment to the Trade Bill that would have prevented trade deals with countries that commit genocide. Genocide is not a matter of history; it is happening in our world right now. The international community has stood idly by as Uyghur Muslim men, women and children are forced into concentration camps in China’s Xinjiang province. Yesterday, the outgoing US Secretary of State officially said that genocide was taking place, and the incoming Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, agrees with his view. Is the Prime Minister prepared to follow that lead? Is he prepared to stand up today and clearly state that genocide is being committed against the Uyghur population in China? If he is, will he work urgently with the new Biden Administration to bring the matter to the UN Security Council—

The right hon. Gentleman knows very well that the attribution of genocide is a judicial matter, but I can say for myself that I regard what is happening in Xinjiang to the Uyghurs as utterly abhorrent, and I know that Members from all parties in the House share that view. I commend to the right hon. Gentleman the excellent statement made recently by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office on what is happening there, the steps we are taking to prevent British commercial engagement with goods that are made by forced labour in Xinjiang and the steps we are taking against what is happening.

I ask the right hon. Gentleman, in all sincerity, what he would propose by way of a Scottish national—not nationalist but national—foreign policy: would he break up the FCDO, which, after all, has a big branch in East Kilbride?

    Next week, we mark Holocaust Memorial Day, remember the 6 million Jewish men, women and children murdered by the Nazis, and pay tribute to the extraordinary survivors. Will the Prime Minister join me in thanking the Holocaust Educational Trust for organising a live webcast so that students throughout the country can tune in on 26 January to hear the testimony of survivor Eve Kugler? Will he join me in asking all Members to encourage their local schools to join Q3 Academy Great Barr, from West Bromwich East, in taking part? (911067)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to warn us of the need to continue to inoculate our populations and ourselves against the wretched virus of antisemitism, which has a tendency to recur and re-infect societies, including, tragically, our own. I am very happy to join her in encouraging all Members to ask all schools to do what the excellent Q3 Academy in Great Barr is doing and to tune in to the event that she mentions.

Both I and many residents across Rother Valley are very concerned about crime, drug abuse, including from nitrous oxide capsules, and antisocial behaviour. Will the Prime Minister back my campaign and call on the Labour police and crime commissioner of South Yorkshire to restore a police presence and even reopen a police station on Dinnington High Street? (911069)

There could be no more fervent and effective advocate for the people of Rother Valley than my hon. Friend, and I am sure that he has much support for his campaign for a police station. I hope that a solution can be found. In the meantime, I can reassure him that we are making sure that there will be the police officers—the policemen and women—to put in that police station, because, as he will know, we are delivering on our commitment to have 20,000 more police over the lifetime of this Parliament.

Contrary to the view of every political party here and all of those involved in logistics and retail, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said last week that there is no border in the Irish sea and that disruption to supplies was a covid issue and nothing to do with Brexit or the protocol. The papers are reporting the Prime Minister’s plans to woo the Biden Administration through the topic of Northern Ireland, as they and we try to move on from Trump and Trumpism. Would being straight with the people of Northern Ireland not be a good start? (911066)

As the hon. Lady may know from what I said to the Liaison Committee several times, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Actually, there is more transit now taking place between Larne and Stranraer—Cairnryan, than there is between Holyhead and Dublin, because it is going so smoothly.

It is excellent that we are leading Europe in vaccinations and it is excellent that we now have strong health borders, but, as the virus bounces around the world, there is a real risk that it will mutate and be able to dodge the vaccines or reduce their efficacy; there is concerning data from South Africa in that respect. Will the Government develop a new rapid pathway to allow the approval of new variations of the vaccines so that we can shut down any new strains quickly? (911070)

Yes indeed. My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point, and we have been talking intensively about that with the scientists over the past days and weeks and also in the past few hours. We are confident that the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency will be in a position to turn around new applications for new variants of vaccines, as may be required to deal with new variants of the virus.

Lorries containing food produce sitting idle for days is a stark reminder that, if post-Brexit Britain is to be self-sufficient, protecting our food production through infrastructure investment is crucial. Will the Prime Minister provide the infrastructure investment essential to tackling flooding in West Lancashire by giving the Environment Agency enough funding both to keep the Alt Crossens pumps operational and to maintain the watercourses? That will be vital to ensure that the rich food-producing lands of West Lancashire, which are essential to the security of food supplies and our local and national economy, are better defended— (911068)

I could have heard almost any amount about the rich food-producing parts of West Lancashire: the hon. Lady is entirely right, and we will protect those areas. She is entirely right to call for flood defences. That is why we put £5.2 billion over six years into flood defences, including the Crossens pumping station refurbishment scheme that she mentions, in which we have invested £5.7 million to protect nearly 4,000 homes.

The south-west has an ambitious programme to build back better in both the green and blue sectors, investing in both clean growth and marine high-tech clusters, but to do so, we will need continued investment in our infrastructure. Will my right hon. Friend assure us that levelling up does not just involve the north but every region of the United Kingdom, including the south-west? (911072)

The potential of the greater south-west is enormous, particularly in the areas of blue and green technology. My hon. Friend can be assured that we will be giving massive investment in infrastructure to support the green industrial revolution in the south-west as well as in all parts of the UK.

When the Prime Minister told fishermen in the south-west that they would not face new export barriers or unnecessary form-filling, and when he told Britain’s musicians and artists that they would still be free to tour and work in the rest of the European Union after Brexit, neither of those statements was correct, was it? (911071)

It is absolutely true that some British fishermen have faced barriers at the present time owing to complications over form-filling. Indeed, one of the biggest problems is that, alas, there is a decline in appetite for fish in continental markets just because most of the restaurants, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, are shut. But the reality is that Brexit will deliver, and is delivering, a huge uplift in quota already in the next five years. By 2026, the fishing people of this country will have access to all the fish in all the territorial waters of this country. To get them ready for that Eldorado, we are investing £100 million in improving our boats and our fish processing industry, and getting fishing ready for the opportunities ahead.

I thank the Prime Minister and the Health Secretary for the recent strengthened guidance to allow parents access to neonatal intensive care units whenever they need to in this pandemic. Can the Prime Minister confirm that compliance with this guidance will be monitored, and can he reassure parents, once and for all, that we know that they are integral to their child’s care in hospital, and not just visitors? (911073)

Absolutely. I know that my hon. Friend knows of what she speaks. She is completely right to say that they are partners in care and should not be considered as visitors. That is why the current guidance has been put in place—and yes, we will be monitoring it to ensure that it is observed.

On 7 March this year, my constituent Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s unjustified five-year prison sentence will finally come to an end. What assurances has the Prime Minister had from the Iranian authorities that Nazanin will have her ankle tags removed, that she will get her British passport back, and that she will be allowed to board a flight back to the UK in 45 days’ time? (911074)

I can tell the hon. Lady, who I know has campaigned hard and well on behalf of her constituent, and quite rightly, that we are working virtually round the clock to secure the release of all the dual nationals that concern us in Tehran. Without going into the details of the cases, which are, as she knows, complex, we are doing everything we can to secure what we regard as the completely unjustified detention in Tehran of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, although, as the hon. Lady knows, she is now out on furlough, admittedly in the conditions that she describes.

With Yorkshire leading the way in the vaccine roll-out, does the Prime Minister agree that once we have vaccinated the most vulnerable, the elderly and our wonderful health and social care workers, we should then look at prioritising the vaccination of police officers, emergency service workers, carers, teachers, nursery staff and all those whose essential daily work brings them into contact with other people? (911075)

My hon. Friend is a great advocate for his constituents in Colne Valley, and I much enjoy my exchanges with him. I thank him for what he says about those groups. We must rely on what the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has to say and the priorities that the experts have decided, but of course we want to see those groups that he mentions vaccinated as soon as possible. I am very pleased that in spite of all the difficulties in supply, last week we gave 1.5 million people their first dose, up half a million on the week before.

When we praise our social care workers for their immense response to the pandemic, that includes more than 100,000 care workers from the EU. New research from the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants shows that many of them do not know anything about the Prime Minister’s EU settlement scheme, and many more do not know that they must apply by the end of June. We could see thousands of essential care workers and possibly hundreds of thousands of valued EU nationals losing their rights to live and work here overnight on 1 July. Will the Prime Minister please cancel or postpone the application deadline or, better still, extend the rights of EU nationals in the UK automatically, just as he previously promised to do? (911078)

I thank the hon. Member for what he has done just now to draw attention to the scheme, but I must say that I respectfully disagree with him about the ignorance in which our wonderful EU nationals have been, because 4 million of them have successfully applied and been given residence, thanks to the scheme we have instituted. It is a great success, and we pay tribute to the wonderful EU nationals in our country who do a fantastic job for this country.

For many years my right hon. Friend wrote humorous articles that nevertheless made serious points about individual freedom and the dangers of over-regulation. The Department of Health and Social Care is currently consulting on how to increase regulations on food advertising significantly. Can my right hon. Friend reassure me that any implementation of this consultation will be in line with his and my long-held principles? (911076)

Indeed. I remain a champion of liberty in all its aspects, but I am also the living embodiment of the risks of obesity. There is no question but that it is a comorbidity factor in the pandemic. I think that is something that the people of this country understand. They understand that it is all of our individual responsibility to do what we can to get healthy and to stay healthy, because that is one of the ways we can all help protect our NHS.

Doctors, researchers, experts, campaigners and my constituents, of whom just under two-thirds are from BAME backgrounds, including a large Bangladeshi population, have all observed the covid-19 pandemic disproportionately affecting BAME communities. The Royal College of General Practitioners has even requested that these communities be prioritised for vaccine roll-out. Will the Prime Minister finally recognise that this disparity is as a result of structural racism, and can he outline what his Government are doing to address the issue?

I do not agree with the hon. Member’s last point, but she makes a very important point about the need to reach hard-to-reach groups in society. That is why it is so important that the vaccine roll-out is not just conducted by the NHS, the Army, pharmacies and volunteers, but in co-ordination with local government at all levels, because it is local government that will know where we need to go, as I am sure she would understand, to ensure that we reach those groups we must vaccinate and who may be a little bit vaccine hesitant, as the jargon has it.

Over the last week, there has been yet again very significant flooding in Stafford. Unfortunately, my constituents in Penkridge, central Stafford and Bishops Wood are regularly experiencing the disruption and distress that flooding causes. Will my right hon. Friend commit to my campaign to establish a flood control centre in Stafford that residents can call directly, which would provide 24/7 assistance for my constituents affected by flooding? (911077)

I have every sympathy for the residents of Stafford who have been affected by flooding and for everybody who has been affected by flooding in the latest bout. What I can say to my hon. Friend is that the Environment Agency is working hand in glove with her local authority and other partners to find a particular solution to the flooding in Sandon Road and Sandyford Brook.

My constituency is served by two local councils. Recently, Bexley has taken emergency action to shed hundreds of jobs, while Greenwich needs to make £20 million of cuts in its upcoming budget. Last year, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government promised councils “whatever it takes” to get through the pandemic, so why is the Prime Minister dropping a council tax bombshell and asking my constituents to pay for his promises?

The last time I looked, Bexley was a Conservative council and Greenwich was Labour, which may explain part of the problem. The reality is that we are supporting every council, with £4.6 billion of support for local government so far during the pandemic. The hon. Lady raises council tax. Perhaps she could have a word with her friend the Mayor of London, who is threatening to put up his council tax by 10%.

The announcement by my right hon. Friend that the G7 summit is to take place in Carbis Bay in June presents a tremendous opportunity for my constituency and, of course, the Duchy of Cornwall. I thank the Prime Minister for this. Does he share my belief that the G7 summit offers the perfect opportunity to secure a global commitment to embrace and accelerate our ambitious low-carbon industrial revolution?

I do indeed. I believe that the G7 summit in Carbis Bay will be an opportunity to not only bring the world together to tackle covid, to build back better, to champion global free trade and to combat climate change but also to showcase that wonderful part of the United Kingdom and all the incredible technological developments happening there, such as Newquay space port, Goonhilly earth station and lithium mining. Cornwall led the way—I think the Romans mined tin in Cornwall, did they not? I have a feeling they did, and, indeed, the copper mines there were at the heart of the UK industrial revolution. What is going on in Cornwall today shows that Cornwall is once again at the heart of the 21st-century UK green industrial revolution.

I am suspending the House for three minutes to enable the necessary arrangements for the next business to be made.

Sitting suspended.