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Business of the House

Volume 687: debated on Thursday 21 January 2021

The 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 relating to council tax, followed by a debate on a motion relating to employment rights. Both debates will arise on a motion in the name of the official Opposition.

Tuesday 26 January—Remaining stages of the Environment Bill (day 1).

Wednesday 27 January—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Medicines and Medical Devices Bill.

Thursday 28 January—General debate on Holocaust Memorial Day 2021, followed by general debate on UN International Day of Education. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 29 January—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the week commencing 1 February will include:

Monday 1 February—Opposition day (16th allotted day). There will be a debate on a motion in the name of the official Opposition. Subject to be announced.

Tuesday 2 February—Second Reading of the Air Traffic Management and Unmanned Aircraft Bill [Lords].

Wednesday 3 February—Motion to approve statutory instruments relating to sanctions, followed by motion to approve the draft Value Added Tax (Miscellaneous Amendments to Acts of Parliament) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020 and the Value Added Tax (Miscellaneous Amendments to the Value Added Tax Act 1994 and Revocation) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020 (S.I., 2020, No. 1544), followed by motion relating to the Travellers’ Allowances and Miscellaneous Provisions (EU Exit) Regulations 2020.

Thursday 4 February—General debate on the future of the UK space industry, followed by general debate on the Towns Fund. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 5 February—The House will not be sitting.

I thank the Leader of the House for giving the business, and may I tell everyone exactly what the Opposition day motions are? The first is on the Prime Minister’s council tax hike, and the second is on the Government’s plan to weaken employment rights.

I ask again about the Session because we need to know when we are likely to get our next Opposition day. I do not know whether the Leader of the House has seen the publication by the University College London constitution unit’s Professor Meg Russell and Daniel Gover of Queen Mary on taking back control? The forward was written by Sir David Natzler. One of the ruses the Government use is to prolong the Session: we only have a fixed date for our Opposition days, so we only get 17 even though the Session is longer.

I hope the Leader of the House will confirm that Budget day remains on 3 March, with the periodic Adjournment for Easter on 4 April. I think the Prime Minister has resolved—although he has not told the House—that the elections will take place on 6 May, which just leaves a short period as to when the Session ends.

Our shadow Chancellor, my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Anneliese Dodds), has said she cannot find the Chancellor, so can the Leader of the House confirm whether he is in Budget purdah now? I do not know whether the Leader of the House knows this, but my hon. Friend was the first woman ever to deliver the Mais lecture, and if anyone wants to read about fiscal responsibility, that is it.

The Education Secretary will make a statement later, but he has said nothing about testing in schools, which I think is part of the Moonshot programme. Apparently, that has been halted, so can he—or anyone—come to the House and explain what Operation Moonshot is?

The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care has not given an update on the NHS. Anyone who watched the BBC on Tuesday will have seen a woman in a morgue in tears, a consultant in tears, and a 28-year-old without underlying conditions taken into hospital with covid. We have had the highest rate of people who have died since the pandemic began; we need an update. A difficulty that I hope can be discussed is that while we have an Opposition day on Monday, we cannot have urgent questions that eat into our time. Is it possible to look at starting earlier so that we can have an update on the NHS crisis on Monday?

I want to put on record my congratulations to Richard Beeken at the Walsall Manor Hospital; it is a fantastic vaccination programme—17 minutes in and out, and at one stage it had the highest number of vaccinations in the country.

The Government need to be straight with us; no more Brexit promises. They are like piecrust promises—easily made, easily broken. We need the scrutiny Committee of my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn). We have musicians who cannot work and no visa-free access. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) asked for the publication of what the two sides said during the talks on the agreement. Can the Leader of the House ensure that we have that publication?

Our fishermen have had to perform the Monty Python fish-slapping dance in the Government’s face before the Government do anything. They have announced by press release the £23 million. Who is it for? How long will it take? Will it help the fishermen fill in the 400 pages that they need to fill in? We need a statement.

Worst of all, we have the news about a lorry park in Dover, in a village. This is being done without consultation and the Government are breaking the law again. Villagers are up in arms; this is in Dover, on agricultural land. May we have a statement on why the Government are breaking the law and upsetting local villagers?

I thank the Leader of the House for getting the Foreign Secretary to write to me, but he did not mention any of the dual nationals in his letter. Anoosheh Ashoori needs his diplomatic protection. Richard Ratcliffe and my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) have asked what plans will be put in place for Nazanin’s and Anoosheh’s release. Luke Symons’ fate is still unknown.

Finally, I wish to congratulate President Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris on their historic inauguration. Liberty, equality, climate, economic and social justice, and democracy are their watchwords. We, in the Opposition, want to work very closely with them, and we wish them every success.

May I join the right hon. Lady in congratulating President Biden and Vice-President Harris? I think we are both personally delighted that President Biden is the second Catholic, only, to be President of the United States; to have a fellow religionist in charge of the free world is very good news.

The Foreign Secretary pointed out in that letter the difficulties there are in dealing with dual nationals, because some countries do not recognise the concept of dual nationals, and that is particularly true of China and Iran. That was referred to in the letter and I will, of course, as I do every week, take up the points regarding the dual nationals who are held improperly in Iran.

To come to the right hon. Lady’s tease about the titles for the debates on Monday, let me say that council tax is a matter for local authorities, as she knows. The Government have provided many billions of pounds to local authorities during the pandemic, including £4.6 billion of un-ring-fenced money to help them deal with it. So the resources from the central taxpayer to help the local taxpayer have been enormous.

I am aware of the UCL report. I am afraid I think the idea of a House business Committee is cloud cuckoo land. We saw how unsatisfactory and divisive it was when this House did not have the Government able to organise the business during the 2017 to 2019 Parliament. It was chaotic for the Government and for Parliament, and it was very bad for the temper of political debate. A Government have the right to set the timetable in the House by virtue of the mandate they have got from the British voters, and then Members of the House have to be convinced on each individual issue that they wish to support the Government. I have to say that the right hon. Lady would be taking exactly that view if she were Leader of the House rather than shadow Leader of the House. I therefore think that a House business Committee would not be wise. I would be strongly opposed to it as I think it would lead to the sort of chaos and disruption we had in the last Parliament.

The right hon. Lady mentioned fiscal responsibility and the Labour party in the same sentence, which forgets the message left by a former Chief Secretary to the Treasury about there being “no money left”. The last time the Labour party was in government it ran out of money, and one should judge people by what they do rather than by what they say. What the Labour party does whenever it is in office is run out of money. The right hon. Lady then mentioned testing. Some 52 million people have been tested. That is a large number of people and a very large percentage of the population, although, obviously, that includes many people who have had more than one test. We are talking about 700,000 tests per day. She then mentioned musicians. The position on musicians is extraordinarily clear. Her Majesty’s Government have said that during the negotiations we made proposals that would have allowed musicians to travel and perform in the UK and the EU more easily without needing work permits. These were based on the input of the music bodies such as UK Music and the Musicians’ Union, but the EU rejected those proposals. Therefore, musicians are in the position they are in because the EU rejected those proposals.

The right hon. Lady then mentioned the fishing industry. There is £23 million in addition to the £100 million to help modernise fishing fleets, to recognise that any delays for the fishing industry are particularly difficult because of the short shelf life of fresh fish, and therefore the extra help is important. They have faced particular changes, but the advantages that our fishing industry will have are going to be reaped as the days and years go on. Already, we have an increase in the exclusive zone in which only UK boats can fish. We will have a 25% quota uplift at the end of five years, beginning at 15%. That will be very good for rejuvenating the fishing industry, and extra money is being provided to help ensure that that happens. It is a positive solution to help our very important fishing industry.

Is the Leader of the House aware that Morrisons and Aldi supermarkets have announced that they are to stock and sell more British goods in future? If we cannot have a debate on that, will he warmly welcome that initiative and encourage other retailers to follow suit? Does he agree that buying British is the practical and effective way to champion our local farmers and promote their produce?

Madam Deputy Speaker, normally it would be disorderly to have a prop, but on this occasion I have one that is a face mask, and as face masks are so strongly encouraged in the Chamber, I hope you will allow me a semi-prop face mask. I agree with my right hon. Friend that we should try to buy British where we can. Of course, I am not in favour of protectionism, but the British produce some of the best goods in the world, and it has to be said that Morrisons often provides my joint for a Sunday lunch. Its beef is not only delicious but also good value. Good-value British products are what we want, and we want to eat more of them.

May I add my congratulations to President Biden and Vice-President Harris? I hope that this Government will embrace the opportunities that their election offers.

After this week’s urgent question on the Government’s failure to maintain an EU visa exemption for performers, everyone must now be aware just how big a kick in the teeth this is for our music industry. The Minister for Digital and Culture wrung her hands but had nothing to say about rectifying the situation. When can we have a debate so that we can demand that the Government go back to the EU and negotiate a new scheme?

Keeping with the consequences of Brexit, let me turn again to fishing. Last week, the Leader of the House grabbed headlines with his jokes about happy fish. I hope he will now take it more seriously. We need an urgent debate on protecting our fish producers from Brexit red tape, including a six-month grace period and full compensation for the catches not landed and the lorry loads destroyed.

Earlier this week, the House voted overwhelmingly to reject the Government’s plan to cut universal credit by £20 a week. We know that there is deep disquiet within the Tory party about this, with many simply bewildered at the Government’s planned assault on the very poorest. Given the many billions that have been spent in the wake of covid, how can this clawback from the poor have any political or moral justification? We know that Opposition day debates do not change Government policy, so when will the Government put their proposals before the House, so that we can force them to do the right thing?

Finally, in a week when the 19th Scottish opinion poll reports majority support for independence, I ask again for a debate on this Parliament’s response. Yesterday George Osborne—a man whose intervention single-handedly boosted yes support in the last referendum—demanded that the Government ignore democratic decisions. He seems to believe that if this Union cannot be maintained by consent, it must be maintained by coercion. If that is becoming the Government’s view, surely this Parliament should discuss it.

As regards the musicians’ requests, I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer I gave the shadow Leader of the House. What the British Government asked for and offered was generous, and it was refused by the European Union.

As regards my comments last week, at least I did not joke about happy Members of the SNP, because that really would have been a joke too far; I do not think it has ever yet been achieved, but perhaps one day—we live in hope. I reiterate the £23 million of extra support for the fishing industry, the increased exclusive area for UK fishermen to use and the additional quota that is coming, with a 15% uplift already, going to 25% within five years. That is an enormous increase in our control of our fishing waters, which will ultimately repay the fishermen of the United Kingdom for the damage that was done to them when we joined the European Union. That is fundamentally important.

On universal credit, it was this Government, under my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith), who introduced universal credit, and this Government have allowed an extraordinary increase in support for the most vulnerable in society, including the £20 a week uplift. That is £1,000 a year, in addition to the £170 million winter grant scheme; £380 million in free school meal vouchers in the summer; increasing the national living wage; an extra £670 million for councils to help families pay their local bills; and supporting the most vulnerable families with £165 million for the troubled families programme. This Government have shown their absolute commitment to the least well-off in society and have done their best in these very difficult times to provide the support that is needed.

Ultimately, all the hon. Gentleman wants to do every week is moan about the devolution settlement. The referendum was won by the Unionists in 2014. It was accepted that it would be for a generation. A generation is not a mere six and a half years. The Scottish people made their choice, and he is still grumpy that they did not make the choice that he wanted. This Parliament respects the free choice that the Scottish people made more than he does. When the SNP is in such an awful muddle with its rows and disagreements, with Mr Salmond and Ms Sturgeon getting together and fighting like cats in a sack, it is a most disagreeable spectacle. That is why we should all support the Union and not leave it to the dangerous activities of the SNP.

People voted to take back control so that the Government would use the new powers to make their lives better, so will the Government urgently make time available for the VAT cuts, the new enterprise zones, the freeports, the policies to increase our fishing fleet, the policies to boost our domestic food production and the so many other good ideas that Ministers should be queuing up to put through our House now we are an independent country?

My right hon. Friend is not only right but he reads my mind. There are great opportunities: the new financial services regulation, which will encourage innovation and competition; the faster and more agile clinical and regulatory regime that is going through with the Medicines and Medical Devices Bill; a revolutionary approach to gene editing, on which the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is consulting; freeports, on which the Treasury is consulting; and looking at public procurement differently. We are really taking back control and seeking the advantages, but I hope that my right hon. Friend will join in this enterprise and send a list of all his good ideas to every Minister so that we know there are more ideas bubbling away.

I thank the Leader of the House for the business statement and for announcing the Backbench Business debates next week and the week after. May I ask him again, though, whether on Thursday 28 January, when we have an important debate recognising Holocaust Memorial Day, which is the previous day, we could get some measure of protected time so that that debate can be heard in full? It will be very heavily subscribed and, as we know, urgent questions and statements eat into the time available for Backbench Business debates.

On 4 February, the two debates are a debate on the future of the UK space industry and a general debate on the towns fund. Those debates were previously scheduled for Westminster Hall but had to be rescheduled into the Chamber because of the closure of Westminster Hall.

I did not get in during the previous business—the urgent question on vaccination—to congratulate the directors of public health and all staff involved in the roll-out of vaccines here in Gateshead and across the north-east of England, but I hope that the Leader of the House will use his good offices to ensure that the region is not punished for the success of the roll-out here by having vaccines diverted to other parts of the country so that they can catch up.

I do not think the hon. Gentleman should use the second session of business to place the question he wishes he had asked in the first session of business, so I will come to the Backbench Business issues. There is always pressure on time, and it is a difficult balance. The debate on Holocaust Memorial Day is of fundamental importance. The Backbench Business Committee has of course decided to have two debates on that day, and that was a matter for it.

There are complications. I did my best today to protect time for Back-Bench business by discouraging my ministerial colleagues from making extra statements, including one from the Department of Health and Social Care, which then got an urgent question. It is not entirely under my control; it is between Mr Speaker, the Leader of the House’s office and what Back Benchers ask for as to how time will be divided up, so I encourage the hon. Gentleman to lobby not just me but others who have influence in this area.

A couple of weeks ago I told the Prime Minister that Somerset County Council is misusing covid funds and that it had a moral duty to ring-fence the money. He did not disagree. The council—surprise, surprise—denied everything, but yesterday it renamed the reserve fund where the cash has been hidden so that it is now called the “covid reserve fund”. Somerset does not trust Somerset County Council. Even its own experts cannot work out how much money it has been given—£32 million, £43 million or £60 million. We must see how the money is spent. We need a debate in the House. As the great King Alfred would have said:

“Ring out the narrowing lust of gold”,


“Ring in the love of truth and right”.

Alfred the Great was, of course, a great educator and translator of works into English, to ensure a wider spread of appreciation of knowledge across his kingdom, and my hon. Friend is also seeking to increase knowledge across the kingdom. His point on the use of public funds is one of continuing importance in this House, which has always had a responsibility to ensure that taxpayers’ money is well spent and that any money that is spent is audited and has an audit trail. Therefore, he is right to highlight this issue, and I hope that Somerset County Council will provide him with the answers he needs.

Those are simply marvellous quotes, I am sure. I remind Back-Bench colleagues that we will have a ministerial statement before we get on to this afternoon’s Back-Bench business, so could they keep questions short and ask just one with perhaps not too many quotes? Equally, I ask the same of the responses.

A study by the consumer organisation Which? has warned that the use of cash, on which many rely, is in danger. Thirty per cent. of Scots reported being unable to pay with cash at least once when trying to buy something since March. Last year the UK Government vowed to bring forward legislation to protect the cash network. Natalie Ceeney, chairman of the Access to Cash Review, has warned:

“We are sleepwalking into a cashless society”,

and time is running out. Will the Leader of the House therefore agree to speak with his colleagues in relevant Departments and ensure that the promised Bill is introduced in the coming months?

The hon. Lady raises a valid and important point. The elderly in particular rely on cash, which of course has the status of legal tender. Therefore, the refusal of cash raises interesting questions already, but I will of course take up her points with ministerial colleagues, as she asks.

I welcome that this Government believe that there is a crucial role for rail in the recovery from the pandemic, helping the levelling-up agenda, economic growth and decarbonisation. I have no doubt that having the right infrastructure is the catalyst to build back better. With that in mind, will my right hon. Friend make time available to discuss the potential impact on the east midlands and Yorkshire if the eastern leg of HS2 is not delivered in full?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support for the Government’s infrastructure programme and the key to build back better. HS2 is a landmark infrastructure project, which will bring much needed extra capacity to our railways, increase connectivity between our great cities, and usher in an even higher speed economy than before. There will be an opportunity to raise this issue at Transport questions next Thursday, so I hope he will be lucky in that particular ballot.

The Government quite rightly extended the ban on evictions during this dangerous lockdown period. I have a constituent who has been made redundant after 17 years working for a faith organisation. Tia and her family have lived in a manse for that time, as part of her employment. She has to leave her home when her employment ends on 9 February. There is a loophole in the law: tied accommodation does not fall under the eviction ban. I think this is an oversight rather than intent, so will the Leader of the House confirm that the spirit and intention of the Government are that no one should be forced out of their home during this period, and could we find time in this place to rectify the legislation?

The hon. Lady is right to say that the aim of the Government was to prevent evictions during the pandemic, but also to ensure a proper and fair relationship in these difficult times between landlords and tenants. It is very difficult, from the Dispatch Box, to answer individual constituent concerns without notice, but I will undertake to take this matter up with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

I am chairman of the all-party group on microplastics and, working with colleagues from across the House and the wonderful National Federation of Women’s Institutes, we are considering the impact microfibres released from textiles in commercial and domestic wash cycles are having on our marine environment. The UK has taken a global lead on tackling microplastics in our oceans, including the introduction of the ban on microbeads in 2018, but does the Leader of the House agree that debating this issue in Parliament would help us all to understand the potential risks posed by plastic microfibres entering our marine environment?

I am delighted to hear about the work of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes, which does such important work across the country. My hon. Friend is right to say that the ban on microbeads in shower gel and other similar products has stopped billions of pieces of plastic from entering the marine environment. It is also right to say that more needs to be done to tackle other sources of microplastics. The Government have been engaging with industry to encourage businesses to do more, including signing up to Operation Clean Sweep to prevent pellet loss. I encourage my hon. Friend to continue his good work, though he may in the first instance want to seek an Adjournment debate.

More than nine months on since the first lockdown, limited company directors remain without financial support to replace lost income. The Chancellor and his Ministers have been briefed about a costed proposal for a directors’ income support scheme, which would create such support. Will the Leader of the House schedule a debate in Government time to allow Members to discuss the merits of this proposal?

The Government have provided enormous support, over £280 billion in total, of which £65 billion has been to protect over 12 million jobs and has helped both businesses and individuals through the furlough scheme, among other things. There have been difficulties with finding the support that the hon. Lady is asking for, but the Government are obviously sympathetic to people in that difficult position, who do have access to other forms of support from local council grants and, of course, from universal credit.

Everyone will recall the images from last summer of monuments being dragged into rivers and the statue of our greatest ever Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, vandalised by hooligans. I know my right hon. Friend will share my delight that the Government are introducing new legal safeguards to avoid pandering to the whims of the woke left in censoring our proud history. Will he therefore look to hold a debate in Government time on how we can look to further protect our history and our heritage from those who wish to revise our past and tear down statues and monuments?

In a funny way, the woke brigade have done the nation a service, because they have reminded people of the great heroes we have. With lots of statues that people used to walk past and not really notice, they suddenly think, “Gosh, that’s Gordon of Khartoum. He’s an interesting figure. I want to know more about him and what he did to put down the slave trade in the Sudan.” I think this has helped remind people of our history and that it is a history we can be enormously proud of. British people did great things in this country and across the globe. We see that, actually, in the United States. When the United States sought its freedom, it wanted to ensure it had the freedoms that the people of the United Kingdom were entitled to at home. It is a most fantastic history that we should be proud of and celebrate in our statues and in our education, so we should be grateful that the wokery classes have had the effect of improving our understanding of our noble history.

Minority groups have been historically under-represented in health research. That could now undermine trust in the safety of particular vaccines. A recent survey found that 72% of black people are unlikely or very unlikely to take up the covid vaccine. Will the Leader of the House ask the Minister for Women and Equalities—so no pressure on the Department of Health and Social Care—to make a statement to the House about what her Department is doing to build trust and the uptake of the covid vaccine among ethnic minority groups, including promoting the voices of scientists from ethnic minority backgrounds?

The Government are doing everything we can to encourage everybody who is eligible to receive the vaccine and we take this very seriously. It is important to deal with scare stories and errors, and remind people that having the vaccine is so much better than taking the risk of not having it. Covid is much more dangerous than having the vaccine is for anybody. The benefits of the vaccine are overwhelming, so we need to deal with misleading information.

I would also point out how well the newspapers are doing. A number of newspapers, including the Daily Mail in the last few days, have had detailed pieces by members of minority communities pointing out that the vaccine is safe. We need to encourage other opinion leaders, along with Her Majesty’s Government, to make the case and reassure people from all walks of life that the vaccine is safe and beneficial. Even our sovereign has had the vaccine. If it is good enough for the Queen, it is good enough for everybody.

The Leader of the House will be aware that the Government have had to introduce emergency legislation several times over the last year. We now have a convention that they bring it to the House as soon as possible when it relates to the pandemic. As we heard from the Health Secretary this morning, we have a much brighter future to look forward to with the vaccine roll-out. We all expect to see falls in case numbers and, more importantly, hospitalisations and deaths soon. So can the Leader of the House assure me and the rest of the House that the Government will act with the same sort of urgency in bringing back the necessary legislation to relax the covid measures as and when the data allows that to happen?

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend. His point is an important one. I remind him that the regulations lapse and have to be renewed, so any renewal of them will always require a debate and a vote in this House. But, as he said, a great deal has happened: 4.6 million people have had inoculations across the United Kingdom so far, and there are 1,000 vaccination sites already operating in England. Things are happening, as he says. In the meantime, we still have to maintain social distancing. We need to keep six and a half feet away from people. Think of me laid down flat: that is a bit short of the distance needed. We have to follow that, but as he says, we are making progress.

No one in the Government or this House wishes these restraints to remain a day longer than is necessary. No Government would wish to restrict these liberties. It has been done because of an emergency. There is no justification for having the restrictions beyond the point at which they are needed. That, I think, is a view held across the House.

Storm Christoph has brought with it widespread and severe flooding across Warrington North, with many residents having to be evacuated and devastating damage to homes. It has been heartbreaking to receive photos and videos from inside constituents’ homes in the worst-affected areas. I pay tribute to the work of the emergency services and Warrington Borough Council, which have been working throughout the night to keep residents safe. Given that flooding is likely to become an increasing issue due to the climate emergency and the fragmentation and continuing underfunding of risk management authorities with responsibility for flooding, can the Leader of the House please arrange for the House to debate the impact of Storm Christoph, which affects so many constituencies of hon. and right hon. Members across the House, and how we can build resilience to end the misery of persistent flooding in our communities?

The hon. Lady is right to raise this issue, which is one of concern across the House; the seriousness of flooding and the effect that it has on families and businesses is very severe. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was here answering questions earlier and I know how hard he is working. As I walked to my office, I overheard him on the telephone, just before coming in to answer questions, trying to get more done to help people who are at risk of flooding. He is working tirelessly and the Government policy is there to help people. Some £5.2 billion will be spent on flood and coastal defences, which is double the previous amount, helping 336,000 properties over the next six years, in addition to the 300,000 properties that have been helped since 2015. I accept that if people have been flooded within the last 24 hours, the promise of £5.2 billion being spent is not a great comfort, but I can say that action is being taken to ensure that people will be safer in future.

At six months old, Hurley is one of my youngest constituents, but he has PKU—phenylketonuria—a medical condition where his body cannot process protein, which severely restricts his diet. Most ordinary food will be off limits. There is a treatment available called Kuvan that can be transformative, and it is available in many other European countries but not here. Can we have some parliamentary time to debate the challenges facing those with PKU and how we can ensure that the one in 10,000 babies born with it get the best possible treatment?

May I say how much I sympathise with my hon. Friend? Just before I entered Government, I had a case of a young child who needed a very expensive and unusual drug, and I am very glad to say that, in the end, that child got it. I encourage my hon. Friend to use every parliamentary mechanism he can possibly think of to campaign for this child. It is so important that we help our young constituents, who have long lives ahead of them.

Such issues are decided by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, which is the independent body responsible for providing evidence-based guidance for the NHS on whether medicines represent a clinical and cost-effective use of resources. The NHS in England is legally required to fund medicines recommended through a NICE appraisal, usually within three months of final guidance. NICE is currently appraising Kuvan for PKU and aims to publish its recommendation in April. My hon. Friend may also wish to be aware that applications for generic versions of the drug may now be submitted.

Following the UK’s exit from the European Union, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency is the UK’s stand-alone medicines regulator and has introduced an accelerated national assessment procedure. That is open to applications for generic medicines, as well as innovative medicines, and in a timeframe to reach a licensing decision in 150 days rather than the 200-day EU procedure. However, I have such sympathy with my hon. Friend and with the child and family in question, and I encourage him to keep knocking on everybody’s door.

I add my congratulations to President Biden and Vice-President Harris on their historic inauguration. Last week, the former US President Trump imposed deliberately stringent sanctions on the Houthis in Yemen that cannot easily be undone. Far from targeting individuals involved in acts of terror, this decision is a death sentence for millions who will now be cut off from life-saving aid in what is already the world’s gravest humanitarian emergency. Despite that, the Government have shown no leadership on this crucial issue, with no official response from the Foreign Secretary, and I am yet to receive a reply to my letter from 11 December. Can the Leader of the House please grant time for an urgent update on this critical matter?

I have always said that I will try to achieve speedy replies for Members when they ask for them, and I will certainly take this up with the Foreign Secretary to get a response to the hon. Lady’s letter. The UK Government have been doing what they can in Yemen, both with funding and through diplomacy, to try to make a very, very difficult and sad situation better, but she is obviously right to try to seek further answers from the Foreign Office.

I very much welcome Government schemes such as the lifetime skills guarantee, which will help adults in Stoke-on-Trent to upskill and retrain, but does my right hon. Friend agree that it will be a challenge to encourage people to take up such opportunities? Will he therefore agree to a debate to highlight the benefits and help to encourage more people to take up such opportunities?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education will update on the House on the “Skills for Jobs” White Paper shortly after business questions. It is really important, and my hon. Friend is right, to highlight the fact that there will be new flexible training that will give people the higher level of skills they need for good jobs, through 12 to 16-week courses, including a fast-track to interview. From April 2021, we will be supporting any adult aged 24 and over who wants to achieve their first full level 3 qualification— equivalent to two A-levels or a technical certificate or diploma—to access nearly 400 fully-funded courses. Things are happening and my hon. Friend is right to highlight them, but I cannot promise him a debate.

This week we got the disturbing news that the UK currently has the highest covid death rate in the whole world. Does the Leader of the House not have a sense of shame about his Government’s handling of this crisis? Will he allow a debate on the lessons we can learn from those countries—including New Zealand, Vietnam and others—that have, unlike ours, effectively eliminated the virus by following a zero-covid strategy? Will the Leader of the House apologise for his Government’s role in this human catastrophe?

I am sorry to say that the hon. Gentleman is not helping matters. This is a global pandemic that has affected all countries. There has been a considerable spirit of co-operation between all parties in trying to tackle it, and trying to make party political points out of it is simply undignified.

The Leader of the House may not have heard of a Teesside delicacy known as the chicken parmo, and may ask what it is. Well, I will tell him: a chicken parmo is a flattened chicken breast, covered in breadcrumbs, deep fried, covered in bechamel sauce and cheddar cheese, and served with chips, garlic sauce and, of course, a salad. Surely the Leader will agree with me that such a local delight, enjoyed by many throughout Redcar and Cleveland, including me, should not fall victim to any proposed junk-food ad bans. May we have a debate in Government time on online advertising for local food outlets?

Until my hon. Friend added the garlic sauce and the salad, I thought it sounded really rather delicious, but I am afraid I shall have to stick to my deep-fried Mars bar, which is free of garlic, which I have always thought the most ghastly stuff. There is a balance to be achieved: on the one hand, we need to reduce obesity in this country, and we know from covid how serious the obesity problem is; on the other hand, people have to be free to eat what they like—we are not going to have wartime rationing, telling people how much butter they can eat in a week or things like that. The Government are analysing the responses to the recent consultation, to which I am sure many MPs will have contributed. Of course, nothing can be done without the decision being made in this House.

As the Leader of the House may be aware, I have been campaigning on the issue of fire and rehire since it arose with British Airways. We heard warm words then, and have done throughout the past months, from the Prime Minister and various Ministers, but there has been little action. Indeed, we hear that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is to review workers’ rights, and that existing protections are under threat. With strikes ongoing or potential action at British Gas, Heathrow airport, BA Cargo and Go North West buses, may we please have a statement from the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on fire and rehire and his wider intentions on workers’ rights?

The UK has a record on workers’ rights of which it can be enormously proud, and there is every intention to maintain high workers’ rights, which have been something to which the Conservatives have been committed throughout their history. It was, of course, Lord Shaftesbury who, when a Member of this House representing a Dorset constituency, pushed through the Factory Act 1847 to improve conditions in factories, so the Conservatives have always been doing such things and will continue to do.

On fire and rehire specifically, the Government have made it clear that businesses should not use it as a mechanism for cutting costs, but there are circumstances in which employment situations change in response to economic conditions.

Last week, I was appointed by the Prime Minister as the leader of the British delegation to the Council of Europe. My right hon. Friend’s predecessor as Leader of the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom), looked favourably on the idea of a regular debate to let people know what we are doing in the Council of Europe. May I push my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House a little on whether that idea finds favour with him?

Madam Deputy Speaker, I join you in congratulating my hon. Friend on becoming leader of the UK delegation to the Council of Europe, and helping in its important work promoting democracy. I look enormously favourably on a debate on the Council of Europe in Backbench Business time.

I am proud to have not one but three maintained nursery schools in my Stockport constituency. Hollywood Park, Lark Hill and Freshfield serve my constituency excellently, and families across our country benefit from our maintained nursery school system. However, research by the National Education Union reveals that there are only 389 such schools left in England, many of which are located in the most deprived areas of the country. Will the Leader of the House agree to hold a debate in Government time regarding maintained nursery schools and fair funding for them going forward?

It is always good to hear Members praising efficient organisations in their constituencies, and I hope that the three maintained nursery schools in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency will note what he has said. There is obviously a variety of nursery provision, but I will happily pass this matter on to the Secretary of State for Education.

This week is Cervical Cancer Prevention Week. As smear tests are the best protection against cervical cancer, the charity Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust is using this week to highlight with its #SmearForSmear campaign the importance of all women of all ages keeping up to date with their screening. Our outstanding NHS GPs and sexual health clinics remain open even during this pandemic, so will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust on its important campaign; urge women across the country to keep up to date with their cervical screening; and urge both men and women to keep up to date on their screening per se, and to ensure that they speak to their GP if they have any health concerns?

This has been a worrying time for women who have had to wait longer than expected for their screening appointment. As ever, if people are worried about cervical cancer or notice any unusual symptoms—be they men or women—they should contact their GP as soon as possible. The national guidance for cervical screening is clear that, as far as possible, these services should continue to be offered to anyone due for screening. I know that many are worried about whether it is safe to attend their screening appointment. Many precautionary measures have been put in place and everyone receiving an invitation for an appointment should attend. Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust has been doing very good work to help communicate that, and our own “Help Us, Help You” campaign has been running all winter.

The number of covid workplace outbreaks is higher this week than it has been during the whole pandemic. In a recent poll, only 49% of workers said that their employer has enabled social distancing, only 47% said that they have been provided with adequate PPE, and only 48% were certain that their employer has carried out a suitable risk assessment. Not a single employer has been prosecuted—not one. Can we have a debate in Government time to discuss the lack of employee protection from covid-19 in the workplace, before more working people die needlessly?

Ensuring that the workplace is covid secure is very important, and is a duty on employers—indeed, it is a legal responsibility. The Health and Safety Executive has powers to enforce, and local councils have certain powers of inspection. Companies have spent many millions of pounds to make their workplaces covid secure, and although nobody would say that this is perfect, I think that the work that has been done around our own workplace is a model for other employers.

Throughout the pandemic, rail use has been down. More significantly, it is widely projected to remain down. Yet, with increasing costs, destruction and disruption, High Speed 2 continues to be built. A new petition calling on this House to debate High Speed 2 in the light of the new circumstances reached over 100,000 signatures in just a few days. With Westminster Hall currently not operating, will my right hon. Friend provide time in this Chamber for that important debate?

I will try to answer the broader question on Petitions Committee debates. I did undertake to try to find time for Petitions Committee debates, and that is a commitment I take seriously. I am liaising with others to try to find a suitable slot for that, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this point.

The Leader of the House will recall that my last question to him was in relation to the naming of an MP’s office after two IRA terrorists. While I thank him for his subsequent letter, I would appreciate a meeting with him to discuss his suggested way forward.

On the subject of the victims of terrorism, we currently have the shameful situation of troubles victims right across the United Kingdom—and they are right across the UK—being told they cannot receive their troubles pensions payment because of a dispute about where the funding for this scheme will come from. Would the Leader of the House agree that such a dispute between the Government and the Northern Ireland Finance Minister, who might I add is someone who does glorify terrorism, is only adding to the pain of victims and that a compromise agreement is needed soon? Would he agree to a debate on a range of support given by the Government to victims of terrorism right across the United Kingdom?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising this issue. She does raise the most important and troubling points at business questions, and this one is of particular concern. It is absolutely essential that those promised troubles pensions receive the support to which they are entitled. This year is the centenary of Northern Ireland, and we must use it to celebrate it as an essential part of United Kingdom and to toast 100 years more—at least. It is only right that we try to resolve this issue and bring solace to the victims of terror. I will of course take this up with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I cannot promise a debate, although I think this is a subject very worthy of an Adjournment debate—not that it is for me to tell Mr Speaker how to set his Adjournment debate timetable.

This morning, many of my constituents are dealing with flooding from the Rivers Usk and Wye, and I send my sympathies to all those who have been flooded, some for the second time in a year. The condition of the River Wye is a source of great concern to me and an issue I have been closely involved in, along with my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman). Could the Leader of the House grant time for a debate to ensure that this issue is properly aired and, most importantly, for an action plan to be agreed? We have been talking about this issue long enough, and rather than going around in a circle of blame, residents and farmers in Brecon and Radnorshire want to see the health of the river restored urgently, and so do I.

My hon. Friend is right to raise this, and also to raise it with the bodies that are responsible for the maintenance of the river. I hope that they will see these exchanges to know how seriously Parliament takes these measures. I would reiterate, and my Friend knows very well, the amount of money that is being provided for flood support on protecting properties and to ensure that better flood defences are in place. However, there are responsible bodies, some of them independent from Government, and this may be exactly the sort of encouragement they need to know that they are being watched in the actions they take.

Right now, for people involved in catching, rearing, processing, wholesaling or shipping fish from the UK to the EU, these last three weeks have been an unmitigated disaster. I know the Leader of the House himself quipped recently that fish in UK waters are now “happier”, and he did so at a time when the rural economy in Angus and across Scotland was reeling from this unrelenting crisis caused by his Government. Would the Leader of House like to retract his ill-judged comments, and can we have a debate on the inadequacy of the £23 million compensation finally offered to the fishing sector, but also on that sector’s need for ongoing compensation to mitigate the new costs of exporting its goods to the EU?

The hon. Gentleman mentions the general rural economy, and there was an interview in one of the Scottish agricultural publications recently saying that things seem to be improving. The price of lamb is up and beef prices are doing well, too, so there are signs of positivity within the rural economy. I would also point out the £23 million fund to help fishermen, in addition to the £100 million to provide modernisation of fishing fleets and to help the fish processing industry. However, the basic principle remains the same: our fishing waters are coming back to us in stages, and that will help our fishing community because the resource that the fish provide to the fishermen will be ours, rather than being taken by other people. This will lead to a resurgence in fishing, and the Government are providing the cash support to help that happen.

The covid-19 pandemic has shown us why it is so important that we look after both our physical and mental health. To do that, we need a thriving health and fitness sector, and in Burnley and Padiham we have fantastic local businesses helping people to lead active, fit and healthier lifestyles. Businesses such as FX Fitness Experience run by Jamie and Josh help people not only get active but rehabilitate after injury. Will the Leader of the House join me in backing those businesses and facilitate a debate on how we can get them reopened and firing on all cylinders?

Madam Deputy Speaker, we have four minutes to go. We have done quite well today. May I congratulate you on keeping business questions on schedule, which is a rare achievement—almost a unique achievement?

My hon. Friend makes a good and important point. It is essential that we continue to look after both our mental and physical wellbeing, especially during the pandemic. This week, I was really delighted to attend a Blue Monday virtual drop-in, as did many other Members from various parties, organised extraordinarily well by the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist), who is a dedicated volunteer for the Samaritans. The Government have continued to support businesses through the pandemic. We are giving businesses forced to close by restrictions a one-off grant of up to £9,000, benefiting more than 600,000 businesses, and, as more businesses have been forced to close by the new national lockdown, more will also receive the monthly grants worth up to £3,000. Current restrictions are under constant review, and, provided that everyone plays his or her part and follows the rules and death rates fall, we are hopeful that we will be able to move out of lockdown steadily and businesses such as these will be able to open once again. The mental health issues are important and, dare I say it, it is not only Government who have a role to play; we all have a role to play in speaking to friends and family who we may think are lonely and need support. I know that, in my own case, I could be a lot better at it than I actually am.

I thank the Leader of the House. I will suspend the House for two minutes to enable the necessary arrangements for the next business to be made.

Sitting suspended.