House of Commons
Thursday 11 February 2021
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Orders, 4 June and 30 December 2020).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—
Office for Veterans’ Affairs: Government Support
The Prime Minister set up the Office for Veterans’ Affairs because he, like me, is determined to ensure that this country becomes the best place in the world to be a veteran. In addition to excellent officials, the OVA benefits from expert advice from the Government’s Veterans Advisory Board and the newly appointed veterans adviser.
Local Elections: Covid-19
With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will take the questions from my hon. Friend the Member for Blyth Valley (Ian Levy) and the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) together.
In 2019, I think we all took for granted the ability to run election campaigns that could properly engage with the electorate. Campaigning for this year’s elections on 6 May will look very different, but now more than ever, there is a need to engage with our constituents. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is vital that all those who stand for elections should be able to convey their messages to voters, and will he please elaborate on how he believes campaigning should go ahead in a covid-secure way?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: democracy should not be cancelled because of covid-19. The polls that are scheduled for May will go ahead, and it is important that he and others communicate with his constituents. Of course, social media provides one means of doing so. At the moment, door-to-door campaigning and leafleting are not allowed because of covid restrictions, but we will be reviewing how we can make sure that he and others can keep faith with the constituents who elected him so memorably just over a year ago.
The public will be expecting covid-safe and fair elections in May. Presently, households are receiving flyers for pizzas and takeaways delivered by individuals, but volunteers are not supposed to be delivering leaflets for political parties, although some are clearly ignoring that. In local elections, the public need representatives who will speak up for them and not for property developers such as the six leading Tory donors that have given £4.5 million, an increase of 400%, since July 2019. Does the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster agree that if only paid-for leafleting were allowed, that would be a disastrous disservice to our democracy?
The hon. Gentleman makes a series of important points. It is quite right that some political activists have been leafleting on the ground in a way that current rules do not allow for, and we deprecate that across the House. His broader point is right as well, of course; we must make sure that our democratic processes are free from any taint of interference. He is also right that the role of property developers needs to be scrutinised when we are looking at how we clean up our politics, and I know that he will be as eager as I am to make sure that Unite the union does so as well.
The advice that came from the Government this week on local elections was welcome; however, the most innovative idea appeared to be to bring your own pencil to the polls, so I would like to ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster two specific questions.
The first is on the use of schools as polling stations. Many schools are having to use school halls for teaching, which would not normally have to happen. What support will the Government give local registration officers to find appropriate venues with appropriate ventilation?
The second question is on the issue of elections falling into different areas of the tiering system, which may well be in place by May. Might there be an unfair political advantage to one candidate if the restrictions were lesser in one area than another?
The hon. Lady raises two important questions. The first is with respect to schools. The Minister for School Standards, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Nick Gibb), will be writing to local authorities and schools today, alongside Ministers in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, to outline how schools can be used in a safe and appropriate way, but we are also making funding available to local authorities so that alternative venues other than schools can be used where appropriate.
The hon. Lady’s second point, relating to unfairness as a result of different restrictions perhaps occurring in different local government areas, is an important one, and one that we are taking into account as we plan for these local elections.
Government Contracts: Small Businesses
The UK spends £290 billion on public procurement each year. Now that we have left the EU transition period, we aim to make it simpler, quicker and cheaper for small and medium-sized enterprises and social enterprises to bid for Government contracts, as set out in our ambitious procurement Green Paper. We have already introduced a policy that will allow below-threshold contracts to be reserved for smaller UK suppliers, and we hope our new approach to social value will secure wider public benefit by allowing us to contract with firms that deliver more apprenticeships, local growth opportunities and environmental benefits.
I know that my hon. Friend will agree that our small and medium-sized businesses are the bedrock of our economy. I am sure that she will also agree that giving them the opportunity to bid for Government contracts will give them a significant boost and help them recover from what has been a very tough year. Will she lay out exactly how the Government will be promoting this opportunity to SMEs, so that businesses in Basildon and Thurrock can start to bid immediately?
I agree with my hon. Friend that the opportunities in this space are huge, and we think that our reforms will play a huge role in our post-covid recovery. For too long, complex and opaque procurement rules have benefited bigger and less innovative firms. Our reforms will simplify the current framework of over 350 regulations into one uniform set of rules, and move from seven procurement procedures to three. Our free-to-use digital platform, Contracts Finder, should make it easier for businesses in his constituency to find relevant opportunities. We want to make supply registration far simpler, so that data has to be submitted only once to qualify for any public sector procurement.
Small businesses in my constituency would like the opportunity to bid for more Government and council contracts, but the current procurement rules are too complex and inevitably favour big firms. Can my hon. Friend assure me that we will be using our new freedom from EU procurement rules to deliver more commercial opportunities to innovative, dynamic SMEs in Penistone and Stocksbridge?
Absolutely. I know that my hon. Friend, as someone who has run a business herself, understands the bureaucratic frustrations that too many of her constituency businesses come up against. We want public buyers to divide contracts into more accessible lots and allow them to reserve contracts under a certain threshold for small, innovative firms. We are also pushing ambitious targets on prompt payment, and we aim to simplify the bidding process so that it does not favour big firms, which inevitably have greater resources to devote to form-filling and box-ticking.
I welcome the recent Green Paper setting out the freedoms that the UK now enjoys to create a new framework for public procurement, including a new exceptional power for public bodies to commission for wider public benefit. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to go further and make this exception the norm, ensuring more joined-up services and better overall outcomes for the public? Otherwise, we will be getting only half the Brexit dividend that we could in the field of procurement, with freedoms but not the actual implementation.
My hon. Friend is quite right. Our proposed procurement reforms will not in themselves deliver change unless commercial teams across the public sector actually understand how to deploy them to greatest effect. That is why we are introducing a programme of training for contracting authorities. On the matter of wider public benefit, I refer him to our social value model. We do not want to award only to those that make the cheapest bid; we also want to award to firms that offer value for money in a much broader sense, including to the community in which the service is being delivered. I know that is something he cares very passionately about, given his thoughtful review on a new social covenant.
I so welcome all that my hon. Friend has said on this. I am mustard-keen to see Government contracts open up and work for businesses and charities in Eastbourne. The latest feedback from one of my manufacturers, which has just ventured into this arena with a bid to the Ministry of Defence, highlights the absence of a published timeline on decision making for the contract, which the manufacturer says is essential information to allow it to plan for success, build capacity and ensure that it delivers for all its customers. Will she look at this situation, to ensure that the whole process is as transparent and as small business-friendly as possible?
I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting this; she raises an important point. I am happy to look into the specifics of the case and take it up with officials, or she might want to look at the public procurement review service. All Departments, including the MOD, are actively supporting the SME agenda, and one of the ways we hope to encourage more bids from SMEs is by publishing contract pipelines well in advance, so that they have much more time to plan and resource bids, and shorten the time in which contracting bodies make decisions.
Trade: UK and EU
Our trade and co-operation agreement with the EU is the first free trade agreement that the EU has ever reached based on zero tariffs and zero quotas. The agreement will help unlock investment and protect high-value jobs right across the UK. We will now take full advantage of the opportunities created by this deal, helping to boost productivity, unlock investment and safeguard high-value jobs in the UK. Goods are flowing freely through our ports, with levels of freight around what we would expect for this time of year, but we are also working closely with businesses that are facing challenges, and we are in regular operational contact with EU countries in order to smooth trade.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer, and I know he is doing all he can to reduce the turbulence, but Grimsby fish exporters are reporting to me that despite the EU agreement on free trade, French ports are introducing additional paperwork and extra costs. They are even insisting that we hire EU nationals to do that additional work. Will he take this matter up, so that we can ensure that the people of the EU continue to enjoy the highest quality seafood in Europe, processed in Great Grimsby?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The highest-quality seafood in the whole of Europe is produced in Great Grimsby. Indeed, I remember my dad, when he ran a fish processing business, sending some of the fish that he bought at Aberdeen fish market to Grimsby for processing, and it was enjoyed on tables across Europe. She is absolutely right to say that there are still some bureaucratic obstacles that we need to negotiate and navigate. We have set up a specific seafoods export working group, which meets twice weekly, and we are engaging with our friends in France in order to ensure that we can continue to enjoy Great Grimsby fish.
Two exporters in Kings Lynn, Guy Raymond Engineering and Captain Fawcett, a gentleman’s grooming firm, have raised concerns about waiting up to 16 hours for HMRC transit documentation, delays in customs clearance in France and other countries as they interpret the rules differently, and each courier firm demanding different informational declarations. This is delaying the delivery of their products, so will my right hon. Friend take up these issues with courier firms, HMRC and our EU partners so that goods can continue to flow to customers?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that in order to ensure that we have a seamless flow of trade, each individual element in that chain needs to be working as effectively as possible, so we are working with courier companies to ensure that we can smooth any difficulties, HMRC is looking at easements and facilitations, and of course we are talking to our EU friends and neighbours to ensure that there is a consistent approach.
Under the terms of the EU-UK trade deal, there is a requirement to set up a sanitary and phytosanitary trade committee as well as a committee on fishing. When will those committees be set up? If the EU does not adhere to the rules and the agreements that were made, will we restrict the licence given to any European fishing vessels in our waters?
My hon. Friend is a formidable advocate for the seafood sector; one of the largest fishing ports in England is in his constituency. He is absolutely right to say that there are means and mechanisms by which we and the EU can work together to smooth the export of high-quality seafood. There have been difficulties and challenges, but we are overcoming them and it is also important that we reserve our own rights when it comes to ensuring that the EU lives up to its side of the bargain.
Less than an hour ago, my office received a call from a haulier in my constituency who has been sending animal-based products to the continent for 40 years. The vet-checked lorry, which had its seal on, was held up at the Calais compound for 11 hours, even though it was on its way to Germany. It was eventually passed with just a cursory glance. In his meetings with his EU counterparts later today, will my right hon. Friend raise such issues and stress to them that it is not acceptable, and certainly not necessary, to do that?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Exporters have gone to great lengths to ensure that the products of animal origin that they are exporting meet the SPS requirements that are in place, and delays of the kind he mentions are unacceptable, so I will investigate that case.
Fishing exporters in my constituency are having problems exporting to the EU. We signed a deal that said we could export to the EU. What action is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that these exports happen without hindrance, and will he start boarding EU vessels in retaliation if we still see this obstructive action on the part of the European Union?
My hon. Friend has been one of the doughtiest defenders of the fishing sector in this House for a few years now, and she is absolutely right to say that we need to ensure that any bureaucratic obstructions that individual EU member states may still be applying are lifted. As I mentioned in response to our hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall), we will reserve our right as an independent coastal state to do whatever is required to ensure that our fishermen are backed up every step of the way.
The House of Commons Library described the EU trade and co-operation agreement by saying, as the Minister has:
“There will be no tariffs or quotas…provided rules of origin are met.”
However, it went on to say:
“There are increased non-tariff barriers, but measures on customs and trade facilitation to ease these.”
Given that 60% of companies have had difficulties importing from or exporting to the EU, and that 30% or more of companies have had their supply chain impacted in both directions, when will the measures to ease the problems at the borders begin to work?
First, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his appointment to his new role in the recent Scottish National party Westminster reshuffle, and look forward to working with him across the Dispatch Box. He is right to say that a number of facilitations and easements have been put in place, some before the end of the transition period on 31 December, but we are providing more support, particularly for small and medium-sized enterprises in order to enable them to take full advantage of their new opportunities.
I am struggling to see the advantages and new opportunities. A firm in my constituency, Wilde Mode Ltd, imports, among other things, rolls of printed fabric from Poland. Before Brexit, the cost of delivery was less than €40, but because courier and other companies are no longer shipping to the UK the owners of that company are now being quoted €2,000 for the same delivery. As the Minister will know, that is completely unsustainable. So I ask again: when will the measures to ease these problems be put in place fully and actually start to work?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the case of the firm in his constituency and will look specifically at that firm’s challenges, and the position of both the firm in Poland that supplies all those fabrics and the courier he mentions, in order to make sure that any interruption in the free flow of produce from Poland to Dundee is dealt with.
A Make UK survey shows that 61% of manufacturers are suffering disruption to their supply chain; one car company is parking hundreds of cars because of problems with its supply chain; road haulage in Northern Ireland is in chaos; the Road Haulage Association survey shows that more than one in two of its members throughout the UK are swamped by red tape; and Government officials are even advising companies to set up hubs on the continent, when we should be building British and buying British. What will the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster do finally to ease such burdens on business on our great British companies, which are deeply damaging, at the worst possible time?
I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman on the need to build British and buy British. The procurement Green Paper that the Cabinet Office Minister Lord Agnew produced enables us to do just that. The hon. Gentleman mentioned a number of examples of disruption. There have been some challenges, but there have also been some reports, including, I regret to say, in The Observer, that have not been wholly accurate in their depiction of the challenges our exporters face.
Does the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster begin to recognise the scale of the mountainous problems confronting British business? The Government left them with one week between Christmas eve and 1 January to adapt to new rules running to hundreds of pages. Then, when companies all across the UK raised their concerns, the Prime Minister dismissed them as “teething problems”. Will the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster take this opportunity to apologise to British business for the disruption the Government have inflicted on them?
I know the hon. Gentleman has dedicated his life, both before he came into this House and in this House, to supporting British manufacturing, so I take seriously the concerns he raises. We meet business representative organisations every week through the Brexit business taskforce in order to deal with any challenges and to explore additional opportunities. I should have welcomed him to his new role in the shadow Cabinet Office team. I look forward to working with him, because I know that he is dedicated to making sure that British manufacturers, the best in the world, have all the opportunities they need. I hope to work pragmatically with him to achieve just that.
Transparency in Government Contracts: Covid-19
The Government already have robust processes in place for spending public money fairly and achieving value for money for the taxpayer. We recently published detailed proposals for new and improved procurement rules in the Green Paper that I mentioned earlier, and these proposals include specific measures to strengthen transparency through the commercial lifecycle, from planning through to procurement, contract award, performance and completion.
Last week, the Government’s own legal representatives admitted that they had breached procurement law by persistently failing to publish details of covid-19 contracts. The Good Law Project could also expose the wholesale failure to comply with obligations of transparency, and questions remain over the £500 million-worth of taxpayers’ money spent on personal protective equipment deals with companies that are Tory donors. Does the Minister agree that this is reflective of the Government’s failed response to the pandemic and that this lack of accountability has completely damaged confidence and trust in the Government?
I do not quite agree with that. It is fair to say that we do need to be vigilant when it comes to the use of public money and the awarding of contracts, but it is the case that, if we look at, for example, personal protective equipment and other goods that were sourced during the course of the covid pandemic, 99.5% of the goods that were sourced were operational and effective. We were also procuring at speed. There were suggestions from across the House as to some of the companies that we should have contracts with. Not all of those suggestions were necessarily absolutely spot on, but what we did do was to ensure that we prioritised those companies that were capable of meeting the needs of the hour.
The Institute for Government last week highlighted that 99% of the Government’s covid contracts had not gone out to tender. Does the Minister agree that this cannot continue and only leads to suspicion about the nature of the awards and who is getting them? Will he tell the House when the Government intend to wind down the extensive use of these extraordinary procurement powers? Can he give a date?
Again, let me welcome a new member to the shadow Cabinet Office team, and I look forward to working with the hon. Lady and congratulate her on her promotion. It is the case, of course, that we want best practice to apply in all procurement, and the recent Boardman report that the Cabinet Office commissioned emphasises some changes that we can make in order to ensure even greater effectiveness and transparency. At the beginning of the covid pandemic, when there was a global demand for personal protective equipment, we used perfectly legitimate, well-understood expedited practices. There were, as I mentioned earlier, a number of suggestions from across the House, including from Labour MPs, of companies and firms that could help. It was important that we looked at those with speed and expedition in order to ensure that those who were capable, as many were, of providing us with the equipment that we needed were able to get that equipment on to the NHS frontline as quickly as possible.
The Government are committed to delivering our bold agenda of electoral reform to strengthen our democracy and protect public trust and confidence in our elections. As outlined in our 2019 manifesto, the Government will introduce measures requiring identification to vote at polling stations and to stop postal vote harvesting.
The Minister will be aware that, during the previous election and, indeed, during the 2017 election, there was considerable concern about students potentially voting in more than one location. Is there more that my right hon. Friend can do to ensure that we prevent this from happening? Rather than just relying on retrospective prosecutions, can we look at improving the registration process to stop people registering to vote or potentially trying to vote in more than one location at a general election?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. My colleague, the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution, is looking at exactly how we can ensure that we have effective voter registration so that either confusion or, indeed, an outright attempt to subvert the integrity of the poll can be dealt with, and we will be bringing forward more detail in due course.
Strength of the Union
The Government are committed to protecting and promoting the combined strengths of our Union, building on 300 years of successful partnership. It is vital that we continue to work across the United Kingdom on common challenges that we all face, such as the roll-out of the covid-19 vaccination programme. We also need together to focus on issues such as protecting jobs and supporting our NHS.
As the MP for a border region, I am acutely aware of the importance of our great Union, physically, economically and historically. I welcome the Government’s plans to establish 10 free ports across the United Kingdom—a move that will help to secure thousands of jobs and regenerate communities. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the exciting Cumbria free port multi-centre proposal, involving Carlisle airport, Barrow and Workington, with its specific strengths in Union connectivity and clean energy, would help to propel our region’s economic recovery and play a key role in the Government’s levelling-up agenda by attracting investment and jobs to our region?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Carlisle, Barrow and Workington working together can ensure not just that Cumbria and the north-west of England benefits, but that the borders region as a whole benefits. The support that this Government have given to the borderlands growth deal is an example of the way in which the interrelations between Carlisle, Dumfries, Hawick and other significant parts of this United Kingdom mean that we are stronger together.
Dunlop Review: Publication
It is our ambition to publish Lord Dunlop’s review of Union capability as soon as possible. Of course, it is vital that we progress the joint review of intergovernmental relations as part of that.
I thank the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster for that answer. I look forward to the publication of the promotion of Union capabilities. The Chancellor boasts of his Unionist credentials. Indeed, he even boasted once in my local paper that he could sing “The Sash”. Today he has a chance to protect the Union in his meeting with Maroš Šefčovič. Will he make it clear that the protocol is causing societal and economic damage to the Union, and will he press on with the alternative arrangements that he previously supported and was signed up to?
The hon. Gentleman is right; I do have a formidable singing repertoire. I can also sing “The Fields of Athenry” and “Flower of Scotland”, not to mention “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, although the last of those songs was perhaps sung with a little less fervour last Saturday than is normally the case. I am a convinced Unionist. I do believe in the strength of the United Kingdom—all of us working together. I look forward to working with him and all representatives from Northern Ireland to ensure that our United Kingdom can flourish in the future.
Touring Musicians: Reciprocal Visa-free Travel
The Government proposed to the EU that musicians and their technical staff be added to the list of permitted activities for short-term business visitors in the “entry and temporary stay” chapter of the trade and co-operation agreement. That would have allowed musicians and their staff to travel and perform in the EU more easily without needing work permits. The proposals were developed following consultation with the EU’s creative industries, but were rejected by the EU.
The UK’s music industry is worth £5.8 billion annually and supports 200,000 jobs, so for a Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Minister to suggest recently that a touring visa was not compatible with Brexit goals has caused huge anger and frustration to many of my constituents who work in the sector and are seeing no benefits of Brexit, only additional costs and red tape. What is the Minister doing to secure reciprocal visa-free travel for those in our creative industries whose careers and jobs depend on it?
We continue to work with the EU Commission and member states to ensure that we can have the kind of opportunities that the hon. Lady describes. In the meantime, we do want to support the sector, which is why the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has set up the £1.57 billion cultural recovery fund, which is currently supporting 75,000 jobs.
Radiohead have called this Government “spineless”. Whether it is Elton John, Ronan Keating or Brian Cox, there is a continuing all-star line-up of some of our biggest exports who are emphasising the importance of touring for musicians at all stages of their careers. How does the Minister feel about the prospect of major acts deciding that they need base themselves abroad because our parochial laws do not allow the movement needed to compete on the global stage?
It is not about our parochial laws. During the negotiations, the EU tabled text regarding paid activities that can be conducted without a visa. Those proposals would not have addressed our arts sector’s concerns; they did not deal with work permits at all and would not have allowed support staff to tour with artists. The only way we are going to get movement on this issue is to get the EU to agree to our very reasonable proposals. I urge everyone, whether they are politicians or from the cultural sector, to work with us to persuade our counterparts of our common-sense approach.
Brexit chaos is not just impacting bands and orchestras in the music industry. Given prohibitive new Brexit visa costs, they will need to begin hiring crew and equipment from European suppliers. What hope does the Minister offer those who face losing work because of Brexit?
We are, through DCMS, providing support to the sector. We want to get these issues resolved, but in the meantime we want to do all we can to support businesses and artists, whether they have been impacted because of travel restrictions or the pandemic. That is why DCMS has set up a new forum to work with the sector, to listen to its needs and to act on them, and obviously the Scottish Government are part of that.
This Government are committed to enhancing inclusivity in our democracy. We provide funding to a number of initiatives and organisations to encourage younger people, including the National Citizen Service, the UK Youth Parliament, and the British Council. Online registration makes it easier than ever to register to vote. We are also leading a programme of work to ensure that our elections are more accessible for people living with disabilities.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. We should do everything we can to ensure that people living with disabilities, including those with visual impairment, can be fully included in the democratic process, and we will be coming back shortly with thoughts about the RNIB’s helpful proposals.
Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people already experience low levels of democratic engagement, and racism, hostility and discrimination. With many lacking ID, the Government’s voter ID plans are set to systematically exclude GRT people. Instead of working to break down barriers and improve accessibility, why are Ministers putting their energy into creating barriers to voting for the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people?
Trade: Great Britain and Northern Ireland
Following my conversation with Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič last week, we have continued to work intensively to find solutions to outstanding issues that have to be addressed through the Joint Committee. I have taken forward our continued engagement in that constructive spirit, and I look forward to speaking to Vice-President Šefčovič later today.
The Minister will know that Manufacturing Northern Ireland has warned that the biggest challenge facing the Northern Ireland protocol is the lack of business preparedness in Great Britain. This is important for businesses on both sides of the Irish sea, and of course for hauliers in Wales and across the United Kingdom. Why has his Prime Minister—the Prime Minister for the Union—spent a year telling us that there will be no checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland when we can all see that that is simply not the case?
The protocol that was negotiated as part of the withdrawal agreement is there to ensure unfettered access for goods from Northern Ireland to Great Britain, but it also ensures that we can play our part generously in supporting the maintenance of the EU single market by making sure that there are processes. Those processes should be as light-touch as possible, and that is the aim of the conversations I am having with Vice-President Šefčovič and others.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster will be very conscious of the tensions that are building in Northern Ireland and the need for some sort of creative solution. Does he recognise that the absence of a sanitary and phytosanitary or veterinary agreement with the EU makes the scale of the problems faced across the Irish sea much bigger than it needs to be? As such, will the Government consider going to the European Union to try to negotiate such an agreement over the coming months? That would go a long way to defusing many of the tensions and problems currently being faced.
The hon. Gentleman is right: there are a number of different ways in which these problems can be more effectively resolved. Thoughtful contributions from the Alliance party and others are very welcome. We want to look at a range of pragmatic solutions, and I am grateful to him and his colleagues for putting forward a potential way forward in a constructive spirit. There is no single right way forward, but, as I say, I am grateful to him and his colleagues for their constructive approach.
Government Procurement Policy
The end of the transition period provides an historic opportunity to overhaul our dated public procurement regime. We undertook an extensive programme of stakeholder engagement to identify where improvements could be made, and the recently published Green Paper sets out those long-planned proposals. The changes put value for money and transparency at the heart of the new approach and will cut red tape and unleash wider social benefits from public money spent on procurement.
Private providers of public services are excluded from freedom of information requests, which means that, for example, Serco does not have to reveal the 29 different businesses to which it has outsourced contracts. Does the Minister support the expansion of the Freedom of Information Act to the private providers of public services, or does she think that it is okay that that information should be kept hidden from the public eye?
Serco is an approved supplier on the Crown Commercial Service contract centre framework and gained a place on that through fair and open competition, but I accept what the hon. Lady says about freedom of information requests and I am happy to look into that further for her.
Civil Service Apprenticeships
The civil service will launch its new apprenticeship strategy next year. The first phase will have delivered 30,000 apprenticeships by next April, but going forward I want to focus not just on numbers, but on the quality of training on offer, so that Departments get much better at growing their own talent and plugging skills gaps. To that end, we recently published the curriculum and campus for Government skills, with the goal of setting the highest standard in vocational training for all civil servants, including apprentices.
As it is National Apprenticeship Week, will she please explain to the House what is being done to make the civil service apprenticeship scheme accessible to all, including my constituents in Meriden, who she will find are some of the most talented and hard-working in the whole country?
I commend my hon. Friend on his promotion of his constituents. I have spoken previously about our ambitions to move more and more civil service roles, including apprenticeships, out of London and to the regions. That programme is moving apace, but we have already created 1,911 apprenticeships in the west midlands over the past five years. I encourage the good people of Meriden to apply for some of the live vacancies that are on offer right now. We have also got a new relationship with the Birmingham local enterprise partnership that works with schools and colleges across the west midlands to help talented, dynamic people to understand just what an exciting and fulfilling career they could have in the civil service.
Regional Economic Growth: Covid-19
This Government are committed to boosting prospects for all communities, so that everybody gets the same access to opportunities in life. During the covid-19 pandemic, the Government have protected more than 37,000 jobs in Wolverhampton alone through the coronavirus job retention scheme. The spending review also announced longer-term investments to help level up the UK, including £5 billion to support UK gigabit broadband roll-out and £4.2 billion for intra-city transport settlements.
There is no one championing economic recovery more in the west midlands than Andy Street, and it is a pleasure to work with him in Wolverhampton. Will my right hon. Friend provide the great residents of Wolverhampton with an update on the potential move by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to our great city, and will the Department seriously consider looking at the possibility of the i9 as an office location to start with?
I thank my hon. Friend for his championing of Wolverhampton, alongside Andy Street’s for the west midlands. With Cannock Chase being not that far from Wolverhampton, I can understand his enthusiasm for that great becoming home for the MHCLG. Our Places for Growth programme is working with Departments to finalise relocation plans, as we work to ensure that our geographical locations cover as representative a distribution across the UK as possible, including the west midlands, and further details will be provided shortly.
The nature of our new relationship with the EU outside the single market means that there are practical and procedural changes to which businesses and citizens must adjust. I can announce today that the Government are launching a £20 million SME Brexit support fund to help small businesses adjust to new customs rules of origin and VAT rules when trading with the EU.
The institutional framework within the UK-EU trade and co-operation agreement provides the UK with an opportunity to rebuild its relationship with the EU, including through a civil society forum. Can the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster say what progress has been made on establishing the civil society forum and when he expects it to meet? Will he commit today to a significant majority of participants coming from charities, social enterprises and trade unions, in the light of the central role they play in our society?
The hon. Lady is right that the civil society forum is one of a number of ways in which the UK and the EU can work together in the interests of all. She makes a very important point about the importance of involving not just the third sector but trade union participants in that work, which gives me an opportunity to thank the millions of trade unionists across the country who have contributed so much to our response to the pandemic.
My hon. Friend and constituency neighbour is absolutely right. There are some specific issues that relate to our departure from the European Union that can be resolved in the next few weeks and months, as we adjust to a new situation, and they are a consequence of change. There are other aspects of our relationship that are a new normal, and the £20 million we have announced today is a way of ensuring that small and medium-sized enterprises can be fully equipped for those challenges and also for all the opportunities that our departure from the EU brings.
Earlier this week, the Public Accounts Committee revealed that the Government’s secretive VIP procurement fast lane had dished out contracts worth £1.7 billion, yet on 18 November, the Paymaster General claimed in the House that there was “no such thing” as a high priority lane. Given the scale of public money, concerns from the National Audit Office and apparent confusion at the Cabinet Office, when will the Government publish the names of businesses awarded contracts through this fast lane and, crucially, how they got on it?
The Cabinet Office and, indeed, the whole of Government moved as quickly as we could to ensure that those on the frontline received the equipment that they needed. Indeed, the hon. Lady was one of a number of Members of Parliament who wrote to me outlining firms that could play a role in this. Every single firm that was recommended to either the Cabinet Office or the Department of Health and Social Care went through a rigorous policy to ensure that they were capable of providing the equipment required. As a result of going through that rigorous policy, we were able to ensure that those on the frontline got the equipment that they needed.
Everybody understands the need for speed in a pandemic, but so many contracts delivered personal protective equipment that could not even be used by those on the frontline, and the National Audit Office has said that taxpayers paid over the odds. Those who are able to get on this VIP fast lane are 10 times more likely to be awarded a contract, leading to PestFix and the Health Secretary’s pub landlord getting contracts. If it is honestly about what you know rather than who you know, can I ask again when the Government will publish details of who was on the VIP fast lane and how they got there?
The first thing to say is that, as the hon. Lady knows, more than 99% of the goods that were supplied were capable of being used in the NHS and, as she also knows, the National Audit Office reference to paying “over the odds” reflected the fact that, in a global pandemic, when demand was dramatically outstripping supply, prices rose for every nation—every developed nation. That is one of the reasons why the Government asked Lord Deighton to ensure that we could have domestic PPE capacity, and his amazing work has contributed to making sure that our economy overall has become more resilient. Of course it is the case that, whether or not a recommendation was made for a contract from a Member of Parliament such as the hon. Lady or anyone else, every contract had to go through the same appropriate process of due diligence, and it is of course the case that every contract will be published and is being published by the Government so that there can be appropriate scrutiny of value for money.
My hon. Friend raises a very important point, and my hon. Friend the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution has been working with local authorities, returning officers and others to ensure that we can have counting carried out in a safe way. That will mean the results of elections will be a little bit later than we might normally have expected, but it is more important to be safe than sorry in these circumstances.
I welcome the constructive approach taken, as ever, by the hon. Member, and we will look at his proposals. It is already the case that we are revising the way in which proxy voting can work in order to help those who may be suffering as a result of the pandemic, but I will look at the proposals that he has put forward, which do seem to be in the spirit of greater democratic inclusion and engagement.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. We want to promote democratic inclusivity, but we also want to protect the integrity of the voting system. It is important, when we have elections being carried out in the circumstances that we will face this May, that we make sure that both requirements are met. Again, my hon. Friend the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution is working with local authorities to ensure just that.
The hon. Lady makes an important point. Our NHS has been working to ensure that our vaccination centres are safe and accessible, and the Government have overall been seeking to communicate to every group the importance of securing a vaccination as early as possible. We will continue to work with fantastic organisations such as Scope to ensure that the needs of everyone living with a disability are effectively met.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Without taking anything away from the current Mayor of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, I would have to say that the Conservative candidate would be even better in that important role and, I think, more accurately represent the changing complexion of the north-west, where, thanks to effective constituency champions such as my hon. Friend, people are recognising that Conservative representation in our great cities is the best way of getting Britain moving.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue. His Scottish nationalist party colleague, Fiona Hyslop, who is the Minister in the Scottish Government, is working with the UK Government to ensure that we do everything we can to support the seafood sector across Scotland and, indeed, across the United Kingdom. But I cannot help but observe that if the Scottish nationalist party had its way, we would be back in the common fisheries policy and we would not be able to take control of our waters in the way that we want to.
The hon. Member makes an important point. It is vital we ensure that we can have travel for citizens across the common travel area with their pets, and we have been working with the European Union and indeed the Irish Government to ensure that that continues. I hope to be able to update the House on progress in the coming days.
My hon. Friend makes an impressive pitch for the east midlands, which we know is the commercial heart of the United Kingdom and so a very appropriate location for a free port. The ultimate decision of course rests with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but I am sure he will pay close attention to the case that my hon. Friend and her colleagues make.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the case of not just his constituent but all those who were affected by this issue. He has been a very effective campaigner on behalf of the victims, and a statement will be made in the House shortly on the Government’s response. Again, I thank him and other colleagues who have been so effective in making sure that we do not forget the victims of this affair.
My right hon. Friend accurately reflects the sentiments and feelings of many in the House and beyond. It is vital that we work constructively to ensure that the people of Northern Ireland recognise that the United Kingdom Government will stand up in every forum and in every way for their rights as integral members of this great nation.
Business of the House
The business for the week commencing 22 February will include:
Monday 22 February—General debate on covid-19.
Tuesday 23 February—Opposition day (17th allotted day). There will be a debate on a motion in the name of the official Opposition. Subject to be announced.
Wednesday 24 February—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Fire Safety Bill, followed by consideration of Lords message to the Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Telecommunications Infrastructure (Leasehold Property) Bill.
Thursday 25 February—General debate on the proposal for a national education route map for schools and colleges in response to the covid-19 outbreak, followed by general debate on Welsh affairs. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 26 February—The House will not be sitting.
The provisional business for the week commencing 1 March will include:
Monday 1 March—Motion to approve the draft Electricity Supplier Payments (Amendment) Regulations 2021, followed by a motion to approve the draft International Waste Shipments (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2021, followed by a motion to approve the draft Electronic Commerce Directive (Education, Adoption and Children) (Amendment etc.) Regulations 2021, followed by a motion to approve the draft Automatic Enrolment (Earnings Trigger and Qualifying Earnings Band) Order 2021, followed by a motion to approve the draft Major Sporting Events (Income Tax Exemption) Regulations 2021.
Tuesday 2 March—Motion to approve the draft Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers’ Compensation) (Payment of Claims) (Amendment) Regulations 2021 and the draft Mesothelioma Lump Sum Payments (Conditions And Amounts) (Amendment) Regulations 2021, followed by a general debate on covid-19 and the cultural and entertainment sectors.
Wednesday 3 March—My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will deliver his Budget statement.
Thursday 4 March—Continuation of the Budget debate.
Friday 5 March—The House will not be sitting.
Right hon. and hon. Members may also wish to know that, subject to the progress of business, the House will rise for the Easter recess at the conclusion of business on Thursday 25 March and return on Tuesday 13 April.
I thank the Leader of the House for the business and for the recess dates, which I think I had not known previously. He did not mention Westminster Hall and the important debates listed there. I know the Chair of the Petitions Committee has quite a few petitions, and we will later hear the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee say that he too has a number of debates. I pay tribute to Matthew Hamlyn and his team for saying to the Procedure Committee that they are ready to go as soon as the Leader of the House brings forward the motion, so may we have a motion on 22 February to enable the House to return to Westminster Hall on 8 March? This is the only way for the House to return to Westminster Hall safely. It is quite interesting that we have a Government stuffed full of journalists, yet they want to gag Members of Parliament and our constituents.
If the Leader of the House cannot do that, will he please find time for the Petitions Committee debates, including one arising from a petition signed by over 100,000 of our constituents, about Indian farmers, whose families have taken part in a peaceful and dignified protest to protect their livelihoods? Satyagraha is the Gandhian peaceful protest that is in the Indian DNA, but we have seen scenes of terrible violence against those who are protecting their livelihoods. I have had no response to my letter to the Foreign Secretary yet.
Last week, I raised figures showing that three quarters of applications for the £500 test and trace support payment have been rejected, and it is not clear why. On Tuesday, a report that was to go to the Department of Health and Social Care entered the public domain; it suggested that areas with stubbornly high rates of covid had more test and trace support payments rejected than were successful. It also cited factors including socioeconomic deprivation and multigenerational occupation—structural reasons why areas of enduring high transmission persist. Those areas also have higher proportions of black, Asian and minority ethnic and young people. I know the Government prefer to spend £1.9 billion on their friends with links to the Conservative party—oh, there goes another one: the Health Secretary gave a £14.4 million contract to his friend yesterday—but please will the Leader of the House raise the point in Cabinet that when people are asked to self-isolate, they should be given the support as of right?
The Equalities Minister was wrong when she said there is no evidence to suggest structural or institutional racism. That contradicts the report in The Lancet on 12 November. She said yesterday that her next report will be published in two weeks’ time—that is still late—but could we have a statement telling us what recommendations in the first report were implemented, and a statement on the second report as well?
Hon. Members will know that this is the year of the ox and cow. An unelected body set up by the Secretary of State, the Trade and Agriculture Commission, said it would produce its report in six months. It started on 28 July and six months takes us to 28 January, so that report is late as well. When can we have that report published, and could we have a statement in the House? The Government can add fish to the Trade and Agricultural Commission report, too; that would be very helpful.
My constituent Andy Brown, a support officer for the Black Country Multiple Sclerosis Society, has said he is alarmed that benefits payments are to be made to bank accounts, rather than to Post Office accounts. Age UK says that 4 million over-65s have never used the internet. May we have a statement on the evidence behind that policy? The Government say they want to protect the high street, but they are actually stopping people going to the high street and using their post offices.
I thank you, Mr Speaker, and the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) for the urgent question on Yemen, but there was no update on Luke Symons. Richard and Gabriella are waiting for Nazanin, and Sherry, Elika and Arriane are waiting for Anoosheh, both of whom who are held in Iran. The UK has the presidency of the United Nations Security Council this month, and President Biden has issued a raft of sanctions against Burma as a result of the coup. Will the Leader of the House ensure that we use the presidency properly to ensure that a Government democratically elected in what the Carter Center said were free and fair elections is restored in a proper way?
It is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, and we pay tribute to all those women and girls who take science subjects. Mr Speaker, I think your daughter is a science teacher. We thank them all for their hard work and remember them today. Finally, I wish everyone a happy lunar and Chinese new year tomorrow.
As an old Hong Kong hand, let me say gong hei fat choy, Mr Speaker. I hope that everybody has a very happy Chinese new year. Today is indeed the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, a day worth noting, and it is also the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, a day to which the right hon. Lady and I will attach great importance.
As regards the British holding of the UN Security Council chairmanship, yes, of course the British Government will push for their belief in human rights, in good order and in the better coming together of the global community. That is what we are always pushing for, and our holding the chairmanship of the G7 as well as that of the UN Security Council this month is very important.
I will take up, as always, the point that the right hon. Lady makes about Luke Symons, to ensure that the Foreign Office is, once again, reminded of its responsibilities to UK nationals overseas, and indeed to Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. This is a matter of great importance to the country, and the right hon. Lady is right to raise it weekly.
Let me go back to the beginning of the right hon. Lady’s questions and the point about Westminster Hall. She must remember that she was keen that it should be closed, and in bringing forward that motion I was acting only in response to representations from across the House that it was felt necessary that it should be closed. I was probably the most reluctant person to close it, because I believe in the importance of scrutiny. It has to be borne in mind that to bring it back would require extra people on the estate. I would certainly think that was reasonable, because I think it is important that we have democratic scrutiny, but those who asked for Westminster Hall to be closed must make it clear that they think it is right that more people should come back on to the estate. If that is the clear message that I get, of course I will do everything I can to facilitate its return.
This has been checked, and between four and 10 additional people will be required to come on to the estate on a daily basis with the reopening of a hybrid Westminster Hall. That is the point. That may not be a very large number, but the advice from the Government is currently that people should not be coming in if they do not have to do so. The right hon. Lady asked for Westminster Hall to be closed and it was, because of people coming on to the estate, and she really cannot have it both ways. I am certainly in favour of scrutiny; I think it is good for the Government. If representations are made that this increase in numbers is proportionate, I am more than willing to bring forward the relevant motions, but it needs to be clear that people have accepted that.
The right hon. Lady mentions the payment of £500 to people through Test and Trace. It is obviously important that benefits are paid properly and efficiently to people who are entitled to them. The Department for Work and Pensions has done particularly well in ensuring that the welfare system has held up during this very difficult time, with a very large increase in the number of people requiring universal credit and requiring general support—it has been an achievement. Indeed, one of the reasons this has been so little talked about is because of how well the system has worked, but if there are any specific problems that the right hon. Lady is aware of and she raises them with me, I will take them up with Ministers.
On that subject, I note that the right hon. Lady has written to me about a response from an official rather than a Minister. Ministers should respond to Members of Parliament, as long as Members of Parliament themselves write; there is a slight tendency, which I do not think applies to the right hon. Lady, of Members getting their assistants to write to Ministers. Such correspondence is not entitled to a ministerial letter and it is not in the normal courtesy to ask assistants to write to Ministers. But the right hon. Lady is entitled to a ministerial response and I will try to ensure that she gets one as soon as is practicable.
As regards my hon. Friend the Minister for Equalities, it is hard to think of a more forthright or sensible Minister of the Crown at the moment. She does an absolutely fantastic job and I am sure she will report to the House. She has a balanced, sensible and wise view, and is deserving of full support.
Tribute needs to be paid to you, Mr Speaker, the House Service and the Leader of the House for making sure that Parliament has continued to function throughout the pandemic. The discussion that has just happened about Westminster Hall is critical to Back-Bench Members of Parliament. The Grand Committee Room is simply not fit for purpose at this time—there is insufficient airflow, too many staff would be required to be on the palace estate and it is not equipped for hybrid proceedings. None the less, there are rooms in the palace that are ready to do that. Will my right hon. Friend to reflect on that and bring forward a motion that will allow for Westminster Hall-type debates to take place in the Boothroyd Room, in Committee Room 10, or possibly even in unused time in the Chamber?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for her question. I am certainly happy to look at bringing back Westminster Hall, if that is what the House wishes.
We have sought to take a balanced approach throughout the pandemic, and have made every effort to ensure that proceedings are in line with Public Health England guidance and safe for members of staff. My right hon. Friend knows well that I brought forward the motion to suspend Westminster Hall in the light of the rising covid-19 case numbers and following representations from across the House. I was perhaps the least supportive of reducing scrutiny, but brought forward those motions on a cross-party basis.
I will reiterate what I said to the right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz): to bring back Westminster Hall physically or in a hybrid fashion will require some additional people on the estate. We therefore need to be satisfied that there is a consensus that it is safe and right for the House to take that step. In my view, that is perhaps a decision most sensibly taken once we have heard from the Prime Minister about the road map out of lockdown when we return from recess.
I am grateful to my right hon Friend for setting out her view, and I am glad that she does think that it is proportionate to have a small number of extra people on the estate for hybrid proceedings. I have noted that, and if others make similar representations they will find that this is a door that can easily be pushed open.
I echo the comments of the shadow Leader of the House and of the right hon. Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley), the esteemed Chair of the Procedure Committee, in calling for action to be taken in terms of Westminster Hall-style debates. May we have an assurance from the Leader of the House that, when an appropriate alternative to physically sitting in Westminster Hall is presented to him, he will immediately act to produce a motion to resume in some shape or form, following one of the alternatives that have been suggested?
We are almost a year on since we went into the first lockdown. Over that period, many support schemes have been announced by the Government that have been very welcome and needed by so many, but we still see millions excluded by this Government. Will the Leader of the House bring forward a debate or statement in Government time to outline exactly why this Government feel that these people are unworthy of support from them, especially with the Budget coming up?
Recently, my constituent Deborah Kayembe was named as Edinburgh University’s next rector. Deborah is an esteemed human rights lawyer and also a refugee, and shows us the benefits that refugees can bring to each of our communities. In the light of the Migration Advisory Committee’s saying that it is time to review the Government’s anti-family-migration rules, may we have a debate in Government time to consider the hugely positive contribution that refugees make to each of our nations and to give hope that, perhaps, some of the measures such as the minimum income requirement could be reviewed?
Like the shadow Leader of the House, I welcome the fact that today is International Day of Women and Girls in Science. With Midlothian a centre of scientific excellence, does the Leader of the House agree that promoting careers in science for women benefits us all, and will he ensure that time is allowed by the Government for us to celebrate that? I end by joining the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader of the House in wishing all a very happy Chinese new year.
May I begin on a point of very strong agreement with the hon. Gentleman and thank him for the point that he made about encouraging women and girls to have careers in science? That is a thoroughly good thing, but we need more scientists generally for our future prosperity. Men and women will need to go into science, and we have seen the advantage of science with the roll-out of the vaccine programme.
I also very much agree with the hon. Gentleman on the great contribution made to British society by refugees. This country has long been open to refugees, going back many hundreds of years. That has helped to build and strengthen our nation, and will continue to do so in future. I cannot promise him debates in Government time on either question, but I confess that it is nice to find myself in agreement with a member of the SNP; that is a rare treat.
We are also broadly in agreement on the question of Westminster Hall. I take it from what the hon. Gentleman said that he, too, thinks it is proportionate to have extra members of staff coming on to the estate to reopen it in a hybrid fashion. If it is clear that that is the consensus of the House, I am more than willing to bring forward the necessary motion.
I think everyone has sympathy for those of our constituents who have not been supported. We have all been in correspondence with people who have difficult circumstances. The Government have done as much as they reasonably can. The support offered is very large—£280 billion for the country at large—and it covers 95% of people who receive the majority of their income from self-employment. I accept that it does not cover everybody. The difficulty is ensuring a scheme that is fair to taxpayers as well as fair to individuals, and I think my right hon Friend the Chancellor has got the balance right.
My hon. Friend very much appeals to my sympathies in this matter and makes an excellent point. We keep the approach in Parliament under review, and over the year we have made adjustments depending on the state of the pandemic. It is clear that the House works better when it is physically present. Scrutiny is better and debate is more thorough. The ability to hold the Government to account and seek redress of grievance is enhanced by physical presence. I hope we can get back as soon as possible and I share my hon. Friend’s view that we are here to lead by example, and to show the rest of the country when it is safe to do things. Our doing so would be a very good example.
Gong hei fat choy, Mr Speaker. Last week, when I asked the Leader of the House for protected time for debates aired on alternative days, he suggested—rather offhandedly, I am afraid—that I wanted things both ways. What the Backbench Business Committee actually wants on behalf of Back Benchers on both sides of the House is the number of days for Backbench debates as stipulated in Standing Orders, and that does not include general debates on subjects determined by themselves in Government time.
I echo the requests made earlier. The Chairs of the Procedure Committee and the Petitions Committee—the right hon. Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley) and my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell)—and I met the Leader of the House last night. The purpose of the meeting was to ascertain what measures were being put in place to open a second Westminster Hall-style debating chamber, so that debate applications from the Petitions Committee and the Backbench Business Committee may be aired using virtual or hybrid participation of Members.
We understand that the technical capacity and space alternative to Westminster Hall exists to facilitate that. All it would seem that we need is for an order to be placed, and an undertaking that as few members of staff as possible be returned to allow that to happen. That is an important facility for Members across the House, and they and their anxious constituents—and particularly the members of the Petitions Committee—want to get these debates heard. For the avoidance of doubt, I reiterate that it need only involve as few members of staff as absolutely necessary in an alternative venue, given current public health conditions.
I am very encouraged that the hon. Gentleman makes it clear that he does think it is proportionate for a few extra members of staff to come back to facilitate the reopening of scrutiny. As I said earlier, if that is the view of the House and people are clear that that is what they think is appropriate—although I notice that it is extra members of staff, not so much MPs volunteering to come down, which is a certain incongruity, but let us leave that to one side—if that is the consensus of the House, I refer the hon. Gentleman to what I said earlier.
Last week, I said that the hon. Gentleman wanted it both ways. He did, and I gave it to him both ways, as it happens, because we had a motion to give him protected time. In fairness, at the beginning of the Session, before the Backbench Business Committee was established, the Government did make time for Backbench Business debates, and although they do not formally count in terms of the Standing Orders, they certainly are in the spirit of the Standing Orders.
It is brilliant news that this Conservative Government have confirmed funding for 40 new hospitals across the country, with a further eight new schemes to bid for future funding. Will the Leader of the House provide Government time for a debate on this topic and back my campaign to ensure that Airedale General Hospital in my constituency, which is due for urgent refurbishment works, having originally been constructed from aerated concrete, is listed as one of the final eight projects?
I am very glad that my hon. Friend supports the Government’s policy. The first £3.7 billion of funding for 40 new hospitals has now been confirmed, with a further eight schemes to be invited to bid for future funding, to deliver 48 hospitals—we are building back better and bigger than was promised in our manifesto—by 2030, so we will deliver on the commitment.
The Department of Health and Social Care is aware of the issues surrounding past use of reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete in construction, including at Airedale General Hospital, and I note that my hon. Friend raised that. The Department is focusing on work on designing the criteria for the further eight new hospitals, which will be communicated to trusts in due course. My hon. Friend has made a plea for his own hospital, and he is right to do so, but I am sure that he may also want to make that plea to my right hon Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care.
Tomorrow, Luton’s civic mayor, Councillor Maria Lovell, is holding a “wear it red” day to help raise funds for her nominated charities this year, Luton Foodbank and the Luton and Dunstable University Hospital’s helipad appeal. Will the Leader of the House join me in thanking Maria Lovell and all other civic mayors for their hard work and commitment to their democratic, ceremonial and charitable roles?
It is an absolute pleasure to do that, and to congratulate Maria Lovell on what she is planning to do to raise money for her preferred charities as the Luton civic mayor. Civic mayors bring a great deal of pleasure to their communities. They have an ability to thank people who work in the voluntary sector, who are unsung heroes across our communities. The hon. Lady is so right to raise this issue, because it is not just civic mayors; it is lords-lieutenant, high sheriffs—all those people who just go round and say thank you. This is a really good bit of our civic society and one we should all take pleasure from.
It has taken the Transport for London Bishopsgate High Court case to force Lib Dem-run Sutton Council to rethink its unpopular road closure schemes. While the announcement that all schemes are to be suspended is a temporary relief for Carshalton and Wallington residents, those who have been fined so far will not get their money back; fines remain in place, and the Lib Debs are determined to find a way to bring back these schemes, despite their own consultation showing huge resident opposition. May we have a debate about residents’ voices being heard in local government rather than their concerns being ignored?
My hon. Friend raises a very important point. The Lib Dems hate the motorist; we all know that. They are fanatical anti-motorists. I am on the side of the motorist, as are Her Majesty’s Government. We support motorists. It is one of the great expressions of freedom; the open road, the ability to go where one wants—admittedly not under covid regulations, but normally, the ability to get in one’s car and drive where one wants is a great British freedom and one that we should celebrate and enjoy, and we should not have pettifogging lefties making life difficult for us. I am fully in support of my hon. Friend. I think he should remind us of the failings of the Lib Dems at every opportunity that he possibly can, but the best way to do that is at the ballot box, by electing a Conservative pro-motoring council.
Currently the largest protest on the planet, the peaceful farmers’ protest in India has been ongoing for months now. Given our serious anxieties, more than 100 hon. Members signed a letter to the Prime Minister seeking his intervention. Well over 100,000 constituents—incredibly, from every single one of the 650 UK constituencies—have signed an online petition, including more than 3,000 from my Slough constituency. Given those facts, and given the arrest of journalists, peaceful protesters and human rights activists such as Nodeep Kaur, who, it is alleged, has been tortured and endured sexual assault while in police custody, will the Leader of the House please facilitate a debate on this important matter at the earliest opportunity, just as we debated a petition in this Chamber last week?
The hon. Gentleman raises something that is a matter of concern across the House and across constituencies. The right to peaceful protest is a fundamental one, along with freedom of speech and internet freedom. India is a very proud democracy and a country with which we have the strongest possible relations. I happen to think that over the next century our relationship with India may well be our most important relationship with any country in the world. As India is our friend, it is only right that we make representations when we think that things are happening that are not in the interests of the reputation of the country of which we are a friend. The Foreign Secretary discussed the farmers’ protest with his Indian counterpart in December. The UK Government will continue to follow the farmers’ protest closely. Agricultural reform is a domestic policy issue for India. We will continue to champion human rights globally, and having the chairmanship of the UN Security Council this month is a part of that.
Will my right hon. Friend consider calling a debate in Government time to discuss the current situation facing the fish-catching sector? Far from being in a position where we will have an expanded fishing sector in five years’ time, there is a real danger of vessels going to the wall now and having no sector left unless urgent financial help is given.
My hon. Friend is such a powerful champion for the fishing industry and has been for the whole time she has been a Member of the House of Commons. The Government are focused on supporting our fishing fleet to see how it can thrive now that we are out of the European Union. By regaining control of our waters, the trade and co-operation agreement puts us in a position to rebuild our fishing fleet, and we will see our fishermen benefiting from increased quotas throughout the annual negotiations with the EU and other coastal states, starting with an immediate 15% uplift this year. Throughout the adjustment period, the UK Government will contribute taxpayers’ money to our fishing communities and do everything we can to help to rebuild the industry. The Prime Minister has committed £100 million in funding for the fishing industry, with more detail to be announced in due course, and that is in addition to the £23 million that has recently been announced to help with some of the earliest problems that have arisen. The initial difficulties that fishermen have faced are very serious, and they are not taken lightly by the Government. I will certainly pass on my hon. Friend’s concerns to the Environment Secretary and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.
I appreciate the Leader of the House’s support for Toad of Toad Hall, the great open road and the desire for everyone to drive, but has he seen the British Lung Foundation’s report this morning saying that 6 million elderly people are at risk from air pollution, we are poisoning children and pregnant women, and we are poisoning the atmosphere that all of us breathe? Is it not time that we had an early debate on the need for powerful changes? Let people drive, but let them drive electric cars and let us stop them poisoning people with what comes out of the tailfin of Toad’s vehicles.
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue of air pollution, although he does not mention the great diesel scandal. Diesel was encouraged by the last Labour Government, of whom he was a supporter, and by the European Union, with figures fiddled by European manufacturers to pretend that diesel emissions were less dangerous than in reality they are. To my mind, it is one of the great scandals of modern political history, and it happened when his party was in office.
On 11 July 2019, my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), now the Prime Minister, signed a solemn veterans pledge in a national newspaper that promised:
“New legislation to end repeated and vexatious investigations into historical allegations against our servicemen and women—including in Northern Ireland—to be passed before the next General Election.”
Eighteen months and a general election later, not only has this not been passed, but we have never even seen it, because the rumour is that those in the Northern Ireland Office who are responsible for the Bill have not even finished drafting it yet. Our veterans deserve better. So will the Leader of the House liaise today with the Prime Minister and our obviously hesitant Northern Ireland Secretary to finish drafting the Bill and bring it forward, and will he make time available for Second Reading before the Easter recess on 25 March?
It is always difficult having a time period set on general elections when we have the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, which was not a fixed-term Parliaments Act. I think it would be reasonable to go by the expected life of the Parliament, rather than simply when, by happenstance, an early election took place. However, the Government have been absolutely clear that they will put an end to vexatious claims against the armed forces and have introduced the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill to help reduce the uncertainty faced by our service personnel and veterans in relation to historical allegations and claims arising from overseas operations. I think that meets the first half of the promise.
The second half of the promise is in relation to Northern Ireland. I can assure my right hon. Friend that the Government will introduce separate legislation to address the legacy of the past in Northern Ireland in the coming months in a way that focuses on reconciliation, delivers for victims and ends the cycle of reinvestigations into the troubles in Northern Ireland, delivering on our commitments to Northern Ireland veterans. My right hon. Friend is right to raise this point. The Government take the issue of veterans closely to their heart. We have a Veterans Minister who is always on the side of veterans. This is a serious issue, and the commitment is to introduce the legislation in the coming months.
Pre-schools, nurseries and childminders in England have been asked by the Government to stay open, but, unlike schools, early years settings have been left on their own with no access to fast and regular asymptomatic testing to protect staff and families. Will the Leader of the House ask his colleagues in the Department for Education to make an urgent statement on what support early years providers, who have so far been working throughout lockdown without access to lateral flow tests, can expect from the Government?
The Government have made widespread support available to local councils, including £4.6 billion of unring-fenced money that local councils can use to help early childcare settings. Lateral flow testing is being rolled out to an increasing number of areas to allow people to be tested. Indeed, it is even available in the House of Commons for Members, Members’ staff and other people who work on the estate, if they need it, so this is happening.
I had one of those lateral flow tests last week. It was a very pleasant, if tickly, experience.
Melanie Beck, who runs the MyMiltonKeynes business improvement district, was announced as the new chair of the charity MK SNAP last week. I was particularly pleased that last October she was recognised with an MBE for community services during covid. I note that some Opposition Members, who are in fact led by a knight of the realm, recently floated the idea of doing away with the honours system. Perhaps my right hon. Friend would agree with me that doing so would be a regressive step; in particular, it would mean that we would lose the ability officially to recognise the wonderful work of community champions such as Melanie. When shielded residents needed supplies, Melanie contacted her network and offered MyMiltonKeynes resources. She even roped in family members to drive buses and vans to deliver supplies to those in need. This honour is well deserved, and we should be rightly proud of our heritage.
May I begin by congratulating Melanie Beck on being appointed a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire? My hon. Friend is so right that the honours system rewards people up and down the country who go above and beyond their duty, and who ensure that we have a better community life and community spirit. That has been so apparent during the pandemic.
Our honours system is one of the glories of our nation—one of the baubles of our nation—going back to the Order of the Garter, which was founded in 1348 by Edward III, with St George as the champion and patron saint of our nation. We have had that great link with St George since he took over the patronage of England from various other people; Edward the Martyr, Edward the Confessor and St Alphege were considered rather more before George took over with the Garter. Then there are the other orders of chivalry, including the Knights of the Bath. Henry VIII went through that wonderful ceremony as a baby, pretty much—a three-year-old—when he was installed as a Knight of the Bath and literally did have a bath, before the order was re-founded in 1725 in a different form.
The honours system links us to our history and inspires and encourages people to do great things. It is one of the glories of our country, and should be kept and cherished. But we do bear in mind that whenever we look at a new Labour person and scratch them, they are as red as can be underneath.
The Chemical Industries Association has described UK manufacturing businesses paying twice as much for energy as those in other European countries do, as an “ongoing blocker of opportunity”. Can we therefore have a debate in Government time on providing UK industry with a level playing field on energy prices? This is needed to give chemical companies in my constituency certainty to secure future investment, an essential driver to transition to net zero, and ensure low-carbon UK businesses and their goods are able to compete for market share around the world.
The hon. Gentleman makes the fundamentally important point that energy costs are an essential part of how competitive a nation can be. The Government’s energy strategy, with a huge increase in wind energy, will over the longer term ensure that we have both secure energy supplies and ones that are economic. May I point him in the direction of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy questions? Actually BEIS questions were earlier this week, but if he were to take it up with the BEIS Secretary, I think that would be the right way to go.
The Leader of the House will be aware that the Mayor of London has announced the new taskforce for his commission for diversity in the public realm and, unsurprisingly, it seems to be made up almost entirely of left-wing political activists, campaigners and celebrities, instead of historians and experts. Does my right hon. Friend share my concern about these unelected activists being given the power to interfere with London street names and monuments, and will he consider granting a debate in Government time to discuss how we can defend our great capital city’s proud history and heritage?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. Its seems to me that the Mayor of London has replaced Red Ken as Red Kahn. Who would have thought that we would have a more left-wing leader of London than Ken Livingstone? But now we do, and Red Khan is he. It is quite wrong that these loony left-wing wheezes should be inflicted upon our great metropolis, and I think the Mayor, in his zeal, is potentially treading on the toes of councils anyway. The councils have the right to name the streets by and large, not the Mayor of London, and I do not think he should interfere in things that are not his responsibility. As I was saying on the honours system, we should celebrate and glory in our wonderful history and in the great heroes of our nation going back over centuries.
It has been 19 months since the Government first launched the review into a cruel benefit system that forces those who are terminally ill to prove they have less than six months to live. In that time, Marie Curie and the Motor Neurone Disease Association estimate that as many as 5,800 people may have died waiting for a decision on their benefits. Please can the Leader of the House chase the Department for Work and Pensions and the Treasury to come to the House urgently and make a statement telling us what they are going to do, so that more people do not have to suffer?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising this, because it is an important and troubling point. It is difficult in terms of administration because of the lack of certainty about somebody’s lifespan, but it is important that somebody nearing the end of his or her life should be treated more generously by the benefit system and not have that as an additional worry as their life draws to a close. I will of course take this up with both my right hon. Friends, as the hon. Lady requests.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is today meeting his opposite number in the European Commission regarding the Northern Ireland protocol. This is a major constitutional issue that affects all Members of this House. Could I press the Leader of the House to ensure that a statement is made at the earliest possible opportunity by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster so that Members of this House can question the decisions and the agreements that are being made?
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was in the House immediately before me and open to questions at that point, but of course that was before the meeting that is taking place. It is of fundamental importance that we ensure the unity of the United Kingdom and that any arrangements that we have with the European Union respect that. No agreement that we could ever possibly make could undermine the unity of the United Kingdom, and that must be clear to our friends in the European Union.
My constituents Hayley Orr and Alan Scobie are musicians whose livelihoods are affected by the lack of visa-free access to the EU. Alan’s band Skerryvore also helps generate tourism in Scotland. FMX Event Services, also based in my constituency, which provides equipment for major band tours, cannot operate across the EU, which is putting half its business at risk. When will we have a Government statement confirming how many livelihoods and businesses are affected by this Government’s pig-headedness, and setting out a solution that allows reciprocal free movement for artists and their back-up operations?
I often find that I am sympathetic to the hon. Gentleman’s questions, but I am sorry to say that on this occasion I am not, because the pig-headedness is not that of the United Kingdom or Her Majesty’s Government. The EU and member states could match our arrangements tomorrow if they wanted to, and we hope that those in the music industry who have spoken so passionately about touring in Europe will encourage them to do so. The message that he needs to take is to the European Union. We have made provisions for musicians to travel and for things to be as light-touch as possible, but the EU has not reciprocated. If I may use a musical analogy, it takes two to tango.
I have joined colleagues from both sides of the House and across the east midlands to back the bid for a freeport in the east midlands. The freeport would be the best connected, with air, road and rail connections; would bring international investment to the region; and has the potential to create up to 60,000 skilled new jobs. May we please have parliamentary time to discuss just how fantastic the east midlands freeport bid is, and why it should be the Government’s first choice when they create the new wave of freeports in Britain?
Since this subject was last raised in the House, I have become slightly conflicted, because there is a freeport bid coming in from quite near me, in Bristol. However, it would not be right for me to campaign for my own area from the Dispatch Box. Freeports are a fantastic idea, which is why there is so much support for them and why so many Members want them in their constituencies. I congratulate my hon. Friend on his welcome efforts to campaign for a freeport in the east midlands, and I will make sure that his representations are passed on to the Treasury. He really is a great advocate for his constituents, and I hope that they will be able to reap the benefits of a freeport, but then I hope that the economy generally will be able to reap the benefits of many freeports.
We rarely debate the Government’s poor treatment of the north, where life expectancy is falling for the first time in a century, but where we have seen the severest cuts to public health service provision of any region. There are now 195 fewer GP surgeries in Yorkshire and we have the slowest declining covid infection rates. Meanwhile, the Government sent half of the north’s vaccine supply down south. We know that they cut free school meals for the autumn break, but hunger, poverty, service cuts and covid all march hand in hand. May we therefore have a debate in Government time on their disgraceful health record in the north of England?
Mr Speaker, I will of course bow to your wisdom on this, but I believe the word “balderdash” is parliamentary, and it applies to the hon. Gentleman’s question. The Government have stood with the north throughout this pandemic, with over £10 billion in support for local authorities, additional Nightingale capacity and millions of vaccine doses already delivered, and we are putting the region at the centre of our community testing plans, with 300,000 in Liverpool being among the very first to benefit. Looking ahead, we will be building on the £13 billion for transport across the region and £5 billion for the northern powerhouse, with High Speed 2; Northern Powerhouse Rail, our multi-billion pound rail investment; a £4 billion levelling-up fund, building on billions of pounds of towns fund investment; £4.2 billion for the local public transport fund; and four hospitals in construction, or about to start, as part of our 40 hospitals plan. This Government’s record in the north is second to none. We are building back better, and we are building back better in the north first.
The Government have committed unprecedented sums of public money to a generous package of economic support, procurement of vaccines and more to secure our UK covid recovery. Does my right hon. Friend consider that this is the time for the House to receive an update on the costs of the restoration and renewal programme, and debate its affordability to the public purse?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. Currently, the Commissions of the two Houses are receiving indications of the costs of the business plan. It is of fundamental importance that what happens to this House has the consent of this House, not a previous House, because Parliament cannot bind its successor, and that the expenditure is proportionate and reasonable. Everybody wants to secure this building and to ensure that it is safe, but we cannot spend billions of pounds on it. That would simply not be proportionate in view of the economic situation of the rest of the country.
Thank you, Mr Speaker—not quite as far as Shetland today; I come to you from Orkney. I ask the Leader of the House whether we can have a debate in Government time on the operation of the UK-US extradition arrangements, which were entered into under a treaty of the Labour Government in 2003. He will have seen press reports about the case of British businessman Mike Lynch, which demonstrate that the treaty is not only open to abuse but is being abused. We need arrangements that are equal in fairness to each side. Many Conservative Members were critical of the treaty in 2003. Can we now start a debate about getting improvements?
The issue that the right hon. Gentleman raises has aroused concern. Any extradition treaty should be proportionate and fair between the two parties and we should always ensure that Her Majesty’s subjects are treated fairly in any legal proceedings that may arise in this country or overseas. I was always concerned about the European arrest warrant for those reasons and the right hon. Gentleman is right to raise this important subject.
Given that the Transport Minister has not responded to my urgent letter of 24 January regarding an external assessment of the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency homeworking potential, and further to that, given the synchronised pinging of apps this week, resulting in 40 staff from two zones being sent home to self-isolate, and the latest news that an individual’s waist measurement is now part of the agency’s health and safety homeworking eligibility criteria, will the Leader of the House please facilitate a statement that could clarify all those issues?
This issue has been raised in the House before and answers have been given. The reality is that some people at the DVLA will have to go into work and that not all its work can be done from home, for example, the issuing of licences and secure printing. As I mentioned the last time the matter was raised, some people occasionally get points on their licences and in this instance, points do not mean prizes, unless being banned from driving is viewed as a prize. That all has to be done securely and confidentially and is therefore very difficult to do from home. As I understand it, the DVLA has taken all the appropriate measures to ensure that it is a covid-secure workplace. However, if the hon. Lady has an outstanding letter to a Minister, I will, as always, try to facilitate a prompt response.
Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the disastrous failings of Operation Midland and Operation Yewtree, which have been heartbreakingly revealed by Lady Brittan this week? If she is right, and I have no reason to believe that she is not, how on earth have the people responsible for that monumental failure not been relieved of their positions? The only accused person left alive today who is suffering directly as a result of that failure is my former parliamentary colleague and neighbour, Mr Harvey Proctor.
I suppose the question is quis custodiet ipsos custodes—who guards the guards themselves? My hon. Friend, in his reference to Operation Midland, raises serious concerns. Like him, I have a particular sympathy for Harvey Proctor, who was most disgracefully treated by the investigation, which had a serious effect on the life he had rebuilt for himself in his career, employment and indeed housing. The treatment of Lady Brittan is shameful. That a grieving widow should be traduced in that way, with the justice of the peace who issued the warrant saying that he was misled in so doing is a matter of the gravest seriousness. I think we all feel enormous sympathy for Lady Brittan and Harvey Proctor because of the way they were both treated. It was a blot on the Metropolitan police’s escutcheon.
Projects like the Forest of Memories are working to create a network of sustainable and biodiverse forests across the United Kingdom in memory of those who tragically lost their lives during covid-19, including those staff who served us all on the frontline of this horrific pandemic. May we have a debate on the importance of supporting memorials of remembrance at this critical time in history that understand the need for sustainable places of reflection for the bereaved, for families and for our communities, marking those tragically lost and their invaluable contribution to society?
I congratulate the hon. Lady on the work she is doing on promoting the Forest of Memories. As we go village to village around our country, there are war memorials, almost all of which were obviously put up about 100 years ago following the first world war. We have historically been good at remembering people who have died in particular circumstances. The hon. Lady’s suggestion in terms of a forest is a noble cause and, although I cannot promise her a debate in Government time, Mr Speaker is looking remarkably benign at the thought of an Adjournment debate.
As we approach the anniversary of the original covid lockdown—an incredibly significant moment when the world literally changed—can the Leader of the House arrange for a Minister to come to the Chamber to set out plans for an annual national commemoration: a moment when we can come together to remember those who died, those who have given significant service and those who have made incredible sacrifice? In coming together as a country, remembering, learning and looking forward, it would be a real moment of unity for us all.
My right hon. Friend, with her characteristic genius, has brought in her question at absolutely the right time, because my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care is sitting on the Treasury Bench and will have heard her appeal for a proper memorial for what has happened over the last year. The Prime Minister said on 26 January that
“when we have come through this crisis, we will come together as a nation to remember everyone we lost”.
While the Government’s immediate focus is on protecting the lives and livelihoods of the nation, there is none the less the need to remember those who have lost their lives and to recognise those involved in the unprecedented response.
The Government have begun planning to ensure that an appropriate commemoration can take place in the United Kingdom and will set out details in due course, but I think it is at the stage where good ideas will be extremely welcome. This needs to be a community and national effort, so if people do have good ideas, they should bring them forward.
I do not know whether you, Mr Speaker, or the Leader of the House have seen the really moving interview that the Welsh rugby player Alix Popham and his wife Mel gave about the brain injuries that he has suffered from playing rugby—or for that matter, the story of my amazing constituent, Adam Harcombe, who suffered a brain injury when he was attacked in the street. I know that the Government are working on this, because I found out by very secret means—well, a text message from the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster—that there has been a cross-departmental ministerial meeting to look at what more the Government can do about brain injury and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is now working on concussion in sport. Will the Leader of the House please ensure that when the Government have something to announce, we have a proper statement and a proper debate in the House of Commons? It is great that we are doing work on this now, but we must ensure that everybody gets the benefit of that.
The hon. Gentleman is right to address this issue, which is being taken very seriously by sporting bodies, who perhaps in the first instance have the best ability to look into these problems. But yes, of course, if there is a statement be made, I will do everything I can to ensure, as the ministerial code requires, that it is made to this House first.
I have had my Weetabix this morning, Mr Speaker, and I hope you have had yours. Weetabix is a world-famous breakfast cereal made in Burton Latimer in the Kettering constituency. One debate that has been dividing the nation this week, and is perhaps even more divisive than Brexit has been over the years, is whether having Weetabix with baked beans is an attractive serving suggestion for a healthy meal. We all need a little light relief in these difficult times, so may we have a debate on breakfast cereals and their contribution to a healthy diet, so that we can all arrive at the shared position that, with whatever it is served, Weetabix is a great British breakfast cereal fully worthy of promotion?