House of Commons
Wednesday 24 February 2021
The House met at half-past Eleven 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.]
Her Majesty the Queen will, in less than one year from now, mark the 70th anniversary of her accession to the throne. The Queen’s platinum jubilee will be marked by national celebrations. As with previous jubilees, it is hoped that Her Majesty will visit Parliament next year to mark the occasion. As I announced in November, both Houses of Parliament intend to present a gift to Her Majesty to mark this historic occasion. In 1977, to mark Her Majesty’s silver jubilee, the fountain in New Palace Yard was built. In 2002, to mark the golden jubilee, the sundial in Old Palace Yard was installed, and in 2012, to mark Her Majesty’s diamond jubilee, the stained-glass window in Westminster Hall was commissioned. The House will therefore be pleased to hear that a gift has now been commissioned for Her Majesty from Parliament to mark her platinum jubilee in 2022. It is now open to all Members of both Houses to contribute towards this gift, and I invite hon. Members to do so. As was the case in 2012, when hundreds of parliamentarians contributed towards the diamond jubilee gift, this gift will also be funded by personal contributions from Members of both Houses, entirely at their own discretion. It is proposed that no public funds will be spent on the gift. I have written to all Members with details of the gift and how they may wish to contribute. I warmly encourage them to do so.
We now come to questions to the President of COP26, and I welcome the Minister to his new position.
Oral Answers to Questions
The President of COP26 was asked—
Post Covid-19 Economic Recovery: Climate Action
We are determined to build back better and greener as we recover from covid-19. The Prime Minister’s 10-point plan for a green industrial revolution sets out the Government’s blueprint to grow the sunrise sector, support 250,000 green jobs and level up across the country.
The north-west, as you are well aware, Mr Speaker, is the heart of the UK nuclear industry, including Westinghouse nuclear fuels in my constituency. With the world increasingly focused on utilising low carbon energy sources, what steps is my right hon. Friend the President taking ahead of COP26 to promote UK-based nuclear energy production satisfying our future energy needs and supporting countless high-skilled jobs across the north-west?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Nuclear power clearly has a part to play in our clean energy mix, and he will know that in the Prime Minister’s 10-point plan we have committed to backing large-scale nuclear advanced modular reactors and small modular reactors—AMRs and SMRs. Of course, the sites such as the ones in my hon. Friend’s constituency are vital in terms of creating jobs and investment in the north-west.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The 10-point plan will be a catalyst to unleash innovation and jobs across the country. We are going to have a green industrial revolution, which is going to be powered by wind turbines in Scotland and the north-east, propelled by electric vehicles made in the midlands and, of course, supported by carbon capture clusters across our industrial heartlands.
Public transport is one of the cleanest modes of transport we have, as it helps to get thousands of carbon-emitting vehicles off our roads, but our public transport infrastructure, particularly rail, is woefully outdated in the north of England and simply not fit for purpose. Will the right hon. Gentleman therefore back my calls for the northern powerhouse rail scheme to be built in full, including a Bradford city centre station, to prove that we are taking this climate emergency seriously by getting more people on to public transport and more cars off our roads in the north and by providing good, green, sustainable jobs?
I certainly agree that we should be encouraging people to take public transport where that is possible. I come in from Reading to Paddington every day by train myself. The hon. Gentleman has raised a policy issue relating to the Department for Transport and I will ensure that I make representations on his behalf to the Secretary of State.
Next week, the Government will co-host a summit of the Powering Past Coal Alliance to boost international co-operation on the phasing out of coal, yet at the same time, Ministers are refusing to intervene here at home to prevent the opening of a new deep coal mine in Cumbria. The president knows full well that the proposed mine is not purely a local matter, that it will not help to secure the future of UK steel and that it will not provide the long-term secure jobs that Cumbrians need. However, it will increase emissions, undermine progress to our net zero target and damage our credibility as COP26 host. My question to him, therefore, is a simple one: in this critical year, why on earth are he and his Cabinet colleagues content to see this mine approved?
I note the hon. Gentleman’s point about the Powering Past Coal Alliance, and I am very proud that the UK is part of leading it. Of course, we have made significant progress in reducing coal as part of our energy mix over the last decade. It has come down from 40% to just under 2%, and I set out my detailed views on this issue at the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee hearing, as he will know. This is now a local matter; it is a local issue. Cumbria County Council is considering the application and, like him, I wait to see the outcome.
COP26: UK’s Objectives
Businesses have a vital role to play in tackling climate change through the COP26 business leaders group and, indeed, through other engagements in the UK and internationally. I have spoken directly with many hundreds of global businesses, and of course we are calling on businesses, investors and other non-state actors to sign up to the Race to Zero campaign and commit to achieving net zero emissions by 2050.
We are hugely proud of our diverse communities in West Bromwich East, and many of my constituents place great importance on the role of our allies across the world, especially in India, in working with the UK to tackle these global issues. Can my right hon. Friend update the House on the success of his recent international engagement?
I can tell my hon. Friend and, indeed, the House that, over the past few weeks, I have had productive discussions with Government Ministers on visits to Ethiopia, Gabon, Egypt, Nigeria, Nepal and India. She mentions India, and I met Prime Minister Modi in Delhi. I have also spoken to a range of other Governments, including the US special envoy, John Kerry, and China’s special envoy for climate change, Minister Xie Zhenhua, and I stressed the importance of the three key pillars of the Paris agreement: mitigation, adaptation and finance.
I am delighted that, on 1 July, the Minister responsible for science, research and innovation, my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North (Amanda Solloway), will be coming to Anglesey to open an innovation jobs fair I am organising alongside the Menai science park. This event will bring together innovative green businesses such as Moorlights and Beacon biocomposites to showcase their work. The event offers a perfect opportunity to put a spotlight on COP26 for the communities and businesses here in my Ynys Môn constituency. Will the COP President ensure that there will be resources available to help me do this?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s excellent work in supporting green jobs in her constituency. Of course, as host of the G7 and COP26, we want to showcase innovative British green businesses, such as those housed by the Menai science park in her constituency. I am delighted that the science Minister is opening her innovation jobs fair, and I know they will work closely together to ensure it is a success.
In those discussions with interested parties, did they ask why the UK’s objectives are so vague and so unambitious? Did they point out that the UK Government have missed a slew of targets on the climate change emergency and that there appears to be little to no effort being made to catch up? How can the UK Government pretend to any world leadership on this issue when they show such a marked reluctance to act at all?
I respectfully suggest to the hon. Lady that she look at the record of this Government in cutting emissions. We were the first major economy in the world to legislate for net zero and, of course, I hope she is pleased not just with the 10-point plan but with the very ambitious, nationally determined contribution that the Prime Minister set out last year.
Climate Change: UK as a Global Leader
The UK is leading from the front and has made significant commitments under all three pillars of the Paris agreement, which, as the President set out, are: mitigation, finance and adaptation and resilience. We are continuing to press for ambition internationally, and we are discussing climate action with world leaders. Our nationally determined contribution, of course, sets the highest level of emission reductions by 2030 of any major economy.
Angel Gurría, the outgoing secretary- general of the OECD, has urged countries to attach environmental conditions to bail-outs, to prioritise a green recovery with environmental jobs and to
“put a big fat price on carbon.”
So will the UK Government take his advice?
We are leading the way in making sure that we do that as part of our building back better and greener. I am co-chairing, with the Department for Education, a green jobs taskforce, to make sure we are able both to upskill and to train all the new skills that are going to be needed for those new industries.
Improving air quality is an essential part of our work to tackle the climate emergency, yet the Government refused to back Labour’s call to make sure that air quality targets meet World Health Organisation guidelines by 2030. What will the Minister do to ensure that we are truly world-leading in our efforts to reduce emissions?
As President Sharma has set out, we are absolutely world-leading in tackling our carbon dioxide emissions, and part of the work with our landmark Environment Bill will be in getting to grips with this and leading again worldwide, so that others can follow on air quality.
Paris Agreement Long-term Strategy
Ahead of COP26, the Government will publish a comprehensive net zero strategy, which will form the basis of our next long-term strategy. The UK’s NDC commits to an least 68% reduction in emissions by 2030 compared with 1990 levels, consistent with our legally binding commitment to net zero by 2050.
Nature can be a great ally in tackling climate change; as we restore salt marshes, peat bogs and other natural habitats, we can really make progress. However, at the moment only 3% of global climate finance is invested in nature-based solutions. So will the Minister try to establish, through COP26, a reliable market in carbon credits that have been generated by nature-based activity in restoring habitats?
We are promoting the restoration and protection of natural ecosystems through several different elements of COP26. Facilitating agreement on article 6, which relates to carbon markets, at COP26 is one of our top negotiating priorities. It can provide a framework for finance to be invested in climate action, including nature-based solutions, through international carbon markets and co-operation. We are indeed world-leading, in the fact that the Prime Minister has set £3 billion to be allocated to nature-based solutions from the UK’s spending.
Climate Change: Raising International Ambition
We have made progress over the past year, with net zero commitments from countries collectively accounting for 70% of global GDP and 75 world leaders announcing climate commitments at the climate ambition summit that the UK hosted last December with the UN and France. However, as I said at the time, we still have some way to go and 2021 will need to be a critical year for climate action.
I congratulate the President of COP26 on his new role and wish him well.
Stopping deforestation in the tropics is crucial to reducing global carbon emissions, and to protecting biodiversity and the lands of local indigenous communities. However, UK firms, including several high street banks, have been found to be investing heavily in businesses directly causing deforestation. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Government should seek to expose and prevent these funding streams, and encourage our COP26 partners to follow suit?
My hon. Friend knows a great deal about these matters, and he makes a vital point about the incredibly valuable role of tropical forests. He will be aware that the UK is championing a new global taskforce on nature-related financial disclosures to tackle nature-related risks in investments.
The hon. Gentleman raises an incredibly important point. We want this to be the most inclusive COP ever and, of course, we are planning for it to be an in-person COP, while taking into account contingencies. The point about vaccines is important, because access to vaccines is not consistent globally. We will work very hard to ensure that we have a safe and inclusive COP for all.
I should point out that, more generally, the UK is supporting the COVAX facility and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, and the Prime Minister has recently made it clear that we will send the majority of any future surplus of vaccine doses that the UK has to the COVAX scheme to support developing countries.
Consultation with Civil Society and Youth Groups
This is the first COP ever for which we have set up an international civil society and youth advisory council—indeed, the next meeting of the group is later today. It is co-chaired by two young climate activists, one from the global north and one from the global south. I have committed to meet civil society groups and youth groups in every country that I visit, because I really want their voices to be front and centre and at the heart of COP26.
I welcome the appointment of my right hon. Friend to his role, which underlines how seriously the Government are taking their efforts to find international agreement on tackling climate change. The scale of the challenge ahead requires us to be innovative and to think outside the box. I pay tribute to the work done by local groups such as Hope Valley Climate Action, Transition Buxton, Sustainable Hayfield, Acclimatise Whaley and Transition New Mills. Is the President prepared to meet me and those groups to hear their ideas on how we can work together to tackle climate change?
My hon. Friend raises an important point, because local groups are vital to the delivery of many initiatives, not just in the UK but around the world. I pay tribute to him for his work in promoting climate action in his constituency and more widely. I will of course ensure that either I or members from the COP unit for civil society and the youth team will meet the organisations in his constituency to which he referred, particularly to hear their views.
Tackling Climate Change: Covid-19
Domestically, the Government have set out their 10-point plan, their energy White Paper and an ambitious nationally determined contribution. Over the past year, the Prime Minister and I, and other Ministers and officials, have regularly engaged with counterparts around the world to raise climate action ambition.
I welcome the President of COP26 to his new position and wish him every success. This year, 2021, is a key year in our battle against climate change, as we host COP26 and the G7 in Cornwall. Climate change is such an important issue for constituents in Truro and Falmouth, so will my right hon. Friend assure me that all areas of the UK, including Cornwall, will benefit from the developments that come from these two significant events, as we recover from the covid shock in a green and sustainable way?
Absolutely. It is of course very good news that the G7 is to be held in Cornwall, which is, as we know, a powerhouse for green innovation. It is home to pioneering offshore renewables technology, as well as the first geothermal plant in the UK, and I am sure it will play an important role as we seek to build back better and greener throughout the whole of our country.
Climate change is the biggest challenge faced by humanity. The world is, on average, already 1.2° C warmer than pre-industrial levels, and if we are to deliver on limiting temperature rises to below 2°—indeed, closer to 1.5°—we must collectively act with the utmost urgency. Countries must commit to ambitious near-term emissions reductions and set net zero targets, and donor countries must fulfil their commitments to the most climate-vulnerable nations.
Next month, the UK will host a climate and development international ministerial meeting to make progress on key climate finance-related issues. We want to ensure that the green thread of climate action runs through every international event on the road to COP26.
I, too, welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his position as President of COP26.
With Wales possessing the oldest housing stock in the UK, what lessons has the right hon. Gentleman learned from Welsh retrofitting schemes about the challenge of reducing residential emissions globally ahead of COP26?
Retrofitting will play an important role. The right hon. Lady will know that, as part of the 10-point plan, we have also set out plans for greening our buildings and making them more energy efficient. She has raised a very specific point, and I will ensure that the Secretaries of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and for Housing, Communities and Local Government are made aware of it.
The UK’s credibility as COP president rests on demonstratable climate action at home, yet much like the Government’s failed pandemic response, which has left 130,000 people dead, the Government are acting too slowly, prioritising profit over public wellbeing. The Government’s boasts of our road building, and their plans of cutting £1 billion from the public rail infrastructure budget and allowing the Cumbria coalmine to go ahead are simply not compatible with achieving net zero. Will the Minister therefore admit that the Government’s stated ideological beliefs are incompatible with even their own meagre climate goals?
I had always thought that climate action was an area that we could collectively coalesce around without the need for political name calling and fighting, but, unfortunately, that does not seem to be possible for the hon. Gentleman. I just point him to the record of this Government and say that, over the past 30 years across a range of Governments, the UK has managed to grow our economy by 75% and yet cut emissions by 43%. Green growth is possible, and that is what we are pursuing.
I have never been called that before.
I warmly welcome the President of COP26 to his full- time role. It is in all our interests that he should succeed, and we want to do everything that we can to help. The central judgment of COP26’s success is whether it keeps alive the Paris target of limiting global warming to 1.5°. To make that happen, the UN says that we need to more than halve global greenhouse gas emissions from 52 gigatonnes today to 25 gigatonnes by 2030. Will he assure us that he recognises the scale of this challenge and the need for maximum ambition, and tell the House how close to that target he thinks we can get at COP26?
The shadow President raises a vitally important point. We did make progress towards the end of last year—70% of global GDP is now covered by the net zero target—but he is absolutely right when he alludes to the fact that what we need is near-term targets to 2030 to cut emissions. We are working very hard on that, and I am very happy to hear his thoughts on how we may be able to go faster.
A crucial issue for the success of the COP is international finance for developing countries, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, and they are facing poverty, the pandemic and climate change. Yet the Government have shamefully chosen this moment to cut £25 billion to £30 billion from overseas aid over the course of this Parliament. They say that they are protecting climate aid, but they have not set out what that means year on year, so will he guarantee today that, in the coming financial year when the COP takes place, there will be no cut to the level of the UK’s climate finance budget or to the climate programmes that we fund?
What I would say to the right hon. Gentleman is that, like him, I am very proud of the work that successive Governments have done in supporting the most vulnerable around the world. At 0.5% of gross national income, the UK will still remain a leading international aid donor. On the issue of international climate finance, he will know that, over a five-year period, our commitment is £11.6 billion, which is indeed a doubling of the last figure.
I note and support my right hon. Friend’s concern and I will pass it on—particularly in terms of the UK leadership—to the Environment Minister. The work that we have done already in setting resources and waste strategy is leading the way and we as a country are looking to implement all avoidable waste by 2050. With so much of COP, it is about our leadership and proving that we are walking the walk by making these policy changes here at home. I will make sure that the Minister continues to work on that with him.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Halton Borough Council ran out of funding for discretionary covid isolation payments despite the strict criteria for eligibility. Just 171 constituents have been helped. The council has applied for further funding, but what the Government have offered will not be enough. Other constituents failed to qualify for help due to the criteria set by the Prime Minister’s Government. Will he look again at this and bring forward a properly funded scheme so that no constituent is in a position where they cannot afford to isolate? We need this to happen if we are to continue to drive down covid-19 infections.
I thank the hon. Gentleman and pay tribute to the work of everybody on Halton Council for everything that they have been doing throughout this pandemic. I know it has been very tough on council officials—and, indeed, on everybody else. Central Government have put in another £4.3 billion to help councils throughout the pandemic. We will continue to support our local authorities and he will be hearing more from the Chancellor next week.
Yes indeed. I congratulate my hon. Friend on his campaign to make his constituency the Riyadh, or possibly the Jeddah, of offshore wind. I can tell him that we are certainly looking at the issue of the transmission network review and we are developing the necessary regulatory changes.
The principles behind the Prime Minister’s recovery plan—of caution and it must be irreversible—are plainly right, but one of the biggest threats to that is misinformation about the risks of the deadly virus. For example, there have been people saying that covid statistics
“appear to have been manipulated”
and that Monday’s road map is based on “dodgy assumptions” and “false modelling”. Does the Prime Minister agree that these kinds of comments are irresponsible and undermine our national recovery?
The road map that we have set out will, I believe, set us on a cautious but irreversible journey to freedom. I am glad that the right hon. and learned Gentleman supports the four steps of 8 March for schools, 12 April for shops, 17 May for hospitality and 21 June for everything. The data supporting all of that has been available to the House since I announced it on Monday.
I think the Prime Minister dodged that question, no doubt because all those comments came from his own MPs—some of the 60 or so members of the Covid Recovery Group. Perhaps the Prime Minister should have a word with them.
Another big threat to the recovery plan is that around three in 10 people who should be self-isolating are not doing so. That is a huge gap in our defences, and the small changes on Monday will not fix it. That is why Labour has called for the £500 self-isolation payment to be made available to everybody who needs it. Will the Prime Minister just fix this?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman knows very well that those who are asked to self-isolate already have the £500 test and trace support payment, and I think he also knows, because he supported the road map on Monday, that the eligibility criteria are being extended to allow parents and guardians who are staying off work also to receive a payment, provided they meet the criteria. I think he is aware of that.
Three out of 10 people who should be self-isolating are not doing so. That matters to millions of people, and it matters if we are going to get the virus under control. The chair of Test and Trace said that people are “scared” to come forward for a covid test because they cannot afford to isolate. The chair of Test and Trace says they cannot afford it. The Government’s Joint Biosecurity Centre concluded that “unmet financial need” was why some lower-income areas are seeing “stubbornly high” infection rates. Why, after all the billions the Government have thrown around, is it still people in low-paid jobs who are at the bottom of this Government’s priorities?
Actually, I think that most people looking at what we have done throughout the pandemic and looking at the £280 billion package of support can see that it is the poorest and neediest in society—those on the lowest incomes—who have been at the top of the Government’s priorities, and that is quite right. We will continue to act in that way, and the right hon. and learned Gentleman will be hearing more about that next week from the Chancellor. That is in addition to the discretionary funding we have given councils to support those who need it most, including those who have to self-isolate.
Here is the difference. If you need £500 to isolate, you are out of luck. If you have got the Health Secretary’s WhatsApp, you get a £1 million contract.
Turning to next week’s Budget, I do not expect the Prime Minister to pre-empt what is in the Budget—if I want that, I can read it on the front page of The Times —but will he at least agree with me today that now is not the time for tax rises for families and for businesses?
I don’t know about you, Mr Speaker, but the Budget is happening next week, and it is not a date that is concealed from the right hon. and learned Gentleman. He knows when it is happening and he knows what to expect, but it is preposterous for him to talk about tax rises when he stood on a manifesto only a little over a year ago to put up taxes by the biggest amount in the history of this country. It is the Labour party—including his Labour council in Camden—that puts up taxes across the country. That is the way Labour behaves, and it is thanks to prudent fiscal management by this Government that we have been able to fight this pandemic in the way that we have.
The Prime Minister wants to talk about tax rises, and he should, because it matters. Councils up and down the country are being forced to decide now whether to put council tax up. That is a £2 billion rise on families. I am not blaming councils. They have been starved of funding for a decade, and Labour and Conservative councils are in the same position. For example, the Prime Minister might want to concentrate on his own constituency. His own council, Conservative-run Hillingdon, is voting to increase council tax by 4.8%. Does the Prime Minister think that the council is right to do that?
Hillingdon Council, in common with most Conservative councils, has been running lower council taxes than Labour up and down the country. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is completely wrong, so I will correct him. The top 10 highest council taxing councils in this country are run by the Labour party, and they are all going to put their taxes up, except for one in the top 10, which is Burnley, which is currently in no overall control. He talks about London and my own record on taxes, but he should talk to the current Labour Mayor of London, who is putting up his council tax by 10%. I can tell him that the previous Conservative Mayor of London cut council tax by 20%. That is what Conservative councils do.
The fact is that £15 billion has been taken out of council budgets over the last 10 years. The Prime Minister should stop blaming others for the damage he has done. He quotes the Mayor. This is the former Mayor who bought water cannon that could not be used, spent millions on a garden bridge that never got built and then more recently gave a pay rise to Dominic Cummings.
This is yet another PMQs with no answers. The truth is this. The Government spent a decade weakening the foundations of our economy and our country. As a result, we have the highest death toll in Europe. We have the worst recession of any major economy. Families are facing council tax rises and millions cannot afford to self-isolate. And all the Prime Minister offers is a return to business as usual. Next week’s Budget is a chance to choose a different path, to build a stronger future, to protect families, to give our key workers the pay rise they deserve and to back British businesses by supporting 100,000 new start-ups. Will the Prime Minister do so?
If the right hon. and learned Gentleman will only wait until next week, I think he will find that we will do far more than that paltry agenda he has set out. It is quite mystifying to see the way that he weaves hither and yon like some sort of druidical rocking stone. One week he claims that he supports the vaccination roll-out. The next week, he attacks the vaccine taskforce, when it is spending money to try to reach hard-to-reach, vaccine-resistant groups, and says that that kind of spending cannot be justified. He calls for us to go faster with rolling out vaccines, when he would have stayed in the European Medicines Agency, which would have made that roll-out impossible. He vacillates. We vaccinate. We are going to get on with our agenda, cautiously but irreversibly taking this country forward on a one-way road to freedom, and I very much hope that his support, which has been so evanescent in the past, will genuinely prove irreversible this time.
My hon. Friend is right to raise the issue of local outbreaks and how to tackle them, particularly with the threat of new variants, which she rightly raises. That is why we have a very tough border regime but also a programme as we go forward for surge testing—door-to-door testing—to ensure that, when there is a local outbreak, we keep it local and keep it under control, as we are trying to do at the moment with the South African variant.
Next week’s Budget gives the opportunity to tackle the financial costs of this pandemic. The UK has suffered its worst recession in 300 years. We now need a Government who understand the scale of this crisis, yet at the very moment that we need maximum investment to recover, the Tories are threatening austerity cuts that will leave lasting scars on all our communities. Families have already seen their incomes slashed under this Government, and now the Tories want to impose a public sector pay freeze and cuts to universal credit. Will the Prime Minister rule out a return to Tory austerity cuts and commit to a major fiscal stimulus of at least 5% of GDP, or will he threaten the recovery and leave millions of people worse off?
I am proud of the massive investments that the UK Treasury has made throughout the whole of the United Kingdom, with £13 billion and more going to Scotland and huge sums going throughout the country. I wish that the Scottish nationalist Government would spend that money better, because it is very sad to see some of the failures in education policy in Scotland and the failures in their criminal justice policy and fighting crime. I think what the people of the whole UK and, I believe, the people of Scotland would like to see is less talk about a referendum, which is the right hon. Gentleman’s agenda, and more talk about the real issues facing our country.
The Prime Minister is boasting, but the cold, hard reality is that the United Kingdom has suffered the worst slump of any major economy and 120,000 people have lost their lives. That is under your guidance, Prime Minister. Coronavirus has exposed the deep inequalities under this broken Westminster system. After a decade of Tory cuts, millions of families are in poverty and UK unemployment is soaring.
In contrast, in the United States, President Biden understands what is needed. He has proposed a $1.9 trillion stimulus package to restart and renew the American economy. Prime Minister, will your Government follow the example of the US and boost the economy like Biden, or is the Tory plan to return to type and impose yet another decade of Tory austerity?
This Government are investing £640 billion in infrastructure alone throughout the UK—a massive programme to get our country rebuilt and restarted again. I think that is what people would like to focus on, rather than the right hon. Gentleman’s agenda. He has talked about our broken politics, our broken country. All they want to do is break up Britain with another referendum, and I think that is the last thing this country needs at the moment.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his campaign for better local transport, and we are investing massively in rail connectivity in his area and in local bus routes. The particular line that he advocates is, I know, one of great interest to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, and I will make sure that he has a chance to discuss it personally with my hon. Friend.
Can I start by thanking the Government for their change of policy, announced today, on the vaccination priority for people with learning disabilities, despite the Prime Minister’s rather more equivocal answer to me on this last Monday?
Today, millions of Uyghur people in China live in fear under a cruel regime. The BBC, international media and human rights non-governmental organisations are all reporting on forced labour camps, women being raped and sterilised, and families being separated. This is a genocide happening in front of our eyes. So does the Prime Minister agree with me that, unless China ends this genocide, Britain and Team GB should boycott the winter Olympics in Beijing next year?
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to highlight the appalling campaign against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, and that is why my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has set out the policies that he has—the package of measures to ensure that no British companies are complicit in or profiting from violations. We are leading international action in the UN to hold China to account, and we will continue to work with the US, friends and partners around the world to do just that.
The right hon. Gentleman raises a point about a sporting boycott. We are not normally in favour of sporting boycotts in this country, and that has been the long-standing position of this Government.
I thank my hon. Friend for all he does to campaign for the hardest-to-reach areas in rural Cumbria. I know that we are doing all we can because I raise it virtually every day, and we are rolling it out as fast as we can. We have committed about £5 billion to connect those areas, £1 billion for the shared rural network agreement and a voucher scheme to target predominantly rural areas, but we are intending to get everything we can possibly done in the next five years.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on what she is doing to champion takeaways in Stourbridge. I am not sure it would be environmentally friendly for me to order a takeaway from Stourbridge to Westminster, but I thank her very much for her initiative. I look forward to visiting the hospitality sector in her constituency as soon as possible.
I passionately disagree with what the hon. Gentleman has just said about the spending that was going on. Even before the pandemic we were increasing funding for primary schools—up to £4,000 per pupil, and £5,000 for secondary school pupils—and putting up starting salaries for teachers across the board to £30,000. That was a massive investment in education across the board, including in further education.
The catch-up funds now amount to £2 billion—[Interruption.] No, the hon. Gentleman is wrong. They amount to £2 billion. Yes, we will have to do more, because this is the biggest challenge our country faces. We will get it done. We are able to do it because we have been running a strong economy. We had the resources to do it, because we had not followed the bankrupt policies of the hon. Gentleman and the Labour party.
The sympathies of the whole House will be with my hon. Friend’s constituents and their family and friends, and I agree very much about the importance of learning CPR. That is why we introduced it into the curriculum for all state funded schools in England. It is of course a devolved issue, but I share his urgency that the policy should be adopted in Wales as well.
I sympathise very much with the hon. Lady’s constituents and the pupils who have to put up with disruption caused by flooding. I know that the Environment Agency continues to work very actively with the county council to resolve the issues and that the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minister has written to her about what more can be done.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point, which I am sure will be heard with great interest around the country. There is just such a review being carried out after consulting pub owners, brewers and others, and I know that the Chancellor is looking very closely at the findings.
I certainly am proud of what universal credit is doing. It is odd to be attacked by a Labour Member over universal credit when it is his party’s policy to abolish that benefit, but the best thing we can do for families in Billingham is to ensure that there are very good jobs there.
It was wonderful to see what is happening in Teesside under the leadership of Mayor Ben Houchen—the investment that is going in by Fujifilm and others, which will create long-term jobs. It is the belief of those on the Government side of the House that that is the route out of poverty—fantastic education and top-quality jobs—and that is what this Government aim to deliver.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right in what he says about home building and the need for housing across the country. We sometimes hear that this is a problem mainly in London and the south-east. It is not at all; it is everywhere in the country, as he rightly says. I thank Tim Bowles, the Mayor of the West of England, for everything that he has done as he stands down. We intend to help build on his legacy with a massive home building programme and home ownership programme across the country.
We will continue to look after people throughout this pandemic and beyond, and the best thing we can do across the whole country is to bounce our economy back as fast as we can and get people into high-quality jobs. As I said in response to the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham), that is the agenda of this Government.
First of all, I congratulate my hon. Friend on his successful campaign to get a new high school; it is absolutely vital. The best place for kids is in school, as I hope we will hear from the Labour party very shortly. We are investing in his area to the tune of £660 million and more through the local growth fund, and £54 million through the getting building fund —and, of course, we are also investing in the transport network. Next week, the whole House will hear even more about what we propose to do to steer a path, cautiously but irreversibly, out of this pandemic, allow this economy to recover, and build back better across the whole of the United Kingdom.
Covid Contracts: Judicial Review
Protecting those who protect us has been one of the Government’s most important goals in our fight against covid-19. To do that, we have had to expand our personal protective equipment supply chain—it has gone from supplying 226 NHS trusts in England to supplying more than 58,000 different settings—and we have had to create a whole new logistics network from scratch. Thanks to the hard work and dedication of so many people, we have delivered more than 8.6 billion items of PPE to the frontline so far, with billions more ordered and being supplied.
Our team worked night and day to procure PPE within very short timescales and against the background of unparalleled global demand. That often meant working at incredible speed, especially in the early months of the pandemic, to secure the vital supplies required to protect NHS workers and the public, which we did.
Let me turn specifically to the High Court judgment. There has been a lot of confusion about what the ruling said and did not say, and I welcome the opportunity to clarify that to the House today. The High Court case did not look at the awarding of the contracts; rather, it looked at the timing of the publication of the details of contracts awarded. The court ruled that at this time of unprecedented pressure, contract award notices were not all published in the timescales required by the regulations. However, it also found that there was no deprioritisation policy in that respect in the Department. As we set out to the court, the delays were caused by the workload involved in responding to one of the greatest threats to public health that this country has ever seen.
We take our transparency requirements very seriously, and it is important that I put on the record that we of course take the judgment of the court very seriously and respect it. We are working with colleagues across Government to implement the recommendations set out in the report published earlier this month by the Public Accounts Committee, chaired by the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), but as we do that, we will keep acting quickly and decisively to respond to this deadly threat, and we continue to do all we can to help save lives.
A stain has emerged on this Government’s response to the crisis. There has been an unedifying goldrush of chums and chancers; £2 billion-worth of contracts have been handed to those with close links to the Conservative party, from the Health Secretary’s pub landlord, to the donors, manifesto writers and the old boys’ club—they have all had a return on their investment at our expense.
The Government have been taken to court, and they lost, which cost taxpayers even more money. The Home Secretary once said that she wanted people
“to literally feel the terror at the thought of committing offences.”
She does not have to look to the streets to find law-breakers; she only has to look across the Cabinet table. This Government are not terrified of breaking the law, because they think they are above the law.
Now that the Government have lost in court, I ask the Minister: what was the cost to taxpayers of fighting this case? Will the Government agree today to publish the names of all businesses in their VIP fast lane and say how they got on that list? Will all overdue contracts be published by the end of this week? When will the management consultants hired locate the billions of pounds of PPE that the Government seem to have misplaced? When will clawback be used to get back taxpayers’ money for contracts that have failed to deliver? Will the Minister take this opportunity to apologise to the doctors, nurses, care workers and other frontline workers who did not have the PPE that they needed, and who had to make makeshift PPE—because, contrary to what the Health Secretary said, there was a shortage of PPE and those working on the frontline were not protected?
While he is here, will the Minister, Serco’s former head of public affairs, reveal the mystery of why the Government created Serco Test and Trace, rather than a true NHS test and trace embedded in our communities? NHS workers, care workers and taxpayers deserve better. We deserve the end of crony contracts from this Government.
Notwithstanding the circumstances and the approach adopted by the hon. Lady, it is a pleasure to appear opposite her at the Dispatch Box for the first time. She raised a number of specific points, but before I turn to them, I have to reiterate what the judgment did and did not do. The judgment focused on timely publication of contract notices; it did not make any judgment on, or consider in any way, the appropriateness of the contracting process or any of the individual processes.
The hon. Lady alleges impropriety and inappropriate behaviour—wrong. The National Audit Office report was absolutely clear that there was no evidence of any inappropriate behaviour, and indeed no court has found this. I highlight to her that the judgment was a declaratory judgment, and it stated that there had been a breach of the regulation 50 requirements. The judge subsequently highlighted, in paragraph 149:
“But the overall picture shows the Secretary of State moving close to complete compliance. The evidence as a whole suggests that the backlog arose largely in the first few months of the pandemic and that officials began to bear down on it during the autumn of 2020.”
I remind the House, and indeed the hon. Lady, of the situation we faced back in April. There were 3,301 people in mechanical ventilation beds, 21,307 people in hospital with covid, and at the beginning of April, according to our best understanding of positive cases at the time, the average number of positive cases and patients in hospital was doubling every seven days. In those circumstances, I make no apologies for the Government doing everything in our power to ensure that the NHS and frontline workers did not run out of PPE. As the National Audit Office has acknowledged, there was no national shortage of PPE at the time and throughout the pandemic.
The hon. Lady asked a number of questions. She talked about the current situation regarding publication, compliance and costs. As I have mentioned to her briefly before, there is an element of this case that is yet to be concluded, as some information is due to be provided to the judge on Friday. We will do exactly that, and the information will be made public when it goes to the court. We respect the court’s role in the process, but I expect the judge to have that published in a couple of days’ time.
On the priority route, if I recall correctly, many Members on both sides of the House requested expeditious consideration of offers of help, and I am grateful to all who made those offers. Every one of those went through an eight-stage process, run by civil servants, entirely appropriately. They checked the appropriateness of the PPE and the organisation supplying it, and conducted due diligence. Indeed, as I recall, the hon. Lady herself, on 22 April, published a letter that she had sent to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster—it was helpfully analysed at the time by the Guido Fawkes website—sharing some of her suggestions of companies or individuals that should be put through rapid assessment. I acknowledge that she said that there should be assessment and due diligence, but she asked that they be assessed rapidly. I believe that many Members of the House took the same approach. In that letter, she concluded:
“We need Government to strain every sinew and utilise untapped resources in UK manufacturing, to deliver essential equipment to frontline workers. This must be a national effort which leaves no stone unturned.”
She was right. I agreed with her sentiment then, and I still do, but she no longer appears to agree with herself.
I think we understand the point that the judgment was about the timescale, and not all the contracts meeting the regulation. It would be good for the House to hear how much of the supply of PPE now comes from this country, rather than from abroad. If I was Minister at the time, and officials told me that we could either get more ventilators and PPE, or ensure that we did not fail to meet any of the regulation timescales, I would have said, “As Minister, I will take responsibility for the failure on the timescales; you can take responsibility for getting the equipment that people need.”
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. In answer to his first question, at the start of the pandemic, roughly 1% of the PPE used in these settings was produced in this country. Due to the incredible efforts of businesses and individuals across the country—and, I must say, of civil servants and officials in Government, who are often the unsung heroes of the pandemic—up to 70% is now being supplied by this country. He is absolutely right that transparency is important. It is hugely important, and we respect it and take it very seriously, but I make no apologies for what I and the Secretary of State consider to be the most important thing, which is doing whatever is necessary to save lives in the course of this pandemic.
I am glad the Minister mentioned transparency, because of the £15 billion PPE contracts awarded up until last October, barely £3 billion were properly published, and we had £252 million given to a finance company, £108 million to a confectionery supplier and £345 million to a pest control company—a catalogue of cronyism, described variously as a “wholesale failure”, a “dismal failure” and a “historic failure”. It was a process that deprioritised compliance and has ended up with the taxpayer, in some cases, buying expensive and unusable PPE. Ultimately, the Cabinet Office is responsible for the co-ordination of the cross-Government response to covid-19. So let me ask the Minister when the Minister for the Cabinet Office and, indeed, the Prime Minister were first made aware that failure to properly publish details of PPE contracts might be unlawful?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. He will appreciate that some of the contracts which some colleagues have alluded to remain subject to separate litigation before the courts, including some by the Good Law Project, which I will refer to as the GLP as I suspect it may come up a number of times and it might save a few minutes in my answers. I hope he will understand that I will avoid straying into something that may still be before the courts, because I do not want to show any disrespect for the legal process. He talked about the number published and where we have got to now. That will be some of the information put before the judge on Friday as per his request, but for the latest figures that are in the public domain, which were covered in the judgment and indeed more broadly, I think 100% of the contract award notices have been published, and we are up to 99% under regulation 108 on the latest figures I have. As the judge said, the overall picture does show the Secretary of State
“moving close to complete compliance.”
In respect of the right hon. Gentleman’s broader point, I would expect that Ministers in my Department—which is why I am here—as well as Ministers in the Cabinet Office, will have followed the process very closely.
I welcome my hon. Friend to the Dispatch Box. I hope that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was not too indisposed cooking up plans for the domestic covid passports that he had previously ruled out to attend the House today. Most fair-minded people will look at this situation in the round and perhaps give the Government the benefit of the doubt, because the judgment found against the allegation of a secret deprioritisation policy to deliberately breach procurement rules.
Further to the question from the Father of the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley), can my hon. Friend the Minister give greater detail of the extent of the increase in domestic production of PPE in this country so that we have security of supply?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I believe that officials did do the right thing in prioritising getting the PPE that we needed for our frontline, and he is also right to highlight an aspect of Justice Chamberlain’s judgment, which found there was no policy of deprioritising the publication of contract notices and data. On his final point, I said to the Father of the House that we have moved from 1% domestically produced PPE to 70% now. To put that in context, we have supplied 8.6 billion items, and we have more than 30 billion on order or being supplied at present. I suspect that as my hon. Friend is a former teacher, albeit a history teacher, his mental arithmetic is probably more rapid than mine in calculating that proportion as an absolute number, but I hope it illustrates to him just how much we have moved in the past year to utilise the fantastic resource we have in manufacturing in this country.
Covid contracts continue to be literally a matter of life and death, so the public are right to expect accountability and transparency. While nurses wore bin bags instead of proper PPE, contracts were handed out to Ministers’ mates. Will the Minister do the right thing and, at the very least, reveal the 29 businesses Serco outsourced operations to?
We have been clear, and as I highlighted earlier, the NAO has been exceptionally clear, that there are no suggestions of Ministers behaving inappropriately in any way in the awarding of these contracts. The judge did not find that in this case; it was not a factor. On the hon. Lady’s broader point, we have been clear that we believe in and fully respect transparency requirements, and the Department is publishing—as I illustrated with those latest figures that I put out earlier—the contracts it has. I once again come back to the judge’s saying that the Secretary of State is
“moving close to complete compliance.”
That is exactly what we will continue to do.
At the height of the pandemic last year, the priority for the whole country was getting PPE to where it was needed—on the frontline. I received offers of help from many businesses that I fed into the Department. Will the Minister confirm how many items of PPE have been delivered because of these contracts that came in over the course of last year?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. As I said, contracts secured by the Department since the start of the pandemic have delivered 8.6 billion items, and around three times that number have been ordered to ensure that we continue to have a robust supply, to ensure that our frontline health and social care and other workers have the PPE they need to protect them, which is the most important thing in this situation.
Both the Health Secretary and the Prime Minister have repeatedly claimed that all the information relating to PPE and other covid contracts is published online, so will the Minister tell us specifically where to find details about the VIP lane, including who the entrants were, what they were paid and who introduced them? On behalf of the Government, will he apologise to the numerous NHS and care staff who have been deeply upset by comments made by the Health Secretary yesterday—echoed by himself today—that there was not a shortage of PPE? Does he understand why that is so insulting to the doctors who were forced to wear bin bags in the absence of gowns and to the nurses who were wearing goggles from Screwfix?
As I highlighted to the hon. Lady, we are at 100% compliance on contract award notices. The Prime Minister was referring to the obligation to publish, and that is what we have done. Although the judge ruled that the hon. Lady had no standing to bring this case, I appreciate her long-standing interest in this matter. In respect of her point about the supply of PPE, as the NAO report highlighted, we did not run out of PPE nationally. That is not to say that there were not significant challenges in some hospitals in some areas regarding the distribution of that PPE. That has been acknowledged throughout this pandemic. Our frontline health and social care workers did an amazing job in challenging circumstances, and civil servants across my Department and others worked flat out, day and night, doing an amazing job to get the PPE that was needed.
Finally, I know that transparency and the timely publication of the data are important to the hon. Lady. I highlight one of her own Green councillors in Brighton and Hove who, in a recent written answer on that council’s failure to publish its financial spending figures since, I think, last June, said that the council
“quite rightly, prioritised paying our suppliers and providers as quickly as possible”,
and that it was
“prioritising payment of suppliers and providers over production of this information.”
As my hon. Friend just did, I note from the judgment that Mr Justice Chamberlain found that the three Members of Parliament who sought to join this case did not have standing. In paragraph 107, he stated:
“In a case where there is already a claimant with standing, the addition of politicians as claimants may leave the public with the impression that the proceedings are an attempt to advance a political cause”.
Does my hon. Friend agree that this recent practice of trying to extend politics through court cases is becoming quite damaging to our democracy as a whole, particularly when technical judgments are then deliberately misrepresented, as seems to have happened in this case?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he has said. As a former Justice Minister, I have huge respect for the legal process and, indeed, for the judgment of the courts, but he is right to highlight once again the point that the judge made in his finding that the Members of this House who sought to bring this case had no standing in doing so and that it was the GLP that did. Although I appreciate that Members of this House feel strongly on this issue, and understandably so, I echo his point that I hope they do not seek to use the courts to make political points but rather to use them for what they are there for, which is to highlight legal issues.
The scandal surrounding covid contracts has not just been about the lack of transparency, but about the poor performance of these companies: £350 million to PestFix for PPE that did not meet the required standards; another £347 million to Randox, which had failed on its original £133 million contract by distributing test kits that were not sterile; and, of course, the millions to Serco and others that failed with the track and trace system. Does the Minister agree that all public sector contractors should be held to the highest standard, no matter who their friends are, and will he outline what plans the Government have to hold such contractors to account and recoup millions of pounds of public money, or will he uphold these standards depending on whether the contractors have links with the Conservative party?
On the hon. Lady’s first point, a number of specific cases relating to specific contracts remain before the courts, so if I may I will address her broader point about pursuing the appropriateness of the contractors—whether they could deliver—where they failed to deliver to the appropriate standards, and what steps the Government will take. All contracts were assessed against the eight criteria for appropriateness, including due diligence, safety standards, and whether they meet the specifications and so on. If any contractor did not deliver against that, we will either refuse to pay or we will be seeking to recoup that money, and a number of investigations are already under way to fulfil that commitment.
The hon. Lady also touched on and made a very particular point about Serco—I should have answered this point when the shadow Minister mentioned it, so I hope she will forgive me for coming back to it now. Let me make one point, which I hope the hon. Member for Streatham (Bell Ribeiro-Addy) will be aware of, and I am sure she was not suggesting anything to the contrary. As was made very clear on the “Today” programme last year, I had no involvement with those contracts in any way, shape or form. Although I left the company seven years ago, although I was never a director of that company, and although I have no ongoing links with it, so there would have been no conflict, I none the less had no involvement at any point or at any level with those contracts and I continue to adopt that position. I hope that that is helpful to her in clarifying that point.
The British people want us to keep on fighting this virus, protecting our NHS as we roll out the vaccine and saving lives. Does my hon. Friend agree that sniping from the side lines, as the Labour party is doing, is the opposite of what the people of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke want to see right now in these unprecedented times?
I recognise that all Members of this House and all members of the public in our constituencies want transparency, and quite rightly so, but what is most important to them in the midst of this pandemic and as we emerge from it, is to know that this Government and those who work for them have done everything they can to ensure that we procured the PPE that was necessary, when it was necessary, to protect the frontline and help save lives.
Whether I have standing or not, I am proud to have helped bring this case, alongside the hon. Members for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) and for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams). We did it because we could not get the information through the normal channels in this place. It is also worth noting that, rather than simply admit the breach and then promptly publish all contracts at the beginning of the process, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care chose to push the case to court and then, when he lost, said that he would break the law again. At the heart of the case was always transparency and fairness. Many established businesses felt frozen out because they happened to not be chums with a parliamentarian or a Minister, so my question is this: can the Minister not see how this looks, and can he also not see how delays in publishing these contracts in good time further undermine trust in Government, at a time when trust, as much as PPE, is necessary for saving lives?
Although I made the legal point about lack of standing, I hope that the hon. Lady heard me highlight and acknowledge the fact that she and two other hon. Members clearly have an interest in this, and that she has long-standing interest in this issue and this case. She is right to highlight trust; I think what is central to the trust of the British public is the Government doing everything they can to deliver for our frontline workers the protection they needed to make sure they could keep protecting us safely.
The Secretary of State highlighted at the weekend—I think this is the latest figure—that the publication of notices was, on average, 17 days over the 30 days required. I do believe it is important that transparency is adhered to, but I also remind the hon. Lady that it is extremely important to highlight why this happens. That is why we filed the court papers and defended the case as we did, because it is hugely important for the Court to see why this occurred. The Government continue to do what I believe the public expect us to do: focus on protecting the frontline.
Many excellent companies in the Calder Valley that would not normally bid for Government contracts have stood up for the national effort, and have been making PPE for the national cause even when this is not their core business. This has secured jobs, secured business, and ensured our NHS has had the PPE when it needed it. Can my hon. Friend confirm that all these, and other, Government contracts were awarded in a fair, open and transparent way, following due process, and that this Government have remained committed to publishing them as quickly as possible, even under the pressures of the pandemic?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and like him, I pay tribute to all those businesses and individuals who stepped up in this country’s moment of need, and were willing to put themselves forward and repurpose their factories to try to find ways to help that the national effort. All the contracts have been found so far to be awarded entirely appropriately; there has been no adverse judgment in respect of any of that. Indeed, regulation 32 highlights that in an emergency, contracts can be awarded without tender, and I certainly take the view that the situation we face with this pandemic constitutes a national emergency.
Can the Minister tell me whether it is coincidence, incompetence, or just rank stupidity that his Government and Health Secretary awarded a £30 million contract for testing vials to the Health Secretary’s former neighbour, a former pub landlord who had no experience in this field and is now being investigated by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency? Surely, the Minister agrees that these breaches mean the Health Secretary must resign.
The hon. Lady will not be surprised to know that I completely and utterly disagree with her. I think my right hon. Friend has done, and continues to do, an extraordinary job under extraordinary pressure to help this country through this pandemic over the past year.
The hon. Lady raised a very specific issue. It has been made clear that neither the Health Secretary nor any other Minister had any involvement in the assessment, the due diligence, or any decisions in respect of that contract.
The judge very clearly found that there was a breach in relation to one matter: the 17-day average delay. He rejected the suggestion that there was a systematic failure. He rejected the suggestion that there is any impropriety in the system for awarding the contracts and did not impugn any of the contracts themselves or the process by which they were awarded. Most lawyers would know that this was a technical breach, as it has been described, albeit a breach. Is not the real moral of this that when those of us in politics seek to comment upon judgments, it is a good idea to actually read the judgment first and understand the law on which it is based, rather than grandstanding inaccurately, as has too often been the case here?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. He is absolutely right to highlight what this judgment actually said. It found, in what had to be a binary judgment—either it was complied with or it was not—that the Government failed to comply with the 30-day publication timing for all contracts. He is right: the judge rejected the suggestion of any policy of deprioritisation. I read the 40 pages of Justice Chamberlain’s judgment, including the setting out of the different cases put by the two parties, the discussion of it and then, crucially, his findings on it. I would advise all Members who take an interest in this issue to do exactly the same thing, because legal judgments are rarely as clearcut or as simple as some commentators and others might wish to suggest.
The Government’s infatuation with private sector delivery of pandemic public services has led them to ignore basic procurement best practice, replacing value for money with cronyism and due diligence with pub pals. Will the Government commit, as Labour has done, to a programme of insourcing and start by handing over the failing Serco test and trace to the public sector, which has made such a success of the vaccine delivery?
On the hon. Lady’s main point about private and public and, I would add, voluntary sector organisations, every one of those has stepped up and made a hugely important contribution to our country’s response to this pandemic. I wish to pay tribute to public sector organisations. I spent 10 years as a councillor, and I entirely recognise the amazing work they do. I pay tribute to private sector organisations, which have also stepped up for our country, and to voluntary sector organisations. For me, it is not an either/or; it is both, and it is about what delivers the best outcome for the public. Anything less would be letting down our constituents and letting down our public services.
At the height of the pandemic, the contracts we signed allowed us to stand side by side with the private sector, procuring enormous volumes of goods and expertise with extreme urgency. Does my hon. Friend agree that without these vital contracts, our covid response would have suffered as a result?
I agree entirely. Some of the narrative around this reminds me slightly of my days back at school and “Animal Farm”—“Four legs good, two legs bad.” The reality is that both private sector and public sector have played an incredible role in tackling this pandemic, for which we should be extremely grateful. We need both, and we need both to continue delivering in the public interest, which is what we have secured.
A couple of points seem to be coming up from this discussion. The first is that there were no shortages of PPE. That is patently not true. We have clear evidence that that was the case, not least from Exercise Cygnus back in 2016, but also from constituents working in the NHS who have reported this directly to me and to colleagues. The second is that the Government have published all the contracts, and the Minister has made reference to 100% of contract award notices being published. Unfortunately, we are not able to verify that. That is the key point made by the NAO, which said that there are still £4 billion-worth of contracts since November 2020 where we have no idea who they have gone to or how much for. Once again, will the Minister commit to publishing these VIP contracts, how much they were for, who they were awarded to and what for?
The hon. Lady and I have known each other for a long time and she made her point forcefully but, as ever, fairly. She raised a number of points. In respect of PPE supplies, as I made clear to the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), the NAO report—I believe from last November—said that supplies did not run out nationally, but as I have clarified that is not to say that there were not local shortages and challenges in individual trusts, as I acknowledged to the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion. That is why we procured as much as we could as quickly as we could.
The hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) raised Exercise Cygnus, which has come up a number of times. It is important to remember that Exercise Cygnus did not look at tackling a novel pandemic; it looked at influenza specifically. The PPE required for dealing with a disease of covid’s nature is very different from that required for flu. That exercise had, as one of its predicated actions, the swift arrival of antivirals to be delivered to tackle the flu; such antivirals did not exist until much later in the case of covid. It is important that we learned from Exercise Cygnus, but we should be careful about reading it directly across as representing a blueprint for how to tackle a pandemic of this sort.
On the hon. Lady’s final point about transparency, as I have made clear, the Government remain committed to transparency and to the publication of contracts, as required under the regulations.
At the height of the first wave of the pandemic, we looked to the Government to procure and distribute tens of thousands of critical items of PPE in Scunthorpe. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government should of course remain committed to following all the detail of procurement rules, but that protecting our frontline health workers should always come first?
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. It should not have to be an either/or, but we all remember the conditions in which our amazing civil servants were working at pace back at the start of this pandemic. They were working flat out and they included, as was acknowledged in the Court papers, civil servants who were not Department of Health and Social Care civil servants but were seconded from other Departments to work on different systems just to get that PPE ordered and delivered to protect the frontline, which was the priority. It should not be an either/or, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right that at the height of that first wave, it was absolutely right that the focus of those dedicated officials was on getting the PPE that we needed.
I am not an expert in public procurement, but even in an emergency I would expect that diligent contracts would include full payment-on-delivery clauses or clawback measures for failure to supply. The Minister mentioned in an earlier reply that the British Government are pursuing contractors who have failed to meet their obligations. How much public money has been regained to date? Will he ensure that the House is updated on the Government’s efforts to recoup misspent public money?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to highlight the fact that if contracts do not deliver, either to standard or not at all, public money should either not be paid or be recouped. We are currently going through a number of investigations to deliver exactly that, and I am happy to commit that at the appropriate juncture we will of course update the House.
Does the Minister accept that illegal acts are those that contravene the law and that unlawful acts are those that contravene the rules? A handball in soccer is unlawful, not illegal. Does he accept the point made by the Chairman of the Justice Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), that this was a technical breach that has been overcome, and that the Department is going out of its way to make sure that that happens quickly?
I suspect I can do no better than to quote the judgment, which stated that in respect of regulation 50 the Government “acted unlawfully”, but my hon. Friend is right to highlight the fact that—again, as the judgment set out—the Secretary of State is almost at complete compliance, which is exactly what the Government are committed to.
The Government claim that this is just a case of a few PPE contracts being published a couple of weeks late, but in fact we know that hundreds of millions of pounds-worth of contracts also went to management consultants. Will the Minister confirm whether all the contracts for which the publishing deadline was missed, from the start of the pandemic until now, were in fact for PPE, or did they also include contracts that have gone to private consultants? Will he explain why those contracts were not published on time?
Can my hon. Friend confirm that all Government contracts are awarded in a fair, open and transparent way following correct due process, and that this Government remain committed to publishing them as quickly as possible, even under the pressure of this pandemic? Does he agree that the public are much keener that we address the real issues of the pandemic than engage in political point scoring?
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend, about both the Government’s commitment to transparency and to publishing contracts within the regulations, and in reminding everyone about where we were a little under a year ago, and the absolute focus by so many amazing and dedicated civil servants on getting the PPE we needed and getting it in quantity.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime says in its “Recover with Integrity” campaign that emergency responses
“must be anchored in law and be implemented by strong public institutions, with the involvement and under the oversight of members of parliament, anti-corruption bodies, civil society and the private sector.”
It is clear that hon. Members have numerous questions on these contracts, so will the Minister now advocate such action as backing my Ministerial Interests (Emergency Powers) Bill to make sure that Parliament can scrutinise the Government’s actions and that Members of this House and the public can be confident that there is no suggestion of any corruption taking root?
I would rebut any suggestion that there is any corruption taking root, to use the hon. Gentleman’s words. Members of this House have the ability to ask questions and the NAO has the ability to ask questions. The hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) will, I suspect, ask me a question in a moment, but she also has the ability to ask questions in the Public Accounts Committee, which she chairs, which, I believe, took evidence for three and a half hours in December from various senior officials in the Department. I am aware of the hon. Gentleman’s Bill, which I am sure the Government will look at in the usual way.
At the start of this pandemic the British people rightly expected the Government to leave no stone unturned in securing the vital supplies of PPE that were needed to fight the pandemic. Does the Minister agree that the findings from the National Audit Office make it clear that while we were in the grip of the global shortage of PPE, no health trust ran out of supplies at any point, and that that was thanks to the contracts that the Government managed to secure?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. We did take every step we could to ensure that trusts had the PPE they needed. The NAO report said:
“The NHS provider organisations we spoke to told us that, while they were concerned about the low stocks of PPE, they were always able to get what they needed in time.”
I will touch on that point first. Paragraph 18 of the summary says exactly what the Minister said, but it then goes on to say, however, that frontline workers reported shortages of PPE. It does not behove him well to come to this House clearly having had Back Benchers briefed about a partial element of the National Audit Office’s report that is inaccurate when taken in the round. He needs to deal with that point.
My bigger point is on the transparency of the contracts. The Minister has talked breathlessly about the urgency at the early stage of the pandemic. Let us be clear: by the end of the summer and the autumn, many of the contracts had still not been published. The civil service is usually good at record-keeping and transparency, but on this occasion there was a failure. He should have the guts to come to the House, apologise, and promise it will not happen again. More transparency, not less, is vital when billions of pounds are being spent, in haste in a pandemic.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady, who knows this issue exceptionally well and has investigated it over a number of months. Of course, as always, I listen to what she says carefully and with considerable respect. On her first point, she is right to say that the NAO reported that some frontline workers had told it that they had experienced shortages. We are reflecting what we were told by our trusts and by those running the delivery of PPE in those trusts, and what the NAO was told by them. She alluded to the key point—as I believe I said in response to the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas)—that we did not run out of PPE nationally, but there were challenges, which I acknowledged and do acknowledge, at some individual trusts and in some localities. That is why we worked at pace to make sure that they got what they needed and did not run out of PPE. That is exactly why officials in the Department were working so hard and pulling out all the stops to make sure we ordered more PPE and got more of it delivered.
The hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch made a broader point about transparency, and of course it is a vital point. I believe it was the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) who highlighted trust. Trust is always the currency of politics; it is always the one thing that everyone requires, in government and in this House. It is important that that is fostered by as much transparency as possible. The judgment found that in a number of cases the Government did not meet the 30-day deadline. The hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch asks for an assurance now, and I can give her the assurance that the Government are doing everything they can to ensure that regulation 50 is complied with, and complied with fully.
The British people want us to focus on fighting this virus, so that we can protect our NHS as we roll-out the vaccine and save lives. Does my hon. Friend agree that the political sniping some of the Opposition are engaging in is the exact opposite of what people expect and want to see politicians doing?
There are 60,000 pub landlords in this country and many of them have lots to give in a time of crisis, but is it not a coincidence that the one who gets a massive contract happens to be the one who has the mobile phone number of the Health Secretary? There are hundreds of racehorse owners in this country. Is it not funny that it just so happens that the one who gets a top job, without the need for an interview, happens to be a mate of the Health Secretary? And on and on it goes. If this behaviour was going on in a country in the developing world, there would be howls of “Corruption!” from those on the Tory Benches and calls for the aid budget to be cut. Is it not true that, when it comes to jobs for friends, dodgy contracts and all the rest that has been going on which has been normalised by this Government, they and the Tory party have a blind spot?
Again, I have huge respect for the hon. Gentleman, who is normally measured and tempered, but I fear on this occasion that he has not done himself justice in the points he makes. As I have made clear, and as has been made clear, all contracts that were awarded were assessed by an eight-stage process run by the civil service—checking due diligence, appropriateness, ability to deliver and price—and not by Ministers. On the specific contract he mentioned, it has been made clear that the Secretary of State had no involvement in the award of that contract or its assessment.
I think the whole tenor of the discussion today demonstrates a need for greater transparency, as the Minister has said. One way of doing that is by extending freedom of information to include all companies engaged in publicly funded contracts. I am concerned about the data contract with the US data company Palantir, which is notorious for its links with Trump and the white supremacist far right. Will the Minister confirm whether that contract has been the subject of a data protection impact assessment, including a public consultation, and whether Palantir will be able to sell on NHS data at a later stage, even, for example, to the Conservative party for electoral purposes?
I am a great believer in competitive tendering to gain the right value for money for the public sector. At the height of the first wave of the pandemic, my local hospital, Northwick Park, came perilously close to being overwhelmed by the number of patients and by having only one day’s supply of PPE within the hospital. Thanks to Government actions and the Department of Health and Social Care, that was remedied. What does my hon. Friend think would have happened if the Government had decided to competitively tender all those items and wait potentially three months before the supplies were available?
My hon. Friend highlights the work of his fantastic hospital at Northwick Park and the fact, which I alluded to in response to the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, that while we did not run out of PPE nationally, there were some real challenges at a number of sites. They did an amazing job to ensure that they had the PPE they needed. I believe the minimum time it can take to run a tender is around a month, and I certainly would not have wished to see us not utilising regulation 32 and waiting a month to order and secure the PPE that his hospital and those working in it needed.
The people of Newport West have looked at the media reports, the court judgments and the answers given in this House on this matter with horror. There appears to be no respect for honest, law-abiding citizens who play by the rules, and that is unacceptable, so when will Ministers finally show their respect for the will of the people and the ruling of the court and stop this reckless behaviour?
I have made it clear that I and Ministers always respect the courts and the judgments delivered in them. I also have great respect for, and recognise the importance of, transparency. I would say to the hon. Lady, however, that I also respect the need to rapidly deliver the PPE that was needed last year at the height of the pandemic, which is what our constituents would expect us to do. As we cast our minds back, I think that is what they would have wanted us to focus on at that time. On her final point, yes I am quite happy to restate the Government’s commitment to the importance of transparency.
Using the VIP lane, a PPE contract for £313 million was awarded to PestFix, a company that had never before supplied medical PPE. To put this fantastical sum into perspective, a free school meal every day for a year for every child in Wales in a family getting universal credit would cost £101 million —less than a third of the sum gifted to PestFix. Given the Minister’s unapologetic replies so far, does he even begin to understand why the perception of his Government’s default cronyism has angered so many people?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I will not comment on specific cases because, as I mentioned at the beginning, some are still subject to actions before the courts and I do not want to cut across those legal processes. The broader point I would make is that I think people will understand that this Government and the unsung heroes of the pandemic—the civil servants and officials who have worked throughout it—pulled out all the stops to do what was necessary and essential to procure the PPE. If we look back 10 months or so, it was the most pressing issue in this country to ensure that our frontline workers got the protection they needed.
When I reflect on my inbox from nearly a year ago, I remember that my constituents were expressing huge anxiety about access to personal protective equipment in nursing homes and medical establishments, so will my hon. Friend accept the thanks of my constituents for having acted so swiftly to ensure that the necessary essential equipment got where it needed to be? Does he share my frustration that that success is being overshadowed by the frankly dubious attempts to muck-rake in respect of the process that was undertaken?
The equipment was procured, it was secured and it was delivered. It did what we would all have wished it to do: it went to the frontline to protect people and to ensure that hospitals and trusts did not run out of PPE at that crucial point in the first wave. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight what I believe the British public would have wished to see us doing, which was focusing on getting the PPE to those who needed it as fast as we could in that crisis.
The Committee for Standards in Public Life is currently undertaking an inquiry focused on the upholding of the Nolan principles of public life, which include integrity, accountability and openness. Given that it has been reported that civil servants delayed publications at the behest of No. 10 special advisers, and given that we have ended up in a situation where this matter has been taken to court, does the Minister believe that the Government have met those standards?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question, but in answer I revert back to what the judge, Mr Justice Chamberlain, said in his findings in this case: he found no evidence of a policy of deprioritisation of meeting transparency requirements on publication.
My Dudley North constituents, like me, can see right through this urgent question for its petty political intent. For the avoidance of doubt, will my hon. Friend confirm how many people came to harm because this paperwork was two weeks late, compared with the harm that would have arisen from PPE and medical equipment being received two weeks late?
Transparency is important. The Chair of the Public Accounts Committee and others have rightly made that point, but saving lives is important and, I would argue, in the height of the pandemic, more important. It was right that civil servants and others focused entirely on that purpose of getting the PPE to reduce the risk of loss of life, and as the judge acknowledged, they have worked very hard subsequently to catch up with the transparency requirements to ensure that the information is published and is available for interrogation.
As they say, if it smells of fish, it is fish, but in this case it is like Billingsgate market. When it comes to Government contracts, someone is 10 times more likely to get one if they have a Government contact. The protocols are clear, as the Supreme Court confirmed, and the Health Secretary acted unlawfully in not revealing the details of contracts with his pub landlord, a hedge fund in Mauritius or the jeweller in Florida, yet there was insufficient PPE available in our social care system. As the NAO said, it was 10% of what was required. For our frontline health workers, there was just not enough FFP3. The Minister says that trust is vital, but is it not the truth that Ministers’ mates and their suppliers in China have been favoured in supplying PPE over UK companies such as Tecman and Contechs in my constituency?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his initial analogy. He made a couple of points there. I believe—this is from memory, so forgive me if I am slightly out, and I will correct the record if I am—that around 90% of those bids that came through the high-priority lane were rejected. They were carefully assessed by civil servants against the eight stages of the procurement process set up to ensure that due diligence was followed.
The hon. Gentleman raised a very specific point, which I want to address, because he talked in his question not just about NHS trusts, but quite rightly about those working on the frontline in social care settings and the PPE they needed. He quotes accurately, if my recollection is correct, from the NAO report. One of the factors here was that traditionally, social care settings are private businesses in most cases and procured their PPE directly in private contracts with their suppliers. That is one of the reasons why, as I mentioned in my opening remarks, during the early phase of the pandemic we moved from supplying 226 trusts with PPE to making that service available to 58,000 or so settings to get PPE to social care. That was a reflection of the Government’s commitment and work to make sure that we could use centralised procurement and centralised supply to help support the social care sector get what it needed.
I commend the Government for their efforts to do whatever it took to protect the frontline during the height of the pandemic. Will the Minister join me in extending our thanks to the amazing NHS workforce and the armed forces personnel working at James Cook University Hospital and Redcar Primary Care Hospital, as well as our teams in primary care, without whom we would not have vaccinated 18 million people?
I am very happy to join my hon. Friend in doing that. I suspect that, in what has been a contentious urgent question, that is a point on which there will be consensus between me and the shadow Minister. We pay tribute to those working on the frontline of our NHS and social care, and those helping with the vaccination programme.
Does the Minister share my view that, although transparency is important, saving lives is even more important, and that the public servants who have done much to secure the vital supplies of protective equipment that we need deserve our praise, not criticism? Will he clarify that the information required by the judicial review judgment will be revealed in a timely manner?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is absolutely right to pay tribute to the officials and those who were working flat out at the height of the pandemic, often through the night and at weekends. Even when working from home, they did not see much of their families because they were working incredibly hard to procure the PPE we needed to keep people safe. I pay tribute to them. On the hon. Gentleman’s final point, my understanding is that the additional information required by the judgment must be supplied to the court by Friday, and I expect that the judge will make that public.
Speed is vital during a public health emergency, but transparency remains important. What assurances can my hon. Friend give us that, although paperwork can never come before delivering essential medical equipment and services to the frontline, the Government are committed to publishing contracts in a timely manner to ensure that my constituents in Dudley South can have confidence that the processes are fair, open and transparent?
I thank my hon. Friend. He is absolutely right. Getting PPE to the frontline, procuring what we needed and getting it delivered was the absolute priority. As I have expressed throughout my remarks, I recognise that transparency is hugely important, and we will supply the court with the further information it needs. As the judge said, we are now virtually in complete compliance, and we will continue to work hard to ensure we comply with the requirements under regulation 50 and the other requirements of the Public Contracts Regulations 2015.
Uber: Supreme Court Ruling
I want to begin by making it absolutely clear that everyone deserves to be treated fairly at work and rewarded for their contribution to the economy with both fair pay and fair working conditions. This means that employers must take their responsibilities seriously, not simply opt out of them. If there is a dispute between the individual and an employer, as seen in the recent case involving Uber, the courts consider each case on an individual basis. The courts are independent and the Government do not intervene. As such, with the Supreme Court being the final stage of the appeal, its judgment is final and Uber will need to take action to align with the judgment.
The Government recognise concerns about employment status being unclear in some cases, and we are committed to making it easier for individuals and businesses to understand which rights and tax obligations apply to them. We have made good progress in bringing forward measures that add flexibility for workers while ensuring the protection of employment rights. For example, we have legislated to extend the right to a written statement of core terms of employment to all workers, making access to a written statement a day one right and extending the contents of a written statement. We have also banned the use of exclusivity contracts and zero-hours contracts to give workers more flexibility. This means an employer cannot stop an individual on a zero-hours contract from looking for, or accepting work from, another employer. We will continue to explore options for employment status that protect rights while also maintaining flexibility in the labour market. This Government have a proud history of protecting and enhancing workers’ rights, and we are committed to making the UK the best place in the world to work.
Last Friday’s Supreme Court ruling on Uber was a landmark victory for working people, and testament to the hard work of the GMB union, the App Drivers and Couriers Union and the drivers who brought the action. It rejected Uber’s bogus claim that its drivers are self-employed, ruling instead that they are workers and therefore entitled to basic rights that they have so far been denied, such at the national minimum wage and holiday pay. The ruling has far-reaching consequences for tens of thousands of Uber drivers as well as all gig economy workers.
Yet Uber is attempting to dodge the Supreme Court’s ruling, just as it attempts to dodge its responsibilities to its drivers, by trying to interpret the ruling so that it applies to only a tiny minority of its workforce. If Uber ignores the ruling, tens of thousands of workers will be cheated out of their rights, forcing low-paid and precarious workers to spend time and money that they can ill afford in order to litigate to recover withheld wages, in cases that they will likely win but will take years to conclude. The Government should not abandon working people to fight for their rights in the courts, so will the Minister take this opportunity to make it clear that the judgment applies to all Uber drivers, and that the company cannot continue to cheat its drivers out of their basic rights?
Even before the pandemic, one in 10 working adults—around 5 million—were found to be working in the gig economy, in fragile and insecure work, and with one-sided flexibility. It is bad for those workers, bad for the economy and, as we have seen from the pandemic, a disaster for public health. Will the Minister confirm that the principles of the judgment in the Uber case must apply not only to all Uber drivers, but to all those on similar arrangements across the country?
Let me say again that the Government cannot abrogate their responsibility by telling workers to fight for their basic protection through an employment tribunal system that barely functions following a decade of neglect. Working people need a Government who will stand behind them, so will the Minister commit now to legislate to end bogus self-employment and provide security to all gig economy workers?
As I have said, the Government are clear that everybody deserves to be treated fairly at work and rewarded for their contribution to the economy. The judgment has been laid down and there are no further avenues for appeal, so Uber must respond accordingly. The hon. Gentleman talked about clarifying employment status and rights. We are committed to continuing to look at workers’ rights, and to ensure that we consider carefully and in the round all the questions about the various workers’ rights, while keeping flexibility in our employment market.
May I urge the Government not to take an Uber free market approach in these matters, and to recall that the Conservative party has a long history of defending workers from ruthless entrepreneurs? For instance, in the 19th century, Disraeli resisted attempts by the then Liberal Government to prevent workers from picketing when on strike. Can the Minister be absolutely robust today and say, following the question from the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald), that we believe this is a landmark judgment and that Uber must now accept that its hard-working drivers, many of whom have come from abroad and deserve protection, are employed and deserve all the rights of fully employed people?
My right hon. Friend talks about Uber in isolation, but clearly any number of other operators in the gig economy will be looking at the judgment, and it is important that they respond accordingly. The Government will also respond accordingly, because we always recognise the valuable contribution made by those working in the gig economy, and people do value the flexibility it offers, but we must also ensure that those workers are adequately protected.
I commend the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald), for securing this urgent question. In towns and cities across Scotland, the rise of the gig economy has been clear for all to see. Despite the flexibility that it offers some workers, it is nowhere near giving them the same rights and protections as others—there is no maternity leave, no holidays and no sick leave. This ruling by the Supreme Court should rightly change that, and I say “should” because, ultimately, employment law remains in the grip of the Tories at Westminster, rather than in the hands of Scotland’s Parliament.
We are all worried about a bonfire of workers’ rights in this post-Brexit world. We have all seen the Government refuse to support the Bill put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) to end the appalling practice of fire and rehire. I heard the Minister’s warm words, but this is an easy opportunity for him to take a small step in the right direction when it comes to workers’ rights. Will he confirm that his Government fully back the Supreme Court ruling and that they will make no attempt through legislation to overturn, undermine or circumvent it?
The Supreme Court ruling is final. We recognise the concerns about employment status and the potential for exploitation. We want to make it easier for individuals and businesses to understand what rights and tax obligations apply to them, and we are currently considering options to improve clarity around employment status. I have previously talked about the fact that ACAS was charged with considering fire and rehire and gathering evidence, and it has done so. It reported back to BEIS, and we will consider what it found.
This is a landmark ruling by the Supreme Court, but many people will be concerned that companies such as Uber should not be left to interpret what it means, because otherwise we will see a disparity between the different companies employing workers in the gig economy—for example, a deliverer for Just Eat is an employee, but one for Deliveroo is not. Will my hon. Friend give serious consideration to the Government legislating to create a level playing field and to stop these abuses?
As I have said, we will look at employment conditions and ensure that employees can understand their status and tax payment conditions. There is a complication, in that the companies my hon. Friend mentioned each have different contracts, so it is important that we have something that looks at all those things in the round.
Does the Minister agree with the GMB union, which fought this legal battle for four years, that now is the time for Uber to face up to its legal and moral responsibilities, pay decent wages and give decent holidays to its employees? It truly is time to legislate, legislate, legislate, rather than look again.
Uber has to respond to the Supreme Court’s judgment, which is final. We have talked about the fact that the gig economy offers individuals flexibility and provides opportunities for those who may not be able to work in more conventional ways, but we must make sure that they are protected and that we have a balance between flexibility and protecting employment rights.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right in terms of what we have done on workers’ rights. We have talked about the fact that in no way will we be diluting workers’ rights. We want to make sure that employers, workers and the self-employed understand exactly what their status means and their tax protections, but we have a number of rights that stand up incredibly well in comparison with the EU and other countries around the world.