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Prime Minister

Volume 689: debated on Wednesday 24 February 2021

The Prime Minister was asked—


This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.

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.

If the UK is to become the Saudi Arabia of wind power, off my coast of North Norfolk is surely the capital. But the current piecemeal and environmentally damaging connection method to the national grid is holding us back, as was proven by the Vattenfall judicial review just last week. We need legal and regulatory reform now. Prime Minister, could this be a job for the new Taskforce on Innovation, Growth and Regulatory Reform to help us to implement the much-needed offshore transmission network and meet our net zero targets? (912356)

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.

The Prime Minister’s road map will provide many of my constituents in Morley and Outwood with a vision of hope that life is set to return to a new normal before the end of June, allowing us to celebrate the great British summer. Can he inform the House of the pre-emptive actions that the Government are taking to spot, prevent and limit the damage of any future health emergencies, so that local economies in constituencies such as mine have certainty that this will be their last lockdown? (912358)

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.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister knows how important the rail link between Southport and Manchester Piccadilly is for my constituents and those living in the wider Lancashire area. All the changes put forward by the Manchester rail recovery taskforce are unacceptable: they would stop this service from happening and take our levelling-up agenda off track. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss changes to these proposals, so that we can keep this service and keep my constituents with the service that they have come to rely on and which is vital for their economy? (912359)

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.

Penrith and The Border struggles with poor broadband and phone signal connectivity, with download speeds around 56% of the UK average. Many of my constituents have been quoted large and unfeasible sums for new cables to be installed, which is often their only option to improve coverage. I welcome the potential of the shared rural network, the gigabit voucher scheme and the universal service obligation to help, but what reassurance can my right hon. Friend give my constituents that Government are striving to address these broadband and phone signal notspots in rural Cumbria? (912361)

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.

Is the 40% cut to Transport for the North’s budget part of the Prime Minister’s plans for levelling up the north? (912355)

There has been no such cut, and we intend to invest massively in Northern Powerhouse Rail, and in railways in the north and across the entire country.

Although hospitality has had to close its doors, in true black country spirit many of my venues have been entrepreneurial and now offer a great takeaway service. To celebrate that entrepreneurial spirit, today I am launching a “favourite takeaway” competition in my constituency. Will the Prime Minister join me in launching that competition, and will he also join me in a takeaway from the winning entrant when he is next in wonderful Stourbridge? He will receive a very warm welcome, and I would be happy to throw in a trip on the country’s finest shuttle, which I hope to see soon, called the “Stourbridge Dasher.” (912362)

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.

The education and wellbeing recovery of children from the pandemic is one of the biggest challenges facing our country. We went into this pandemic with rising child poverty, a widening attainment gap, and school funding falling in real terms. Given that, does the Prime Minister believe that the 43 pence per pupil per day announced today really cuts it? If he does, would he be happy to see that amount spent on his own children? (912357)

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.

Janene Maguire in my constituency, a mother of three, suffered a unusual, unexpected and immediate cardiac arrest that sadly saw her pass away in February 2000. Twenty years later, in August last year, one of her daughters, Cara, strangely suffered the same fate, with an unexpected cardiac arrest. Fortunately, her friend Michael was with her. He was a former soldier and thus trained in first aid and lifesaving, and despite Cara’s heart stopping for 20 minutes, he managed to save her life. In September last year, the UK Government made it mandatory for CPR skills to be taught in secondary schools, but despite a campaign and a letter from all my Welsh Conservative colleagues, the Minister for Education in Wales has declined to do that. Will my right hon. Friend throw the weight of his office behind my campaign to have CPR skills taught in Wales, so that the Maguire family, and those like them, no longer have to suffer such tragic circumstances? (912363)

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.

There has been much focus of late on children returning safely to school. In my constituency, successive cohorts of pupils have had to wade through overflowing drains to get into school, and they are routinely evacuated from flooded classrooms. That takes a huge toll on the quality of their learning. Will the Prime Minister work again with Lancashire County Council and the headteacher of Town Green Primary School to ensure that no child in West Lancashire loses a vital day of education, especially to flooding-related issues? (912360)

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 right hon. Friend will know that pubs have been closing all over Britain for decades now, tearing the hearts out of communities. This terrible pandemic has made things even worse. Part of the problem is undercutting by cheap supermarket booze. Surely, now that we are out of the EU, we can do as we please with beer duty. Differentiation in favour of on-sales could deliver great benefits to pubs in communities such as Clacton, at nil cost to the taxpayer. Will my right hon. Friend commit Ministers to looking at that differentiation proposal? (912364)

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 was disappointed that the Prime Minister did not accept my offer to meet him when he recently visited my constituency’s wonderful Fujifilm vaccine complex in Billingham to celebrate our local success story. I could have taken him to nearby Billingham food bank, where he would have learned that over a third of the children in my constituency live in poverty, yet two in five of those same children are still not entitled to free school meals because the threshold is so low. Will he urgently address that scandal, take long-term action on universal credit and school meals, and help free our children from poverty? (912365)

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 right hon. Friend will recall from his visit in 2019 that the port of Bristol would make an excellent location for a great western freeport. The West of England Mayor, Tim Bowles, has submitted a bid that could create 50,000 jobs in the region. Will the Prime Minister back our bid, and does he agree that, with house prices in the west of England sitting at nine times average earnings, we need a home building revolution to provide much more affordable housing for our young people as we build back better? (912366)

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.

Before the Budget is finalised, will the Prime Minister ensure that his Chancellor reads the Trussell Trust’s new report, “Dignity or Destitution? The case for keeping the Universal Credit lifeline”? His Government have been incredibly generous to pals with personal protective equipment contracts, so surely, instead of cutting employment-related benefits to the lowest real-terms level in 30 years, he must now afford some basic dignity to 6 million people on universal credit and make the uplift permanent. (912368)

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.

I start by thanking my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary for his announcement of a new high school for Radcliffe, on the back of my campaign. This new high school will kickstart the regeneration that the town desperately needs. On towns such as Radcliffe and Prestwich, which have not received towns fund or future high streets funding, can my right hon. Friend advise on what assistance this levelling-up Government can provide to make sure these towns are not forgotten? (912367)

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.

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

Sitting suspended.