House of Commons
Thursday 25 February 2021
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Orders, 4 June and 30 December 2020). [NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Business Before Questions
The Vice-Chamberlain of the Household reported to the House, That Her Majesty had received its Humble Addresses praying that she should reappoint Dame Susan Bruce DBE as an Electoral Commissioner with effect from 1 January 2021 for the period ending on 31 December 2023 and Dame Elan Closs Stephens DBE as an Electoral Commissioner with effect from 13 March 2021 for the period ending on 12 March 2025, and that she was graciously pleased to comply with the request.
Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority
The Vice-Chamberlain of the Household reported to the House, That Her Majesty had received its Humble Addresses praying that she should appoint Helen Jones to the office of ordinary member of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority with effect from 1 January 2021 for the period ending 31 December 2025 and that she should reappoint Sir Robert Owen to the office of ordinary member of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority with effect from 1 January 2021 for the period ending 31 December 2023, and that she was graciously pleased to comply with the request.
The Vice-Chamberlain of the Household reported to the House, That Her Majesty had received its Humble Address praying that she should appoint Alexander Attwood as an Electoral Commissioner with effect from 1 February 2021 for the period ending on 31 January 2024, and that she was graciously pleased to comply with the request.
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Trade Deals with ASEAN Countries
Last year, we secured trade deals with Vietnam and Singapore. This month, I submitted our application to CPTPP—the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership—a huge free trade area covering £9 trillion of GDP, which contains four ASEAN countries.
First, I congratulate my right hon. Friend on everything she and her Department have achieved in terms of signing trade deals across the world. It is certainly important that the UK continues to engage in deepening its trading relationships with its close allies and trading partners, such as Australia, New Zealand and the United States, but there are also many other significant trading partners and friends across the globe, such as the Kingdom of Thailand, where I serve as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy. Could my right hon. Friend see her way to prioritising Thailand in the next round of countries to engage in formal free trade agreement negotiations, so that we can formalise our trading relationship with this long-standing and valued trading partner?
My hon. Friend is right to highlight the importance of Thailand. We have a bilateral relationship worth £5 billion a year and he is doing a fantastic job as our trade envoy to that great country. We are currently conducting a joint trade review to identify priorities in agriculture, pharmaceuticals and food and drink, and this is strong groundwork for a future FTA negotiation.
I am delighted to see that the Secretary of State is answering questions about the 2.9% of our global trade that we have with ASEAN countries, having refused to answer questions about the 47% of our trade with Europe. However, as that is clearly her priority, can she tell us this: why has she decided not to suspend Cambodia’s trade preferences, given the escalating human rights abuses in that country? How bad would these abuses need to get before the so-called “last resort” was reached?
I would point out to the right hon. Lady that the trade that I am responsible for covers 80% of GDP, and the reason why we have not hitherto had as much trade with that part of the world is because of the high trade barriers that we are seeking to remove through these trade agreements. I do, however, share her concerns about human rights violations in Cambodia, and this Government continue to raise the issue with the Cambodian Government at every opportunity.
I listened carefully to the Secretary of State’s answer, which I find very interesting indeed. Is she not aware of the guidance that has been given by her Department to UK companies doing business in Cambodia? It was published by her Department last week and contains this reassuring advice:
“while political disputes could trigger protests, these would be broken up rapidly by the security forces.”
That sounds to me like her Department does not care. How does the Secretary of State think it sounds in Cambodia?
As I have said, we are concerned about the situation in Cambodia, but it is important to recognise that trade sanctions can often have impacts on the poorest people in a country. The best way that we can achieve our objectives is through the work of the Foreign Office and my colleague the Foreign Secretary, in raising this issue at a political level.
Mòran taing fawr, Mr Speaker. The UK Government have removed direct access to the EU market, damaging GDP for the UK by about 4.9%, and that is the area that 47% of UK exports go to. The Minister has not replaced that with any new markets at all; all the new deals have been merely rollovers of EU deals. So, forgetting all the flowery adjectives about trade deals, and she did talk about GDP, what do the numbers say about the gains to GDP from ASEAN trade deals? Also, does she have any numbers for CPTPP yet?
The Chairman of the Select Committee understands that a lot of the economies we are talking about are fast-growing. We want to be in a position, in 2030 to 2040, to make sure that the UK has deep relationships with some of the fastest-growing parts of the world, like CPTPP, the United States and places where our exports are currently growing faster than they are for the EU. I would also point out to him that it is Lord Frost and the Cabinet Office who are responsible for negotiating and working with the EU.
Trade Deals: Human Rights Clauses
The United Kingdom has long promoted her values globally. While our approach to agreements will vary between partners, it will always allow this Government to open discussions on issues, including on rights and responsibilities. We are clear that more trade does not have to come at the expense of our values.
The Lords have listened to the Minister’s objections to the genocide amendment and done everything to accommodate them in its latest iteration, while retaining the fundamental objective that judges should decide whether genocide has been committed. On behalf of the Government, will the Minister of State finally agree to accept the will of Parliament and back this historic amendment?
We are clear that Britain has a long history of protecting rights and promoting our values globally. We will continue to encourage all states to uphold international rights obligations, including under the convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide. We supported an amendment in this House on the principle of a formal parliamentary process leading to a guaranteed debate, but the latest amendment is unacceptable because it seeks to bring about constitutional reform by the back door, and it would impinge on the proper constitutional settlement, blurring the distinctions between the courts and Parliament.
I say to the Minister that this country does have a proud record of upholding human rights, but this Government have a very unhappy record of allowing, for example, arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which has seen the killing of innocent men, women and children. On that basis, does he accept that trust is fundamentally important on the issue of human rights under any Government? Why should anybody trust this Government?
I certainly want to make sure that all Members across this House can trust this Government, but I say gently to the hon. Gentleman that Labour’s record on this is hypocritical and, sadly, it enabled antisemitism to be rife within its ranks. They turned a blind eye to terrible behaviour from countries that they like, like Venezuela, and the shadow Secretary of State even shared a platform with Hamas. So we will not be lectured by the Opposition on these issues.
I last raised this issue on the Floor of the House on 19 November, and the Minister for Trade Policy told me to
“judge us on our deeds and not always on our words.”—[Official Report, 19 November 2020; Vol. 684, c. 455.]
So can I clarify, when it comes to human rights and Saudi air strikes in Yemen, that we should be judging the Government on the export licensing statistics published last month, which included the sale of £1.36 billion-worth of bombs and missiles to Saudi between July and September 2020—almost as much as the last 19 quarters put together?
I just want to press the Minister on the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith). Last September, the UN said that Saudi airstrikes in Yemen had led to a consistent pattern of harm to civilians, unlike our own Government who said in July that there was no such pattern and that it was therefore lawful to resume arms exports. Can the Minister of State explain how his Department looked at exactly the same evidence as the UN and reached an entirely different conclusion?
Grave human rights abuses, including torture, rape, extra-judicial killings, and arbitrary detention continue to be committed against Kashmiris in Indian-occupied Kashmir. Will the Minister ensure that any trade deal signed with the Indian Government includes firm commitments to ending those human rights abuses and holding a free and fair plebiscite, as agreed by the United Nations, that allows the sons and daughters of Kashmir to fulfil their birthright to self-determination?
I do not doubt the hon. Gentleman’s passion for this issue, but where is the passion for jobs, where is the passion for exports, and where is the passion for investment? That is what this Government are getting on with. Perhaps it is because they cannot make up their minds on the Opposition Benches: they are against deals with democracies such as Israel as well, and yet they have cosied up to regimes such as Venezuela. Although this question was about future trade deals, we will get on and deliver jobs and prosperity for the British people.
It has now been two months since Ministers agreed a trade deal with Cameroon. It was shortly before the US Senate voted to suspend theirs because of President Biya’s human rights record. Incredibly, we do not know what the UK’s trade deal with Cameroon says on human rights, because it has still not been published. Can the Minister tell us when Parliament will be finally shown that deal, and can he guarantee a debate on it in Government time?
I welcome the fact that the shadow Minister is interested in our trade agreement with Cameroon, which benefits both countries to the tune of £177 million-worth of bilateral trade, but the British people will have heard today six questions from the Labour Benches and not one of them included anything about jobs. That just shows, sadly, that Labour has no intention of delivering for the British people and capitalising on our independent trade policy, because it is anti-trade, anti-jobs, EU-obsessed and it sneers at those who do not share their world view and are proud to be British.
One area, of course, where we do not have problems with human rights clauses being inserted is the EU. The Minister is interested in jobs. I have a small company in my constituency, Poco Nido, which employs four people. The owner of that company, Catherine Lobley, has told me that, since the end of December, she has not had a single shipment of goods getting through to the EU. The goods are caught up in customs and have been stuck there for three weeks. She says that the whole system has collapsed. Her 10-year-old business will be destroyed, with the jobs, within a month unless the Minister acts. When will the Minister ensure that the Brexit deal that the Government promised is actually delivered in practice?
My hon. Friend the Minister for exports is doing great work to make sure that British businesses can export to the world, including to the EU, and the hon. Gentleman will know that we have covered deals with 64 countries, plus the EU, protecting trade worth £889 billion. Of course we want to make sure that, in the years ahead, there can be more trade with the EU, our near neighbours and good friends, but we are also focused in this Department on trading with the world.
High Growth Global Markets
Driving access for UK exporters to high growth markets worldwide is at the heart of this Department’s work, securing new free trade agreements, removing trade barriers and informing, encouraging, connecting and financing exporters. Ninety per cent of global growth—90%—over the coming years is expected to be outside Europe, so that is why we are hitching UK business to the fastest growing markets and have recently applied to join the CPTPP.
The Department—not only in renewables, but in minerals as well—is running a mining export campaign for Mongolia, supporting UK-based investors and our mining supply chain, using the unique convening power of government to engage with the Mongolian Government and mining businesses. We are supporting UK investment in solar and waste energy plants, and are in discussions with the Mongolian Government on UK participation in infrastructure projects, including renewables, which my hon. Friend mentions, and hydropower. Atop all that is the cherry, in the form of my hon. Friend, who is the Prime Minister’s dynamic and effective trade envoy for the country.
I thank my hon. Friend for all the work he does to strengthen trading relationships between Britain and our international partners. Can he assure me that the Department for International Trade regularly engages with businesses of all sizes across the UK, including in north Wales, to ensure that the objectives of the Department are closely aligned with the needs of industry?
My hon. Friend is quite right to highlight this issue. DIT has a relationship with more than 200,000 UK businesses, ranging from large multinationals to small start-ups. Our UK-based sector teams, our highly experienced trade advisers across the regions and devolved Administrations, and our teams in our overseas embassies all work closely with UK businesses to support their export ambitions, while our export academy programme builds small and medium-sized enterprise know-how, enabling businesses to sell to customers around the world with confidence.
Steel manufacturers such as Liberty Speciality Steels in Stocksbridge produce high-quality components that are used across the world. Steel produced in Europe has half the carbon footprint of equivalent Chinese imports, and, as countries follow the UK’s lead in reducing emissions demands, demand for green steel will increase. How will my hon. Friend ensure that UK manufacturers such as Liberty Speciality Steels in Stocksbridge can capitalise on this growing market and make global Britain the world leader in green steel?
I thank my hon. Friend for that excellent question. There is a real opportunity here, is there not? That is why the Government have a range of schemes in place to help the steel sector to expand its green exports into those growing global markets. That includes establishing a £250 million clean steel fund and providing £66 million through the industrial strategy challenge fund to help steel manufacturers to develop radical new technologies and establish innovation centres of excellence. These funds will be accessible to all UK steel manufacturers, including those in my hon. Friend’s constituency, which I am sure value her long-standing commitment to the sector, and her permanent and regular efforts to raise them in the House.
Dream Climbing Walls is a Scottish business that was exporting to the high-growth market that is the European Union, which accounted for around 60% of its sales. After Brexit, its costs due to customs charges and delivery add-ons have skyrocketed. Goods that would normally take three to four days to arrive are currently a month in transit. Because of this Government, that business is now climbing the wall in a very different sense. What steps is the Minister taking to sort out this Government’s calamitous mess, and will he now urgently look at measures to compensate the thousands of companies just like Dream Climbing Walls that have lost out as a result of this Government’s actions?
May I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his personal commitment to rigorous scrutiny and ensuring that the Government are held to account? I am sure that he would agree that others could do likewise in being similarly robust. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already made clear, it is our noble friend Lord Frost and the Cabinet Office who lead on that particular work. There are teething problems and there will be on ongoing frictions every day, but I am pleased to say that we are reducing those and are now seeing a return to pre-covid levels at our border. We will continue to work with and support our exporters in order to learn how best to do this. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will ensure that his Administration support his colleagues in the SNP and beyond to help support exporters.
I appreciate that the Minister wants to promote exports to some countries more than to others, but many of our constituents trade with Europe and need to safeguard their existing relationships before going looking for new ones. That is just good business practice. His Department telling exporters to open an office in the EU is not good practice when it is its answer to delays at the border that it was warned about. When are Ministers going to sort out the problems at the border that mean businesses are drowning in red tape?
I would have hoped that the shadow Minister would be aware of where Government responsibilities lie in terms of the negotiations with the EU, but I can assure him that the work is ongoing to do that. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, who is, unusually for a Labour Member, a former businessman himself—[Interruption.] I am being endlessly heckled by the shadow Secretary of State, who probably knows where I am going with this, because she appears more interested in exports to Venezuela and Russia and only last month was chiding the Secretary of State for talking to the US—
One of the biggest global growth markets for local companies until Brexit was the EU. A1 Kilt Hire in my constituency was doing a roaring trade hiring out kilts to wedding parties across Europe, but nobody in the UK Government has been able to tell it if and how it can continue trading because its products are for hire and not for sale. HMRC could not even tell it if it would have to pay tax when the kilts were returned. Where on earth can hire companies that have survived this double whammy so far go to for advice on continuing to trade in Europe? Given the Minister’s two previous answers, I am guessing that it is not him.
I must congratulate the hon. Lady on the speed of her uptake, because yes indeed, as I have said in my previous answers, this is for a different Department of Government. I think she suggested that the EU was a growing share of the global market, but it is not. Twenty years ago it was the majority of our exports; now it is a minority. Its share of global GDP has been falling. We are, at the direction of the Secretary of State, pitching our business to the fastest-growing parts of the world, not the more sclerotic.
Mounting costs are killing one of our biggest exports—culture—with additional duties on physical product and performers. My constituent Andy Smart has regularly performed at two comedy/ski festivals, but now one of them no longer accepts Brits, preferring the Irish, and the other has been cancelled as unviable because of Brexit obstacles. Can we work cross-departmentally to abolish these levies, because, as one of those festivals is called, it is literally taking the piste?
There is no one better in this House than the hon. Lady at marrying sociological insight with popular culture, and of course as an experienced DJ she knows more about music than most of the rest of us. I entirely agree with her, though, that we have to work flat out, in a cross-governmental way, to ensure that we minimise any frictions at the border for those vital and important cultural exports of which music is an important part.
The United Kingdom has a huge opportunity, with the presidency of the G7 this year and the election of Dr Ngozi as World Trade Organisation director general, to drive forward free and fair trade. This is more important than ever as we seek to recover from covid and address the issues with the WTO. We hope to make good progress ahead of the ministerial conference in December.
Under the trade track, there will be an opportunity for G7 democracies to work together to help to reform free and fair global trade and shape a bold vision for recovery. In particular, we want to make progress on key issues such as challenging unfair industrial subsidies, dealing with carbon leakage and promoting digital trade.
A key plank of the UK’s future trade strategy must be dedicated to securing our supply of critical minerals, which are vitally important components in the next generation of green renewables and communications equipment. Does the Secretary of State agree with me that in the run-up to the G7 summit, we must take urgent action, first, to work with allies to form a stable, reliable and independent coalition for the mining and processing of critical minerals and, secondly, to bolster the British critical minerals industry for domestic use and for exports?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. We need to work with allies to make sure we have resilient supply chains of critical minerals and are not reliant on high-risk vendors. That is a priority for this Government, and that is why we are leading Project Defend. I was delighted to see Cornish Lithium for myself on a visit to Cornwall last autumn. Not only will that help us make sure that we have this critical supply of minerals, but it will boost jobs and growth in a very important part of our country.
I welcome the exceptional work done by my right hon. Friend’s Department to ensure that the UK stands as an ambitious internationalist country, and in that regard I would like to know what steps she is taking to improve access for UK exporters to high-growth global markets.
We have signed deals covering 64 countries, including the Caribbean nations, where my hon. Friend is our trade envoy. Total exports to CARICOM—the Caribbean Community—were worth £1.5 billion in the 12 months to September 2020, and I am sure he is actively looking for new opportunities to use those trade deals to benefit people in the Caribbean and here in the United Kingdom.
Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership
Joining the CPTPP is a massive opportunity for UK businesses. It will cut tariffs for vital industries such as cars and whisky, and it will help drive an exports-led, jobs-led recovery from covid.
As opposed to the flat EU markets, we know that CPTPP markets are emerging and growing, giving huge tariff-free opportunities for those that join, so for my barley barons of North Norfolk, may I ask the Secretary of State what wonderful opportunities for growth access to these markets gives us?
I know my hon. Friend was delighted with our Japan deal, which gave more access for malt in the Japanese market, where we are the second largest exporter of malt. We will be looking for more such opportunities under the CPTPP for malt and whisky, to make sure that the barley barons continue to do well.
Will the Secretary of State explain the recent comments from her top adviser on trade and agriculture, Mr Shanker Singham? He said:
“I think it would be fantastic to get the EU into the CPTPP”,
which is interesting, but not as interesting as what he said next. He said that the EU
“would not be able to join at the moment…With their approach on agriculture and standards, it is impossible for them to accede.”
Can the Secretary of State explain what he means?
I do not know what Mr Singham means. He is an adviser to the Government; he is not the Government. The important point is that now we have left the European Union, we have an opportunity to develop more innovative policies in areas such as agriculture. For example, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has recently launched a consultation on gene editing. We will be able to use new technologies to benefit farmers in Britain and across the world—technologies that historically the EU was averse to.
I do not really think that gene editing was the answer to the question. The question was: what does Mr Singham mean? Perhaps I can help. I think he means that joining the CPTPP not only means eliminating tariffs on meat exports from other member states; it also means abandoning the precautionary principle when we decide which meat imports to allow. If the Secretary of State disagrees on that, perhaps she will answer this: under the terms that she is proposing to join the trans-Pacific partnership, will Britain have the right to ban the import of meat produced using growth-promoting antibiotics?
I am sure that the right hon. Lady, being an avid student of the CPTPP, will have read the fact that the same standards on SPS—sanitary and phytosanitary—are in the CPTPP as are in the World Trade Organisation, which the UK has already signed up to. I have been very clear that in every trade deal we sign, we will not lower our excellent standards in the United Kingdom, and we will not expose our farmers to unfair competition.
Growth for British Businesses
The Department’s trade policies aim to support growth, productivity and jobs for British businesses. The OECD estimates that 6.6 million UK workers were supported by exports in 2015. In addition, the Department’s recently published impact assessment shows that the UK-Japan free trade agreement could increase UK GDP by £1.5 billion in the long run compared with trading under WTO terms.
Given that the St David’s day debate is being held this afternoon, will the Minister comment on his Department’s activities in promoting exports by Welsh companies, such as Ifor Williams Trailers, AE Sewing Machines in Ruabon, and the Rhug Estate’s famous Welsh beef and lamb in my constituency of Clwyd South?
It is never too early to celebrate St David’s day and the doughty exporters of Clwyd South, as well as the rest of the Principality. We are lowering barriers to Welsh exporters through trade deals, supporting them through staff in 119 countries, organising trade missions, providing online resources and championing them at international events. We have a long-standing relationship with the Rhug Estate, and we continue to support Welsh produce in particular, as part of both the Food is GREAT campaign and the Open Doors campaign, announced with fanfare only this week by the Secretary of State.
As the Government continue to hide the overall effect of their trade policies, the first official estimate from the European Commission shows that this Government’s Brexit deal will cost the UK at least 2.25% of GDP by the end of next year. In addition, two out of three supply chain managers report experiencing import delays of two to three days. Is that why the Minister is going so far to remove questions and avoid scrutiny of this disastrous Brexit deal in the Chamber? If he denies that, will he now publish the impact assessments prepared for his Government, which have so far been hidden away from those who deserve to know the real costs to business and families?
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are certainly not avoiding scrutiny; we are just directing it to where it rightly should go. He knows all about those who are seeking genuinely to avoid scrutiny. As I have been double-Drewed today, I pay tribute to the efforts he makes. All I will say as a final point—before I am cut short yet again by Mr Speaker, quite rightly, and even as I lose my attention because I am barracked so often by the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry)—is that he voted no deal, so it is odd for him to be complaining so much.
Northern Ireland opposed Brexit, but it has happened. The protocol is its outworking, and it has to be made to work. The SDLP is determined to maximise the opportunities available to this region from being the crossroads between the UK and EU markets. We have written to the Minister seeking support in promoting Northern Ireland and this unique access. Will he commit his Department to promoting Northern Ireland to investors who are seeking access to both the EU and UK markets?
I commend the hon. Lady’s positive attitude. She is absolutely right: whatever our views on Brexit, we have to get on, make the most of it and support our businesses, as she is doing, and I can give her that commitment. We will absolutely work with her and Invest Northern Ireland, which does a fantastic job in conjunction with DIT to promote both investment into Northern Ireland and exports from it.
I am no longer shadow Minister, but happy to be contributing to this debate, Mr Speaker.
Moon Climbing, a specialist rock climbing supplier in my constituency, tells me how, since January, new barriers have damaged its trade with Europe. In line with the advice of DIT officials, it set up a base in the Netherlands to avoid the barriers and it anticipates that that will
“be our main base from which we service both the EU and the rest of the world”.
I heard the Minister and the Secretary of State say earlier that it is nothing to do with them, but, frankly, companies expect the Department for International Trade to take some responsibility for trade, so what are they doing to prevent more UK businesses moving abroad as a result of the damaging Brexit deal—losing UK jobs, GDP and tax revenue?
The British people decided to leave the European Union. We are supporting businesses, in Europe and beyond, but it is not overly complicated to accept that it is the Cabinet Office and the unit led by Lord David Frost that are taking responsibility for those negotiations. However, we work actively, and we run webinars with thousands attending, and I and other Ministers participate in those to give people the tools to overcome the frictions that inevitably result from our departure. I am pleased to say they are declining over time, and I am confident that we will return to where we were in 2019, when we were the only top 10 exporting nation in the world to see our exports rise and, the hon. Member will be delighted to hear, we overtook France to become the fifth largest exporter in the world.
Free Trade Agreement: Australia
The UK and Australia held the third round of negotiations for a free trade agreement between 23 November and 4 December. Discussions reached an early milestone of exchanging initial tariff offers, showing the momentum behind the negotiations. The fourth round of negotiations began this week and is live as we speak.
The Trade and Agriculture Commission report will be out next week. How does the Department see incorporating that in the deal with the Australians to make sure that we can maintain these high standards of imported food that meet our standards when we are doing a deal with Australia?
I thank the Chairman of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee for that question. I know he takes a very keen interest and we also await with equal interest the publication of the report next week. It would not be proper to prejudge what may or may not be in the report, but it is clear that we are doing everything possible to support our food and drink exports. Returning to the question of Australia, we actually have a food and drink surplus with Australia. We are looking to get more market access and to promote more agricultural exports to Australia, which I know will come with great welcome from him and the EFRA Committee.
Scottish Exports to US: Tariffs
We have been working hard to de-escalate this conflict and get punitive tariffs removed on both sides of the Atlantic. This is the way forward, not escalating the tariff battle.
US barriers to trade have been broken down in the past to the benefit of Scottish jobs, and this includes the great work of the UK Government to get Scotch beef back in American supermarkets for the first time in two decades. Does the Secretary of State envisage similar success in removing US tariffs to help cashmere mills in the Scottish borders and Scotch whisky distillers to export to American customers?
My hon. Friend has been a huge champion for Scottish goods such as cashmere and whisky. These tariffs are damaging on both sides of the Atlantic. Today, we are seeing the confirmation hearing of the new US trade representative, and as soon as that is finished I will be on the phone to her seeking an early resolution of these issues.
Despite the pandemic, we have seen a rise in consumption of spirits in North America; this is taking account of the fact that there is a 25% tariff in place for Scotch whisky. There is a danger that some of the alternatives—for example, Canadian whisky or Irish whiskey—could move into that space, and that is damaging for all of us who support the Scotch whisky industry, so has the Prime Minister raised this with President Biden?
EU VAT Regulations under DDP Terms
While VAT in the UK is a matter for the Treasury, and in the EU it is the responsibility of member states, my Department is aware of SMEs feeling pressured to supply on a delivered duty paid basis. That is a matter for commercial decision between contracting parties, but none the less, we provide support for SMEs through our international trade adviser network, and just last week we held a webinar as part of the UK Export Academy dealing with Incoterms in general, of which DDP forms part.
Many SMEs have EU clients that are themselves SMEs, which understandably do not wish to be importers and thus take on extra regulatory burdens. Due to the insistence on DDP terms, UK exporters have to try to reclaim EU VAT. I hear what the Minister says about different responsibilities and so on, but in his co-ordinating and supportive role, will he agree to meet me and representatives of the British Promotional Merchandise Association, to hear at first hand the difficulties that its members are having and to explore solutions, even if they are cross-departmental?
Earlier this month, I submitted the UK’s formal application to the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership. Joining CPTPP will put us at the heart of some of the world’s fastest-growing economies and slash tariffs for key industries such as cars and whisky. Membership of this high-standards agreement comes with no strings attached, with no requirement to cede control over our laws, our borders or our money. Joining will help propel a jobs-led, export-led, investment-led recovery from covid across our United Kingdom.
I thank my right hon. Friend for all her hard work flying the Union flag with pride around the world. There has never been a more important time to champion the exporting potential of British business, so will she enable the Department for International Trade to partner with me so that I can ensure that the Potteries’ world-leading ceramic tableware manufacturers, such as Churchill China and Steelite, based in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, can benefit from support for exciting exporting opportunities?
We recently launched the parliamentary export programme, through which MPs can partner with DIT, and we will shortly be recruiting a second cohort of MPs; I know that the Exports Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Graham Stuart), already has my hon. Friend’s name on the list. I also invite my hon. Friend to join our virtual Japan mega-mission, which is being led by the Exports Minister in the next couple of weeks and will bring Stoke-on-Trent firms in contact with Japanese companies so that they can sell their fantastic goods.
Bracknell businesses should be assured that we have a plethora of new initiatives to whet their exporting appetites. We are committed to helping businesses realise their economic potential through exports, and we provide a comprehensive global system of support to help them do so. There are a range of initiatives that enhance UK exporting, including our international export hubs, the £38 million internationalisation fund providing grants, and UK Export Finance’s general export facility, another new initiative, all of which combine to help upskill firms, build their capability and finance everyday costs.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I will try to be as quick in my response.
I will pass on the hon. Lady’s concerns to the Cabinet Office. The Government have invested considerably in customs and clearance agents. I refer her and her constituent’s company to the different helplines that are available both from us at DIT and, most particularly, from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Border and Protocol Delivery Group to provide practical assistance for her constituents.
The simple answer is for them to go to gov.uk/growbyexports. There are educational masterclasses, meet the buyer events and the opportunity to send samples of their products to overseas buyers in specially selected hampers. Those are just some of the activities open to Hampshire businesses.
As I said earlier, we have one of the most robust systems in the world for arms export controls. All exports are governed by the consolidated criteria, and we have a proud record in this country of upholding our values. In the 19th century, we abolished slavery. In the 1990s, we were peacekeepers in the Balkans. We have always played our role in the world and we will continue to do so.
Is not it fantastic to hear that genuine enthusiasm for business, jobs and the prosperity that results? What a shame we do not hear it from the Opposition. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State enjoyed her visit to Marrose Abrasives, and there are many opportunities before our negotiations with New Zealand, Australia and the United States. We have conducted public consultations. We have trade advisory groups, so through representative organisations and others, we are open every day to hear from businesses such as Marrose and make sure that their voice is heard and drives our trade policy objectives.
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. She is absolutely right; the UK is a great place to invest. The UK was the first major economy to make a breakthrough in attracting foreign investment, under Margaret Thatcher, now four decades ago. The UK has remained an extremely attractive place to invest since. In November the Prime Minister announced a new Office for Investment, jointly led by No. 10 and the Department for International Trade.
SMEs are vital to increasing UK trade, which is why we are seeking SME chapters in all our free trade agreements, and we provide a vast range of support for them. I congratulate my hon. Friend on being a trailblazer for the parliamentary export programme, and I encourage businesspeople in the Vale of Clwyd to attend the virtual meetings that he is organising, chairing and using to ensure that his local companies get all the international sales support that Government can offer.
I agree with the hon. Lady that the atrocities committed by China in Xinjiang are abhorrent. The Government have taken firm action on supply chains and businesses doing business in that part of China, but expanding the role of the UK courts raises serious constitutional issues, and instead the issue needs to be addressed politically.
I thank my right hon. Friend. He is right to identify these unfair practices in world trade. Put simply, for far too long, China has not been transparent, with practices such as industrial subsidies for state-owned enterprises, forced technology transfers and claiming special differential treatment. We will continue to work at the WTO and with G7 democracies to tighten up the rules and ensure that they are properly enforced.
Business of the House
The business for next week will include:
Monday 1 March—If necessary, consideration of Lords amendments followed by, motion to approve the draft Electricity Supplier Payments (Amendment) Regulations 2021 followed by, motion to approve the draft Electronic Commerce Directive (Education, Adoption and Children) (Amendment etc.) Regulations 2021 followed by, motion to approve the draft Automatic Enrolment (Earnings Trigger and Qualifying Earnings Band) Order 2021 followed by, motion to approve the draft Major Sporting Events (Income Tax Exemption) Regulations 2021.
Tuesday 2 March—Motion to approve the draft Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers’ Compensation) (Payment of Claims) (Amendment) Regulations 2021 and the draft Mesothelioma Lump Sum Payments (Conditions And Amounts) (Amendment) Regulations 2021 followed by, general debate on covid-19 and the cultural and entertainment sectors.
Wednesday 3 March—My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will deliver his Budget statement.
Thursday 4 March—Continuation of the Budget debate.
Friday 5 March—The House will not be sitting.
The Provisional business for the week commencing 8 March will include:
Monday 8 March—Continuation of the Budget debate.
Tuesday 9 March—Continuation of the Budget debate.
Wednesday 10 March—Estimates day (3rd allotted day). At 7 pm, the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates.
Thursday 11 March—Proceedings on the Supply and Appropriation (Anticipation and Adjustments (No.2) Bill followed by, business to be determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 12 March—The House will not be sitting.
I thank the Leader of the House for advance sight of the statement and for the motion on Westminster Hall that he has tabled. I know that the Chairs of the Procedure Committee, the Backbench Business Committee and the Petitions Committee will be delighted, but it must continue to be hybrid while there are still deaths happening.
I am not quite sure whether the Government have decided when Prorogation will be, but a number of Bills are hanging around, such as the Environment Bill. Will they be taken before the House prorogues, or carried over?
May I make a plea on behalf of the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart)? I know that the hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) has been pressed into service, but the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire has had difficulty in attending today because he has a Select Committee. The business is clashing. I know that he is trying to resolve it by consensus, but I think that some of the Committee members are not enabling him to do that. I wonder whether I could prevail on the Leader of the House to talk to some of his colleagues about that. The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire needs to take up his rightful place in this House. He has been appointed by his party, after all.
I thank you, Mr Speaker, for the excellent letter that you have sent to the ethics committee at King’s College. I know that hon. Members and our staff—I am sure the Leader of the House has had representations—will agree about how appalling it is to send out fake emails. Our staff have been absolutely amazing since last March, getting stranded constituents back and dealing with distressed people who have absolutely nothing. Some of them have even had covid. They have had to handle working from home and a new type of working. They have been amazing. I put on record my thanks to all my staff, and to all hon. Members’ staff. At a time when we have the worst death rate—182 per 100,000, according to the John Hopkins University, while the US has 152 per 100,000—to have to deal with fake emails is absolutely appalling. I wonder whether the Leader of the House will join me, and perhaps the leader of the Scottish National party, in writing a joint letter to say that the House absolutely condemns that kind of behaviour.
Next week is Foreign Office questions, as the Leader of the House said. I wonder whether the Foreign Secretary will update the House on Nazanin’s case and Anousheh’s case. I thank Ambassador Macaire for raising Anousheh’s lack of telephone privileges, but Amnesty International has identified two further British nationals: Mehran Raoof and Morad Tahbaz. Could we have an update on all those British national cases?
The shadow Home Secretary has raised the issue that almost 1,500 people’s claims under the Windrush scheme have not been paid yet. Only £4 million has been paid to more than 300 people. I know that the Home Secretary said that she wants to take personal charge of this, so I wonder whether she could come to the House and make a statement.
We gave the Government the powers that they wanted because we were in the middle of a crisis, but we did not know that they would throw an invisibility cloak over some of the transactions. I thank the Good Law Project for upholding the rule of law. It seems that only the Government’s friends, those in their social circle or those in their economic circle need apply. An applicant can have no previous experience, such as the new chair of the Office for Students, but why does it take a judgment to publish the names, and what is a technical breach? I do not think that the judge actually mentioned a technical breach. The Health Secretary has been found to have acted unlawfully, so could he please come to the House and explain it?
We also need an explanation of why frosts are disappearing, literally. Apparently, after Lord Frost’s new appointment to the Cabinet, he is on a leave of absence, so he is not accountable to the House of Lords. Yet he is now in charge of this new EU Joint Committee and he cannot come to the House. Could the Leader of the House say how we hold Lord Frost to account on the negotiations that he is having with the EU? Worse still, we had a press release on Friday from the Business Secretary and a written statement on Monday. He wants exactly the same kind of regime—he said “light touch”—for his new research agency. Again, we are talking about an invisibility cloak, because apparently we cannot make a freedom of information request for any of the contracts that are given out under it.
I am afraid that this time I am with the hon. Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) when he asks for local government to be held to account.
What would the Leader of the House do if a councillor who worked for a Minister shoved through cabinet something that put a site in a Labour MP’s constituency, without there being any criteria in relation to air quality, residents’ views or even green spaces, when a site allocation document, which had been agreed and on which there had been consultation, stated that it should go in the Minister’s constituency? What would the Leader of the House say to that person? May we have a debate on local government accountability?
Finally, I want to thank you, Mr Speaker, for your statement on Julia Clifford. We all knew her for a very long time; she knew lots of hon. Members and looked after us. You have made a lovely gesture in naming the Tea Room after her. We send our good wishes to John, Ben and Jack. May she rest in peace. She beat cancer but then, with a reduced immune system, succumbed to covid.
There is a debate on Welsh affairs later today, and I want to praise the Welsh Government because they have reached their vaccination target. They were the first nation to reach their target in February and they are now on the second dose, which they have given to 60,000 people. For Monday, “Dydd Gŵyl Dewi hapus”!
Before I call the Leader of the House, I want to reassure the House that I sent a letter to King’s College on behalf of the House and copied in its ethics committee. What happened was appalling, and I am waiting for a response from the university. It was totally unacceptable.
Mr Speaker, I also thank you for your statement about Julia Clifford and the loss to the House and, of course, to her family. She was enormously popular and loved by Members. We pray for the repose of her soul and send our condolences to her family.
I come to the detail of the right hon. Lady’s questions. The vaccine roll-out across the country has been a wonderful United Kingdom effort. It has been a terrific success. We are ahead of almost every other country in the world and this has allowed the road map for opening up to be brought forward. It is very positive and we should be very proud of what this country has achieved. That does tie into what the right hon. Lady was saying about the award of contracts, which needed to be done swiftly and effectively. That is why the vaccine roll-out has been such a triumph.
This infamous fox murderer involved with the Good Law Project is not somebody I am particularly interested in. He is fussing and wasting time over the fact that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care was getting on with ordering PPE rather than getting officials to spend time filling out forms to keep the fox murderer happy. I really do not think that is a good use of Government time.
As my right hon. Friend has said, it was a technical breach that was going to be put right in due course anyway. He was a fortnight late at a time when very pressing business was being attended to. I am afraid that the Opposition cannot have their cake and eat it, although that is sometimes said to be popular. They want the success of the vaccine project, but without contracts having been awarded swiftly. That is a completely inconsistent position.
The right hon. Lady mentions that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has said that she will take personal charge of the Windrush claims. I have every confidence: when my right hon. Friend takes personal charge of things, things happen—she is one of the most effective people in Government at getting things done. It is reassuring that she will be taking charge.
The two further cases that have been raised must be raised with the Foreign Secretary; I will pass those on to him immediately after business questions. As the right hon. Lady rightly says, Foreign Office questions are coming up soon. It is important that, during those questions, the House shows its strength of feeling by asking questions about Nazanin and the other dual nationals who are held improperly.
As regards King’s College, that was really deeply foolish behaviour. I do wonder what the point of an ethics committee is if it encourages dishonesty. Because that is what it is: writing to people with a false name is dishonest and it is cheating. It is the sort of behaviour that no respectable ethics committee would approve. I completely agree with what Mr Speaker has said and I am certainly happy to join in a letter with the right hon. Lady and the SNP shadow spokesman, depending on who that happens to be—the formal or informal one—because this is a serious matter. As the right hon. Lady rightly says, if there were ever a right time to do it, it was certainly not in the midst of a pandemic, when we all know how hard-pressed our parliamentary assistants were, and indeed continue to be.
As regards the meeting of the Scottish Affairs Committee, the Government do not have a majority on that Committee. It is therefore for the Committee to decide the timing of its meetings, although we generally find in this House that a degree of good will and compromise goes a very long way in sorting out problems—but that has to come in all directions, I think.
As regards Bills, Prorogation and all those exciting things, announcements will be made in due course in the normal way; you would expect nothing less, Mr Speaker. The Environment Bill has a carry-over provision, so every eventuality is taken into account. This is a Government who, in their wisdom, ensure that they are looking to all possible outcomes to make the legislative programme smooth.
Finally, I turn to Westminster Hall. The motion is down for consideration today. It provides for an extension to bring Westminster Hall into line with proceedings in the Chamber, and it is probable that we will look to extend that further, so there is no implication that there is provision until 30 March and that it then ends. The motion is very much to bring Westminster Hall into line with the Chamber.
May I associate myself with the comments about Julia Clifford? It is impossible to imagine the Tea Room without her, and it is wonderful to know that her name will live on and that we will all remember Julia every time we go and buy that cup of tea.
I thank my right hon. Friend for the motion on today’s Order Paper about reinstating Westminster Hall. I recognise that it is a compromise, and every compromise that we have made during the pandemic has been difficult because of the precedent it might set, but it is absolutely the right decision and I thank him for making it. He has referred to the motions that will expire at the end of next month, and indicated that he is looking to extend them. Could he perhaps confirm whether there will be a road map out of lockdown for Parliament, much in line with the road map out of lockdown for the whole country that the Prime Minister set out on Monday?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend and I am very pleased that the reopening of Westminster Hall has been so widely welcomed. As regards the road map for the reopening of Parliament, the road map that the Government have set out for the country at large will obviously have an effect on what is going on in this House. Particularly important for the Chamber will be any changes on social distancing, because this Chamber will not be back to full, proper operation until the social distancing measures have been altered. That will be fundamental to any decisions that we have to make.
May I also associate myself and my party with the comments of the Leader of the House, the shadow Leader of the House and you, Mr Speaker, in relation to Julia Clifford? The proposal that has been made is a very fitting one.
I also echo the comments of the shadow Leader of the House in welcoming your letter, Mr Speaker, to King’s College and its ethics committee.
When I stood in at business questions a couple of weeks ago, I said that I hoped the transition to my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) would be a smooth one, but it is not turning out that way. My hon. Friend would very much like to be in his place this morning as the SNP’s shadow Leader of the House, but the Scottish Affairs Committee, which he chairs, meets at the same time, and Conservative members of that Committee are refusing to change the time of meetings to allow him to be here. My hon. Friend has already apologised to the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader of the House for not being in his place, and he was hoping to apologise directly to you in person, Mr Speaker. I hope that the Leader of the House can use his considerable influence to encourage Conservatives on that Committee to join in the spirit of co-operation and good will that is taking place in so many areas just now, to free the Perthshire One and help stop these pointless political games.
With national and local elections on the horizon, will the Leader of the House provide Government time for a statement to update the House on the democracy programme? Confidence in our democracy at this time, particularly in the circumstances we face, is more important than ever. This week we have had a number of discussions about the Government’s procurement processes, which normally protect the public purse, but which are currently being bypassed under covid emergency regulations. Will the Leader of the House arrange for a debate in Government time to consider what action can be taken to improve transparency and to mitigate any increased risk of corruption in line with their own anti-corruption strategy, and will he encourage Government colleagues to support my own Ministerial Interests (Emergency Powers) Bill?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and thank him once again for standing in for the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart). The Scottish Affairs Committee makes decisions on when it meets as a Committee. The Government do not routinely interfere with Select Committees—indeed their independence is part of the scrutiny process. I point out to him that the Conservatives do not have a majority on that Committee and therefore it cannot purely be the Conservative Members who are refusing to change the time, because if the full Committee turned up it could outvote them.
As regards the democracy programme and the upcoming local elections, the Cabinet Office will issue a statement in relation to campaigning and what will be allowed. This area will begin to open up on 8 March in accordance with schools. Obviously, it is really important, and most people would argue that democracy, as we show in this House, is essential work, and it is fundamentally important that campaigning is possible in a safe way in advance of the elections across the United Kingdom in early May.
On the procurement process, I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer I gave to the right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz)—that it was absolutely right, during the height of the pandemic, that contracts were issued swiftly. The normal procurement process would take three to six months to agree a contract. That would have meant that we would not yet have a vaccine. It would have delayed absolutely everything. We would still not have personal protective equipment. The UK used to produce 1% of its PPE requirement; that is now up to 70%. That has safeguarded our supplies, safeguarded people, and safeguarded lives. It was right to act quickly, but the hon. Gentleman is also right that that expenditure must be checked. We have in this country one of the most honest public sectors of any country in the world. We have an absolutely excellent system through the Comptroller and Auditor General of ensuring that expenditure is properly checked and carried out and that there are ways of scrutinising it ex post facto. That is the right approach to be taking, but it was absolutely right to award the contracts during the height of the pandemic.
As the Foreign Secretary said at the Human Rights Council this week, our Government will continue to work with partners internationally to uphold freedoms of people right around the world, including freedom of religion or belief. Many women suffer persecution doubly as a result of their beliefs and their gender. Can we have a debate on how our Government are taking forward the declaration of humanity, announced last autumn in support of survivors of sexual violence in conflict, and on how to help prevent such things happening in the future?
May I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend on her work as the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief? I cannot think of anybody better suited to the task. She has campaigned for this throughout her time in Parliament and does it incredibly effectively and persistently and raises an important subject again and again. I really thank her for that, because it is fundamental to how we see ourselves as a nation.
As my hon. Friend knows, the Government place the promotion and protection of human rights at the top of their list of international priorities. We condemn utterly and totally all acts of conflict-related sexual violence towards any person at any time in any circumstances. The Government do all they can to prevent conflict-related sexual violence and to protect all persons vulnerable to such violence, including marginalised minority groups and those of other faiths or beliefs, recognising that adherence to a faith or a belief can itself result in additional vulnerability. The Government continue to work internationally to uphold freedoms of people around the world and they are obviously particularly concerned about women who have their rights affected.
I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the business, and echo the sentiments expressed about the very sad passing of Julia Clifford.
May I wish my Jewish neighbours, friends and constituents a very happy celebration of deliverance, as they commemorate Purim tonight and tomorrow? I also thank the Leader of the House for his communication to me and the Chairs of the Procedure and Petitions Committees regarding the very welcome reopening of hybrid debates in a replacement Westminster Hall.
I truly hope that we can secure ample time for Backbench Business debates on Thursday 11 March, as we have two time-sensitive debates lined up to commemorate International Women’s Day and Commonwealth Day, both of which are on Monday 8 March.
Could we have a debate on the extraordinary practice of universities taking tuition and maintenance fee payments in cash from overseas students? This amounts to more than £50 million in payments taken in cash over the last five years from students from places such as China, India, Pakistan and Nigeria, and it seems to warrant at least ministerial investigation.
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s support for various steps we have taken, and I note his appeal for the time-sensitive debates that he hopes to host on 11 March.
The hon. Gentleman raises a very serious point. It sometimes seems that anti-money laundering regulations make it impossible for a Member of Parliament to open a bank account but allow people to pay very large sums in cash in a dishonest way, and I think the balance is not quite right. We should perhaps ask King’s College how it is doing on its money laundering when we ask it about the letters it is sending to Members of Parliament. He raises an important point, and I will certainly pass it on to the Treasury.
The impressive Gatwick and Manor Royal freeport bid has now been submitted. That would be an effective way to help to level up the area’s economy, which has been devastated by covid-19. Can we have a statement on how such excellent initiatives could help to recover and regenerate airport communities and the UK economy more widely?
My hon. Friend has a marvellous idea, as he so often does. His local bid for a freeport will be one of the many that I will be cheering on, including, of course, the proposed freeport in Somerset. Freeports will be national hubs for trade, innovation and commerce, regenerating communities across the United Kingdom by attracting new businesses and spreading jobs, investment and opportunities to towns and cities up and down the country. Freeports policy brings together a comprehensive set of tax measures to incentivise private business investment, carefully considered planning reforms to facilitate much-needed construction and additional targeted funding for infrastructure improvements. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government is leading a fair, open and transparent selection process, with successful locations to be announced in due course.
Coronavirus has meant that multiple measures affecting us all seem to be being rushed through with no meaningful consultation of communities. With Friday sittings now gone, can the Leader of the House advise me how, as an Opposition Back Bencher, I might be able to bring forward legislation to mandate maximum transparency and engagement on dramatic proposals such as major planning applications and reconfiguring our roads, some of which were dreamt up way before the new normal? Does he agree with such an approach, to counteract widespread feelings of citizen powerlessness?
I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s question because it is a really important one. Some councils have abused the extra funding that has been provided and the ability to implement measures without proper consultation, particularly in relation to low-traffic neighbourhoods, and the measures they have implemented have caused great inconvenience to motorists and not much benefit to residents. She is right to raise this. The House provides many means of raising issues, and when we get back to normal—when that good and happy day comes—there will be even more ways of raising them, because this House is a very effective way of seeking redress of grievance and achieving it, as she is showing.
Year in, year out, our caseworkers do an immense amount of good work. That has been especially true during the coronavirus pandemic, when casework has gone up immeasurably. They are dealing day in, day out with parents’ fears about their children’s education, businesses on the verge of collapse and people frightened about getting healthcare treatments. So now is completely the wrong time for King’s College London, endorsed by its ethics committee, to be sending many hundreds of spoof emails to Members of Parliament, which caseworkers have to deal with. I have seen an estimate that dealing with these spoof emails has consumed about 650 hours of caseworkers’ time. Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning this? The tradition in the House is to ask for a debate, perhaps in Government time, to discuss this important matter, but does he agree that it would probably be better for King’s College to sit down quietly and dwell on the ethics of what it has done?
Cicero said something along the lines of, “There’s nothing so foolish that some philosopher has not said it.” One rather feels the same of ethics committees: there is nothing so unethical that some ethics committee has not come to the conclusion that it is all right. I was appalled by my hon. Friend telling me that 650 hours of time have been wasted, which shows how deeply foolish the behaviour of King’s College has been, especially in the context of the pandemic. This is clearly being taken up by you, Mr Speaker, but I hope the condemnation of the whole House rings out in the ears of this unethical ethics committee.
Throughout the pandemic, we have seen many civilian employees step up and go the extra mile to keep our country running. At the very outset of this pandemic, the military were called upon to run the covid testing facilities, with little time to train and limited personal protective equipment, on Operation Rescript. They then very quickly built the Nightingale hospitals. As ever, both regulars and reservists were ready to serve their country in a time of need. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is right that the contribution of the military be recognised and that a debate be held in this House on the Government’s plans to recognise the service of the armed forces, particularly the plans to award them a medal for their selfless service?
The hon. Lady makes an excellent and, if I may say so, strongly Unionist point. Her Majesty’s armed forces have played an incredibly important role in supporting us throughout the pandemic, from its earliest stages to assisting with the vaccine roll-out throughout the entire kingdom. I am sure all Members across the House will join me in paying tribute to the invaluable efforts the armed forces have made during the pandemic. We are committed to providing service personnel with the recognition and gratitude their service deserves, and I hope the establishment of the armed forces covenant in law by the Armed Forces Bill will go some way to marking this recognition.
During a recent meeting with Leigh Miners Rangers rugby league club, I was pleased to learn of its bid for rugby league world cup legacy funding to help improve its sporting facilities for children and young people in my constituency. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this funding would be transformative for my constituency? May I also ask him for a debate on the cultural and economic importance of rugby league to regeneration in deprived communities in the north-west of England?
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the issue of the work done by his local rugby league club for the people of Leigh. Sports clubs often show some of the greatest community spirit, and we should commend the many thousands of people who volunteer for them and offer local children, especially, a rich and rewarding experience. The Government have worked with Sport England to agree a £220 million package of support to help community clubs throughout the crisis. Sport England has also committed an additional £50 million to help grassroots sports clubs and organisations. We have provided £100 million of taxpayers’ money to further support local authority leisure centres, alongside £300 million to support professional sport through the winter. In addition, there is a £16 million loan scheme for rugby league. So may I congratulate my hon. Friend and Leigh Miners Rangers rugby league club on the work that they both do?
St Andrew’s College in my constituency is one of many English language schools that have seen a significant drop in income because of covid. They have had zero turnover in the past 18 months, which compares with £10 million in 2019. So can we have a debate on the contribution of English language teaching to our society and economy, and the urgent need for additional support in the Budget next week?
The Government support has been very widespread for a whole range of businesses—it totals £280 billion, including the suspension of business rates and the furlough scheme to help to keep employers in place. I appreciate the difficulties that English language teaching will have suffered from, particularly during the pandemic, in the absence of foreign travel, and I will pass on the hon. Lady’s comments to the Secretary of State.
Yesterday, the Union of Jewish Students and the Bristol Jewish Society held a virtual rally to call on the University of Bristol to finally take action against the lecturer David Miller, who brazenly states that Jewish students are an “enemy” that must be “defeated”, that prominent Jewish people and organisations are a “pillar of Islamophobia” and that Jewish students who have the audacity to complain about his comments are part of a Zionist “lobby”, which is a well-known antisemitic conspiracy theory. The rally was called after the university failed to take action, despite the complaint being originally placed in 2019. Can we have time for a debate on the need to improve university complaints procedures, which are failing Jewish students?
My hon. Friend brings to the attention of the House comments that are deeply wicked and the sort of thing that decent people simply do not say. We expect higher education providers to be at the forefront of tackling antisemitism, making sure that higher education is a genuinely fulfilling and welcoming experience for everyone. Providers should have robust policies and procedures in place to comply with the law, to investigate and to swiftly address hate crimes, including any antisemitic incidents that are reported. Antisemitism is one of the most evil creeds and thoughts. It has been a blot on the history of the world for hundreds of years and it has no place in our society. Universities must be part of ensuring that antisemitism ceases to exist.
I, too, welcome the return of Westminster Hall debates, so thank you very much. I also agree completely with the comments made with regard to the email sent by King’s College. I directed the email to researchers and I am happy to share the responses I received if that is at all of interest.
As the host nation for COP26, the UK should be leading the way on ambitious climate action. Last year the green homes grant was trumpeted as the Government’s flagship policy for getting to net zero, but mismanagement of the scheme has meant that only 5% of the allocated budget has been spent and the Government are now not rolling over the budget to 2022. Can we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on how the Government intend to tackle emissions from homes, which are one of the biggest contributors to carbon emissions in the UK?
The Government have an incredibly strong record, including the 10-point plan that is the blueprint for a green industrial revolution. This includes over £3 billion of taxpayers’ money to transform energy efficiency in homes and public buildings, about £3 billion further in grants for plug-in vehicles and funding for rolling out charge points, £2 billion to kick start a cycling and walking revolution, £1 billion for infrastructure to enable carbon capture and storage by 2030, £640 million for a nature climate fund, £350 million to cut emissions in heavy industry, £160 million to make the UK a world leader in clean wind energy, and £100 million for research and development in greenhouse gas removal technologies such as direct air capture. All of these will have an effect on making the United Kingdom a world leader—the global first in terms of ensuring that there is a green industrial revolution.
Across the length and breadth of our great kingdom there is a yearning for justice to be delivered. In scripture, wise King Solomon delivered common-sense justice, but in Wakefield, the heart of God’s own county, we are unable to hand down punishment upon wrongdoers due to the sad demise of our magistrates court. As a consequence of the pandemic, Her Majesty’s Government have opened Nightingale courts to assist in mitigating the backlog that has developed, but this is only a temporary measure. Would my right hon. Friend find Government time for a debate on the need to open new, permanent magistrates courts, including one for Wakefield?
There are also wrongdoers, like my hon. Friend, who get confused about which county is God’s own county. For the record, it is Somerset, not Yorkshire, nice place though Yorkshire is. [Interruption.] Lancashire, Mr Speaker, is marvellous too, just to make that clear, but only Somerset is God’s own county.
On courts, £142 million of taxpayers’ money has been put into the biggest expenditure in courts estate maintenance in more than 20 years, and £110 million has been spent on emergency measures to ensure that courts are covid-secure. There are obviously challenges ahead, and the plans to expand capacity include opening new Nightingale courts. With regard to Wakefield magistrates court, a decision was taken, following a public consultation, to close it in 2016. The reasons for that decision are a matter of public record, as published through the consultation, and the Ministry of Justice has advised me that it has not seen deterioration in capacity or workload that would mean wanting to go back on that decision. However, we have Ministry of Justice questions on 16 March and my hon. Friend may well want to raise this issue with the Lord High Chancellor.
Can I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motion 1342, regarding the tragic and unexplained death of a young man, Mohamud Hassan, following his release without charge from police custody in Cardiff on 9 January?
[That this House mourns the death of Mohamud Mohammed Hassan following his release without charge from police custody in Cardiff on 9 January 2020; offers its deepest condolences to Mr Hassan’s family and friends; notes that South Wales Police has, as is standard practice following a death after police contact, self-referred to the Independent Office for Police Conduct; calls for a full and transparent investigation into the circumstances of Mr Hassan’s death; recognises legitimate concerns arising from evidence that people of Black and Ethnic Minority ethnicity die at a disproportionately higher rate as a result of the use of force or restraint by police; and calls for systematic and institutional change to end racial discrimination within the criminal justice system.]
The early-day motion notes that this was self-referred by South Wales police to the Independent Office for Police Conduct. An investigation is ongoing. This is obviously a matter of significant concern to my constituents, but first and foremost to his family, who are also my constituents. Would the Leader of the House agree that it is crucial in cases such as this that there is a full and independent investigation that is seen to be so and that follows the evidence and the full facts without fear or favour; and that this is done comprehensively and swiftly to secure full answers for both the family and all the parties involved?
The hon. Gentleman raises a very troubling issue. All deaths in custody of the state are matters that should concern us, as those who believe that the state should always behave extraordinarily well to people in its charge. The death of Mohamud Hassan has rightly been referred to the IOPC, and I think confidence in our systems is enhanced by proper, thorough and independent investigation. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that that is what must happen—it must happen
As businesses large and small need more orders to power jobs and economic recovery, can we have a debate on Government buying? Can we learn from the great success of buying so many vaccine doses from UK science and facilities, and buy more innovative and competitive goods and services from companies here at home?
My right hon. Friend, as always, raises interesting and important points. The Government are planning on creating a much simpler and nimbler procurement system, which will open up procurement opportunity to small and medium-sized businesses. However, I hope he will contribute to the Budget debate that is coming up, which will be an opportunity to talk about these matters at greater length.
The mortality risk from covid-19 among ethnic minority groups is twice that of white British patients, and the poorest areas of England have suffered more than twice as many covid deaths as the richest ones. The Government talk about levelling up, but without concerted action, these communities will continue to be disproportionately affected by the pandemic and its aftermath. So can we please have a debate in Government time about addressing these shameful health inequalities?
My hon. Friend the Equalities Minister is looking at the reasons for the higher rates of infection among minority communities, and is expected to produce a report shortly on that. It is obviously important that we level up across the whole country, and that is what Government policy is dedicated to doing. It is fundamental that we ensure that everybody in this country has an equal chance.
Can we have a statement or a Government policy announcement authorising that more robust action be taken in future to reduce the risk of flooding? Are there not valuable national lessons to be learned from Somerset, which should now be applied elsewhere, including in Yorkshire—namely, that higher levels of river maintenance and river dredging do work in reducing the flood risk?
My right hon Friend raises a very good point—that dredging worked extraordinarily well in the Somerset levels. The Government have a major policy plan to deal with flooding, including £5.2 billion to be invested in flood and coastal defences—double the previous expenditure of taxpayers’ money—which will protect 350,000 homes over the next six years, on top of the nearly 300,000 properties that are already better protected compared with 2015. So he has raised an important point and, yes, I hope, as always, the nation will learn from Somerset.
Families are struggling across the country, and one of the biggest bills they face is the school uniform bill. A school uniform Bill has been brought in—a private Member’s Bill—by my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury). I was on the Bill Committee back in September, and I know it has cross-party support. It is a small Bill that will make a big difference to families across the country. Will the Leader of the House set a date for that Bill to be brought back to this House, debated and passed, so that it will have that impact on families before September? Time is of the essence.
I can never promise that a Bill will be passed, but I said I would ensure that Fridays were brought back as soon as was practicable and possible. There are discussions going on at the moment, and I am full of hope that something will happen and that I will be able to make an announcement, possibly next Thursday, but I do not want to make an absolute promise of that kind.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Freeport East bid for the freeport at Felixstowe-Harwich is the biggest freeport bid? It will make the biggest contribution to levelling up, the biggest contribution to the UK economy and the biggest contribution to imports and exports in this country. How will the bids be scrutinised by Parliament after they have been decided on Budget day? Will there be specific Government time to ensure that the best bids are approved?
It is very encouraging that there is so much interest from so many Members in creating freeports; it shows what an exciting and innovative policy that is. There will obviously be a chance to debate that, and how it will be implemented, after the Budget speech—four days will be set aside for that debate—but all Government decisions are open to scrutiny by the House in its various ways, through oral questions or Select Committees. My hon. Friend is well aware of how effective Select Committees can be in holding the Government to account.
The Leader of the House knows that across this country of ours there are many parcels of land, especially in the industrial north, that have been contaminated by years of industry. Such pieces of land are sometimes looked at by developers with a view to building houses and so on. That often causes concern to local communities about the impact of contamination. I have been trying for some time to find out about the Turner Brothers Asbestos site in my constituency, and about the Spring Mill site just across the boundary in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry), but without success. May we have a debate on the need for the right of access of communities when land that is contaminated, or thought to be, is being put on the market, or being put forward for development?
There are very strong regulations about the development of contaminated land, and there are some very successful projects between the public and the private sector to decontaminate such land. I actually visited one in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), where the Mayor of the West Midlands had been heavily involved in ensuring that a large brownfield site that had been contaminated could be brought forward for development. So there is a role for the public and private sector in dealing with this, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that land that is contaminated will not be developed unless it is decontaminated first.
Will the Government find time for a debate on the importance of bringing civil servants out of London and across the nation, as part of the vital levelling up agenda? Does my right hon. Friend agree that Stoke-on-Trent would be an excellent location for a Government Department?
It might be difficult to move the Leader of the House’s office to Stoke-on-Trent, for obvious reasons, but I agree that it would be a fine place. The Government’s Places for Growth programme is working alongside Departments to finalise relocation plans, as we work to ensure that our geography of locations covers as representative a distribution across the UK as possible, with the aim of having decision makers based in locations to create and distribute opportunities, jobs and investment across the country. I am sure that hon. Members welcomed the announcement that the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government will create a second headquarters in Wolverhampton. None the less, it is important to note that that will not affect Ministers’ commitment to their duties in Parliament. So yes, that is the policy, and Stoke-on-Trent is a wonderful place.
May we have a debate on the Government’s strategy for the Jobcentre Plus estate? Three years ago this month Glasgow saw a raft of jobcentres closed, including three out of four jobcentres in part of the east end of Glasgow alone. Imagine my surprise when, only yesterday, I got a response back from the Government suggesting that they are now looking at reopening jobcentres in large metropolitan areas. So does the Leader of the House agree that it was short-sighted for the Department for Work and Pensions to butcher the Jobcentre Plus estate, and can he confirm whether there will be a new temporary jobcentre in Glasgow?
I cannot confirm the precise location of individual jobcentres, but I can pass the message on to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. It is obviously important that the jobcentres are in the right places depending on need, and need will change over the years; it will not be completely static.
Unfortunately, I must report to the House disturbing information revealed online yesterday, showing the Labour leadership in my Dudley North constituency promoting anti-vaccination propaganda. Councillor Zafar Islam has promoted doubt and fear among my constituents at the same time as other black, Asian and minority ethnic community leaders and I have been trying our best to promote the vaccine to save lives. We are talking about a senior elected official who may have caused serious harm to my constituents. Will the Leader of the House agree to a statement on the leadership role of all elected Members in relation to the management of anti-vaccine information, and will he join me in condemning Councillor Islam’s reckless behaviour?
It is indeed reckless to subscribe to the anti-vaccine effort, but I point to the success of the roll-out of the vaccine in this country, with 18 million people now having received at least one dose. That has led to a decline in hospital admissions and a decline in deaths. It is an enormously successful roll-out, with extremely high take-up and no reports of any damaging side effects. It has been an absolute triumph of medical sophistication, and people can be very confident that the vaccine is safe, to their benefit and to society’s benefit. People in elected office therefore ought to be really careful and think through what they say. If they say foolish things, they deserve to be held to account.
Every 62 minutes, somebody dies from an eating disorder, so ahead of Eating Disorders Awareness Week, which begins on Monday, can we have a debate about the issues of stigma, lack of understanding and lack of investment in adequate services for people with eating disorders?
The hon. Lady raises something that will concern the whole House. It is of great importance, and I think it ties in generally with the whole mental health concerns that we have across the country and the need—accepted on a cross-party basis—to do more to help with mental health. That is very much the policy of the Government, with increased mental health funding to £13.3 billion to 2019-20. I was not previously aware that every 62 minutes somebody dies of an eating disorder. That is a figure that will trouble the whole House and is a reminder and a reinforcement that our efforts in regard to mental health must go further, and I think that is something that has cross-party support.
I am very grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for allowing me to raise this very important issue. Could we have a debate in Government time on the future of faith schools? Ampleforth school in my constituency has had problems in the past, it is fair to say, but those are now behind it. Yet there are some in the education system who are using some relatively minor issues more recently as a pretext for the potential closure of the school. Could we have a debate in Government time so that we can send a very strong message that this House believes that faith schools are an important part of our education system going forward?
Faith schools are fundamentally important, and it is a right of parents to choose to have their children educated in their own faith. That is something of importance to all communities. My hon. Friend rightly says that Ampleforth has had very serious problems in the past, but I understand it now has a new headmaster who has reformed matters and that a decision is awaited from the Secretary of State on its future for admissions. I will pass on to the Secretary of State what my hon. Friend has said, but I absolutely underline what he says: faith schools are a right to which parents ought to be entitled. Speaking as a Catholic, I think that Catholic education is of very considerable importance and worth supporting, and Benedictine education is a particularly noble part of that.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Paragraph 19.21 of “Erskine May” states that ministerial statements are undesirable on Opposition days. Opposition days happen 20 times in a regular parliamentary Session, but today we have the general debate on Welsh affairs, which happens only once a year and is actually not a full day but only half a day. I would be interested, Mr Speaker, in your judgment on whether it is appropriate for three statements to happen on Welsh affairs day, meaning that our debate on all things Wales is going to be shoehorned into 90 minutes at the end of today’s session.
I thank the hon. Member for giving me notice of his point of order. He is right that “Erskine May” refers to a preference to avoid ministerial statements on Opposition days. There will be times when it is necessary to make statements on Backbench Business days. However, I do think it is unfortunate that the Government have decided to make two statements today when many Members wish to speak in the Welsh affairs debate in particular; it is an important occasion for many of our colleagues.
I am sure that the Leader of the House will reflect on that. I also know that the Backbench Business Committee will want to be mindful of potential pressures on debates. It has a difficult role in trying to ensure that colleagues’ requests for debates are met. I know that it will consider whether, on some occasions, a single debate may be preferable. I do not know whether the Leader of the House wishes to add anything.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Just to say that this is the general pressure on business. People want statements made on important issues. There is demand, which you have to deal with, for urgent questions; I deal with the demand for statements and for Backbench business. I am very conscious of the desire to protect Backbench business, but the two statements today are both extremely important. It is the typical balance in a pressured parliamentary timetable.
Education Return and Awarding Qualifications in 2021
With permission, I would like to make a statement regarding the opening of educational settings, our plans to help children catch up and the arrangements we have put in place for qualifications.
The Prime Minister announced on Monday a cautious road map for the gradual relaxation of our current social restrictions. It is not quite the end, but the end is very clearly in sight. As the House is by now aware, the rates of covid infection have come down enough for us to let children go back to school from Monday 8 March. Secondary and college students will be back from that date, after being offered an on-site covid test. University students on practical courses who need to access specialist facilities can also return to campus from 8 March, and we will be reviewing the timing for the return of remaining students during the Easter holidays.
The Prime Minister spoke of a one-way road to freedom. For this reason, we have issued detailed guidance about what we expect all schools and colleges to do to welcome children and students back. A robust testing regime will be in place that will be critical in breaking the chains of covid infection. More than 4 million tests have already been completed across primary and secondary schools, colleges and universities. I know that staff have worked very hard to set up testing sites in schools and have had time to get used to supervising the testing that goes on. I know that the whole House will join me in thanking every one of them for the incredible efforts they continue to make to keep young people safe and learning.
Primary school staff will continue to receive two home tests a week, and this will be extended to private early years providers and secondaries, and secondary school and college students will be offered three tests in school and college when they return over the first two weeks, to be undertaken three to five days apart. Students will then be offered two home tests per week, so that they can test themselves regularly. Schools will be able to retain small on-site testing facilities for those who cannot and have not been able to test at home. Staff and students at independent learning providers and adult community learning providers will also be able to test at home. On-site testing facilities are already set up in universities, and staff and students there can take two tests a week.
We are following public health guidance and advising that in circumstances where social distancing cannot be maintained, face coverings should be worn in secondary school classrooms as well as in further and higher education settings. This is a temporary measure to ensure the safe return of schools and will be in place until Easter. All the other safety measures that are already in place continue to be robust, including bubble groups, staggered start and finish times, increased ventilation and strict hygiene measures.
This has been a hugely challenging time for teachers, staff and parents. The House will be well aware of the incredible work that has already gone into minimising the effects of this pandemic, but I know from research that we have been conducting that it will not be enough. Many children are going to need longer-term support to make up for lost learning. We want families to know that there will be support for schools and for our children. Sir Kevan Collins, our education recovery commissioner, will be working with parents, teachers and schools on a long-term plan to make sure that pupils have the chance to make up their learning over the course of their education.
As an immediate support, we are putting in place a range of additional measures to help children and young people across England to catch up. We are introducing a new one-off £302 million recovery premium for state primary and secondary schools, building on the pupil premium to further support pupils who need it most. We are expanding our successful tutoring programmes: £200 million will be available to fund an extended national tutoring programme for primary and secondary schools and tutoring and language support in colleges and early years settings. Two hundred million pounds will be available for secondary schools to deliver face-to-face summer schools. Schools will be able to target individual pupils’ needs. The package will build on the £1 billion catch-up package that we announced just a few months ago and forms part of a wider response to help pupils to make up on the lost learning that they have suffered.
I would like to update the House on the next steps after we decided that GCSEs, AS and A-level exams, and many vocational and technical qualifications, could not go ahead as planned this summer. In January, we launched a joint consultation with Ofqual on the best way to do this, so that the results for 2021 are as robust and as fair as possible. I am very glad to say that we got more than 100,000 responses from students, parents, teachers, school leaders and other stakeholders as part of that consultation, and we have considered all of them very carefully. I assure right hon. and hon. Members that there was widespread support for the approach that we are taking.
Our priority is and has always been to make sure that every student has the best possible chance to show what they know and can do, enabling them to progress to the next stage of their education, training or employment. The most important thing that we can do is to make sure that the system is fair to every student. It is vital that they have confidence that they will get the grade that is a true and just reflection of their work. This year’s students will receive grades determined by their teachers, with assessments covering what they were taught and not what they have missed. Teachers have a good understanding of their students’ performance and how they compare with other students this year and from previous years. Teachers can choose a range of evidence to underpin their assessments, including coursework, in-class tests set by the school, the use of optional questions provided by exam boards and mock exams. We will, of course, give guidance on how best to do this fairly and consistently.
Exam boards will be issuing grade descriptions to help teachers to make sure their assessments are fair and consistent. These will be broadly pegged to performance standards from previous years, so that teachers and students are clear what is expected at each grade. Doing this with a rigorous quality assurance process are just two of the ways that this system will ensure that grades are fair and consistent. Quality assurance by the exam boards will provide a meaningful check in the system and make sure that we can root out malpractice. We will also set out a full and fair appeals system. It will provide a process to enable students to appeal their grades, should they believe that their grades are wrong.
I can confirm that no algorithm will be used for this process. Grades will be awarded on the basis of teachers’ judgment and will only ever be changed by human intervention. There must, of course, be as much fairness and rigour applied to vocational and technical qualifications as there is to general qualifications. For those qualifications that are most similar to GCSEs, AS and A-levels, which enable people to progress to further and higher education, external exams will not go ahead and results will be awarded through similar arrangements as set out for GCSEs and A-levels. Where students are taking VTQs to go straight into a job, exams and assessments should take place in line with public health measures. This is so that students can demonstrate the occupational or professional standards that they need to enter the workplace safely.
All our children and young people have paid a considerable price for the disruption of the past year. It has knocked their learning off track, put their friendships to one side and put some of the wonder of growing up on hold. In short, it has caused enormous damage to what should have been a carefree and an exciting part of growing up. I am absolutely committed to the view that, with this programme of catch-up measures and the extra funds for tutoring, we can start to put this right. Together with the measures that we have set out for a fair and robust allocation of grades, young people will be able to look forward to the next stage of their lives with confidence. Our approach in the face of the worst disruption to education since the second world war has been to protect the progress of pupils and students. Ultimately, this summer’s assessments will ensure fair routes to the next stages of education or the start of their career. That is our overall aim.
In summing up, Mr Speaker, I am sure you would agree with my assessment that, as a nation, we have perhaps never valued education as much as we do today, and I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement and join him in paying tribute to all staff in our education system.
We on these Benches want to see all pupils safely back in class, where they can be with their friends and their teachers, and get the structure and stability that they need. It is not enough, though, simply to say that schools will reopen; there must be a credible plan that will not only enable schools to open fully in March, but will keep them open.
The Secretary of State has failed to use the period when most pupils were not in school to put the necessary measures in place. In January he said that he wanted school staff to be in the next wave of vaccinations, so why has there still been no commitment from the Government to prioritise school staff? Does he no longer believe that they should be a priority?
Many schools have lost income or face higher costs because of the pandemic. Why has the Secretary of State failed to review the funding? One way to reduce transmission of coronavirus is to allow schools to teach on a rota basis. Labour, school leaders, and teachers have all asked him to consider this. He has refused. Why? Ventilation has an important role to play in reducing transmission indoors. Will he update his Department’s guidance to ensure that it is clear, robust and specific enough for all schools to implement it effectively?
Can the Secretary of State tell me why, months after Labour called for it, he has not made any progress in providing Nightingale classrooms so that more pupils can study in smaller groups? It is welcome that he has finally caught up on Labour’s call to expand the wearing of masks in schools, but why is this measure only temporary? I worry that, in taking one small step in the right direction while leaving a great many others issues unaddressed, he is failing to do all that can be done to keep schools open and failing to work with, not against, school staff and their unions.
This year’s exams were cancelled 52 days ago. For seven weeks, pupils, parents, and staff have faced damaging and utterly unnecessary uncertainty. The Secretary of State could have avoided that by listening to Labour and putting a plan B in place months ago; instead he was once again slow to act, with millions of young people paying the price. Now he claims to have solved the problem, but guidance from exam boards will not be available until “the end of the spring term”, meaning more weeks of anxiety for young people and their teachers. He blamed a “rogue algorithm” for last year’s fiasco, but the real cause of the chaos was not an algorithm; it was his incompetence. Now, for the first time, he has said that he trusts teachers. I cannot help wondering why he only trusts teachers when there is a chance to make them responsible for what happens with exams, rather than his Department.
I am glad that a wide range of evidence will be used: assessment materials will be available for schools; there will be guidance from exam boards on how to award grades; and individual schools will not be responsible for appeals. Is he confident that grades will be fair and consistent between and across schools? Why has he not used the past seven weeks to provide appropriate training to teachers? Is he not concerned that the lack of common evidence and of a link to an existing grade distribution both puts pressure on schools and colleges and creates huge challenge in ensuring fairness? Finally, on assessments can the Secretary of State update the House on functional skills and end-point assessments.
It was nearly six months ago that Labour first called for a national strategy to help children to catch up and to close the attainment gap, and I welcome the appointment of Sir Kevan Collins to lead education recovery work. I hope this means that the Secretary of State is breaking from the great Conservative tradition of finding work only for friends and donors. Can he confirm, however, that yesterday’s recovery announcement amounts to just 43p per pupil per day over the next school year, and that just 500,000 pupils—fewer than one in three of those eligible for free school meals—will benefit from summer schemes? Can he tell the House why there was no mention whatsoever of the hard-working staff who will deliver this summer support, why there is no specific support for children’s mental health and wellbeing, and why there is only limited support for college students?
This has been a challenging year for children, parents and education staff, and it has been made more challenging by the Government’s incompetence. With schools set to open their doors to more pupils in a matter of weeks, there is a final chance to put things right. The Secretary of State must do so.
I thank the hon. Lady for her questions. She raises the question of vaccinations for staff. She will have seen in the road map that the Prime Minister launched on Monday that the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation is to look at two strands. The first involves people who are most vulnerable to either being hospitalised or sadly passing away as a result of catching the covid virus, and we will be making sure that that is one of the strands that needs to be vaccinated out of those groups. Also, the committee will look at those jobs and professions—not just teachers but transport workers, supermarket staff and the many others who do an amazing job in public-facing roles—to see what the needs of those workforces are. I do not want to pre-empt the independent work of the JCVI, but we look forward to seeing what it says.
On the hon. Lady’s suggestion on moving to rotas, that is not a route that we want to go down. We on this side of the House want to have all children back in full-time education. We think that school is the best place for children to be, and we think it is important for them to have full-time education in the classroom. That is why we felt that, when we were able to do so, it was better to welcome all children back into the classroom every day of every week.
The hon. Lady briefly touched on testing. Testing will be an important part of keeping classrooms covid-free. The roll-out of testing that has been happening over the last seven weeks has been incredibly successful. We have had some of the highest rates of uptake in testing of any workforce area and in any individual setting. Not unsurprisingly, schools have readily adapted to the testing regime. So far, out of all the asymptomatic testing stations that we are hoping to set up across schools, colleges and special schools, 97% of those settings have set up asymptomatic testing centres, and obviously there are 3% that we are targeting resources and focus on, to ensure that they are ready to do testing for welcoming children back on 8 March. Testing is important for keeping covid out of the classroom.
I note the hon. Lady’s comments on exams, and we will work with the exam boards and do everything we can to ensure that there is the absolute maximum amount of guidance, training and support for all teachers on giving the grades out and making the assessment of the correct grade. We have been working closely with the exam boards to ensure that this is done swiftly to support teachers. I know that they will be offering a broad range of support to all teachers and schools to ensure that teacher-assessed grades are done fairly right across the system. The hon. Lady makes an important point about having as much consistency as possible in the awarding of grades. That is why we have been working with exam boards to ensure that there is random sampling across schools and colleges across the country—both state schools and private schools—as well as ensuring that where there are clear anomalies and uncertainty, there are proper checks to ensure that there is no malpractice within the system.
I thank my right hon. Friend for the £1.7 billion for catch-up. It is a remarkable achievement that I hope will make a difference to our children. On exams, the decision to adopt centre-assessed grades for the second year in a row highlights the severity of the damage that school closures have done. Although I accept that it is the least worst option that the Government have come up with, my concern is not so much about having one’s cake and eating it but baking a rock cake of grade inflation into the system.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm what the Government’s plan is to ensure that we will not have a wild west of grading, and that these grades will be meaningful to employers so as not to damage children’s life chances? When and how will we reverse the grade inflation? What is the rationale for not tethering this year’s grades to last year’s, or somewhere between 2019 and 2020? Why do we not embed quality assurance more broadly, rather than relying on random sampling or spot checks?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments in relation to how we deliver catch-up. I also appreciate some of his thinking and ideas, which, as he can see, have been embedded into some of the policy work that we have been doing on catch-up. He raises an important issue about grade inflation. That is why we have been doing so much work with the exam boards and with Ofqual to ensure that there are proper internal checks as well as proper external checks.
We did not feel that it would be possible to peg to a certain year because, sadly, doing that would probably entail the use of some form of algorithm in order to best deliver it. That is why we have put a much greater emphasis on those internal and external quality assurance checks. We will work with exam boards and schools to ensure that there is consistency, but my right hon. Friend raises the important point that the best form of assessment, as I know he also believes, is examination. We want to move back into a position to bring exams back, as they are ultimately the fairest and most equal way of assessing all young people.
Does the Secretary of State plan to issue specific guidance on how factors such as the number of rooms in a child’s home, the number of siblings sharing that home, and the level of access to IT equipment will be taken into account when assessing? Otherwise, how can any pandemic grades be judged as equitable?
We believe that, when we are not in a position to be able to run exams, the best way of assessing the work and the progress that the child has made is for that assessment to be done by a teacher. The teacher’s assessment and judgment is the best one to be guided by.
Like me, the Education Secretary married into a teaching family, and I know that he will join me in recognising the phenomenal work done by teachers and school staff in Dudley South throughout this pandemic, but the messages coming from medical professionals differ from those coming from teaching unions about the risk of teachers and other staff being infected if they return to the classroom. What scientific evidence can he share regarding the level of risk that teachers are at, relative to the wider population?
I would very much like to join my hon. Friend and neighbour in paying tribute to the amazing work of teachers not just in Dudley South but right across the country for the work that they and support staff have been doing, keeping the doors of schools open, welcoming the children of critical workers and vulnerable children all the way through this pandemic and delivering brilliant online learning and remote education for so many of our children.
My hon. Friend raises a really important point. When Professor Chris Whitty stands at the podium and makes clear the need for children to be able to return to school, it is incredibly powerful, and it is something that the British people will listen to and that parents, teachers, children and all staff in schools will take real confidence from. There is an enormous amount of evidence to show what a safe place schools are. I point to the evidence and data produced as part of the road map released on Monday, as well as the further information that the Department released as part of the guidance that we set out on Monday, which makes clear the importance of children being back in school and enjoying their education, and of school being a safe environment to learn in.
Contrary to what the Secretary of State just said, the scientific consensus tells us that we need to wait for cases to be extremely low and have a phased return of children to schools, yet he is sending 10 million children back into classrooms en masse. Staff have contacted me, scared for their health and their pupils’ health and worried that the Government have not put in place the measures needed to make our schools safe. If he was on top of his brief and engaging with the profession, he would have used his time this morning to allay their fears. Will he take that opportunity now?
It is disappointing that the hon. Member shows off the instinctive reaction of many people in her party that they do not want children to be going back to school. That is certainly not the case on the Government Benches. We have set out clearly a system of controls, working with Public Health England. That is why we have taken the difficult decision to introduce covid testing for not just staff at primary schools but staff and all children in secondary schools and colleges, to make sure that we keep classrooms covid-free and, working with Public Health England, to make sure that the system of controls is robust and strong to keep our children safe, keep our workforce safe and keep our families and communities safe.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. Further education colleges such as East Coast College are preparing for and will arrange a return on 8 March, although organising three tests on site during that week for 5,000 students and 650 members of staff before moving to home testing will present a significant logistical challenge. I would be most grateful if he could confirm that his Department will work with colleges in a collaborative and flexible way to address this and any other obstacles that may arise.
We absolutely will work with colleges and schools to support them, and we are not just putting the equipment at their disposal but providing the financial resources for them to roll out this massive testing programme. Colleges will have two weeks to conduct the three tests, and we have given colleges and schools the flexibility to allow students and children to come into college and school to take the tests before the official reopening on 8 March.
It is great to hear that all schools and all year groups will be returning on 8 March. Teachers across Keighley and Ilkley have been working exceptionally hard over the past months to ensure that children’s learning has remained as unaffected as possible, and they deserve all our thanks and support, but some schools in my constituency are raising concerns about the roll-out and logistics of testing for students. Will my right hon. Friend do all he can to provide support for those schools?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight that point. We have made a substantial financial package of support available to schools in case they need to bring in extra resources to roll out the testing programme. We have the one-week period starting from the 8 March, where schools can bring in those year groups so that they can get tested and straight back into class, but we have also given them the flexibility to enable students to come in earlier than 8 March if they wish to, so that they can get tested prior to the official start of the new term.
The pandemic restrictions have caused much damage to our children and young people across the country. The Secretary of State has made bold assertions in the last 24 hours that no child’s life shall be blighted, and says we have
“never valued education as much as we do today”,
yet his spending commitment to children’s recovery is the equivalent of between 3% and 4% of the annual schools budget. Compare that to the spending on the discredited test and trace system, which was almost half the annual schools budget. Why is he not being more ambitious for our children by putting forward a more generous, longer-term package that focuses on their wellbeing and emotional, as well as educational, recovery?
That is very much part of our overall plan for raising standards in education. We wanted to give schools a sense of what they will be able to do and to plan for over the coming weeks and months; we wanted to give them that immediate notice. We saw over £1 billion being funnelled into helping our schools and students straight away, topped up by a further £700 million. As I said, our ambitions do not stop there. We want to go much further, making sure that we deliver the reform and change that is so crucial to ensuring that children get the very best of everything in their education and that it is focused on them. That is what we are going to be delivering not just over the coming months, but over the coming years.
About 7% of children in England go to fee-paying schools. Those pupils also face pressures in learning at home, and many of their parents’ incomes have been severely impacted by the consequences of the pandemic. What discussions has my right hon. Friend had and what guidance does he propose to give to that private sector to see what can be done to ensure that children in those schools also benefit from appropriate catch-up provision and good practice to that effect?