Skip to main content

Business of the House

Volume 690: debated on Thursday 4 March 2021

The business for the week commencing 8 March will include:

Monday 8 March—Continuation of the Budget debate.

Tuesday 9 March—Conclusion of the Budget debate.

Wednesday 10 March—Estimates day (3rd allotted day). There will be debates on estimates relating to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Cabinet Office. 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 consideration of a business of the House motion, followed by all stages of the Contingencies Fund (No.2) Bill, followed by a general debate on International Women’s Day. The subject for this debate was recommended by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 12 March—Private Members’ Bills.

I thank the Leader for the business for next week. I am pleased that, according to the Order Paper, Westminster Hall will be returning on Monday and that the private Members’ Bills are back. Lots of hon. Members have worked really hard to get a consensus on these Bills; I hope they will have a smooth transition.

Our thoughts are with our gracious sovereign and we wish Prince Philip a speedy recovery.

The Secretary of State for International Trade—I thank the Leader for the letter to her—wrote to me in September to say that she would report to Parliament on the Trade and Agriculture Commission. Actually, a written statement has been published—I thought she would have been here in person. In that written statement, she is extending the terms of reference of the commission. She says she wants to put the

“Commission onto a statutory footing and evolving its role to boost scrutiny of new free trade deals.”

I thought it was Parliament’s job to scrutinise trade deals, so I ask the Leader to ensure that she comes to the House. I know she is top of the poll on Conservative Home—how do we get the Leader up that greasy pole? But she needs to come to Parliament. Disregard for Parliament is absolutely outrageous.

So, too, was the trailing of the whole of the Budget; apart from the fact that there was £700 million for cultural activities instead of £400 million, everything else was in the media over the weekend. Mr Speaker, you will know that in 1947—(Interruption.) Not you personally! We all know from our history that Hugh Dalton had to resign when he leaked the Budget.

We have had the worst death toll in Europe, the worst economic crisis, so why is the Chancellor hurting families in the middle of a pandemic and hurting businesses? There is going to be a rise in council tax—in Walsall, an extra £105—a pay freeze for all our millions of key workers; nothing for schools, nothing for maintained nurseries, nothing for our NHS staff, nothing for the police and nothing for the public sector. How soon they forget who supported them in the pandemic—and still there are excluded people.

There was no mention of the child trust funds. HMRC said £1.8 million—it is pounds or young people—have been forgotten. The money is unclaimed. Parents of children with disabilities have had to go to court to try to release that money. That was a Labour Government initiative. The children are now 18. They need to have access to that money immediately, particularly in the light of the pandemic.

In the middle of this pandemic, we have a reorganisation of the NHS. The Government are embarking on yet another reorganisation—fiddling while Rome burns, a massive restructure, so everything is going back to the Secretary of State. It is a power grab. What are we going to see—VIP lounges, VIP fast tracks? And we have had a takeover—in less than 10 minutes, 52 GPs in London were taken over by a United States insurance company. That is absolutely outrageous. While our NHS staff are turning over people in the covid crisis in our A&Es and vaccinating the nation, the very foundations of our NHS have been taken away from them. So can we have an urgent statement from the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care on that reorganisation?

Last week, my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) had an Adjournment debate and a ten-minute rule Bill and she asked the Government to announce the results of their review on how the benefits system is treating terminally ill people. That was first announced in 2019, but there is no date. Time is running out. The Motor Neurone Disease Association and Marie Curie estimate that 6,000 people have died waiting for their benefits. The Leader will have seen the report from the coroner last week on Philippa Day. There were 28 errors. She took a fatal overdose while her payments were cut. They found a letter rejecting her request for an at-home benefits assessment near her. We need an urgent statement from the Department for Work and Pensions on its treatment of vulnerable and terminally ill people.

I know that the Foreign Secretary updated the House, and he said he had met the family of Nazanin and had spoken to the families of all three detained British-Iranian dual nationals, but we have had no more news. Nazanin’s sentence runs out on Sunday, and there is no update on whether Anousheh can speak to his family again—Sherry, Elika and Arian. I pay tribute to Daren Nair, who has had to step down from Amnesty. He has been tireless in his efforts in campaigning. I met him when Richard Ratcliffe was on hunger strike outside the Iranian embassy. We need a further update.

Monday is International Women’s Day and we have the debate on Thursday. It is also Women’s HERstory Month, when we will look back at the history of covid. I pay tribute to the women scientists now: Professor Sarah Gilbert, who designed the Oxford vaccine and led the first trial of the Ebola vaccine, Professor Catherine Green, Professor Teresa Lambe, Professor Katie Ewer and Dr Maheshi Ramasamy. They have all been part of that vaccine.

Finally, on World Book Day, we would like to see tweets of the Leader in his six different outfits as he celebrates it with each of his children.

I begin by joining the right hon. Lady in sending the House’s best wishes to the Duke of Edinburgh while he is in hospital recovering from his operation, and hope that he is restored to full health.

On World Book Day, my children are apparently dressed up today. I think one is dressed as Sherlock Holmes, one is a character from the “Jill and the pony” books, two are dressing up as James Bond, and the third and youngest are dressing up as Harry Potter and wandering round with a wand casting spells on one and all. So World Book Day is being celebrated. Even better, I will be re-showing my podcast of my reading from “Erskine May”, because can you think of anything more joyful to do on World Book Day, or anything more designed to help one enter into happy slumbers, than listening to my somnolent tones reciting from that great work?

To come to the important questions that the right hon. Lady asked, the Foreign Secretary has updated the House on Nazanin. The Government take very seriously the issues of dual nationals held overseas. It is something that I take up with the Foreign Office every week after business questions. The Foreign Secretary is actually going to be here later today with a statement, so there will be the opportunity to ensure that he is reminded of it, if not formally on the Floor of the House, at least in the corridors. But Her Majesty’s Government take it very seriously and have been working on it for a long time.

As regards my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade and Secretary of State for International Trade, a written statement is a perfectly proper way of updating the House. There is a constant pressure on time in this House; we will no doubt hear later from the Chairman of the Backbench Business Committee about how his time sometimes gets squeezed. We simply have to try to ensure that time is used effectively in Opposition days, Back-Bench days, legislation and Budget days, and written statements are a proper way of updating the House.

With regard to the Budget appearing in newspapers beforehand, the main details of the Budget were released to the House yesterday, as is entirely proper, as were the Red Book and the report from the Office for Budget Responsibility. There were general discussions beforehand when things were raised in broad terms, but I do not think that breaks the spirit or the letter of the ministerial code, or indeed of “Erskine May”—although of course as Leader of the House it is my responsibility to remind Ministers that important announcements should be made to the House first.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

The right hon. Lady talked about pay increases. It is worth bearing in mind that the majority of public sector workers will receive pay increases. The lowest paid will all get a £250 pay increase, and NHS staff will also get a pay increase, so those who have done the most and who are the least well-off will benefit, even as we try to claw back the huge amount of debt that has been built up in dealing with the pandemic. Some £407 billion of support has been given to the UK economy, spread across the whole of the United Kingdom. I think there is a weakness in the Labour party’s argument—it can only slightly carp at the edges—because the scale of the support is so great that there is no opposition to it.

The NHS reorganisation is a fundamentally important thing to do. We have been through a pandemic and people will have noticed that there are things that could be done better. When something happens, it is human nature to think what we would do better if we were to do it again, and to have a reform Bill—the White Paper has already been issued—is an exceptionally sensible thing to do. It will build on the success of the NHS over the past year in the face of a huge challenge, in which, it is worth bearing in mind, there has been a huge private sector contribution. The right hon. Lady carps about some private sector activity, but the vaccination has been done with and through the help of the private sector. The pharmaceutical industry, which is a profit-making industry, is the thing that has meant that we are leading the world and delivering the vaccine to the British people.

Finally, on the issue of end-of-life benefits, the right hon. Lady raises a point that is extremely complex. That is why the Department for Work and Pensions is continuing to look at it. I have raised it with the DWP recently, in response to questions in the Chamber. There are no easy answers. Everyone wants to ensure that people are looked after at the end of life, but it is not always clear exactly how long people will live for. Again, that is part of the human condition.

One of the issues that blights so many of us is potholes. In my constituency, that includes roads such as Talbot Drive, Mill Hill Lane, Stockbridge Road and Burnham Gate, but I am very pleased that Conservative-controlled Lancashire County Council has made tackling them a key priority. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the best way in which we can tackle potholes across Lancashire is by supporting our excellent Conservative candidates in the local elections in May?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the issue of potholes. Apparently there is a fantastic new machine from JCB—a remarkable, successful British company—that fills potholes remarkably quickly. I am particularly pleased to hear how good, sound Conservative councils are fixing roads up and down the country. The people of Lancashire clearly made the right choice in the 2017 local elections. They are good at making the right choice for who to represent them.

I think the hon. Member for Burnley (Antony Higginbotham) should have asked for a debate as well, at the end of his question.

Well, in a manner of speaking, we are having one now, are we not, Mr Speaker, about the enormous success of Conservative councils? That is something to which I always like to devote as much time as possible in this House. We want more pothole-free areas under more Conservative councils after the first Thursday in May.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. My extended transition to the role of my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) continues. I again make the plea to the Leader of the House to use everything within his gift to encourage some common sense and free the Perthshire One.

Last week the Leader of the House told me:

“We have in this country one of the most honest public sectors of any country in the world.”—[Official Report, 25 February 2021; Vol. 689, c. 1096.]

I am sure, therefore, that he will be very concerned at the news that the international community does not seem to be convinced. The Government have been put under review by the Open Government Partnership, a global coalition for transparency and anti-corruption. Will the Government now ensure that time is set aside to debate and demonstrate that criticisms of secrecy over contracts and accusations of cronyism are being taken seriously and not swept under the carpet, to give the public confidence in the Government and remove any suspicion of corruption? Of course, a simple first step would be to back my Ministerial Interests (Emergency Powers) Bill—I am sure the right hon. Gentleman is well aware of that.

I am slightly surprised that we only have one week’s future business, when we have had the luxury of two weeks’ notice or sometimes even more previously. I also hoped that we would have notice of an Opposition day debate for the Scottish National party. Could the Leader of the House update us on when that might be possible and when we might see future dates for Friday sittings for private Members’ Bills?

Finally, I would like to add my comments on World Book Day. I am sure the Leader of the House will agree that books can transform lives, improve our children’s attainment and boost wellbeing. Projects such as Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, which has worked with the Scottish Book Trust to provide a free book every month to looked-after and adopted children to the age of five right across Scotland, are an amazing way that we can continue to do this.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman on World Book Day. I always like reading P. G. Wodehouse, which may not surprise the House. There is a wonderful new Wodehouse by Ben Schott called “The Leap of Faith”, and if anybody is looking for something to cheer them up as the lockdown draws slowly to its close, I recommend that. It is perhaps more adult reading than the things the children may be attempting to read, including stories by Roald Dahl such as “The Twits”, “Fantastic Mr Fox” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”—all the old favourites that one can safely recommend.

The answer, I am sorry to say, is no.

As regards an Opposition day for the SNP, I will, of course, take that up; I am aware of the Standing Order requirements. In terms of the plea to free the Perth and North Perthshire One, the Government do not have a majority on the Scottish Affairs Committee, so I suggest that the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) works with all members of the Committee, so that it may come to an agreement to change the times.

Finally, I admire the hon. Gentleman’s gall in asking for a debate on honesty in public affairs—dare I say, motes and beams, and there is rather a beam in the Scottish Parliament at the moment.

My constituent David Lansley has invested in a regeneration project, the Paradise Golf and Beach Resort in Morocco, which was promoted by the Government there back in 2007, but 14 years later, construction has yet to commence, despite multiple conversations with the British consular in Rabat. The investment of my constituent and many others is still nowhere to be seen. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office should intervene in this matter? Can we have a debate about the role of the FCDO in supporting British investors who have seemingly been defrauded by state-backed projects overseas?

While the British Government are unable to intervene in individual cases, we raise property disputes with the relevant Moroccan authorities to urge a satisfactory resolution for British investors. We first raised these issues in 2013 and continue to do so regularly at official and ministerial level, although, as Members will be aware, the response to covid-19 has been HMG’s priority this year and last. Morocco has reassured us that it is keen to ensure that investors are treated fairly and to help to find a solution. We encourage UK citizens in a property dispute to seek legal advice by engaging an independent lawyer qualified in local law, who will be best placed to advise on their rights and methods of redress. Although the British embassy is unable to intervene on behalf of those investors involved in property disputes, we will continue to encourage the Moroccan authorities to make progress on this issue.

I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the business, including the Backbench debate on International Women’s Day 2021 next Thursday. We were hoping to have a second debate on Thursday 11 March on Commonwealth Day 2021, which is also celebrated on 8 March, but the hon. Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger), whose application it was, has agreed in behind-the-scenes negotiations this morning to move that debate to Westminster Hall on Tuesday 16 March, if we can secure the agreement of Madam Deputy Speaker, the Chairman of Ways and Means, to facilitate it.

May I pay tribute to my director of public health, Alice Wiseman, who has become a bit of a TV star in the north-east of England? I also pay tribute to all our excellent public health, NHS and council staff in Gateshead, who continue to exceed all expectations to shepherd us through this crisis—but goodness, do they need a pay rise.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the points he has raised. The early business set down for next Thursday is highly uncontentious and should not take a great deal of the House’s time. However, it is for the Backbench Business Committee to schedule the time that is available, but I note that the Commonwealth Day debate has been moved to Westminster Hall, so I hope that ensures that these important issues are raised effectively.

I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman wants to congratulate Alice Wiseman, the director of public health in his area. The commitment of public servants over the last year has been absolutely terrific; we are so lucky in this country to have people who have ensured that, in very difficult circumstances, the best has been done for the whole nation.

May we have an urgent statement on antisemitism at Bristol university? Jewish students have demonstrated at the Bristol university campus about the alleged actions of Professor David Miller; he has allegedly described Zionism as “the enemy” and referred to the Union of Jewish Students as an “Israel lobby group” which makes Arab and Muslim students unsafe. It is also alleged that he criticised Jewish students for manufacturing a

“charade of false anti-Semitism allegations”.

The university management cares nothing, sees nothing and does nothing about this; they appear to regard Jewish students as an inconvenience and a nuisance, and refuse to take serious action. Jewish students are clearly not welcome; they do not feel safe or valued at this university, and, sadly, history teaches us where this ends. I have written to the vice-chancellor of Bristol university this week and urge my right hon. Friend to ask the Minister for Universities to intervene.

My right hon Friend raises a deeply concerning issue. There is absolutely no place for antisemitism, and it is appalling to hear that Jewish students have reported antisemitism at Bristol university. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) raised this matter with me last week and I have passed it on to the Secretary of State for Education and the Minister for Universities. 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 ought to have robust policies and procedures in place to comply with the law to investigate and swiftly address hate crime, including any antisemitic incidents reported. I say to my right hon. Friend that, in light of the history of the last century, it seems to me that, of all prejudices, antisemitism is the most wicked; it has no place in our society, and universities must be part of ensuring that antisemitism ceases to exist.

The post office is a lifeline in many communities, and that has particularly been the case during the pandemic. I was concerned to learn that the Post Office has paused capital spend for any businesses wishing to take over their local branches, putting post offices in some communities at risk. So may we have a debate, or a statement from the Government on what plans they might have to ensure that the Post Office builds back better and remains a vital service in our communities as we come through these most difficult times?

The hon. Gentleman raises an extremely valid point about post offices during the pandemic, and I think of the West Harptree post office as a case in point. It has provided a wonderful centre for the community: it has kept going; it has remained open, continuing to provide a service, and sometimes the post office is the only local shop that has been open in the community. This is very important, and it is very important that we support post offices. I will raise the issue that the hon. Gentleman mentioned about the pause in capital spend and try to get a fuller answer.

The levelling-up fund prospectus was published yesterday, and Stoke-on-Trent has been identified as in the highest priority for funding. Will my right hon. Friend agree to a debate about the fund to ensure that the communities I represent in Longton, Fenton, Meir and Blurton get the investment they deserve?

The £4.8 billion levelling-up fund will spend taxpayers’ money on infrastructure that improves everyday life across the United Kingdom, including regenerating town centres and high streets, upgrading local transport, and investing in culture and heritage assets. The fund will operate UK-wide, extending the benefits of funding for priority local infrastructure across all regions and nations. Thanks to the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, Her Majesty’s Government once again has the ability fully to support all areas of the United Kingdom. The fund will be allocated competitively, prioritising bids from places in highest need. The prospectus published yesterday provides guidance for local areas on how to submit bids for the first round of funding for projects starting in 2021-22. Capacity funding will also be allocated to the local authorities measured in highest need in England and to all local authorities in Scotland and Wales, to build a new relationship with Her Majesty’s Government. That will support the relevant local authorities to develop bids and to ensure that spending is targeted where it is needed the most.

Forty-five town deals, 40 represented by Tory MPs; announcements of investment in Teesside, Hartlepool and Middlesbrough, but nothing for areas in the northern part of our region such as South Shields—it is no coincidence that we have important elections coming up. Yesterday’s Budget was not a recovery for everyone, just for those who happen to have a Tory MP or a Tory Mayor. May we please have an urgent debate on this Government’s shameful engagement in pork barrel politics?

I mean, really! The reason the money has been allocated where it has is that that is where it is needed. It is worth bearing in mind that a lot of the areas have socialist councils, and it is socialist councils that have let down their areas, which is why they need the money and why these seats are now Tory. A lot of them were socialist not so long ago; they voted Tory because they were failed by the Labour party. It is a fair process, a proper process, an honest process, and it is making up for the failures of the hon. Lady’s party.

May we have a debate on how we can loosen up opening times, as well as other measures, for businesses such as restaurants, pubs, shops and the like, so as to help them maximise their income as well as satisfy the inevitable surge in demand as the pandemic crisis lessens?

May I begin by congratulating my right hon. Friend on becoming my right hon. Friend, which I think creates pleasure across the whole House? I am looking forward to that being formalised at the next Privy Council.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government have convened a small working group of retailers and local authorities to examine how best to reopen these sectors, so it is being co-ordinated with the business community. Small shops have no limits on their hours, and large shops have no limits on their hours Monday to Saturday.

With regard to restaurants and pubs, there is always a sensitivity about local communities if hours are extended, but indeed it is important that when businesses are back, they are able to operate to re-earn some of the money that they have lost. They will be supported by new restart grants, providing up to £6,000 for non-essential retail premises, and we will continue to provide eligible retail, hospitality and leisure properties in England with 100% business rates relief from 1 April 2021 to 30 June 2021, and with 66% rates relief from 1 July to 31 March. Things are being done to help them, and opening hours will be a matter for local decision making.

At the weekend, the Leader of the House kindly proffered some advice to Unionists as to how, in four years’ time, they might get rid of the Northern Ireland protocol. He knows, of course, that in those four years the EU will impose new laws on Northern Ireland, that the Northern Ireland Assembly will have no ability to decide whether or not to implement them, and that, if they do not implement them, the UK Government will be taken to the European Court of Justice.

While we welcome the actions taken by the Government yesterday—we trust that they will not deviate from the short-term measures that they have taken to protect Northern Ireland from the protocol—really, the answer is a long-term solution. I know that the Leader of the House is a fan of P. G. Wodehouse, but we do not need a Jeeves to sort this issue out; there are alternatives that the Government already know and that have been put forward to them. May we have a debate in Government time to discuss those alternatives as a means of replacing the damaging Northern Ireland protocol?

I cannot promise the right hon. Gentleman a debate in Government time, but the issue is unquestionably a serious one, and he will note, as indeed he did in his question, that my noble Friend Lord Frost is taking serious action on this matter. He is extending the implementation period of the protocol by six months to try to ensure the smooth flow of goods between one part of the United Kingdom and another. That is the fundamental point: Northern Ireland is as much a part of the United Kingdom as Somerset and even, Mr Speaker, as Lancashire, and we should recognise that in everything that we do, say and legislate for in this House.

It is World Book Day, as has been mentioned, and I wear my World Book Day badge with pride. It was sad not to see children walking to school this morning dressed as their favourite characters, but I am sure many are at home today, as my right hon. Friend’s children are, enjoying their favourite books. Some 15 million schoolchildren will still receive World Book Day book tokens, which they can spend in a bookshop or on special World Book Day books. Will my right hon. Friend join me in celebrating the joy of reading? Will he share with us his favourite book—perhaps not penned by himself?

I think “Leave It to Psmith” is one of the classic P. G. Wodehouse books. Psmith himself is such a wonderful and engaging character, and I would recommend that book to anybody. Anyone who has not read any P. G. Wodehouse, should start with “Leave It to Psmith” or go for “Psmith in the City”, which is also a great work. If only I wore a monocle, I might be dressing up as Psmith himself.

I so agree with my hon. Friend that reading is one of life’s great joys. Indeed, it has been a small consolation during the pandemic that there has been more time to read because of the inability to carry out normal social activities, and I am sure that has given many people comfort during a difficult period. Children learning to read, beginning to read and beginning to have that pleasure and enthusiasm for words is something that one sees evolve in one’s own children as they develop, and it is greatly to be encouraged with all children across the country.

The Leader of the House will be aware that the Education Secretary recently instructed the Office for Students to cut the London weighting from teaching grants awarded to London universities, as part of Conservative plans to level down London. Given the disproportionate impact that that will have on disadvantaged and ethnic minority students in particular, many of whom commute across the city to attend universities such as St Mary’s in Twickenham, will the Leader of the House grant time for a debate on this discriminatory policy, which is yet another attack by the Conservatives on our capital city?

May I agree with the hon. Lady about what a wonderful university St Mary’s in Twickenham is? It is a very impressive institution. The reforms that have been asked for from the Office for Students will ensure that more of taxpayers’ money is spent on supporting higher education provision, which aligns with national priorities. London universities will be able to benefit from the significant uplifts that the Government are making to elements of the grant, including the first real-terms increase in per capita funding for strategically important high-cost subjects, as well as being able to bid for capital investment to support the delivery of strategic subjects. The London weighting accounts for a small proportion of London providers’ income—less than 1% of the estimated total for the 2020-21 academic year. As with all reforms, it is subject to consultation, which the Office for Students will publish shortly. The impact of any changes on providers will be carefully considered, but I would say to the hon. Lady that the policy is to level up the country; it is not a question of doing anything that is the reverse of that. We want every part of the country to be as prosperous as our great bustling metropolis.

Last week, I launched the all-party parliamentary group for one-punch assaults, and I put on record my thanks to all colleagues who took part in that initial meeting to get the group constituted. I launched the group following the experience of my family after the death of my father, but I have been really moved over recent days by the number of people who have reached out to me sharing their own experiences, including Maxine Thompson-Curl, Sandra Munday, Kevin Woodburn, Heidi Cox and Yvonne Henchcliffe, who have all lost loved ones to these horrific assaults. Can we make time in the agenda to get a debate in Government time to discuss the impacts of one-punch assaults and how best the criminal justice system can be reformed to ensure that all victims, or the families of victims, feel fully supported by the system?

I commend my hon. Friend for the work that she has done campaigning on this matter, which I know is very close to her heart and is obviously one of great sensitivity that the Government take very seriously. The sort of assaults that she is describing are senseless, evil acts of violence, which the Government are committed to eradicating, and we are taking steps to do so, including by more efficiently applying the criminal justice system, and with more than 6,000 new police officers already recruited from last year, which is a major step to ensuring that the law is enforced. I will of course raise her specific points with the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice, and the Backbench Business Committee may be a very good port of call for a debate in support of all the people she has got to join her all-party group.

Hull is the country’s fourth most deprived council area, but for some reason it is not in the 100 priority areas for the community renewal fund, which is supposedly based on social and economic factors. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) has just highlighted, a disproportionate 40 of the 45 towns and cities receiving the £1 billion through the new towns deal have Conservative MPs. It seems that with three Labour MPs, Hull is excluded from even being considered. I am sure that the Leader of the House will want to avoid the impression of pork barrel politics and the sleaze that led to his party’s downfall in the 1990s, so can we please have a debate about the criteria for the allocation of these funds to maximise transparency?

I was going to say that I refer the right hon. Lady to the answer that I gave some moments ago, but let me just go back to what I said. The reason we need this fund is because of the failings of socialism—socialist councils and socialist MPs, letting down their constituents—and this Government are putting things right. They are levelling up, and many of the areas that are receiving the money still have socialist councils but, in their wisdom, they elected Conservative MPs to get over decades of socialist mismanagement. That is why the areas in most need now have Conservative MPs. Let us hope that Hull has Conservative MPs, too, and then it will be managed better.

Mr Speaker,

“Have you ever been in the House of Commons and taken a good square look at the inmates?”—

so wrote P. G. Wodehouse, to continue today’s theme. He was less than complimentary about some of the characters, but quite what he would have made of the virtual Parliament is anybody’s guess. Bearing in mind those inmates, will the Leader of the House provide us with an update on when we will be released from this captivity?

If we are going to swap P. G. Wodehouse quotes, a glorious one comes to mind: “The Right Hon.” Gentleman

“was a tubby little chap who looked like he had been poured into his clothes and had forgotten to say ‘When.’”

That has always been one of my favourites—[Interruption.] No, my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg) is my hon. Friend, so it is perfectly safe, and I said the right hon. Gentleman anyway, so any connoisseur of procedure—as my hon. Friend is—would know that I was not referring to him.

We need to get back to normal. We need to get back to the Chamber being full and bustling and Ministers being held to account. Debates with full interventions are much better than debates that are a series of monologues read out that pay no attention to what has been said beforehand, with people just filling the airwaves for three minutes. We want to get back to being a proper Chamber and I hope that we can do so in line with the general road map.

I would just add, to reassure the House, that on the agenda for Monday at the Commission is the road map to take us forward.

Local Government cuts, housing targets and a deregulated planning regime have meant that a lot of councils have had no option but to surrender municipal land for luxury flats. Can we have an urgent debate and Government statement on the “Planning for the Future” White Paper, because the future, no matter what the right hon. Gentleman says, will be different post-coronavirus? There will be virtual working, new strains and yearly jabs. Can he do that by Wednesday, because on that day, the glorious 1800s town hall of Ealing is potentially set to be dwarfed by a series of tower blocks, including one of 26 storeys, if these greedy developers get their way. Fight for us, Leader of the House!

I am not the greatest admirer of tower blocks, it has to be said, but I am not responsible for those sorts of planning decisions, many of which may be with the local authority and the Mayor of London, so the hon. Lady may well want to take it up with him. I cannot promise a debate by Wednesday, as I have just set out the business for next week, but of course the hon. Lady is right that the effects of the pandemic will change many aspects of our life. It is hard to predict exactly how at the moment, but all sorts of areas will need to be reconsidered—office working, the type of places or of homes that people want—and that needs to be taken into consideration. But I would just challenge her on support for local authorities. They have received massive support during the pandemic, including £4.6 billion of un-ring-fenced money so that they can deal with the problems, and their allocation has increased in other areas as well.

Tomorrow, I have a meeting with Highways England, when I will be raising a number of local priorities, including resurfacing the old and worn-out concrete surface of the A180 and the dangers faced by many villages when the main carriageway is closed due to repairs or accidents. Thanks to the excellent news yesterday that Immingham, Grimsby and the Humber ports are to be given free port status, it is even more important that we have an adequate highway network. Like many colleagues, I feel that as elected representatives we lack the necessary influence to determine the priorities of agencies such as Highways England. Can we have a debate about Highways England and how its priorities are set?

My hon. Friend raises an excellent point. He tempts me greatly, because I hope when he sees Highways England tomorrow that he will ask it on my behalf why it keeps on closing the M3 and the M4 at weekends, both of which are essential routes to the part of the world in which I live. It is extraordinarily vexing, so if he can do me a favour, I hope he will raise that with it. As always, he is the champion for Cleethorpes and for his constituency, and he is right to be concerned about the quality of our roads and ensuring that they are in the best possible condition. Her Majesty’s Government are providing £4 billion of taxpayers’ money for major structural renewals on Highways England’s network up to 2025, so it can meet the road condition targets it has been set. It is of course important that it consults with the public and Parliament in developing a programme for these works, and I will certainly pass on his comments to the Secretary of State for Transport. I encourage him to get good answers from Highways England.

The gender pension gap stands at around 40.3%, more than twice the gender pay gap of 17.8%, representing a differential in pension income of around £7,500 a year. The pension triple lock does not apply to pension credit, discriminating against the oldest and poorest pensioners, who are disproportionately women, and those earning less than £10,000 a year—again, mostly women—are not automatically enrolled into a pension and will not therefore benefit from their employers’ contributions. Will the Leader of the House make a statement as to how he thinks his Government can address the specific challenges of the disproportionate poverty of older women, which was worsened by the acceleration of state pension age equalisation?

State pension age equalisation came about, ultimately, because of the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights, which said it was discriminatory to have different pension ages. Therefore, the decision was taken 30 years ago, or thereabouts, when my noble Friend Lord Lilley was the relevant Secretary of State, to even the ages, and that has been a fair and sensible policy. The hon. Lady mentions the triple lock. That, again, has been extraordinarily important in raising the level of pensions for both men and women across the country, so it is something that the Government are tackling and we are ensuring that pensioners are protected. If the hon. Lady wants a debate, I would suggest that this is a topic for the Budget debates.

Can I please refer my right hon. Friend back to the excellent question from my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg)? Does he agree that somebody needs to take comprehensive ownership of the road map for a return to a fully physical Parliament, and if so, who should that be?

My hon. Friend raises an interesting question—indeed, a complicated question—because who runs this House is something that I am not sure anybody has ever yet worked out, but perhaps one day we will. It is divided up between various bodies. The House of Commons Commission—very much led by you, Mr Speaker—will have the authority to decide when members of staff can come back, but the House itself determines the procedures within the Chamber. The current procedures continue until 31 March and then there will be an opportunity to decide to renew them, but they cannot be renewed indefinitely without the desire of the House to do it. I would certainly hope that we get back to normal in accordance with the road map, but that will be a decision for Members themselves.

As I did point out earlier, there is a road map going through to the Commission on Monday. Also, the Leader of the House does have a duty of care to the staff, as I do, to ensure that we try to keep in line with Public Health England.

The vaccine roll-out is the most important national mission our country has undertaken in decades. While more and more people are being inoculated every day, I am concerned that there is a lack of a coherent national strategy for distributing oversupplies of the vaccine. Does the Leader of the House agree with me that we must ensure excess vaccines are distributed to those in need, especially in diverse communities like my own in Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough, where there are significant health inequalities and where, sadly, infections remain higher than the national average in some cases? Does he agree with me that the Government should urgently publish a strategy on this issue which can be scrutinised by this House?

The hon. Lady raises an important point. The vaccine roll-out is going extremely well and the best way of doing it is in accordance with the advice the Government have been given by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation—on the basis of age and people making appointments. Obviously, it is also sensible to use up any excess vaccine that is left at the end of a session, particularly the Pfizer vaccine which cannot be kept for a long time except at very low temperatures. I do not think, however, that it would be sensible to devise a specific strategy on this, because we want to focus the strategy on the delivery of the vaccine by age group. Therefore, I think it is absolutely right to leave the use of surplus to the discretion of the people who are handing out the vaccine, while accepting her important point that we make every effort, as the Government are, to reach the hard-to-reach groups to ensure that they are vaccinated, but they will all be covered by the age brackets

There has been a 170% increase in the number of dog thefts during the pandemic, a crime that brings immense distress to both owners and their pets. My constituents in Kettering are increasingly worried about that trend and they want to see the problem tackled firmly and decisively. May we have a Government statement on the appropriateness of the penalties available to the courts for convicted dog thieves and on the police response to this rising crime trend?

Her Majesty’s Government understand the high level of public interest in this issue and the undoubted distress caused to victims when their pets are stolen. I know many Members have raised this issue and campaigned on it on behalf of their constituents. It is an appalling crime, and I am sad to hear reports of it increasing over the past year. The theft of a pet is a criminal offence under the Theft Act 1968 and carries a maximum penalty of seven years’ imprisonment. The Sentencing Council’s guidelines on theft now take account of the emotional distress on the victim caused by any theft offence, including the theft of a pet, meaning that the courts will now take that into account when considering the appropriate sentence. My hon. Friend will know that the Government are committed to recruiting an extra 20,000 police officers and have already recruited over 6,000 to ensure the police have the resources they need to deal with these and other crimes, but he may want an Adjournment debate on this important subject.

The Leader of the House will probably be as aware as anybody of the genocidal attacks on Christians, which are happening on a weekly or daily basis in Nigeria. I represent quite a large, mainly Christian, Nigerian community who are very worried about the situation. The Government in Abuja seem to be unwilling or unable, or perhaps both, to do anything about it or even lift a finger. We have had debates on this issue in the past in Back-Bench time, but would it be possible to have a statement from the Foreign Secretary or the relevant Minister of State on the situation in Nigeria?

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue. It is a matter of serious concern to Her Majesty’s Government, who have been engaging with the Nigerian Government on it. I happen to know that our exchanges are followed closely by the Nigerian high commission, who I expect will have heard what the hon. Gentleman has had to say, but I will also take it up with the Foreign Secretary to see what more the Government can do. It is extremely serious, and the reports of the kidnapping of children and the attacks on Christians that are taking place are very troubling.

The country is doing incredibly well in terms of the vaccine roll-out. As the Prime Minister has said, it is “going gangbusters”. The infection rate is being driven down, and the country has been given a road map out of the lockdown, which I consider slightly cautious. I would like to see, given the science, that it is speeded up a little. I came into the House of Commons yesterday and, like today, it was sparsely populated, although busier because of the Budget. It was like a ghost town. Can I be reassured by the Leader of the House that the House of Commons will go no slower than the road map out of lockdown that the public will have to follow? If we do, we will look completely out of touch.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that point. Since 1340, Members have had a right of unobstructed access to this House and to this Chamber. They are entitled to come, and that is a fundamental constitutional point. As the restrictions are lifted, Members may feel entitled—may desire; may want—to exercise that right. I also agree that we should go no slower than the country at large. It seems to me that, if nightclubs are opening on 21 June, which I think are perhaps more her scene than mine—[Interruption.] Perhaps we should go together. We will take the right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) with us too. If they are open, for heaven’s sake, the House of Commons should be open properly. We cannot be behind nightclubs, can we, Mr Speaker?

The question keeps being posed, and I want to reassure the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) that nobody is stopping MPs coming. What we are saying is, “Let’s do the right thing by each other”—nothing else. I understand that she may have thought that I want to reopen only in September. I reassure her that that is definitely not the case, hence why I have become involved with the road map to the commission on Wednesday, to make things happen absolutely in line with what is going on there. Of course, I think she and the Leader of the House may enjoy Annabel’s together, but let us move on.

As a member of the BEIS Committee, I was alarmed by press reports overnight that the Business Secretary has, without consultation, axed the Industrial Strategy Council, and that the industrial strategy has been cancelled as a footnote to the Budget, at a time when an industrial strategy could not be more vital, as we rise to meet the challenges of rebuilding after covid, the climate emergency and the post-Brexit landscape, particularly in such regions as the north-west. Can the Leader of the House please advise when the Business Secretary will make a statement to the House for scrutiny of such an important change in policy direction, rather than Parliament finding out about it, as seems to be a recurring theme, through the media?

My right hon. Friend the Business Secretary will open the debate on the Budget on Tuesday 9 March. Nothing is being hidden from Parliament. Unless we were to go back to Gladstonian-length Budget speeches, which ran to over four hours on occasions, it is not possible to include everything that is in the papers issued with the Budget in the Budget speech, but my right hon. Friend will be open for scrutiny next Tuesday.

As the Member for West Dorset and the promoter of the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill, I am delighted to hear that sitting Fridays will come back this Friday coming. I and fellow colleagues have been particularly diligent to ensure that we are ready and raring to go. We have been through Committee stage, and I very much hope that my right hon. Friend might ensure that we can get in this Friday coming. If, for whatever reason, we cannot quite manage it, would he be so kind as to make further time, to ensure that we can get the Bill through in this Session?

May I begin by thanking my hon. Friend for giving me my Union Jack face mask? He sports a similar one.

I am delighted that a motion to allow a sitting Friday on 12 March is on the Order Paper today. This is intended to allow remaining stages of those private Members’ Bills listed in the motion, including my hon. Friend’s Bill, to take place and I hope that the House will support the motion. There have been a significant number of representations, including from my own constituents, but from MPs as well, to bring these Bills back, so I hope that the motion, the solution, will be welcomed by the House. If the House were to make good progress next Friday, it is my intention to offer a further sitting Friday in order to finalise any of the outstanding Bills listed on the Order Paper and then move forward with Second Readings, if any are put forward. I hope that the Lords will find time to pass these Bills if they pass their Commons stages, but that is, of course, a matter for their Lordships.

The Leader of the House will agree that democracy is very important, if not a quasi-sacred thing, and that when it is violated by the likes of Lukashenko in Ukraine, and, indeed, Donald Trump in America, we are all rightly repulsed. With that in mind, may I ask the Leader of the House a very simple question: if the Scottish people—or indeed the Welsh people, given the polling in Wales this morning—were to vote for independence at the ballot box, would he respect that choice of the Scottish or, indeed, the Welsh people?

I agree, as I do on many matters actually, with the hon. Gentleman. He is much missed in this Chamber and we hope to see him back physically in the not-too-distant future. It is a duller and quieter place without his regular sedentary interventions. He may have forgotten, but there was a referendum in 2014 in Scotland, which settled the issue. It seems to me that, in the midst of sorting out a pandemic, getting the economy back on its feet and resolving some little local difficulties going on with the leadership of the Scottish National party, it would be reckless to be proposing a referendum at this point.

There are 1.2 million stroke survivors in the United Kingdom. It is the largest cause of adult disability in this country. Will my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House make time for a proper debate on the progress of the national stroke programme, because, two years on, the quality and availability of after-care and rehabilitation services, particularly specialist areas such as physio and speech therapy, remain very variable to the great concern of many families?

My hon. Friend raises a crucial point. The NHS long-term plan, published in January 2019, outlines commitments to improving stroke services, including better stroke rehabilitation services and increased access to specialist stroke units. Stroke services across England continue to provide rehabilitation and post-acute services to stroke survivors and their families and carers during the pandemic. In part, this has been helped by innovative methods of care delivery alongside face-to-face contact. Almost half of stroke survivors have had virtual care since covid began. More than 80% of them reported positive or very positive experiences. There are 20 integrated stroke delivery networks, giving full coverage across England. Integrated stroke delivery networks were established in shadow status in October 2020 and we expect them to be fully operational by spring 2021. Ninety per cent of stroke patients will receive care in a specialist stroke unit and more patients will have access to disability-reducing treatments of mechanical thrombectomy and thrombolysis. This combined with increased access to rehabilitation services will deliver improved long-term outcomes for stroke patients. I thank my hon. Friend for raising this very important issue.

Welcome to North Antrim, Mr Speaker. I know that the Leader of the House cares passionately about this Union, and has growing concern about the breakdown of the following relationships: the internal relationships in Northern Ireland; north-south relationships across Ireland; and the UK-EU relationship, as a result of the outworking of the Northern Ireland protocol. Yesterday, during Northern Ireland questions, three Back-Bench Labour Members and one Labour Front-Bench Member expressed hostile and growing concern about the impact that the protocol is having on GB businesses trying to do trade with Northern Ireland. The Loyalist Communities Council wrote to the Prime Minister at the weekend to express concern and withdraw its support from the Belfast agreement. The Leader of the House will know the unanimous position of all strands of Unionism in their hostility and opposition to the protocol. Of course, businesses also tell us daily of the upset in respect of trade.

Will the Leader of the House inform us of when the Prime Minister will come to the House to make a statement about the extension of the grace periods put in place unilaterally by Her Majesty’s Government? What next steps will the Prime Minister take to protect the Union, to protect Northern Ireland businesses and to ensure that the genie does not get any further out of the bottle?

I’ve got to say that questions have to be much shorter and not statements. This is business questions.

I think I see a portrait of William of Orange behind the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley). It is always worth reminding the House that the then pope ordered a Te Deum to be sung in St Peter’s in celebration of William of Orange’s victory; Catholics therefore have an interest in a United Kingdom, too.

With regard to the protocol, I have to some extent already answered the question. What my noble Friend Lord Frost has done is really very important and indicates the Government’s commitment to making sure that the protocol works, and that the problems that have arisen are taken very seriously by the Government, which is important. We must get to a situation wherein the whole of the United Kingdom is able to trade freely, as required under the Act of Union 1801.

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the impact of living with endometriosis on a person’s mental health? March is Endometriosis Awareness Month, and during an event held earlier this week by our all-party parliamentary group on endometriosis we heard powerful stories of how the psychological impact of the condition can be just as damaging as the physical pain. Integrated mental health support is sadly needed.

First, I convey my sincere sympathies to any women who have suffered as a result of endometriosis and encourage them to seek clinical advice as to what support is available.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guidelines are there to help health and care professionals to deliver the best possible care to all women, based on the best available evidence. Health and care commissioners are expected to take them fully into account, and I urge all clinicians to follow the NICE guidelines on endometriosis and to do all they can to support the mental and physical health of those suffering from this extremely difficult condition.

Plans to develop a women’s health strategy were temporarily paused in the initial phase of the pandemic; however, the Department of Health and Social Care has recently restarted work in this policy area and will be setting out plans shortly. Endometriosis will be considered as part of the upcoming work on the women’s health strategy.

My hon. Friend may wish to apply for a Westminster Hall debate or an Adjournment debate to cover this subject—Mr Speaker is looking his normal benignant self as I suggest an Adjournment debate, so I think my hon. Friend may been in luck.

Let’s hope he is.

I will now suspend the House for a few minutes to enable the necessary arrangements for the next business to be made.

Sitting suspended.