The business for the week commencing 22 March will include:
Monday 22 March—Consideration of Lords message relating to the Trade Bill, followed by consideration of Lords message relating to the Fire Safety Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill, followed by remaining stages of the Air Traffic Management and Unmanned Aircraft Bill [Lords], followed by a motion relating to the membership of the Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body, followed by a motion relating to the appointment of the chair of the Electoral Commission.
Tuesday 23 March—Second Reading of the Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill.
Wednesday 24 March—General debate on online anonymity and anonymous abuse, followed by general debate on support for the hospitality industry throughout the covid-19 pandemic. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Thursday 25 March—Motion to approve regulations relating to public health and motions under the Coronavirus Act 2020 relating to the renewal of temporary provisions, the one year status report and a motion relating to the extension of parliamentary proceedings during the pandemic.
At the conclusion of business on Thursday 25 March the House will rise for the Easter recess and return on Tuesday 13 April.
The provisional business for the week commencing 12 April will include:
Monday 12 April—The House will not be sitting.
Tuesday 13 April—Second Reading of the Finance (No. 2) Bill.
I thank the Leader of the House for the business.
On Monday, it will be the fourth anniversary of the death of PC Keith Palmer. Mr Speaker, I know that you will arrange for the flags to fly at half-mast.
There are various dates knocking around regarding the possible date of the Queen’s Speech. I do not know why the Leader of the House does not just come out and say it. Perhaps I can suggest a date—something like 11 May.
I note that the Leader of the House has arranged for the extension of the Coronavirus Act 2020. Could he be clear about exactly how long that debate will be? The other place is debating it for five hours. There was some query, Mr Speaker, about whether we could extend the time of the debate, and you told the Health Secretary that it could be longer than 90 minutes, so I hope that the Leader of the House will confirm that.
The motion is interesting. Will the Leader of the House tell us whether it is amendable? The shadow Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth), has suggested that there are some aspects of the Act that do not need to be renewed because they have not been used. For example, emergency powers to register nurses and social workers—not used; powers for the Home Secretary to vary the time for urgent warrants—not used; suspension of the requirement to hold inquests with a jury—not used. Can there be a chat about that after the statement later? We would be treating right hon. and hon. Members, and this House, with disrespect if we did not have a long opportunity to debate that motion.
It would be a pity to rush through it, especially because I know that the Leader of the House will join me in condemning the description of the Department of Health as a “smoking ruin” by the special special adviser who got a pay rise greater than the NHS nurses, who actually got a pay cut. That is a disgraceful thing to say about people who have worked extremely hard—flat out—during the pandemic. We know that the Government are finding it difficult to answer our questions, which is why we need an inquiry for those who have been bereaved by this terrible pandemic. The Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves), have both met the bereaved. I do not know whether the Prime Minister has met the bereaved families. That is why we need an inquiry. If we are going to open up after 21 June, we need to know the lessons learned. Inquiries are very simple to set up now. I am pleased that the Council of Europe is reopening the inquiry into the Pat Finucane case; that will be important so that his family, including the hon. Member for Belfast North (John Finucane), can find the truth.
The Leader of the House will know that the Procedure Committee has been extremely assiduous and published its eighth report of this Session. I thank the Chair and all members of the Committee, some of whom do lots of different jobs at the same time. The Committee has called for all the temporary orders to be extended until 21 June. Will the Leader of the House tell us whether he agrees with that? There is a bizarre sentence at paragraph 26 that I do not understand, in which the Committee recommends that the House
“reverts to all aspects of its pre-pandemic practice and procedure.”
I am not sure when, or what exactly that means. Will the Leader of the House clarify the Government’s position on that?
The Prime Minister promised the fishermen an El Dorado. I wonder whether he knows that that is a mythical city. Perhaps he was talking about the bit where they covered themselves in gold. Either way, tell that to the Jersey fishermen who blockaded the port in protest; they are desperate. It is more desperado than El Dorado. The Office for National Statistics says that there was a drop of 83% in fish exports in January, and that UK goods exported to the EU have fallen by 40% and imports by 28%. These are not covid-related falls, because there are no similar shifts in non-EU countries. We need a statement from the Secretary of State for International Trade, and we need her to publish the impact assessment on the EU trade deal, as the shadow Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), has called for. The Secretary of State is publishing all the minor deals, but not the main one.
We also need the Foreign Secretary to come to the Chamber to explain why his private comments are different from his public comments. It appears that the Government are allegedly pursuing an unethical foreign policy. He wants to do deals with countries that do not care about their people—for example, Myanmar. I am sure that the Leader of the House will have been shocked by the image of a nun standing in front of the army there, pleading with them not to shoot at the protesters; 90 people have died. There is no point just having sanctions against a few generals. We want them against all the generals. I do not know whether the Leader of the House has seen pictures of the Myanmar Parliament, but members sit there in a block, unaccountable—sometimes not even moving.
How we cheered when the tags came off Nazanin. But it is a farce that she had to go back to court again. And there is nothing about Anousheh and the other innocent people.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) has asked me to raise the case of Luke Symons. His parents and his granddad Bob want to know what is going on. We need to indulge in more diplomacy, and we have an ally in the President of the United States.
Finally, Sunday is international day for the elimination of racial discrimination. It is also World Poetry Day, but that is not an invitation to the Leader of the House to respond to me in verse.
Mr Speaker, my verse gets worse and worse.
I thank the right hon. Lady for reminding us that it is the fourth anniversary of the death of PC Palmer, who died in the service of the House. We keep his soul and his family in our prayers. He is a model of public service, of courage and of the type of policing of which this country is so fortunate, in the general rule of things, to be a real example—of police who are of their community and for their community, and who, unarmed, face unknown risks. We continue to mourn and commemorate him.
The right hon. Lady asks when the new Parliament will be. That will, of course, be announced in the normal course of events, as she knows perfectly well. It is one of those things that she has to ask me and I have to give the same answer every week, and we will no doubt carry on doing that for some time. [Interruption.] There is a little bit of electronic interference coming in—I do not know where that is coming from.
The debate on Thursday the 25th will be an all-day debate. Obviously, that will be subject to statements and urgent questions, but other than that we will be debating this very important issue throughout the whole day. It is obviously right, as the right hon. Lady says, that it should be properly debated. The reason why it is important to extend the Coronavirus Act 2020 is that the furlough scheme will be going on for the whole of the six months. The basis for the furlough scheme is the Coronavirus Act, which provides for only six-month extensions, but that is something that it will be doing throughout that period. As other things wax and wane, the Government have already announced that one thing will continue during that period, so the Act is needed.
May I put in a word in defence of Dominic Cummings? He is an excellent public servant who has done a great deal for this country, and he worked with a pay cut when he was first appointed. He took £40,000 less than he was entitled to, and then his pay reverted to its normal level. I am not sure that many other people working in the public sector take that level of pay cut, and I think that shows his commitment to the public service. He did a great deal for this country, not least through his energetic and effective campaigning in the Brexit referendum, but also in providing energy for Her Majesty’s Government. He is an important figure. His evidence was interesting, though it was not evidence that one agrees with in its entirety. I think my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care has done an absolutely fantastic job over the past year and is an example of how politicians ought to behave and, perhaps most importantly, to lead Departments.
As for an inquiry, as has been said by Professor Van-Tam, the time for that will be when the pandemic has ended. The worst thing to do now would be to interrupt the enormous amount of work being done in dealing with the pandemic by having an inquiry, but of course it will be looked into in due course.
Her Majesty’s Government will reply to the Procedure Committee in accordance with the Osmotherly rules, which, as is well known, is how replies are made. As I have said before on the Floor of the House, when we asked people to give consensus, to accept, that we had to have these extraordinary measures, it was on the basis that they were temporary. If it were to be the will of the House to adopt some things permanently, it may wish to do so, but we must go back to normal first and then decide what we wish to implement. Otherwise, we would have got the consensus by cheat, and I am not in favour of cheating.
As regards support for fishermen, there has been a £23 million exceptional fund provided immediately and £100 million for them to improve their fleets over coming years, so there is support for fishermen. Maintaining more access to our own waters is going to be a benefit, though I do not think I ever called it an Eldorado; I am not sure that that is a phrase I have used.
The Foreign Secretary’s comments were shockingly distorted by low-quality journalism. It is a cheat that journalists sometimes use of editing text or a recording. It was done to Roger Scruton by the New Statesman, and it has now been done to the Foreign Secretary. It is a very cheap level of journalism, and it is not a proper way to behave. He was absolutely clear that there are behaviours that mean we cannot trade with people—he said that—if only people had bothered not to clip the recording unfairly, improperly and, broadly, dishonestly. We should look at that type of poor-quality online journalism. It is not the sort of thing that would happen in The Times.
I have so much sympathy with what the right hon. Lady says every week about Nazanin, Anousheh and Luke Symons. They are being worked for by the Foreign Office in ways that it can; Luke Symons’s case is particularly difficult, obviously. The Prime Minister spoke to the President of Iran recently about Nazanin. There is no excuse for the Iranian Government holding her. She ought to be released. These trumped-up charges are improper and wrong, and they reflect on a regime that does not acknowledge the rule of law. We should make it clear that the fault lies with the Iranian Government, not with Her Majesty’s Government.
I look forward to receiving my right hon. Friend’s response to my Committee’s report. Mr Speaker, I am sure that you have many constituents, as I do, who are looking forward to being able to get married. The news in the road map that they can get married from 12 April has brought joy to so many, but due to what I would describe as an anomaly in the guidelines, it appears that they could legally get married from 12 April in a gymnasium, a hairdresser or even walking down the aisle of a supermarket, but not in a dedicated wedding venue. Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the important role that the wedding sector plays and how it has been devastated by covid, and will he use his good offices to encourage his ministerial colleagues to deal with this anomaly as soon as possible?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for her question, which she raised in a point of order yesterday. I have the greatest sympathy for wedding organisers, including those in my constituency. It has been an incredibly difficult time for them—more difficult than for many other forms of business. However, the Government’s road map set out that at step 2, weddings, receptions and commemorative events will be able to take place with up to 15 guests in premises that are allowed to open—that is the clear point: premises that are allowed to open. This means that at step 2, no earlier than 12 April, weddings may take place in premises that are permitted to open or where a broader exemption applies, such as places of worship or hotel function suites. Wedding receptions can take place outdoors only, and there has been no change in that plan. The Paymaster General has committed to ensure that any further clarity that Public Health England can provide on this matter is put on the parliamentary intranet covid hub for all Members to see, and it may be debated on 25 March in accordance with all the other regulations, so I hope that my right hon Friend will raise it then.
My hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) again sends his apologies and hopes to be able to resume his duties in this place as soon as possible.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s comments yesterday on the urgent need to address everyday racism. I draw Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests as a voluntary trustee of White Ribbon Scotland. Does the Leader of the House agree that groups such as White Ribbon, which are directly addressing men’s attitudes to women and men’s violence against women, could make a massive difference in tackling those issues? Will he arrange for Government time in which we can further consider that topic and the role that groups such as White Ribbon can play in moving us forward?
I welcomed the news last week that music streaming service Spotify now includes Scots on its list of languages. I have tabled early-day motion 1592.
[That this House welcomes Spotify’s lang-owerdue deceesion tae add Scots as yin o its kent leids (welcomes Spotify’s long-overdue decision to add Scots as one of its recognised languages); congratulates singer Iona Fyfe for leading the public campaign for that music giant to make that change; recognises that Scots is one of Scotland’s three traditional national languages alongside English and Gaelic, with more than 1.5 million speakers and official recognition under the European Charter for Minority Languages; asserts that recognising a language’s existence on large platforms such as Spotify is the first step towards acceptance and empowerment of its speakers; and thanks all those working to lift up the Scots language as well as welcoming Government efforts to promote and protect that language.]
I attempted to table it in Scots, but the rules of this place did not allow that. I thank those in the Table Office for their engagement on that matter and the way in which it was dealt with. Yesterday the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) attempted to wish everyone a very happy St Patrick’s Day in both Welsh and Irish, but understandably that is not allowed. Might the Leader of the House have some time arranged so that we could consider how the indigenous languages of these islands could perhaps be more incorporated into the business that we undertake so that we can all best reflect all the communities that we represent?
In recent weeks, I have, on a number of occasions, raised concerns around and highlighted issues of transparency and contracts. I have also highlighted my Ministerial Interests (Emergency Powers) Bill, to give that another plug. I was certainly reassured by the comments by the Leader of the House in saying that he is taking this very seriously. I have no doubt whatsoever that he is committed to cutting and tackling corruption. I was, however, slightly surprised to see that others in Government seem to have taken his comments on cutting corruption quite literally by cutting funding to tackle corruption internationally. This is going in the opposite direction that we need to be going in. Could we have a debate in Government time to consider the global impact of these actions and the damage that they could cause to our democracy as a result?
I am very grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s questions, which are particularly thoughtful. I think I can wish him a happy birthday for earlier this week. It seems that there is a flood of birthdays on the SNP Benches, with the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) being a birthday celebrant the week before.
On the corruption issue, my previous career was in emerging markets investment, and it was quite clear that the countries that do best and prosper most are those that are the least corrupt. Rooting out corruption is in the interests of all countries. It should always be at the forefront of their minds if they want to succeed and raise the standard of living of their people. This country has a proud record of avoiding corruption. It is absolutely fascinating how, in the 18th century, we were still quite a corrupt country, but by the middle of the 19th century we had set a standard for honesty that has remained ever since. We should be proud of that. I think it is very easy to defend the procurement that has gone on because it was urgent and it was fairly done. Contracts were awarded, broadly, so that we went from 1% of PPE being produced domestically to 70%, as well as the phenomenal success of the vaccine roll-out. Governments have to be fleet of foot, and bureaucracy is not always the antidote to corruption. Indeed, bureaucracy itself can sometimes be the cause of corruption.
I share the hon. Gentleman’s pleasure that Spotify is recognising the Scots language. In terms of what is orderly in this Chamber, I would be very diffident about treading on your distinguished toes, Mr Speaker, except to remind people, which I do not think is treading on your toes, that modest quotation in foreign languages is permissible. I know that some hon. and right hon. Members occasionally use Latin quips, and that is perfectly allowable, as are Welsh quips and Scots quotations, but not full speeches. I think that is reasonable, because we do not have the facilities for simultaneous translation in this House, and their cost would probably be disproportionate. It is very welcome when people give a joyful message in Scots, in Welsh or in Irish, but it would be difficult for the House to have full speeches.
I echo the hon. Gentleman’s congratulations to voluntary groups that help to change and improve attitudes, whether that is against everyday racism or against behaviour towards women that is damaging and unhelpful to society. I so agree with what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said—that we need cultural change. That is what we are doing in this place with the work of the independent complaints and grievance scheme. But ultimately it is not going to be about enforcement or rules, although they have their place, but about getting people to understand that the right form of behaviour may be different from what they have grown up to believe. It is about changing attitudes much more than punishing people.
I did feel my toes a little stood on, I must admit; I felt the trampling of the Leader of the House. A quip is one thing, but starting off in one language and switching to another language in a question, not knowing when it will end, does give the Chair a problem. If the Chair had been notified, it would not have been a difficulty; it was the fact that we had two languages before we knew how the full question was going to continue. So I think there is a difference between a quip and a question being asked.
If it is acceptable, I shall ask my question in English. May I ask the Leader of the House where he has got to on my recent request for a debate in Parliament on the disastrous Operation Midland? And I do know that he will be disappointed that I am not asking him about when the city status competition will be launched and Southend can at last become a city. Perhaps we will leave that to another occasion.
I think it should be policy in this House that every question makes a reference to Southend being made a city, so that the report that is sent daily to the Palace can include this for Her Majesty’s consideration, should our sovereign wish to issue the relevant letters patent.
As regards Operation Midland, as I said to my hon. Friend before, I think an Adjournment debate or a Backbench business debate would be a sensible thing to apply for, akthough we all recoil at the treatment of Lord Brittan and of his widow later on—of a dying man and of a grieving widow. This treatment was appalling and we do expect that people are held to account when they behave badly. This House is here to receive redress of grievance when things go wrong.
I am very grateful, Mr Speaker, and I take it a Geordie accent is acceptable. Can I thank the Leader of the House for the business statement and for announcing the Backbench business for next Wednesday? I was wondering if he could give us an insight into the Government’s plans for the continuation of Westminster Hall-style proceedings beyond the Easter recess, as the Committee next week would like to nominate debate subject topics for immediately after the Easter recess and the sponsors of those potential debates will want to know, in a timely way, too.
Mr Speaker, you will be too young to remember this, but 48 years ago, in response to dreadful Dutch elm disease, we were all encouraged to “Plant a Tree in ’73”. Do the Government have any significant plans to commemorate that campaign 50 years on with an additional national campaign for all of us to engage in to help to tackle climate change and plant a tree or trees in 2023?
The plans for Westminster Hall will be brought forward in the motion for our general proceedings and will extend the current proceedings to 21 June. That is the current expectation. As for planting trees, Her Majesty’s Government have enormously ambitious plans for thousands and thousands of acres to be planted with trees. I think we can all involve ourselves in that by planting trees as well and encouraging others to plant trees. It can be a truly national effort.
Merci à vous, Monsieur Speaker. I am sure my right hon. Friend would agree with me that we have all spent far too much time away from the Palace this year, so will he please update us on the restoration and renewal programme to secure the future of this extraordinary building, but also on tackling the questions around fire safety of the building?
My hon. Friend raises a key question. The strategic review has taken place, but the fire safety work has been a real achievement of the existing Palace authorities. I have some fantastic figures for the House about what has been done to ensure that the risk to life is minimised and the protection of the building is maximised: 7,112 automatic fire detection devices have been put in; 5,949 emergency lights have been put in—one of them outside the Chief Whip’s office, so when he comes out and you see a halo, that is because of our fire safety lights; 3,329 voice alarm sounders; 1,869 new fire safety signs; 1,364 locations for fire-stopping compartmentation; 4,126 sprinkler heads in the basement of the Palace and, amazingly, eight miles of pipe for a new sprinkler system in the basement. I am really reassured by this that the safety of this Palace is so much greater even before R and R has started. When R and R is happening, this is crucial because the highest risk of fire is very often when builders are renovating premises.
Despite the heroic efforts of schools and their staff, children and young people have had to adapt to enormous change and challenge over the last year, often chopping and changing circumstances with little notice or preparation, and I truly believe that we underestimate the impact on their short and long-term mental wellbeing at our peril. Today’s National Audit Office report on the Department for Education’s covid response reads like a litany of failure, with no plan for our children or their education in place until June. The Government now have plans for pupils to get up to speed with their studies, but can I urge the Government to show more ambition in stemming the damage this last year may have caused to our children’s wellbeing? Given that we know the effect of wellbeing on performance at school, the two must go hand in hand. Can we therefore have a debate in Government time on how we make children’s wellbeing a fundamental part of the recovery?
The Government’s record on schooling is actually extremely good. There is a £1.7 billion covid catch-up fund for enhanced support and targeted tutoring, and Sir Kevan Collins has been appointed the education recovery commissioner to oversee our long-term plans to ensure pupils can make up any lost learning over the course of this Parliament. Schools have been a priority during the whole of the pandemic to keep them open as much as possible, because the Government recognise the importance of education. Getting back to normal and helping pupils get back to normal—providing additional funding and distributing many hundreds of thousands of computers to schoolchildren, plus the 57 million lateral flow test kits that have been delivered to schools and colleges as part of ensuring schools are really safe now—has been fundamentally important.
Workers at the LIBERTY steel company are really afraid for their jobs; 5,000 staff and others in the supply chain across the country need help. Can we please have a statement from the Business Secretary outlining what action the Government are taking to support these hard-working families and, after contact with the company and the trade unions, to stand behind the refinancing of the business? The Government accept this is a strategic industry that is crucial for our future growth. Parliament and my constituents at the LIBERTY plant in Tredegar need to hear exactly what the Government’s plans are.
The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point and I think everyone shares his concern for people working in the steel industry, but particularly in the Trinity Steel plant. The Government are following these developments extremely closely and are going to remain involved in looking at what is happening. The Secretary of State co-chaired the UK Steel Council on 5 March and met interested MPs on 15 March to have an update on developments. My noble Friend Lord Grimstone also met the sector and co-chaired the steel procurement taskforce on 12 March. I will take up the hon. Gentleman’s question with the Secretary of State so that he is informed of the concern within the House. The Government have helped the steel industry with the £500 million in relief for the steel sector since 2013 in relation to electricity costs, but this is an important issue and I understand the hon. Gentleman’s desire for further information.
I was first elected as a councillor to the County Borough of Southend-on-Sea, so I am glad to hear that it is moving towards becoming a city. I am also delighted—I give the Government great credit for this—that the Government are pushing ahead with the elections on 6 May, when we are going to have local elections, police and crime commissioner elections and now a parliamentary election, and are allowing campaigning to be carried out during the period up to those elections. That is the cornerstone of our democracy and the Government should be credited. However, the regulator of those elections is the Electoral Commission, which is inefficient, arrogant and politically corrupt. It is not fit for purpose, so could we have a debate in Government time about a new regulator that would be acceptable to people of all political persuasions?
Serious concerns have been raised about the Electoral Commission, not least by my hon. Friend and, as he knows, I was very concerned about some of the points he raised when this was last debated on the Floor of the House. With a modicum of ingenuity and with a benign Speaker or Deputy in the Chair, there is a debate on Monday on a motion relating to the appointment of the chairman of the Electoral Commission, which being a motion under an Act lasts for up to 90 minutes, where I think my hon. Friend may be able to say a few words of this kind. I have a feeling that I may be responding to that debate, so I may well say a few words in response.
Following the Home Secretary’s announcement that the elections for Mayors and police and crime commissioners will return to being first past the post, will the Government publish the assessments of which political party will benefit and any correspondence they received from Mayors and PCCs, to demonstrate to the public that this is not just about party politics, but properly leads to better democracy and more accountability?
Everyone knows that first past the post is better for democracy because the most popular candidate wins, rather than the one that nobody much likes but cannot be too bothered about. Dare I say that it is the party that is so good at losing elections that most wants to change the system.
This House has legislated to spend 0.7% of our GDP to support the world’s poorest. The Leader of the House is a great parliamentarian, so does he agree that any change can be made only once there has been a vote in this House? Will he indicate when such a vote might take place?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for this question. I participated in the passage of that piece of legislation, which sets out very clearly what happens in the event of the 0.7% target not being met; it requires the Secretary of State to make a statement to the House. That is the proper parliamentary procedure and it has been laid down in statute, and that is what will happen on occasions when the 0.7% target is not met. That is quite proper, but it does not require any vote beyond that. None the less, even at a slightly lower level, the UK will remain a world-leading donor, spending more than £10 billion of taxpayers’ money on overseas development aid this year.
Later this year, England will be hosting the rugby league world cup, including the first ever physical disability rugby league world cup, in Warrington. Can the Leader of the House arrange for a debate, in Government time, on the rugby league world cup, including its social, community and tourism benefits, to allow us to give this much-loved sport the support we can to ensure the success of the event after a really difficult year?
Mr Speaker, you have given me a very clear steer on how I should answer the question. Just in case our eagle-eared friends from Hansard did not pick it up, Mr Speaker said, “Nothing more important.” Having trodden on his toes earlier, I now need to untread on his toes by saying that Mr Speaker is absolutely right, as is the hon. Lady. I cannot promise a debate in Government time, but a great event is going to be taking place, she is right to highlight the disability angle as well and we should do everything we can to promote it. As I have said before, I follow cricket more closely, but she has even encouraged me to make sure that I watch some rugby when this world cup is taking place.
Many of my constituents who currently find themselves in unsaleable flats owing to fire safety concerns would like to let their properties so that they can purchase a second, larger property, suitable for a family, but they are anxious about doing so in case their fire safety issue cannot be resolved within three years and they are not able to reclaim the additional home stamp duty surcharge. Can we have a statement from the Chancellor of the Exchequer on whether Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs will consider such circumstances as exceptional and extend the three-year time frame in which additional home stamp duty surcharge can be reclaimed if the purchaser can demonstrate that they cannot sell their first property owing to issues with cladding and fire safety defects? As the Chancellor will be aware, such circumstances are outside the control of hundreds of thousands of leaseholders, not only in the Hendon constituency, but across the country, due to no fault of their own?
I can broadly answer my hon. Friend’s question. If, because of exceptional circumstances beyond the person’s control, they are unable to sell their previous home within three years of buying their new one, a refund of the higher rates on additional dwellings can also be claimed, as long as the property is sold as soon as possible after those exceptional circumstances have ended. Where a person is not permitted to sell their property and, as a result, misses the three-year period, that would be considered to be an exceptional circumstance, and this may include properties that are not allowed to be sold owing to fire safety issues. HMRC will consider each individual case on its own merits but, obviously, there will be a broad category that my hon. Friend points to and therefore I think there is some comfort for him in HMRC’s position.
Rape prosecutions are at their lowest ever recorded level, while only one in seven victims has any faith in the criminal justice system. I am going on Government figures, not figures from anywhere else. Given that, may we have a debate in Government time on rape and the criminal justice system?
The hon. Gentleman raises an extraordinarily difficult point that has troubled many Governments for many years. The cornerstone of our justice system is that somebody is innocent until proved guilty, and that must always remain the case, but we have to ensure that accusations of rape are investigated thoroughly and prosecutions are brought effectively and efficiently. That must be a priority for the prosecution services and, indeed, for the police.
My local council is Labour-led, and it is using places in my constituency such as Yarm, Kirklevington, Eaglescliffe and Hartburn as cash cows, packing, stacking and racking hundreds of homes in our precious green spaces along already heavily congested roads, with little care for the impact on local people’s lives and while failing to develop brownfield sites. Will my right hon. Friend grant me a debate on irresponsible development on greenfield sites?
The incompetence of socialist councils knows no bounds. Their inability to run things properly or to have a concern for residents is legion, and we must try to defeat them at the ballot box so that we can have good Conservative councils that do things properly. None the less, there is a need for houses to be built, and it is an essential priority for this Government. We need to ensure that young people are able to get on the housing ladder, and we can do that only with a good supply of housing. Where it is put is primarily a matter for local councils, and local councils are subject, of course, to local electorates, so I would encourage local electorates to vote Conservative.
It is absolutely right that, as we emerge from this pandemic, we need to learn lessons. In particular, we need to understand the reasons for the UK’s “high and unequal” covid death toll, as described by Professor Sir Michael Marmot. I sense that, in responding to the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) made on this issue, the Leader of the House was wanting to kick it into the long grass. An inquiry may not be in the interests of the Government, but it is most certainly in the interests of the country, so will he schedule, in Government time, a debate to help define the scope of an independent public inquiry into this pandemic?
I completely understand why the hon. Lady raises that point. It is an extremely fair one. It is not trying to run away from looking into what has happened, and indeed Select Committees of this House are completely entitled to be carrying out inquiries now, but it is sensible to use people’s time most effectively. The pandemic is still going on—the vaccine roll-out is still going on; Test and Trace is still a most enormous scheme being rolled out as we speak—and I think carrying out the inquiry in the midst of the pandemic would be a mistake. That is not an effort to delay; it is merely an effort to be realistic.
In 2019, Stanley Park was voted the best park in the UK, being described as a
“beautiful, tranquil place away from the hustle and bustle of the Blackpool seafront”.
During the pandemic, we have learned how important open outdoor space is, not just for social distancing but for health and wellbeing. Despite this, my local authority is looking to build on Stanley Park, reducing the already limited green space in Blackpool by around 20%. Will my right hon. Friend look to hold a debate in Government time to discuss the importance of parks in towns and cities and how they can best be protected?
My hon. Friend is right to praise the value of parks and open spaces. Who was it who called the parks—our great royal parks—the “lungs of London”? Was it Pitt the Elder? It may have been; I cannot remember. It is a pity that the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) is not here, because he would be bound to know.
We have seen during the covid-19 pandemic how important access to parks and green spaces is to local communities. Green spaces help health, wellbeing, integration and social engagement. As I understand it, Stanley Park is itself listed and is one of England’s parks of special historic interest, owing to its art deco design. It is important that local authorities build new developments with the consent of local residents and that they build beautifully. That should be a real theme. It always strikes me that, under current planning rules, it is most unlikely that the Royal Crescent at Bath would be built. We have an obsession with building things that are not beautiful. We want to build things that are beautiful, and then, where they are located will become a matter of pride rather than of disappointment. However, as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers), we cannot forget that new housing must be built.
Betting firm Football Index is now in administration, with its licence suspended by the Gambling Commission amid reports that the firm operated like a pyramid scheme and had been admonished by the Advertising Standards Authority in 2019 for creating the impression that the product was a lucrative investment opportunity. Clearly, concerns over how Football Index was raising money have been ongoing, and this has raised serious questions about how fit for purpose the Gambling Commission is, having licensed the platform. Will the Leader of the House make a statement on what can be learned from this episode and what more can be done to ensure that regulation of the betting industry is fit for purpose to protect consumers who collectively have £98 million trapped in Football Index, and will he support a public inquiry into this scandal?
The hon. Lady raises a matter of concern across the House, as is gambling more generally and the right approach to regulating gambling. I suggest that she raise this with the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, which would be able to look into it, and I, in turn, will raise it with the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and get her a fuller answer because it is a matter of concern across the House.
I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. As chairman of the all-party group on cats, may I ask my right hon. Friend whether we can have a debate in Government time to look into the encouragement of pet-friendly tenancies?
Indeed, allegedly, some people even keep tarantulas, though I do not believe that that particular right hon. Friend of mine is resident or has been resident in the House. Pets play a very important role in people’s lives and create great happiness. As has often been said in politics, “If you want to have a friend, buy a dog”, though I am sure that is not true for many right hon. and hon. Members. The Minister for Housing revised the national model tenancy agreement this January, making it easier for tenants with pets to find private landlords who will accept them. The key change was to remove restrictions on responsible tenants with pets, encouraging landlords to offer greater flexibility in their approach to pet ownership. A private landlord ought to accept a request from a tenant to keep pets where the landlord is satisfied that the tenant is a responsible pet owner and when the pet is suitable in relation to the nature of the premises at which it will be kept. This aims to strike the right balance between protecting private landlords from situations where their properties are damaged by badly behaved pets while ensuring that responsible pet-owning tenants are not unfairly penalised. I hope that helps my hon. Friend.
Parliament needs to really do its job and take stock of the coronavirus legislation. Many will be surprised to learn that only 17 of the 398 statutory instruments made were under the Coronavirus Act 2020. It is estimated that Parliament needs at least two full days to scrutinise the Act. Will the Leader of the House please respect parliamentary scrutiny and ensure that Parliament has at least two full days to scrutinise it?
I think that there has been a great deal of scrutiny in this House throughout the pandemic. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care has made very frequent statements, and he is making another one shortly after I have finished today. We will allow a full day for the debate on Thursday, rather than the hour and a half that is the requirement for SIs under a Bill. So I think the amount of scrutiny that is being allowed is reasonable and that it will allow people to participate fully and raise all the points that they need to raise.
On 2 June 2018, a 17-year-old boy called Tavis Spencer-Aitkens was brutally murdered in my constituency. In April 2019, five people were sentenced: four for murder and one for manslaughter. Since then, every single one of them has posted on social media from behind bars, and a couple of them more than once. One of the quotes from one was:
“Five years left, light work”.
This has caused immense distress to the family and friends of Tavis. It is clear that the current in-house, slap-on-the-wrist approach is not providing a significant enough deterrent. We need to look at changing sentencing and eliminating any possibility of early release. Would my right hon Friend consider a debate in Government time on this vital issue?
What my hon. Friend reports is deeply troubling and so horribly sad for Tavis’s family. It must just so much rub salt into the wound. The Government take unauthorised communication through social media and its impact on victims and families seriously. Reducing crime in prisons remains a key priority. Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service works closely with law enforcement agencies, so that crimes committed in prison are dealt with effectively.
We continue to roll out our £100 million spending programme on prisons and security during the covid-19 pandemic. That is funding mobile phone blocking technologies and portable detection equipment. We have also spent taxpayers’ money on next-generation X-ray body scanners to find contraband internally concealed by prisoners, and enhanced routine searching capability of staff and visitors at priority sites. In 2019, Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service’s digital media investigations unit worked with social media companies to remove nearly 400 illegal posts and accounts. In 2020, the DMIU has successfully removed 220 posts and accounts as of 30 June 2020. I understand that will not be much comfort to Tavis’s family, but at least something is being done, though I accept that more needs to be done.
My constituent lost his job, and 16 weeks later he is still waiting for his first universal credit payment. Does the Leader of the House accept that is unacceptable, and will he commit to holding a debate in Government time on the delays to processing universal credit?
The universal credit roll-out has been a remarkable success during the pandemic with, I think, 91% of claims being processed extremely quickly and the majority paid within three days. That does not mean that there will not be occasional errors. While 91% is a high success rate, it means that 9% did not meet that. There was also the £20 a week uplift. The hon. Lady is right to raise individual cases of this kind in the House. That is how we seek redress of grievance and it is what we are here for. If there are individual cases that have not been answered satisfactorily by the Department for Work and Pensions, my office is more than willing to help hon. and right hon. Members to seek redress of grievance.
Next week is the 50th anniversary of Bangladesh attaining its independence from Pakistan at the end of a very bloody civil war. Will my right hon. Friend join me in wishing all Bangladeshis, wherever they reside now, a very happy Independence Day? Will he arrange for a debate or a statement on UK-Bangladeshi relations, so that we can all join with the Bangladeshi community in celebrating this joyous occasion?
The UK and Bangladesh share a close relationship based on strong historical and people-to-people links. We continue to work closely together on our shared interests, including security, development, climate, trade and the Rohingya crisis. We are working closely with the Government of Bangladesh to mark Bangladesh’s 50th anniversary and the 50th anniversary of Bangladesh-UK relations, including on 26 March 2021.
The UK was one of the first countries in the world to recognise an independent Bangladesh after Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was received by the former Prime Minister, Sir Edward Heath, in Downing Street on 8 January 1972. We look forward to the fourth UK-Bangladesh strategic dialogue, which is to take place in London later this year, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right: it is a good thing to celebrate, and to celebrate an independence day that is not independence from us, which is perhaps a rare treat.
Today the Government announced that plug-in grants for the purchase of new electric vehicles will be slashed again from £3,000 to £2,500; this is after they were cut from £3,500 to £3,000 last year. I know that the Leader of the House is very fond of his old Bentley, but the Government are meant to be committed to a ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030. At the moment, new EVs are simply not affordable for many people. Can we have a statement, so that we can ask Ministers in the House why the Government’s policy on this seems to be going in completely the wrong direction?
The answer is that there is a limit to taxpayers’ money, and that as more electric vehicles are produced, so they become more efficient and so the price falls. This is the natural economic process, and it is one that will be mainly led by the private sector. This is how we have got the innovation so far, through the private sector producing these remarkable vehicles. We managed to switch from the horse and cart to the internal combustion engine without large Government subsidies. A little bit of Government help is right, but it cannot be excessive because the taxpayer cannot afford it.