The 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 Bill.
Wednesday 14 April—Opposition day (19th allotted day). There will be a motion in the name of the Official Opposition, subject to be announced.
Thursday 15 April—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Domestic Abuse Bill.
Friday 16 April—The House will not be sitting.
The provisional business for the week commencing 19 April will include:
Monday 19 April—Consideration in Committee of the Finance Bill (day 1).
Tuesday 20 April—Continuation of consideration in Committee of the Finance Bill (day 2).
Wednesday 21 April—Motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to counter-terrorism followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill.
Thursday 22 April—Business to be determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 23 April—The House will not be sitting.
May I announce to the House that, subject to the progress of business, the House will rise for the Whitsun recess at the conclusion of business on Thursday 27 May and return on Monday 7 June?
I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the business, and of course for the Opposition day. It is the 19th allotted day, so it would be useful to know when this Session is coming to an end and when we are going to prorogue and have a Queen’s Speech.
I note that there is a motion on the Order Paper, which I hope will be passed, allowing an extension of the procedures until 21 June. I think they have all been quite useful. The numbers of cases and deaths are now slightly rising; I noticed that they were going up as of yesterday.
I know the Leader of the House will join me in condemning the rise in hate crime against Asian people, particularly Asian people in America, and the deaths of the Asian women last week.
Yesterday, the shadow Deputy Leader of the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan), spoke of the loss of a generation in his family—his parents-in-law and his mother—and he and the Leader of the Opposition called on the Prime Minister to set up an inquiry. The Leader of the House will know that nurse Mary Agyapong was sent home after collapsing and then died, so it is really important that we start looking at best practice, at where things are going wrong and at what is happening.
I will try this again. Arj Singh is the deputy political editor of HuffPost UK. He is not a “cheat”, he is not a “knave” and he is not a “fool”. There was no clipping—the shearing season has not started yet—and it was not poor-quality online journalism because it was in The Times. The headline was:
“Ignore human rights and strike trade deals”,
and the Foreign Secretary has admitted that it was verbatim: he said that that is exactly what he said. I note that the Leader of the House did not apologise in his podcast to the journalist in question; I wonder whether he could do so today. We want sanctions; we do not want trade deals. A seven-year-old was shot in her father’s arms in Myanmar.
I thank the Leader of the House for his assiduousness in dealing with everything that I raise in business questions. I got a response from the Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, the right hon. Member for Braintree (James Cleverly), who said that Mehran Raoof had not requested consular assistance, yet Amnesty International has labelled him a prisoner of conscience. Richard Ratcliffe has said that nothing has been decided on Nazanin, and there is nothing on Anousheh or on Luke Symons. They have still not been returned to their families. I do not know whether the Foreign Secretary is going to update us, or when they are likely to be coming home to their families.
My hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) said that she had seen a newspaper exclusive that Dr Harries may be in line for a promotion. I am not sure that it is acceptable to announce that first as an exclusive to a newspaper and then as a written statement which was published yesterday. What is this new UK health security agency? Why have things been rearranged while we are in the middle of a pandemic? Why has the Secretary of State for Health not come to the House to explain what this agency is, so that we can ask questions? Worse still, 18 written statements have been published today, according to the Order Paper. That is not acceptable at all.
Could we have an urgent statement—there is still time before we rise for Easter—on the Department for Work and Pensions having been held to have an unlawful policy on regulations? It is charging people by taking fines from their universal credit.
I would also like a statement and clarification on whether turning the green belt into a car park is a new Government policy. The current Mayor of the West Midlands wants to turn a meadow off Walstead Road into a car park so that people can drive there and then get on the Sprint route. He thinks that Transport West Midlands is not under his jurisdiction, but it is. He also says that he does not want to build on green spaces, but he is building that right in the town centre. Could we have a statement on whether there are different Government policies for the west midlands on the green belt, housing, buses and cars?
I wonder whether the Leader of the House can help me with another matter. A constituent rang yesterday. He said that he exports saddles and that when he did so to a customer in the Netherlands, the customer was charged €200. He said that he thought that we had a free trade agreement with the EU that would protect his business. Can the Leader of the House please tell him what he can do? I presume that it will be Lord Frost who will answer that.
May I now wish some people a happy retirement? I have heard that Dido Harding might be leaving Test and Trace next month. No announcement has been made to the House. It would be useful to find out about that. More importantly, Dr Chris Handy from Accord Housing in the west midlands is to retire. He started there 50 years ago with 24 employees and a few hundred homes. Now he has 3,500 staff, 13,000 homes and a fantastic eco-home, which he has innovated. He has written books on the law of social landlords and “Housing Association Law and Practice”. He has given voice to some of the most vulnerable and has helped them to find homes after coming out of prison. He will be missed, so I say thank you to Dr Chris Handy for his innovation at Accord.
The Lord Speaker is also stepping down in April. I thank him for all his work over the past four years. He has made a great contribution, and I know that he will campaign on HIV and AIDS. Tomorrow is International Epilepsy Day, so I hope that everyone will be wearing purple.
Finally, 365 days ago on Tuesday the world shook, and it is still shaking now. We all know someone close who has died in the pandemic, and I wish everyone a very peaceful Easter.
May I join the right hon. Lady in wishing everybody a happy Easter? I also thank everybody who ensures that the House of Commons runs so efficiently and so effectively. There is always an appropriate time—there is never an inappropriate time—in which to thank the Doorkeepers for their magnificent work. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] They are such a visible show of the dignity of the House of Commons when they are seen on television and such an unfailing help to Members. I also thank everybody else who is involved behind the scenes, who have been here when Members have been zooming in. Without them, Members would not have been able to zoom in. It is the behind-the-scenes staff who have allowed us to do our constitutional duty and I am sure that we would all like to record our thanks.
May I join the right hon. Lady in paying tribute to my noble Friend, Lord Fowler, who is retiring? He has been a very distinguished public servant—a statesman, it would be fair to say. He is famous for many things, not least for developing the term, “Retiring to spend more time with his family”, which became code when people left Government at one point for perhaps more profound disagreements, but, none the less, on this retirement, I hope that he genuinely will be spending more time with his family.
I do not know Dr Chris Handy, but what the right hon. Lady says of him is so impressive. Trying to give people a second chance and getting prisoners to have homes is a very important statement about the society in which we believe, so I wish him a very happy retirement.
The Queen’s Speech is scheduled for 11 May, and that has now been announced. The motions that are being laid before the House and which will be debated with the motions on the coronavirus restrictions will take us through to 21 May and are based on the advice that the Government are using on the road map.
I share the right hon. Lady’s criticism, shock and outrage at hate crimes that lead to people being killed. Society must do absolutely everything to stop that. The law must be upheld and the law must be enforced.
On online news organisation, I refer to what the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office said last week:
“We regret that this audio has been deliberately and selectively clipped to distort the Foreign Secretary’s comments.”
The effect was to leave a fundamentally false impression in the mind of the reader. This is why I encourage all journalists to ensure that quotes fully reflect the audio available. I hope that the right hon. Lady agrees with that and would do the same. Let them huff and puff, but they will not blow this particular House down.
The right hon. Lady rightly raises, every week, the issue of dual nationals held improperly overseas. The Foreign Secretary obviously takes this very seriously. We have discussed before the limitations of what Her Majesty’s Government can do, but within their powers, Her Majesty’s Government do what they can. There is regular engagement not only with the families concerned to offer them support, but with the Governments concerned to try and pursue the interests of those British nationals held overseas. I think the treatment of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is so outrageous that the Iranian Government should be ashamed of how they have treated her.
The changes to Public Health England were announced some months ago, so I do not think it is unreasonable that further information is becoming available and is made available to the House in a written ministerial statement—half the time the right hon. Lady asks me for more statements and then, when we give more statements, she says we have too many and that is unfair. It is inevitable; we have had so many oral statements recently—I think we have had five this week and six last week, in addition to the urgent questions that have been asked—so there has been real effort to keep Parliament up to date. There are always constraints on the time available, so there are often things that we would like to give statements on but we cannot have a third statement on a particular day. That is the normal organisation of business and it is perfectly reasonable. Before a recess, all Governments always put out a larger number of written statements for the very obvious reason that there is an obligation in the ministerial code to tell Parliament first. Anyone who has worked to a deadline will know that the deadline of a recess encourages Government Departments to put out their statements, quite rightly.
Let me finish on the wonderful achievements of the Mayor of the west midlands, who has done such a fabulous job in making the west midlands a place where people want to do business and are succeeding in doing business. It has been an area of prosperity under his excellent and benign leadership. I visited, in the right hon. Lady’s constituency, a fantastic brownfield site development that was being led—energised—by the Mayor for the west midlands, and I wish him every possible success in the upcoming local elections, where I am sure he will triumph because he has been so good at doing his job.
On the eve of the launch of the Dame Vera Lynn memorial fund appeal, will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the distribution of discretionary grants to businesses by local authorities during the coronavirus pandemic? I have had a number of local companies, including sole traders, complaining about delays in receiving funds, the interpretation of eligibility by my local authority and no commonality with other councils. Surely with the Government giving the money to local authorities to distribute, it is their duty to make sure that it reaches businesses that need the support as soon as possible. I do wish everyone a very happy Easter.
The Government have introduced an unprecedented package of support for businesses throughout the pandemic and are working closely with local authorities to ensure that funding can get to the right places as quickly as is practicable. The additional restrictions grant continues to enable local authorities to put in place discretionary business support. Local authorities are free to provide support that suits their local area, including support for those businesses that are not required to close but whose trade has been severely affected by restrictions, and those businesses that fall outside the business rates system, such as market traders. But it is a discretionary system and if we believe in local accountability and local decision making, sometimes we have to accept that the local decisions will not be the decisions that we ourselves would have made.
I associate myself with the comments of the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), about the urgent need to tackle the rise in hate crime. Equally, I wish all Members of the House a happy Easter and express my thanks to the staff of the House, who have helped all Members in such a difficult period over the last year.
Not only does today represent day 38 of 42 days of strike action by British Gas engineers over the shameful fire and rehire threat, but it—or more accurately, noon just passed—was the deadline given to those engineers to sign up to new, reduced terms and conditions or to face the sack. Unless British Gas takes that off the table at the eleventh hour, those who refuse to be bullied into signing the new contracts will be sacked on 1 April. My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) questioned Ministers on this issue time and again, including bringing legislation to outlaw the practice, which has led the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to instruct ACAS to carry out a review. As I understand it, that reported to Government over a week ago, but it has not yet been brought forward. Can the Leader of the House please ask his colleagues in BEIS to come to the House as a matter of urgency to make a statement on this heinous practice, which has already affected so many across the country?
Governments have a long and bitter history of interactions with mining communities. I was certainly very welcoming of the Scottish Government’s commitment to issuing pardons for unjust convictions that ruined the lives of so many miners in the ’80s. I still hope that we could see action from this Government to play their part and launch a full inquiry into the policing of miners’ strikes in the ’80s. May we have a debate in Government time to look at that issue, but also at how we can use those mines today to create new jobs and opportunities, for example through geothermal energy?
Finally, may I ask the Leader of the House to join me in expressing his thanks to my constituent Jim Ralston, who this week has announced his retirement as captain of the Loanhead Boys’ Brigade company? Jim has been its captain for 12 years and we wish him well in his future endeavours. Will he also wish every success to the former hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts and now Steward and Bailiff of Her Majesty’s Manor of Northstead, Neil Gray, in his future endeavours, as well as to our candidate in the upcoming by-election, Anum Qaisar?
I always wish to spread goodwill. The hon. Gentleman is pushing me a little bit far in wishing SNP candidates success in by-elections, but I do wish Neil Gray every personal success outside this House. He is a wonderful person to deal with. I was on the Joint Committee on restoration and renewal with him, and he was a voice of good sense, good humour and kindliness. He will be missed by this House. Unfortunately, I cannot wish my electoral opponents electoral success, but I hope he has every other success.
Jim Ralston sounds to have been a wonderful servant of the people in his work for the Boys’ Brigade. I am more than happy to congratulate him on his retirement and thank him on behalf of the Government. Our whole country depends on the voluntary work that so many millions undertake with enthusiasm and we have seen that particularly over the last year.
As regards fire and rehire, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that BEIS has received the ACAS report. It is being considered by Ministers. It was received only a week ago. There will be the normal routine of questions to BEIS once the House is back after the Easter recess. The Government have been very clear that employers threatening to fire and rehire as a negotiating tactic are doing something that is quite wrong. Employers must treat employees fairly and in the spirit of partnership during contractual negotiations. The Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) has had a number of meetings on this issue and has condemned the practice in the strongest possible terms in the House and elsewhere.
I am very interested in what the hon. Gentleman says about the possibility of using mines for geothermal energy. I cannot claim to be an expert in geothermal energy, but we should always be looking to find new and clean ways of providing energy.
At football stadiums in Germany and Scotland, safe standing has been successfully trialled and found to be safe, according to a report by England’s Sports Grounds Safety Authority. The Conservative manifesto committed to working with fans and clubs towards introducing safe standing at football. Will my right hon. Friend provide an update to the House on when the Government will bring it forward?
That is an important question and I know that many football supporters have a great interest in it and in the atmosphere created by safe standing. The Government are committed to working towards a return of standing areas for football spectators. Obviously, the immediate priority are the preparations for the return of fans to stadiums, as set out in the road map for stage 3—although it is not football, dare I say that I have my tickets for the test matches at Lord’s later on in the year, and that I am hoping the New Zealand one is open to spectators, but we shall see—and the work of the events research programme to consider how we may, among other things, increase the number of spectators. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport will then, in due course, return to the pledge made in our manifesto. It has not been forgotten, but there are other things going on at the moment—I suppose that is my message to my hon. Friend.
I thank the Leader of the House for the business statement and for announcing the Backbench Business Committee business for Thursday 22nd. It is our intention that the first item will be a Liaison Committee-sponsored debate, led by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee Chair, the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg), on covid data transparency and accountability. Madam Deputy Speaker, may I wish you a happy Easter, and wish a happy Easter and a pleasant break to all Members and House staff and staff who have facilitated our virtual participation in this Chamber, in Select Committees and in all allowable business in these extraordinary times? May I also wish the Jewish community, who are my friends, neighbours and constituents here in Gateshead and across the country, a very happy celebration of Passover, which begins this weekend?
May I join the hon. Gentleman in wishing the Jewish community a happy Passover? I recall that when studying A-levels I looked in some detail as to whether the last supper was a Passover feast or not. In St John’s gospel it seems not to be, whereas in the synoptic gospels it seems to be. I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s good wishes and for his telling us the first debate in the next Backbench Business Committee business.
Last week, I was delighted to visit the new vaccination centre at the St Nicholas centre in Sutton, where Carshalton and Wallington residents will soon be invited to come forward to receive their vaccinations. Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking the site matron, Wendy, and all the staff and volunteers who have made this possible? May we have a debate on how we can recognise them and everyone who has stepped up throughout this pandemic?
My hon. Friend is so right to raise this and the incredible work that has been done by staff and volunteers at vaccination centres across the country. I am looking forward next Tuesday to going to the Bath racecourse, which is in my constituency—it is not actually in Bath—for my vaccination. For the record, I am not giving up my racecourse to Bath. I particularly congratulate Wendy, the site matron. She sounds absolutely splendid and deserves the commendation of the House. People like Wendy have played a vital role in the vaccine roll-out, and thanks to their incredible work about 28 million people have now received their first dose across the UK, which is more than half of all adults in our country.
The Leader of the House should be aware of the widespread concerns about the Government’s proposals for the NHS reorganisation in the middle of a pandemic. For many, this is seen as creating more opportunities for Government cronyism and dodgy contracts. The creation of strong, well-co-ordinated governance arrangements seems to have been an afterthought and that reflects this Government’s priorities. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) said, given these concerns, why has there been no oral statement to the House on the next stages of this reorganisation? A written statement gives no opportunity to hold the Government to account.
As I said earlier, there are huge pressures on time in this House, but my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be at the Dispatch Box immediately after this session in a debate on covid regulations, and it will be possible to intervene on him to raise points. But I fundamentally dispute, disagree with and reject the question of cronyism. The success of the ordering programme—the procurement programme—over the last year is quite extraordinary, and something of which this country should be proud. The vaccine roll-out depended upon being fleet of foot in ordering the vaccines and putting the money forward. On other procurement, 1% of personal protective equipment was domestically produced a year ago and now, excluding gloves, 70% will be domestically produced. Normally, awarding government contracts takes three to six months. If we had waited six months, we would not have had the vaccine roll-out starting until this summer—it would have been too late. What has been done was quite right, entirely justifiable and in the best traditions of the British state acting properly.
Last weekend, just outside Ipswich, 83 stolen dogs were found. There have been six people arrested who are currently out on bail. Suffolk police deserve to be credited for their successful operation—one of the largest involving stolen dogs. But the concern among many of my constituents is that those responsible get away with little more than a slap on the wrist. I have raised this matter before during business questions and I have also led a debate on it. I have written to the Sentencing Council asking it to amend the guidance around the Theft Act 1968 and was rebutted. It is clear to me that only action in this place will ensure that this will cease to become a high reward, low risk crime. Will my right hon. Friend find time in this place to debate what action this place can take to stand up for our pets?
My hon. Friend raises a matter that is of concern to a number of hon. and right hon. Members. It is an appalling crime that causes great distress, and it has increased over the past year. The theft of a pet is a criminal offence under the Theft Act and carries a maximum penalty of seven years’ imprisonment, so when he says that it is a low risk, high reward crime, that shows that people should perhaps be better informed of the risk they are taking. Seven years is a very serious sentence. The Sentencing Council’s guidelines on theft now take account of the emotional distress for the victim caused by any theft offence, including theft of a pet, meaning that the courts will now take this into account when considering the appropriate sentence. As I understand it, the Home Office, the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are discussing possible ways of strengthening the enforcement of pet theft, and of course the Government have hired over 6,600 new police officers during the course of this Parliament, which will help us to tackle this crime better. My hon. Friend will be aware that by raising this issue in the Chamber and making it one of political importance, the police will pay attention and will know what is of public concern. Police resources, and police and crime commissioner elections, tend to follow where there is greatest public concern, so he is ensuring that this issue will be taken more seriously merely by raising it in this House.
This week a Health Minister said that in her discussions with NHS staff they had not asked for a pay increase. Can we have a debate in Government time on a motion drafted by the Government that defends the 1% pay increase, which is in effect a pay cut, for NHS staff so that hon. Members in all parts of this House can hear from their constituents who work in the NHS and come here with true testimonies about what they think about a 1% pay increase?
This has to be seen in the context of the economy as a whole and what has already been done. The starting salary for a newly qualified nurse increased by over 12% in 2017-18, and the average nurse’s pay is now at £34,000 a year. The starting salaries for the lowest-paid, such as healthcare assistants and porters, have increased by 16% since 2017-18 from £15,404 to £18,005. So steps have been taken over the longer term to help those working for the NHS. In this current financial circumstance, there is a 1% pay increase for all NHS staff, but an additional 0.7% has been awarded for nurses. The NHS and nurses have been excluded from the general pay restraint because the country—the nation as a whole—recognises the extraordinary work they have done in the past year, the courage they have shown and the public service they have shown, and that has been rewarded as much as possible in these difficult financial circumstances.
This week, on 22 March, the United Nations released a statement about the conflict in Ethiopia relating to the Tigray region in which it outlined the gross violations of human rights, including sexual violence against women and rape. The UK has a long history in tackling this issue—since 2012 and the creation of the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative—but unfortunately we have been somewhat muted on the subject. Will the Leader of the House push for further action from the Government so that we can have a statement when the House returns and ensure that the PSVI unit is deployed where possible to help those who are suffering from an outdated, horrific crime that we have a moral duty to respond to?
My hon. Friend raises an issue of greatest concern. I particularly commend my noble Friend Lord Hague for establishing the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative in 2012, which has had widespread support. The Government have received reports of widespread sexual violence perpetrated by different armed groups. These attacks ought to stop and those responsible for such crimes must be held to account. The protection of civilians is at the core of the UK’s response to the crisis. In Tigray, we will work to promote justice for survivors of sexual violence, provide support to survivors and children born of conflict-related sexual violence and prevent further sexual violence from occurring.
The United Kingdom has a zero-tolerance approach to abuse and exploitation in our aid programmes. UK-funded organisations operating in Tigray are aware of their obligations to protect beneficiaries from exploitation and abuse and of the need to manage such risks appropriately. We are working with the co-ordination system to ensure that collective mechanisms are implemented in Tigray. Prevention is central to aid.
I commend my hon. Friend for raising this issue. He said it was not getting enough attention. Thanks to him, it is now getting more attention. The issue has been raised, and it is one of fundamental importance.
The Scottish Government have just enshrined in law the UN convention on the rights of the child, they have just announced plans to nationalise our rail fleet and they are, of course, giving NHS staff a 4% pay increase. That is in contrast to the UK Government, who are seeking to restock and increase the nuclear arsenal, who are moving forward with plans to limit peaceful protest and who are giving NHS staff just a 1% pay increase. Should we not have a debate in this Parliament on the most important of issues: a tale of two Governments?
The hon. Gentleman is brave to bring to this House a discussion of two Governments. There are all sorts of things I could be tempted to say about the Government currently in Scotland and all the extraordinary shenanigans going on there—who said what to whom, when and where, and who may or may not have put pressure on prosecutors. All sorts of things are going on; it is all pretty unsatisfactory, and it is lucky that there are elections coming up.
I would point out that devolution has the benefit of the strength of the United Kingdom behind it. That is why the UK taxpayer has been able to provide £12.12 billion to Scotland during the pandemic. United Kingdom taxpayers—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman chunters away from a sedentary position, and I know that the people of Scotland pay taxes—particularly high taxes, because of the rapacious left-wing Government they have that likes to take money from them. However, it is UK taxpayers combined who have provided this £12.12 billion, which was supported 779,500 jobs, provided 78% of the tests that have been done in Scotland and then processed in the rest of the United Kingdom, and supported over 157,000 people on the self-employed scheme. The strength of the United Kingdom is quite extraordinary. Scotland benefits from that, and that is why it is able to afford to do the other things that the hon. Gentleman mentioned.
Making a success of Brexit, rebuilding after the pandemic, and changes to patterns of working, such as working from home, will all require a comprehensive and efficient broadband infrastructure. My constituents in Edgware and Mill Hill have already found to their detriment that current provision is not adequate, so I dread to think what it is like in other parts of the country. Will a Minister attend the Dispatch Box and outline what the Government are doing to make reliable, efficient broadband connectivity a reality? Red tape and regulation must not be excuses and hinder our progress in this field, given that we currently rank 47th in the world speed league.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I understand from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport that his constituency has pretty good coverage, with over 66% of Hendon having access to gigabit-capable broadband, compared with the UK average of under 40%. Nevertheless, the Government are aware that we need to upgrade more of the broadband network to gigabit-capable speeds as soon as possible. We are targeting a minimum of 85% gigabit-capable coverage by 2025, but we are ambitious to get close to 100% as soon as possible, and we are spending £5 billion of taxpayers’ money in subsidising the roll-out in the harder-to-reach 20% of the United Kingdom. The first areas to benefit from the £5 billion Project Gigabit programme were announced on Friday. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is working with suppliers to ensure that there is maximum transparency around their plans, but I will of course pass on my hon. Friend’s concerns to the Secretary of State.
Community energy projects are an excellent way to bring people in behind our ambition to get to net zero by 2050, yet there are still significant regulatory barriers to making community energy more widespread. The Local Electricity Bill, sponsored by the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), received 258 signatures from cross-party MPs, and an Adjournment debate on the same topic last autumn attracted a record number of MPs who intervened in support of the Bill. Clearly, we need more time to debate this issue, so may we have a debate in Government time on the importance of establishing a statutory right to local energy supply?
I thank the hon. Lady for her point, and I am delighted that the Lib-Dems are now becoming a party of deregulation. Speaking from the Treasury Bench, I confess that deregulation is something that warms the cockles of my heart. Seven private Member’s Bill managed to go through to the House of Lords, although inevitably not every Bill got through. The hon. Lady is right to raise the deregulatory ambition of herself and of others in the House, and there will obviously be private Member’s Bills in the next Session which, as I announced earlier, will start on 11 May.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt), our excellent Devon and Cornwall police and crime commissioner, Alison Hernandez, is concerned about the growing issue of pet theft. In Devon and Cornwall there are, on average, 80 dog thefts a year, a quarter of which are linked to organised crime, yet no one has received the maximum sentence of only seven years. Will my right hon. Friend allocate Government time to debate how to tackle the issue of pet theft and ensure that the punishment reflects the crime? The loss of a loved pet—a member of the family—is far more than mere theft.
As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt), this is a terrible crime, and the Government are taking measures to help tackle it better, with more than 6,600 additional police officers. I join my hon. Friend in thanking Alison Hernandez for her terrific work as police and crime commissioner, and for highlighting this important issue. It is worth adding to my earlier remarks, that if someone causes an animal to suffer in the course of stealing it from its owner, they are liable for prosecution under the Animal Welfare Act 2006. The Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill is currently in the House of Lords. If passed, it will increase the maximum penalty for such a crime to five years, which would be the highest penalty for animal cruelty in Europe. There is the risk of seven years in prison for pet theft, and five years for cruelty to animals. The penalties are there—or will be if the House of Lords obliges—and this is a question of enforcement and catching wrongdoers. That is where the extra 6,600 police will help.
The Leader of the House will be aware, as we all are, of a number of hospital rebuilds in the pipeline, one of which—Whipps Cross Hospital—is in my constituency. Those rebuilds are welcome across the House, but there are also concerns that a number of the projects imply reductions in bed numbers. Particularly after the pandemic, that seems to me, and to many other Members, very misguided. Indeed, people were saying that even before the pandemic. When Parliament returns, may we have a statement from the Health and Social Care Secretary on bed numbers in hospital rebuilds?
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman is pleased by the hospital rebuilds programme, and he raises a serious and important point. My right hon. Friend the Health and Social Care Secretary will be at the Dispatch Box shortly, and that question could be raised with him in an intervention. I will pass on the point to my right hon. Friend after this statement, and try to get the hon. Gentleman an answer regarding what is the policy, and what has been learned from the pandemic.
I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. The Government are rightly working on a scheme to protect blameless leaseholders from financial ruin owing to the cladding scandal, yet as my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Royston Smith) and others movingly explained on Monday, lessees are even now being handed bills well in excess of £70,000 for hugely expensive waking watch arrangements and other costs, which they cannot possibly afford. May we urgently have a Government statement on how to prevent such innocent people from being forced to forfeit their leases, sacrifice their homes and declare themselves bankrupt before the new scheme has been fully activated?
The Government have always been clear that leaseholders should not have undue worry about the costs of remediating historical defects that they did not cause. Waking watch arrangements have been in place for far too long, and leaseholders are being left to pick up sometimes very high bills. That is why the Government are providing £30 million for a waking watch relief fund to install fire alarms and other interim measures, providing alternatives to the expensive waking watch systems. I will take this up on my right hon Friend’s behalf with the Secretary of State, but Housing, Communities and Local Government Questions are on 19 April. I point to the measures that the Government have introduced, which my right hon. Friend referred to, which will be of considerable assistance to leaseholders and get the right balance between leaseholders, the taxpayer and freeholders.
I know that the Leader of the House will agree that, throughout the pandemic, our posties have been working harder than ever, and I pay tribute to those frontline, dedicated individuals. Two communities in my constituency, Llanharan and Brynna, have in some periods gone more than four weeks without the delivery of mail during the pandemic, with Royal Mail therefore not meeting its universal service obligation. I wonder if the Leader of the House could find time for a Minister to issue a written statement or, indeed, to come to the Floor of the House after the Easter Recess, to explain what work they are doing with Royal Mail HQ to ensure that our hard-working postmen and women are supported on the ground and that Royal Mail meets that obligation. I have too many constituents missing, for example, letters of confirmation of their vaccination, which I am sure he will agree is not acceptable.
Indeed, I am in considerable agreement with the hon. Gentleman. Four weeks without mail will be a real problem for people. Royal Mail has a universal service obligation. I absolutely understand that the pandemic has made things difficult for some businesses, and that staffing arrangements, rotas and so on have been problematic, but I would have thought that in four weeks alternative arrangements could have been made. A well-run businesses ought surely to be able to organise its staffing in such way that nobody has to wait that long. I will of course pass on his points to the relevant Department.
I am extremely concerned about the wellbeing of our children and young people due to their isolation from their friends and peers during the pandemic. May we please have time for a debate on the importance of voluntary organisations, such as the 1st Hathersage Scouts, the 1st Matlock Boys Brigade, the 2nd Matlock Brownies, the 1st Doveridge Scout group and Girlguiding groups in places such as Bakewell and Calver, which provide vital support and socialising opportunities for our young people and children? They must be supported and protected now.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Government recognise the strain that has been put on children and their families over the past year. Ensuring that children can play and socialise safely again is a great priority. They also have fun; am I allowed to use the word “fun”, Madam Deputy Speaker? Children ought to enjoy themselves. The Scouts and Brownies ensure that children enjoy themselves. They look at that great figure Bear Grylls and think, “Perhaps I can eat a slug too; what will my parents have to say?” [Interruption.] There may also be vegetarian scouts who do not want to eat slugs; I accept the heckle from the Opposition Bench.
That is very important, as is the mental health of children, which the Government are doing a great deal to support, with an extra £79 million to boost mental health support for children and young people. Some 22,500 more children and young people will have access to such services next year, and an additional 345,000 by 2024. The last year has been difficult. Let us hope that the Scouts and Guides, wonderful features of our civic life that they are, will open up soon and that children will be able to enjoy themselves and, dare I say it, do those things that their parents probably do not always approve of until they find out about them later.
In my constituency, there are a number of large developments that are at complete odds with many residents’ wishes—a pontoon at Market Dock, the destruction of fields and a popular playpark at Holborn Riverside, and the construction of an unnecessary flyover at Tilesheds. The planning system is completely failing them. Residents were not involved in the decisions at the outset, and now they are expressing concerns that they are being ignored, railroaded and, in some cases, treated with contempt. Can we have an urgent debate on reforming planning so that local people have a real say in what happens in their community?
I have visited the hon. Lady’s constituency and know what an attractive place it is, and it deserves to remain attractive. This always leads to arguments over planning, but the planning system is fundamentally a local one, with local councils having the majority say in planning developments. I suggest that, initially, this is taken up with the local council. It is only at the stage when things are called in to national Government that they become a matter for central Government.
Easter is a time for love, but there is not going to be much love this Easter because very few people will be able to get married. It is a traditional time for marriage. This continues to be a very difficult situation for the wedding industry, which is mainly run by women, and I hope that the Government have not forgotten women’s industries and businesses. Pubs and sporting venues will be allowed to open, but it is a very difficult situation for the wedding industry. Brides have not been able to buy their dresses for nearly a year. The wedding industry contributes millions of pounds to the Exchequer, but these businesses are not being allowed to open properly, and yet pubs can. Can we have an urgent discussion about how we can help the industry understand these very conflicting rules, get these people back to business and let love flourish?
My hon. Friend reminds us that, historically, marriages did not take place during Lent, and therefore took place immediately after Lent. She is right to say that spring is a time when people want to get married and the weather is better for their celebrations. I can assure her that the Minister for Small Business, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), is regularly in contact with the industry-led weddings taskforce, established to represent all parts of the UK wedding sector, to understand the effect of the pandemic on jobs and businesses.
Over the course of the pandemic, the Government have provided an unprecedented package of financial support to businesses, including those in the wedding industry, and that is kept under regular review. I understand that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has further discussions planned with the industry-led weddings taskforce to appreciate the sector’s concerns and help it through the reopening period.
Over 28 million people in the UK have received their first dose of the vaccine, increasing the likelihood that restrictions will be eased at each step of the road map, including restrictions on weddings, but I sympathise very much with what my hon. Friend says and the representations she makes on behalf of her constituents. She is right to say that the wedding industry has been particularly badly affected by the pandemic, and it is important that it can get back to normal as soon as is practicable, in accordance with the road map.
The UK Government have promised to publish their national strategy for disabled people this spring and have consulted the public and committed to listening further. Given how all-encompassing this strategy will be, can we have an interim statement on the general direction of the strategy, informed by their survey, ahead of publication, so that Members can debate the intended strategy and provide further input on behalf of our constituents?
The hon. Lady is right to mention the national strategy for disabled people. Spring has only just sprung—we are only a very few days into it—so the intention is still very much to publish it in spring. In terms of parliamentary time, with the recess that is coming up and the end of the Session in sight, I fear that I cannot promise her the debate that she asks for in Government time, but it may well be a subject for an Adjournment debate, or indeed the Backbench Business Committee may be able to slot it in on one of its remaining days.
After many months of conversations with senior executives from BP and McDonald’s, I am pleased that the two companies have agreed to progress a scheme that will resolve the long-standing problems at Rush Green roundabout in my constituency. Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the many residents and councillors who have campaigned on this issue and encourage the companies to implement the necessary alterations to the site as quickly as possible?
I am certainly not a revolutionary—or a gyrator, either, for that matter.
I am sure that this will be welcome news for residents in Hertford and Stortford. It is fantastic to see businesses—leading forces of capitalism such as British Petroleum and McDonald’s, international titans that they are—contributing to their local communities, ensuring smooth and fast journeys for their customers and all the people in Hertfordshire. It is in their interests, is it not? If the roundabout runs smoothly, people can go and fill up with petrol and then go for a drive-through McDonald’s. The businesses are quite right to contribute, because it will benefit them in the long run.
This week we saw a historic result for the campaign for the Shrewsbury 24, who had their convictions quashed by the Court of Appeal. That verdict is significant for the rights of working people in the UK. Sadly, many of those involved, who saw their lives ruined by the politicisation of charges, did not live long enough to see justice done. Given that, and the fact that this verdict was achieved after half a century of injustice, does the Leader of the House believe that time should be allocated to debate the merits of the Government’s holding a public inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the dispute and the trial?
The Appeal Court has ruled, and that shows that British justice works and that we have a country where, when mistakes are made, we have the systems to ensure that those mistakes are admitted to, even if after a long time. We do not just say, “Well that happened a long time ago; we are therefore ignoring it.” We should be proud of our justice system and the fact that it spends time looking at historical cases and setting the record straight. For those who have not lived long enough to see it, at least their families know that there was no stain on their family member’s character, and I think that is important and reassuring to those who mourn.
I am enthusiastically looking forward to the 2022 Commonwealth games in Birmingham, which I hear will be the best ever. What will make them even better is Perry the mascot, which was designed by my constituent Emma Lou from Westhoughton. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating her, and will he perhaps pose with Perry?
I absolutely congratulate my hon. Friend and his constituent Emma Lou on winning the mascot design competition for the 2022 Commonwealth games, which will take place in Birmingham. I am delighted to hear that they are going to be the best ever—we take that as a firm promise from my hon. Friend—and to hear about Perry the bull, inspired by the city’s famous Bullring.
I remember as a child a story about Ferdinand the bull, who did not like to fight but liked to sit there smelling the flowers, until he got stung by a bee and therefore charged around like billy-oh. The bullfighting catchers were around that day and they took him off, and then he sat in the bullring sniffing the flowers. It was a bit of a disappointment for the audience. I hope Perry is a more active bull, with his fantastic horns and his colourful hexagons. It is very encouraging that the mascot has been chosen—and would I pose for a photo with Perry? I would be honoured, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I hope you will join me.
May I add my concerns to those of other hon. Members about the increasingly common tactic of fire and rehire across businesses? I welcomed the Leader of the House’s comments earlier, and I reflect on the fact that the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), talked about it being “bully boy tactics”, and he is absolutely right. BEIS has had that ACAS report since 17 February. There will be a couple of extra weeks now after the Easter recess. I urge the Leader of the House to bring forward emergency legislation, which by the sound of things would have support, so that we can outlaw this disgraceful tactic of fire and rehire.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reiterating the point, which is a serious one. Employers threatening to fire and rehire as a negotiating tactic are doing something that is wrong and that decent employers do not do. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy could not have been clearer about what a bad practice it is. The hon. Gentleman says that BEIS has had the report since 17 February, which was slightly longer than I had realised, but none the less for something of this importance that is not an enormous amount of time, and I know it is being considered extremely carefully.
Companies should know better than to behave in this way. All companies operate best when their employees are working there with enthusiasm, and these types of tactics are very bad for morale in businesses, so I would say to my capitalist friends, “Behave well as a business, and your business will do better.”
When we come back after Easter, can we have a statement on Yemen? I know the Leader of the House will understand how it must feel for the family of Luke Symons when they hear about incidents of detention centres being attacked in Sanaa and when they hear about the cut in aid to Yemen and the continuing supply of arms to Saudi Arabia, but most of all their and my concern is for the welfare of my constituent held captive in Sanaa by the Houthis.
If we cannot have that statement, will the Leader of the House encourage the Foreign Office at least to be a bit more active in providing me with briefings and updates on what is going on in relation to this matter? I have asked for one and not received one. He is always assiduous, so through his good offices, will he give them a nudge and seek to provide me with an updated report?
I can absolutely give the second commitment that the hon. Gentleman asks for. The Government are working closely with our partners in the region to ensure that Mr Symons is released and reunited with his family as soon as possible. We obviously do not have direct representation there. It may be helpful if I tell hon. and right hon. Members that after this session every week, I write to relevant Ministers with any issues that have been brought up, and obviously I particularly emphasise ones of this kind, because I think hon. and right hon. Members have a right to be kept informed about their constituents and to make representations for them. It is our basic obligation as Members to seek redress of grievance for those we represent, and I will always do anything I can to help in that regard.
Large-scale infrastructure projects place a huge burden on parish and town councils that cover the areas of construction of those projects. Parish councillors in my constituency tell me that dealing with local matters relating to projects such as HS2 and East West Rail has become something like a full-time job. Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking our parish and town councils for all the work they do and find time for a debate in Government time to recognise the additional burden of big infrastructure on those local councils and to find a better way to support them?
With projects of this scale, local effects will unfortunately be unavoidable. The Department for Transport encourages close co-operation and engagement between such projects and local councils, including parish councils. The HS2 Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson), has been looking at this issue closely and, as set out in detail in the parliamentary report published last week, has taken a number of further steps to improve HS2 Ltd’s approach. The Rail Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris), is also supportive of the recently introduced monthly meeting between the leaders of Buckinghamshire Council, East West Rail Company, Network Rail and the EWR Alliance, which can act as a point of escalation for construction issues if required. As regards a debate in Government time, I am sorry, but I cannot promise that. I do think that an issue concerning the councils, including parish councils, of my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Greg Smith) is ideal territory for an Adjournment debate.
May we have an early statement from the Secretary of State for Transport on air safety? For whatever reason, the trade and co-operation agreement with the EU did not include access to the EU EGNOS—European geostationary navigation overlay service—satellite system, which is used to provide 3D glide slope for instrument approach procedures for planes coming in to land at airports. As a consequence, come 21 June, the limits at which planes will be allowed to approach a runway without visual contact will be significantly increased, which will be particularly acute across the highlands and islands, at exactly the same time as we will be wanting more people, hopefully, to come back and start to visit us again. We need a memorandum of understanding with the EU on that, and we really need to hear from the Secretary of State for Transport what he intends to do if we do not have one.
I cannot claim that I know a great deal about that particular issue, which may not surprise the House, but this is absolutely one of those things, as I said to an hon. Gentleman earlier, that I will take up with the relevant Minister, and I will try to get the right hon. Gentleman a detailed response to what sounds a very serious matter. Obviously we want transport to resume as safely as possible, so that tourists are able to come back. He raises an important point, and I shall do my best to get a detailed answer.
My best friend is a 12-year-old west highland white terrier called Alfie, and life without him would be almost unbearable. Yet every time my wife takes him out for a walk she is scared to death that he will be stolen. That is a shocking, shocking crime and should carry a mandatory jail sentence, in my opinion, and my residents would back me up on that. So, for the third time today, could I ask my right hon. Friend to please reassure me that he will do all he can to ensure a debate on that important issue in the House, or ask the Government to make a statement on the matter and help protect man’s best friend?
It is clear from this session that pet theft is of considerable concern to hon. Members. This session is often a straw in the wind as to the issues that are of political importance, because Members raise whatever they want, and when you get three questions on the same subject it shows that there is public concern. The Government are doing the things that I set out previously, including providing the additional police force, but people ought to feel confident going for a walk, and it is unreasonable, unfair and unpleasant that my hon. Friend’s wife, Mrs Anderson, does not feel safe going for walks for worry that her dog will be stolen. We want people to feel secure taking their dogs for walks, and I have heard the concerns of the House.