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Volume 692: debated on Wednesday 14 April 2021

I know colleagues across the House will wish to join me in paying tribute to our dear friend and colleague, Dame Cheryl Gillan, who sadly died last week. MP for Chesham and Amersham for 29 years, she will be remembered for being a strong voice for her constituents, for being a brilliant campaigner, including her advocacy for autistic people and their families, and for being the first female Secretary of State for Wales. I also want to pay tribute to Baroness Shirley Williams, a pioneer for women in politics and in Government, and to our former colleague Peter Ainsworth, who was passionate about his causes, especially the environment.

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

Dame Cheryl represented her constituents with considerable effectiveness for nearly 29 years and is already sorely missed in this place, especially by many of the newer Members, as she was so kind to us in our first months in Westminster. One of her passions was the protection of chalk streams, in particular the River Chess, which passes through my constituency of South West Hertfordshire. Many MPs are increasingly concerned about reports of partially treated sewage being released into our rivers, with knock-on health impacts for both humans and animals. Can my right hon. Friend reassure the House that this Government will actively protect our rivers and streams?

My hon. Friend is entirely right to raise the concern we fully share about sewage overflow into rivers such as the Chess. That is why we have set up the storm overflows taskforce to address the matter, working with the water industry, regulators and environmental groups. Last month, we announced plans for legislation to address that very issue.

May I join the Prime Minister in his remarks about Dame Cheryl Gillan, who I worked with on a cross-party basis and remember with fondness? Ian Gibson also passed away this week. Both commanded respect on all sides of the House and will be sadly missed.

I also pay tribute to Shirley Williams. She was a great parliamentarian, and a formidable Minister and Cabinet Minister. She loved this House, the other place and, frankly, anywhere she could debate ideas and politics. For many years, she was Labour’s loss, but today she is Britain’s loss, and my thoughts are with her family and loved ones.

Does the Prime Minister believe that the current lobbying rules are fit for purpose?

I join the right hon. and learned Gentleman in what he said about Ian Gibson.

I share the widespread concern about some of the stuff we are reading at the moment, and I know that the Cabinet Secretary shares my concern as well. I do think it is a good idea in principle that top civil servants should be able to engage with business and should have experience of the private sector. When I look at the accounts I am reading today, it is not clear that those boundaries have been properly understood. I have asked for a proper independent review of the arrangements that we have, to be conducted by Nigel Boardman, and he will be reporting in June. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman has any representations he wishes to make on the subject, he should do so to Mr Boardman.

I know that the Prime Minister is launching an inquiry. That inquiry is not even looking at the lobbying rules; I am not sure it is looking at very much at all. Every day, there is further evidence of the sleaze that is now at the heart of this Conservative Government. [Interruption.] They can shake their heads. Let us just look at the latest scandal. A wealthy businessman, Lex Greensill, was hired as a senior adviser to David Cameron when he was Prime Minister. We have all seen the business card. After he left office, Cameron became a paid lobbyist for Lex Greensill. The next thing we know, Cameron arranged access for Greensill to Cabinet Ministers, Ministers and senior officials, and he lobbied for taxpayers’ money on behalf of Greensill Capital.

We also know that the Chancellor “pushed” officials. We know that the Health Secretary met Cameron and Greensill. We know that senior officials met Greensill Capital regularly, and now, even more unbelievably, we know that the Government’s former head of procurement, no less, became a Greensill adviser while he was still a civil servant. Does the Prime Minister accept that there is a revolving door—indeed, an open door—between his Conservative Government and paid lobbyists?

This is a Government and a party that have been consistently tough on lobbying. Indeed, we introduced legislation saying that there should be no taxpayer-funded lobbying and that quangos should not be used to get involved with lobbying. We put in a register for lobbyists. There is one party that voted to repeal the 2014 lobbying Act, and that was the Labour party in its historic 2019 election manifesto, which the right hon. and learned Gentleman has yet to repudiate. It did so because it thought the Act was unfair and restricted people’s ability to make representations to politicians. I think that that is absurd. Will he now say that it is absurd to repeal the 2014 lobbying Act?

The Prime Minister talks of the lobbying Act. Who was it who introduced that legislation? David Cameron. Who was it who voted for the legislation? Half the Conservative Front Bench. We said that it would not be tough enough, and where did that legislation lead? Two years later, David Cameron camping out in a Saudi desert with Lex Greensill, having a cup of tea. I rest my case in relation to that legislation.

Let me try another very simple question. Is the Prime Minister aware of any other Government official who had commercial links with Greensill or any other lobbying role while working in Government?

If the right hon. and learned Gentleman has any such information, he should of course make it available to Mr Boardman; that is the point of his review. It is an independent review. It will be coming to me by June, and it will be laid in the Library of the House of Commons.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about lobbying. He is being advised by Lord Mandelson of Global Counsel. Perhaps in the interests of full transparency, so that we can know where he is coming from, Lord Mandelson could be encouraged to disclose his other clients.

I have not heard a defence that ridiculous since my last days in the Crown court. It is called the shoplifters’ defence—“Everyone else is nicking stuff, so why can’t I?” It never worked. I remind the Prime Minister that I not only prosecuted shoplifters; I prosecuted MPs over the MPs’ expenses scandal, so I stand on my record. That line just isn’t going to wash with me.

It was a former Prime Minister—and, I suspect, now a former lobbyist—who once said:

“This isn’t a minor issue with minor consequences… government contracts—worth hundreds of billions of pounds are potentially at stake.”

Can the Prime Minister now answer the question that the Chancellor has been ducking for weeks? How was it that Greensill Capital—a company employing David Cameron—got the green light to give hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayer-backed loans?

While the right hon. and learned Gentleman was prosecuting MPs, I was cutting crime in London by 23% and cutting the murder rate by 50%. He asks about lobbying on behalf of Greensill. Again, I do not wish to embarrass the right hon. and learned Gentleman, but he does not have far to look. There was one person asking for Greensill bank to be able to use the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme, and that was the shadow Defence Secretary.

This just gets weaker and weaker. It does take me back to my defence days in the Crown court —just ridiculous. The shadow Defence Secretary—

It really was not a good point; if you think that is a good point, you have got real problems.

The shadow Defence Secretary was speaking for his constituents and for local jobs. That is a million miles away from being a paid lobbyist texting friends in Government. The Prime Minister says there is going to be an inquiry, but the person he has appointed worked for the same law firm that lobbied to loosen lobbying laws. You could not make it up.

What we need is to overhaul the whole broken system. This afternoon, Labour’s motion calls for a proper parliamentary inquiry into the scandal. If the Prime Minister is so concerned about this, he should welcome the motion. After all, to quote David Cameron, his old school friend:

“Sunlight is the best disinfectant”.

So, will the Prime Minister vote with Labour today for a full, transparent, independent inquiry?

I think the right hon. and learned Gentleman would have been better off supporting the lobbying Act and the Labour party would have been better off not campaigning to get rid of it. It toughens up our laws, and I think that his own proposal is simply to have, yet again, politicians marking their own homework. What the country wants—[Interruption.] That is what it is—a Committee of MPs to look at it. It will not do a blind bit of good. That is why we are having a proper, independent review. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman has any representations or allegations to make about what has taken place, he should make them to the eminent lawyer who has been asked to do this, who will be reporting to us by June.

The Prime Minister should be voting with us, not blocking a proper inquiry. The Greensill scandal is just the tip of the iceberg—dodgy contracts, privileged access, jobs for their mates. This is the return of Tory sleaze. It is now so ingrained in this Conservative Government. We do not need another Conservative party appointee marking their own homework. Actually, the more I listen to the Prime Minister, the more I think that Ted Hastings and AC-12 are needed to get to the bottom of this one.

We know the Prime Minister will not act against sleaze, but this House can, so can I urge all Members of the House to come together this afternoon to back Labour’s motion, and to start to clean up the sleaze and cronyism that are at the heart of this Conservative Government?

That is why we are putting in an independent review. That is why we have tougher laws on lobbying—a great shame that Labour opposes them. Yes, we are getting on with rooting out bent coppers. We are also appointing and hiring thousands more police officers. We are fighting crime. We are fighting crime on the streets of our cities while the Opposition oppose the police and crime Bill, which would put in tougher sentences for serious sexual and violent offenders—absolutely—and they then encouraged people who went out and demonstrated to “Kill the Bill”. We are getting on with protecting the public. That is absolutely correct. We are getting on with protecting the public of this country from crime of all kinds. We are getting on with the job of running this country, of rolling out a vaccination programme—

It is a year this week since I had the privilege of starting to volunteer at Watford General Hospital, and over that time I have been fortunate and privileged to work alongside some inspirational and selfless volunteers. As the nation reflects this week on the importance of schemes to support young people, may I ask the Prime Minister whether he will meet me to explore the creation of an NHS cadet scheme to pay tribute to those who have volunteered over the past year and also create a lasting legacy for generations to come? (914251)

Yes, indeed. I thank my hon. Friend for what he is doing. I thank everybody at Watford General Hospital for the support they have given throughout the pandemic, particularly the volunteers, who play a massive part in our vaccination roll-out programme. I fully support the NHS cadet scheme—part of our work to establish a volunteering legacy for young people following the pandemic.

Mòran taing, Mr Speaker. May I associate myself with the remarks of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition about Dame Cheryl Gillan and Shirley Williams?

The Scottish Government have passed landmark legislation embedding the UN convention on the rights of the child into Scots law, a real revolution in children’s rights. Every party in the Scottish Parliament supported it, even the Scots Tories; it has been welcomed everywhere except here in Westminster. Instead of supporting this new law, the UK Government are, shamefully, taking the Scottish Parliament to court in order to strike it down. Apparently, the only basis of the UK Government’s legal case is that the law constrains Westminster powers. So, Prime Minister, can you do everyone a favour by explaining how protecting children’s rights in Scotland threatens the Tory Government in London?

This is complete nonsense. The Government of the United Kingdom ratified the UN convention on the rights of the child 30 years ago. We all supported it. This is nothing to do with the rights of vulnerable children, which we all protect; this is simply an attempt by the SNP to stir up constitutional chaos and create another fictitious bone of contention between themselves and the rest of the country. If they really cared about the rights of the child, they would do much more to improve education in Scotland, where they are so lamentably failing.

The rights of the child—this is an Act passed by the Scottish Parliament and supported by every party, and yet the Prime Minister’s Government are taking our Parliament—our Government—to court. There is nothing technical about this, and the Westminster Government want to strip away the rights of children in Scotland. This is a tale of two Governments: we have an SNP Scottish Government delivering the baby box, doubling the Scottish child payment and providing free school meals to every primary school child; at the same time, this Tory Government are robbing children of their rights in Scotland. Quite simply, the SNP Scottish Government have worked, and will continue to work, to ensure that Scotland is the best place for a child to grow up. This legal challenge threatens that; it is wrong and it is morally repugnant, Prime Minister. Will the Prime Minister commit to withdrawing his legal challenge today? If not, we will see you in court.

The best thing the SNP can do, as I have said, for the rights of the child in Scotland is to improve their shameful record on education and to tackle the issues that matter to the people of Scotland: to tackle the tax regime they have put in place; and to do better on fighting crime and drug addiction in Scotland. They should be looking at the issues that really matter to the people of Scotland, but instead they are going into the elections next month yet again on a campaign to break up this country. That is all they can think of: break up this country—destroy our country—and call a referendum, in a way that I think is completely irresponsible at a very difficult time when we want to bounce back stronger together.

The A55 expressway is of huge importance to north Wales, linking the region to the main motorway network. It is also, as was noted in the recent interim report on the Union connectivity review, the principal freight artery for the port of Holyhead. The road is in desperate need of improvement, and has been for many years, so will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government will make it a priority to use their powers under the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 to upgrade the road for the benefit of the people of north Wales? (914252)

My right hon. Friend is completely right. Sir Peter Hendy has rightly identified the potential of the A55, and the best thing the people of Wales can do to guarantee these vital upgrades is elect a Welsh Conservative Government on 6 May.

We now go to Vicky Foxcroft. Vicky, I understand you are going to sign; can you speak and sign at the same time for the benefit of all?

[In British Sign Language] Why is there no interpreter in the room for briefings?If the Prime Minister did not understand that, imagine how those who rely on British Sign Language feel at his press briefings. Some £2.6 million was spent on the new press room, yet there is still no interpreter; what message does he think this sends to disabled people? (914250)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady, and grateful for the way she has set out her question. I will revert to her as soon as I can.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is thanks to the sacrifice of the British people during lockdown and the great success of the vaccination programme that lots of small businesses across the whole country and in my constituency of Derbyshire Dales, such as Brocklehursts, which supplied clothing to Prince Philip, can remain open? Will my right hon. Friend join me in a campaign to shop local as we come out of lockdown? (914253)

I thank my hon. Friend. Yes, I certainly will encourage her and everybody else to shop local as we come out of lockdown, as I very much hope that we will be able to do. My right hon. Friend the Communities Secretary has announced that £830 million of funding from the future high streets fund has been allocated to areas, including my hon. Friend’s, to encourage that shopping that we all hope and want to see.

May I extend my condolences and those of my constituents to the Queen and the royal family for their sad loss, and to the families and colleagues of Cheryl Gillan and Shirley Williams? Will the Prime Minister tell the House when he last spoke to former Prime Minister David Cameron? (914255)

The honest truth—I cannot remember when I last spoke to Dave, but if the hon. Lady wants to know whether I have had any contact with him about any of the matters that have been in the press, the answer is no.

Those who helped to develop, test, approve and manufacture the vaccines deserve our praise. Will my right hon. Friend also recognise that the successful roll-out of the vaccination programme has been based on the dedication of the NHS staff and the myriad volunteers who have made the process so easy for so many people? (914254)

My hon. Friend is completely right. This has been a colossal team effort. It has been led by the NHS, with GPs very often doing the lion’s share of the work, but they have been supported by the Army, by local council officials, who have also been absolutely magnificent, and, as colleagues have said, by volunteers as well.

The interim findings of Sir Peter Hendy’s Union connectivity review are very much to be welcomed. He highlights the improvements that need to be made to the railways in north Wales, linking up with Merseyside and Manchester, as well as the A55. Those improvements, of course, can help to level up the region. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the projects in north Wales identified in Sir Peter Hendy’s work will receive a fair chunk of the £20 million of development funding as part of the agenda, and will he commit to implementing the findings of Sir Peter Hendy’s final report when it is released in the summer? (914257)

I thank my hon. Friend. We will look at what Sir Peter has to say. He has come up with some very interesting interim proposals, particularly about improving connectivity along the north Wales coastline—the routes into Merseyside. On the A55, I repeat what I said to my right hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones): there is a great opportunity to do that if people will vote Conservative and vote for a Welsh Conservative Government on 6 May.

In 2007, my friend Adam Price, then the Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, proposed the Elected Representatives (Prohibition of Deception) Bill. At this distance in time, it would be unkind to quiz the Prime Minister on the detail, but he is seen as a big thinker, so perhaps he could tell the House what he thinks of the principle of that Bill, which is that on important matters of public policy, politicians must not lie. (914260)

I have a high regard for the hon. Gentleman and, indeed, remember happy times with his colleague Adam Price. I do not remember the details of his Bill, but I think we would all concur with the basic principle that the hon. Gentleman has just enunciated.

Former police inspector Kash Singh set up One Britain One Nation, otherwise known as OBON, to bring together all communities, all classes, all ethnicities, races and religions to celebrate being British. OBON Day is held in June. However, next week, on 22 April, will be the launch at a school in Bradford. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating Kash Singh on his fantastic initiative for all communities to come together in a common pride of being British? Will he also make a message for the launch next week? (914258)

Well, I’ll do my best. I fully support what my right hon. Friend is doing and I congratulate Kash Singh on his work. It is incredible at this time that there are people who want to split our country up, rather than bring us together. That is what the SNP want. It is an absolute tragedy that they still think like that. I think they are going to change, but I wish everybody at OBON all the very best.

Contrary to the conclusions of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report, institutional racism still exists. Forty years since the Liverpool 8 uprisings, black communities continue to suffer racial injustice and the report downplays the structural inequalities that still exist. The Resolution Foundation announced today that the unemployment rate for young black people rose by 35%, compared with 13% for their white counterparts. Can the Prime Minister confirm the allegations that Downing Street redrafted the report to change the narrative? Does he agree that the report should now be withdrawn? (914262)

Of course, when we look at and read the report in detail, the Government are not going to agree with everything, but there are some interesting observations and some interesting ways of looking at things. We will be responding in due course, but what we say is that nobody should be in any doubt as to the reality of racism and the struggle that too many people face. We will do everything we can to stamp it out, particularly to help young black people get the jobs and the education they need.

As my right hon. Friend will know, as we build back better we need to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers. Will he therefore agree to work with EngineeringUK and Big Bang Digital to provide a short online introduction to this year’s event to reinforce the message that a career in engineering is rewarding, creative and can transform the world around us for the better? Will he recognise the extraordinary contribution that engineers have made and are making in our battle against covid? (914259)

Engineers and scientists of all kinds have been crucial in the fight against covid, and this is the moment to become an engineer or work towards being an engineer. We are putting a huge £640 billion investment into the infrastructure of this country over the next few years. We will need skilled young people to go into engineering, and that is why we put in the T-levels. I congratulate my hon. Friend on his initiative, and I will do my best to support him.

Given his ancestry, the Prime Minister will be more than familiar with the phrase “a fish rots from the head down”—it is a Turkish proverb. Put simply, since he became the Prime Minister the sound of Big Ben’s bongs has been replaced by the cash till sound of big donor bungs. There has been a threefold increase in bungs from property developers. Last summer, we had the case of Richard Desmond and the Communities Secretary. More recently, we have had Ministers dishing the dosh between constituencies, and the Health Secretary handing—or involved in—a contract with his pub landlord for £30 million-worth of PPE. Now, we have a Chancellor and Health Secretary who have sought to grease the wheels of involvement with Greensill and David Cameron. What does this say about the Prime Minister’s leadership of his Government? (914263)

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is simply wrong in what he says, particularly about my right hon. Friends the Chancellor and the Health Secretary; I do not believe that he should have spoken in those terms. What I will say is that there is one party in this place that brought in tough rules on lobbying, and another party that campaigned at the last election to get rid of those rules because of its relationship with the trade unions, because it wanted them to continue in the obscure, opaque way in which they were being run, and because it wanted people to be able to continue to lobby parliamentarians in the way that they always did. Look at the Labour manifesto from 2019. If the Leader of the Opposition repudiates it now, why does he not go ahead and do so?

In the past few months, a number of my constituents have taken to the streets to help tackle the problem of littering; I pay particular tribute to constituents in Colsterworth whom I met recently. Will the Prime Minister join me in backing the Grantham Journal’s spring clean campaign? Can he assure my constituents that the Government are doing all they can to tackle littering? (914261)

I share my hon. Friend’s indignation about litter. I think that it is one of the things on which the whole of the country and, I hope, the whole of the House are united. That is why we are doing the Respect the Outdoors campaign to encourage people to follow the countryside code and pick up their litter. Obviously a lot of people are meeting outdoors at the moment because of the pandemic; they must obey the basic laws of respect for other people—pick up their litter. We are putting money into new litter bins and, yes, we are increasing on-the-spot fines for littering. I know there will be many libertarians in this place who think that is unfair and draconian. Personally, I think it is the right thing to do. I abhor litter, and I urge anybody who sees anybody throwing away a crisp packet to tick them off and tell them to pick it up.

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

Sitting suspended.