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Business of the House

Volume 692: debated on Thursday 15 April 2021

The 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, followed by a debate on the sixth report from the Committee on Standards relating to confidentiality in the House’s standards system and the seventh report from the Committee on Standards relating to sanctions in respect of the conduct of Members, followed by a motion relating to membership of the Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body.

Thursday 22 April—Debate on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, eight report of Session 2019-21, on Government Transparency and Accountability During Covid 19: The Data Underpinning Decisions, followed by a debate on a motion on mass human rights abuses and crimes against humanity in the Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region. The subjects for those debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 23April—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the week commencing 26 April will include:

Monday 26 April —If necessary, consideration of Lords amendments, followed by a motion to approve the Warm Home Discount (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2021; followed by a motion to approve the Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing (Amendment) (High-Risk Countries) Regulations 2020 (S.I., 2021, No.392); followed by a motion relating to the Health Protection (Coronavirus, International Travel) (England) (Amendment) (No.7) Regulations 2021 (S.I., 2021, No.150).

Follow that, as they say. I thank the Leader of the House for the business. I note that there is the possibility of proroguing on 29 April, and we only have the business up until the 26th, so we look forward to a further announcement.

I start by sending my condolences and those of Opposition Members who have not had the opportunity to send them to our Gracious Sovereign and her family on the sad passing of His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip. We must remember him not just as the Queen’s consort but as a husband of 73 years. I know that the country will want to remember his good works, his deeds and his wonderful personality as he is laid to rest on Saturday. May he rest in peace.

Yet again, we have to have the Prime Minister come back to clarify his remarks. Yesterday, he said at Primeand Ethnic Disparities, but it is a Government report. They set it up: it is out of No. 10 and out of the Cabinet Office. It is totally discredited, as at least 20 organisations and individuals listed as stakeholders have distanced themselves from the report.

It is not clear what this took into account because the 2017 McGregor-Smith report, commissioned by the then Business Secretary, the right hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid), on race in the workplace, said:

“In the UK today, there is a structural, historical bias that favours certain individuals.”

The racism at work survey published in 2019 said that over 70% of black, Asian and minority ethnic workers had been racially harassed at work in the last five years. Between October and December, 41% of black people aged 16 to 24 were out of work compared with 12.4% of their white counterparts. Forty years on from the Brixton riots, black unemployment for that quarter was at the same level as it was as in 1980s. I urge the Leader of the House: please could we have a debate in Government time on the report? There are too many unanswered questions.

Today marks 32 years since the Hillsborough disaster, and the families have worked tirelessly in campaigning for an inquiry, and that is why it is important to get the inquiry right on the Greensill debacle. I do not know whether the Government think the country is stupid, but we are absolutely incredulous at asking a person who serves as a non-executive in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to lead the inquiry. The Minister for the Constitution and Devolution said yesterday that she has had to suspend him as a non-exec. The legal profession is brimming full of talent in lawyers with absolutely no connection with the Government, BEIS or anything. Why do we not have one of them?

The Prime Minister said yesterday that it is a difficult line with the civil service and “boundaries” are blurred—that was his word—but, no, civil servants do not have two jobs. A secondment is a temporary assignment. Yes, they should get the experience of both places—the private sector and the civil service—but not at the same time. This is an abuse of power. The Government are only making appointments when it is “one of us”—one of them—just as they are doing with the board of Channel 4.

It matters because this is about public money, and public money cannot be found for NHS workers and their agreed 2.1%, but it can be found for Greensill. It matters because council tax payers have to stump up £100 now, yet Greensill is bailed out. It matters because, as the shadow Chancellor said, Greensill met Treasury officials 10 times, whereas those excluded—entrepreneurs, small businesses, the self-employed—have got nothing out of these schemes and met Treasury officials once. It matters because this is public money and it should be used in the public interest. It is like having Lex Luthor in the heart of Government, but I want to tell the Government that there is no kryptonite on the Opposition Benches, and we will fight for truth, justice and the British way of fairness.

I know that the Leader of the House talks about transparency and accountability all the time, and I know he tries very hard to do that. He has seen the way Simon Case has acted—immediately—on the civil servants, so why has Sir Alex Allan’s post not been filled and when will the statements covering relevant ministerial interests be published? We should have had two a year, but the last one was in December 2019. I think the Government will look sleazy if they do not publish them. Former Prime Ministers released quarterly lists of donors meetings. I think the Government will look sleazy if they do not publish that, so I ask the Leader of the House: when could we have those published?

To coin a phrase, can I ask the Leader of the House to push the team at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office for an update on Nazanin and Anoosheh, who has had a 67th birthday in prison? They are all in Vienna discussing it, and we need an update.

We have lost some incredible people in the House, and I want to pay tribute to Dame Cheryl Gillan. I worked with her on the all-party parliamentary group on epilepsy. She brought to the House and put on the statute book the Autism Act 2009, which means we value people on the spectrum and know they have hidden talents. She did that through her tireless campaigning for 29 years as a Member of Parliament. We will not forget; it seems like only yesterday that she was berating the Leader of the House for changing the hybrid procedure.

Ian Gibson was a geneticist and a former MP for Norwich North from 1997 to 2009. He was Chair of the Science and Technology Select Committee and joint manager of the parliamentary football team. I met him through the Manufacturing, Science and Finance union. He was so kind to people starting off on their political journey.

James Winston was valued and respected across both Houses and by all parts of the Chamber. He worked with Members in pursuit of peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland, and we mourn his loss, especially at this time.

Then there is Shirley Williams—Baroness Williams. Despite being the daughter of George Catlin and Vera Brittain, she managed to carve her own way. She was absolutely brilliant as an Education Secretary and as a parliamentarian in both Houses. I saw her when I was at university. She really was, as the magazine headline said, “Sweet Williams”. She was wonderful and would have made a great future Prime Minister, as her father once suggested. She screen-tested for the “National Velvet” film, and I want to say something positive at the end: Rachael Blackmore should be congratulated on being the first woman to win the Grand National.

Finally, we cannot process this year, but I hope the whole House will join me in wishing all the Sikh community a happy Vaisakhi.

I join the right hon. Lady in wishing the Sikh community a happy Vaisakhi. I also join her in commemorating so many people who have died. This is a particularly sad business questions, because there are so many people of the greatest distinction to commemorate.

The House paid its tribute to the Duke of Edinburgh, the longest serving consort and the longest serving member of the Privy Council in the Privy Council’s history. The tributes were extremely touching and represented the heartfelt sorrow of the nation at the passing of someone who supported our constitution and our way of life.

We are all saddened by the death of a Member, Dame Cheryl Gillan, who was just such a lovely person. She came to some of the meetings held in the run-up to the various Brexit debates. She was always advising goodwill, kindliness and respect for the views of others with steely principles underlying that. That degree of kindliness as well as sense of purpose is something that we respect in Members of Parliament, but also have great affection for, and I think that is important, too.

We also mourn Peter Ainsworth, who was one of the first people to come and campaign for me when I was selected as the candidate for North East Somerset. He was a committed supporter of the party. The right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) also mentioned Ian Gibson, a distinguished former Member, and James Winston. There is also Robert Howarth and Paul Marland, who was a long-serving Member of Parliament. He was very much thought of as being a dutiful Member, who served his country in the traditional way that people like me perhaps have the greatest admiration for. Of course there is also Baroness Williams of Crosby, and I hope I will have an opportunity to say a little more about her later on in proceedings. On a happier note, I congratulate Rachael Blackmore on winning the Grand National, but it is mainly a sad day, and that is one bit of solace and happiness.

To come to the right hon. Lady’s detailed questions, she raises some very important points. The report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities is very important and makes an important contribution to the debate. It has made 24 recommendations, which the Government are considering. I think it is right that we look at the progress made in this country and recognise how different the experience in this country is from the United States, rather than assuming that everything here is the same as the many problems they have in other countries. We should recognise success as well as understanding that we always have further to go. The fundamental recognition that there is equality under the law for everybody in this country is something that we can welcome and ought to be positive about. I am sure that this matter will be discussed in this House on many occasions and raised in many different ways, because it is a subject of fundamental importance about the type of country we are.

The right hon. Lady raises serious questions about Greensill Capital and the relationships between it and Government. It is right that the review is taking place under Nigel Boardman to understand primarily, as a starting point, the use of supply chain finance. Until we understand where it started—why the Government were using supply chain finance, which prima facie is something that we would not think a Government would do—we cannot understand what has happened subsequently, so it is the right review to be taking place.

Mr Boardman is highly respected. He is a non-executive director of BEIS. He has stood aside from that during the period of this inquiry, but he is a very distinguished lawyer and I think that he will bring considerable expertise to the report. It is right that this matter is looked at fairly and properly, and it will also be looked at by a number of House of Commons Committees, which will do so with the full power and authority of the House of Commons and the ability to send for persons and papers.

The right hon. Lady is right to say that public money should be used wisely and properly. In that context, she is not right to say that Greensill was bailed out, because it was not. That is the whole point: the lobbying was done, but the lobbying did not succeed. I think that is something that should reassure us about the propriety of the way this Government are run. Who someone knows and how they are connected does not mean that they get what they want. That, ultimately, is the test of whether a Government are operating properly, and this Government are operating properly.

There are still pockets of my Congleton constituency, in both the rural areas and the towns, where constituents struggle to get access to fibre broadband, or indeed access to broadband or the internet at all. The pandemic has, of course, highlighted how crucial this is, not least for those in education or business, so may I press the Leader of the House to clarify what progress is being made towards fulfilling our manifesto commitment to ensure that everyone can have access to full-fibre broadband?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question because I, like her, represent a rural constituency, and this is so important for our constituents. I am glad to report that over 96% of all premises in the United Kingdom can access superfast broadband, thanks to the success of the Government’s superfast broadband programme, meaning that the UK has one of the highest levels of rural superfast connectivity in Europe.

However, the Government are aware that we need to upgrade more of the network to gigabit-capable speeds as soon as possible, hence the expenditure of £5 billion of taxpayers’ money to support the roll-out of gigabit broadband in the hardest to reach, predominantly rural, areas of the country through our new UK gigabit programme. Progress is being made in connecting rural premises to gigabit speeds through our existing superfast broadband, but this is a big commitment of Her Majesty’s Government and one that I hope will help both my hon. Friend’s constituents and my own.

May I associate myself with the comments of the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader of the House, and send my condolences and those of the SNP to the royal family, at this difficult time for all of them, on the passing of the Prince Philip? I also pay tribute to Dame Cheryl Gillan, Peter Ainsworth, Ian Gibson, Robert Howarth, Paul Marland, James Winston and Baroness Williams. It has clearly been a very sad time for a lot of families, as it is for so many around the country through these challenging times.

Turning to other matters, I have raised previously issues around transparency, and we have seen again this week, with the investigation now under way into lobbying, the actions of David Cameron and the circumstances surrounding the appointment of Lex Greensill as an adviser, that there are clearly further challenges that still need to be addressed. Will the Leader of the House commit to doing everything in his power to see that everything possible is done to ensure that any reviews undertaken go far enough, that any questions about the effectiveness of existing legislation are taken full account of, and that we put in place any necessary measures to ensure that such instances cannot and do not happen in the future?

I am personally slightly disappointed that we have not yet seen a further return of private Members’ Bills, particularly my Ministerial Interests (Emergency Powers) Bill, which I suggest would go some way to addressing some of these issues around transparency in the awarding of contracts. In the short time that we have prior to the end of the Session, will the Leader of the House give consideration to how some of those Bills might be taken account of?

We are all very well aware of this Government’s lack of respect for our democracy in consistently refusing to acknowledge the sovereign will of the Scottish people to choose their own future, but it took a new turn this week, with the Government challenging through the courts the unanimous decision of the Scottish Parliament to pass the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill and the European Charter of Local Self-Government (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill. Will the Leader of the House allocate Government time to a debate on the democratic deficit that exists in these isles as a result of this Government’s determination to ignore all views but their own? Does he agree that there can be no doubt now that the only way for the people of Scotland to get their own Government, a Government that they vote for, is by exercising our democratic right to choose, starting by voting SNP in both votes on 6 May?

First of all, on the Greensill reviews, obviously Committees of this House can make what inquiries they wish and set their own terms of reference. However, I think it is a mistake to rush to judgment, particularly in relation to David Cameron, who was a very successful Prime Minister who succeeded in getting the nation’s finances back in order. Rushing to judgment is not a proper way for this House to operate. We need to have the reviews and consider them. That is what is happening, both within Government and this House, and that is the proper constitutional process.

As regards private Member’s Bills, I do not think there is sufficient time in this Session, but the hon. Gentleman should be aware that in the new Session there will be a new ballot, under the auspices of the Chairman of Ways of Means, and you never know, he may be lucky and be able to bring forward his Bill on a Friday later in the year. Who knows what excitements await us?

As regards the sovereign will of the Scottish people, that was expressed in 2014 in a referendum. Now would not be the right time to consider this issue, when there is the recovery from the pandemic to have. However, I am fascinated by the voting advice that the hon. Gentleman gives. It does not seem to match the voting advice given by Mr Salmond, who seems to be having a most interesting time in Scotland. I noticed from The Telegraph today that he could not even get the letters for his new party in the right order. I wonder whether the same will afflict the SNP—one never knows what set of initials they will come up with next. What the people of the whole of the United Kingdom want is good government for the whole of the United Kingdom and a balanced settlement that people accept.

In relation to the court case that the hon. Gentleman referred to, it is really important that we live within the boundaries that have been established and accepted, and that we operate within a system that is properly constitutional. It is not for one side or the other to arbitrarily change the devolution settlement.

There has been precious little good news relating to the covid pandemic, but one positive benefit has been the revival of community spirit, as residents have come together to support each other in these difficult times. One such excellent example can be found in William Street in Kettering, which has been nominated by readers of the Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph as one of the county’s best places to live. In William Street, which has 66 houses, a small block of flats, a converted shoe factory and a church, neighbours have come together not just to clap for carers but to organise socially distanced Sunday singalongs, an Easter egg celebration, street cleans, a wedding prom, a street carnival, and pumpkin and best-dressed window competitions. Will the Leader of the House join me in congratulating all the residents of William Street on their revival of the blitz spirit and in hoping that their example will be an inspiration to others?

William Street sounds a very happy street to live on, with singalongs and pumpkin prizes, so I absolutely congratulate William Street and the people living there, who I am sure will be pleased by the tribute paid to them by my hon. Friend. He is right that throughout such a difficult year for the country there have been many wonderful moments of kindness up and down the nation, which have done us proud. The outpouring of support for our care workers has been highlighted often, but there has also been an explosion of volunteering and fundraising. We should be very proud of how our nation has reacted in such difficult times.

I thank the Leader of the House for the business statement and for announcing the Backbench business for next Thursday, 22 April. I also associate myself with the comments about Dame Cheryl Gillan, who among many other things was a regular customer at the Backbench Business Committee and an excellent chair of the all-party parliamentary group on autism.

Will the Leader of the House do whatever he can to help to expedite the re-establishment of the Backbench Business Committee at the earliest possible opportunity following the Queen’s Speech, so that debates applied for, agreed by and timetabled by Back-Bench Members can be led in the Chamber in a timely way by Back-Bench Members?

The hon. Gentleman, a distinguished Chairman of the Backbench Business Committee, makes a very important point. The Government always like to see Committees set up in a timely fashion and will use their best offices, after the Queen’s Speech, to see what they can do to ensure that a Chairman, whoever that may be, is back in post as soon as is reasonably practicable.

Although many think of Burnley just as the town centre, we also have a number of picturesque green villages, including Worsthorne and Hapton. Unfortunately, in 2018, the Labour-controlled Burnley Borough Council adopted a local plan that allocates significant parts of these villages, and elsewhere, to housing developments and more, often directly against the wishes of local residents. This is just one of the planning issues we face. Will the Leader of the House find Government time for a debate on local plans and how we can find a way to make sure they command the support of local residents?

My hon. Friend raises a point that is raised by many right hon. and hon. Members from across the House, and planning is always a contentious local issue. The Government’s planning White Paper, published last summer, set out proposed reforms to increase community involvement in the preparation of local plans, including a simpler and digitalised plan-making process, with more opportunity for local people to influence the location and standard of new developments in their area. This is essential to planning for the homes the country needs, providing the clarity that communities and developers deserve about where new homes should be built and ensuring that development is planned, rather than the result of speculative applications. Plans should be produced in a way that respects crucial local assets, including open countryside and the green belt, but I should always remind hon. Members that new houses must be built. As they are built, we want to ensure that they are beautiful. If they are beautiful, local communities may be more inclined to accept them.

This week, many loyal British Gas staff were sacked for refusing to accept a new contract that made them work longer hours for less pay, in the latest iteration of the growing national scourge of fire and rehire. Companies such as British Gas trade off our country’s name but do not have our country’s interests at heart. The Government have repeatedly stated that they consider these practices to be unacceptable, but those words will mean little to those ex-British Gas workers today. So will the Leader of the House please outline when the Government will be bringing forward legislation to ban fire and rehire, once and for all?

The Government do take this issue extremely seriously, and the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) has condemned the practice in the strongest terms on many occasions. The situation at the moment is that BEIS officials engaged ACAS in November 2020 to gather evidence on the prevalence and use of fire and rehire in workplaces. ACAS spoke to business and employee representatives in confidence, and has now concluded its work and shared its findings with BEIS. Officials are considering that evidence and the Government will communicate their next steps in due course, but it is right that a proper process is undertaken to see how prevalent this practice is. We would reiterate to businesses—I would say to my capitalist friends—that capitalism works when capitalists behave well and treat their employees well, and get the best motivation and success from their company and from those who work for them.

On Monday, I was delighted to visit the newly opened one-stop shop in Daisy Hill. The volunteers Chris Hill, Rosie Bea and Beverly Hill, run the charity shop, and advice and digital services for the local community, and Anne Marie Broadley, who helped set it up, was delighted that so many people have stopped by to say hello. Will my right hon. Friend offer them congratulations on their achievements, and next time he is popping by or passing by, will he pop in?

My hon. Friend said that people were popping in to say hello. May I encourage them to pop in and actually spend some money, because in a one-stop shop that is really what you need? Like our hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), who asked his question a moment ago, my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) offers a great tribute to the voluntary spirit of his constituency. I would be delighted to join him in congratulating Chris Hill, Rosie Bea, Beverly Hill and Anne Marie Broadley of the One Stop shop in Daisy Hill. These voluntary initiatives are how communities are made, how they come together and how they succeed, and, certainly, if I am in Bolton West, I shall stop in the One Stop shop.

Diolch, Mr Deputy Speaker. We all recognise that the pandemic has had a huge impact on young people, whose lives have been particularly disrupted, yet antisocial behaviour is on the rise and residents across Pontypridd and Taff-Ely are experiencing vandalism and disruption at an alarming rate. The simple truth is that the police and youth services do not have the resources to keep up. Will the Leader of the House therefore please commit to a debate in Government time to allow us to tackle antisocial behaviour at its root?

The key thing here is having police on the streets. It is remarkable how the presence of a police officer can stop antisocial behaviour early on and make people realise the problem caused by antisocial behaviour, which is sometimes just thoughtlessness, rather than criminality. It is important that there will be 20,000 extra police officers, of which 6,620 have so far been recruited, and that the police will have £15.8 billion of taxpayers’ money to help them to tackle this scourge. The hon. Lady is absolutely right that it is one of the most disagreeable aspects. It is the counter to what we were saying about community spirit. Antisocial behaviour causes disproportionate distress to people who are probably the most community-minded and it needs effective local policing to deal with it.

Global technology firms such as Google are not being held to account. A lack of regulation allows pension scammers to con millions of pounds out of people, and tech firms such as Google can also make millions of pounds from fake adverts that can ruin a business’s or an individual’s reputation. It is time to hold these multibillion-pound companies to account, so will my right hon. Friend agree to a debate in the House to tackle this very important subject, which could help to protect people’s money, livelihoods and their reputations?

Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend about the concerning growth and scale of online fraud. Online fraud can have a severe effect on individuals and businesses and on society more broadly. The Government work with law enforcement, industry and consumer groups to tackle online fraud. The Home Office, Her Majesty’s Treasury, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport are all working together to consider additional legislative and non-legislative solutions via a continuing programme of work. I would say, though, that not all of this is legislative. One thing that we should all always remember and should say to our constituents is that if they ever see anything online that is too good to be true, it is not true. That single piece of advice will save many of us from the illegal activities of scammers.

May I say to the Leader of the House that I hope that Members of all parties might be allowed to pay some tribute to my late colleague and friend Baroness Williams of Crosby? She was somebody who blazed a trail for women in politics in over five decades in public life in this country. She was blessed with a magic combination of both a fine political mind and genuine political warmth, which allowed her to reach out to people across the party divide and to people of no parties. I realised this for myself in 1983, when I heard her address an outdoor rally at a by-election in Darlington. There was a man behind me saying, “Hear, hear!”, and there was a lot of agreement coming from him. I turned around to see who this new convert to liberalism was, and it was, in fact, none other than Screaming Lord Sutch. I told Shirley that story some two decades later and it says a lot about her that she instinctively just loved the joke at her own expense. She will be enormously missed by people in all parties, but especially among the family of Liberal Democrats.

I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that tribute and I am grateful that he told me in advance that he would make it, because Shirley Williams was actually a great friend of my father. They knew each other from their Oxford days and Shirley got my father his first job. She wrote in an Oxford magazine that my father read the Financial Times every day at breakfast and the then editor of the Financial Times offered him a job, so my family has always been enormously grateful to Shirley for setting my father off in his journalistic career.

She was also, as the right hon. Gentleman says, one of the most charming people to meet: always kindly and thoughtful, and good to her friends. As somebody who was very much in favour of state education, she actually came to speak for me for a society I ran at Eton, which I think is symbolic of how kindly she was. When I last met her, she said to me that she was very glad she was my brother’s godmother, not mine, because had she been mine she might have had to disagree with me a little bit in public. Again, I thought that showed such kindliness and charm.

Above and beyond that, she was also a stunningly effective politician, a great Member of both the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats, and somebody this nation can be proud of for having produced a politician of such capability, such effectiveness, but also such kindliness.

Last night, there was yet another fire on the moors of the High Peak, on Tintwistle Low Moor. I pay tribute to Derbyshire Fire and Rescue Service, the Peak District Moorland Group and others for their efforts in fighting these fires, but it is very frustrating that they are forced to respond to so many fires usually caused by disposable barbecues. May we have a debate on preventing fires on our moorland and on the future of the laws on disposable barbecues? Can I urge the Government to do more to educate people on the countryside code, so that visitors to the Peak District know how to properly protect and respect our beautiful countryside?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. Wildfires obviously pose a great risk to our countryside. Natural England has published a refreshed countryside code to advise us all on visits to the countryside. Everyone should enjoy parks and open spaces as we come out of lockdown, and we should be encouraging people to look after our natural environments and the livelihoods of those who work there. The Government are launching a long-term countryside code campaign to increase awareness of the code through 2021 and beyond. I think that is the right approach: to encourage people to behave responsibly, to educate and to tell people about what is expected of them in the countryside. I am afraid to say I am always more cautious about banning things.

Nearly a year ago, I warned the Government that if they did not act on fire and rehire when it reared its ugly head with British Airways, many others would follow. Just yesterday, hundreds of British Gas engineers were sacked without redundancy pay because they refused to sign an inferior contract. My Fire and Rehire Bill (Employment (Dismissal and Re-employment) Bill is essentially now dead, but we are aware that the Government received the ACAS report two months ago. I wrote to the Secretary of State urging him to publish the report and make a statement. Had they done so and given assurances that action would be taken in the Employment Bill, perhaps that would have forced the hand of British Gas. Will the Leader of the House give his colleague in the Cabinet a bigger nudge and get him to take action please?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point, because I think it is in the interests of public companies to behave well to their employees. Bear in mind that their employees are also their customers for a big company like British Gas. The name of British Gas has now been traduced in this House on a number of occasions. People who pay attention to our proceedings may feel that they dislike the way British Gas is behaving and want to get their gas supplied by another firm. There are powers in markets as well as in government, but I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that the Government do take this really seriously. What my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State has said is what the Government mean and the report is quite rightly being carefully considered.

Will the Leader of the House join me in sending Sikhs in Wolverhampton best wishes for Vaisakhi and in thanking them for their efforts during the pandemic? Sikhs’ ongoing commitment to serve other people is always admirable, but during the pandemic it has been especially notable. We owe them a debt of thanks. Will he also welcome news that in September Wednesfield in my constituency will see the unveiling of a statue to honour the extraordinary bravery of 21 Sikh soldiers at Saragarhi in 1897?

Absolutely. I join my hon. Friend in wishing a happy Vaisakhi to the Sikh community. I join her in paying tribute to their generosity and the principle of service that we have seen from NHS workers and doctors, police officers, armed forces personnel and all key workers.

I also join my hon. Friend in celebrating the news that the memorial will be unveiled in Wednesfield in September. The Sikhs provided 20% of the British Indian Army in the first world war and were the most decorated community in the British empire, winning more Victoria Crosses per capita than any other. When I was the Conservative candidate in The Wrekin, the family of the first Sikh to win the Victoria Cross lived there, and I must confess that I was very proud to meet them and to have an association with them, now 20 years ago. We should be very grateful for the enormous contribution made to the United Kingdom by members of the Sikh community.

Last month’s update on compensation for victims of the contaminated blood scandal was welcome, but there is still no provision or scheme for bereaved parents such as the Smiths from Newport, who tragically lost their son Colin, aged just seven, after he was infected with blood from Arkansas prison. Can we have an opportunity to discuss compensation schemes and to impress on Cabinet Office Ministers the need to finally include and, crucially, acknowledge bereaved parents?

The hon. Lady raises a point of huge importance. This is something that the Government have an inquiry on, and that inquiry is continuing. The inquiry has not lost pace because of the pandemic; it has been holding remote hearings and will come to a conclusion. I understand that my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General will be having meetings with the all-party parliamentary group on haemophilia and contaminated blood, but also with the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson), to update people on what is happening and to give reassurance that this matter is taken deeply seriously. It was a terrible failing with appalling consequences for individuals and their families.

Given the decision by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government that local councils should cease meeting virtually from 7 May, will my right hon. Friend confirm whether there is a similar plan for this place? If that is not the case, perhaps we could re-extend that courtesy to the shires, noting that attendance at local council meetings has never been this good.

The House’s proceedings are determined by Standing Orders, and the facilities for virtual meetings were created by statute. This was not a decision by MHCL; it is that the temporary statute expires on 7 May. However, as I understand it, a High Court ruling is due before May on what capabilities there are, and the Government will be supporting the action by Hertfordshire County Council, Lawyers in Local Government and the Association of Democratic Services Officers as the case is heard.

Virtual proceedings have helped councils, but they are allowed to meet, because it is a legitimate business purpose. They have to take covid-secure measures, as we are taking in this House to ensure that this House operates. The Government are not unsympathetic to considering how these things operate in future, but the legislation that was temporarily introduced expires on 7 May. My hon. Friend will know that we have a Queen’s Speech coming, and we have a number of Bills going back and forth between the Lords and the Commons, so the ability to legislate between now and then is extremely limited.

Last week, one of my constituents visited a local park with her friend and their two young babies. They both began breastfeeding and before long saw a stranger taking photos of them with a telephoto lens. They confronted him, and the man refused to delete the photos, even when asked to do so by the park warden. They reported it to the police, who said there was nothing they could do, because it was a public place and taking photos is not illegal. It may not be illegal, but it is, as my constituent said, “disturbing and intrusive” and surely unacceptable. Could we have a statement from an appropriate Minister on how we might tackle a problem that left my constituent feeling

“violated and discouraged from breastfeeding outside the house”?

The hon. Gentleman raises a difficult issue of privacy in public spaces. It is not easy to legislate for every possible circumstance. People in public are obviously in public and it is hard to prevent from people seeing things that take place in public, but you would expect people, out of courtesy, not to photograph people doing things that are of their nature private in public.

I lead the Anglesey freeport bidding consortium, which includes Bangor University, Stena and my island council. Our bid is the only bid in north Wales and the only bid to include a university. Does the Leader of the House share my concern that the Welsh Labour Government dragging their heels over releasing the Welsh freeport bidding prospectus is delaying much-needed potential investment into my constituency and the whole of north Wales?

The problem with socialists is that they never want to level up; they always want to level down. They therefore always try to postpone economic opportunity because they wallow in economic failure. The freeport programme will be of great benefit to the whole of the United Kingdom, and it is exciting to see so many compelling bids being submitted by local business groups from across the whole of the United Kingdom. My right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Wales and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury have been emphatic in their support for establishing freeports in Wales. Her Majesty’s Government have discussed the issue with Ministers in Wales and with the many Welsh business groups that want take advantage of the opportunities that freeports bring, from tax benefits to greater freedom to innovate and build exciting, prosperous trading hubs throughout the whole country. The Government do not want to deprive the people of Wales of this opportunity, and we hope that the foot-dragging socialists will pull their feet out of the mud and get on with it.

The Australian Government have paid redress to my constituent, Christine Gow, for the institutional childhood sexual abuse crimes that she suffered, and she is going to use the money to pay for psychological counselling. In Australia, that redress is disregarded for benefit assessments, but here the Department for Work and Pensions states that she has to deposit the money in a trust fund, which involves lawyers and costs of up to £1,000. Can the Leader of the House help me to get the DWP to apply an exemption akin to what it does for money awarded under the British child migrant scheme?

The hon. Gentleman, as so often, raises important constituency issues that will have a wider effect for other people across the United Kingdom. I will certainly take this up with the DWP. His request sounds to be an eminently reasonable one. This is a compensation payment from a Government that would be treated differently if it were from Her Majesty’s Government in the UK rather than Her Majesty’s Government in Australia.

My right hon. Friend and I share an enormous respect and affection for the great King Alfred, who defeated the Vikings against all the odds. Does he agree that victory would never have been possible without a good deal of local support, and that the only way to provide local support is through a proper referendum in which the votes are counted, and not through a cheapskate survey to which anyone anywhere in the world can contribute? Somerset local government’s future should never be decided by the toss of a coin in a Minister’s office or, dare I say, by a dodgy consultation. What is the hurry? The people need to be heard first, and woe betide anyone who takes Somerset for granted and ignores its people’s verdict or their voice. Could we please have an urgent debate on this?

My hon. Friend is, of course, right to say that King Alfred pulled together the ealdormen of Somerset, Hampshire and Wiltshire to defeat Guthrum. It was a coming together and it was done from the Somerset levels, where he famously but probably apocryphally burned cakes as he was considering how he would deal with the problem. I know that the matter my hon. Friend raises is being carefully considered by my right hon Friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, who has excellent judgment and believes in our great county, which is one of the oldest counties in the country, with an unbroken historic tradition. What would concern me personally about any referendum is that it would deal with only a part of the county and not with the whole of the county, and it would therefore not necessarily be the coming together that my hon. Friend is talking about.

I want to acknowledge the incredible, inspirational Ian Gibson. He was such a mentor to me, from my days in Norwich to this day. He will be missed.

The reopening of the economy is something we all welcome, and at each stage we must be careful, including with its evaluation. However, to leap from this to mass gatherings at sporting event trials is deeply disturbing given the terms that are being proposed, not least at York racecourse. We have new variants of covid-19 creeping into our community. Will the Leader of the House take my concerns, of which I will write to him, to Cabinet colleagues, and will he arrange for an opportunity for us to debate this in the House and for all MPs impacted by these decisions to meet the Secretary of State and his officials to discuss our concerns?

The hon. Lady raises concerns that many Members have. There was an opportunity to debate them immediately before the recess, with the continuation of the Coronavirus Act 2020. There were Health questions earlier this week, and my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary has been assiduous in attending the House to give oral updates on the current situation. Obviously the Government want to see unlocking take place, and the road map has been set out, but if people have questions, they are entitled to raise them, and if they do not get answers directly, I will do whatever I can to facilitate answers.

I join others in offering my deepest sympathy to members of the royal family on their great loss and to the family and friends of Members past and present who have died recently.

Following the reopening of some businesses earlier this week, will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on support for the personal care sector? I have been contacted by a number of local establishments that are still being impacted by the pandemic and have not been offered sector-specific financial support, such as value added tax reductions. I hope that the personal care industry will be supported in its reopening.

My hon. Friend is right to raise the needs of the personal care sector, which is a very significant employer and provides great joy to many customers. I have never been more relieved to have a haircut than I was on Tuesday night, when finally the barber’s clippers went snip, snip, snip and a degree of respectability was restored. This week, shops, hairdressers, nail salons—I am a less regular visitor to nail salons, I must confess—outdoor attractions and pubs and restaurants outdoors can open once again, which is good news for those operating in those sectors.

At the Budget, the Chancellor announced new restart grants worth up to £18,000, which will help more than 680,000 eligible businesses, including those in the personal care sector, to get going again. On top of the grants that closed businesses have received since January, businesses could receive up to £36,000 in grants this year. To support those that are not eligible for these grants, taxpayers are giving councils in England an additional £425 million of discretionary business grant funding, on top of the £1.6 billion they have already received. Nobody could say that this amount of money is a snip.

Research from Unison has found that more than half of NHS workers are considering leaving their position in the next year, with one in 10 considering it very seriously. Additionally, Unison North West has raised the fact that many healthcare assistants are expected to carry out clinical duties that are above and beyond their pay grade, with many employed at band 2 while being trained to do band 3 work, which equates to them missing out on almost £2,000 per year. That is happening at Stepping Hill Hospital in Stockport borough, as well as right across Greater Manchester, and it will almost certainly be happening across the country. Will the Leader of the House allocate Government time to debate healthcare assistants’ pay rate and banding, and does he agree that this pay injustice needs to be rectified urgently?

I think I would rather give the good news on NHS staffing, because since last year, there are almost 50,500 more people working in the NHS, of whom 6,600 are doctors and almost 10,900 are nurses. Recruitment in the NHS is very important, and we will employ 50,000 more nurses and 6,000 more doctors in general practice by the end of this Parliament. That is the target for the Government to deliver, while ensuring that people want to work in the NHS, but the figures for the last year are very encouraging.

May I add my own tribute to Dame Cheryl Gillan? I knew her for 20 years and adored her, and she will be sadly missed.

The Leader of the House knows that I have raised the health of the River Wye and River Usk, which run through my constituency, a number of times. This week, “Panorama” exposed water companies dumping untreated sewage into rivers, and specifically into the River Usk. However, the Welsh Labour Government, supported by the Liberal Democrats, insist that farmers are to blame for the problem and have voted through a misguided nitrate vulnerable zone across the whole of Wales. That is grossly unfair on farmers in Brecon and Radnorshire, and the Minister responsible should withdraw the proposals until the allegations can be explored. Will the Leader of the House grant time for a debate in this House on river pollution so that we can get to the bottom of this scandal and ensure that farmers in Brecon and Radnorshire are not unfairly blamed for a problem they did not cause?

My hon. Friend, along with our hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie), points out the dangers of incompetent socialist Governments getting the wrong end of every stick that comes within their sight. I understand that the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, our hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), has had a meeting with my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Fay Jones) to discuss river pollution. The Government take this responsibility very seriously.

Water companies have a legal duty to avoid pollution and must act quickly to reduce any damage that happens as a result of their activities. The regulations are clear and are enforced robustly. Over the past six years, the Environment Agency has brought 48 prosecutions against water companies, securing fines of £35 million. The Environment Bill will also place a statutory requirement on water companies to produce drainage and sewerage management plans to help deliver more of the actions needed to address the risks that sewage assets may pose to the environment. Action is being taken, but my hon. Friend is right to stand up for farmers and stop sewage.

My constituent Tony McDowall travelled to Istanbul in September last year. In the early hours of the next morning, he called his mum in a state of some distress, telling her that he had been awoken from his sleep by two men attempting to break into his hotel room. A few hours later, Mrs McDowall was contacted by local police at her home in Arran to be told that her son was dead.

Mrs McDowall was the last person to speak to her son, and despite being advised by the British consulate that her son’s death is being investigated by the Turkish authorities, no one on the investigation team has made contact with her or updated her on the status of progress of the investigation into her son’s death. I urge the Leader of the House to please use his good offices to ensure that a representative from the UK Foreign Office contacts Mrs McDowall to assist her in finding out what happened to her 28-year-old son.

This is a very sad case, and one’s sympathies go to Mrs McDowall, who must feel very bereft, both at the death of her son and at the lack of information. I assure the hon. Lady that I will take this up with the Foreign Office immediately after this questions session has finished.

The balloons were inflated and the banners unfurled in anticipation and excitement that we would be able to see the Chancellor walking down Mold high street in his lunch hour to get a sausage roll from Hulsons bakery for his lunch. But there must have been some mistake—they have sent the Treasury to north-east England instead of north-east Wales. There must have been some typographical error along the way. Undeterred, the people of Delyn will not be denied. The local Jobcentre Plus team would be delighted to have a local Department for Work and Pensions office in north Wales, and I am sure the farmers of Delyn would be equally excited to be able to beat on the door of a local Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs outpost at their earliest convenience. What does my right hon. Friend advise is the best course of action to ensure that north-east Wales is not forgotten in this redistribution of Departments?

The difficulty is that I think it would be hard to satisfy all 650 Members of Parliament. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) is no longer in the Chamber, but the Shetlands islands outpost of HM Treasury may pose logistical difficulties.

It is a really important priority for the Government to ensure that Ministries move out of London so that we move away from this entirely London-centric approach to government. We need more variety in where businesses, Departments and Government business operations are placed to ensure that we reflect views across the whole of the country. I fear, however, that if people were to move to the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Rob Roberts), they would be so affected by the beauty of the area that they might find it difficult to concentrate on their work.

May we have a debate on the dangers to the taxpayer of incompetent capitalist government? Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre has pointed out that the Test and Trace system in England, which has been outsourced to private companies, cost twice as much as the system in Wales where local government has been used.

I had a very disturbing report from one of my constituents that he had received the test results of two children from England, despite the fact that he has lived in Cardiff for 35 years. When I contacted the Department of Health and Social Care, they told me that it was probably because the wrong mobile phone and email details had been entered, and that no process was in place to amend customer details. The Government have allocated £37 billion to cover the cost of the Test and Trace system over the next two years, and it cannot even amend incorrectly entered customer details!

The Leader of the House talked about the unacceptable face of capitalism earlier, about British Gas’s behaviour, but what about the incompetent face of capitalism?

I note that of the tests carried out in Wales, 64% have been provided by Her Majesty’s Government. Had we left it to the Welsh Government and the public sector in Wales, only 36% of tests would have been carried out. I think that shows the effectiveness of Her Majesty’s Government—the United Kingdom Government—at getting things done. What the hon. Gentleman is proposing is that things do not get done. I, for one, am in favour of action, not of dither and delay.

Despite the hard work of postmen and women, my constituents have had months of problems with Royal Mail deliveries, their letters, cards, magazines and appointments arriving late or not at all. Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate about how Royal Mail should give the service that our constituents deserve and are paying for?

Yes. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this issue, which has been raised with me before. I passed on the comments to the Royal Mail and had a full response from the Royal Mail sent to the Member who raised the issue previously.

It is worth pointing out that the Government are not involved in the day-to-day operations of the company and do not play a role in handling or resolving complaints regarding Royal Mail. However, the Royal Mail has contingency plans to mitigate disruption to postal services, which are overseen by Ofcom. Ofcom has recognised that the covid-19 pandemic is an emergency under its regulatory framework. It continues to monitor Royal Mail’s performance carefully. I will pass on my hon. Friend’s comments, in the hope that I receive as good a reply on his behalf as I received last time.

May we have a statement from the Leader of the House on the issue of inconsistency and its impact on the part of the Conservative party? In December 2019, his party had entered the general election campaign with a clear message of “Get Brexit Done”, and it won the election and was able to move forward with Brexit. If people go out and rightly cast both votes for the SNP on 6 May, why will his colleagues not accept that those people should get the independence referendum that the SNP is promising?

The hon. Gentleman knows that there was a referendum in 2014, which had a clear result. The leading lights of the separatist movement in Scotland—that is to say, Ms Sturgeon and Mr Salmond—both said that it was a generational issue. A generation has far from passed, and we are in the midst of a pandemic. We have a serious issue that we need to recover from.

The authority over a referendum is of course a reserved authority, and it is right that devolution should be allowed to work and to flourish. The results of elections to the Scottish Parliament are of fundamental importance, of course, but what the hon. Gentleman is saying is essentially a distraction from the business of dealing with the pandemic. It is irresponsible of the SNP to be saying it, rather than concentrating on getting over the pandemic and its consequences, from which this country is suffering.

With your indulgence, Mr Deputy Speaker, I would like to take a moment to pay tribute to Dame Cheryl Gillan and Baroness Shirley Williams. Both served with distinction for many years in this House, improving the lives of their constituents and providing thoughtful insight into numerous debates. Both were characterised by kindness and firmly rooted principles.

Provisional figures given to me by Revolut show that, in comparison with a pre-lockdown Monday, spending on Monday 12 April in Wakefield was at 98.5%. On the high street, the figure was at 136.4%, but for pubs, spending was watered down—although not the drink—and remains at only 43.9% of pre-pandemic levels. Inevitably, this has had an impact on a number of businesses in my seat, such as Ossett Brewery and Tigertops Brewery. Can my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House find Government time for a debate on support for businesses in this sector as we continue with the road map out of lockdown?

I am grateful, as always, to my hon. Friend. I am pleased to hear the good news from Wakefield on the return to a degree of normality, but I am sorry to hear that the pubs are only at 43.9% of pre-pandemic levels—my hon. Friend clearly has a lot of drinking to do to help get Wakefield back up to average.

There has been a good deal of Government support—taxpayer support: £5 billion for the new restart grants, which include pubs, and the business rates holiday, which includes pubs, and there is a total cost of cash grants to the taxpayer of £25 billion. Ultimately, though, this is up to all of us. If we want to save our pubs, we have to go into them. That does not mean that we have to drink yards of ale, though some may choose to, but we want to go in and have something to eat—I believe scotch eggs are popular in certain quarters—and to buy our children a Coca-cola or a lemonade.

We need to support our own pub industry if it is to survive, and we should lead by example. Perhaps, when times allow, we should have political functions in pub rooms—[Interruption.] The shadow Leader of the House wants to go on a pub crawl. Mr Deputy Speaker, I can think of no finer companion for her than you—you could take her round the finest pubs of both your constituencies and get Britain’s pubs back into liquidity.

I have been accused of many things over the past 29 years as a Member of Parliament, but not doing my bit to help the pub has not been one of them. I look forward to joining the right hon. Lady on visits to whatever hostelries she might wish to go to.

I thank the Leader of the House for making his statement and responding to 30 questions in over one hour.