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Prime Minister

Volume 695: debated on Wednesday 19 May 2021

The Prime Minister was asked—


Last week, an inquest found Francis Quinn, Father Hugh Mullan, Noel Phillips, Joan Connolly, Daniel Teggart, Joseph Murphy, Edward Doherty, John Laverty, Joseph Corr and John McKerr, who were killed in Ballymurphy in August 1971, entirely innocent. On behalf of successive Governments, and to put this on the record in this House, I would like to say sorry to their families for how the investigations were handled and for the pain they have endured since their campaign began almost five decades ago. No apology can lessen their lasting pain. I hope they may take some comfort in the answers they have secured and in knowing that this has renewed the Government’s determination to ensure in future that other families can find answers with less distress and delay.

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.

I strongly associate myself with the earlier part of the Prime Minister’ comments. May I raise something slightly different though? It is nearly four years since the Grenfell Tower tragedy claimed some 72 lives, yet hundreds of thousands of families still live in unsafe, unsellable homes, and many leaseholders face crippling debts, through no fault of their own—Trident Point, Pearmain House and Amber Court are all in my constituency. Given that this was the biggest building scandal in modern UK history, why did the Prime Minister order his MPs to vote down our efforts yesterday to get this scandal sorted once and for all?

I in no way underestimate the suffering of the victims of Grenfell or of those whose buildings—whose homes—have been prejudiced by the spectre of unsafe materials. That is why we have provided an unprecedented £5 billion of investment, and I can also tell the hon. Gentleman that the most dangerous cladding is already gone or is going from all high-rise buildings. We certainly agree that leaseholders should be protected from remediation costs, and people in high-rise buildings will pay nothing to replace their unsafe cladding.

The Prime Minister will understand that Havering, just like Hillingdon, is located on the outskirts of London and has very different needs and aspirations from those in the core area of the city. My borough still prides itself on being part of Essex, as I know his prides itself on being part of historic Middlesex. Although we need co-operation on things such as transport, will he accept that it is time for wholesale reform of the way London and the wider region are governed? Will he support my campaign to allow boroughs such as Havering to take back control from the Mayor and City Hall interference? This would allow Havering, and indeed all outer London boroughs, the freedom to make their own decisions that best meet the needs of local people. (900362)

I can understand the feelings of frustration that the people of Havering may have about a current Mayor of London who does not understand the needs of outer London and is not investing in outer London in the way that a previous Mayor did—I seem to recall that they set up the outer London fund and drove through many other benefits for the outer boroughs. However, I must tell my hon. Friend in all candour that what we need to do is work together to ensure that that glad day returns when we have a Mayor who truly represents all Londoners.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s comments on the Ballymurphy inquest and the sentiment behind them.

Does the Prime Minister agree that the single biggest threat to hitting the 21 June date for unlocking is the risk of new variants coming into the UK?

I certainly think that that is one of the issues that we must face, but perhaps it would be of benefit to the House if I update it on where we are, because we have looked at the data again this morning. I can tell the House that we have increasing confidence that vaccines are effective against all variants, including the Indian variant. In this context, I want particularly to thank the people of Bolton, Blackburn and many other places who have been coming forward in record numbers to get vaccinated—to get their first and second jabs. I think that the numbers have doubled in Bolton alone, and the people of this country can be proud of their participation.

I think that is a yes: that the risk of other variants coming through our borders is one of the biggest threats to unlocking. We are not just talking about the Indian variant; we are talking about future variants. In those circumstances, why on Monday did the Prime Minister choose to weaken travel restrictions by moving 170 countries or territories to the amber list?

We have one of the strongest border regimes anywhere in the world. There are currently 43 countries on the red list. Everybody should know that if they travel to an amber list country for any emergency or any extreme reason that they have for doing so, when they come back they have not only to pay for all the tests, but to self-isolate for 10 days. We will invigilate that; we are invigilating that. People who fail to obey the quarantine can face fines of up to £10,000.

I think everybody would agree that, having moved 170 countries to the amber list, absolute clarity is needed about the circumstances in which people can travel to an amber country. Yesterday morning, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said that people could fly to amber list countries if they wanted to visit family or friends. By the afternoon, a Health Minister said that nobody should travel outside Britain this year, and that, “Travelling is dangerous.” The Prime Minister said that travel to amber countries should be only where it is essential. By the evening, the Welsh Secretary suggested that

“some people might think a holiday is essential”.

The Government have lost control of the messaging. Can the Prime Minister answer a really simple question that goes to the heart of this? If he does not want people to travel to amber list countries, if that is his position, why has he made it easier for them to do so?

I think that, after more than a year of this, the right hon. and learned Gentleman will understand that what the public would like to see is some effort to back up what the Government are saying to deliver clarity of message. On his point about legal bans, as he knows, we are trying to move away from endlessly legislating on everything and to rely on guidance and asking people to do the right thing. It is very, very clear, Mr Speaker: you should not be going to an amber list country except for some extreme circumstance, such as the serious illness of a family member. You should not be going to an amber list country on holiday. I can imagine that the right hon. and learned Gentleman wants to take a holiday, but he should not be going to an amber list country on holiday. If people do go to an amber list country then, as I say, we will enforce the 10-day quarantine period. If they break the rules, they face very substantial fines.

That completely swerves the question. The point was that, if it is only in “extreme circumstances” —the Prime Minister’s words—why make it easier to go? Let us test it by looking at the consequences. Since the Government loosened travel restrictions, 150 flights a day are going to amber list countries and travel agents are reporting surges in holiday bookings to those countries. Prime Minister, this is not just a coincidence; it is because of the messaging. Can he tell the House how many people are now travelling to and from Britain from amber list countries every day?

I can tell the House that there has been a 95% reduction in travel of any kind to and from this country, and that is exactly what we would expect in the circumstances of this pandemic. There are 43 countries on the red list, and if people come back from one of those countries, they have to go immediately into hotel quarantine. The reason we are able to move forward in the way that we have been is because, as I have told the House repeatedly, we are continuing with the fastest vaccination roll-out, I think, just about anywhere in Europe. As of today, 70% of adults in this country have been vaccinated. That is a fantastic achievement, which is enabling us to make the progress that we are.

I think that’s an “I don’t know”. The suggestion that in the last few days there has been a 95% drop-off in travel to amber list countries does not hold water. I am trying to understand the logic of the Government’s position. We know that new variants are the single biggest risk to unlocking. We know that the Government do not think that people should travel to amber list countries, save for in extreme circumstances, but the Government have made it easier to do so. The messaging is confused and contradictory. As a result, this week many people are now travelling to amber list countries, but the Government cannot say how many or when. We are an island nation; we have the power to stop this. Why does the Prime Minister not drop this hopeless system, get control of our borders and introduce a proper system that can protect against the threat of future variants of the virus?

Actually, I think what would be helpful—I have set out the position on amber list countries very clearly at least twice; wouldn’t it be great to hear the right hon. and learned Gentleman backing it up for a change and using what authority he possesses to convey the message to the rest of the country? The Labour position on borders is hopelessly confused. Last night, I think, the shadow Home Secretary said that Labour wanted to cut this country off from the rest of the world—to pause all travel, even though 75% of our medicines and 50% of our food actually come from abroad. It was only recently that the Leader of the Opposition was saying that quarantine was a “blunt instrument” and he would rather see alternatives.

The Prime Minister is just wrong again; we have called for a blanket hotel quarantine for months. I have raised it here at Prime Minister’s questions three times. The Government ignored it every time and look where we are now, talking about the Indian variant.

The Prime Minister’s former adviser had this one right. He said that the Government’s border policy was a “joke”. Our borders have been wide open pretty well throughout the pandemic. [Interruption.] For those who say that is not true, there was no hotel quarantine system in place until February this year. Flights are still coming in from India, and even as the variant is spreading the Prime Minister decides that now is the time to weaken the system even more. It is ridiculous.

Finally, I want to raise the appalling rise in antisemitism in the last week, and the attacks and violence that we have seen. On Saturday, a rabbi in Chigwell was hospitalised after being attacked outside his synagogue. Many of us will have seen the appalling incident in Golders Green. The Community Security Trust reports a 500% rise in antisemitic incidents since the outbreak of violence in Gaza and Israel. I know that the Government are working on this, and both the Prime Minister and I have condemned these antisemitic attacks and violence, but across this House we all know that Jewish communities remain very anxious. What more does the Prime Minister think can be done to provide the extra support and protection needed to reassure Jewish communities at this really very difficult time?

I share the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s horror at the outbreak of antisemitic incidents. The Government have conveyed that message loud and clear to those who are responsible for enforcing the law against hate crime of that kind. Obviously, we will continue to work and support the Jewish community in any way that we can, particularly by working with the Community Safety Trust, which does an absolutely outstanding job, but also by showing, as a country and as a society, that we will call this out at every stage. We will not let it take root; we will not allow it to grow and fester. In welcoming his remarks, I may say that I believe it is one of the most important changes of attitude —or U-turns, I should say—that I have seen from the Labour party in recent times. I am delighted that he is taking that attitude now. But what this country wants to see is a Government who get on with delivering on the people’s priorities, making everybody safe. It might have been a good thing if he had voted—and got his party to vote—for tougher sentences against serious and violent sexual offenders, to say nothing of people who commit hate crime.

I think in fairness this House is very united and will remain united, and of course we do support the CST.

My second AstraZeneca jab reinforced my confidence not only in normal life resuming but in the future of our life sciences industry. In Cheadle and across south Manchester and the Cheshire life sciences corridor, investment in R&D and innovation will bring high-skilled, well-paid jobs. Will the Prime Minister join me in recognising and endorsing the work of our northern universities, NHS trusts and life sciences sector, who, together with the Northern Health Science Alliance, are piloting health tech initiatives that will take us forward from jabs to jobs? (900363)

Yes, and I thank my hon. Friend, who is a great advocate for the people of Cheadle. As part of our plan to move from jabs, jabs, jabs to jobs, jobs, jobs, I am delighted to say that over £1 billion-worth of Government-funded science and innovation projects are currently taking place across the north-west, thanks largely, or at least in part, to her advocacy.

May I thank the Prime Minister for his comments on the Ballymurphy inquest?

As a member of Scotland’s crofter community, I understand just how disastrous a Brexit trade deal with Australia, as proposed by this Tory Government, would be for Scotland’s farming and crofting sectors. If reports of this Tory deal were true, farmers will lose their livelihoods, rural businesses will collapse, and ultimately families will be driven off the land. Let us be very clear: if that happens, this UK Tory Government will be solely responsible. Just for once, will the Prime Minister give a straight answer to the farming and crofting families who are living with this threat? Can he categorically rule out his Government being prepared to sign up to a trade deal that will at any future point guarantee tariff-free access to Australian lamb and beef—yes or no?

I am delighted to see the shots of the right hon. Gentleman’s croft, by the way—the humble representative of the crofting community. I do not think that he does justice to crofters and to farmers across the country, and in Scotland as well, because he grossly underestimates their ability to do great things with our free trade deals and to export Scottish beef around the world. Why does he not believe in what the people of Scotland can do? Why is he so frightened of free trade? I think it is a massive opportunity for Scotland and for the whole of the UK, and he should seize it and be proud of it.

That was quite chilling. To try to treat something as serious as this in the way that the Government and the Prime Minister have done is really quite pathetic. The fact that the Prime Minister could not give a straight answer will send a real chill across Scotland’s farming communities. The UK Government led the betrayal of Scottish fishing and now the Tories are planning to throw our farmers and crofters under the Brexit bus. This morning Martin Kennedy, president of National Farmers Union Scotland, told ITV that farmers will feel “seriously betrayed” by these proposals. This deal would be the final nail in the coffin for many Scottish crofters and farmers. It will end a way of life that has endured for generations—generations, Prime Minister. I know that many of the Prime Minister’s Tory colleagues privately agree with me and want him to pull back from this deal. Will the Prime Minister finally listen, think again, and ditch a deal that will send our farmers down under?

First, the right hon. Gentleman is totally wrong in what he says about the fisheries. In fact, there are massive opportunities for fisheries in the whole of the UK as we take back control of our territorial waters. That will be the same for Scotland and around the UK. Again he is grossly underestimating the ability of the people of this country, the agricultural communities of this country and the farming industry to make the most of free trade. This is a country that became successful and grew prosperous on free trade and exporting around the world. Our food exports are second to none. He should be proud of that and he should be celebrating that. All he does is call for us to pull up the drawbridge and go back into the EU to be run by Brussels. That is his manifesto, and I think the people of this country have decisively rejected it.

North Staffordshire YMCA in my constituency undertakes fantastic work transforming the lives of young people locally in the Stoke-on-Trent community, and I am delighted that it has been recognised for its work through the Queen’s awards for enterprise. There is no better example of levelling up in action, and I invite the Prime Minister to join me in congratulating all the staff, volunteers and partners of the YMCA in north Staffordshire. I look forward to showing him levelling up in action when he next visits Stoke-on-Trent, the new second home of the Home Office. (900366)

I thank my hon. Friend very much, and she is totally right. It is part of our levelling up. We are absolutely determined to do that as fast as we possibly can, and I thank her for her message about it this morning. We are not just sending back offices; some of the most important Departments of State will be run from around our great cities and towns in the whole of the UK. I believe that will have a dramatic effect on levelling up across the UK, and I thank her for her question.

Local planning reforms introduced by Liberal Democrat Ministers have seen communities across England vote for new developments, including new housing, new affordable housing and new community facilities, while also protecting the environment and the countryside. Why therefore is the Prime Minister so determined to push through his planning reforms, which will do nothing to solve the country’s real housing crisis and will allow developers to ride roughshod over local communities? The reforms will mean, in the words of his immediate predecessor as Prime Minister,

“the wrong homes being built in the wrong places.”—[Official Report, 11 May 2021; Vol. 695, c. 39.]

The right hon. Gentleman is completely wrong, and he should look at the Bill when it comes forward, because we want to protect the green belt. We want to protect our wonderful open spaces. This is a Government who understand the value of the countryside and rural Britain, but we also think that young people have been deprived for too long of the ability to get on to the housing ladder. That is not just in the south-east, but across the country, and that is why we are bringing forward sensible reforms to allow brownfield sites to go ahead.

Two weeks ago, in giving the Scottish Conservatives their highest ever number of votes in the era of devolution, the Scottish people decided that Scotland would remain at the heart of this newly reinvigorated global Britain. With that in mind, will the Prime Minister accept my invitation to Stonehaven in my constituency to come and plant one of the 120 cherry blossom trees donated by the Sakura Cherry Tree Project to celebrate the deep and growing links between our country and that other great trading nation, Japan? (900367)

I think that such a gesture would be the cherry on the cake of the free trade deal that we have already done.

In 2019, before visiting Wales, the Prime Minister said: “I will always back Britain’s great farmers”. Now it looks as if he is backing Australia’s farmers instead, so will he keep to his word, clearly back Welsh farmers and permanently rule out tariff-free access for Australian lamb and beef imports? (900361)

I will back Britain’s farmers and Welsh farmers in exporting their fantastic lamb around the world. Is it not a disgrace that not a single morsel of Welsh lamb has passed the lips of the Americans in the past 20 years or more? What about China? Has the hon. Gentleman no ambition for the people of this country, the people of Wales or Welsh farmers? I do, and this Government do, and that is why we are getting on with our agenda.

Does the Prime Minister, or Prif Weinidog, agree that a freeport on Anglesey will create much-needed skilled jobs and investment, protect our precious Welsh language and culture, and breathe fire into the nostrils of the Welsh dragon? Will the Prime Minister accept an invitation on behalf of the people of Ynys Môn to join me on a tour of the island to include a panad at the truck stop café in Holyhead? (900368)

It says here that I must not express a preference on the location of freeports, and I will not, but my hon. Friend makes an outstanding case, as ever. Together with our Welsh Conservative colleagues, she is helping to apply the Vicks inhaler to the bunged-up nostrils of the Welsh dragon.

Despite the opprobrium that the Prime Minister always seems to seek to heap upon the Scottish National party, at the Scottish elections two weeks ago, the SNP was returned to government with twice the number of MSPs as its nearest rivals, the Scottish Conservatives, securing 48% of the vote and 49% of the seats in the proportional system, with 51% of voters backing parties that support an independence referendum in the current term. If the Prime Minister genuinely believes that his criticisms of the Scottish Government have any merit whatsoever, why does he consider that the Scottish National party did so well in those elections, while his own party did so badly? (900364)

I totally reject what the hon. Gentleman just said. I notice that, actually, the Scottish National party did less well than it did under Alex Salmond in 2011—I hesitate to point that out to the hon. Gentleman, but that is the reality. I think the reason for that is that, notwithstanding the nationalist approach that he takes, the people of Scotland have been very disappointed by the record of the Scottish Government in fighting crime, improving education and making Scotland a great place to live and to invest. That is the failing for which his Government are being held to account.

A large part of Salisbury plain falls in my constituency, and I therefore have the honour to represent a lot of serving soldiers and veterans and their families. My right hon. Friend will understand that feelings are running high in Wiltshire about the treatment of British Army veterans of the conflict in Northern Ireland. Can he assure me that legislation will be brought forward in this Session to protect veterans from further prosecutions or investigations unless compelling new evidence is brought forward? (900369)

The House will have understood from my opening apology how difficult, how complex and how fraught these issues are, but we are committed to introducing legislation in this Session to address the legacy of the troubles in Northern Ireland, to introducing a fair package for veterans and to protecting them, as I have said many times before, from unfair, vexatious litigation when no new evidence has been brought forward.

There were no new measures in the Queen’s Speech to tackle youth unemployment. There are over 500,000 unemployed young people in this country, yet the Government’s flagship youth unemployment scheme is nowhere near sufficient, only helping around one in 25 young people. My hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) and I have already requested a meeting with the Minister to discuss local concerns from training providers and businesses. What exactly will the Prime Minister do to address that and to safeguard the future of a generation of young people in this country? (900365)

We are putting £2 billion into the kickstart programme for 18 to 24-year-olds and investing massively in the restart programme for those who have been longer out of work. I can also tell the hon. Gentleman that the businesses I talk to are currently facing shortages of workers in many sectors, and we will work flat out to ensure that we get those who want jobs to those who need workers.

I thank the Prime Minister for the support he has already shown for coming forward with an offshore transmission grid, which he knows will help us to both export our surplus offshore wind to the continent and reduce the infrastructure associated with new wind farm capacity. It is very important to our communities, but there is a question over timing. Given that he has already set out an ambitious and clear timetable for increasing offshore wind generation, will he now come out with an equally ambitious timetable for delivering an offshore grid? (900372)

My hon. Friend is spot on in what he says about the need for an offshore grid. As well as building the fantastic windmills, it is vital that we bring the energy onshore in a way that has minimal disruption for local communities and enables us to maximise efficiency.

What does the Prime Minister think when he hears Jenny McGee, the nurse who saved his life, say of NHS staff,“We’re not getting the respect and now pay that we deserve. I’m just sick of it. So I’ve handed in my resignation”?Surely even he must pause and think about what can be learned from the mistakes of the past year—what Jenny calls the “indecisiveness” and “mixed messages” of his Government. Will he think again about giving nurses more than an insulting 1% pay rise? (900370)

I think the whole House acknowledges our collective debt to the nurses of the NHS, and I certainly acknowledge my own huge personal debt. That is why, of all the professions in this country in very tough times, we have asked the public sector pay review board to look at an increase in pay for nurses, but in the meantime we have increased starting salary for nurses by 12.8%, and we have put in the bursary worth £5,000—we have restored that—as well as £3,000 for extra help.

But above all, to all nurses—and I know what a tough year they have had, I know how hard it has been on the frontline coping with this pandemic—we have done what I think is the most important thing of all, and that is to recruit many more nurses. There are now about 11,000 more nurses in the NHS today than there were this time last year, and there are 60,000 more in training, and we are on target to reach our target of 50,000 more nurses in the NHS.

Following on from that theme, patients in England have unfettered access to specialist hospital care anywhere in England, including within world-leading centres of excellence, but my constituents in north Wales have no such automatic choice, with access dependent on restrictive contracts or individual funding requests. So will my right hon. Friend do all he can to ensure that healthcare features prominently within the UK levelling-up agenda? (900373)

Yes. I thank my hon. Friend for his point, and he knows a great deal about the subject. We have worked very hard with the Welsh Government throughout the pandemic, supporting them with £8.6 billion of additional funding through the Barnett formula, but clearly we need to learn the lessons together as we bounce forward from this pandemic.

It is now 664 days since the Prime Minister said he had a plan for social care, but the Department of Health and Social Care is advertising at the moment for social care policy advisers to “develop proposals for reform.” Why do that if there is a plan already? Every day, more people lose their life savings to pay huge social care costs, and we cannot even get a straight answer as to whether the Government have a plan to fix social care, never mind find out what it actually is, so just tell us, Prime Minister: do you have a plan—yes or no? (900371)

Yes is the answer, but the Labour party junked it in—[Interruption.] This is something that, for decades, politicians have failed to address: in 1999, Labour failed to address the plan. They had 13 years—13 years—in government. I think it was 13—13 unlucky years for this country—and they did not do it. They did not do it, and this Government are going to tackle it. This Government are finally going to address the issue of social care. If they want to support it with their customary doughty resolve, if they want to support it without wibble-wobbling from one week to the next on whatever their policy is—without changing like weather vanes, which is what they normally do—if they want to support it and if they want to back it, then I am all ears.

Throughout this week, businesses across Burnley and Padiham have reopened their doors to customers inside—from Usha and Molly Rigby’s to Bellissimo and Reel Cinema. Would the Prime Minister join me in wishing them all the best of luck as they get back on their feet, and does he agree with me that if we are to support local businesses in the long term, we need to create the environment and the opportunities they need to succeed, and that includes schemes such as the levelling-up fund and the lifetime skills guarantee? (900374)

Yes. That is why we are investing, for instance, £3.6 million from the getting building fund for the development of Pioneer Place, and Burnley will also benefit from our high streets taskforce, but what Burnley and towns across the country need more than anything else is passionate leadership, such as my hon. Friend shows, in championing their localities and getting the right investment in.

The Prime Minister will be aware of Pladis’s proposal to close the McVitie’s factory in Glasgow’s east end, placing at risk 470 jobs. So will he join me in engaging with Pladis’s global CEO, Salman Amin, and call upon him to rethink his plans, which would definitely unleash economic armageddon on a very fragile part of the local economy?

McVitie’s has been a proud part of the Scottish economy since 1800, and I know that people at the Tollcross factory and their relatives will be very concerned about what is happening. I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising it. I know that conversations are now going on to see what we can do. I think it is the Turkish company that now owns McVitie’s, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland is meeting the hon. Gentleman to discuss the situation.

I am now suspending the House for three minutes to allow the necessary arrangements for the next business.

Sitting suspended.