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Commons Chamber

Volume 696: debated on Tuesday 25 May 2021

House of Commons

Tuesday 25 May 2021

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Orders, 4 June and 30 December 2020).

[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]

Business before Questions

Committee of Selection

Ordered,

That Sir Alan Campbell and Owen Thompson be discharged from the Committee of Selection and Chris Elmore and Richard Thomson be nominated.—(Michael Tomlinson.)

Sessional Returns

Ordered,

That there be laid before this House Returns for Session 2019-21 of information and statistics relating to:

(1) Business of the House;

(2) Closure of Debate, Proposal of Question and Allocation of Time (including Programme Motions);

(3) Sittings of the House;

(4) Private Bills and Private Business;

(5) Public Bills;

(6) Delegated Legislation and Legislative Reform Orders;

(7) European Legislation, etc;

(8) Grand Committees;

(9) Panel of Chairs;

(10) Select Committees.—(The Chairman of Ways and Means.)

Oral Answers to Questions

Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

The Secretary of State was asked—

Local Electricity Generation

We are providing support for the delivery of renewable energy projects within rural communities in England through the £10 million rural community energy fund programme.

I thank the Minister for that response. Does he agree that the production of electricity locally could help a great deal towards our net zero target? Will he also look at the situation in my constituency of Tewkesbury, where two rivers, the Avon and the Severn, join? The Severn would, I think, be particularly useful in producing electricity if we could get the schemes in place. Will he look at that and perhaps explore the possibilities?

My hon. Friend correctly observes that there are two major rivers in Tewkesbury, the Avon and the Severn—very beautiful rivers, I might add. As far as hydroelectric power on rivers is concerned, we would have to look at the hydraulics and the power that can be generated, but we clearly appreciate that there is potential there, and we want to explore any ideas that can bring those projects to fruition. Having said that, there is a limit to the capacity that such rivers can generate, unfortunately.

Just last week, the Secretary of State accepted that the inexcusable costs facing Scottish renewables projects trying to access the electricity grid had been an issue for a long time, notwithstanding the 11 years that his party has been in government. The Government continue to blame Ofgem while at the same time refusing to accept that they are the ones who set Ofgem’s strategy and policy statement. On that point, can the Secretary of State outline when the consultation detailed in his energy White Paper will begin, when it will end and when we will see real change—or are UK Energy Ministers simply among the worst idlers in the world?

The hon. Gentleman makes a pointed and unfair observation at the end of his remarks, which I think is beneath his dignity. I know that he is referring to “Britannia Unchained”, a classic work published 10 years ago, but 10 years is a very long time and I do not want to revisit those battles. I will say what I have said to him before: this is an issue for Ofgem and we are discussing how to seek to make progress on that important subject.

Levelling-up Agenda

We have made a commitment to level up all areas of the country. The plan for growth is a critical part of that, and we will go further with the publication of a levelling-up White Paper, led ably by my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Neil O’Brien), later this year.

I fully welcome the Prime Minister’s 10-point plan for a green industrial revolution as we build back greener. Green eco-businesses in my Colne Valley constituency are ready to play their part, so can I please suggest to the Secretary of State that if the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy or any other Government Department is looking to relocate to the north, towns such as Slaithwaite and Marsden, with their mills and their direct rail links to the likes of Manchester and Leeds on the trans-Pennine line, would be ideal locations?

As my hon. Friend will appreciate, we are looking at many ideal locations at the moment. I was pleased to make an announcement last week about Darlington; that is a really good move for the Department. We are always looking at ways to create more employment and recruit really great talent for our Department across the country, and I am sure that his constituency will also—perhaps—be among those considered for such expansion.

My constituents are very proud of the north of England and the midlands, even though we are in East Anglia, but they want a firm commitment from the Government—it cannot be stressed enough—that the levelling-up agenda also covers Ipswich. Of course, we have the £25 million from the town deal, which goes some way to assuaging these concerns. However, does my right hon. Friend agree that the skills improvement plan pilot bid from Norfolk and Suffolk could be a fantastic example to prove to the people of Ipswich that we are in fact at the heart of the levelling-up agenda? Will he engage in discussions with the Department for Education about the possibility of that pilot scheme, which would also feed the new freeport east in Felixstowe, which already employs 6,000 of my constituents but could employ many more?

My hon. Friend is quite right. He was good enough to mention the fact that Ipswich has indeed been selected for a £25 million town deal, and he suggested that that was as a matter of course, but I think it is due to his keen advocacy and his eloquent and persuasive powers that the Government can provide help in that way. Clearly, skills are at the core of any levelling-up agenda, and I know that there are great ideas in Ipswich and great things being promoted in East Anglia. I look forward to engaging with him on that.

Fire and Rehire: ACAS Report

When his Department plans to publish the ACAS report on fire and rehire and the Government’s response to that report. (900507)

When his Department plans to publish the ACAS report on fire and rehire and the Government’s response to that report. (900513)

When his Department plans to publish the ACAS report on fire and rehire and the Government’s response to that report. (900515)

When his Department plans to publish the ACAS report on fire and rehire and the Government’s response to that report. (900528)

The Department engaged with ACAS to hold discussions in order to generate evidence about the use of fire and rehire. ACAS officials have shared their findings with BEIS officials. It is right and proper that we give this evidence full consideration, and we will communicate our next steps in due course.

Mr Speaker, I am sure you will join me in welcoming the return of the Bradford Bulls to their iconic home of Odsal Stadium in Bradford.

A recent Survation poll found that 76% of those asked said that they think fire and rehire should be against the law. The Prime Minister has said that fire and rehire is “unacceptable”. The time to act is now. With no mention of it in the Queen’s Speech, when will the Minister legislate to make this practice illegal?

I congratulate the Bradford Bulls on their return.

We have always been clear that using the threats of fire and rehire as a tactic to put undue pressure on workers during negotiations is completely unacceptable, but we need to tread carefully when considering Government intervention in commercial contractual matters between employers and employees. That is why we are now carefully considering, with the evidence, our next steps.

May I first congratulate members of my union, Unite, at Go North West buses in Manchester who, after an incredible 85 days of continuous strike action, have now won a landmark victory against appalling fire and rehire abuses? My question to the Minister is straightforward: does he condemn rogue bosses such as Go North West or coffee producers Jacobs Douwe Egberts, which, despite record profits during lockdown, has provoked strike action by firing and rehiring more than 300 loyal staff on worse pay and conditions? Will the Minister wake up, smell the coffee and agree that this disgraceful behaviour leaves a bitter taste in the mouth?

I see what the hon. Gentleman has done there. His coffee-based puns belie the fact that this is an incredibly serious situation. As I was saying, if those companies or any others are using such a practice for bully-boy tactics, that is completely unacceptable. We need to look at the evidence before we intervene on the flexibility of the workforce, but clearly we do not want bully-boy tactics to be used for negotiations.

Thousands of workers at British Airways and Heathrow, including many of my constituents, have been at the sharp end of fire and rehire tactics during the covid outbreak. Across the country, one in 10 workers have been subject to such tactics since last March—that is almost 3 million people who have been forced to accept lower wages and longer hours or be sacked. How many more millions of workers will the Minister allow to be fired and rehired before the Government decide to outlaw the practice?

There is a distinct difference if the practice is used as a negotiation tactic: as I have said, if it is being used as a bully-boy tactic, that is completely unacceptable. However, there is an element of flexibility in our labour market, which we need to base on evidence. That is what the ACAS report is there to do. We are considering the evidence, and I am looking forward to coming back to this place to outline our actions in due course.

Fire and rehire is illegal in countries such as Germany and Spain. In 2019, the Government promised an employment Bill to make Britain the best place in the world to work, which could have outlawed the practice, but the Bill has been ditched. Given that the Government have looked the other way as fire and rehire has become endemic, can the Minister seriously claim to be committed to making Britain the best place in the world to work?

There is a huge difference between our employment law and that of Germany and Spain, in so much as theirs is very much more rigid—it lacks flexibility and that is reflected in the job figures and the job growth we have had in this country. The Government remain committed to bringing forward the employment Bill, where parliamentary time allows. We want to protect and enhance workers’ rights as we build back better from the pandemic.

Fire and rehire has been used against supermarket staff who worked through lockdown to keep our country running, and the practice has now spread into schools, with teachers being threatened with the sack unless they agree to worse terms and conditions. Does the Minister agree that it is completely unacceptable that our key workers, who have sacrificed the most in our national effort against covid, are the very people now being threatened by these bully-boy fire and rehire tactics?

I have said repeatedly that bully-boy tactics are absolutely unacceptable, but if it is a matter of a choice over protecting jobs in the first place, that is the flexibility that we need to check, based on the evidence, and ACAS has gone a long way to providing that evidence.

Why is it that fire and rehire has spread like wildfire across our country? Trade unions are shackled to prevent them from defending their members; employers have free rein to terminate workers’ contracts; and protections for workers are woefully weak. Opposition Members know how to outlaw fire and rehire, and I am more than happy to meet the Minister and show him how, but is not the truth that this Government are content with millions of workers being bullied into accepting low wages and worse terms and conditions or facing the sack, because it is in the Tories’ DNA to side with bad employers rather than to protect working people?

It is in the Tories’ DNA to create jobs and opportunities. After the previous recession, we were creating more jobs than the whole of Europe put together, and we will continue to do so as we build back better after this pandemic. ACAS has provided the evidence for us to consider; we are doing that in due course, and I look forward to coming back to this place. The TUC reported back in January on a survey of its members, but it has not shared its methodology; we cannot use that as substantial evidence unless the TUC shares that with us.

Hydrogen Economy

The second point of the 10-point plan was all about hydrogen. The forthcoming hydrogen strategy will set out clearly what we hope to see and are committed to seeing for the hydrogen economy in 2030.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Will he go a little further and explain how, and commit that the strategy will actually deliver specific jobs in Northern Ireland, as well as in the rest of the United Kingdom? Will he continue to agree to meet me and other parliamentary colleagues to ensure that Northern Ireland gets a fair share of the hydrogen strategy as it is rolled out? As he knows, this is so important to the future economy of Northern Ireland.

I will certainly continue to agree to meet the hon. Gentleman at any time. There are very important hydrogen projects in Northern Ireland. I speak to Mr Bamford and others, particularly in relation to Wrightbus, which I understand is in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. There is a huge opportunity, and I would be happy to meet him and others to discuss the prospects at any time.

Covid-19: Business Support

What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on increasing support to businesses affected by the covid-19 outbreak. (900509)

What discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on increasing support to businesses affected by the covid-19 outbreak. (900524)

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer presented to Parliament the Budget, which sets out an additional £65 billion to support people and businesses. We have hit every road map commitment at every stage so far, and no one can doubt that we are leading in our support to businesses. We have even taken the total cumulative cost of support to £352 billion.

ExcludedUK is set to reach its first birthday soon, which must be a bittersweet moment for many of my constituents. It is frankly a disgrace that the campaign has had to continue in the face of the Government rejecting the calls to support the 3 million who have been ignored and denied covid support. Does the Minister not agree that the self-employed and others denied support now deserve to have funds backdated so that they can rescue their livelihoods and contribute to the economic recovery, rather than simply adding to online dole queues?

Throughout the covid-19 pandemic the Government have supported people and businesses across the whole of the United Kingdom. The Budget extends the UK job retention and self-employment income support schemes and the VAT cut to support the tourism, leisure and hospitality sectors. To date, businesses in Midlothian have benefited from more than 1,500 loans and £56 million, with more than 16,000 jobs supported through furlough.

I recently introduced a ten-minute rule Bill on making mental health, or psychological, first aid a legislative requirement for workplace first aid, going beyond its recent positive inclusion in Health and Safety Executive guidelines. Will my hon. Friend please meet me to explore my proposals, which make a very small change to make a very big difference?

I know how passionate my hon. Friend is about mental health and this campaign. I myself am dedicated to supporting campaigning and advocating for mental health, and I care passionately about mental health in the workplace. Indeed, we are working on a people and culture strategy for research and development. We will ensure that my hon. Friend has the opportunity to discuss the matter further with relevant Ministers.

The Chancellor has announced that the job retention scheme must end in September, yet thousands of workers in Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill remain on furlough, with their industries required still to close. While the vaccine roll-out gives us real optimism, the world remains firmly in the grip of this pandemic. It is unacceptable to leave workers and businesses with only four months before they face this cliff edge and are cut off from this vital lifeline. Other European nations, such as Germany, have already committed to continue with their equivalent scheme until 2022. With that in mind, will the Minister join me in imploring the Chancellor to do the right thing for workers and businesses in my constituency and across the UK by extending the retention scheme for as long as it is required?

The Government have provided unprecedented support to business sectors throughout the pandemic, including the hospitality and retail sectors. In addition to the job retention scheme and cuts to business rates and VAT, we have provided one-off restart grants of up to £18,000, which are available to businesses in the non-essential retail, hospitality, leisure and personal sectors to support them to reopen as restrictions are relaxed. To date, businesses in Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill have benefited from more than 1,500 loans and £59 million, with 70,800 jobs supported through furlough.

This week marks English Tourism Week, but the UK’s tourist destinations have been hit hard, with a much higher than average increase in people who are now out of work, including in places such as Scarborough and Whitby. Many tourism businesses, such as hotels and cafés, have taken on debt to stay afloat, and one in five hospitality businesses now says that it is at moderate risk of insolvency. Yet the Government’s pay as you grow scheme does nothing to solve the underlying long-term issue of business debt, which means that businesses will have to repay whether or not they are making a profit. Does the Minister agree that, if we want to give businesses the time to build up their trade and resilience, and also protect jobs and not let debt stifle the recovery, we need a genuinely flexible repayment scheme such as the one Labour has called for.

We care passionately about businesses in this Government, and our support package includes the job retention scheme, generous grants and cuts to business rates. Pay as you grow measures will allow 1.5 million bounce back loan borrowers to extend payment terms and to benefit from a further repayment holiday. Our plans to support economic recovery and pursue growth through significant investment in infrastructure skills and innovation will help us to build back better and level up across the United Kingdom.

Gig Economy: Employment Rights

The Government are committed to protecting and enhancing workers’ rights. The Uber Supreme Court judgment was clear that those who qualify as workers under employment law are entitled to rights such as the national minimum wage, and all gig economy businesses should ensure that they are fulfilling their legal responsibilities.

Does the Secretary of State recognise that, by ditching the employment Bill and, with it, the opportunity to strengthen the rights of gig economy workers, he has abandoned millions of precarious and low-paid workers to fight through the courts for fair pay and job security?

The Secretary of State and I believe that workers’ rights should be enhanced and protected, so we are absolutely committed to bringing forward an employment Bill that will help us to build back better and to protect vulnerable workers, delivering on our ambition to make the UK the best place in the world in which to work and grow a business. While we are waiting for the employment Bill to come forward in parliamentary time, we will continue in that way.

Clean Energy

In December, the Government aim to deliver their biggest auction for renewables yet through the contracts for difference scheme. Our £240 million net zero hydrogen fund and forthcoming hydrogen business model will enable us to deliver our 5 GW low-carbon hydrogen production ambition to use across the economy. We have also announced the clean heat grant and the green heat network fund, and will launch the green gas support scheme later this year.

There is a short answer, or I could give my right hon. Friend a longer one. Brilliant. [Laughter.]

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the many natural advantages we are blessed with is the tide around the shores of the United Kingdom, and will she bring forward at the earliest opportunity the Government’s proposals to unleash tidal power?

Let me first pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s work as a net zero business champion for COP26; he is doing an extraordinary amount of work, and has been tireless in his efforts to support the country’s business community to showcase its extraordinary leadership in tackling climate change and heading to net zero.

Tidal generation does indeed have a potentially important role in the long-term decarbonisation of the UK. Projects will need to demonstrate value for money to compete with other renewables over the long term. The Secretary of State and I are very keen to hear from those who want to progress such projects.

In terms of increasing the production of renewable energy, does the Minister feel rather embarrassed about the deep neglect that there has been of the development of deep geothermal energy in the UK over recent years? Is she aware of a report published on 19 May suggesting a new future for deep geothermal energy, and particularly a mechanism for supporting deep geothermal through a successor to the renewable heat incentive? Does she intend to respond positively to that report and its proposals, and will she acknowledge that deep geothermal is indeed one of the cleanest and most efficient renewable energy sources that we can have in the UK?

I have not had a chance to look at the report, but I absolutely commit to doing so. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has been doing a lot of work with local communities where there are geothermal projects, and we will continue to look at them and see how we can help to support them. It will be, as ever, one of those ongoing areas of policy; in the long term, we want to use all the renewable resources available to us as a country to ensure that we maximise their use, while, as I said earlier, ensuring that they also provide value for money for the taxpayer.

Renewable Energy: Carbon Budget

What assessment he has made of the extent of the renewable energy development required by 2030 to help deliver the Government’s sixth carbon budget. (900514)

Renewable electricity will be key for the decarbonisation required for carbon budget 6. Therefore, we have set an ambitious target to deliver 40 GW of offshore wind by 2030 and announced our aim to up to double the capacity of this year’s contracts for difference auction, as well as extending eligibility to a wider range of technologies.

The Minister will be aware of my long-standing interest in environmental, social and governance, as I chair the all-party parliamentary group on the matter. How will her Department ensure that the Government’s sixth carbon budget is delivered with ESG at its heart, and what are the plans for engagement with Government Departments and corporations to ensure that all targets set out in the carbon budget are viewed through an ESG lens?

My hon. Friend’s passion for, and commitment to, this subject since he arrived in the House have been unstinting. I have been more than impressed by his determination to ensure that we do not, at any turn, miss the opportunity to raise it; he has been particularly determined to ensure that we look at the role of critical materials in renewables. They will continue to be an important part of how we are able to develop our renewables capacity. I hope that he is reassured that we continue to work across Departments to maximise those outcomes.

Steel Industry

The Government are committed to a UK steel industry. I mentioned this repeatedly in my session with the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee this morning.

Sanjeev Gupta promised that none of our steel plants would close on his watch, but after the Serious Fraud Office descended on his empire, the workforce became afraid for their future. The Liberty Steel plant in Tredegar puts food on the table and pays the mortgages of my constituents, and across the country 5,000 families rely on the company. We now need the Government to ensure that these plants remain open, and, crucially, to provide the finance to bridge any transition period should a new buyer or stake purchase be necessary—and, of course, to work with the trade unions to test the commitment of any new buyers. If promises are broken, will the Secretary of State step in with the finance to support our steel communities?

The hon. Gentleman will remember that Mr Gupta asked me and the Department for £170 million. Many Labour Members—dare I say it?—were hollering and screaming and saying we should nationalise. In fact, I would say that my actions and those of officials have been vindicated. There were serious concerns about corporate governance with this company, and Labour Members would do well to understand how to manage public finances with care. Having said all that, I am monitoring the situation closely and I remain strategically committed to the steel industry and this sector.

On behalf of workers at Liberty Steel in Newport, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith): the Government must do all they can to protect these strategic businesses that are very important to our communities. Because of that, and because of global overcapacity in steel, it is also critical and very urgent that Ministers work with Cabinet colleagues to prevent the Trade Remedies Investigations Directorate from slashing our steel safeguards in half, so please will the Government act on that?

With regard to TRID, the hon. Lady will know that the consultation on that closes tomorrow. I would urge all interested parties to feed into that consultation so that we can reach a good decision. She knows that I am on record as having committed to a strategic presence of steel in the UK . I think that is vital and as Secretary of State I will always promote it within Government.

The crisis at Liberty Steel is yet further evidence of the need to break the cycle of crisis management that has defined the approach of successive Governments to this critical sector. The Secretary of State knows full well that there is a global race under way to green the steel industry and that our country is currently at the back of the pack, with no concrete plans for trialling hydrogen-based primary production and only vague plans for a single carbon capture-based project. With its long-term survival at stake, can he explain why the Government believe that the UK steel industry can afford to wait a further two years for the limited clean steel fund to even begin distributing investment?

I completely reject the basis of the hon. Gentleman’s remarks. The idea that we are at the back of the pack in decarbonisation is complete nonsense. We are the first country in the G7 to have come up with an industrial decarbonisation strategy. He and his Labour colleagues were saying, “Secretary of State, why don’t you nationalise Liberty? Why don’t you give Mr Gupta £170 million?”, and we made absolutely the right call. We showed judgment and restraint. Going forward, he will appreciate that I was the Secretary of State who resuscitated the Steel Council. We have had constructive conversations across unions and employers to work out a decarbonised future for the industry.

Environmentally Sustainable Transportation

What new plans he has to incentivise businesses to become more environmentally sustainable in the transportation of their products. (900518)

The Government are striving to decarbonise transport by phasing out the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2030, and from 2035 all new cars and vans must be zero emissions at the tailpipe. The plug-in van grant will support businesses to reach net zero by reducing the purchase price of new zero emission vans up to £3,000 for small vans and up to £6,000 for large vans. The plug-in truck grant also provides up to £25,000 of funding for the largest HGVs.

I thank the Minister, and I have a lot of time for her, but she must realise that these heavy goods vehicles—these trucks—are poisoning our atmosphere and poisoning children, pregnant women and elderly people. All of us are being poisoned by these emissions. Can we not move much more quickly to encourage things? There are some really good British manufacturers such as Electra Commercial Vehicles in the north of England, which is doing wonderful work, guided by Sid Sadique, one of our new entrepreneurs. There is a capacity to switch to electric vehicles to deliver all the stuff that we get in this country, and we could do it much faster. Can I beg her to move faster for the environment, for children, for the air that we breathe, and for our commercial industries?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. We are working to ensure that the transport decarbonisation plan is as ambitious as possible, and we plan to publish in the very near future. It will set out how we incentivise operators and industry to transition to zero emission HGVs and manage emissions from the existing fleet. We are also investing £20 million this year in planning for zero emission road freight trials, which will support UK industry to develop cost-effective, zero emission HGVs and their refuelling infrastructure in the UK.

Net Zero Emissions Target

The Government have laid legislation for the UK’s sixth carbon budget, proposing a target that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 78% by 2035 compared with 1990 levels, marking another ambitious and decisive step towards net zero by 2050. Our 10-point plan will bring together £12 billion of Government investment, unlocking three times as much private sector investment by 2030 and supporting up to 250,000 green jobs.

I thank the Energy Minister for her answer. I know she will have been as disappointed as I was that we were not able to visit the Ibstock Brick factory in Chesterton yesterday, and I look forward to welcoming her up to Newcastle-under-Lyme soon. In the meantime, will she say what the Government are doing to support our vital manufacturers, such as Ibstock Brick, to decarbonise and at the same time support jobs?

Yes, I was very sad not to get there. Sadly a cow on the line caused a level of disruption to LNER services yesterday, which delayed my always relatively long journey from the north further south. However, I hope to be able to visit before too long. In March, the Government published the UK’s first ever net zero strategy for industry. It is the first strategy published by a major economy that sets out how industry can decarbonise while remaining competitive and without pushing emissions abroad. Our £350 million industrial energy transformation fund will support businesses with high energy use to cut their bills and reduce carbon emissions.

Consumer awareness of the environmental impact of the actions they take, the things they buy and the food they eat will be key to helping us achieve net zero. Can the Minister set out what steps the Department is taking to help consumers make more informed environmental choices?

Last November, we unveiled the brand Together for Our Planet to raise awareness of climate issues and support the public in making those important green choices. In parallel, we have funded several digital tools that can help people reduce their carbon footprint, including the Simple Energy Advice service on how to reduce energy use in the home and the Go Ultra Low website, which provides information on electric cars and vans. Our upcoming net zero strategy will set out our approach to supporting the general public to make green choices, which will be a critically important part of our journey.

A key part of achieving net zero will be exploring alternative energy sources. One of those that was mentioned by the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) was deep geothermal. I am working with stakeholders across Bishop Auckland to explore making Bishop Auckland a centre of excellence for geothermal energy. Will my right hon. Friend visit me in Bishop Auckland to discuss that in much more detail?

I hope to be able to reach Bishop Auckland with speed, as it is just round the corner, and I am always happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss new energy projects. Compared with many countries, high geothermal temperatures are found at a much deeper depth in the UK, but we recognise, as I said earlier, that geothermal could indeed form part of our solution to decarbonise our heating. I welcome the opportunity to discuss energy opportunities in this area and look forward to meeting her and her constituents.

High Street Businesses

Our comprehensive economic response to business is worth £385 billion, including grants, the furlough scheme, tax deferrals and business rates relief. We are providing a £56 million welcome back fund, helping councils to prepare for the safe reopening of our high streets and seaside resorts.

High street businesses on Lord Street in Fleetwood tell me that one of their biggest concerns is empty shop units that have fallen into disrepair. They are dangerous for people who are out shopping and make the high street very unattractive. What support can the Government give councils such as Wyre Council to ensure that these shops are made safe and, ideally, tenanted?

The Government are committed to unleashing enterprise and growth across all parts of the United Kingdom, and we will go even further with the publication of our levelling-up White Paper this autumn. The hon. Member will welcome the news that Lancaster and Fleetwood have been awarded funding under the high streets heritage action zones cultural programme. Our £4.8 billion levelling-up fund will invest in infrastructure that improves everyday life across the United Kingdom. We have protected 14 million jobs through the comprehensive package we have put in place. Our plan for jobs is creating, supporting and protecting jobs, and our £2 billion kickstart scheme has helped 16,500 young people to start paid jobs.

Energy Transition Projects: Scotland

This Government are committed to supporting the transition to net zero for all the United Kingdom. Our landmark North sea transition deal will support Scotland’s offshore oil and gas workers, businesses and the supply chain to exploit technologies such as low-carbon hydrogen production and carbon capture usage and storage. In March, we announced £9 million to help Scotland’s world-famous whisky distilleries get into the spirit of going green, cutting emissions and supporting green jobs.

I am sure that if we could capture energy and store it, Scotland’s entire energy needs would have been met on Saturday by clean blue energy from St Johnstone fans celebrating their historic cup double. Now that I have shoehorned that in, here is my question. Despite meeting after meeting in which Minister after Minister, including the current Secretary of State, have said that HELMS—Home Energy and Lifestyle Management Systems—customers under the green deal have been, at best, mis-sold products and that it would be fixed, hundreds of my constituents and others right across Scotland and the UK remain swindled by Robert Skillen and his company. I am happy to have another meeting, but I would be even happier with swift and appropriate action.

I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and his constituents and to work with officials to make progress.

Workplace Health and Safety Law

What recent steps he has taken with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to improve the enforcement of workplace health and safety laws. (900525)

Workplace health and safety is of critical importance, and I am in regular discussion with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on this and other issues.

If the Government are so committed to keeping workers safe throughout the pandemic, can the Secretary of State explain why they have not been able to protect workers at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency in Swansea by putting in measures to keep them safe from covid-19?

The hon. Member will appreciate that public health and guidance for safer working in Wales is a devolved matter, so she should certainly bring this up with her colleagues in the Welsh Government. Public Health Wales and the local authority, supported by the Health and Safety Executive, are working with the DVLA to ensure that there is appropriate protection.

UK Manufacturing

Having worked in manufacturing for over 20 years, I know the challenges, and I thank those in the manufacturing sector for the brilliant work they have done to support the economy, including the way they came together for the ventilator challenge, and for manufacturing all our vaccines. We are committed to supporting UK manufacturers to build back better by taking advantage of innovative technology and through measures such as the super deduction capital allowance rate of 130%, to turbocharge business investment.

Following Brexit, it is more important than ever that we incentivise the best possible commercial, manufacturing and industrial base in the UK. What is BEIS doing to support the Department for International Trade and other Departments in bringing foreign businesses to our shores?

BEIS is working with Departments across Government to implement the plan for growth, with its focus on infrastructure, innovation and skills. That will have the effect of making the UK more attractive in terms of inward investment, cementing our place as a global science superpower and potentially increasing investment in areas such as Thames valley, which already boasts a number of world-class manufacturing companies.

Entrepreneurship

Our start-up loans programme has a phenomenal track record of backing budding entrepreneurs. We have supported more than 83,000 people across the UK with £733.5 million in loans. The British Business Bank’s new “UK Unlocked” campaign supports all entrepreneurs to access the right finance to start and grow.

I am really pleased to hear the Minister’s response, and I am grateful for the financial backing the Government give, but for someone sat in Bosworth with a great idea, one of the hardest things they struggle to come up with is where to start, so what are the Government doing to signpost people who want to start a business who are asking exactly that question?

The answer to this question is to go to the Coventry and Warwickshire local enterprise partnership growth hub. There are 38 growth hubs around the country that are one-stop shops to get access to that. We are helping SMEs navigate the business finance landscape through those growth hub networks as well. Our detailed business support webpages provide advice for businesses of all sizes across the UK.

Topical Questions

I would like to say that over the last few weeks I think we have gone through a trying time, but two things have really stood out as remarkable successes. The vaccine roll-out continues to go from strength to strength. Something like 60 million jabs have been administered across this country, which I am pleased to say is a world-beating target to have reached for a country of our size. On the back of that, we have managed to hit the dates in the road map. On 12 April, we opened up in the way we said we would, and then we looked at the data and we were able to do so again on 17 May. This has provided business with a huge degree of support and a measure of certainty ahead of a summer reopening.

Carshalton and Wallington residents, particularly those living in New Mill Quarter in Hackbridge, have been suffering at the hands of the Lib Dem-run council-owned district energy network called SDEN—Sutton Decentralised Energy Network—leaving residents without heating and hot water, some more than a dozen times in just six months. I know BEIS is keen to ensure that residents such as these are not victims of shoddy operations, so following the closure of its consultation last year, what steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that district energy networks are regulated?

It is an excellent question. My hon. Friend and I corresponded about this and spoke directly about this when I was the Minister of State for Energy. I am very pleased to tell him that we are committed to regulating the heat networks market within this Parliament, and we will bring legislation forward at the earliest possible opportunity. It is clearly a really important thing to be doing, and he and his constituents can rest assured that we are acting with due speed.

I want to return to fire and rehire. Chris is a British Gas engineer who lives in Spelthorne, the Secretary of State’s constituency. Chris says:

“Working under fire and rehire has been horrific. It has caused stress and anxiety not just for me, but my family. I can’t overstate the effect that it has on mental wellbeing. And the Government and the Business Secretary, who is supposed to represent me…in parliament is doing absolutely nothing about it. I voted for Kwasi Kwarteng in 2019, but he’s failed us on this. A total let down.”

Chris met the Business Secretary recently and asked him why he had not acted on fire and rehire. What did he tell him?

I remember the meeting well. I met Chris, I think on the Avenue in Sunbury, and I said very clearly to him that we had an ACAS report that we hoped to publish in due course, and that once we published that we would set out further action, as the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), very ably mentioned earlier.

The problem is that the right hon. Member is the Business Secretary. He is in charge. He promised an employment Bill two years ago. He has had the ACAS report for three months. He is not even telling us what is in the ACAS report. Maybe he can satisfy Chris and millions of people around this country by saying from the Dispatch Box today that he agrees with the principle that we should legislate to outlaw fire and rehire, and he will bring forward an employment Bill to do it. If he does not do that, people will suspect that the truth is not that he is not acting because he cannot act, but that he is not acting because he does not want to act, because he thinks this kind of one-sided power for employers is necessary for our economy to succeed.

We all know the Marxist trope of the employers versus the workers, and we have moved on from that—most of us. There are two issues there. One was related to the employment Bill, which we are committed to introducing to this House when we can, and that has always been our position. The second is that the whole point of having an ACAS independent report was to allow it to happen and then we would consider, after publication, the steps forward. I know the right hon. Member is impatient, and I know he is probably wishing that there was a leadership change in his party, but we have to stay focused on delivery.

    With an enormous amount of work going to take place in the next few years in building energy and transport infrastructure, there are significant opportunities to enhance skills and create jobs in steel fabrication. What plans does my hon. Friend have for promoting fabrication hubs, including one in Lowestoft where skills and expertise has been developed over many years in the oil and gas industry, and exciting opportunities are coming forward in the offshore wind and nuclear sectors? (900479)

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point about seizing the broader benefits of the green economy, which are integral to our industrial decarbonisation strategy. We will continue to work closely with all those helping us to meet our net zero commitments, from 40 gigawatts of offshore wind power by 2030, to the Government’s commitments to deliver at least one more gigawatt nuclear power station, and substantial commitments to the next generation of nuclear. For all that, infrastructure investment and growing the skills base will be vital across the country, including in Lowestoft. We have set up the green jobs taskforce, which will report to the Government this summer and inform the next stages of our green skills plans going forward.

Stats released by the Office for National Statistics this morning show that trade with the European Union has fallen by 23% in the first quarter. In the meantime, Scottish farmers are facing up to the reality of a trade deal with the Australians that threatens their very future. The Scottish Parliament—it has no say; the Scottish Government—ignored. What exactly will the UK Business Secretary do about that, and how much damage are his Government willing to cause?

The hon. Gentleman is right to mention the ONS data, but he will appreciate that that is comparing quarter 1 this year with quarter 1 last year. [Interruption.] Of course it does. January was exceptionally bad—I fully admit that—because there was uncertainty about how the new deal would operate. Subsequent data from Q2 and from March was much better, The next quarter will have better results, and I am sure that quarters after that will show proportionate improvement. The Australian trade deal is a fundamental issue for us. If we cannot make a trade deal with a country that has shared legislation, shared history, and shared traditions, we will not get anywhere with any of these trade deals. I think this is an excellent opportunity for the UK.

The Government are to be congratulated on their plans to phase out diesel and petrol cars, but that raises the question of how we will charge electric cars, especially for those who do not have driveways and have to park on the roads. What can we do to speed up the development of the infrastructure? (900480)

Just yesterday, the energy regulator, Ofgem, announced that it has approved a £300 million investment to help triple the number of ultrarapid electric car charging points across the country. That will give a green light for energy network companies to invest in more than 200 low-carbon projects across the country over the next two years, including the installation of 1,800 new ultrarapid car charge points for motorway service stations, and a further 1,750 charge points in towns and cities.

The green homes grant was scrapped at the end of March, due to severe mismanagement. Nevertheless, we urgently need a long-term strategy to help homeowners cut emissions and bills, if we are to tackle the climate emergency properly. Now that local authorities have been awarded £300 million to deliver the green homes upgrades, what steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that councils have all the support they need to jump over bureaucratic hurdles and handle the unrealistic deadlines created for them, so that we can significantly cut carbon emissions across UK homes? (900476)

The hon. Lady will appreciate that the green homes grant initially had three elements: the first dealt with owner-occupier houses, the second was distributed by local authorities in the way she describes, and the third was about public sector building decarbonisation. Two of those elements were successful. The third was a short-term stimulus, which we have closed and are looking to replace.

Many of my constituents work in the aviation sector and at Southampton Airport. Advances in green technology to cut emissions are vital for the future of air travel, and that may even include electric airplanes, powered by greener fuels. Will my right hon. Friend outline what encouragement the Government will provide in that area? (900486)

We have done a number of things that I am sure my hon. Friend will appreciate. I was very pleased, with my right hon. Friend the Transport Secretary, to appoint Emma Gilthorpe as chief executive officer of the Jet Zero Council, which brings together considerable industry expertise to drive sustainable aviation fuel. Electric aeroplanes may be a thing of the future, but clearly, we have the technology today to innovate and to use things such as hydrogen and sustainable fuels to power a net zero aviation sector.

The Secretary of State will be aware of pladis’s proposal to close the McVitie’s factory in Glasgow’s east end, putting at risk up to 500 jobs in a very fragile part of the local economy. On Saturday, I, politicians from across parties and, indeed, the GMB union came together to send a loud message to Salman Amin in Turkey that doing so would put the local economy at risk. Will the Secretary of State join us in calling on pladis to rethink these devastating plans, which would deliver a hammer blow to the local economy in Glasgow and Scotland? (900481)

In my business engagement, I have been lucky enough, I suppose, to meet the CEO of pladis, the McVitie’s operator. I am not particularly aware of the specifics of what the hon. Gentleman has just informed the House, but I would be very happy to speak to him and others to see what we can do to ensure that the situation is improved. The business seems open; I had a good conversation with the CEO, but I would like to hear more about the specific details of that plant.

Levelling up has never been more important than in the historic town of Lye in my constituency, an area that I am determined to help regenerate—made easier, I hope, by the funding put in place by this Government. One business in Stourbridge, I’m Lucky, was unlucky enough to open just before the second lockdown, but with Government support, and helped by its own fantastic entrepreneurism, it has survived. It now has an online shop front, and it has begun recruiting staff. Does my hon. Friend agree that businesses such as I’m Lucky have a vital role to play in levelling up this country? (900489)

I thank my hon. Friend, and I wish I’m Lucky all the best for the future. Over the past year, I have met a number of businesses that have opened either at an unfortunate time—just going into a lockdown—or possibly at a fortunate time, as they steal a march and pivot into new business areas. Growing those small and medium-sized enterprises is really important to levelling up. We have already provided over 1,000 start-up loans worth £11.8 million this year. We are reducing employment costs by up to £4,000 through the employment allowance and supporting skills through apprenticeships. The strengthened prompt payment code ensures that those small businesses will get paid within 30 days.

Following the Budget, the Leader of the Opposition said that establishing “Treasury North” in Darlington was “not levelling up” but “giving up”. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the opposite is true, and that by shifting decision making outside London, including in his own Department, we will truly level up our country? (900494)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right; it is a huge opportunity. I was delighted to see him in his constituency only a couple of weeks ago. I was very pleased to see the photograph that was taken of us looking like an advert for “Reservoir Dogs”. BEIS is absolutely committed to recruiting excellent staff in Darlington, among other places around the UK.

Following the announcement that the Government plan to cut £120 million from official development assistance research, what assessment has the Secretary of State made of the long-term impact that that will have on UK research and development? (900483)

The hon. Lady will know that that was a very difficult decision. The Treasury and the Government made a decision to reduce ODA spending from 0.7% of GDP to 0.5%. In the integrated review, we said that we would get it back to 0.7% when we could. We are fully appreciative that it was a difficult decision, and we want to get back to 0.7% as soon as the fiscal situation allows.

The Government are already embarking on their unprecedented levelling-up agenda. What measures is my hon. Friend planning to facilitate levelling up by small businesses, looking specifically at start-ups and growing SMEs, as well as at issues arising from late payments, reducing employment costs, improving skills such as digital skills, and levelling up apprenticeships? Those are the specific questions asked by the Federation of Small Businesses in Hastings and Rye. (900495)

The Federation of Small Businesses does a great job across the country, including in Hastings and Rye, and, as I said, it is very important that SMEs play a massive role in levelling up around the country. I have talked about the fact that strengthening the prompt payment code will ensure that small businesses get paid within 30 days. We will always do more to make sure that we can support small businesses, because we know that cash flow is king, and they will be a major part of building back better.

I have sat through a number of Select Committee reports that have exposed the deficiencies of not-so-smart meters and the extra costs involved, but I was shocked when we found for a recent report that smart meters will not work if we transfer from North sea gas to hydrogen. What do Ministers think the implications are for the future of smart meters of the possibility of using hydrogen as a replacement fuel? (900484)

We are continuing to work with the regulators and to look at how smart meters are rolling out. We continue to encourage people to do so, if they have not done so yet, but as the technology changes, we will obviously make sure that regulations afford those adaptations.

UK industry, particularly the furniture sector, has seen great benefits in recent years from the British Standards Institution’s leading role in the CEN—the European Committee for Standardisation. As membership of the CEN is not related to being a member of the EU, will the Minister consider renewing our membership at year end so we continue to play a leading role in the development of sensible standards? (900500)

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. It is really important that he stands up for the furniture industry, as he does. The BSI has informed the Department of its intention to retain its membership to continue to influence the development of standards for the benefit of UK businesses. The Government support that position.

May I ask the Minister for an unequivocal statement, consistent with the Government’s zero-carbon promises, that there will be no new coal mines and no new licences for fracking in this country? (900487)

There are two issues there. On fracking, I was very pleased, as Minister of State, to impose a moratorium on it. The language that we used at the time was that it was going to be evidence-focused and scientifically based. There is no new evidence to suggest that we should end the moratorium, so it stays—no more fracking. On coal mines, I have said specifically that this is a judicial issue, in terms of the west Cumbrian coal mine, and that has to go through the planning process.

As the Minister knows, I am passionate about inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineers. Will she tell the House what plans her Department has to build on the previous good work in this field, such as the Year of Engineering?

We have committed to investing £14.9 billion in R&D in 2021-22, meaning that Government R&D spending is now at its highest level for decades. We have our ambitious road map. We have our innovation strategy that we will be launching. We have our R&D place strategy, and we are working to ensure that the benefits are felt nationwide.

Sitting suspended.

Covid-19

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care if he will make a statement on covid-19.

Our race between the vaccine and the virus continues. As a nation, we have taken some huge strides forward: there are now 908 people in hospital with coronavirus, a fall of 9% in the past week, and the average number of daily deaths is now six, the lowest number since the middle of March. On top of this positive news, our vaccination programme is accelerating at pace. Over 72% of all adults have now been given their first dose, and 43% of all adults have the protection of two doses.

This weekend, we reached the milestone of 60 million vaccines administered across the United Kingdom, and Public Health England also published new research showing that the effectiveness of vaccination against symptomatic disease from the variant first discovered in India is similar after two doses when compared to the B117 variant dominant in our country. As with other variants, even higher levels of effectiveness are expected against hospitalisation and death. This is encouraging data, and it reinforces once again the importance of our vaccination programme in giving us a path out of this pandemic, as well as showing just how important it is that everyone comes forward for both jabs when the call comes through. It is the progress made by the British people in following the rules, and in taking up the protection offered through our vaccination programme, that means we were able to take step 3 in our road map last week.

However, we take these steps with vigilance and caution, staying alert to new variants that can jeopardise the advances we have made. We have come down really hard on the variant first identified in India wherever we have found it, surging in testing capacity and vaccines for those who are eligible. Over the past few days, we have extended this rapid approach to even more areas: as well as Bolton and Blackburn with Darwen, which the Prime Minister spoke about at his press conference on the 14th of this month, we are taking rapid action in Bedford, Hounslow, Burnley, Leicester, Kirklees and North Tyneside. As the Prime Minister set out two weeks ago, we are urging people in these areas to take extra caution when meeting anyone outside their household or support bubble, including meeting outside rather than inside where possible; keeping 2 metres apart from people they do not live with; and trying to avoid travelling in and out of the affected areas unless it is essential, for example for work—if a person cannot work from home—or for education.

As the Prime Minister said, we want the whole country to move out of these restrictions together. We are trusting people to be responsible and to act with caution and common sense, as they have done throughout this pandemic, and to make decisions about how best to protect themselves and their loved ones that are informed by the risks. That is exactly what we should be doing. We are always looking to see how we can communicate more effectively with local authorities, and we will of course take on board the views expressed by the House over the course of this debate. By acting quickly whenever the virus flares up and protecting people through our vaccination programme, we can guard the incredible gains we have all made, and get ourselves on the road to recovery.

Does the Minister appreciate that cities such as mine, Leicester, or towns and boroughs such as Burnley, Bolton, Batley and Blackburn, have borne the brunt of this crisis over these past 15 months? We have often been in lockdown for longer than elsewhere. At times, we have felt abandoned. We did not have adequate financial support: families did their best, but they struggled. Can the Minister understand how upsetting, how insulting, it is to have new restrictions imposed on us—local lockdowns by stealth, by the back door—without the Secretary of State even having the courtesy to come and tell us?

Why was the guidance plonked on a website on Friday night and not communicated to everyone? Why were local directors of public health and local authority leaders not consulted? Why were MPs not informed? What does it now mean for our constituents? What does it mean for the family in Leicester who have booked a few days next week by the coast for the school half-term? Do they have to cancel that break? What does it mean for university students in Leicester when they have finished their exams? Do they have to go home—or can they go home? Can prospective students come and look at the campuses?

What does the guidance mean for the parents in Bolton who are planning to take their children to see grandparents on the other side of Greater Manchester this bank holiday Monday? Should they rearrange their plans? What does it mean for the young couple in Burnley, Blackburn or Batley, who have postponed their wedding for over a year and invited friends and family from across the country to come and celebrate their special day with them? Is the message to them that they have to delay their wedding again?

Can the Minister answer these questions today? Can he take a message from me, as the Member of Parliament for Leicester South, back to the Secretary of State—“Withdraw this guidance now and convene a meeting this afternoon of the relevant directors of public health to produce a plan involving isolation support and enhanced contact tracing”? As the hon. Gentleman knows from his work as vaccines Minister, a single dose of the vaccine is less effective against this particular variant. Will he produce a plan with local directors of public health to roll out vaccinations to everybody and consider including bringing forward a second dose for a larger cohort of people?

A year ago, Ministers such as the hon. Gentleman were defending Dominic Cummings on Twitter. Now, Mr Cummings tweets about the lack of competent people in charge. Many of our constituents, looking at this latest lockdown fiasco, will think that Mr Cummings has a point.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for, I hope, his equally supportive comments when it comes to supporting his constituents and others around the country—in Bedford, Blackburn, Bolton, Burnley, Kirklees and Leicester, his own patch, as well as Hounslow and north Tyneside.

I spoke to the M10 metro Mayors this morning, and the one thing I would urge is that we all work together and take the politics out of this. Our constituents deserve that. Essentially, as I said in my opening statement, we are asking people in the affected areas to be cautious and careful. The right hon. Gentleman asked about visiting family: people should meet outside rather than inside, where possible. Meeting indoors is still allowed, in a group of six or as two households, but meeting outdoors is safer. People should meet 2 metres apart from those they do not live with unless they have formed a support bubble; that obviously includes friends and family they do not live with. So yes, people can visit family in half-term if they follow social distancing guidelines. The guidelines include specific sections on meeting friends and family. Avoid travelling in and out of the affected areas, as the Prime Minister said on 14 May, unless it is essential—for work purposes, for example.

The whole principle is that we need to work together. The right hon. Gentleman has a responsibility, as do I and the metro Mayors, to communicate to our residents and constituents that this is a time to be vigilant and careful. We are putting more surge testing and turbocharging vaccinations in those areas, to make sure that we do the work with local directors of public health. I hope he will agree that we have had that plan in place and seen it operate in Bolton and Blackburn; we will see it operate in his constituency and other parts of the country as well.

I congratulate the Minister on the outstanding roll-out of the vaccine programme, which is a source of enormous pride to all of us, on all sides of the House. As we emerge from lockdown, we all want it to be a permanent change. For most families, the biggest priority is to make sure that schools remain open, even if we find that new variants arrive in the UK in the course of the autumn. We know that children do not tend to get bad symptoms, but they can spread the virus, so is it time to look at vaccinating the over-12s, as they are doing in the United States? Is it time to look at whether we can use some of the US Food and Drug Administration analysis to speed up that decision-making process, so that by the time children come back in the autumn, schools are protected and we can be confident that they will be able to stay open?

I am grateful for my right hon. Friend’s question. He is absolutely right to focus on the protection of children but also of families and their community. That clinical decision has not been taken in the United Kingdom. He will be aware that, as well as the US regulator, the Canadian regulator has approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for 12 to 15-year-olds. Operationally, we will be ready, but ultimately the decision has to be a clinical one and our regulator will have to be satisfied that the vaccines are extremely safe. When you are vaccinating children, essentially, you are offering some protection to them—children can be infected with covid and there is some evidence of long covid among children—but on the whole it is to protect their families and to protect against transmission in communities. Vaccines have to be incredibly safe before we administer them to children, but we have the infrastructure in place to be able to do that, as and when the regulatory and clinical decision is made.

Can the Minister explain if the new restrictions for areas such as Bolton are only advisory? Will hospitality companies affected still be eligible for financial support? Why was the Public Health England report on variants snuck out at 11 pm on Saturday, during the Eurovision final and minus the promised data on school outbreaks? The B.1.617.2 or April 02 variant appears to be 50% more infectious and is affecting even younger children, so can the Minister explain why on earth the Government have ended the wearing of face coverings in schools? It is good that two doses of the vaccines still provide good protection from the variant, but testing shows that one dose is only 33% effective. The gap between doses has been shortened from 12 to eight weeks, but with less than half of those between 50 and 65 years of age having had their second dose, are there plans to close the gap further?

I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s question and just remind her that Public Health England makes those decisions for itself: it is not up to the Minister when it releases its data.

On pubs and hospitality, indoor areas of venues—cafés, restaurants, bars and so on—can reopen. In any premises serving alcohol, customers will still be required to order, to be served and to eat and drink while seated. Venues are obviously prohibited from providing smoking equipment such as shisha pipes. It is just to make sure that we do everything we can to limit the ability of the virus to infect others. Within that, reducing social contact is incredibly important. Some businesses, such as nightclubs, must remain closed and follow the restrictions. It is very much about making sure that we work together to control the B.1.617.2 variant, exercising the common sense that the Prime Minister spoke about. The guidance is there to do that. People on the whole have been following the guidance.

On transmission and the effectiveness of the two doses—the hon. Lady’s question on accelerating the vaccination programme—the whole idea of us following the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation guidelines and advice on vaccination is to be able to vaccinate at scale. We have two big weeks ahead of us and we will continue to focus on the second dose. When people get that text message or the call to bring forward their second dose, they should please take that up, because it is incredibly important in controlling the variant.

It is tremendous news that the vaccines that are being so successfully rolled out across our United Kingdom are highly effective against the variant first identified in India, but many businesses continue to be delicately balanced on a cliff edge of either a successful summer or bankruptcy. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need a positive message of hope and certainty that all the evidence continues to back up the complete end of all restrictions and social distancing by 21 June?

It is good news from Public Health England on the B.1.617 variant that two doses of either Pfizer or AstraZeneca-Oxford are as effective on infection and are very likely to be even more effective on serious illness and hospitalisation in real-world circumstances. Ultimately, we are effectively pursuing an evidence-led strategy. The four weeks plus one—the five-week interval—are for us to be able to assess the data and share it with Parliament and the nation. At the moment, I am cautiously optimistic that we are in a good place. We have to remain vigilant and we have to work together. As I said earlier, let us take the politics out of this and make sure that all our constituents are careful, and we will get there together.

I am sure that the Minister will agree that throughout the pandemic our community pharmacies have performed magnificently on the frontline of the health service, but unfortunately there still seems to be institutionalised bias against them in the Department of Health and Social Care, even now. Only a couple of pharmacies in Sandwell have been authorised for the covid vaccine. I urge the Minister to get a grip on his bureaucrats and get vaccines rolling in our Sandwell pharmacies before the bank holiday.

I know that the right hon. Gentleman is a passionate advocate for community pharmacies; he and I have discussed them in the past. I do not recognise his characterisation of the NHS team, who I absolutely know work every day with community pharmacies. I think that just over 500 community pharmacies and independent pharmacies are now part of the vaccine deployment. In phase 1, they have proved themselves to be excellent at reaching out and giving confidence to their communities and at getting people vaccinated; where primary care has decided not to carry on with phase 2, they have also stepped up to fill the gaps so that we keep going. I will absolutely look at the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency to see whether we can do more.

The record vaccine roll-out has absolutely vindicated the decision of my constituents in Wednesbury, Oldbury and Tipton to believe that this country can succeed in standing on its own two feet. Vaccination is going to form a really big part of our lives. What work is my hon. Friend doing to ensure that, as we continue our vaccination roll-out, we have the localised infrastructure to ensure that our great progress is not hindered?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. If the virus were designed to test liberal democracies, because the only way we could combat it was to withdraw people’s freedoms with the dreaded non-pharmaceutical interventions, the vaccine has played to the real strengths of the four nations that make up the peoples of these isles. We have had that Dunkirk spirit of coming together as 1,000 flotillas: the 80,000 volunteer vaccinators, the doctors, the nurses, the pharmacists and, of course, our armed forces and local government colleagues, who have stepped up not only to identify communities that we need to protect, but to find sites.

We are already making plans for the booster jab to be ready by September. I remind the House that the clinical decision has not yet been made, but when it is—whether that is in September, in October, in November or early in the new year—we will be ready to go. We are also planning how it will dovetail with our flu vaccination programme and seeing how we can increase the uptake in flu vaccination, because the worst of all worlds would be to do well against covid and then be hit by a heavy flu season in the autumn.

Last evening, I learned that the Government had sneaked Bedford borough into local lockdown without even bothering to warn the public health team. The Minister knows that for almost two weeks I have been calling for surge vaccines in Bedford for all over-16s, yet until last Friday many of my constituents were forced to travel miles to access the Pfizer vaccine. The variant first identified in India has been imported here because of the Government’s lax approach to border control. Why are the people of Bedford paying for the Government’s gross negligence and incompetence once again?

The hon. Gentleman and I discussed the turbocharging of the vaccination programme in Bedford, which I know he appreciates. The real difficulty is that, if we now begin to vaccinate people who are 18, outside the JCVI’s advice, we are taking vaccine away from others who are eligible and need that protection. So the strategy we are pursuing is to turbocharge. I need to explain that a little. We are effectively putting in more resource, later opening and mobile vaccination centres and we are expanding vaccination centres, so that those who are already eligible and, for whatever reason, have been unable to access the vaccine or have been waiting to see, can get the protection of the first dose. Of course then we get the second dose into all those over the age of 50, because we know that the two doses in those areas, against the B.1.617.2 variant, make a huge difference.

I congratulate the Minister on the success of the vaccine roll-out and the rate at which the age limit is dropping. At the age of 28, I am regularly checking the NHS website to see when it is my turn. However, those who are a little older than me are trying to get their first jab at the Riverside Stadium in Middlesbrough but struggling to do so, reportedly because only the AstraZeneca jab is being stocked at the vaccine centre there. Will he use his office to try to find out what the problem is and resolve it, so that people are not having to travel unnecessarily to get their first jab?

I will absolutely look at what the issue is. The good news we have had recently from our regulator, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, is that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine can now be stored for up to a month—it used to be only five days from once it was thawed from minus 70° C—which means it is much more versatile and less challenging than it used to be. So I will absolutely look at that and contact my hon. Friend.

One area of concern for which new restrictions have been published but no advice has been communicated is the London Borough of Hounslow, which shares a boundary with Whitton, Hampton and St Margarets in my constituency. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people go back and forth every day, for school, for work, to get food and other essential supplies and for medical appointments. So, first, could the Minister advise my constituents whether they should be getting on buses and trains that cross the borough boundary and whether they should be going to supermarkets and accessing medical services over the borough boundary? Secondly, will he consider vaccinating, as a priority, people, such as teachers, key workers and airport staff, who have to go to work in Hounslow but live outside the borough?

I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s question and I discussed this with the Mayor of London this morning. Of course Hounslow is on the list of affected areas and we are turbocharging the vaccination programme, as well as doing the surge testing and the sequencing and isolation. But as I have outlined in response to others, people need to exercise caution and common sense, and travel outside of the area only if it is essential. That is important. The right thing to do is for us to work together to make sure we deliver that message, as I did this morning with the Mayor of London.

In The Telegraph story this morning about what the rules for self-isolation might be post 21 June, a Government source was quoted as saying, in response to the suggestion that they will not change:

“There is still a risk of getting the virus and spreading it on,”

That is of course true—there is a risk—but of course once people have been vaccinated the risk is much lower and, importantly, the vaccines are very effective at stopping serious disease, hospitalisation and death. So may I say to the Minister that post 21 June it is important not only that legal restrictions and social distancing go, but that all the remaining rules are adjusted to reflect the much lower risk that exists once we have vaccinated the population? Otherwise, we are going to have those rules in place forever.

It is worth waiting for 14 June, when we will be saying more on this, but suffice it to say two things: first, even if someone has had two doses of either vaccine —I have had this experience in my own family—they can still contract covid and should therefore be isolating and quarantining; secondly, we are also looking at ways in which contacts of people who may have contracted covid can be regularly tested instead of isolating.

I thank the Minister for his responses so far and for the magnificent effort. I had my second vaccine yesterday, and just to show how national that was, the person who gave me the injection was a doctor from Lincolnshire. I believe that this very much shows that the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland works better together, and that this is a supreme example of that.

We understand that things will change depending on the circumstances and that localised lockdowns may be the way to ensure that areas with low numbers are able to allow people to live safely. Can the Minister outline what parameters will establish localised lockdowns and tell us whether the same approach will be taken UK-wide by the devolved regions?

I am very pleased to hear that my hon. Friend has had his second dose; when people get that text message, they should please come forward and have their second dose. We are looking to ensure that the whole country comes out of this together, hence the advice being very much about exercising caution and self-responsibility. People actually get this; we see in much of the research data that they know the things that can add to the risk and that they should therefore abstain from doing those things while we vaccinate at scale to get to the place where we can all hopefully get our lives back.

Some of us will be viscerally opposed to the use of covid passports in the domestic economy. When will the Government set out their proposals in some detail?

We are considering a range of evidence around covid status certification and whether it may have a role in opening up higher-risk settings, so it would be remiss of a Government Minister or a Government not to look at technologies around the world that would allow us to open up not 20% of Wembley stadium but the whole of Wembley stadium for the FA cup final. No final decisions have been made, and we are of course committed to setting out our conclusions on the review ahead of step 4.

Some people have been making a lot of money from Government-approved quarantine hotels, but many of my Slough constituents are continuing to suffer during their stays. Their long list of angry complaints includes a lack of water, with people being told to drink from the bathroom tap; poor food standards often not meeting dietary or religious requirements, with people having to fork out for takeaways; poor ventilation with no chance of opening a window; and I have not even started yet on the shambolic state of mixing in hours-long airport queues so that even if somebody does not have coronavirus, they soon will have. Why are the Government failing to get a grip of the situation, despite repeated requests from right hon. and hon. Members of this House?

I do not recognise the hon. Gentleman’s description of the way the system is working. There were some distressing videos posted online of people in airports, but we work with the airports and require them to ensure that social distancing protocols are followed. Indeed, at Heathrow, we recently looked at people from red list countries arriving at a particular terminal. I will take away his point about particular hotels, and if he lets me have the exact details I can look at what is happening, because it is wrong and distressing if people cannot have fresh drinking water.

In Suffolk and north-east Essex, 97% of the over-80s have now had two jabs, which I think puts it at the top of the league table. I predict that, as a 32-year-old, I am on the cusp of being offered my jab, but I will wait for my contact to confirm that. Huge thanks should also go to BSC Multicultural Services, which has worked incredibly hard with hard-to-reach groups to get the vaccine out, and I also want to give a special mention to community pharmacies, which the right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar) mentioned. It seems like a long time since the Aqua Pharmacy on Duke Street approached me, but it has gone on to deliver 15,000 doses. I sometimes feel that community pharmacies do not always get the attention they deserve. Can the Minister assure me that in the NHS White Paper community pharmacies will be at the heart of what we are doing to recover from this pandemic?

I can certainly give my hon. Friend that reassurance. Community pharmacies are an incredibly important part of our deployment infrastructure.

Like everybody else, I pay tribute to those who are delivering the vaccine and those who have developed it. I am not quite at the age to have been offered my first dose yet, but I am hoping that it will be soon. When I get that blue envelope through the door, I will go to get my jab. The Minister will be aware that there are a number of people who have a phobia of needles. Is he in a position to update the House on the development of a nasal vaccine?

I am glad the hon. Member will get his jab when the call comes. We are obviously working with a number of manufacturers, who are looking at different delivery technologies for vaccines in the future. It is still some way off, I am afraid. At the moment, the needle dominates the vaccination deployment technologies, but I know that a number of manufacturers are working on other ways of delivering vaccines, including through pills.

Seventy per cent of my constituents have now had one vaccine. I am sure the Minister will join me in congratulating and thanking all those people in Warrington who have played such an important part in this incredible vaccination programme. As he will know, vaccines are one part of the solution. Can he give us an update on drugs and research into treatment for those who find themselves in hospital suffering from covid?

I join my hon. Friend in thanking the local team for going above and beyond, and, as I said earlier, it is all about that spirit of Dunkirk and the coming together of the nation to deliver the vaccination programme. A couple of weeks ago, the Prime Minister announced the therapeutics taskforce, which is moving at pace to identify therapeutics and antivirals to help people who, for whatever reason, cannot be vaccinated and to give us a greater arsenal in our armoury against this pandemic.

I get my second vaccine tomorrow, so I would also like to thank all of the NHS staff and other staff who have made this possible in such a quick turnaround. However, all of that cannot conceal the opacity of the UK Government’s position on accusations of cronyism and corruption, but, thanks to the Good Law Project, that is finally being challenged in the High Court this week. I have been attempting to get to the heart of the procurement of unlicensed lateral flow tests and been met with glib obfuscation from the Department. Can the Minister therefore tell me: when was the contract for these devices signed; was it known at the time that these tests were not licensed by the MHRA for asymptomatic testing; which Minister approved this contract; and if the Government really have nothing to hide, why do they just not come clean?

I just remind the hon. Member that, at this Dispatch Box, the Prime Minister announced a full inquiry that will take place in the spring of 2022, where we can learn all the lessons of the covid pandemic and the Government’s response to it. Suffice to say that all contracting is published in the appropriate way, and civil servants follow the exact rules around contracting.

Fifty-seven thousand people in North West Durham have had their first jab and 34,000 the second, so we are doing really well and progressing excellently. I have my first jab this Saturday. I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) that he is 32, so he can also get his jab now. Anybody else in my constituency or across the country can book now through the app. There are concerns, though, about the vaccine. Can the Minister ensure that all the possible issues and side effects are constantly monitored and published so that people can make informed positive choices to get the vaccine, especially in the younger age groups, to ensure that everyone is protected as much as possible, especially from the new variants?

I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. We have an independent regulator here in the MHRA and, of course, Public Health England, and we have a yellow card system where adverse incidents are recorded—they can be reported directly by a GP, a clinician or the person themselves. All that data is published and people can access it on their MHRA website, or google it and see it. An incredible part of the success story of the vaccination programme is that sharing of data, which has led to the highest level of vaccine acceptance among adults in the world. The figures suggest that about 90% of all adults say that they will take the vaccine, or are very likely to take the vaccine.

What steps are the Government taking to ensure that the UK is a leader in the global response to tackling covid-19, especially given the fact that we are not safe until everyone is safe?

When the Prime Minister set up the vaccines taskforce he gave it two priorities: first, to discover the vaccines that would work, in order to contract for them or to manufacture them in the UK; and secondly, to work out how to help the rest of the world, which is why we were the first country to put £548 million into COVAX and very much establish COVAX, which now has more than 450 million doses, the bulk of which are Oxford-AstraZeneca, which is our gift to the world. Some 98% of the COVAX jabs that have been delivered and have protected people have come from Oxford-AstraZeneca. Pfizer has also been doing the same thing: from day one its chief executive, Albert Bourla, spoke about vaccine equality, and Pfizer is offering vaccines at cost to low and middle-income countries.

It is simply unacceptable that my constituents in Luton South found out about the changed advice on travel to Bedford through the back door, via the media last night. They need thorough clarity and formal information to be provided through our local authorities.

On local authorities, what steps are the Government taking for the prioritisation of turbocharged vaccinations, not just for areas with the new variant but for areas with enduring transmission?

I think I have dealt with the first part of the hon. Lady’s question, in the sense that the guidance and information was shared with the country on 14 May. We continue to endeavour to improve our communications, in partnership with local government and by addressing local health systems.

On vaccine turbocharging, the hon. Lady will know that we are looking at mobile vaccination sites, increasing sites’ opening hours and putting in more resource so that we can vaccinate the people who are eligible to be vaccinated—it is important to make that distinction. We will continue to do all that in Bedford to make sure that the people of Bedford are protected and we get the variant under control.

Over the weekend I was contacted about two instances of people having difficulties getting the access that they wanted to their frail relatives in Barnet Hospital. It was particularly distressing because in both instances the patients had difficulties communicating with and understanding hospital staff. I appreciate that hospitals have a paramount duty to ensure proper infection control, but will the Minister encourage hospitals throughout the country to facilitate visits so that relatives can support the frail elderly while they are in hospital?

I will certainly take my right hon. Friend’s constituents’ details and look into that. We urge all hospitals to make sure that when the frail elderly need social contact, they are able to get it.

No one is safe from covid-19 until we all are, but the UK continues to stubbornly resist calls for a waiver of covid-19 vaccine patents. Given that people in many of the world’s poorest countries cannot expect to be vaccinated until 2023, and given the failure of the COVAX initiative to distribute vaccines at the volume and speed that is needed, will the Government now follow the lead of the Biden Administration and reverse their position on a patent waiver?

That is a really important question. Let me share with the hon. Member a little about the operational challenges around vaccine manufacture. We will of course look at any text that our US colleagues put forward on the intellectual property issue, but in reality if the exam question is to get more jabs in the arms of those who live in low and middle-income countries, the bottleneck is not the IP but the transfer of technology to manufacturers around the world. What Oxford-AstraZeneca has done incredibly well is to transfer that technology to 20 sites that can manufacture at scale. We have already delivered 450 million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. The hon. Gentleman might recall that Pfizer did the same thing; it actually paused its manufacturing in Europe and expanded it, to go from 1.2 billion doses a year for 2021 to almost 3 billion doses. If the exam question is to get more jabs in arms, we need that technology transfer. It is not easy, as we saw in Halix in Europe, which had great difficulty operationalising the manufacturing, as did Catalent in the US. That is the real effort that needs to go in—as well, of course, as helping other countries with deployment. It is only one part of the jigsaw to get the vaccine into warehouses in those countries; those countries have to be able to get it out and into people’s arms.

The experience over the last year has shown that local lockdowns are not effective, because cases simply rocket in the areas immediately outside the local restrictions. With that in mind and to get ahead of the curve, this morning I have been in discussions with Derbyshire County Council and my local director of public health to establish a pop-up vaccination site at Gamesley, where there has been a high number of new cases, so that we can deliver surge vaccination. Will the Minister work with me, my local director of public health and the NHS to ensure that we get the doses we need to get everyone in the High Peak vaccinated as soon as possible?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The important thing is to get those who are eligible vaccinated and for those who need their second dose to get that second dose within the eight-week period. That is the way we control this variant. I will happily work with him on any local initiative that he is working on.

The evidence is clear: women who are pregnant who get covid are twice as likely to have a premature birth and twice as likely to experience stillbirth. Other countries have recognised this and have ensured that pregnant women of any age are a priority for vaccination, but in this country the conversation about the data has not even happened yet, despite months of asking. There will be thousands of pregnant women in the areas where the variant is on the rise, and across the country, terrified about what might happen if they get covid. What can we do to help them get hold of the vaccine, regardless of age, so that we are protecting the youngest members of our community?

The hon. Lady will know, because she is on the weekly MPs’ call that I host, that the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation is looking at this data. In the meantime, because of data provided by the United States of America, we have made the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines available to all pregnant women who are in the eligible cohort. That is happening as we speak. I know that Professor Anthony Harnden, who is the deputy chair of the JCVI, has promised the hon. Lady that the JCVI is looking at the data; when it delivers the advice to us, the system will follow that advice.

The scale and pace with which we are delivering our vaccine programme is a marvellous achievement and a testament to everybody involved. It is how we are able gradually and safely to come out of the restrictions. Will my hon. Friend confirm that we will always be following the science and the data, so that activities can resume as safely and as soon as possible? I am particularly thinking about indoor gatherings for groups such as community choirs, and other events that bring people together. Such activities are so needed to combat the isolation that has hit so many people during the lockdown.

My hon. Friend will know that the reason for restrictions on activities such as choirs and singing is the added transmission through aerosols or droplets. The faster that we can move the vaccination programme, the sooner we can end those restrictions. Therefore, my absolute focus—and my commitment to him—is that we continue at pace. We have a big week this week and a big week next week.

I thank the Minister for his weekly updates, which I have found really helpful, and for his work on vaccine hesitancy across the black, Asian and minority ethnic community. I had my vaccine on 14 May at St Thomas’ Hospital—the same hospital that cared really well for our Prime Minister. The Prime Minister thanked those nurses, including Luis, who gave me my vaccine. But we saw that Jenny resigned from the NHS last week, so will the Minister use his will and his power to speak to the Treasury to get our hard-working nurses the pay they deserve?

I am grateful for the hon. Member’s commitment in ensuring that we get the vaccine message out to harder-to-reach communities and for her work with me on the weekly meetings. We have delivered an increase to nurses. We await the outcome of the deliberations of the panel that will look at nurses’ pay, and then the Treasury will make an announcement in the usual way

I thank my hon. Friend for his assistance in ensuring continuity of supply to the Baths Hall in Scunthorpe and our other vaccination hubs. Over 71% of our adult population in North Lincolnshire have received their first vaccine and almost 50% have had their second vaccine. Will he join me in thanking the fantastic volunteers who I see outside in all weathers at the Baths Hall, welcoming patients to receive their vaccination? We quite simply could not have done it without them.

I absolutely join my hon. Friend in that, because I see it up and down the country all the time. I spoke earlier about the Dunkirk spirit, with people coming up and saying, “I want to be counted. I want to be part of this.” We demonstrated it to the world a little bit in the 2012 Olympics. This is a whole other scale of operation. Nevertheless, we have delivered on it and will continue to deliver on it, and I stand on the shoulders of the real heroes and heroines of the NHS family, our armed forces and local government.

The vaccine works—it prevents serious illness and helps to prevent transmission—but I read in the papers this morning that even if someone has had two jabs, if they come into contact with someone who is positive after 21 June, they will still have to isolate for 10 days. Could my hon. Friend confirm whether or not that is correct?

I answered a question on this issue earlier. Obviously if someone contracts covid, they have to isolate and quarantine, but in terms of their contacts, we are looking at regular testing to see whether there is an alternative. I am afraid that my hon. Friend will have to wait a little longer before step four, and we will say more on this on 14 June.

It is a pleasure to be back in the Chamber, but for many like me who are immunocompromised, returning in person to the workplace is concerning, as we do not yet know how effective the vaccines are for us. Will the Minister consider allowing immunocompromised people to have access to antibody testing, thereby giving us some idea of the vaccines’ efficacy and some knowledge of our level of protection from the virus?

The hon. Lady asked a similar question last week, and Professor Harnden of the JCVI said that the problem with antibody testing is what it really tells us. I will happily ask the question again on her behalf of the JCVI. Suffice it to say that on 17 May we put out guidance to employers saying that those who are shielding and immunocompromised should be allowed to work from home if they need to.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Government’s position on the coronavirus pandemic is that it is still a question of life and death, that communications are vital in this effort and that compliance follows confidence, which in turn follows competence? Will he confirm when these local lockdown measures were agreed with the leadership at Bolton Council and when the Prime Minister formally agreed to this updated guidance being imposed?

Yes, he did address this issue in his press conference. I can read the right hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) the words from that press conference, because he says from a sedentary position, “He did not.” The Prime Minister said, speaking about Bolton:

“given the caution that I think we have to exercise with this new variant, the risk of extra transmissibility, I would urge people just to think twice about that. That’s what we’re saying. I think that we want people in