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Volume 696: debated on Wednesday 26 May 2021

The thoughts of the House, following the decision by the court this morning, will be with the family and friends of the Hillsborough 96 and the hundreds more who were injured. I know that the Crown Prosecution Service has said it will meet with the families again to answer any questions they may have.

I know colleagues from across the House will want to join me in paying tribute to our former colleague, Mike Weatherley, who sadly died last week. He was a dedicated parliamentarian and a fantastic servant to the people of Hove.

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

I draw the House’s attention to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests as a practising NHS doctor who has been working on the frontline of the NHS during the pandemic. My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Health and Social Care Act 2012 resulted in local authority commissioning of addiction services. Ten years later, almost all addiction services are now run by non-NHS providers. The result is that the numbers in alcohol treatment have fallen, many alcohol detoxes take place in an unplanned manner, and opiate and alcohol deaths are at record levels. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, for the sake of patients, we must bring the commissioning and provision of addiction services back to the NHS, and will he meet me and experts in this field to discuss how we can get this right?

I want to thank my hon. Friend for everything that he has done throughout this pandemic in the NHS, but also for raising this vital issue. I am proud that under this Government we are seeing the biggest increase for 15 years in treatment for substance abuse, but the specific points he raises we will make sure we address with Dame Carol Black, who is undertaking a review of drugs and treatment. We will make sure that his point is fed in.

May I join the Prime Minister in his comments about Hillsborough and Mike Weatherley?

This morning, the Prime Minister’s former closest adviser said:

“When the public needed us most the Government failed.”

Does the Prime Minister agree with that?

The handling of this pandemic has been one of the most difficult things this country has had to do for a very long time. None of the decisions has been easy. To go into a lockdown is a traumatic thing for a country. To deal with a pandemic on this scale has been appallingly difficult. We have at every stage tried to minimise loss of life—to save lives and to protect the NHS—and we have followed the best scientific advice that we can.

Can I remind the Prime Minister that one year ago, almost to the day, he said of his former adviser

“in every respect he has acted responsibly, legally and with integrity”?

This morning that same adviser has said that senior Ministers—these are his words—

“fell disastrously short of the standards that the public has a right to expect of its government”

and that lives were lost as a result. Does the Prime Minister accept that central allegation and that his inaction led to needless deaths?

No. Of course, all those matters will be reviewed in the course of the public inquiry that I have announced. I notice that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is fixated, as ever, on the rear-view mirror, while we on this side of the House are getting on with our job of rolling out the vaccines, making sure that we protect the people of this country. That has been the decisive development on which I think people are rightly focusing. I can tell the House that, in spite of the continuing concern that we have about the Indian variant, we are increasing our vaccination programme at such a rate that we can now ask everybody over 30 to come forward and get vaccinated.

It is no good the Prime Minister attacking me. It is his former chief adviser who is looking back and telling the world how useless the Prime Minister was in taking key decisions—his former adviser.

One of the most serious points made this morning is that the Prime Minister failed to recognise the severity of this virus until it was too late, dismissing it as another “scare story” like the swine flu. Does the Prime Minister recognise that account of his own behaviour? If so, will he apologise for being so complacent about the threat that this virus posed?

I do not think anybody could credibly accuse this Government of being complacent about the threat that this virus posed at any point. We have worked flat out to minimise loss of life and to protect the NHS, while the Opposition have flip-flopped from one position to another, backing curfew one day and opposing it the next, backing lockdowns one day and opposing them the next, calling for tougher border controls one day and then saying that quarantine is a blunt instrument the next. We have got on with the job of protecting the people of this country from one of the worst pandemics in living memory, if not the worst in living memory. We have turned the corner, and it is no thanks to the loyal Opposition.

I can see that the evidence of his former adviser is really getting to the Prime Minister this morning in that response.

Another incredibly serious statement from the Prime Minister’s former adviser this morning concerns the conduct of the Health Secretary, including an allegation that the Health Secretary misled other Ministers and officials on a number of occasions. I do not expect the Prime Minister to respond to that, but can he confirm: did the Cabinet Secretary advise the Prime Minister that he—the Cabinet Secretary—had

“lost confidence in the Secretary of State’s honesty”?

The answer to that is no. I am afraid I have not had the benefit of seeing the evidence that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is bringing to the House, but I must say that I think what the people of this country want us all to do is to get on with the delicate business of trying to reopen our economy, restore people’s freedoms and get back to our way of life by rolling out the vaccine. I would have thought that that was a much more profitable line of inquiry for the right hon. and learned Gentleman today. That is what I think the people of this country want us to focus on.

The Prime Minister cannot have it both ways. Either his former adviser is telling the truth, in which case the Prime Minister should answer the allegations, or the Prime Minister has to suggest that his former adviser is not telling the truth, which raises serious questions about the Prime Minister’s judgment in appointing him in the first place. There is a pattern of behaviour here. There was clearly a lack of planning, poor decision making, a lack of transparency and a Prime Minister who was absent from the key decisions, including five early Cobra meetings, and who was, to quote his former adviser,

“1,000 times far too obsessed with the media”.

Another central allegation briefed overnight is that the Prime Minister delayed the circuit break over the autumn half-term because covid was “only killing 80-year-olds”. I remind the Prime Minister that over 83,000 people over 80 have lost their lives to this virus and that his decision to delay for 40 days, from the SAGE guidance on 21 September until 31 October, will be seen as one of the single biggest failings of the last year. Having been told of the evidence, does the Prime Minister accept that he used the words “Covid is only killing 80-year-olds” or words to that effect?

We saw what happened during the pandemic. Particularly, the right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about the September lockdown and my approach to it, and the very, very difficult decision that the country faced. Of course, this will be a matter for the inquiry to go into, but we have an objective test, in the sense that there was a circuit breaker, of the kind he describes, in Wales. It did not work, and I am absolutely confident that we took the decisions in the best interests of the British people. When it comes to hindsight, I just remind him that he actually—he denied this at the time and then had to correct it—voted to stay in the European Medicines Agency, which would have made it impossible for us to do the vaccine roll-out at the pace that we have.

It is not me giving evidence this morning; it is his former adviser, and I note the Prime Minister is careful not to refute these allegations. What we are seeing today is the latest chapter of a story of confusion, chaos and deadly misjudgments from this Government—from a Prime Minister governing by press release, not a plan. In the last 24 hours, we have seen the same mistakes made again, with the ridiculous way 1.7 million people in Bolton, Burnley, Bedford, Blackburn, Kirklees, Hounslow, Leicester and North Tyneside have been treated. In the light of the drip of these very serious allegations, the failure of the Prime Minister to provide even basic answers and continuing mistakes affecting millions of people, does the Prime Minister now recognise he must bring forward the timing of the public inquiry into covid, and that it should start this summer and as soon as possible?

No. As I have said before, I am not going to concentrate valuable official time on that now while we are still battling a pandemic. I thought actually that was what the House had agreed on. The right hon. and learned Gentleman continues to play these pointless political games, while we get on with delivering on the people’s priorities: 40 new hospitals; 8,771 more police on our streets; we are getting on with sorting out the railways; we are giving people—young people—the opportunity of home ownership in a way they have never had before, with 95% mortgages; and we have vaccinated. We have delivered 60 million vaccinations across this country, more than—he loves these European comparisons—any other European country, including 22 million second doses. That, with great respect to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, is I believe the priority of the British people. That is really what they are focused on, while he voted to stay in the European Medicines Agency. The Opposition vacillate; we vaccinate. They deliberate; we deliver.

I am sure my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister remembers with great fondness his trip in July last year to the Discovery School in Kings Hill, but he probably remembers best his meeting with Tony Hudgell, an amazing and inspirational young boy, who had at that point already raised a million and a half pounds for charity and been awarded by my right hon. Friend the Points of Light award, which he so generously hands out to those who have achieved so much. Will he join Tony, Tony’s parents, Paula and Mark, me and many others around the country in campaigning for Tony’s law—new clause 56 to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill? This is a very minor change to a very important Bill that would bring child abuse sentencing in line with that for adult abuse. I know he has put his heart into this space, and I am sure we can all look forward to his support. (900658)

I thank my hon. Friend, and of course I remember Tony very well. I remember his incredible campaign and the amount of money he raised, and I thank him for it. All I can say is it is very important that cases like that—injustices such as that suffered by Tony—receive the full force of the law. People who commit serious offences against children can receive exactly the same penalties as those who commit serious offences against adults, but we will keep this under review, and if there is a gap in the law—I will study his amendment very closely—we will make sure that we remedy it.

May I associate myself with the Prime Minister’s remarks on those seeking justice for Hillsborough? To quote the song, “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

One hundred and twenty-eight thousand people have died of coronavirus in the United Kingdom. This morning the Prime Minister’s most senior former adviser, Dominic Cummings, apologised on behalf of the UK Government. He said:

“When the public needed us most”

we “failed.” We know the Prime Minister made a series of catastrophic errors throughout the crisis: he went on holiday when he should have been leading efforts to tackle the pandemic; he was too slow to go into lockdown; he failed to secure our borders; he sent millions of people back to their offices prematurely. There is no doubt that these mistakes cost many thousands of lives. When even a disgraced figure like Dominic Cummings is willing to own up and apologise, is it not time that the Prime Minister does the same?

I take full responsibility for everything that has happened, and as I have said before, as the right hon. Gentleman will recall, both in this House and elsewhere, I am truly sorry for the suffering that the people of this country have experienced. But I maintain my point that the Government acted throughout with the intention to save life and protect the NHS, and in accordance with the best scientific advice; that is exactly what we did.

The evidence we have heard this morning is extraordinary but, sadly, not surprising. It paints a familiar pattern of behaviour: a negligent Prime Minister more concerned with his own self-interest than the interests of the United Kingdom. When people were dying, the United Kingdom Government were considering chicken pox parties and joking about injecting the Prime Minister with covid live on TV.

We had a circus act when we needed serious Government: is it not the case that when the country needed leadership most the Prime Minister was missing in action? Thousands have paid the ultimate price for his failure; when will the Prime Minister finally accept responsibility for the failures of his Government?

As I have said repeatedly in this House, I take full responsibility for everything that the Government did and will continue to do so, and one of the reasons why we have set up an independent public inquiry is that I believe the people of this country deserve to have daylight shone on all the issues the right hon. Gentleman raised. I must say that I do not recognise the events that he describes, but I do think that we acted throughout with the intention of saving life, of protecting the NHS and of taking the country through the worst pandemic for 100 years, and I think it is also true that we are in a much more fortunate position now thanks to the efforts of the British people and the fastest vaccine roll-out in Europe, and I am grateful for that as well.

I spent Monday morning at the Fitz country house in Cockermouth with an alpaca called Boris. Cumbria sees significant numbers of tourists in any normal year, but Cumbria is not just lakes: we have some real gems in my constituency of Workington outside the national park. With a real opportunity for the UK hospitality industry this year as people choose to holiday here, will my right hon. Friend consider taking a short break in my constituency, where I might facilitate an introduction to Boris? (900660)

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend and would love to come and meet the alpaca called Boris, but, more importantly, we want to support tourism in his constituency, which is why we have so far provided over £25 billion of support, including £1.5 million to support projects such as the Carnegie Theatre Trust—and since this week is English Tourism Week I encourage everyone to make the most of the tourism on their doorstep.

The EU settlement scheme closes on 30 June. While the Home Office has finally published guidance on late applications the Government are failing to provide clarity. What will happen to those who miss the deadline and then fall under the remit of illegal working legislation? Can the Prime Minister assure the House that EU citizens or non-EU family members who miss the deadline will not face potential criminal liability if they continue to go into work?

I am sure the law will be extremely merciful to anybody who finds themselves in a difficult position, but I would just remind the hon. Gentleman that so far 5.4 million EU nationals have applied successfully for the EU settlement scheme, which as far as I remember is about 2 million more EU nationals than we thought we were in the country in the first place.

Will the Prime Minister join me in praising Wrexham and Denbighshire councils for the dynamic proposals they are putting forward in their joint bid for the levelling up fund in Clwyd South, including regeneration of the Trevor Basin, improvements for Chirk and Llangollen, and investment in Corwen station and the surrounding area? (900661)

May I tell my hon. Friend what a joy it is to hear him campaigning for Chirk, Corwen and Llangollen after I tramped around those beautiful places entirely fruitlessly many, many years ago in search of the Conservative vote? Thank you for what you have done. Thank you for continuing to champion those wonderful and beautiful spots.

When any Member of this House is suspended for 10 days or more because of a Standards Committee report, constituents can then recall that Member. When the Independent Expert Panel suspends a Member, that cannot happen. The Prime Minister was talking a moment ago about closing loopholes in legislation. Will he introduce emergency legislation to close this particular loophole? Does he agree that it would be completely dishonourable for any Member to exploit that loophole, and that they should instead do the decent thing and resign? (900656)

I take that point very seriously. I will study the implications of what the hon. Gentleman says. If the he is referring to a Conservative Member who has recently had the Whip taken away, he can take it that that Member has already had condign punishment.

Last Thursday at about 1 o’clock in the morning three young people popped out to Maccy D’s, as you do, and noticed a Leyland shop massively on fire. Did they drive past? No. They rang the fire brigade. They stopped. They recruited a passer-by. They climbed over fences and walls to raise the alarm for the residents living in the flats above. During the pandemic, community spirit has been really important to all of us keeping going. Does the Prime Minister share my admiration for Kim, Zach, Shania and Robin, and will he join me in thanking them for showing British community spirit and true Lancashire grit? (900665)

Yes. I thank my hon. Friend for singling out this intrepid act of quick-thinking and selflessness. I pay tribute to Kim, Zach, Shania and Robin, and I hope they got their Maccy D’s.

There are over 4.3 million children—and rising—growing up in poverty, including some 18,000 in Harrow. Will the Prime Minister agree to put right the error of a previous Prime Minister, and commit to publish a strategy to tackle child poverty and ensure that no child is left behind? (900657)

It is vital that we tackle child poverty, and that is why we are levelling up across the country with the biggest programme of investment for a generation, if not more. We are also seeing fewer households now with children in poverty than 10 years ago, but I perfectly accept that there is more to be done.

I very much welcome the fact that the Government are investing heavily in upgrading rail networks across the country, including opening lines that have previously been closed. As a Conservative Government, we have a particular responsibility to the taxpayer to ensure value for money. The business case for East West Rail in my constituency is largely based on commuting, but the pandemic means we are in the middle of a workplace revolution. If in future people work from home on average two days a week, that will mean a 40% reduction in commuting. Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister commit to doing a review of East West Rail’s business case to ensure it remains value for money and to take into account the long-term impact of the pandemic? (900667)

My hon. Friend is a great campaigner for Cambridgeshire and the rights of the people of Cambridgeshire. However, my strong feeling is that it would be a mistake now to go slow on investment in infrastructure purely on the basis that we think people will start working from home. My long experience of this is that people need to travel and they will travel. The commuter bustle will come back, and it needs to come back.

A global minimum rate for corporate tax would help to tackle tax avoidance by large multinational corporations and online giants. It would stop them undercutting British businesses who pay their fair share, and it would make a transformational difference to high streets and town centres at the heart of communities across the UK. Why is the Prime Minister the only G7 leader not to support this proposal? Why is he on the side of tax avoiders, instead of British businesses and communities? (900659)

It was only a few months ago that the Labour Front Benchers opposed the corporation tax increases we put in. They are now opposed to the Government’s ability to cut corporation tax. Which side are they on? They have got to make their minds up.

Like me, the Prime Minister represents a constituency in London’s commuter land, so he will be well aware of the small businesses—sole traders, many of them—who operate the coffee stores, newsagents and so on at our railway stations. Their incomes have been absolutely decimated during the pandemic, but they are finding, like my constituent Sanjay Sharma at Chislehurst station, that when they seek to get a reduced level of rent to reflect their reduced turnover, the train operating companies claim that the funding agreement put in place with the Department for Transport does not give them the discretion to do so. The Department appears to say differently, and they have been going around in circles for months trying to get an answer. Will the Prime Minister use the authority of his office, please, to bang heads together and get a solution for them, because if they go broke and we have empty units, that is no income for anybody? (900668)

We introduced a policy to provide rent relief for station businesses in March last year. All train operators, including Southeastern in my hon. Friend’s constituency, are able to offer business support to their stations. I understand the point he makes about the discrepancy of views. Can I undertake to arrange a meeting with him and the relevant Minister to take it forward?

I have asked the Prime Minister a series of questions about charities. In November, he promised support. By March he had turned his back, but this month, he broke that promise, giving them nothing this winter. His words and deeds are as unfaithful as his principles and beliefs. He has neither the commitment to honour his word, the capacity to care, nor the compassion to act. Does the Prime Minister really believe that charity is all about supporting him and his lifestyle or recognise that charities now £10 billion in debt and struggling to survive need Government support to help people in real need? (900662)

I think charities perform an amazing and invaluable role in our society and in our lives, and we need them. That is why we have supported charity shops throughout the lockdown with restart grants—the road map means that those shops are now able to open again—but, in addition, we had a £750 million targeted package of support for charities, helping more than 14,000 organisations across the country, including funding for hospices, homelessness charities, shelters for victims of domestic abuse and many others.

The fishing industry in East Anglia has had a hard time of it in recent years. However, with Brexit done, albeit in a way that left many disappointed, there is now an opportunity to turn the corner. The REAF—renaissance of East Anglian fisheries—strategy sets out an exciting and ambitious programme for the future. Is the Prime Minister able to say how the Government will work with fishing communities, such as that in Lowestoft, to revive the industry in East Anglia?

I thank my hon. Friend for what he is doing to champion the fisheries industry in East Anglia. I like his REAF plan. I think it has lots of interesting ideas, which we will take forward as part of our £100 million package to support the fishing industry and get ready to take advantage of those opportunities that are coming very swiftly down the track towards us.

NHS and social care staff in Wales are due to receive a £500 bonus in recognition of their hard work during the pandemic, but staff on universal credit stand to lose out due to the way in which the award is recognised in the regulations as earned income, so instead of receiving a thank you bonus at the end of the month, many NHS and social care staff will be punished with a deduction of up to 63% from their universal credit. Will the Prime Minister look to amend regulation 55 of the Universal Credit Regulations 2013 to create an exemption to ensure that all NHS and social care staff in Wales benefit fully from this well-deserved bonus? (900663)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. Of course, I want to repeat my gratitude to the nurses of this country and the NHS and social care staff who have done incredible work throughout this pandemic. He makes a particular point about the tapering in universal credit, and I will make sure that he has a meeting with the relevant Minister, who will set out the detail on the issue he has raised.

On behalf of my constituent Seema Misra and other wrongly convicted sub-postmasters, I am grateful that the vital inquiry of Sir Wyn Williams into that scandal has now been given more teeth. However, there is widespread concern, shared by Post Office CEO Nick Read, that the compensation received by the sub-postmasters who were party to the civil litigation at the High Court was simply not fair. I urge the Prime Minister to ensure that those civil litigant sub-postmasters will be included in the anticipated Government compensation scheme.

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that issue—a tragic case of injustice. I have met some of the postmasters and sub-postmasters who have been affected by that miscarriage of justice. As he knows, the Government were not party to the initial litigation, nor the settlement that was agreed, but we are determined to ensure that postmasters and sub-postmasters are fairly compensated for what happened.

Brexit and Scottish independence are, indeed, very different, but referendums are much the same. In 2016, without interference, the EU respected the UK in the Brexit referendum process. Unfortunately, the last Scottish referendum did not see Scotland get the same respect. London politicians promised Scotland a place in the European Union. They won that referendum, very clearly, on broken promises. In the autumn, when the Scots Government have dealt with the health effects of the pandemic, the economic part of it will require independence, as Norway and Ireland prove. So, Prime Minister, will Scotland be shown the same respect in the UK as the UK got in the EU, and this time can our democracy not be interfered with, and our referendum certainly not blocked? (900664)

We respected the referendum result of 2014, which was a very substantial majority in favour of remaining in the UK, keeping our wonderful country together, not breaking it up. That was what the people of Scotland rightly voted for, and they did so in the belief that it was a once-in-a-generation event.

For almost 500 years the Royal Navy has protected our country from foes and protected the freedom of our friends around the world. The pride of our navy, HMS Queen Elizabeth, sailed this week with her strike group. Within her she carries the British values of freedom, justice and democracy, so can my right hon. Friend tell me, as she makes her way from the Mediterranean to the South China Sea, what his plans are for the future of her white ensign?

It was fantastic to be on board the HMS Queen Elizabeth, which is a vessel longer than the Palace of Westminster, and forms a more eloquent statement, in many ways, than many of the speeches and interventions that we have heard this afternoon, about Britain’s role in the world and our determination to expand shipbuilding and expand our naval presence, which is good not only for the UK and for the world, but good for jobs and growth around the country.

Covid has triggered the first global rise in extreme poverty this century, but at the G7 the Prime Minister could act. He can ask leaders to reallocate the International Monetary Fund’s £1 trillion-worth of special drawing rights and restock the World Bank’s £83 billion-worth of International Development Association funds. This is a multi-billion pound package of support for the world’s poorest. Will the Prime Minister today commit to leading that argument at the G7, so that a pandemic of disease does not now become a pandemic of poverty? (900666)

I thank the right hon. Gentleman. It is great to see him in his place—it is always great to see him in this place. Actually, I have had conversations on that very matter already with Kristalina Georgiera.

One of the many awful things about the past year has been the inability to visit family and friends in hospital. It has caused immense anguish for many of my constituents. We are seeing some progress locally and I hope that, with the brilliant roll-out of the vaccine, we will see more, but can the Prime Minister inform the House when normal visiting hours will resume for all hospitals nationwide?

I know that my hon. Friend speaks for many millions of people who have wanted to visit loved ones and I know the anguish that they have felt. We need to balance those wholly legitimate feelings with the need to manage the risk of infection, as I know my hon. Friend understands very well. We will update the guidance as soon as it is possible to do so.

Tala, 13, Rula, just five years old, her big sister Yara, aged nine: three Palestinian children killed in an Israeli air- strike. The Israeli military murdered 63 other children and 245 Palestinians in its recent assault on Gaza. The call for Palestinian freedom has never been louder, but this Conservative Government are complicit in its denial. They have approved more than £400 million in arms to Israel since 2015, so can the Prime Minister look me in the eye and tell me that British-made weapons or components were not used in the war crimes that killed these three children and hundreds of other Palestinians? [Interruption.] (900669)

I think that the whole House understands that nobody wants to see any more of the appalling conflict in Israel and Gaza, and that we are all glad that there is now a ceasefire and a de-escalation. As for the position of the British Government, it is probably common ground among most Members that we want a two-state solution. The UK Government have campaigned for that for many years and it continues to be our position.

I am now suspending the House for three minutes to enable the necessary arrangements to be made for the next business.

Sitting suspended.