House of Commons
Thursday 27 May 2021
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[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
Electoral Commission (Answer to Address)
The Vice-Chamberlain of the Household reported a message from the Queen in reply to a loyal and dutiful Address from this House:
I have received your humble Address praying that I should appoint John Pullinger CB as the Chair of the Electoral Commission with effect from 1 May for the period ending on 31 April 2025. I will comply with your request.
That the Speaker do issue his Warrant to the Clerk of the Crown to make out a new Writ for the electing of a Member to serve in this present Parliament for the Borough constituency of Batley and Spen in the room of Tracy Lynn Brabin, who, since her election for the said Borough constituency, has been appointed to the Office of Steward and Bailiff of Her Majesty’s Three Chiltern Hundreds of Stoke, Desborough and Burnham in the county of Buckingham.—(Sir Alan Campbell.)
Oral Answers to Questions
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—
Barriers to Trade Between EU and UK
We have been working closely with businesses to help them adjust to any new requirements for trading with the EU. Monthly Office for National Statistics trade figures have shown that exports to the EU have rebounded strongly and have been above average monthly 2020 levels.
On top of the impact on our local fishing fleet, Brexit is driving businesses to move operations to Europe. Foxglide, a sportswear company, is not just facing shipping delays and having to pay VAT on the materials it imports, but, due to rules of origin, facing tariffs on the garments it exports to the EU. So does the Minister accept that, contrary to the Prime Minister’s claims, the deal does not deliver tariff-free trade and is damaging local economies?
I thank the hon. Lady for raising that particular case. As she will know, we are always happy to talk directly to businesses, or through their Members of Parliament, to see what we can do to help their particular circumstances, but all the issues that she raises are being worked through by my noble Friend Lord Frost. We are also setting up new structures to work with our counterparts in the EU. We have opportunities with member states to resolve these matters.
UK trade exports to the EU fell 23% in the first quarter of the year, compared with 0.8% to non-EU countries. It is clear to everyone that that is a consequence of the Tories’ Brexit deal—everyone that is except this Government. Will the Minister finally accept that her Government’s deal has harmed exports—in other words, harmed business in my constituency, in her constituency and right across these islands?
I do not accept that. Businesses have had to contend with a huge amount and they have done a tremendous job to get this far. There are remaining issues, but, on the trade figures, as I said in my opening remarks, they have rebounded; they are actually above average compared with what they were at the beginning of last year. What the hon. Lady does not refer to is the 63 trade deals that we have done elsewhere in the world and that will bring huge opportunities for businesses in her constituency and across the UK.
Five months ago, I raised with the Cabinet Secretary the case of a local business facing significant problems importing from Belgium. It is now reporting a doubling in time before products arrive, significant extra costs and significant extra red tape. These are not just teething problems. Is it not clear that the task requires wholescale dental treatment, starting with a far closer alignment with the single market, starting with an urgent veterinary agreement on sanitary and phytosanitary rules?
I would be very happy to look at any cases that hon. Members raise. We can put them in touch with the subject matter experts to work through what mitigations we can bring and what financial support we can give to make sure that businesses are accessing the schemes. As I say, my noble Friend Lord Frost is very focused on these issues. We have done a huge amount of work with businesses directly but also through their trade bodies, and we will bring forward new support for them as we go further to give them the bespoke advice that they need.
In February, I raised with the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster the issue of Wilde Mode, a company in my constituency, and the increases in shipping costs it has had. In the past week or so, it has confirmed that it is still being quoted about €1,000 to ship in from Poland, when pre Brexit it was effectively zero. What concrete action are the Government going to take to resolve these problems, to end this uncompetitiveness and to mitigate these massive Brexit-driven cost increases?
In addition to the work that my noble Friend Lord Frost is leading on, which the right hon. Gentleman will be aware of, and the financial support we have put in place, we are monitoring what businesses are being charged, whether it is through trader support services or through particular aspects of the supply chain. We are monitoring those costs, and that is factored into our work and the work that Lord Frost is taking forward.
Monitoring is fine, but we need action. Let me raise the issue of another business: ATL Turbine Services, which brings into Scotland for repair turbine parts from around Europe and the world. It has told me that its post-Brexit admin costs are now 10 to 15 times greater than they were last year. It cannot use the Revenue’s post-VAT accounting processes. It is encountering significantly more shipping errors, not just costs. Most damningly, it has said that, while the high-level structure has been put in place, the details of how it works in practice are basically non-existent and, where they do exist, have fallen short. Cost increases, administrative burdens, shipping errors, no useful guidance—when will this Government finally take these issues seriously? Would it not be better to admit, finally, that the truth is that, for business, Brexit is not working?
I have been doing a large amount of work with Lord Frost to look at what advice and support there is for businesses and what their needs are. They now need at this stage more bespoke support, and we are standing that up and putting it in place. We will be informing Members of this House about that in short order. As well as mitigating the difficulties that we are having, as a nation, to work through, we want people to maximise the opportunities. The trade deals that I referred to represent £217 billion-worth of business. We want all businesses across the UK to maximise that and we will provide the space for them to do that.
UK-EU Trade and Co-operation Agreement
Following the ratification of the trade and co-operation agreement, we are working with the EU to set up the Partnership Council and the specialised committees that form part of the treaty infrastructure to ensure that new trading arrangements are implemented and are working effectively.
From the testimony we heard at the Joint Committee session yesterday and the answers we have had today, we know that the Government are in complete chaos on all of this. They went into Brexit with their eyes wide shut. Is it not the case that, once we are clear of the covid pandemic, the chaos and true costs of Brexit will become clear?
I would gently say to the hon. Gentleman that Lord Frost and his team are working through these issues. Only next month, we will hopefully be having the first Partnership Council meeting. Those structures will be stood up, so we will have other methods where we can work through these issues. When Lord Frost goes into bat on those issues, it would be helpful if Members of this House stood up for all nations of the United Kingdom in the negotiations and got behind him. I think that would improve our chances.
Covid-19: Public Inquiry
On 12 May, the Prime Minister confirmed to the House that a public inquiry into covid-19 would be established on a statutory basis with full formal powers. It will begin its work in spring 2022, and further details will be set out in due course.
Earlier this week, I visited the covid memorial wall opposite Parliament to remember those I have lost to this crisis, including my mum and both my parents-in-law. Yesterday, grieving families like mine watched in horror as Mr Cummings detailed the litany of failures and gross incompetence right at the heart of this Government, which the proposed statutory inquiry will no doubt examine in much more detail. Given the importance of this inquiry to bereaved families, will the Minister agree to meet me and representatives from Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice as soon as possible, to ensure that their voices are heard?
First, may I pass on my condolences to the hon. Member for the sad loss of members of his family? I know that the whole House will want to pass on sympathies and condolences. So many people have lost those dear to them. That is why it is so important that, at the inquiry, we ensure that the voices of victims are heard and their questions are answered properly and fully.
The healing will not start until the public inquiry begins. Yesterday’s Select Committees’ damning evidence clearly caused significant pain to grieving families. They need answers now—they need to know whether decisions by this Government could have avoided the death of their loved ones, and that includes 396 families in my city of York. Does the Minister understand why the commencement of the public inquiry must not be delayed until next year, especially following yesterday’s evidence? Will he bring it forward and ensure that bereaved families not only are consulted on the scope of the inquiry but have their questions answered?
The hon. Lady makes an important point. A statutory inquiry is obviously the right way to ensure that all the right questions are asked and that full answers are arrived at. To ensure that the inquiry works, the experience, voices and views of those who have suffered so much must be a critical part in ensuring that it is set up appropriately.
Jane Roche from Erdington tragically lost her father Vince and her sister Jocelyn within five days of one another last April. This devastating loss has driven Jane and thousands like her to be tireless campaigners for justice for those who lost their lives. Does the Minister agree that it is imperative that the public inquiry has the full confidence of the relatives who are grieving to this day? Will he therefore commit to ensuring that the bereaved families groups are fully consulted on who is the chair of the inquiry and the inquiry’s terms of reference? Finally, will he commit to the Prime Minister meeting personally the covid-19 bereaved families? They want to meet with him. Will he meet with them?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the case of his constituents who have suffered so much and who, understandably, want to ensure that the inquiry provides them with answers at a time of grief and not only contributes to the healing process but ensures that appropriate lessons are learned. I look forward, as everyone in the Government does, to working with victims’ groups to ensure that the inquiry can command their confidence.
Civil Service Jobs Outside London
The Government are committed to the relocation of 22,000 roles from London to every part of the United Kingdom by the end of this decade. It is all part of our Places for Growth initiative, and it will ensure that the civil service is more representative of the communities it serves, bringing more diversity of thought into policy making. The Cabinet Office has recently announced that our second headquarters will be located in Glasgow, and a number of other Departments have announced their plans to increase their presence across the UK. Just last week, the Home Office announced that there will be 500 new jobs in Stoke-on-Trent, and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy announced that 865 roles are relocating to six locations across the UK, including Darlington.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that I have been fighting for the decentralisation of the civil service to the north, particularly to my constituency of Rother Valley, and the Leader of the House responded to me positively on this only last week. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that the civil service jobs relocating to northern areas will be high-quality, high-powered roles, rather than simply backroom processing positions, which I fear would be a purely cosmetic change and would not constitute a real shift in power to the north? Can I invite him to come to Rother Valley to discuss those opportunities and all new job opportunities in Rother Valley?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point, and it is absolutely critical that the jobs relocated include those in the senior civil service responsible for decision making. Not only do areas such as South Yorkshire and his constituency provide a very high quality of life for individuals, but it is important that the talent there is deployed at the very heart of decision making. I hope to be able to visit Rother Valley to see my hon. Friend and others in his constituency next month. [Interruption.]
This Government’s levelling-up agenda will transform our nation, but does my right hon. Friend agree that we cannot deliver this agenda unless we level up both cities and rural areas such as Rutland and Melton? Can I invite him and his officials to visit the rural capital of food, Melton Mowbray, to see why nowhere in the country makes a more compelling offer for a Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs office and the transformative Places for Growth programme than Melton, and why this will show the Government’s commitment to the east midlands and to rural areas?
Rutland and Melton could not wish for a more effective advocate than my hon. Friend. She talked to my colleague Lord Agnew and me in the Cabinet Office just last week to press the case for a relocation of jobs to Melton. It has a superb agricultural college, is at the heart of our food-producing countryside, produces superb products and also has many of the facilities, logistical and otherwise, that would recommend it to Government Departments, and I look forward to working with her on the prospect of relocation.
On behalf of the people of Stoke-on-Trent, Kidsgrove and Talke, I want to thank my right hon. Friend, his colleagues in the Cabinet Office and the Home Secretary—the former Stokie and Keele University graduate—for passing our litmus test on the Government’s commitment to levelling up in delivering over 550 high-skilled and well-paid jobs by making Stoke-on-Trent the second home for the Home Office. Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that this major investment from this Conservative Government shows that the people of Stoke-on-Trent will never be forgotten or take for granted again, as they have been previously?
One of the regular features of the last few months has been the near daily popping into my WhatsApp, email or SMS box of messages from my hon. Friend pressing the case for Stoke-on-Trent and for the relocation of senior civil service jobs, and can I say that his persistence and advocacy have paid off? My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has recognised that Stoke-on-Trent—an amazing place—is absolutely the right home for the second Home Office HQ.
Now here comes my pitch!
My Stourbridge constituency is the jewel of the urban west midlands, full of talent and ambition, and some may say it is the perfect “location, location” for any future proposed civil service moves outside London. Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that of course Stourbridge should be top of the list? Of course, the Cabinet Office would be more than welcome to locate there.
I am tempted to say that it is rather like the judgment of Paris. In choosing between Stourbridge or Wolverhampton or Walsall, it is almost as though one is choosing between three beautiful divines or deities. All I would say is that Stourbridge is a fantastic location not just for future Government jobs, but for the private sector. It is part of a west midlands undergoing a revival, with new, energetic Members of Parliament like her and of course a re-elected metro Mayor in Andy Street.
Voter ID: Enfranchisement
With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will take these Questions together, if that is okay.
Some 3.5 million people in the UK do not have the type of ID papers that this Government have deemed suitable to allow them to participate in a vote, so what are the Government going to do to ensure that people will not be denied their basic human right to take part in a democratic, free and fair election in the UK by these Government changes?
The hon. Lady makes a very important point. It is integral to our democracy that everyone has the chance to vote and to have their voice heard, and research commissioned by the Cabinet Office shows that 98% of the electorate already hold an accepted form of photographic identification, and for those who do not currently a free local voter card will be available from their local authority.
The Bromley wards in my constituency were part of a voter ID pilot in 2018 and the council’s own figures suggest that 154 people were turned away from polling stations because of the requirement for ID. If this was scaled up nationally the overall number of those disfranchised would be huge, and the Equality and Human Rights Commission says it would disproportionately impact ethnic minority communities and older people, yet there were only 33 allegations of voter personation at the 2019 general election. Can the Minister not see the huge disparity here?
The hon. Lady makes an important point. It is incumbent on local authorities like her excellent local authority in Lewisham to work to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to vote. I should say, because her question gives me an opportunity to do so, that in recent local elections, not just for the London Assembly and the London Mayor but across the country, those who work in local government—returning officers and others—did a sterling job in challenging circumstances, and I know that as we introduce reforms to ensure the integrity of the ballot, local authorities such as hers will be at the forefront of delivering those changes.
The Prime Minister once said:
“If I am ever asked…to produce my ID card as evidence that I am who I say I am…then I will…physically eat it”,
so why the change of heart? It is not because of evidence of voter ballot fraud, because just six cases were confirmed at the last election while millions of people risk losing their vote because they do not have photo ID. Might it instead be because the Conservatives want to copy voter suppression tactics used in the USA, disproportionately disenfranchising black, Asian and ethnic minority communities, Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, working-class people, trans people and young people—all groups less likely to vote Conservative?
We are not seeking to emulate America; we are seeking to emulate the Labour Government who introduced a form of photographic identification for voters in Northern Ireland when they were in power. I should say that the hon. Lady made reference to working-class people, and overwhelmingly, working-class people now are much more likely to vote Conservative than Labour.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster knows fine well that there was evidence of voter personation in Northern Ireland, which was why we needed to see a change in legislation there, but he also knows that there have been only four convicted cases of electoral personation in Britain. So with £4 million of taxpayers’ money already down the drain on testing this policy, that is £1 million per conviction; I have got to ask him, does he think this is really a good use of taxpayers’ money?
I have to question whether the right hon. Gentleman thinks that is a good use of taxpayers’ money when there are people waiting for mental health beds up and down this country; I have to ask him whether it is the Government’s priority when we have children needing to catch up on the education that they have been denied over the past year. If the Government want to spend this money on electoral matters, why not get the 9 million people who are not registered correctly in this country registered on the electoral rolls, allow them to use their vote and consider introducing universal voter registration?
The hon. Lady makes two important points. Obviously, as we emerge from covid concentrating on recovery in public services is important, and she is absolutely right to say that there is work to be done not just in mental health but in the NHS and education, but fundamentally the integrity of our democracy is an important issue. As she knows, and as she has been reminded by my hon. Friend the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution, the Labour party’s own internal democracy depends on the production of voter ID and—[Interruption.] Facts are chiels that winna ding, as we say in Aberdeen, and on that basis we are delighted to be emulating Labour party policy, in this regard at least.
Government Contracts: Bids from Small Businesses
Small and medium-sized businesses are the backbone of our UK economy. That is why it is vital that we are ensuring that the power of Government spending supports that vital sector, as part of both the economic recovery from covid-19 and our levelling-up agenda. We are increasing opportunities for SMEs in a variety of ways, and our measures are working. Those measures include breaking up contracts into smaller chunks, transparently publishing contract pipelines and removing complexity from the bidding process. Additionally, our new social value model explicitly allows greater weight to be given to those bids that help drive post-covid recovery.
Hastings and Rother Federation of Small Businesses has highlighted the need for small business-led levelling up. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that small businesses in places such as beautiful Hastings and Rye have opportunities in public procurement processes, in line with a rebalancing of local economies?
I agree that SMEs play a vital role in our levelling-up agenda. We want to see a greater variety of companies delivering Government contracts from every corner of our country. I am sure that our new social value approach will mean more opportunities for SMEs and social enterprises to win Government contracts by demonstrating the full extent of the value that they will generate, not just economically but taking into account the additional social benefits that can be achieved from the delivery of contracts.
In its last report, the women and enterprise all-party parliamentary group found that women-owned businesses added £115 billion to the UK economy, despite securing only about 5% of Government and public sector contracts. What more can the Government do to encourage more female-owned small businesses to come forward to apply for contracts and have the confidence that they will have an equal chance in the procurement process?
I thank my hon. Friend for everything that he does as chair of the APPG on women and enterprise. I share his concern that SME owners of all backgrounds should be benefiting from the investment that Government contracts bring. We are doing more than ever to encourage all SMEs, including those owned by women, into public procurement. Government spending with SMEs continues to rise, with 26.7% of the £58 billion spent by the Government in 2019-20 going to SMEs.
Levelling up is at the heart of the Government’s agenda to build back better after the pandemic and to deliver for citizens in every part of the United Kingdom. Later this year, the Government will publish a landmark levelling-up White Paper, which will set out bold new policy interventions to improve livelihoods and opportunity in every part of the United Kingdom.
The levelling-up agenda set out by this Government will ensure that long-forgotten communities across the midlands finally get the investment they deserve. Levelling up in order to regenerate our town centres and high streets, support individuals into employment, improve local transport links and invest in local culture will have a hugely positive impact across our country and in my constituency of Broxtowe. Does my right hon. Friend agree that having the HS2 east midlands hub in Toton is the only choice in line with the Government’s agenda to level up the east midlands?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. He is a brilliantly effective advocate for Nottinghamshire and the people he serves. Indeed, investment in HS2 is critical to levelling up. The case he makes for Toton is one that I know resonates in the Department for Transport, and I will make sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is aware of his dedicated advocacy for that particular outcome.
I welcome the Government’s action so far on the levelling-up agenda to spread opportunity across the UK in order to support jobs, businesses and economic growth. However, I urge my right hon. Friend to pay special attention to the under- achievement of working-class boys, many of whom are not reaching their full potential. In particular, it is essential to ensure that people who work in the civil service come from all walks of life.
My right hon. Friend, as ever, is spot on. As well as being a brilliantly effective advocate for business, he is also someone with a distinguished former career in education, particularly further and technical education, and in advancing the careers of young people from working-class backgrounds. He is absolutely right. We need to do more in the civil service, as the recent Social Mobility Commission report points out, echoing points that he has been making for some time.
I very much welcome the levelling-up fund and the transformative difference it can make to constituents such as mine in Hyndburn and Haslingden. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is only a small part of our levelling-up agenda and that it is important that investment in local transport infrastructure continues, such as looking at the scope for freight terminals and the reopening of railway lines?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and Accrington and Oswaldtwistle could not have a better advocate. She is absolutely correct to point out that we need not just new investment in improved rail —indeed, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has been reversing some of the Beeching cuts, with more to follow—but to ensure that local bus services and other transport routes are invested in. I know that she is a particularly passionate advocate for improving local bus services as well.
It is very welcome that north Wales is set to benefit from the UK Government’s levelling-up agenda, but will my right hon. Friend confirm what actions he is taking to ensure that it benefits not only the region as a whole, but areas of particular localised need?
I am looking forward to visiting north Wales and, I hope, my hon. Friend’s constituency, later this summer. One of the things I want to do is make sure that every aspect of levelling up—not just macro infrastructure projects but the micro projects that contribute so much to making communities cherished and attractive—are part of the levelling-up fund. I look forward in particular to working with local government in north Wales to make sure that our funds are spent as effectively as possible.
Cornwall has been recognised for decades as one of the most disadvantaged parts of our country. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that Cornwall will be at the heart of the Government’s levelling-up agenda? Can he say what plans the Government have specifically to invest in the Cornish economy and the jobs of the future?
My hon. Friend will know that the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care was in Cornwall earlier this week. He spoke from Cornwall at the Cabinet meeting emphasising the vital importance of investment not just in improved health care in Cornwall, but of making sure that jobs and opportunities for people in Cornwall were extended as well. The message is already being heard in the heart of Government, but my hon. Friend’s continued advocacy for Cornwall makes the point that, while it is perhaps one of the most beautiful parts of the United Kingdom, it also contains areas that desperately need Government and private sector investment and support for citizens to flourish.
Covid-19: Government Contracts
It is already Government policy to adopt and encourage greater transparency in their commercial activity. Of course, central Government buyers must publish all their qualifying tender documents and contracts with a contract value over £10,000 on Contracts Finder. We recognise, however, that there have been delays to publishing some covid-19-related contracts, and teams continue to work on publishing them as soon as possible.
Seventy-two per cent. of covid-related contracts awarded between February and November 2020 were reported after the 30-day legal deadline, with £7.4 billion-worth of that total reported more than 100 days after the contract was awarded. In comparison, it took Ukraine, which was trying to deal with a major conflict at the same time, less than one day to publish information on more than 103,000 covid contracts. I appreciate that the Good Law Project, EveryDoctor and other activists have taken the Government to the High Court, which confirmed that the Government acted unlawfully, but is it because of incompetence or because they are so imbued in cronyism that the Government lag so far behind on transparency? When will all public contracts finally be published?
All contracts will be published. As I mentioned earlier, we are doing our very best to do that. I would say two things. First, the hon. Gentleman talks about cronyism. There is no evidence of that. What there is evidence of is people in the public sector and in Government working incredibly hard to make sure that personal protective equipment and other goods were there at the frontline. I am sure that on reflection he will consider that that particular choice of language might need revisiting.
Secondly, on the point he makes about Ukraine, one of the things the Department for International Development and others were doing in the past was making sure that we invest in civil society capacity in Ukraine. I am delighted that Ukraine is making strides forward, but that is partly thanks to the work done by my right hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt), working with others, when she was Secretary of State for International Development.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said in the last Cabinet Office questions:
“Transparency drives everything that the Government do”.—[Official Report, 25 March 2021; Vol. 691, c. 1039.]
However, research by Transparency International found that 20% of the UK’s PPE procurement between February and November last year raised one or more red flags over possible corruption—there are too many secrets. Will the Government now restore public trust and publish all communications between Ministers and their business contacts over these PPE contracts? Will they publish the details of all the contracts that were awarded in the VIP lane and end the secretive emergency contracting?
The emergency contracting procedure, to which the hon. Lady refers, was one that was used by every Administration across the United Kingdom, including the Labour Administration in Wales, and that was because of the pressures that all of us were under. I remember Front Benchers from the Labour party pressing us at an earlier stage in the pandemic, quite rightly, to move even faster to secure that PPE. But, of course, even as were moving more quickly to secure it, there was a seven-step process supervised by civil servants in order to make sure that procurement was handled appropriately. If the hon. Lady has any specific cases where she feels that the process was faulty, I look forward to hearing from her about them, but so far there have been no specific charges from her. More broadly, I welcome emphasis on greater transparency overall.[Official Report, 7 June 2021, Vol. 696, c. 1MC.]
Civil Service Apprenticeship Targets
I have been having lots of discussions with relevant stakeholders on apprenticeship targets. We must do much better on getting more apprentices into the civil service.
Will my right hon. Friend consider ensuring that all new recruits to the civil service are offered apprenticeships? Will he also make certain that, unless there are specific related reasons, all Government sector employment contracts have at least 5% of employees as apprenticeships before they are offered any contract by Government?
My right hon. Friend makes a very important point. We are currently reviewing, as part of preparation for new procurement legislation, exactly how we can ensure that there is a higher proportion of apprenticeships in contracts that Government allocate as well as making sure that the civil service extends the use of apprenticeship schemes, of which he has been such an effective champion.
Ministerial Code: Potential Breaches
The independent adviser on Ministers’ interests publishes an annual report setting out the work he has undertaken.
This week, the Home Secretary said on “The Andrew Marr Show”:
“I think at this stage…this isn’t about breaking codes and things of that nature. We’re all just getting on in government doing very difficult jobs actually.”
Given that the ministerial code sets out an overarching duty on Ministers to comply with the law, does the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster agree that even if a Minister does have a difficult job, they should follow both the ministerial code and obey the law?
Digital Services across Government
The pandemic must be a catalytic moment when we use digital transformation to sharpen up how we deliver services to citizens and drive leaner, more efficient and, indeed, more insightful Government.
The past year has accelerated the digital marketplace very significantly and people are much more familiar and comfortable with doing business online. From a Government perspective, the efficiencies and service resilience have been obvious, so will my right hon. Friend ensure that all Departments across Government focus on improving digital access wherever possible, focusing not only on simplicity and security for users, but in the back office where significant savings may be made?
My hon. Friend is spot on. He is absolutely right that the digital transformation of Government should make it easier for citizens to interact with Government, and to receive services quickly—everything from the renewal of passports to making sure that they can book appointments—but it is also the case that back-office functions in Government can be made even more efficient through the effective deployment of GDS’s superb cadre of civil servants. He has championed this quite rightly and I hope to work with him in future to make sure that we do even more.
Office for Veterans’ Affairs
The Government and the Office for Veterans’ Affairs are committed to delivering the veterans strategy. By doing so, we will establish a gold standard of care and opportunity for veterans in the UK. We will address historical issues that have negatively impacted some groups of veterans and we will ensure that all veterans are celebrated for their skills, their courage and their magnificent contribution to our national life.
It is a real pleasure to hear from my hon. Friend at the Dispatch Box for the first time since he took his post. Will he join me in thanking all our veterans who have committed their lives to protect and defend us, and to whom we will always owe a debt of gratitude? Will he confirm that it will be the Government’s unwavering ambition to ensure that the UK becomes the best place in the world to be a veteran, whether that veteran resides in Brighton, Buckie or indeed Bishop Auckland?
I can absolutely confirm that that is our ambition. I look forward to publishing the updated veterans action plan later this year. May I put on record my thanks for my hon. Friend’s magnificent work in Bishop Auckland to celebrate the important role of veterans in her community?
Yesterday I had the opportunity to talk to the First Ministers of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in order to advance plans for a meeting with the Prime Minister to discuss the vital importance of covid recovery. I was grateful for the constructive work across the United Kingdom.
Mentioning that conversation gives me the opportunity, which I am sure the whole House will want to share, to thank Arlene Foster for her leadership as First Minister of the Northern Ireland Executive. Arlene will be stepping down shortly. She is a lovely, wonderful person who has done an amazing job. She is a brilliant advocate for the people of Northern Ireland. I know that we will all wish her very well for the future.
We have all heard already this morning about the importance of levelling up in our covid recovery, but in constituencies such as mine, Edinburgh West, it is also important to reinforce and remind people of the strength and support available from the UK Government. Does the Minister for the Cabinet Office agree that it is vital that we remain focused on that and on recovery, and that we do not get side-tracked by the SNP’s damaging obsession with independence?
The hon. Lady puts the case in absolutely the right way: we need to focus on recovery. It was good to hear the First Minister stress in our conversation yesterday that she appreciated that that was a priority. I know that people in Edinburgh completely find the hon. Lady’s arguments compelling, which is why her colleague and friend Alex Cole-Hamilton secured more than 50% of the first preference votes for Edinburgh West in the Scottish Parliament; obviously it was for a different party from my own, but it is a reflection of the fact that he and she are really good local representatives.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that, following yesterday’s Wagnerian-length Committee session, the proper place for learning from the pandemic will be in the independent public inquiry announced by our right hon. Friend the Prime Minister? Given that the chair of that inquiry will require the confidence of the nation—and not least that of this House—does the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster agree that that chair should be subject to a pre-appointment scrutiny hearing by the relevant Select Committee?
I am a great fan of Wagner, but I also recognise that the young tenor voice of my hon. Friend as Chairman of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee is one that deserves to be heard in the debate about how the inquiry should go forward. How exactly that voice is heard and amplified, and as part of which chorus, will be a matter for the whole House, I think.
I welcome the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to our first exchange at the Dispatch Box, but I only wish that it were in better circumstances. The testimony that we heard yesterday has left families across the country wondering what happened to their loved ones and how they died. It has left all of us fearing that the Government have not learned the lessons or taken the action needed to prevent more avoidable loss.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster once said that he had
“reluctantly but firmly”
concluded that the Prime Minister was
“not capable of…leading the party and the country in the way that I would have hoped.”
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster knows Dominic Cummings very well as his former chief of staff—better than anyone else in this House. Does he believe him to be a credible and truthful witness?
First, may I welcome the right hon. Lady to her place? She is someone who started her working life on the frontline of social care, who has been a highly effective trade union representative and who has spoken passionately and movingly in this House about the need for greater social mobility and educational reform, and it will be a pleasure, I hope, to work with her over the weeks and months ahead.
As far as yesterday’s testimony went, people will make their own judgment on everything that was said then. I would say only two things. It has been a privilege to work closely with both the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Health over the course of the last 12 months. They have given unstinting service. It is thanks to their leadership, for example, that we have a world-beating vaccination programme, and it is a privilege to serve alongside them. I think the Prime Minister is doing a fantastic job, and I also think the Secretary of State for Health has shown unstinting—
I have not had the opportunity to read all the evidence that was given yesterday, and indeed the Speaker has enjoined brevity on me, but I think that the public inquiry that we have been discussing is the right place to review all the evidence from every individual.
I would be very happy to meet the hon. Lady and any of the victims of this appalling scandal. I raised this issue at the recent meeting of the all-party parliamentary group on haemophilia and contaminated blood, and I want to let all those people who have lost children know that just because we published the written ministerial statement, which made reference to other support for other individuals, that does not mean that they are not at the forefront of our minds. The compensation study that we recently announced will obviously be looking at many of the issues that they have raised, but I would be happy to meet them.
The broad public inquiry that we have set up—with, of course, consultation with the First Minister of Scotland—will, I hope, look at every aspect of our pandemic response. Although I did not hear all the evidence history, I understand that I was mentioned and the point was made that I got some things wrong. I have got lots of things wrong, but of course we will all reflect on those in due course.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We heard earlier from my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) about the particular challenges in Cornwall. Challenges exist across the United Kingdom, and as part of our levelling-up drive we are committed to meeting them.
I do not think so, but the hon. Gentleman raises an important point: we should thank those at the frontline of the NHS for the amazing work they have done. Part of supporting them is making sure that they have the right personal protective equipment. This Government, like Governments around the globe, were under great pressure to make sure that we had the right PPE in the right places at the right time. More than 99% of the PPE that we procured was directed, usable and effective.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. There is a proud tradition of steelmaking in Scunthorpe and she is absolutely right to draw attention to the importance of the issue. My colleagues in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy have established a new joint industry and governmental steel procurement taskforce, which was launched on 12 March. Of course, as the Government Department that helps to co-ordinate procurement, we are working with BEIS to achieve the goals that my hon. Friend rightly points out on behalf of her constituents.
Rother Valley is a centre of enterprise in South Yorkshire, and it contains brilliant businessmen such as Mr Don Wightman, who is a manufacturing superhero. He, like his Member of Parliament, recognises that the new trade opportunities that Brexit brings, and indeed the new opportunities for smarter regulation, mean that enterprises in Rother Valley and across Yorkshire have a very bright future.
Public appointments to Ofcom are of course a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. I should say that the hon. Gentleman would be a superb chair of Ofcom, given the range of experience that he brings. That would mean, sadly, having to stand down from his position in the House, but I think we would all welcome that sacrifice for the greater good.
I think the Prime Minister is absolutely right. I think my right hon. Friend has been doing a great job as Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. Looking at the last 12 months—everything we have done from the roll-out of the vaccine programme to the support that we have given those on the frontline—we should celebrate the fact that, at a time of challenge, we have in the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care a dedicated public servant.
My right hon. Friend is a great champion of widening opportunity and has done a fantastic job in ensuring that equality is taken more seriously across Government. The campaign that she mentions is absolutely right, and something that I will ensure we embrace in Government publications.
Before I call Jonathan Ashworth to ask his urgent question, I remind the House that “Erskine May” states:
“Good temper and moderation are the characteristics of parliamentary language.”
Although the context in which particular phrases are used is important, “Erskine May” also says that there are certain expressions that,
“when used in respect of other Members…are regarded with particular seriousness, generally leading to prompt intervention from the Chair and often a requirement on the Member to withdraw the words”.
One example is making a charge
“of uttering a deliberate falsehood.”
In other words, Members should not accuse other Members of lying. Depending on the context, it may well be in order to quote the views of others, but Members should not themselves state or imply that other Members are lying. There are ways that such issues can be debated in the House by means of a substantive motion, but not as part of an urgent question.
Covid-19: Government Handling and Preparedness
What we have done to handle this coronavirus pandemic has been unprecedented in modern times. Throughout, we have been straight with people and this House about the challenges that we as a nation face together. The nation, in my view, has risen to these challenges. Of course, there were unprecedented difficulties that come with preparation for an unprecedented event.
This pandemic is not over yet. Our vaccination programme has reached 73% of the adult population, but that means that more than a quarter still have not been jabbed; 43% of adults have had both jabs, but that means that more than half are yet to get the fullest possible protection that two jabs give.
Yesterday, we saw 3,180 new cases of coronavirus—the highest since 12 April—but thanks to the power of vaccination, in which I have always believed, the link from cases to hospitalisations and deaths is being severed. About 90% of those in hospital in hotspot areas have not yet had both jabs, so the continued delivery of the vaccination effort and the ongoing work to control the virus through testing, tracing and isolation are vital.
Yesterday, we saw the opening of vaccinations to all those aged 30 and above. I am delighted to tell the House that the vaccination programme is on track to meet its goal of offering a jab to all adults by the end of July. It has met every goal that we have set. Setting and meeting ambitious targets is how you get stuff done in Government.
As a nation, we have many challenges still to come. I know, and one of the things I have learned, is that the best way through is to work together with a can-do spirit of positive collaboration. The team who have worked so hard together to get us this far deserve our highest praise. I am proud of everyone in my Department, all those working in healthcare and public health, the armed forces who fought on the home front, the volunteers who stood in cold car parks with a smile, colleagues across the House who have done their bit and, most of all, the British people. Whether it is the science, the NHS or the people queuing for vaccines in their droves, Britain is rising to this challenge. We have come together as one nation, and we will overcome.
Families who lost loved ones will have noticed that the Secretary of State, in his opening remarks, did not respond to any of the specific allegations from yesterday—allegations that are grave and serious: that the Prime Minister is unfit for office; that his inaction meant that tens of thousands needlessly died. We had allegations from Dominic Cummings that the Secretary of State, specifically, misled colleagues—an allegation from Mr Cummings, Mr Speaker—on our preparedness and lack of protection for people in care homes.
The allegations from Cummings are either true, and if so the Secretary of State potentially stands in breach of the ministerial code and the Nolan principles, or they are false, and the Prime Minister brought a fantasist and a liar into the heart of Downing Street. Which is it? Families who have lost loved ones deserve full answers from the Secretary of State today. Is he ashamed that he promised a protective shield around care homes and more than 30,000 care home residents have died? Why were 25,000 elderly people discharged from hospitals into care homes without any test? Did he tell Downing Street in March that people discharged from hospital had been tested, even though it was not until 15 April that there was a requirement for testing to take place?
In public, the Secretary of State has often claimed that little was known of asymptomatic transmission at the time, so testing was not necessary, but the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies in January flagged evidence of asymptomatic transmission. A study in The Lancet in February flagged it. On 5 March, the chief medical officer said that
“there may well be a lot of people who are infected and have no symptoms”,
so why did the Secretary of State not insist on a precautionary approach and test all going into care homes?
On 6 May, at the Dispatch Box, the Secretary of State claimed that it is
“safer for them to go to a care home.”
Yet 12,000 people had died in those early months. How could he justify that comment? In April, he told the House:
“What is important is that infection control procedures are in place in that care home”.—[Official Report, 19 May 2020; Vol. 676, c. 494.]
However, care homes, like the NHS, struggled with the most desperate of personal protective equipment shortages. He was telling us in March from the Dispatch Box that supplies were extensive, but apparently in private, in Downing Street, he was blaming Simon Stevens for the lack of PPE.
The reality is that the Secretary of State and his Department were responsible for PPE, and the National Audit Office report said that the supplies were inadequate. Some 850 healthcare workers died. How many could have been saved had they had PPE? Families lost loved ones and have been let down by the Government, the Prime Minister and the Health Secretary, but the truth matters. Those families and the country deserve clear answers from the Health Secretary and the Prime Minister today.
The allegations that were put yesterday and repeated by the right hon. Gentleman are serious, and I welcome the opportunity to come to the House to put formally on the record that these unsubstantiated allegations around honesty are not true, and that I have been straight with people in public and in private throughout. Every day since I began working on the response to the pandemic last January, I have got up each morning and asked, “What must I do to protect life?” That is the job of a Health Secretary in a pandemic.
We have taken an approach of openness, transparency and explanation of both what we know and what we do not know. I was looking at it this morning. Since last January, I have attended this House more than 60 times. With the Prime Minister, we have together hosted 84 press conferences. I have answered 2,667 contributions to this House and answered questions from colleagues, the media and the public, and we will keep on with that spirit of openness and transparency throughout. As well as coming to the House today, I will answer questions and host another press conference later.
Sometimes what we have had to say has not been easy. We have had to level with people when it has been tough—when things have been going in the wrong direction. Also, we have learned throughout. We have applied that learning both to tackling this pandemic and ensuring that we are as well prepared in the future as possible, but beyond all that what matters remains the same: getting vaccinated, getting tested, delivering for our country, overcoming this disease and saving lives. That is what matters to the British people.
The House should know that when serious allegations were made at yesterday’s Joint Committee hearing, we asked for evidence to be provided, and until such evidence is provided, those allegations should be regarded as unproven. In the meantime, we are in the midst of a pandemic, and we need the Health Secretary to be doing his job with his customary energy and commitment.
I want to ask my right hon. Friend about comments made by Neil Ferguson on this morning’s “Today” programme. He said that the Indian variant is now dominant in the majority of local authority areas and, indeed, is the dominant variant, and that the opening date of 21 June is now in the balance. Given how desperate businesses up and down the country are to return to normal, what additional measures can my right hon. Friend take in the short term to ensure that, in terms of surge testing, the vaccine roll-out and improvements to Test and Trace, we really are able to open up as everyone wants on 21 June?
It is true that the Indian variant is spreading across the country, and estimates vary as to what proportion of new cases each day involve that variant first identified in India, which is more transmissible. My assessment is that it is too early to say whether we can take the full step 4 on 21 June. Like my right hon. Friend, I desperately want us to do so, but we will only do that if it is safe. We will make a formal assessment ahead of 14 June as to what step we can take on 21 June, and we will be driven by the data and advised on and guided by the science, and we will be fully transparent in those decisions, both with this House and with the public. That is the approach we have taken, that is the approach he and his Select Committee would expect, and that is what we will deliver.
In Dominic Cummings’ opening statement yesterday, he said:
“The truth is that senior Ministers, senior officials and senior advisers… fell disastrously short of the standards that the public has a right to expect of its Government in a crisis like this. When the public needed us most,”
we “failed.” We then heard a litany of evidence that the disease was not taken seriously in February last year, further compounded by the ignoring of SAGE advice to lockdown in September, resulting in a worse second wave. Does the Health Secretary agree that the UK Government failed the public? Had he acted sooner, how many lives could have been saved or restrictions avoided? Will he act urgently to prevent further unnecessary suffering and death in the immediate future by holding a comprehensive public inquiry immediately?
I have been working on the pandemic since January of last year—before the disease was even evident in this country. That is when we kicked off work on the vaccine, and I was told at first that it would typically take five years to develop a vaccine. I insisted that we drove at that as fast as we possibly could, and I am delighted at the progress that we have been able to make.
Of course it is right that we learn from everything that we understand and everything that we see and all the scientific advances. We should do that all the way through. This idea that we should wait for an inquiry in order to learn is wrong, but it is right that we go through all that happened at the appropriate time in order to ensure that we are best prepared for the inevitable pandemics of the future.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his visit to the Royal Cornwall hospital in Truro earlier this week. We met staff, toured the site of the new oncology wing and looked at the start-of-the-art plans for the new women and children’s hospital—part of our manifesto promise for 40 new hospitals.
Given the gravity of the situation that the Government faced at the beginning of the pandemic, and considering we now know that Dominic Cummings was a hugely disruptive force, I congratulate Ministers, not least my right hon. Friend, on staying focused on the evidence presented by the experts at the time as events changed quickly. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that he will ignore unsubstantiated Westminster gossip and stay focused on delivering the vaccine roll-out and our manifesto promises?
I think that is what the public expect us to do. I had a brilliant visit to Cornwall on Monday. It was a pleasure to go to Treliske to see my hon. Friend there and to talk about the new women and children’s hospital that we are building as part of the biggest ever investment in healthcare in Cornwall. Delivering on these priorities on which we were elected, and of course dealing with this pandemic and keeping people safe, is what the public want to see. That is what the expectations of the public are and it is my total focus.
There was no manual to guide Governments going into this new global pandemic and most people feel that the Government responded as well as anybody could. In particular, over the past six months government has worked well together to deliver a phenomenal amount of testing and one of the best vaccine roll-outs in the world. Is the Secretary of State aware of anything that has changed during that time to help the way that government has worked on improving the covid response?
In February, I called for localised, community-based vaccination centres, and I want to pay tribute to Dr Helen Wall, Bolton’s clinical commissioning group, the NHS and volunteers for the roll-out of the vaccine. Last week, my constituents were wrongly accused of vaccine hesitancy, and then we had a quasi-lockdown that no one knew about and many people’s travel plans were thrown into chaos. My constituents can forgive the Government for that, but I am sure I speak for the country when I say that we cannot forgive the fact that:
“Tens of thousands of people died, who didn't need to die”.
Those were the chilling words of Dominic Cummings. Will the Secretary of State tell me when the Prime Minister and others will be investigated by the police for alleged corporate manslaughter? Why did we not follow the example of New Zealand, where they managed to control the virus with a minimum number of deaths?
What I would say to the people of Bolton is that they have again risen to this challenge. The number of vaccinations happening in Bolton right now is phenomenal—tens of thousands every single day.[Official Report, 7 June 2021, Vol. 696, c. 2MC.] It is heartening to see the queues of people coming forward both for testing and for vaccinations in Bolton. This has not been an easy pandemic anywhere, but it has been especially difficult in Bolton. In particular I want to pay tribute to the leadership of Bolton Council and Councillor David Greenhalgh, who has done such a remarkable job in very difficult circumstances.
I thank my right hon. Friend for visiting North Devon District Hospital this week, where he personally thanked the wonderful staff and discussed future development plans. While this Government have worked tirelessly to save lives and protect our NHS, Labour has spent the past year flip-flopping over curfews, lockdowns, schools and our borders, and I am sure he shares my disappointment that even now the Labour party is still more interested in playing politics than working constructively with us. So may I seek his reassurance that as we emerge from the pandemic he is committed to lowering NHS waiting times and improving access to vital GP services, as he continues to make sure that everybody who need care gets care?
Absolutely I am. GP access, in particular, is very important. This morning, I met the British Medical Association and the BMA GP leadership to talk about what more we can do to strengthen access to GPs. These are the sorts of things that matter to our constituents, as does the new hospital that we are going to build in my hon. Friend’s constituency. It was a wonderful visit to Devon on Tuesday, and it has been great going around the country to look at what we can do to invest further in the NHS, strengthen it and support it to deliver better care. North Devon does not have a better champion than my hon. Friend. As for what she said about the Opposition, all I can say is that sometimes the right hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) offers constructive criticism, he has generally had a good crisis and perhaps he will return to that approach soon.
In the words of the Prime Minister’s former chief adviser:
“Quite the opposite of putting a shield around them, we sent people with covid back to the care homes.”
If that is true, this is one of the biggest scandals and tragedies of the pandemic. Can the Secretary of State please confirm when testing on discharge from hospitals into care homes was routinely offered? Will he apologise to the tens of thousands of bereaved family members whose relatives died in care homes?
It has been an incredibly difficult time for those who have worked in and lived in care homes throughout this pandemic. That has been true across the world, and I pay tribute to the staff in social care who have done so much. It was, of course, a difficult challenge, especially at the start when many characteristics of this virus were unknown. As I have answered many times in this House, we have published full details of the approach that we are taking and that we have taken. We have worked with the care home sector as much as possible to keep people safe and followed the clinical advice on the appropriate way forward.
May I take the Secretary of State back to what he said in his statement about the B1617.2 variant first discovered in India, which I think will be of the most concern to my constituents and the country in the days and weeks ahead? We are bound to see an increase in cases as we open up; that is inevitable. The important thing is breaking that link between cases, hospitalisations and deaths. My understanding of all the current evidence is that our vaccines are very effective in stopping serious disease, including from that B1617.2 variant. If that remains the case, does he agree that, on 15 June, there would be no reason not to go ahead with opening up fully on 21 June? That is the important question to which we need an answer.
That is literally the most important question to which we do not yet have a full answer. The data that we have suggest that, in the hotspot areas, around one in 10 of those in hospital are people who have had both jabs. That is a function both of the protection that we get from the vaccine against this variant and also of the age profile of those who are catching the disease. Those who have not been vaccinated include those who are old enough to have been offered the jab and those who have not yet been offered the jab. The fact that 90% of the people in hospital are those who have not yet been double vaccinated gives us a high degree of confidence that the vaccine is highly effective, but the fact that 10% of people in hospital have been double vaccinated shows that the vaccine is not 100% effective. We already knew that, but we are better able to calibrate as we see these data. We will learn more about this over the forthcoming week or two before we make and publish an assessment ahead of 14 June about what the data are saying about taking the step that is pencilled in for not before 21 June.
I thank the Secretary of State for all that he has done to deal with the coronavirus disease and for the roll-out of the vaccine. My mother-in-law died last year from the virus. On Monday, she was taken to hospital, and five days later we lost her. I want to put it on record that we do not blame anybody, but we miss her every single day.
There are those in Northern Ireland who have questions to which they need answers. Our Prime Minister has committed himself to an inquiry, and the Secretary of State has committed himself to that inquiry. I want to ensure that those people from Northern Ireland who have lost loved ones and who have sincere questions can ask their questions—they do not want to blame anybody—and get an answer. Will the Secretary of State assure us that people from Northern Ireland who have those questions can and will be part of that inquiry?
Yes, of course. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, like me, will welcome the fact that this morning Northern Ireland has been able to open up vaccination to all adults over the age of 18, showing the progress that we are able to make working together with the UK vaccination programme and local delivery through the Department of Health in Northern Ireland. Of course the inquiry must and will cover the entire United Kingdom. In the three nations that have devolved Administrations, of course it will have to cover the activities both of the UK Government and of the devolved Administrations. Exactly how that is structured is yet to be determined and it will be done in consultation with the devolved Administrations. But as he rightly says, it is vital that we use the inquiry to ensure that people can ask questions and get answers in all parts of the United Kingdom.
Everyone recognises that lessons can be learned as a result of this pandemic and we do not necessarily need to wait for the inquiry to take place. Does the Secretary of State share my view that integration of health and social care is critical and would absolutely be a lesson to be learned from the pandemic? I was delighted to welcome him to the Isles of Scilly on Monday—the first visit of a Health Secretary, we understand, at any time. Will he affirm that the model that we are developing on the Isles of Scilly to integrate health and social care and improve the outcomes for everyone living there is right for the islands but also a model that could be used elsewhere across the United Kingdom?
Yes, absolutely. It was an enormous pleasure to go to the Isles of Scilly on Monday morning. I did not know that I was the first Health Secretary ever to visit the Isle of Scilly, but frankly it is so wonderful that I would really quite like to be back there before too long. The integration of health and social care that my hon. Friend mentions is happening on Scilly. It is important on Scilly, but it is actually a lesson for everywhere. I have discussed it with the new Conservative-led Cornwall Council—the first ever majority Conservative-led Cornwall Council. The team there and on the Isles of Scilly are doing a great job of integrating health and social care. Scilly, in particular, needs investment in its health infrastructure and support because it is more remote than almost anywhere else. We will deliver these things. Throughout the length and breadth of this country, we will invest in the NHS and integrate health and social care. The Isles of Scilly could hope for no better advocate than my hon. Friend.
Yesterday’s revelations have only served to reinforce what many have suspected: a tale of chaos, deception, dishonesty and failure, including the reckless suggestion of herd immunity and chickenpox parties. While so many watched aghast, the Secretary of State chose to respond to these very serious allegations by claiming he had been too busy saving lives to even bother. My enduring memory of the Secretary of State yesterday will be of him quite literally running away from his responsibilities.
I want to focus on one vitally important matter that emerged yesterday regarding deaths in care homes. Did the Secretary of State, as alleged, categorically tell Mr Cummings and unspecified others that people would be tested before being transferred into care homes? If he did not, why then was transfer without testing the adopted policy across England and the devolved Governments, including Scotland? On 17 October last year, I asked the Secretary of State to consider tendering his resignation. Surely if all these allegations are substantiated, he must do so.
So many of the allegations yesterday were unsubstantiated. The hon. Gentleman’s most important point was that the Scottish Government, with their responsibilities for social care, had to respond to the same challenges and dilemmas as we did, as did other countries across Europe and across the world. We were driving incredibly hard as one United Kingdom to increase testing volumes. We successfully increased testing volumes, including through the important use of the 100,000 testing target, which had a material impact on accelerating the increase in testing, and because of this increased testing we were able to spread the use of tests more broadly. It was the same challenge for the Administration in Edinburgh as it was here in Westminster, and the best way to rise to these challenges is to do so working together.
The families of the bereaved deserve better than the grotesque pantomime of the Cummings evidence session yesterday. At the very least, they deserve the publication of the internal lessons learned review. A constituent of mine whose father died from covid acquired in hospital wrote to me to say that the refusal to release it is
“an insult to bereaved family members, who, in the midst of our own suffering, are determined to prevent other families from experiencing the loss we have”.
She is right because the big question is not just about mistakes the Government made last March, but why Ministers never learn from those errors and continue on a path that risks lives and livelihoods. The Secretary of State says he is being straight with the public and this House, so as continued Government negligence risks a third wave of the pandemic, will he finally publish that review urgently, not least so that it can be scrutinised before restrictions are due to be lifted next month?
Of course, we learn lessons all the way through and we follow the scientific developments that teach us more about this virus all the way through, and then we will also have a full inquiry afterwards to make sure that we can learn further lessons for the future. The thing I did not quite understand about the hon. Lady’s question is why she did not refer to the single most important programme that is saving lives, which is the vaccination programme. She should be urging her constituents and others to come forward and get the jab because that is our way out of this pandemic.
Thanks to this Government and the vaccine taskforce led by Kate Bingham, it is Britain that has led the way in vaccinations and it is Britain that has given so much to the world through our vaccination technology and innovation. Globally, over 1 billion jabs have now been given, most of them Pfizer, Moderna or Oxford-AstraZeneca, and it is this Government who backed Oxford university with over £60 million of funding to give the gift of hope to the world. So may I thank the Secretary of State for his efforts and his remarkable achievements in this regard, and may I ask him when he thinks the Teesside vaccine, Novavax, will be approved by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency?
The last point is very tempting, but I will leave it to the independent regulator to make that decision and determine its timing—but we are all very excited about the progress of the Teesside vaccine, as my hon. Friend calls it, the Novavax vaccine. He is also right to raise the point about vaccinations around the world. The UK can be very proud of having played such a critical role because of the investment we made in the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine right at the start of this pandemic, and because we decided together with Oxford university and AstraZeneca to make this vaccine available at cost around the world. I can give the House an update: over 450 million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine have now been deployed around the world at cost. That is the single biggest gift to the world that we could make with respect to vaccines. It is because of the attitude that the Government took, working with one of our greatest universities and working with one of our greatest industrial partners. It is another example of the big team effort that is helping in this case the whole world get out of this pandemic.
At Prime Minister’s Question Time in July, I raised concerns of a care home owner in Bedford who was told as late as 21 May that, if she refused to accept the return from hospital of a covid-positive patient, they would be discharged to an unfamiliar home. I know the Secretary of State is desperate to dismiss Mr Cummings’ version of events on care homes, but to do so would mean calling the care home owner a liar. Who is responsible for the high numbers of unnecessary deaths: the Health Secretary or the Prime Minister?
As I said, we have answered this question many times before. What I would add to those answers is that it is another example of constantly learning about the virus. As we learned the impact of asymptomatic transmission in particular, we changed the protocols in care homes over the summer and put in place the winter plan that led to a greater degree of protection in care homes over the second peak. We are constantly looking to make sure that we can learn as much as possible and work with the sector to help people to stay as safe as possible.
“When it comes to the Health Secretary, I’m a fan.”
Those are not my effusive words; they come from some of the highest levels among our health team in Bolton. Like colleagues on both sides of the House, we have been on countless calls with the Health Secretary, with upwards of 100 MPs on many occasions. As he has done today, he has taken the time to respond or come back after each and every interaction with helpful advice and solutions. I say this in private, I say it in public, and I say it—this is a plug—in the “Red Box” in The Times today: these last two weeks, he has thrown his Department’s kitchen sink at Bolton to help us through the recent variant-driven spike. Can he provide an update on the current situation, as well as giving a continued commitment to work hard for Bolton?
There are issues around Bolton in my red box very regularly, Mr Speaker. I was waiting on tenterhooks to find out whether, as well as his constituent being a fan, my hon. Friend is a fan—maybe he can tell me later in private. But he makes a very serious point: we have a significant challenge in Bolton right now, with a high rate of covid transmission, and we have done everything we possibly can to support Boltonians to solve this problem with increased vaccination. It is great to see the huge enthusiasm for vaccination and the queues of people coming forward. I say to everybody in Bolton, “Please come forward if you have not had both jabs yet.” Also, the testing effort, which has seen people come forward and get tested, is helping us to break the chains of transmission. That is the approach that we are trying to take now that we have built this huge vaccine and testing infrastructure over the past few months.
The Secretary of State claims that he has always been straight, yet his response to my question last week suggests otherwise. Remember, he was not straight over the need for higher-grade FFP3 masks for our frontline NHS and care workers, he was not straight over the need for the public to wear masks at the start of the pandemic, and he has not been straight over Test and Trace, for example with his fabricated test numbers last April. Given yesterday’s revelations, however, will he apologise to Warwickshire families for the 344 excess deaths resulting from his decision to discharge hospital patients directly into our care homes?
I do not recognise those figures, but I do recognise the enormous challenge of keeping people safe in care homes at the height of a pandemic in unprecedented circumstances. The other thing that I would say is that in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency we are building one of the biggest testing laboratories, if not the biggest, that this country has ever seen. The ability to have this huge testing capacity is an asset that this country has. It will mean not only that we can help to tackle the virus now, spot the new variants and make sure that we have an understanding of where it might be popping up—such as in Bolton, for instance—but that we are better prepared in future. I would like to work with the hon. Gentleman to deliver this brilliant laboratory in Leamington Spa and make sure that it is a model for how we do diagnostics. That working together is the best approach that we can take.
How does my right hon. Friend account for the yawning difference between the account given to the Select Committee yesterday and rehearsed by the Opposition today, and the balanced and objective accounts that continue to be given by the National Audit Office on this pandemic, notably the one published earlier this month detailing the Government’s response to the pandemic? May I ask specifically how he will take forward one of the principal recommendations of that report—that we need to plan for a sustainable healthcare workforce that can be organised at pace in the event of a future emergency of this sort, and that we particularly need individuals who are properly skilled and updated to fill gaps that may arise as a result of a future pandemic?
My right hon. Friend is quite right on both points. Not only have we been transparent and accountable to this House, and straight with this House about the challenges, but we have welcomed the National Audit Office into Government throughout the pandemic, and it has published repeatedly. For instance, it published on personal protective equipment, showing that we successfully avoided a national outage of PPE. It has reported on every aspect of the pandemic, and we have learned the lessons that are in those reports. I recommend to the House the National Audit Office’s latest publication, which summarises all these lessons and learnings. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that one of those is making sure that we have high-quality workforce planning for the future.
Has my right hon. Friend noted the various ironies of yesterday’s Committee? It must be personally difficult for him and others who needlessly defended someone so willing to throw them into the road—presumably a road full of those behind the wheel testing their eyesight. But is not the greater irony the strange epiphany in many who have gone from regarding the Prime Minister’s former adviser as a latter-day King Herod whose words and deeds could not be trusted, to regarding him as a prophet who, fresh from the wilderness, brings with him supposed truths written on tablets of stone? Irony of ironies, all is irony.
Delaying a public inquiry until 2022 could lead to the rewriting of memories, the potential loss of key documents and a lack of full transparency on the decisions that were taken based on the evidence. Given the seriousness of the testimony of Mr Cummings, including that statement, the scale of the disaster is so big that people need to understand how the Government failed them and learn from it. Does the Secretary of State agree that we need a quicker start to a public inquiry than the Government currently plan?
What do we know about the Secretary of State? We know that he is exceptionally hard-working, and that every day he woke up to try to save lives. He has been exceptionally good at coming to the House and answering questions. He has also held press conferences and answered questions from journalists. Yet yesterday, we had some outrageous claims by an unelected Spad who broke covid regulations, admitted he had leaked stuff to the BBC, and by his own admission was not fit to be in No. 10 Downing Street. Does the Secretary of State agree that the only mistake the Prime Minister made in this pandemic was that he did not fire Dominic Cummings early enough?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. I will continue to compliment him while I think of how to respond. The honest truth is that, from the start, I have been totally focused on how to get out of this pandemic. It is absolutely true that the operation and functioning of Government has got easier these last six months, and I think all the public can see that. We are laser focused on getting through this, getting this country out of it and delivering the vaccine programme that we have now been working on for almost a year and a half, which is remarkable. I pay tribute to all those who have been working on this effort. The way to fight a pandemic is by bringing people together and inspiring hope.
Five hundred and nineteen residents in my borough of Tower Hamlets have lost their lives to covid—in my own family, we have lost five of our relatives—and their family members are grappling with that loss to this day. The hearings yesterday were incredibly distressing. Mr Cummings has admitted to Government failures in handling the pandemic, and said that it meant
“tens of thousands of people died who did not need to die”.
Out of respect for the over 128,000 families of people who have lost their lives, will the Secretary of State admit to the failures today and apologise? Will he, instead of his simple no to the earlier question, bring forward urgently the date of the inquiry, because families like ours, those of my constituents and all those who have lost loved ones up and down the country deserve answers now and deserve for lessons to be learned so that these mistakes are never made again?
The pandemic has taken far too many people away far too soon, and that has happened in the hon. Member’s family and it has happened in mine. She is absolutely right that we need to ensure that we learn as a country how to prepare as well as we possibly can for pandemics in the future—because it is likely that pandemics will become more frequent, not less—and it is vital that people have the opportunity to get answers. We must learn the lessons all the way through, not just wait until afterwards, and we must have a full inquiry afterwards, so that we can ensure that every detail is assessed and everybody has the opportunity to ask those questions. I think that is the right approach.
On Sunday, I had the absolute joy of going to the Winding Wheel in Chesterfield and receiving my first vaccine. Will my right hon. Friend thank all the volunteers and staff at the Winding Wheel for what they have been doing? Can he tell me what monitoring has been happening at the Department of Health of an outbreak of opportunism and revisionism that seems to be spreading through Opposition politicians? If it helps, I have an idea of who patient zero might be for that outbreak—Captain Hindsight, if you will.
I am absolutely delighted my hon. Friend has had his first jab; I did not know he was old enough yet. It is very important that you take decisions in government based on the information that you have at the time. Of course, you can go and assess things based on information you have afterwards, but you can only take decisions on the information that you have, and that is why an unprecedented crisis like this leads to unprecedented challenges, and what you have to do is tackle those challenges as best you possibly can.
At the start of this pandemic, covid-19 was seeded into care homes by a discharge policy that required care homes to take asymptomatic patients. A letter from Kent and Medway CCG to care providers dated 26 March 2020 made it clear that they were asked to take such patients whether they had been tested or not. Yesterday, the joint Select Committee inquiry heard that the Prime Minister was told by the Secretary of State that testing would be in place for these patients. I am asking quite specifically: did he know that the discharge process did not require testing, and did he sign off this policy, which led to thousands of avoidable deaths of vulnerable people and many deaths of care staff?
I have answered this question many times, and the challenge is that we had to build the testing capacity. At that time, of course I was focused on protecting people in care homes and in building that testing capacity, so that we had the daily tests to be able to ensure that availability was more widespread. That is at the heart of the importance of the then 100,000 target, and we are now up to a position where we have millions of tests available per day.
Surely it cannot be in anyone’s interests, least of all those who are mourning loved ones, for the mob to descend and judge and preoccupy my right hon. Friend at this point in the pandemic. The Government have made clear that there will be a full public inquiry, and that is when hindsight can and should prevail. Now, surely, it is in all our interests that he gets on with his work, bringing his experience to bear on saving lives and carrying out this excellent vaccination programme. Will he meet a cross-party delegation of West Midlands metropolitan leaders who are keen to work with him to deliver those common objectives?
Yes, those are common objectives. The way my right hon. Friend puts it is absolutely spot on. I would be delighted to meet him and west midlands leaders to ensure we can roll out the vaccination effort as quickly and as effectively as possible in order to both save lives and get us out of this pandemic.
Is the Secretary of State aware that, by and large, many of us who have been in Parliament for a long time prefer Select Committee inquiries to public inquiries, because we get a faster and sharper look at a problem while the evidence is fresh? I know he has been very good at coming back quickly to Members of Parliament, including myself in Huddersfield in Kirklees. However, last week was not as good as possible. It seemed that he did not give us a heads-up and we were very much taken aback by the new advice given to local authorities like mine.
One last point: the fact of the matter is that this pandemic and these viruses have not gone away. The disturbing thing that came out of yesterday’s evidence was that there seemed not to have been any national plan for this sort of emergency. Every local authority has an emergency plan. Have we now got one?
Of course, we have learned a huge amount about how to respond to a pandemic. We have built assets and capabilities such as the vaccination programme and the testing, which is so important both to protect people directly and break the chains of transmission, and to understand where the virus is spreading.
I am glad that we cleared up the issue the hon. Gentleman raised with respect to Kirklees. I worked with colleagues in Kirklees and elsewhere while I was in the west country to make sure that we got the best possible solution to the need in Kirklees: to have a turbocharge on the vaccination programme, to have mass testing to break the chains of transmission, and for people to be cautious and take personal responsibility as we lift measures to make sure that things stay under control.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he said about me personally, and for the leadership he has shown in his community.
Yesterday, our Committee meeting was supposed to be about lessons learned. In that spirit, we know that the World Health Organisation stated on 14 January that there was no human transmission. On 11 February, the WHO actually named the virus. We then know that on 14 February, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, in update No. 4, stated that the risk to health systems in the EU and the UK was “low to moderate” and the risk to the population was “low”. We also know that the UK had a plan, but it was mainly based around flu, not brand new viruses. Look at where we are now. Is not the biggest lesson learned that we need a global response and a global resilience plan? Will the Health Secretary be pushing the Prime Minister to make that case at the G7, when we host it here in the UK in June?
I think that is one of the lessons. I do not need to push the Prime Minister on that; he is absolutely seized of the point. We will be developing the work on that next week at the Health Ministers G7, which is being held in Oxford, and then, of course, at the leaders’ summit which is being held in Cornwall later next month. My hon. Friend is absolutely right in the view he takes as to the importance of reforming and strengthening the global institutions, as well as learning the lessons here at home.
The Secretary of State spoke earlier about the donation of surplus vaccines and other PPE and medical equipment to India and other developing countries. How does that square with the Government’s determination to cut their overall contribution to international aid? Are those donations being counted towards the 0.7% or 0.5% targets and, if they are, can he assure us that that will not be to the detriment of other projects that were already committed towards those targets?
Of course we are donating items directly—for instance, to India, Nepal and others—but the single biggest global contribution that the UK has made is the Oxford vaccine, which is being delivered at cost by AstraZeneca around the world following funding from Oxford, AstraZeneca and the UK Government. That has already led to 450 million jabs globally, two thirds of which are in low and middle-income countries. Everybody, in all parts of this country, should be proud of that, and there was Scottish support in the development of that vaccine. Of course, we will do as much as we can within the official development assistance budget directly, but that decision to waive the intellectual property charge has been called for from others—from President Biden down—but it is something that we in this House and the whole country should be very proud of.
The vaccine roll-out is going really well in my area and I cannot help but note that the turning of the tide against covid, because of that roll-out, seemed to exactly mirror the turning of the year. Is not it the case that, far from the world being divided into people who are either useless or brilliant and the British state failing at every turn, we have a Government in this country who did their best and a public who came together, as always in the UK, when the chips were down?
My hon. Friend, who was a superb Health Minister, has captured not just the spirit of what this country has been through in the last 18 months, but the spirit of the debate today in this House. The truth of the matter is that we work best when we work together, and we work together when we have a common mission, and the common mission has been tackling this virus. It is absolutely true that we must always do that with an open mind on how to do it better in future, but, in my view, the attitude needed is one where you welcome people in and take things forward in a spirit of positive partnership. That is how you get stuff done, and that is how we have made the progress we have been able to make.
Agricultural Exports from Australia: Tariffs
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for International Trade, if she will make a statement on the United Kingdom’s proposed tariff offer to the Australian Government on their agricultural exports.
Our trade agreement with Australia is very likely to be the first from-scratch deal that we have struck outside the European Union. It is a major milestone for global Britain and a major prize secured for our newly independent trade policy. It is on course to slash tariffs on iconic UK exports, saving business potentially about £115 million a year.
The deal will be the most advanced that Australia has struck with any nation bar New Zealand, and will, we expect, be particularly forward-leaning in areas such as services, procurement and digital trade. It will be a great deal for the UK, and our farmers will continue to thrive. The agreement is a gateway into the massive CPTPP—comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership—free trade area in the Asia-Pacific, and opens doors for our farmers into some of the biggest economies of now and the future.
Our food is among the best in the world and incredibly competitive. We should be positive, not fearful, of the opportunities that exist for our agriculture and our farmers. We give the EU preferential trading terms, which I do not recall those on the Opposition Benches objecting to. We should be unafraid of giving our Australian cousins something similar, taking the chance to deepen trading ties with one of our closest friends and allies.
Australian meat is high quality and produced to high standards, and it arrives here in low volume. Meanwhile, Australia has some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world. The UK accounts for just 0.15% of Australian beef exports, and our analysis suggests that any increase in imports is more likely to displace food arriving from the EU. Any deal we strike will contain protections for our farmers, any liberalisation will be staged over time, and any agreement is likely to include safeguards to defend against import surges. Negotiators are now working to agree the outstanding elements with the aim of reaching agreement in principle in June.
This is not the end of the process. Later this year, Parliament will be given ample opportunity to scrutinise the agreement—we welcome scrutiny of the agreement—as well as any legislative changes that may be required before the agreement enters into force. Parliamentarians will also receive an independently scrutinised impact assessment. Mr Speaker, you will know that our scrutiny arrangements are among the most robust, and in line with other parliamentary democracies. Indeed, in some areas we go further still.
This will be a great deal for our United Kingdom. It will deliver big benefits for both countries and will help us build back better from the covid pandemic. I commend it to the House.
Let me make it clear at the outset that we support a trade deal with Australia that is designed in British interests and will create jobs in our economy and increase our exports and growth. What we cannot support is a deal being rushed through in time for the G7 summit without proper debate or consultation, let alone the advance scrutiny that the Government promised by the Trade and Agriculture Commission. We cannot support a deal on agricultural tariffs that will cost jobs in our farming communities, undercut our food standards, increase our carbon offshoring and open the door to the destruction of our farming industry through further lopsided trade deals.
As an exercise in intellectual honesty, I would just ask all those on the Conservative Benches, in the right-wing think-tanks and on the newspaper comment pages to consider for one second how they would have reacted if it was Brussels that had negotiated this trade deal and sold out Britain’s farmers. They would have been rightly furious, and they should not be any less so when it is their own Government who are doing the selling out. However, what matters now is to try to improve the deal on the table before it is signed in Cornwall.
Assuming that it is now too late to remove the offer of zero tariffs, can I ask the Minister of State to pursue three other changes? First, will he put in place a safeguard trigger—which, as I am sure he knows, Australia was willing to accept in its deals with Japan, China and the United States—to protect British farmers against surges in cheap imports? Secondly, will he make it clear that zero tariffs will apply only to Australian products that meet the same standards that British farmers are required to meet on food safety, animal welfare and environmental protections? Thirdly, will he insert a review clause into the deal so that, if its impact is even more negative than was forecast by the Government last year, there is scope both to amend the deal and to learn from it in future trade deals? Those are the bare minimum changes that we need to mitigate the damage that this rushed and botched negotiation is inevitably going to do, so I hope that the Minister of State will agree to pursue all three of those priorities today.
I thank the right hon. Lady again for tabling this question. Let me answer each and every one of her questions. First, she said that this had been rushed through. I was at the Department at its inception in the summer of 2016, and one of the very first things that was announced in 2017 was our target for our initial batch of free trade agreements, which included Australia. That was back in 2017 and repeated by the current Secretary of State in 2019. She talked about the Trade and Agriculture Commission. This will be up and running soon—[Interruption.] If she is that keen to see it up and running soon, she might have supported the passage of the Trade Bill, which became the Trade Act 2021 just before Easter; instead, we saw her repeated manoeuvres to delay and undercut the Bill at the time.
The right hon. Lady talked about any deal potentially undercutting our food standards. I was absolutely clear in the statement that there will be no compromise on our standards of animal welfare, food safety and the environment. That is our manifesto commitment, and it has often been repeated. She made a point about emissions and food miles. There is controversy in relation to meat production emissions, but no more than 5% of emissions are reckoned to come from the transportation across oceans of that product.
Let us look at Australia’s current trade patterns. Only 0.15% of Australian exports come to the UK. Australia sells 75% of its beef and 70% of its lamb into Asia at the moment. That is where the fast-growing markets are, and that is something that we in the UK are seeking to get access to ourselves through agreements such as the CPTPP and other trade agreements. There is a big opportunity here for UK agriculture.
The right hon. Lady asked about a safeguard trigger. As I said in my opening statement, safeguard triggers are typical of free trade agreements. This is still a free trade agreement that is subject to a live negotiation, but I would say that these things are typical of free trade agreements. She asked if we would have zero tariffs if the Australian produce met our standards. The Australian lamb and beef coming into the market today meets our standards. There will be no change as a result of the free trade agreement to our standards. Australian beef and lamb will continue to have to meet our import standards. If that is the only objection to zero tariffs, I take it that she would welcome such a situation if there were zero tariffs in the deal. She also asked about a review clause. Again, that is a typical feature of free trade agreements.
The right hon. Lady has to explain why she is seemingly so opposed to such a trade deal with Australia, a key Commonwealth, Five Eyes and like-minded trade ally of the United Kingdom. She did not complain about the zero-tariff, zero-quota access for EU beef and lamb, which had no staging on it at all. Why does she do so for Australia? I believe her real problem is that she still wants to remain in or rejoin the EU, like her neighbour the Leader of the Opposition, and cannot see the benefits of doing any trade deal with Australia. I commend the prospective deal to the House and invite more progressive voices on the Opposition Benches to join us in backing an FTA with our close friends and allies.