The Secretary of State was asked—
Negotiations: Lord Frost and the European Commission
May I associate myself with your remarks about Jo Cox, Mr Speaker? I am sure that none of us in that House will ever forget where we were on that day. My thoughts are with her friends and family, and the amazing legacy that she has left.
I would like to thank Arlene Foster, who resigned as First Minister of Northern Ireland earlier this week. Arlene has given 18 years of public service to the people of Northern Ireland. We have seen throughout the covid pandemic the phenomenal work that she has done as First Minister in Northern Ireland, working with all the parties to take Northern Ireland through a very difficult time, especially as the Executive were newly reformed just weeks before. I would like to thank Arlene for her work. I will continue to work, as I have done over the past few days, with all the party leaders in Northern Ireland to ensure that we can keep a sustained and stable Executive in the weeks, months and period ahead.
I regularly discuss our approach to the Northern Ireland protocol with Lord Frost. We have conducted joint engagements together in Northern Ireland on a regular basis with businesses and civil society, as well as joint engagements with Vice-President Šefčovič to consolidate our understanding of the real-world impacts of the protocol. At last week’s Joint Committee, the Government outlined our continued commitment to engaging to find the pragmatic solutions that are urgently required and needed to ensure that the protocol can achieve the delicate balance that was always intended. We in the UK will continue to work actively to find and deliver the solutions.
May I, too, express my condolences to the family, friends and comrades of our late colleague Jo Cox on this anniversary?
A trade war has been threatened, but, most importantly, the stability and the peace process in Northern Ireland are at stake. Two international treaties are at stake; so, too, is the reputation of the United Kingdom in the eyes of the world, because our allies fear that this Government would be prepared to breach either or both of those treaties. Does the Secretary of State now regret saying that the Government were prepared to
“break international law”,
“in a very specific and limited way”?—[Official Report, 8 September 2020; Vol. 679, c. 509.]
I was answering a question that I was asked last year and giving a factual position. The reality, as we outlined at the time, is that we were creating an insurance policy to ensure that we could continue to deliver on the Good Friday/Belfast agreement in terms of unfettered access from Northern Ireland to Great Britain. We were then able to secure that, and we therefore did not need to take those clauses forward. That was exactly what we said we would do. Our colleagues around the world can be very clear that we will do what we have said we would, and they can have confidence that we will continue to protect the Good Friday/Belfast agreement in all its aspects and all its strands.
Like the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), Jo Cox was in my intake in 2015. She was a sparkling light among us and we miss her enormously. I associate myself with your remarks at the start of our proceedings, Mr Speaker.
Does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State agree that mutual trust is possibly the key ingredient to sorting out the position with regard to the Northern Ireland protocol? Our Committee has just had Lord Frost before us for an hour and a half, taking questions; I think that he agreed on that proposition as well. What is my right hon. Friend doing as Secretary of State to ensure that the issue of trust and its importance is understood across Whitehall?
My hon. Friend the Chairman of the Select Committee makes an important point. I have not had a chance to see the transcript of the meeting this morning that he and his Committee had with Lord Foster, but I work closely with Lord Foster on these issues and one of the key things is that mutual understanding and trust. That is one of the reasons I have always felt strongly that our colleagues, friends and partners in the EU should be engaging with civic society and businesses in Northern Ireland to ensure that they really understand the sensitivities and the nuances in Northern Ireland. I am pleased that the Commission and Maroš Šefčovič have done a couple of those meetings already. I would like to see more of that as we go forward, so that we can build that understanding. It is fundamental to the basis of having trust that each one understands why it matters to deliver on the protocol in the way that was always intended: in a pragmatic, flexible way that delivers for the people of Northern Ireland.
I join the Secretary of State in sending all our love to Jo’s family on this very difficult day, and in paying tribute to the outgoing First Minister, Arlene Foster, for her many years of public service and for the lesson she has treated all of us to in recent weeks on how to do politics with dignity, even in difficult times.
I support the Secretary of State in his efforts to ensure that there is a strong, stable, functioning Executive in the current negotiations to meet the enormous challenges facing Northern Ireland, and one that respects all existing commitments. However, it was an extraordinary diplomatic failure for the Prime Minister to spend a crucial summit on home soil being rebuked by our closest allies. Northern Ireland does not have any more time for bickering or blame games, so is it not time to get serious and commit to a veterinary agreement that would eliminate the vast majority of checks down the middle of our Union?
The hon. Lady has a different reading of the weekend. One thing that was very clear over the weekend was that our partners—particularly our partners and friends in the United States—were very much in the same place as us on the precedence and importance of protecting and delivering on the Good Friday agreement. That is something that they were such a strong part of, and that we are always focused on as being of paramount importance for us. We have put forward a number of proposals—more than a dozen, I believe—to the European Union Commission around how we can deliver on the protocol in a pragmatic, flexible way that delivers for the people and businesses in Northern Ireland. We look forward to continuing those discussions with the EU, but when the EU talks about flexibility and pragmatism, it has to show it as well as talk about it.
We need to see the details of that veterinary agreement in order to ensure that it really would eliminate the vast majority of those checks. A significant part of the problem is that people in Northern Ireland feel that these changes have been imposed on them—that they have been done to them, not with them. So how is the Secretary of State going to ensure that representatives from politics, business and civil society in Northern Ireland are brought meaningfully into the negotiations, not just engagement, so that any solution is sustainable and permanently eases tensions?
The Executive and Executive members have been part of a specialist committee. They have also been part of the wider engagement meetings and had a chance to feed into them. Obviously this is a negotiation between the UK Government and the European Commission, and it is therefore right that the UK Government lead on that, but we have been the ones who have been engaging across businesses and civic society, as well as with the Executive politicians, and we will continue to do that and continue to encourage the EU to do that.
May I associate my colleagues with the comments made about the late Jo Cox and also pay tribute to our former leader and First Minister, Arlene Foster, for the sterling leadership that she provided to Northern Ireland during what has been a very difficult period for all of us?
What progress has been made in the Secretary of State’s discussions with the EU side to ensure that when people are travelling with their pets between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, in either direction, they are not required by the EU to carry so-called pet passports and incur the cost of having their pets vaccinated for a disease that has not existed in the United Kingdom for almost a century?
In reflecting on the excellence of delivery that Arlene Foster had, I am going to learn a lesson that I am sure all Members here will be pleased about: I am going to avoid singing at any point this afternoon as I simply cannot live up to the talent that she showed on Friday.
Pet travel from Great Britain to Northern Ireland is one of the critical issues that we have been discussing with the EU. We see no reason why part 1 listing could not be granted by the EU, and indeed it should be. We meet all the requirements for it, as the right hon. Gentleman has rightly outlined, and we have one of the most rigorous pet checking regimes in Europe to protect our biosecurity, so we will continue to push for a solution with the EU. As he will be aware, the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland has recently confirmed that there will be no routine compliance checks on pets or assistance dogs entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain until at least October 2021.
We hope it will go well beyond October and that this matter will be fully and completely resolved.
Does the Secretary of State agree with the Prime Minister that it would be wrong for the EU to impose a ban on the sale of chilled meats, including sausages from Great Britain, to Northern Ireland? What action does he intend to take to prevent this from happening?
I absolutely agree. Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom and its consumers should be able to enjoy the products that they have bought from Great Britain for years. Any ban on chilled meats would, in fact, be contrary to the aims of the protocol itself and would be against the interests of the people of Northern Ireland. An urgent solution must be found so that Northern Ireland’s consumers can continue to enjoy chilled meat products bought from Great Britain.
We have proposed options for either extending the grace period or putting permanent arrangements in place. We are working hard to try to resolve these issues consensually with our partners, but as the PM has always made clear, we will consider all options in meeting our responsibility to sustain peace and prosperity for the people in and of Northern Ireland.
Mr Speaker, may I associate myself and my colleagues with your opening remarks, and those from both Front Benches, in paying tribute both to the legacy of Jo Cox and to the public service of the outgoing First Minister, Arlene Foster?
In his discussions with Lord Frost and Maroš Šefčovič, to which of the following did the Secretary of State commit his Government? The integrity of the Good Friday agreement; the free flow of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland; building trust by working to implement what they agreed to in the protocol; or further standards-lowering trade deals, which could restrict the ability to agree a veterinary deal with the EU? Surely the Secretary of State must recognise that it cannot possibly be all four.
I fundamentally disagree with the principle that the hon. Gentleman has just outlined. The reality is that the Good Friday/Belfast agreement—he has fallen into the trap that too many people fall into—has more than one strand. East-west is a vital strand, and we will continue to protect it. That is why it is important for people to recognise and understand that Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom and should have the same rights and access to products as anywhere in the United Kingdom.
I, too, send my thoughts to Jo Cox’s family today.
With all the talk of sausages and the protocol, I hear very little from this Government on the benefits of the protocol for local producers. What is the Secretary of State doing to promote those benefits? Can he tell the people of Derry what exactly he and Lord Frost think is wrong with Doherty’s sausages?
The hon. Gentleman and I agree on a number of things, including the quality of sausages from across Northern Ireland, which, as Members can probably tell, I get to enjoy from time to time. He makes a fair point, and it is at the heart of the issue. It should be a matter of consumer choice, not regulatory regime. The reality is that, as across the United Kingdom, consumers who go into a supermarket in my constituency in Great Yarmouth will see a range of products that is different from what they will see in the midlands, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. That is because of consumer choice, not regulatory command.
We have to ensure that Northern Ireland’s residents have the ability to make that choice. If the hon. Gentleman looks, as I know he does constantly, at the media, I have made the point a few times that, if we get the protocol to work in a proper, flexible, pragmatic way, it creates an opportunity for Northern Ireland. But we also have to be cognisant of the fact that, at the moment, it is causing real disruption and real problems for businesses and consumers in Northern Ireland, across the whole community, and it has an impact on people’s sense of identity in the Unionist community. We have to accept that, respond to it and deal with the protocol in a pragmatic way. That is why I think it is so important that the EU engages with people in Northern Ireland to get a real understanding of why Northern Ireland is such an important part of our United Kingdom.
Links with the United States
The Government have always cherished our close relationship with the United States. It was a combined effort of the UK, Irish and US Governments that brought the troubles to an end, and it will take a renewed and ongoing partnership to safeguard Northern Ireland’s stability and prosperity in the future. That is why I announced earlier this month the appointment of Trevor Ringland MBE as the first special envoy to the United States on Northern Ireland. The special envoy will support our Government’s important mission to promote Northern Ireland as an excellent place to live, work and do business.
I welcome the news that my right hon. Friend has appointed a special envoy. Does he agree that it is important to engage not just with the US but with all our international friends and partners to ensure a greater understanding of the challenges that Northern Ireland faces, but also of the opportunities that this integral part of the UK has?
My hon. Friend is spot on: she is absolutely right. We in the UK are committed to working internationally to tackle global challenges, as was demonstrated by our hosting of the G7 just last weekend. As an integral part of the Union of the United Kingdom, we will always fully represent the issues that matter most to Northern Ireland when we engage with our international partners. That is the spirit in which we appointed the special envoy to the US, and I look forward to working with Trevor Ringland on that. She is also right to say that Northern Ireland is a phenomenally exciting place to live and work, with so much opportunity, in cyber, advanced engineering, technology—I could go on. It has a lot to offer the world and we will continue to promote that around the world.
May I associate myself with your comments earlier today, Mr Speaker? My thoughts are with all of Jo’s friends, family and former colleagues.
Inflaming tensions, undermining trust and a formal diplomatic rebuke—we would expect this language and action to form the backdrop to a summit with our adversaries, rather than with our closest allies. Is the Secretary of State not alarmed that our Government are increasingly isolated from our partners on the protocol? What comfort can the Secretary of State, who boasted about breaching international law, provide to the new US Administration that his word can be trusted?
Obviously, I do not recognise the context the hon. Lady outlines, but I would say to her, as I said earlier, that what colleagues and people around the world can see is that I will always be straight and give a direct and honest answer to a question, as I did last year. I work regularly with our partners in the US, and they are clear in understanding our determination to make sure we deliver on what is, to an extent, a joint endeavour between the UK and Irish Governments, with the support of the US: delivering protection of the Good Friday/Belfast agreement. We make no apologies whatsoever for putting the people of the UK and the people of Northern Ireland first in everything we do around Northern Ireland.
I congratulate the Secretary of State and wish Trevor Ringland well on his appointment as a special envoy from Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State will know that Northern Ireland has attracted significant interest internationally over the last number of decades. At pivotal moments, it has been incredibly helpful, but at other times that involvement can be naive and, worse still, partisan. In that vein, may I ask the Secretary of State what reflections he has to make on the deeply unhelpful and destabilising contribution from the Irish Tanaiste yesterday, at such a grave time of political instability in Northern Ireland?
I join the hon. Gentleman in expressing some surprise at the comments we saw yesterday. We would be concerned about any deviation from the principle of consent, as enshrined in the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, but that agreement of course also respects the right of anyone to express their views, and we fully support that. We note the recent life and times survey, which showed support for a united Ireland at a low of 30% in Northern Ireland. I am also aware of the polls that put Sinn Féin ahead in the Republic, which may explain the timing of some of these comments from the Tanaiste. I urge everyone to dial down any rhetoric, particularly at this time of year, as it is unhelpful and ill-advised. Whatever the circumstances, this Government will support the principle of consent and all of our obligations under the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.
Northern Ireland Protocol: Implementation
There have been extensive technical discussions with the European Commission, both as part of the formal withdrawal agreement structures and in support of them. I have joined Lord Frost in his comments, engagements with Vice-President Šefčovič, Northern Ireland businesses and civil society, as I have said, as well as meetings with the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney. These discussions have covered a wide range of issues related to the operation of the protocol. There is an urgent need for this ongoing dialogue to make real progress soon—as soon as possible—so that we avoid any disruption to critical supplies such as food and medicines.
I was not lucky enough to be in this place with Jo Cox, but it is clear that she made an enormous impact during her time here and is much missed.
I know that both negotiating teams worked hard, but it was really disappointing to see the lack of a significant breakthrough last week. We need pragmatic, sensible arrangements in place, just as we need devolved government working again with a new First Minister. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the EU needs to engage with the practical proposals that are being put forward on issues such as veterinary agreements and authorised trader schemes if we are to make progress on the ground?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I know that he has a huge knowledge and understanding of the nuances and the issues in Northern Ireland. It is absolutely right that we need to see a pragmatic and flexible approach. The EU has talked about that, and the vice-president himself outlined that point on British media. We need to see that in practice as we move forward. As I said, we have put forward a whole series of proposals and we look forward to the European Commission engaging with those in a real and direct way.
Following some of the comments last week, particularly those from President Macron, will my right hon. Friend do everything in his power to make it very clear to those in the EU who want to divide up our country that Northern Ireland is an integral part of the UK?
My hon. Friend makes a correct and an important point. We have been crystal clear on this, and I will be again today: Northern Ireland is a full and an integral part of the United Kingdom. Authority is exercised within Northern Ireland by the UK, not the EU. We believe that being part of the UK is in the best interests of all in Northern Ireland, but we also believe, and I think it is fundamental, that Northern Ireland contributes to making us a stronger and more prosperous United Kingdom.
Given that certain provisions of European Union law apply to the United Kingdom in respect of Northern Ireland by virtue of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, can the Secretary of State explain the legal effect of the unilateral extension of grace periods? Does he not agree that the time has come to do the right thing by the people of Northern Ireland and make use of the diversion of trade provisions of article 16 that allow for legally effective action against arrangements that are damaging the United Kingdom’s internal market, businesses in Great Britain and consumers in Northern Ireland? Secretary of State, the time for action is now, not when the Belfast agreement is in complete tatters.
We are working hard and in good faith to find solutions. Our overriding focus, as I have said, is on stability and safeguarding the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and restoring cross-community confidence in the practical operation of the protocol. The protocol could work with common sense, good faith and flexibility from the EU, and we are working to resolve the issues urgently, acutely aware of the time constraints that we face, as the hon. Lady rightly outlined. We are continuing to talk, and I hope that we can make better progress through the Joint Committee structures designed for resolving these problems. If we cannot do that, as I and the Prime Minister have said, no options are off the table.
Northern Ireland Protocol: Implementation
You are always here to help, Mr Speaker. Thank you.
We have taken extensive steps to implement the protocol, including providing £500 million for a range of support schemes, such as the trader support service and the movement assistance scheme. The trader support service alone has created 1.8 million declarations, supporting nearly 700,000 consignments since January. Despite these huge efforts, though, the protocol is presenting significant challenges for Northern Ireland, and we are seeing sustained disruption to trade, which is causing real impacts on livelihoods and disruption for citizens. So unless pragmatic, risk-based solutions can be found rapidly to a range of issues, cross-community confidence in the protocol will be eroded. We will therefore be continuing to work actively with the EU to find urgent solutions.
Sorry for the delay, Mr Speaker— I have only been here 20 years.
Is not the truth that the Prime Minister signed up for something in the protocol that he had no intention of honouring, in the way and practice he has followed throughout his life and got away with? The truth is, though, that he is not getting away with it now. Is not that the reality?
I suggest that the hon. Gentleman has a very good read of the protocol. The protocol that we signed up to is very clear that it will not disrupt the everyday lives of people in their communities, but it will respect the integral market of the United Kingdom and the Good Friday/Belfast agreement. Arguably, two—some would argue all three—of those things are currently in breach. We have a duty to deliver for the people of Northern Ireland and we will do that.
Is it not a fact that the protocol has partitioned the United Kingdom? It has undermined business, damaged the political and social fabric of Northern Ireland, and our EU partners, in whose single market we share, do not even know that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom. There are more checks now happening between GB and Northern Ireland than between Belarus and the EU and between Russia and the EU. This morning, Lord Frost has told us that there is no risk whatever for any of these goods entering the single market. Give us a timeline, Secretary of State: when will this be fixed?
The hon. Gentleman makes some very important and correct points. The protocol was always about dealing with goods that are at risk or are moving into the European Union. It is farcical to have a situation with products that are never moving into the European Union. Indeed, businesses, including well-known super- markets that do not even have stores in the Republic of Ireland, are having to go through the same sort of checks. We want to ensure that that is resolved. We absolutely understand that the EU’s core focus, as it has said, is on protecting its single market. For us, this is about respecting the single market, but our core focus is on protecting the Good Friday/Belfast agreement in all its strands, and ensuring that the residents and citizens of Northern Ireland can have access to the products that they should have as an integral, important part of the United Kingdom.
Today marks five years since the murder of our friend and colleague Jo Cox. My thoughts—and I am sure those of the whole House—are with her family and friends.
I am sure that the House will wish to join me in offering our thanks and best wishes to Sir Roy Stone, who is leaving the Government Chief Whip’s office and the civil service. He has worked for 13 Chief Whips, and for over 20 years has played an invaluable role in delivering the Government of the day’s legislative programme. We wish him well.
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
I am sure that we would all wish to associate ourselves with the Prime Minister’s remarks in relation to both Jo Cox and Roy Stone.
I know that the Prime Minister will report to the House in more detail later on the G7 summit, which President Biden described as “extremely collaborative” and successful. In taking forward the agenda—in particular, the part of the agenda of the summit that calls for us to work to uphold the rule of law and respect for an international rules-based system—will the Prime Minister bear in mind and task all parts of the Government to promote the great asset that we have in English common law, and in the expertise and reputation for integrity of our judiciary and legal systems? Will he make sure that those willing assets are harnessed in the pursuit of that G7 agenda, be it through writing commercial contracts with English law as a jurisdiction or helping, through our expertise, developing countries and markets?
My hon. Friend raises an important and vital sector of our economy—our legal services industry and judicial system, which is admired around the world. It is one of the reasons that we are capable of attracting so much inward investment to this country and one of the key exports that we have been able to promote just recently—thanks, for instance, to our free trade deal with Australia.
May I join with the Prime Minister’s remarks in relation to Sir Roy Stone?
This week also marks the fourth anniversary of the Grenfell fire tragedy, in which 72 people lost their lives. It is frankly an outrage that there are still more than 200 high-rise flats with Grenfell-style cladding, and that many leaseholders are trapped in homes that are neither safe nor sellable. The best way to mark this tragedy is not with words, but with action; I urge the Prime Minister finally to end the cladding scandal.
As the Prime Minister has already said, today is the fifth anniversary of the death of our dear friend and colleague Jo Cox. Jo had already changed so many lives for the better. She was passionate about creating a fairer, more just world. I know she would have gone on to achieve so much more, and that she would have been so proud of the work of her foundation and what it is doing in her name. Jo and I were in the same intake into this House; we were friends and our children are around the same age. There is not a day that goes by when we do not miss Jo. I know that I speak not just for those on the Opposition Benches, but for many across the House, when I say that today we remember Jo. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]
Does the Prime Minister recognise that his decision to keep our borders open contributed to the spread of the delta variant in this country?
No. Captain Hindsight needs to adjust his retrospectoscope, because he is completely wrong. We put India on the red list on 23 April, and the delta variant was not so identified until 28 April and was only identified as a variant of concern on 7 May. When the right hon. and learned Gentleman criticises this Government for wanting to keep our borders open, just remember that he voted 43 times in the last five years to ensure that our border controls were kept in the hands of Brussels.
This is absurd. I have, on seven occasions at PMQs, raised the question of the borders with the Prime Minister. They are all marked up in the transcript; they are all there in Hansard, Prime Minister. It is time for a better defence: your defence is as bad as your border policy.
The Prime Minister talks about the dates. Let us go through the dates. On 24 March, a new variant was reported in India. On 1 April, India was reporting over 100,000 new infections a day, and rising. But the Prime Minister kept India off the red list until 23 April. In that time, 20,000 people came into the UK from India. What on earth did the Prime Minister expect would be the consequences of that? The British people did their bit by following the rules and getting vaccinated, but the Prime Minister squandered it by letting a new variant into the country. That was not inevitable; it was the consequence of his indecision. If the Prime Minister disagrees with me—he answered the first question, “No”—what is his explanation as to why Britain has such high rates of the delta variant?
There is a very simple reason why the UK generally has a better understanding of the variants in these countries: we do 47% of the genomic testing in the world. I really think that the Leader of the Opposition should get his facts straight, because the delta variant, as I have said, was identified in this country on 28 April. I have a document on which I believe he is relying—it seems to be published by somebody called David Evans, general secretary of the Labour party—in which he says that the delta variant was identified on 1 April. He says that B1617—the delta variant—was designated as under investigation on 1 April. That is not the delta variant; that is the kappa variant. It is a “gamma” for the Labour party. The delta variant, as it happens, is seeded around the world in 74 countries and, sadly, is growing. But there is a difference between those countries and this country. In this country, we have vaccinated almost 79% of the adult population and given two vaccinations to 56%—a programme that he would have stopped by keeping us in the European Medicines Agency.
The question was: what is the Prime Minister’s explanation for our high rates of the delta variant? Answer came there none, other than that, apparently, we understand the variants.
The data is very, very clear. Our NHS has been doing an amazing job with the vaccine roll-out, but while the NHS was vaccinating, the Prime Minister was vacillating. It is because of his indecision that our borders stayed open. It is because of his indecision that India stayed off the red list. It is because of his indecision that in that period 20,000 people came to this country from India. The consequences are now clear. The rate of the delta variant is much higher here than in other countries, and we learn today that tragically, once again, the UK has the highest infection rate in Europe: we did not want to top that table again. If his borders policy is so strong, how does the Prime Minister explain that?
For the ease of the House, the right hon. and learned Gentleman should begin by pulping his document in which he incorrectly identifies what the delta variant is. We took the most drastic steps possible to put India on the red list on 23 April, before that variant was even identified. The big difference between this country and the rest of Europe—he loves these comparisons—is that we have had the fastest vaccine roll-out anywhere in Europe. We have a very, very high degree of protection. It is thanks to the vaccine roll-out and the fantastic efforts of the NHS that we now have and can continue with one of the most open economies and societies in Europe and get on with our cautious but irreversible road map to freedom.
If the Prime Minister put as much effort into protecting our borders as he does to coming up with ridiculous excuses, the country would be reopening next week. Even now, what do we know? The delta variant is responsible for 90% of infections in this country. He is persisting with a traffic light system that does not work and will not stop other variants coming in. After so many mistakes, and with the stakes so high, why does the Prime Minister not do what Labour is calling for: drop the traffic light system, get rid of the amber list, secure the borders and do everything possible to save the British summer?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman does not even know what the delta variant is. We have the toughest border measures anywhere in the world, and we will continue. We have 50 countries on the red list. If he is now saying that he wants to stop all transit, traffic and travel to and from this country, it is yet another flip-flop from the Leader of the Opposition—yet another totally unintelligible flip-flop. If he wants to close this country down to travel, which is what I understood him to be saying, it is not only yet another flip-flop, but it is also totally pointless, because we have 75% of our medicines and 50% of our food coming in from abroad. He has got to adopt a consistent position.
What I have learned is that the worse the position for the Prime Minister, the more pathetic it gets. Is he really suggesting that the 20,000 people who came in from India were bringing in vital medical supplies or food? It is absolutely ridiculous. What we were arguing for was for India to be on the red list between 1 and 23 April. If that had happened, we would not have the delta variant here, and it is as simple as that. The Prime Minister’s former senior adviser got it absolutely right. He said, and I quote:
“Fundamentally, there was no proper border policy, because the Prime Minister never wanted a proper border policy.”
That is the man who was in the room. It is those in hospitality, in clubs, in pubs, the arts, tourism and travel who are paying the price of the Prime Minister’s failure. All they ask is that if they have to keep their businesses closed, they get the support they need, but where is it? Business rate relief is being withdrawn from the end of this month, affecting 750,000 businesses. Furlough is being phased out. In Wales, the Labour Government have acted by extending business rate relief for a year and providing new support for those affected. When is the Prime Minister going to do the same for businesses in England?
We are proud of the support we have given to businesses up and down the country. The whole point about the cautious approach we are taking is to continue support with furlough, support through business rates, support through grants of up to £18,000, and there is support from councils—all that is continuing, but what we are also seeing is businesses slowly recovering. The growth in the economy in April was 2.3%. Card spending over the bank holiday weekend was actually 20% above pre-pandemic levels. I know how tough things have been, and we will look after business throughout this pandemic, but thanks to the vaccine roll-out and the cautious steps we are taking, we are seeing a shot in the arm for business across the country, and we will look after them all the way.
Yet again, it is not what the Government have done; it is what is needed now in light of the decision taken this week. UKHospitality says that the sector will lose £3 billion because of the delay and that 200,000 jobs could be at risk. That is not what has been done, but what is needed now, Prime Minister. The Federation of Small Businesses warns that the Government are being dangerously complacent, and I think we have just seen an example of that.
We all want these restrictions to be over, for our economy to be open and for businesses to thrive, but the Prime Minister’s indecision at the borders has blown it. [Interruption.] The problem with everything that the Prime Minister says today—both what he says at the Dispatch Box and also what he mutters—is that we have heard it all before so many times. Last March, he said we could turn the tide in 12 weeks—remember that? Then he said it will all be over by Christmas. Then we were told 21 June would be freedom day. Now we are told that 19 July is terminus day.
The British people do not expect miracles, but they do expect basic competence and honesty. When it comes to care homes, protective equipment or borders, we see the same pattern from this Prime Minister—too slow, too indecisive, over-promising, under-delivering. After all these failures and mistakes, why should anyone believe the Prime Minister now?
Why should anybody believe the Leader of the Opposition when he cannot decide what he thinks from one week to the next? He says he has a tough position on borders. Actually, he was attacking quarantine only recently, and saying that it was a “blunt instrument” that should be lessened. What I think the people of this country want to see is a Government getting on with the vaccine roll-out and getting on with our cautious but irreversible road map to freedom. I am very pleased, and he should say it again, that we have one of the fastest vaccine roll-outs anywhere in the world—certainly the fastest in Europe. It would not have been possible if we had stayed in the European Medicines Agency. We would not have been able to control our borders if, as he voted for 43 times, we had stayed in the EU. We are getting on with the job. We are bringing forward now 23 and 24-year-olds and asking them to come forward for their vaccines. I ask everybody to come forward for their second jab. I trust he has had his. We are delivering on our commitments to the British people—not only a great outcome at the G7 summit last weekend in Carbis Bay, but a new free trade agreement with Australia and building back better across our country. We are getting on with the job, and it would be a wonderful thing, once in his time as Leader of the Opposition, to hear some support for what the Government are doing and some backing up for our approach.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this very sad case with me, and I am sure the whole House will be thinking of Sonia Deleon and her family. I think that such decisions on “do not resuscitate” should be made only in accordance with a decision involving the person concerned and their carers and families.
Can I associate myself with the remarks made by you, Mr Speaker, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition on the absolutely brutal death of our friend and colleague Jo Cox five years ago? She was a woman dedicated to public service who made, in her short time here, a tremendous contribution to this House. Our thoughts are very much with her family, her friends and all those who care very deeply for her loss.
Of course, as we do that, we should also reflect on what we saw earlier this week with the journalist Nick Watt chased through the streets of Whitehall by a mob seeking to intimidate. We must all stand up in this House for the rights of journalists to be able to go about their work safely.
I say good wishes both to Scotland and England ahead of the football match on Friday evening, but if I may say so, I hope that we do not see Scotland being dragged out of the Euros against our wishes at the end of the week.
As we enter the Chamber, we see what is reported to be a WhatsApp communication between the Prime Minister and Dominic Cummings. Perhaps the Prime Minister will clarify whether or not these are genuine, and whether or not the derogatory comments that he expressed on his Health Secretary are valid.
This morning, the details of the disastrous trade deal with Australia are slowly seeping out. It tells us everything we need to know that these details are being celebrated in Canberra, but are busy being concealed in London. For all the spin, it is clear that this Tory Government have just thrown Scottish farmers and crofters under their Brexit bus, just as they sold out our fishing community. So, today, those with most to lose from this deal do not need to hear the Prime Minister’s usual waffle. Their livelihoods are at stake, Prime Minister. Just this once— just this once—they deserve honest answers from this Government. Will the Prime Minister confirm that from day one of this deal, 35,000 tonnes of Australian beef, and 25,000 tonnes of Australian lamb will be free to flood the UK market, tariff free?
This is a great deal for the UK. It is a great deal for Scotland, for Scottish whisky, and for Scottish business and services exports. It is a great deal for Scottish legal services. It is also a great deal for Scottish farming, and how tragic—how absolutely tragic—that it should be the posture of the Scottish National party to see absolutely no way that Scottish farmers will be able to take advantage of opportunities to export around the world. What the right hon. Gentleman does not realise, is that £350 million-worth of UK food already goes from this country to Australia. This is an opportunity to turbocharge those exports, get behind Scottish farming, and encourage that, not run it down.
My goodness—I do not even think the Prime Minister can believe that tripe. In the Tories’ desperation to get a post-Brexit trade deal with somebody— anybody—they have given the farm away, literally. It is blindingly obvious who are the winners and who are the losers in this deal. Australia’s economy will benefit to the tune of $1.3 billion a year. The UK Government’s own assessment states that the Australian deal is worth just “0.02% of GDP”. We would need 200 Australian deals to come close to mitigating the cost of Brexit. We were told that Brexit was all about taking back control, but for our farmers and crofters there has been no scrutiny, no consultation, and no consent. If the Prime Minister is really confident about the benefits of this deal, does he have the guts to put it to a vote in this House?
The people of this country voted for this Government to get on and deliver free trade deals around the world. I believe they were totally right. The right hon. Gentleman talks about tripe, and when it comes to exporting the intestines of sheep, which I know is a valuable part of Scottish tradition, even that is now being opened up around the world, thanks to the deals that this country is doing. If he is saying that he wants to go back into the EU, hand back control of our fisheries and our agriculture to Brussels, and lose all the opportunities that this country has gained, I think he is frankly out of his mind and going in totally the wrong direction. If he means another referendum, we had one of those.
I know that, like me, the Prime Minister cares passionately about the Union. Can he confirm that the passing of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 and the Northern Ireland protocol that forms part of it, has not resulted in an implied repeal of article 6 of the Act of Union, which enables Northern Ireland to trade freely with the rest of this United Kingdom? Will he commit fully to restoring Northern Ireland’s place within the UK internal market?
Yes, of course. I can give assurances on both counts. I can say that unless we see progress on the implementation of the protocol, which I think is currently totally disproportionate, then we will have to take the necessary steps to do exactly what the right hon. Gentleman says.
My hon. Friend is totally right about Hillingdon Hospital, which has a great future. I look forward to working with him to ensure that the future of services at Mount Vernon is also protected. I know that a full consultation is due to start in September.
It is absolutely true that as we open up our economy there are more vacancies, which is great. We also have large numbers of young people in this country who need jobs and large numbers of people who are still furloughed. What we want to see is those people coming forward to get those jobs. Of course, we will retain an open and flexible approach towards allowing talent to come in from overseas.
I will do everything I can to ensure that we accelerate that process. My hon. Friend is right to raise it. A great deal of progress has already been made and the Food Standards Agency has been flexible, but we need to go further. We will make sure that great British shellfish can continue to be exported to Europe and around the world.
From listening to the SNP, Mr Speaker, you would think there was no Scotch whisky industry or no banking and financial services industries in Scotland. Even then, they are missing the point because this is a massive opportunity for the Scottish agriculture sector. What they need is a different type of MP who can champion and get behind them, and who actually believes in Scotland. That is what the people of Scotland need.
Nobody, least of all my hon. Friend or I, wants to see covid restrictions last forever, nor do I think that they are going to last forever. As I made clear earlier this week, I think we can have a high degree of confidence that our vaccination programme will work. I think that we need to give it a little more time, as I have explained, to save many thousands more lives by vaccinating millions more people. That is what we want to do.
I am aware of the problem, and we are doing what we can to accelerate the number of driving instructors and testers to allow young people such as the gentleman that she mentions to get their driving test done, and enable them to fulfil their ambitions.
I support the Prime Minister’s comments on Jo Cox and, as a former Chief Whip, his comment on Sir Roy Stone. Sir Roy gave amazing service to me when I was Chief Whip during the worst of the Brexit years in dealing with a hung Parliament and with the occasional disruptive Back Bencher.
Northern Ireland faces some challenges over the coming weeks in terms of nominating a First Minister and a Deputy First Minister. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is vital that the parties stick to the agreements that have been made in the “New Decade, New Approach” deal, which he and I negotiated 18 months ago, and that if they fail to do that—I know he does not like this concept—the UK Government ultimately act as a backstop?
It gives me great pleasure to thank my right hon. Friend for all the work that he did on the “New Decade, New Approach” deal. I agree that it would be a good thing for the whole package to be agreed, and I certainly support the approach that he has set out. I think that what the people of Northern Ireland want is a stable, functioning and mature Executive.
May I welcome the Taskforce on Innovation, Growth and Regulatory Reform report, published today by my right hon. Friends the Members for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) and for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) and my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman)? The report makes recommendations about how to seize new opportunities from Brexit and back start-ups and new tech. Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister look closely at that report so that we can make the most of the great benefits of Brexit and lead the world in the development of new technologies?
We have invested massively in removing cladding from high-rise blocks, and we will continue to do so. I know the structure in question and I do believe that Ballymore, the company concerned, has been too slow. We are on its case. I think it is very important that people understand that overall risks of death by fire have been coming down for a very long time and will continue to come down. It is simply not the case that all the high-rise buildings in this country are unsafe, and it is very important that Members of Parliament stress that.
Independent lifeboat stations such as the Hamble lifeboat in my constituency respond to over 100 incidents a year in the Solent. The pandemic has increased the operating costs of independent lifeboat stations while also restricting their ability to raise money. Will the Prime Minister look to see what more the Government can do to support independent lifeboat stations such as the Hamble lifeboat as they keep a watchful eye on all of us?
When can we expect the co-ordinated chorus of SAGE members recommencing their media appearances to depress morale, and does my right hon. Friend fear having to give another press conference at which he again postpones the return of our freedoms? We are rightly told that we need to learn to live with covid, so what can the Prime Minister say to the country to convince us of that reality?
I associate myself with the comments of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition about our friend Jo Cox. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating rugby league legend Kevin Sinfield on his OBE in the Queen’s birthday honours? Kevin has done so much to raise awareness of motor neurone disease and support his good friend Rob Burrow. MND is a devastating disease. There is no cure, but scientists believe they are on the cusp of developing effective treatments. Will the Government please commit to investing £50 million over five years to establish a virtual MND research institute and to accelerate research?
Thank you, Mr Speaker. It is an OBE, and I thank Kevin Sinfield very much for his outstanding work. We are following it up by spending £55 million on research into MND, but there will be more to come as part of our general massive investment in life sciences.
I really think that these constant attacks on Australia, its standards and its animal welfare standards will be very much resented by the people of Australia, and will not be recognised. Australia is marked five out of five, which is the highest possible, for animal welfare by the World Organisation for Animal Health performance of veterinary services evaluation team. This deal that we have done is the first ever to incorporate high animal welfare standards, as part of the package that Australia has agreed.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to assisted dying campaigner Noel Conway, who has died after taking the decision to have his breathing support removed, and does my right hon. Friend agree that it is now time for Parliament to properly consider the law on assisted dying?
I thank my hon. Friend, and I know that the whole House will be in sympathy with Noel Conway’s family and friends. There are very deeply and sincerely held views on both sides of this matter, and a change in the law would obviously be one for Parliament to consider.
In 2014, Runnymede and Weybridge was hit by devastating floods, and my constituents live under the fear of flooding. Last week, the Government signed off the outline business case for the River Thames flooding alleviation scheme, which will allow the detailed design and planning for this scheme to begin in earnest. It is fantastic news and a monumental milestone, and it will massively improve our protection from flooding. Will the Prime Minister join me in celebrating and thanking everyone who has got us to where we are, and does he agree that we need to keep the momentum going?