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Commons Chamber

Volume 697: debated on Wednesday 23 June 2021

House of Commons

Wednesday 23 June 2021

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

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

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

Oral Answers to Questions

Scotland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Misuse of Drugs Act 1971

What discussions he has had with the devolved Administrations on the effectiveness of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. (901450)

May I start by saying that the dream is over, and my commiserations go to Steve Clarke and the Scottish team now that they are out of the Euros? Us Scots will now turn our attention to Wimbledon, where we have won the men’s singles twice in the last eight years. I also congratulate Wales and England on proceeding to the knockout stages of the tournament, and I wish them well in that.

In answer to the question, it is a tragedy that drug deaths in Scotland are the worst in Europe and about four times those of England and Wales. The majority of the levers to tackle drugs misuse are delivered and devolved to the Scottish Government, including health, education, housing and the criminal justice system, but as the First Minister has admitted, they have taken their eye off the ball. The United Kingdom Government are keen to work with the Scottish Government to tackle this scourge, and the Minister for Crime and Policing, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse), held a UK-wide summit in Glasgow. He also invited the Scottish Government to be part of a new scheme, Project ADDER, which aims to protect communities from the harm caused by drugs. The Scottish Government have, sadly, so far declined.

The Scottish Government intend to open an overdose prevention centre in Glasgow to tackle drug deaths and HIV infection rates. They are prevented from doing so by this Government’s reliance on the out-of-date, ill-fitting drugs legislation, the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. Ahead of Saturday’s “Support. Don’t Punish” day of action, will the Minister speak with his Cabinet colleagues about the need to reform the Act and support the Scottish Government’s call for an urgent four nations summit on this issue?

As I said, all home nations have the same tools at their disposal, yet the drug death rate in Scotland is four times higher. There are no plans to introduce drug consumption rooms. The current evidence does not support their use. We do support, however, needle and syringe programmes to prevent blood-borne diseases, and the widening of the availability of naloxone to help prevent overdose deaths.

Covid-19: Public Inquiry

Whether he has had discussions with the Scottish Government on a public inquiry on the (a) Scottish and (b) UK Government’s response to the covid-19 outbreak. (901451)

Whether he has had discussions with the Scottish Government on a public inquiry on the (a) Scottish and (b) UK Government’s response to the covid-19 outbreak. (901468)

I draw the House’s attention to the words of the Prime Minister when he announced the Government’s plans for a public inquiry. He said that we should learn the lessons “as one Team UK” and that the Government

“will consult the devolved Administrations”—[Official Report, 12 May 2021; Vol. 695, c. 137.]

about the scope and remit of the public inquiry. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has started the conversations with his devolved counterparts.

The Scottish Government revealed earlier this month that they underspent their budget last year by hundreds of millions of pounds. That is a slap in the face to businesses across Scotland that are struggling without the financial support they need. Does the Minister agree that any future covid inquiry must examine whether the financial support offered to businesses by both Governments was sufficient and whether it actually reached those who needed it?

The hon. Lady raises a very fair point. This Government have provided unprecedented levels of support to people and businesses in Scotland. Some of that comes through UK-wide schemes such as furlough, but other money goes as a fund to the Scottish Government for them to distribute, and there are serious questions about whether that money has been used in the most effective way and gone to the people for whom it was intended. I very much hope that will be part of the remit of this inquiry.

One of the greatest tragedies in the coronavirus crisis has been the scale of the outbreak in care homes. I know from personal experience that that has caused untold misery and robbed families across the UK of our loved ones. The brutal reality is that that loss was multiplied because of Scottish Government and UK Government decisions to discharge hundreds of patients into care homes even after they had tested positive for covid-19. Does the Minister agree that any future pandemic inquiry must investigate how the discharge of those patients was ever allowed to happen?

I recall that, in a previous exchange, the hon. Gentleman mentioned that he had suffered some personal family losses as a result of the pandemic, and I again extend my sympathy to him. He raises an important question. I am pretty certain that those matters will be covered by the inquiry. As I say, the discussions to establish its remit and processes are under way. The issue of care homes in Scotland is, of course, a devolved matter for the Scottish Government, but we want this inquiry to be as wide-ranging as possible so that we learn the lessons from the pandemic.

I join the Secretary of State in congratulating Stevie Clarke and the whole Scotland team on cheering up a nation over the past 10 days or so. As we said in the 1970s, we had a dream. That dream died, unfortunately, last night, and it will now have to wait until Qatar next year for the World cup.

In recent weeks we have heard scathing criticisms from the Prime Minister’s former chief adviser about the UK Government’s covid response, which has no doubt cost many lives. We have even learned that the PM described his Health Secretary as “hopeless”. Most recently, their dither and delay in securing the borders of the UK has resulted in restrictions continuing beyond the initial date. Sadly, the people of Scotland have also been failed by the choices of the Scottish Government. We know from a recent freedom of information reply that the Scottish chief medical officer advised the Scottish Government to say nothing at all in response to the Edinburgh Nike conference outbreak last March. The Scottish public were kept in the dark. These are just some of the major issues, which include the two we have heard about from my hon. Friends this morning. Will the Government agree with calls for an urgent separate Scottish judge-led public inquiry into both Governments’ management of covid-19 in Scotland so that we can learn the lessons of covid and the grieving families can get the answers they so deserve?

In response to the hon. Gentleman’s first point about the tartan army, my experience is that while the spirit is often tested it is never broken, and I am sure it will sustain.

I do not think that, at this stage certainly, there is a need for a separate inquiry. We are still at the very early stages of establishing the remit of the UK-wide inquiry, which will cover both reserved and devolved matters. It is important that that inquiry looks at all aspects of the situation. We should also remind ourselves that this is an unprecedented challenge that Governments right across the world have faced. Inevitably, with the benefit of hindsight, different decisions would have been made. We are learning all the time. I do not necessarily accept some of the charges that the hon. Gentleman has made—on borders, for example—but lessons are being learned all the time, and the right place for permanent lessons is from the wide-ranging inquiry that the Prime Minister has promised to set up.

I am tempted to ask the Minister if he has ever filled any of London’s fountains with Fairy liquid, but that can maybe be kept for private discussion. [Interruption.] Exactly—only for cleansing purposes.

One of the most frustrating elements for many people is the inconsistency of the decisions that have been made. Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham has rightly criticised the First Minister both for mimicking the arrogance of the Prime Minister by failing to contact the Manchester authorities before announcing a travel ban and for its inconsistencies. Cases remain lower than they are in Dundee, yet Dundonians can travel all over Scotland while those living in Bolton, for example, are effectively banned from travelling to Scotland at all.

These varying decisions are having a devastating impact on key sectors. Take the wedding sector, for example. Yesterday I was contacted by a constituent whose wedding in Edinburgh is limited to 50 guests but will travel to London the following week to a wedding where guests are unlimited, and she was at the Glasgow fan zone last week with 3,000 other supporters. She is deeply frustrated, and I am sure the Minister can understand her anger. So does he agree that any covid inquiry should examine the consequences that have resulted from the refusal of both Governments to work together?

I am happy to confirm to the hon. Gentleman that to the best of my knowledge I have never filled any fountain anywhere with any domestic cleaning product.

Turning to the important points that the hon. Gentleman has raised, the issue between the Mayor of Greater Manchester and the First Minister is clearly not satisfactory, and I would urge them both to come to a very sensible arrangement to allow travel to resume between Scotland and Greater Manchester. The two Governments do work closely together. There are several meetings a week, whether between the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and the First Minister or the Health Secretary and his counterparts, to discuss all these arrangements. At the end of the day, the Scottish Government have the ability to make their own decisions, but a lot of them are co-ordinated—particularly, at the moment, on the travel corridors. Of course we constantly look at all these decisions and have to make often snap judgments in the face of new evidence, but we do so in a way of co-operation as far as is possible.

Child Poverty

What recent discussions he has had with the Scottish Government on efforts to reduce child poverty in Scotland. (901452)

Let me first take this opportunity to thank Department for Work and Pensions staff in Scotland and across the UK who have provided unprecedented levels of support to families during the pandemic. It is a mark of their dedication that the system has coped well with the extra demand that we placed on it.

We take child poverty very seriously. Through the joint ministerial working group on welfare, I regularly discuss welfare matters with Ministers from the Scottish Government and the Department for Work and Pensions. Our most recent meeting included a discussion of the new Scottish child payment, which was delivered through the powers in the Scotland Act 2016.

I join the Minister in paying tribute to DWP staff. Perhaps the Government could respond by giving them a decent pay rise this year. According to the Child Poverty Action Group, over two thirds of children growing up in poverty in Scotland live in a household where someone is actually working. That is a damning indictment of the economy under both the Tories and the SNP—low pay, insecure work and children growing up in poverty. Does the Minister accept that both Governments need a fundamental rethink of their strategy to tackle child poverty?

We are putting in considerable support in a whole range of ways, such as through increases in the living wage. One of the challenges of the pandemic is to ensure that new employment opportunities are there, and this Government and the Scottish Government do work well on co-ordinating our various schemes, such as the kickstart process, to make sure that those jobs are secure and sustainable for the future. It is not just about jobs, of course; it is also about issues such as the quality of education. I know there are significant issues with the stewardship of the Scottish education system under the Scottish Government.

The Scottish Government recently spoke of making the eradication of child poverty a “national mission”. Those are welcome words, but statistics released last month show that child poverty has risen in every single local authority in Scotland since the Scottish First Minister took office. Indeed, the last national mission for the SNP—there have been plenty—was closing the attainment gap, which the OECD has said will not be possible with the levels of poverty that exist in Scotland.

Of course, it is not just the SNP; the UK Government’s record is appalling, too. More than a decade of Tory government has created a society of low pay, insecure work and pushing families into in-work poverty. Both Governments are failing Scotland’s children. Can the Minister explain now what he is doing to try to resolve the shocking levels of child poverty in Scotland to show that this Tory Government really do care and to actually try to deal with some of the SNP’s failings in Holyrood?

The hon. Gentleman rightly refers to the OECD report, which came out this week and which I have read. It does contain some very worrying findings. It is yet another reason why the Scottish Government should be focusing on the day job of improving services for people in Scotland, rather than obsessing about constitutional matters. On the wider point he makes about child poverty, throughout this Government’s period in office we have done a huge amount of reform to increase the take-home pay of people at the lower end of the income scale. For example, we have massively increased the personal tax allowance, which allows people to keep more money in their pocket. However, that is just one example; there is much more work to do, and I work regularly with ministerial colleagues across Government looking at the cost of living and what steps we might take to improve matters.

UK Shared Prosperity Fund

The UK shared prosperity fund will be the successor to EU structural funds, with decisions about how taxpayers’ money is spent being taken in the United Kingdom, rather than in Brussels. The £220 million community renewal fund, for which applications closed last week, will lead us up to publishing the shared prosperity fund prospectus later this year. We look forward to working directly with local authorities in Scotland on applications for the new UK shared prosperity fund. They know best what their communities need. This is real devolution in practice.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. Can he assure me that Scotland and all the other coastal and rural areas of the United Kingdom, including all the way to my constituency in Cornwall, will get their fair share of shared prosperity funding, and will he ensure that the money is distributed in a fairer way, better tailored for our economy?

The Prime Minister has previously provided assurances that our plans to replace structural funds will at least match the figures of the EU funding. We are confident that will start with the community renewal fund this year, and will lead next year into the UK shared prosperity fund, as I mentioned earlier, in April 2022. That will reach £1.5 billion in total, and I can assure my hon. Friend that her area will be receiving its fair share.

Under the EU structural funding arrangement, the Scottish Government played a role in determining the allocation of that funding. This ensured that funding was allocated based on the democratic choices of the people of Scotland, reflecting the priorities that they voted for. Will the Secretary of State now commit the UK Government to give the devolved Governments a formal say in the delivery of the SPF to ensure that democratic working continues?

What we are doing is working with all responsible delivery partners in Scotland, as I have said, and the community renewal fund will be an example of real devolution at work. We will be working with local communities and local authorities in ensuring that the projects respond to local wishes and meet local needs.

Lasting prosperity requires successful business people and, sadly, my constituency in Scotland lost one of our finest examples on Monday, when Alasdair Houston, the entrepreneurial chairman of the Gretna Green Group and a leading figure in Scottish tourism and agriculture, lost his long battle with cancer at the age of only 59. Alasdair will be remembered not just for his own zest for life and the transformational impact he had on his own businesses in the Gretna area, but for his passion for the Star of Caledonia, an iconic environmental structure being built on the Scotland-England border that will surely be his lasting legacy. Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to our friend Alasdair’s many achievements, but will he also agree that, whatever form the shared prosperity fund takes, it should reflect his spirit and support inspirational projects such as the Star?

I join my right hon. Friend in paying tribute to my close friend Alasdair Houston, and I send my deep sympathies to his family. Ali was a proud Scot, a lover of Dumfries and Galloway, and a formidable champion for Gretna, his home town, and the Star of Caledonia would be a very fitting tribute to him. He will be missed by many.

Covid-19: Guidance on International Travel

What discussions he has had with (a) Cabinet colleagues and (b) the Scottish Government on harmonisation of covid-19 guidance on international travel. (901455)

I and other UK Government Ministers are in regular contact with the Scottish Government and other devolved Administrations to try to secure the harmonisation particularly of covid-19 guidance when it comes to regulations on international travel, while at the same time of course respecting devolved competence in matters such as public health.

Golf tourism plays a major part in the local economy of North East Fife, particularly as St Andrews is the home of golf. There is a whole ecosystem built up around golf tourism, including accommodation, hospitality and inbound tour operators. The majority of these tourists come from north America and then travel to other golf courses around the UK, and there are concerns about the incoherent travel rules between the four nations and restrictions within the four nations deterring those visitors. Can I therefore ask the Minister to outline what steps he is taking to reach consensus, particularly in relation to the US?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question, which is pertinent not just for golf tourism but for whisky tourism and tourism in general across Scotland. The UK Government are committed to full alignment with the devolved Administrations, because we recognise the importance of such alignment for public compliance, as well as for business confidence and for tourism. We share the data, and we have created the structures to make that happen. However, we also respect the right of the devolved Administrations to make their own decisions on devolved matters. Thankfully, the differences in the exemptions, particularly for international travel, are not currently that material and can be justified as legitimate differences, but I do take on board the comments she made about golf tourism specifically.

This morning we heard that as a direct result of the baffling and inconsistent travel ban placed on Scots going to Greater Manchester, easyJet has cancelled its newly announced route from Aberdeen to Manchester, putting at risk many jobs in north-east Scotland. What work is being done, and may I beg the Minister and the Scotland Office to ensure that in the reopening of international travel, the same rules and regulations will apply around the entirety of the UK, instead of leaving the Scottish aviation sector and the thousands of people it employs at the mercy of a Scottish Government who have completely abandoned them?

My hon. Friend and I share a lot in common, not least the regular use of Aberdeen airport, to which he refers, and the fact that we both have wives who were not born in this country and unfortunately have not been able to visit their families for the last year and a half. That aside, on the specific issue about easyJet and the flight to Manchester, it has made a commercial decision, announced today, in response to the Scottish Government’s decision to regulate to prohibit travel to Manchester. The Scottish Government decision has been widely criticised as disproportionate; clearly Scottish Government Ministers will be keeping travel regulations under constant review, and there are calls for this regulation in particular to be reviewed in closer consultation with all interested parties. The Scotland Office would be happy to facilitate that, if helpful.

UK Government Ministers talk about a single approach, but, if we cast our minds back just a couple of months ago, travellers from India into Scotland faced managed hotel quarantine whereas the same travellers into England did not, and the consequences of that inaction are clear for all to see with the delta variant now dominant right across the UK. So I ask the Minister, does he regret the damage caused to Scotland’s covid-19 recovery as a result of his Government’s failure to follow Scotland’s lead?

What I regret, particularly considering the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, is that the Scottish Government did not, despite the repeated calls from the oil and gas industry, from MSPs, and from MPs who, like him, represent constituencies in the north-east of Scotland, give the same allowance for oil and gas workers from amber list countries that was allowed to them by the rest of the UK.

Strengthening the Union

The value and strength of the Union has never been more important or more apparent. The United Kingdom Government have supported all parts of the UK during the pandemic; that includes the furlough scheme, which at its peak supported nearly 1 million jobs in Scotland, the help of our fantastic military, and the UK-wide vaccination programme which means we can now see light at the end of the tunnel. The UK Government will lead our recovery from the pandemic, investing in communities right across the United Kingdom, getting young people into jobs and improving connectivity between all parts of our country.

The UK Government have been unwavering in supporting Scotland through the pandemic, from providing £14.5 billion in additional Barnett funding to protecting nearly 900,000 jobs through our furlough scheme. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this shows how the UK Government and the Treasury have protected lives and livelihoods across every part of this country?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. The support provided by the broad shoulders of the United Kingdom Treasury is staggering and simply unprecedented in peacetime. As he said, there are jobs being supported by furlough and an extra £14.5 billion provided to the Scottish Government through Barnett funding, and I would point out that 530,000 claims have been made in Scotland under the self-employment income support scheme, so far totalling around £1.5 billion.

Is it not the case that the success of our vaccine programme, which was a combination of successful UK Government procurement and then an NHS roll-out in the individual nations of the United Kingdom, is a fantastic example of the two Governments in Scotland—the UK Government and the Scottish Government—working together, which is exactly what we should see in the future? That demonstrates the strength of our Union, and we should fight to keep it in place.

I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend. The vaccine programme has been a huge success, and it was UK-wide procurement delivering vaccines on a UK-wide basis.

The A68 links Darlington with Edinburgh and serves as an economic and cultural link between England and Scotland. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should be celebrating and strengthening connections between our two nations, and will he lend his support to the proposed improvements to the artery in my constituency as a means of strengthening our precious Union?

Yes, and Darlington has also been supporting the Scottish football team over the last few weeks. It is vital that we have good connectivity between all parts of the United Kingdom. Sir Peter Hendy, in his review, is looking at how we can improve that, and he will publish his report later this year, but I must say—I put it on the record again—that I was disappointed that the Scottish Government told their civil service not to engage in this work because, as ever, they want to put a grievance ahead of improving Scotland’s economy.

My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) successfully pursued a two-year campaign calling on this Government to publish the results of the secret polling that they commissioned, using public funds, to ask people in Scotland how they feel about the Union. Can the Secretary of State confirm that that information will be published in the next three weeks, as the tribunal has ordered the UK Government to do?

The hon. Lady makes a point that is one for the Cabinet Office to answer, but the Cabinet Office is very clear that it does not spend money on political polling or research.

I will move on from that rather bizarre answer. Today, we learned that the UK Government have used emergency covid funds to publicly fund further polls on the Union, in a contract given to close associates of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. Would the Secretary of State say that that is an appropriate use of emergency funds, and will he back the SNP’s calls for an inquiry into this misuse of funds?

Again, I say that the hon. Lady should be at Cabinet Office questions asking the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to answer for his Department. Again, I have spoken to the Cabinet Office about this. It does not engage in political polling, and it is very clear about that.

It seems to me that this Government’s plan to strengthen the Union is to first sell out the fishing industry and then betray Scotland’s farmers. Can the Secretary of State explain how the Australia trade deal, which allows the UK market to be flooded with thousands of tonnes of cheap, factory- farmed, inferior-quality beef and lamb, is the golden opportunity the Prime Minister promised? How will it help Scottish farmers’ business?

I am going to answer the question very clearly. The SNP voted against or abstained on all trade deals in the European Parliament and the one we have just done with the European Union. It is an isolationist party. The reality on the Australia trade deal is that it is upholding animal welfare standards. Under the World Organisation for Animal Health, Australia gets five out of five. We have safeguards in place to stop the market being flooded with beef or any collapse in price. We are very clear that we will protect our farmers, and this leads us into the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership, worth £9 trillion. That will be a huge win for our farmers, and all the members of the farming community I have spoken to understand that. The SNP should see the big picture and understand that we are not going to reduce our animal welfare standards, that we are not going to flood the market, and that it will be seen very clearly in a few years’ time to have cried wolf.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

Before we get under way, I point out that a British Sign Language interpretation of Prime Minister’s questions is available to watch on parliamentlive.tv.

Today marks five years since this country voted to leave the European Union. It has allowed us to take back control of the issues that matter to the people of the United Kingdom. It has given us the freedom to establish eight freeports across the country, driving new investment; to develop the fastest vaccine roll-out in Europe; to protect and invest in jobs and renewal across every part of the UK; to control our immigration system, and to sign an historic trade deal with Australia. It will allow us to shape a better future for our people. Over 5.6 million EU citizens have already applied to our EU settlement scheme, and I would encourage anyone who may still be eligible to apply ahead of the deadline next week.

This week is Armed Forces Week, and I am sure that colleagues from across the House will wish to join me in thanking our fantastic armed forces and their families for their service to our country.

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.

Prime Minister, we are to host COP26. Our goal is net zero by 2050. To achieve that target will require innovative policies and a free market approach would help. Therefore, if we were to make solar panels compulsory for all new residential builds, we immediately create a large market. It will lead to innovation, lower prices, job creation and contribute towards our 2050 target. Will the Prime Minister support such a policy initiative?

My hon. Friend makes a very interesting suggestion which I will certainly look into, though I should caution that some homes do not have enough space on their roof or indeed have their roofs angled in the right way to make solar panels viable. What we are already doing is tightening our standards to ensure that new homes produce at least 75% lower carbon dioxide emissions compared to current standards, on our way to net zero by 2050.

One of the first things I said when I came to the Dispatch Box as Prime Minister was that I thought that rape prosecutions and convictions were too low. That is why we have the end-to-end rape review, that is why we have been investing in independent sexual violence advisers and domestic violence advisers—another £27 million—and that is why we have been investing more in the Crown Prosecution Service, with another £85 million. We are also dealing with the misery experienced by rape victims and survivors who have to hand over their mobile phones, which I think has been one of the evidential problems that has arisen in prosecuting rape cases. What we have also been doing is imposing tougher sentences for serious sexual and violent offences. It would have been good to have some support in that from the right hon. and learned Gentleman and from those on the Opposition Benches.

We all agree that the figures are appalling. The question is why. The Government’s own review makes it clear that rape convictions and prosecutions have halved since 2016—halved. We know that that is nothing to do with the pandemic, because this is a five-year trend and we know it is not because there are fewer rape cases being reported, because that number has gone up significantly, so let me return to the question that the Prime Minister has not answered: why does the Prime Minister think that rape prosecutions and convictions have plummeted on his watch?

Because, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows very well because he has some experience of this matter, there are considerable evidential problems, particularly in recovering data from mobile phones, and that has been an obstacle to the speedy preparation of cases. Too often, let us be frank, cases go from the police to the Crown Prosecution Service not in a fit state. Too often, those cases are not in a fit state when they come to court and there is not a good enough join up across the criminal justice system. That is exactly what we are addressing by our investment and with our end-to-end rape review. What would be good, Mr Speaker, is if we had some support from the Opposition for tougher sentences for rapists and serious sexual offenders. What kind of a signal does it send when they will not even back tougher sentences?

The Prime Minister knows very well why we voted against his Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill: precisely because it did more to protect statues than women. But since he has brought it up, let us address the central question. Prime Minister, 98.4% of reported rapes do not end up in a charge—98.4%—and therefore the question of sentence never arises in those cases. Since he has brought up the Bill—it is his main defence, it seems—can he point to what provision, what clause, what chapter, what part of that Bill will do anything to change the fact that 98.4% of reported rape cases do not end in charges and do not get to sentence? Which clause, part, chapter or words in that Bill? Point to one thing.

Let me point to sections 106 and 107 of that Bill, which Labour voted down, which would have stopped the early release of rapists at the halfway point of their sentences. What kind of signal or message does that send to people who commit crimes of rape? It is very important that the message should go out from this House of Commons that we will not tolerate serious sexual violence. I am afraid that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has not been supporting that message.

What we are doing now is bringing forward measures by investing in independent domestic violence and sexual violence advisers to ensure that victims and survivors of the crime of rape have people in whom they can confide and trust throughout that miserable period when they are in the criminal justice system. Another thing we are doing is recruiting record numbers of police officers, and I am proud to say that 40% of our new recruits are female, which I believe will be of great consolation and use to those who are victims and survivors of rape.

What an appalling answer. I asked the Prime Minister why 98.4% of cases are not getting into the system and he talks about sentence. That is the problem. If he thinks that is the answer, that is why we have got these terrible rates of conviction and of prosecution. The answer is: there is nothing in that Bill. The truth is, victims of rape are being failed. Those are not just my words; they are in the Government’s own report:

“Victims of rape are being failed.”

There is no escaping that appalling figure: 98.4% of rape cases ending without anybody being charged, and those that do get into the system take years to go through. Does the Prime Minister accept that cuts to the criminal justice system have contributed to that appalling situation?

No, because we have increased the numbers of people in the CPS by at least 200, and they are specifically dedicated to helping to prosecute the crime of rape and sexual violence. We are absolutely determined to stamp it out. This is a problem that has been getting worse because of the evidential difficulties caused by the data recovery process and a lack of unity and joined-up thinking between all parts of the criminal justice system. That is something that the Government are now addressing by more investment, by putting more police out on the street and by having tougher sentences. Finally, it would be good to hear the right hon. and learned Gentleman support it.

I spent five years as Director of Public Prosecutions, prosecuting thousands of rape cases. I do not need lectures, but I do know the impact of cuts in our criminal justice service. The Government cannot make significant cuts to the Crown Prosecution Service, 25% cuts to the Ministry of Justice, close half the courts in England and Wales and now pretend that a small budget increase will solve the problem.

This is about more than just cuts. The rape review is welcome, but it is weak. The Government’s Victims’ Commissioner described the review as “underwhelming” and said it could have been “10 times stronger”. That review is littered with pilots and consultations on proposals that have literally been discussed for years and years. It is so unambitious. Is it not the case that despite these shameful figures—they are shameful—the Government are still not showing the urgency needed to tackle the epidemic of violence against women and girls?

No, because we have also brought in the landmark domestic violence Bill—again, it would have been good if we had had wholehearted support from the Labour party—and no, because the Government have brought in much tougher sentences for serious sexual and violent offenders. No matter how much the right hon. and learned Gentleman wriggles and squirms, he cannot get away from the simple fact that, on a three-line Whip, he got his party to vote against tougher sentences for serious sexual and violent offenders. That is weak.

Order. It is a very, very emotive and important issue and I need to hear the question and the answers. I certainly do not expect shouting from the Back Benches.

On the Prime Minister’s watch, rape prosecutions and convictions are at a record low, court backlogs are at a record high, victims are waiting longer for justice and criminals are getting away with it. This was not inevitable; it is the cost of a decade of Conservative cuts. Even now, the Government are not showing the urgency and ambition that is needed. The Justice Secretary has done the rarest of things for this Government and apologised, but I note that the Prime Minister has not done that today. It is time that he did—that he took some responsibility and backed it up with action. Will he do so?

As I said to the right hon. and learned Gentleman—and I fought to have tougher action against rapists and sexual offenders throughout my time as Mayor of London; and, of course, to all the victims of rape and sexual violence, all the victims and survivors, of course I say sorry for the trauma that they have been through, the frustration that they go through because of the inadequacies of the criminal justice system. We are fixing that. We are fixing that by investing another £1 billion in clearing the court backlogs and ensuring that they have people that they can listen to and trust who will help them through the trials of the criminal justice experience. But above all, we are helping them by getting our courts moving again. The fastest, most efficient way to do that, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows, is to get our country moving again, which is what we are doing with the fastest vaccination roll-out anywhere in Europe. We are getting on with the job. They jabber, we jab. They dither, we deliver. They vacillate and we vaccinate.

The levelling-up fund is a superb opportunity for local areas like Calderdale Council to improve infrastructure and relieve the misery in local areas. With that aim, will my right hon. Friend take a serious look at Calderdale’s submission, which lacks support, has no consultation nor consensus with partners, and instead of relieving infrastructure problems, ploughs on with one of the council’s failed and doomed projects, which does nothing at all to level up and has no support locally? (901681)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. The levelling-up fund has the potential to do massive good for Calderdale, and indeed the whole country, and I hope that Calderdale Council has listened to his strictures this afternoon and will act.

This morning, The Herald newspaper revealed that, in the middle of a pandemic, Tory Ministers secretly directed funds from an emergency covid contract to carry out polling on the Union. This evidence was uncovered in official documents submitted to the High Court, so the Prime Minister would be well advised to be very careful in his answer to this question. And it is a very simple question: did the UK Government use a £560,000 emergency covid contract to conduct constitutional campaigning on the Union?

I am afraid I am not aware of the contract to which the right hon. Gentleman refers, but what I can tell him is that I think that the Union, and the benefits of the Union, have been incalculable throughout the covid pandemic, and that for the vaccine roll-out, which I just mentioned to the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), vaccines have been pioneered in Scotland, brewed in Oxford, bottled in Wales and rolled out throughout the UK. I think it is a tribute to the Union that the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) seeks to undermine.

The Prime Minister has just demonstrated, not for the first time, that he has not got a clue. The answer to the question is yes. Whether it is redecorating the Downing Street flat or siphoning off covid funds for political campaigning, the pattern is clear: the Tories simply can’t be trusted. Let us be very clear as to what happened here: these emergency covid contracts were supposed to be used for things like personal protective equipment for our brave doctors and for nurses fighting covid. Instead, during the height of this deadly pandemic, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster used these emergency contracts to commission political research on—and I quote—

“attitudes to the UK Union.”

What is worse, he handed these lucrative contracts to long-term friends and former employees. In essence, this was a UK Government contract that sanctioned corrupt campaigning, Prime Minister. If the Prime Minister has even a shred of credibility, will he now commit to a full public inquiry on this gross misuse of public funds?

I cannot think of a better use of public funds than making sure that the whole of the UK fights the covid pandemic together, and that is what we are doing. Thanks to the UK Treasury, we were able to spend £407 billion supporting jobs and families in Scotland. We were able to use the British Army to send vaccines throughout the whole of the UK. I believe that the story of this last two years has shown the incalculable value of our Union and the strength of our Union, and that we are better together.

The Prime Minister’s groundbreaking 10-point plan for a green industrial revolution has ambitious targets for a switch to zero-emission electric vehicles, and the UK’s automotive manufacturers are ready to deliver, with vehicle manufacture taking place close to where batteries are made, because of the high proportion of an electric vehicle’s cost and weight being made up by the battery. Coventry is the historic home of the car industry and the headquarters of Jaguar Land Rover, who made the car in which the Prime Minister travelled to Parliament today, so will he give his support to the proposal to build a gigafactory at Coventry airport? (901683)

I have fond memories of visiting my hon. Friend’s constituency and using an electric taxi. They thought that was impossible 15 years ago, but we got it done and we will make sure that his constituency and constituencies across the country are in the lead in building new electric vehicles for this country and for the world.

In Chesham and Amersham, several people told me how they struggle week in, week out to care for family loved ones while trying to hold down a job. They told me that they felt the Prime Minister was not interested in them, that he was not listening to them and that he did not care about them. Such inspiring working family carers are not unique to Chesham and Amersham. There are thousands in every constituency—no doubt in every seat across the so-called Conservative heartlands—with an estimated 7 million people juggling unpaid care and jobs last year. What is the Prime Minister going to do to make these people’s lives a little bit easier? When is he going to stop taking working family carers for granted?

I salute working family carers and people who look after loved ones, as they have done throughout the pandemic. What we have tried to do, as I have just said, is to look after families through the last 18 months to the best of this country’s ability, supporting them with furlough and with all sorts of schemes, in addition to putting unprecedented sums into social care. But there is nothing any Government could do, and there are no words that I could express, that would be enough to requite the care and love that is given by family carers to those they look after.

We are currently experiencing a housing crisis in Cornwall, where local people are being priced out of the market, whether to buy or rent, by prices being inflated due to the huge demand from people wanting to move to Cornwall to live or buy a holiday home. This is a long-standing problem, but in recent months it has become the worst it has ever been. As the Government bring forward their reforms of the planning system, can my right hon. Friend assure me and the people of Cornwall that this will not be about building lots of homes for wealthy people to buy, and that it will ensure that the people of Cornwall are able to access the homes that they need? (901686)

My hon. Friend raises a point that has been raised repeatedly with me in Cornwall, and we are absolutely determined to address the issue in question and to work with Linda Taylor, the leader of the newly Conservative Cornwall Council, to ensure that we build local homes for local people so that young people growing up in Cornwall have the chance of owning their own home.

While football clubs, charities and mums and dads in Sunderland and across our country were searching for that old laptop in the cupboard to give a child the data and device needed for learning during the pandemic and lockdown, the largest company in the world was throwing brand-new tech into landfill. Amazon does not pay its fair share of tax, it treats its staff badly and now it denies internet access to our poorest children. Will the Prime Minister join me today in unequivocally condemning that appalling practice by Amazon? (901682)

I was shocked and amazed to hear that computers were literally being sent to landfill in the way the hon. Lady describes, and I think the whole House would agree that the practice is bizarre and unacceptable. I am sure Amazon will wish to rectify it as fast as possible, but one thing that we are doing—to get to her second point—is ensuring that tech giants and other companies pay their fair share of tax on their sales within this country, thanks to the agreement that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor struck at the G7.

With new houses comes the need for new infrastructure, and in Aylesbury we particularly need better transport links, to cope with our growing population. Will my right hon .Friend therefore ensure that the Aylesbury spur of East West Rail is approved? There is a better business case for it than there is for HS2, and the spur has the great advantage of being the railway we do want, rather than the one we do not. (901687)

Yes, I can confirm to my hon. Friend that the Department for Transport’s review is looking at the design and construction of the Aylesbury spur, but I have to caution that the cost of construction of that spur is currently very high and we need to look at the numbers to ensure that they come down. I hope he may be helpful in that matter.

Every day, the Prime Minister strengthens the case for Scottish independence. His recent trade deal sees food producers in Ochil and South Perthshire subjected to unfair competition from low-welfare Australian producers—this is a country where animals can be transported to slaughter for two days in the baking heat, without water. So farmers join seafood producers, musicians and those in a host of other sectors who realise that his Brexit assurances were substance-free hot air. But may I ask him when he is planning his next covid-safe visit to Scotland? Please will he come soon, because every visit is a tonic for us and toxic for his Scottish Tory apologists. (901684)

I do not want to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but I am seldom away from Scotland and cannot wait to be back there as soon as possible, after the record poll secured by Scottish Conservatives at the recent election. Yet again we hear this abuse of Australia, which has high animal welfare standards, and a negative attitude to the opportunities that free trade offers this country and the people of Scotland. When is the hon. Gentleman going to stop running down Scottish agriculture and the potential of Scottish farming?

Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister join me in thanking Derbyshire police for their excellent work in rounding up, arresting and charging people involved in the recent incidents of stabbing, where one young man was murdered and others were badly hurt? The murder in Swadlincote, a very rare event, has caused concern among residents, but the very swift action taken by our Derbyshire police has taken the perpetrators off the street. Clearly, more police in South Derbyshire would be very much welcomed by our residents. (901688)

My hon. Friend is entirely right to raise the issue of the appalling murder in Swadlincote. We are making sure with our Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill that such crimes are dealt with in a more expeditious way, with greater powers for the police. As I say, we are also recruiting 20,000 more police, including, she will be pleased to know, an additional 85 in Derbyshire.

During the Brexit referendum the Prime Minister promised that there would be no change in the rights of EU citizens in the UK, yet in a week’s time those without settled status will lose the right to work, rent a flat or access free healthcare. This Government have demanded repeated grace periods during the Brexit process, so will he now finally agree to extend the deadline for EU citizens? (901685)

The EU settlement scheme has been one of the great successes of our recent Brexit negotiations, and it has produced 5.6 million applications already; I seem to remember that we were told there were only 3.2 million or 3 million to begin with. Everybody knows what the deadline is. I hope people will come forward and do what 5.6 million other people have already done.

Large sections of the Waen, near St Asaph in my constituency, have very poor broadband connections. Top-up gigabit vouchers, provided via community fibre partnerships, have the potential to raise much of the £200,000 needed to address the situation, but there is a 24% shortfall. What can my right hon. Friend do to assist my constituents who are stuck in this position? (901689)

BT Openreach recently extended its offer of commercial coverage for gigabit broadband to services in my hon. Friend’s area—in the community that he mentions—and that is partly because of the super deduction in taxation in respect of investment that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced recently at the Budget.

The Electoral Commission performs an important independent role in the regulation of UK elections. Whether it is investigating dark money or attempts to undermine our democracy, its role is critical to ensure public confidence in our democratic processes. With the Government seeking to neuter the Electoral Commission, what exactly is the Prime Minister planning that requires his Government to attempt to be able to direct the independent regulator? (901691)

Has my right hon. Friend had a chance to review the recent Foreign Office announcement that Britain is to cut its support for tackling neglected tropical diseases by a staggering 95%? That will not only write off quite a considerable investment by British taxpayers in this important work, but mean that 280 million drugs, tablets and vaccines will have to be written off and burned or destroyed. Does he know that the World Health Organisation has said that this one act will lead to the maiming, the blinding, the disruption of the lives and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people?

Will my right hon. Friend accept and respect the statement that Mr Speaker made from his Chair on Monday 7 June, when he said that there must be a meaningful vote in this House on this matter? Will my right hon. Friend see whether such a vote can be brought forward before the end of term and the summer recess? If not, will he ensure that the 0.7% commitment is brought back from the start of next year?

I am told by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House that there will be an estimates day debate on overseas aid, but I must say that I just do not accept the characterisation that my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell)—for all his expertise and learning in this matter—has just given of this country and our contribution to the fight against disease around the world. In spite of all the difficulties we face, we are contributing £10 billion in official development assistance this year—in spite of the colossal expenditure that the British state has been forced to make to look after jobs and families around the country. In addition to that, we are spending £1.6 billion on supporting COVAX and £458 million on supporting Gavi. Colleagues should remember that one in three of the COVAX vaccines that are, as my right hon. Friend knows, saving lives around the world is the direct result of the actions of the UK Government. The people of this country should be very proud of what we are achieving.

Yesterday was Windrush Day, the 73rd anniversary of the arrival of Caribbean people from Commonwealth countries in 1948, yet this year it is a reminder of the appalling failure of the Government’s Windrush compensation scheme, which has been so disturbingly slow and extensively bureaucratic that at least 21 people have died while waiting for justice and only 687 people have received any payment at all. Given the repeated delays and the failure of the Home Office to provide justice for the Windrush generation, does the Prime Minister now accept that the scheme must be handed over to an independent body to prevent prolonged suffering? (901694)

I accept the injustice that was done to the Windrush generation and renew the apologies on behalf of the Government for our share of responsibility. Yes, I do want to make sure that the compensation scheme is accelerated; I spoke to the people responsible for distributing it just the other night. I also said—I hope the House would agree—that I hope that in due time the name Windrush will be associated not just with that injustice, though it was appalling, but with the amazing contribution, sacrifice and effort of the Windrush generation to this country, that Windrush is a positive name for the people of this country, and that, indeed, Windrush is regarded as the Mayflower of our country.

When High Speed 2 was first proposed, the estimated cost was £37.5 billion. The latest estimate is over £150 billion, and rising fast. Is there a price at which the Prime Minister will accept that High Speed 2 is no longer value for money, or is he determined to build it irrespective of the final cost, whatever that will be? Would it not be better to put this white-elephant project out of its misery and get rid of High Speed 2, and instead deliver high-speed broadband—reliable 1 gigabit capability—at a fraction of the cost to every household? That would be much more useful for everyone in all our communities. (901692)

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right about the importance of gigabit broadband. That is why the coverage has gone up, just since I have been Prime Minister, I think from 9% of our country to 60% this year. We hope to get up to 100% in the course of the next few years. I cannot agree with her, however, about HS2. The House did vote for it. It has the potential to do a massive amount of good in levelling up across the whole UK. Indeed, I think even the Liberal Democrats voted for it—I see the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Ed Davey) there—although you would not think it to judge from some of their recent campaigns, would you, Mr Speaker? But that is the thing about the Liberal Democrats: they can vote for one thing, then say another when it comes to elections.

When the covid-19 pandemic exploded, scientists warned that with rapid transmission more dangerous variants would emerge and that vaccines could lose efficacy in the face of mutations. Now variant upon variant has sparked surge testing, further lockdowns and the recent delay to the end of restrictions, with 41 people already reported to have the more virulent delta-plus variant. The Prime Minister held his vaccine donation as putting people squarely above profit, but that is lousy in the face of the fact that intellectual property is driving global supply shortages. Does he therefore understand why it is no use for the G7 to promise 1 billion doses at some point in the future when people are dying now, and when the success of our vaccination programme is under threat from emerging variants now? Will he reconsider his negligible vaccine donation policy and join over 100 countries in supporting the vaccine intellectual property waiver?

I really think it is satirical to say that the G7’s efforts have so far been negligible. What the G7 agreed at Carbis Bay was another billion, on top of the billion that has already been contributed. The UK is putting in, as the hon. Lady knows, another 100 million up to June next year. As for the points she makes about variants and vaccines, she should know that all the advice we have at present is that the vaccines are effective against all the variants that we can currently see.

Can the Prime Minister promise that the forthcoming planning Bill will not restrict the right of residents to have their say over what is built in their neighbourhood? (901693)

Yes, indeed. What we want to ensure— [Interruption.] Yes, because I will not have this misrepresented by the Liberal Democrats in the way that they do. I will not have it misrepresented by anybody, because what we want to do is ensure that we give young people in this country the chance of home ownership, which the Labour party would ruthlessly deny them. What we want to do, by our levelling-up agenda, is to help young people across the country and to make sure, by the way, that we relieve pressure on the overheating south-east and ensure that we build back better across the whole UK. That is the objective of our planning Bill.

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

Sitting suspended.

Social Care Reform

Before I call Liz Kendall to ask the urgent question, I want to wish Helen a very happy birthday. It is a delight to be able to do so.

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State to make a statement on the Government’s plans for social care reform.

I thank the hon. Lady for her question, and for giving me the opportunity to talk about social care reform. I start by paying tribute to carers, paid and unpaid, for all they do in looking after people in their homes and in care homes every single day with kindness and compassion. To any who may happen to be watching or listening today, I say “Thank you for what you do.”

Over the past year in government, we have rightly focused on supporting social care through the pandemic. This has included an extra £1.8 billion of funding, sending more than 2 billion items of free personal protective equipment to care providers, distributing more than 120 million covid tests to social care and vaccinating hundreds of thousands of care home residents and most of the care workforce.

While the pandemic has posed unprecedented challenges to social care, it has also strengthened the argument for reform, and we now have the opportunity to build back better in social care. We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to build a care system for the future, and I am hugely ambitious. I want a care system in which we can be confident, for our grans and grandads, mums and dads, brothers and sisters, children and grandchildren and, indeed, ourselves. I want people to be able to get the care that they need when they need it, and to have choices—to live life to the full in the way they want, living independently and part of a community for as long as possible, without facing an astronomical bill.

I want to join up health and care around people, so that it works as one system dedicated to meeting the needs of individuals, and giving them the personal care they want and need to live their lives to the full. I want the care workforce to be properly recognised and valued for what they do—for their skills, their compassion and their commitment. I want them to have more training, more opportunities and more prospects for career progression. I am committed to supporting unpaid carers not only in the care they provide, but with their own health and well-being, so that they can live their own lives as well as caring for others.

We are already taking steps on the road to reform. The health and care Bill will introduce Care Quality Commission oversight of local authorities’ provision of social care. It will also help to join up health and social care by putting integrated care systems on a statutory footing. We are working on our long-term plan for social care, and we will bring forward our proposals for social care reform later this year.

It has been 100 weeks since the Prime Minister promised to

“fix the crisis in social care”

with a plan he had already prepared, to give people the dignity and security they deserve. Since then, almost 42,000 care home residents have died from covid-19. Two million people have applied for support but have had their requests refused, and tens of thousands have had to sell their homes to pay for care. Families have hit breaking point, and staff have been appallingly let down. Even after all the horrors of the pandemic, nine out of 10 councils say that they face care budget cuts this year.

This week, we learned that Ministers cannot even be bothered to have a meeting to finally come up with the goods. That is not delivering dignity; it is abdicating responsibility, so can I try again with the Minister? When precisely will we see the Government’s plan? A vague commitment to some time later this year will not convince anyone, after all the delays and broken promises. Will the plan include a cap on care costs, so people’s life savings are not wiped out? That has been repeatedly promised and was legislated for seven years ago, but it has still not been delivered. Will there be proper proposals for people with disabilities, who make up a third of the users and half the budget for social care, but have been entirely absent from the debate? Where is the decent workforce plan to ensure that frontline carers get the pay and conditions they deserve, and that we end endemic staff shortages? Will unpaid family carers finally get the help they need, so that their own health does not suffer and they are not forced to choose between holding down a job and caring for the people they love?

In the century of ageing, we cannot build back a better future for Britain without a decent system for social care. This is as much a part of our infrastructure as the roads and railways are. Our country urgently needs a plan. The time for excuses is over. When will the Government deliver?

Of course we have focused on supporting social care through the pandemic over the past 18 months; that absolutely had to be the right thing to do when facing an unprecedented challenge. During the pandemic we not only supported social care, including, as I said, over £1.8 billion of extra funding direct to the care sector, but supported local authorities with over £6 billion of extra funding. But yes, we are determined to bring forward proposals for social care reform. We have been absolutely clear that we shall do that. The hon. Lady asked about particular meetings. Actually, the Health Secretary and the Prime Minister talk about social care reform all the time. In fact, I spoke to the Prime Minister only last week about social care reform. These are complex matters. The hon. Lady will know that nearly 25 years ago, Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair said that we needed reform of social care, but during the 13 years of Labour government, was there a plan for social care reform? No, there was not. We are the Government who are going to bring forward social care reforms. I would welcome her support for that. We are a Government who deliver. We have delivered Brexit, we are delivering vaccinations at a phenomenal pace, and we will deliver social care reform.

I know that the Minister is working hard behind the scenes to get a resolution to these issues, and I thank her for her efforts to do that. Does she agree that the NHS will fail in its objective to deal with the covid backlog if the social care system continues to export its most vulnerable patients to our hospitals, filling up hospital beds that cannot then be used to deal with the enormous backlog of cancer and other operations that we have? Does she also agree that the founding principle of the NHS—that no matter who you are, rich, poor, young or old, you should be able to access the care you need—is fundamentally undermined by the way we treat people with dementia, whereby people who are wealthy are able to pay expensive care home fees but people of limited means find that they are cleaned out of absolutely everything when a loved one gets dementia?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his support for our determination to reform social care. He makes an important point that we have to look at the NHS and social care together as the two parts of the system affect each other. That is one important reason why the health and care Bill needs to improve the join-up between health and social care. On his point about dementia, it is true that some people who suffer from dementia need care for very many years and this is extremely costly. That is one of the things we want to address as part of our social care reforms.

It is noticeable that while the UK Tory Government failed to mention social care reform in last month’s Queen’s Speech and have yet to deliver the long-awaited social care Bill, by contrast, under limited devolution, the SNP Government are establishing a national care service backed by a 25% increase in social care investment. What lessons has the Minister learned from this Scottish example? What recent consideration have the UK Government given to exempting the Scottish Government’s £500 thank-you payment for health and social care staff from tax and benefit deductions? As the settled status deadline fast approaches, the SNP is calling on the UK Government to automatically grant post-Brexit residence status to prevent a cliff edge for EU nationals and a black hole in Scotland’s care sector. Will the Minister urgently discuss this with Cabinet colleagues?

The Queen’s Speech reiterated our commitment to reform of social care, and that commitment has been reiterated many times by the Prime Minister and the Health Secretary. On the hon. Gentleman’s question about looking at other systems, of course we look and learn. We look at what works across and within England and around the UK, and in fact around the world. This is a complex thing to achieve and we are determined that we will bring forward our ambitious plans for social care reform later this year.

My interests are in the register.

I was delighted to hear the Minister confirm that the reform announcements will come later this year, and obviously a centrepiece of that will be the key question of how we get significantly more money into the social care system. But can she guarantee that the proposals will cover issues such as workforce planning, the need for changes in the housing stock to enable people to live in their own homes for much longer than they can at the moment, and the use of technology to ease their daily burden, all of which are essential for a sustainable and civilised social care system?

My right hon. Friend makes an important point about the breadth of the reform that is needed. I can confirm that we are looking at how we can support the workforce further, including by raising skills and improving training opportunities and career progression, and how technology can be used to support better care and more independence as well as providing more time for the workforce to do personal care rather than administration. On housing, most people want to live behind their own front door for as long as possible, surrounded by their own things and in their own communities, so that is also absolutely part of our reform.

New analysis for the Care and Support Alliance found that since the Prime Minister stood on the steps of Downing Street some two years ago and promised to

“fix…social care once and for all”,

2 million requests for formal care and support from adults over 18 have been turned down by their local council; that is the equivalent of 3,000 requests being turned down every day, putting immense pressure on unpaid carers as well as the NHS. This shows the human cost of dither and delay, so will Ministers stop their internal spats and off-the-record briefings and commence cross-party talks immediately with the sector so that we can fix this issue?

We have of course had to focus on the pandemic over the last 18 months, but we are already working on reform. We are already consulting widely with the sector; I and the Department have together met and spoken to more than 70 different organisations and representatives of the care sector, from care providers to local authorities, and including care users and carers themselves. We will be working with this broad range of people, including parliamentarians; we need to build a consensus not only across Parliament but in society as a whole for our social care reforms.

Over the past couple of years I have spoken to many families across the Bolsover constituency who are affected by social care and all the challenges that we know the sector and those who work in it face. Does my hon. Friend agree that this should not be a matter of party political point scoring and that what we need is a sustainable solution? Will she commit to delivering that solution this year so that we can have a social care sector that is fit for purpose for many years to come?

My hon. Friend is clearly having conversations in his constituency, and he makes an important point about the scale and number of people who have involvement in the care system. There are over 1.4 million people who receive care, over 1.6 million people in the care workforce, and over 5 million unpaid or family carers. The scale is huge and is growing as more people need care. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that this is not a party political issue; we need to come together and build a consensus across Parliament, but also across society as a whole—and, yes, we will bring forward proposals for reform later this year.

I thank the Minister for her statement today on social care reform. An issue close to my heart is support for carers in the form of respite; in particular we have generations of young carers who need a break after the isolation of the pandemic. Will the Minister commit to making funding available specifically to provide respite overnights for carers who carry out their activities 24/7 and need support more than ever right now?

The hon. Gentleman makes a really important point about respite for carers. Being a carer is hard and back-up support and respite services help make it more possible, but frustratingly, during the pandemic many of those services have not been able to function as normal. I am currently working with Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government Ministers to help local authorities across England ensure that day services and respite care are fully restarted as that is very important, and I would like to see that across the whole of the UK.

I appreciate this is very difficult for the Minister, because until we actually know what the Government’s proposals are, she is answering questions based on assumptions and guesswork, but she will know that the main concerns of families are twofold: that they get adequate care; and that they will not have to sell their family home to provide that care. What assurance can she give that the Government will take into account the fact that people want to hold on to their family home? On the assumption that the value of assets will play some part in whatever formula we come up with, what account will be taken of the vast difference in prices of property in London compared with, for example, Cleethorpes?

I hope my hon. Friend will forgive me if I am not drawn on the assumption point that he made in the second part of his question, but what I can say to him is that the Prime Minister has been clear that he wants a social care system where no one needing care should be forced to sell their home to pay for it.

On Friday I met my constituent Phil, whose mother, given the state of her dementia, has gone to into a care home. The day before I met my constituent Denise, who is trying to keep her mum, who has Alzheimer’s, in her own home. I think they are pretty typical of most of our constituents, because in addition to the cost issue, they are dealing with the complexity of a system they do not have experience of, as well as trying to get the right quality of care. Can my hon. Friend confirm that the issues of cost, complexity and quality of care will all be dealt with in the reform proposals?

Yes, I absolutely can. We know that cost is a real problem, but there is also a real variation in quality of care. In fact, we are already taking steps on that. That is one reason why the health and social care Bill introduces an assurance or oversight system of the provision of care commissioned by local authorities. Yes, the breadth of the issues that my hon. Friend refers to is being considered in our reform proposals.

The 2018 Equality and Human Rights Commission report, “Housing and disabled people: Britain’s hidden crisis”, found that disabled people in the UK were not getting the support they needed to live independently. Three years on, we still have not seen any sign of the national strategy for disabled people which was promised this spring. Does the Minister agree that that is long overdue, and can she tell the House what her Government are currently doing to support people to go into independent living?

One thing I am very aware of is that often the debate about social care reform is a lot about care for older people, but that we should also make sure we are thinking at least as much about care for those of working age with disabilities. I and the Government certainly do think about that. We are working on the national disabled strategy, which I have contributed to. It will be coming forward shortly.

The Fed at Heathlands Village in my constituency is an amazing example of what care can and ultimately should look like, so I want to start by extending an invitation to the Minister to walk around The Fed with me to see what services really should look like. What can we do to ensure that The Fed is not just a torchbearer, but the norm?

I thank my hon. Friend for his invitation. I do my utmost to get out and about—at the moment, mainly virtually—but I am looking forward to being able to go on more visits in the weeks and months ahead. Absolutely, what I want to see is a high standard of care available for everybody across the whole country.

It is nearly two years since the Prime Minister promised to fix social care. In the intervening period, we have had the false promise that there was a ring of protection around social care homes. The Government’s treatment of people in care homes, their families and the workers in that field of public service is appalling. This is a highly politically charged issue. We tried to fix it when we were in government and were attacked by the Opposition. The Government have had a similar experience. The only way forward on this is for the Government to have cross-party talks on how we find a solution to this problem. Will she commit to doing that?

I would just remind the hon. Gentleman of the unprecedented level of support we have given to the social care sector during the pandemic, as I mentioned a moment ago. I know it has been extremely hard, but that is why we provided over £1.8 billion-worth of funding, free personal protective equipment, access to testing, and, of course, priority in the vaccination roll-out. On his point about needing to build a consensus around social care reform, I am already talking to parliamentarians across parties. In fact, just a couple of weeks ago I had a really helpful session with the all-party parliamentary group on adult social care. I look forward to continuing to work with colleagues across the House.

Will the Minister ensure that quality of care for the person needing it is central to the review? Can we learn lessons over the safe discharge of people from hospital into care settings? Will the NHS ensure that in future GP and nursing care, where needed, is available to support those patients on discharge?

One thing I will say is that during the pandemic GPs and primary care in general have really stepped up to support those in care homes in particular, with every care home having a point of contact in primary care to ensure the support from GPs that those residents require. Yes, quality is at the centre of our proposals for social care reform.

We all know that commissioning in social care is broken. The price paid for care is too low, the wages paid to carers are too small and there is a lack of training and professional development for carers. I would like the Minister to address the issue of home care being commissioned by the minute—it is the only publicly funded service commissioned or measured by time. Will the social care plans address that? She could do worse than look at the GMB’s ethical care commissioning charter to see a way forward.

Some really interesting and important work has been done on commissioning, looking at the outcomes of care rather than being so focused on inputs, which sometimes leads to the situation described by the hon. Member. One of the opportunities of the oversight system that we propose through the health and care Bill is that it will shine a light on the different ways in which local authorities commission care and give more visibility to what works. Those ways of commissioning that do not lead to such good outcomes can therefore learn from others. We look forward to seeing an improvement in how care is commissioned and, therefore, the care that people receive.

Fixing our social care system is the biggest long-term challenge facing the country. However, for all the scale and complexity of the issue, fundamentally it comes down to money. We must find a way to fund our social care system fairly and sustainably. Will the Minister assure the House that she will work on a cross-party basis to bring forward reforms as soon as possible so that we can prevent the appalling situation in which people are forced to sell their home to pay for care?

I can absolutely assure my hon. Friend on that point. One of the things we are committed to addressing is the situation where people may have worked all their lives to purchase and own a home and pay off a mortgage but then find themselves faced with a care bill of a size that uses up the value of their home when, perfectly reasonably, they want to be able to pass something on to their family.

When I was a care worker, I was lucky enough to work alongside care workers from across the world. We know the sacrifices that all care workers have made during the pandemic and how care home residents were put at risk by the Government’s covid response. There has now been over a decade of empty promises. When will there be a plan for social care that offers more for these heroes than just a badge, some bin bags for PPE and a failure of an NHS boss in waiting who does not value the efforts of overseas healthcare workers?

I absolutely respect the experience that the hon. Member brings to this House, but I do not agree with quite a bit of what she said. We have done our utmost to support the more than 1.4 million members of the social care workforce during the pandemic, and our thinking about the care workforce puts them front and centre of the social care reforms that we are developing. That, of course, is because the quality of care is so much dependent on that fantastic workforce. I am determined that they continue to be front and centre of our work on reform. As I said, we will bring forward proposals for reform later this year.

A world-class healthcare system cannot exist without effective and sustainable social care. The health and care Bill is an important step, but will my hon. Friend ensure that the social care reforms go further in integrating health and social care so that everybody who needs care can get the tailored support that they need?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The proposals in the health and care Bill are just a step on the road to reform, but they are an important step. That step includes the joining up of health and social care in integrated care systems and putting those on a statutory footing, and the oversight arrangements for social care provided and commissioned by local authorities. We will be building on those plans in our long-term plan for social care reform.

I am sure the Minister will agree that the two conditions that people most fear getting at some point in their lives are probably cancer and dementia. Yet, if someone gets cancer, the NHS will take care of them and the taxpayer will fund their treatment; if they get dementia, broadly speaking that is not the case. As has been said already, surely the only way through this is a significant injection of money. That means being honest with the British people that, collectively, we will have to pay for it. Does she agree that we would be right to say to the British people that they should pay an extra penny on income tax for social care, so that people do not have to lose their home and their dignity if they lose their health?

I would not want to upset the Chancellor by talking about tax policy at the Dispatch Box, but, as I have said to colleagues—and, in fact, as the Prime Minister has said—one of the things that we are committed to as part of our social care reforms is ensuring that nobody should have to sell their home to pay for their care.

People across our country will have breathed a huge sigh of relief when the Prime Minister stood on the steps of Downing Street and exclaimed that he had a “clear” and “prepared” plan to solve the social care crisis, but almost two years have passed and there is still no plan in sight. Indeed, the Minister has said today that the Government are still working on a plan. What is the hold-up? Who is obstructing the Prime Minister—or was he simply misleading the nation as usual?

The hon. Member asks about the hold-up. As I have said quite clearly, we have had a pandemic, which has been an unprecedented challenge for our country, our Government and our social care system. In fact, all those working on social care in the Department have been focused on our pandemic response for most of the past 18 months— perfectly rightly, I think the House would say. Thankfully, as we emerge from the pandemic—thanks to the fantastic vaccination efforts across the country, meaning that a huge number of those in care homes and care workers have been vaccinated against covid—we are now able to focus our attention on social care reform. That is why we will be able to bring forward our proposals for reform later this year.

Despite repeated promises by successive Governments, our social care system has not received the attention it deserves, and my constituents want to see that attention. Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Government will honour the promise that we made to the British people and deliver the long-term solution that the sector needs?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right; reform has been talked about by many Governments. One of the challenges is that people say, “Social care is broken and we must fix it”, but different people mean different things. Some are particularly concerned about what are called catastrophic costs, including the problem of people selling their home to pay for their care. Others are much more concerned about care—and rightly so—for working-age adults and the increasing costs for those of working age with disabilities. For other people, it is about questions of housing or technology. We are hugely ambitious about our social care reforms and want to bring this all together into a long-term plan for social care.

Instead of bringing forward plans to fix the social care crisis as the Prime Minister has promised, the Government intend to put in place a legal framework for a discharge to assess model, whereby NHS continuing healthcare and NHS-funded nursing care assessments can take place after an individual has been discharged from acute care, instead of before. The Government have told me that an independent evaluation of the implementation of the hospital discharge policy is currently under way, and that it is due to report this autumn. Will the Minister tell us why the Government are pressing ahead with this policy, despite not yet fully understanding the impact that it is having on patients and unpaid carers?

I would not see this as either/or. We have said that we will bring forward proposals for social care reform. To the hon. Lady’s point about discharge, it is well known at that, particularly for an older person, spending a long time in hospital can be harmful to their prospects of recovering and living a good quality of life. I have seen that in my own family as well as knowing that it is a long-standing challenge across our health and social care system. It is absolutely right that we should take steps to support people to be discharged from hospital to home when they are clinically ready.

I very much welcome the plans for integrating the NHS, local authorities and social care providers. Can the Minister assure us that the plans will not lead to any more centralisation or bureaucracy in the system, and that, on the contrary, we will see more local flexibility, more choice and control for patients and, crucially, more support for the families and community groups that are so important in the delivery of social care?

Yes, absolutely. One of the strengths of our social care system is its huge diversity, with the different forms of social care and the different ways it works in different communities. In fact, that has been one of the challenges for the Government during the pandemic, because we are reaching out to over 25,000 different organisations, but actually that diversity is a positive thing, so I will continue to support it in the years ahead.

Today marks 700 days to the day since, on the steps of Downing Street, the Prime Minister told the nation that

“we will fix the crisis in social care once and for all with a clear plan we have prepared”.

For clarity, this was before the global pandemic hit. I know, and the Minister knows, that the market has failed, and that that failure has been exacerbated by the pandemic, not created by it. Is it not time for the Minister to face the inconvenient truth that the only way to fund social care is through progressive taxation, with a diverse range of in-house services guaranteeing workforce standards and service user choice, under the umbrella of local government?

The hon. Lady is right to say that when we went into the pandemic, the social care system already needed reform. That was well recognised, and that was why the Prime Minister committed back in 2019 that we would bring forward social care reforms—[Interruption.] I am not going to talk about tax policy here, but I can reassure her that we are working on our social care reforms and will bring forward the plan later this year.

The report of the joint Health and Social Care and Housing, Communities and Local Government Committees, of which I was a part, left open the possibility of insurance-type solutions for adult care funding, as successfully operated in many countries comparable to our own. That would have advantages of finance, focus and structure. Given how hugely ambitious my hon. Friend has said she is on this, can she confirm that both insurance-based solutions and an enhanced role for local government remain options for her and the other key decision makers when determining the way forward for adult care?

I thank my hon. Friend for his involvement on the Health and Social Care Committee, whose reports I find really helpful; they provide great insight and contribute to the conversation. He alludes to the different models for paying for social care, and clearly there are many different approaches. We have been considering them, but I am not able to go into detail here and now. I will have to ask him to wait until we publish our proposals for social care reform.

This pandemic has starkly demonstrated the unequal footing of social care alongside the NHS in this country. The Prime Minister’s announcement back in 2019 that he had a social care plan ready to go has been clearly shown to be untrue, and according to Age UK, 1.5 million older people are going without the care they need. People living in areas with a low council tax base, such as Newcastle, have seen their local council tax precepts rise because the Government have shifted the burden of paying for social care on to those who can least afford it. I agree with the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall), that the time for excuses is over, so what is the Minister doing to ensure that the Prime Minister and the Health Secretary stop making empty promises so that we can start building much-needed cross-party consensus on this issue without any further delay?

We are working on our proposals for social care reform, and we are working across the sector. As I have said, I am already talking to and meeting those across the sector—care providers, representatives and, in fact, users of the care and carers themselves. This is complex. There are reasons why there have been discussions about this for many years without proposals for reform being brought forward. We are hugely ambitious, and we want to get it right. That is why I make no apologies that we are taking some time, but as we have said, we will be bringing forward our proposals for reform later this year.

Across Sedgefield—from Hurworth to Thornley and Piercebridge to Bishopton—many people are concerned about the cost of social care and how they are going to cope with it. With property prices in my constituency at about 30% of London ones, any use of that property value to pay for care just becomes catastrophic. The average weekly cost of care is substantially more than average earnings, so I understand the concerns they all have. Can I press the Minister again on ensuring that we do not leave them in a situation where they have to sell their house to fund such care?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Care is expensive, and about one in seven people end up spending more than £100,000 on their care. Many people do not realise that care may cost them that sort of amount. It can take them by surprise, so people are not ready for that kind of cost. Yes, people who have worked hard and saved all their lives for their home can be devastated by the value of that home going on the cost of their care. That is why we are determined that this will be one thing that we address in our social care reforms.

The 42,000 care home residents who have died of coronavirus during the pandemic are, sadly, just a recent example of how our social care system is failing. The Prime Minister stood on the steps of Downing Street 700 days ago and promised to fix the social care crisis. The bereaved families and everyone whose family depends on our wonderful social care workers deserve answers. Social care staff cannot do this on their own. Those who need the crisis to be fixed need certainty, not the ambiguity of “later this year”. So Minister, no more delays—give us a date. Tell us: when will the Government finally publish their plan and fix the social care crisis?

Let me say to the hon. Member: we have said we will publish proposals for social care reform, and we will; we have said we will set out a long- term plan for social care, and we will; and we have said we will reform social care, and we will.

Residents in Blackpool spend a higher percentage of their income on council tax than those anywhere else in the whole country. Although allowing councils to implement the social care precept has brought in much-needed revenue, it has in some cases placed a disproportionate burden upon ratepayers. While the case for reforming social care is clear, does the Minister agree that we require a national funding model to meet the costs, and that they cannot fall disproportionately on councils in deprived areas?

I thank my hon. Friend, and I recognise the situation right now. That is one reason why we are providing £3.8 billion in grants for adult and children’s social care this financial year, which has gone up from £3.5 billion in the previous financial year. Of course, looking ahead in our reforms, we do have to make sure that the way social care is paid for is fair across the country.

I was a carer for my daughter Maria for almost 27 years, so I know the demands that carers face every single day caring for those they love. Does the Minister really believe that £67 a week carer’s allowance is a fair amount for round-the-clock care, and will this amount be raised under the Prime Minister’s “prepared” plan for social care?

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for the hours, the love and the effort that she has put into caring herself. She knows, from her own experience, the experience of carers across the country and what it takes in time, physical effort and emotional effort.

Carer’s allowance is not intended to be somebody’s income; it is intended to support people with some of the costs of caring. It is primarily led by the Department for Work and Pensions, but I can say that I am committed to ensuring that there is support for unpaid carers and family carers, and, as I said earlier, ensuring that, as well as caring for and looking after others, those individuals should be able to have time for themselves to lead their own lives.

Does my hon. Friend agree that a Dilnot-style proposal would reward and incentivise people who had not saved or used financial planning to pass their assets and savings on to relatives or to trusts? A German-style social care premium would be a much fairer system. We would all pay a small amount to cover those who were hit by the catastrophic costs to which she has referred. When she makes proposals, will she include perhaps two or three, including a social care premium, so that we can have a proper debate on this important issue and try to achieve cross-party consensus?

I do not on this occasion agree with my hon. Friend, but I do very much appreciate his consistency and his commitment to ensuring that we have an informed conversation about the funding options for social care, as well as his well-informed drawing on international examples.

From providers to staff to those cared for, the sector really feels abandoned, and has been abandoned, by the Government during the pandemic. In Warwickshire, we have lost 347 people during the past year or so. We have heard that two years ago the country was promised by the Prime Minister an oven-ready plan. There was nothing. Globally, we are the sixth wealthiest country. Other, less prosperous nations have resolved the issue. Why cannot we, and when will the Government publish their plan?

I remind the hon. Member about the unprecedented support we have given social care during the pandemic: extra funding of £1.8 billion, over 2 billion items of free PPE to providers, a new system of distributing PPE direct to care homes and other care providers across the country, distributing over 120 million covid tests to care providers, and vaccinating hundreds of thousands of care home residents and the care workforce. We have been supporting the social care sector to our utmost during the pandemic, and we will introduce our proposals for reform of social care.

May I reiterate the point made by the hon. Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) about the importance of hospital discharge and of assessment happening while someone remains in hospital? As one who has experienced this at first hand, I know that in taking care of a loved one it is important that accountability and pathway care structures remain in place. Does my hon. Friend agree that the time for action on adult social care reform is now, that we must be bold and courageous, and that we must put an end to the second-class service many disabled adults and elderly people are receiving right now?

It is really important that discharge is carefully planned and that there is care and support at home for somebody when they are discharged from hospital, but it is also really important that we ensure that people are discharged when they are ready to leave. I saw that with my own grandmother, who ended up spending months in hospital owing to problems with her being discharged. Goodness, I wish that she had been discharged sooner—that would have been so much better for her. It is right that we support people to be discharged when they are ready to go home, and we should press ahead with doing that, although we must also ensure that support is there for people in their home.

If we are truly to see the full integration of health and social care, that will require us also to see the full integration of the funding of health and social care—free at the point of need, contributed by all. When the Minister brings forward her proposals, will she ensure that that is an option we can consider? Will she bring forward those proposals ahead of debating the health and care Bill, so we actually know what we are trying to debate in that piece of legislation before talking about social care?

I cannot at this point go into the details of the proposals that we are working on for social care reform. I have tried to give the House today a sense of the breadth and scale of our ambition. As to the point on timing, the way I see it is that the health and care Bill is a step on the road to reform, including the statutory role of integrated care systems and the development of the assurance system. I do not see them tied together in the timing in the way she sets out. What I can say is that we will be bringing forward our proposals for social care reform later this year.

First, I wish the Minister a happy birthday. Can she reassure the House that the focus will remain steadfast on patient outcomes and happiness as part of the health and care Bill?

I thank my hon. Friend very much for his birthday wishes. I was not particularly planning to spend my birthday in this way, but it is a pleasure to talk about social care reform because I feel strongly about it and am clearly spending a great deal of time working on it. What really matters is making sure that the outcomes and the experience of care are better for people. What really matters is that people get to live their lives to the full, whether they are of working age or older, and get to live as independently as possible, as part of a community and with their own front door for as long as they can. It is the outcomes of care that really matter.

The Minister’s responses today further confirm that social care and the millions who rely on it are simply not a priority for her or this Government. It was recently reported that the Minister leaned on Public Health England to alter its proposed advice to care homes in the pandemic, from ensuring that those discharged from hospital tested negative for covid to not requiring any testing of patients at all. That led to more than 30,000 deaths. Will she take this opportunity to apologise to those who lost loved ones?

Actually what the hon. Member has just read out is completely untrue, completely misleading and does not reflect for a moment what has happened. I am very disappointed to hear her read it out.

Rotherham Council is benefiting from the £120 million that this Government are making available to councils to boost staffing levels, which helps residents across Rother Valley to receive the best quality care. Does my hon. Friend agree that, as we begin to work to build a world-class care system, ensuring care homes have the staff they need is a vital first step?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. At the heart of care is the workforce. They are the individuals who are providing the care and who make the difference day in, day out for those who need their important care. Absolutely, I want to make sure that we have the workforce across social care. We need to ensure we have the training there and greater career progression opportunities for those who work in social care.

It has been reported that the Prime Minister is in favour of finally implementing the cap on care costs legislated for in 2014. While that would be welcome, it would do nothing to support working age adults with a disability to live independently, nothing for the 1.9 million older people with unmet needs and nothing to improve pay and conditions for care staff. Does the Minister recognise that a cap on care costs alone does not go far enough, and can she confirm that further measures to deal with these other needs will be part of any reforms?

I hope the hon. Lady will forgive me if I am not drawn on specific models of funding or paying for care, but the Government and I recognise that we have on the one hand the challenge of catastrophic costs and the problems some people face of having to sell their home to pay for their care, which many Members have mentioned already today, but also we have the other part of the system, which is those who receive care funded by the state. Many of them are of working age, as well as there being older people. She is right: in our social care reform, we need to look across the breadth of the system.

I thank the Minister for her responses to the questions so far. As part of Warrington’s £22 million town deal, the town is launching an innovative social care academy, in partnership with Warrington & Vale Royal College, to tackle the shortage of trained carers, so that residents in my constituency receive the best quality care. Does she agree that initiatives such as that, which address an identified skills gap, will mean that both care homes and in-home care in Warrington will have tailored and targeted support? Would she like to come to see the academy when it is up and running?

My hon. Friend outlines a fantastic example: that is a really good use of town deal funding by Warrington. The academy—there are examples around the country—does an important thing in raising the profile of the social care workforce and developing their skills, which are so important. I absolutely support this initiative and, as and when the time is right, I would be delighted to visit.

Sitting suspended.

UK Military Personnel Serving Overseas: Vaccination

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the vaccination of UK military personnel serving overseas.

As soon as our hugely successful covid vaccination programme was launched, I wanted to ensure that our armed forces would have access to vaccines as quickly as possible, so we tasked the Department with ensuring that nobody would be disadvantaged by serving our country abroad. This means people would be offered vaccinations no later than they would have at home, and that those who needed to would be vaccinated before they left the UK.

Our critical outputs, including the continuous-at-sea deterrent crew and the quick reaction alert air crew, have rightly been prioritised. We have also in recent days completed 100% vaccination for our carrier strike group. I can confirm today that sufficient vaccines for all of our people in all overseas locations have now been dispatched. We are in the process of getting the few remaining people who are awaiting their vaccines their jabs. For those on active operations overseas, we have administered first doses of vaccine to 95% of those eligible and 61% of them have had their second dose. I can assure the House that every single eligible person across Defence, at home or abroad, will have been offered at least their first vaccine dose by 19 July, in line with the national programme.

I am grateful for that reply but it does miss out a lot of detail. It gives me no pleasure whatsoever during Armed Forces Week, when we celebrate the military’s invaluable contribution to our nation, to raise this urgent question as to why we do not have a bespoke vaccination programme for our personnel who are deployed overseas.

In our national battle to tackle covid here in the UK, we have relied on our military from the start—in building Nightingales, driving ambulances, mass testing and, of course, running hundreds of vaccination centres across the country—and yet, when we ask them to return to their day job, those deployed overseas are not fully vaccinated. A reported outbreak of 80 cases in our recent UN mission to Mali illustrates the dangerous consequences. This outbreak would have devastated our operational capability and, indeed, the safety of the mission.

It is standard protocol to inoculate prior to deployment. If we protect our troops against yellow fever, anthrax, malaria, typhoid and a host of other infectious diseases, why not covid when we have these vaccines now? Our NATO allies are doing just that. The USA, France, Holland and Germany all have fully vaccinated their deployed troops, so why have we not? I understand that our NATO partners have in fact expressed concern that the Queen Elizabeth battle group departed without all personnel having received two vaccines and, indeed, our Gulf allies have also registered their concern that our personnel based in their stations abroad are without the vaccines.

This is an easy call to get right, but it is also an irresponsible one to get wrong and arguably a potential breach of the armed forces covenant and our duty of care to our valiant armed forces. However, the picture would be incomplete without registering the MOD’s internal attempts to address this. We must make that clear, but I hope that Whitehall is now listening, and I am sure that the country would want to see key worker status granted to all personnel currently overseas. That is what would resolve this issue. With this challenge now out in the open, in supporting this call, can I ask the MOD to fully vaccinate all our sailors, soldiers and air personnel as a matter of urgency?

I thank my right hon. Friend for asking the urgent question. I have not had any representations from NATO partners or Gulf partners sharing any concerns over our vaccination programme, so he may wish to share with me or my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State any such representations that he has received so that we can discuss those with our colleagues in other Ministries of Defence. I am also slightly surprised that the MOD’s vaccination programme has become such a matter of urgent attention for him and others in the House, because we have had a series of parliamentary questions on this matter over the last six months, and in all of them, we have been very clear that the MOD’s position is that people would receive their vaccinations overseas in line with their age cohort here in the UK.

Whether that was right or wrong can be a matter of debate, but the MOD position has been very clear throughout. I happen to believe that it is the right decision, because there was no decision to prioritise other professions beyond those within the NHS—military medics, it is important to say, were all vaccinated as a matter of priority alongside their NHS colleagues while they were working in high-risk covid environments.

The other thing that I would just pick up on in my right hon. Friend’s response to my initial answer is his assertion that 80 people on our deployment to Mali had covid. That is simply not the case. The correct figure, as was answered in a parliamentary question last week, is that cumulatively, since the deployment began, 24 people have tested positive for covid. If you will indulge the detail of that, Madam Deputy Speaker, there were six positive tests in March, two in April and one in May for the Chinook detachment, and two in December, six in January, one in February and six in March for the long range reconnaissance group.

This is frankly shocking. Defence Ministers have failed in their first duty to our armed forces, which is to ensure that they are properly trained, equipped and protected when they are deployed overseas, especially in conflict zones such as Mali. Six months ago, when Labour called in this House for Ministers to ramp up testing and to set out a clear plan to vaccinate our troops, the Defence Secretary said:

“We are working on a list right now of who we can prioritise”.—[Official Report, 12 January 2021; Vol. 687, c. 189.]

Why was it not done? Why was top priority not given to troops sent overseas?

The Minister has just said it is only being done in line with the national programme. The MOD has been clearer, saying recently:

“UK personnel have been vaccinated in line with national priority guidelines…which saw vaccines rolled out to priority groups in order of age and risk.”

These are guidelines for civilians in Britain, not for troops fighting terrorists, 3,000 miles from home, in countries with jab rates among the lowest in the world— it is still at only 0.2% in Mali. I say to the Minister that that is wrong. How on earth did the Defence Secretary not stand up for the forces he deployed to Mali, Kenya, Oman, Afghanistan and elsewhere? These troops train together and fight together; they should be jabbed together.

How many and what proportion of UK military personnel deployed abroad, country by country, have contracted covid? How many have now been double jabbed, and when will all of them be done? Have all those deployed on core defence tasks, such as the continuous at-sea deterrent, now been double jabbed?

Will the Minister comment on the circumstances of HMS Defender in the Black sea today?

Finally, will the Minister now make full vaccination mandatory before overseas deployment? The Australians made that commitment in February, and it is high time British Ministers now did the same.

The detail of vaccines and positive tests by country is held, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I am not sure you would indulge me if I were to go through the spreadsheet. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman would accept it if I were to write to him and place a copy in the Library, so it can be a matter of record.

The headline stat, as I said in my answer to a parliamentary question last week, is that 98.6% of people deployed overseas have had their first dose, and 56% have had their second dose. I accept that there could be a debate on all professions, whether they be clinicians in the NHS, teachers or members of the armed forces. We made a judgment that, where the medical facilities are sufficient to safely administer the vaccine in a deployed environment, those people would receive their vaccine in line with their age cohort in the general UK population. Where it is not possible to do that, such as with the continuous at-sea deterrent, they were fully vaccinated before deployment.

I am also grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising the activities around HMS Defender in the Black sea earlier today. No warning shots have been fired at HMS Defender. The Royal Navy ship is conducting innocent passage through Ukrainian territorial waters, in accordance with international law. We believe the Russians were undertaking a gunnery exercise in the Black sea and provided the maritime community with prior warning of their activity. No shots were directed at HMS Defender, and we do not recognise the claim that bombs were dropped in her path.

While it is, of course, welcome that 98.6% of our service personnel overseas have been vaccinated, just for reassurance, of those men and women serving overseas and their families back here in the UK, can my hon. Friend confirm that it is now and will be a priority of the Ministry of Defence, if it is not already, to ensure that all those serving overseas in our name, for this country, have access to both their jabs as a matter of urgency?

First, let me just correct myself for fear that I have inadvertently misled the House: the figure for all overseas deployments is 95%; 98.6% refers to the deployment in Mali. I apologise for that inaccuracy.

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. Given where we are in the national vaccination programme, one might argue that that is now the case, as everybody is within days of receiving their first jab. In fact, the way that the vaccination programme was administered whereby everybody over 50 received their jab in one go towards the front end of the priority groups at home meant that many in their 50s and 60s overseas—although in the defence population that is not very many—ended up receiving their jabs ahead of their age group in the UK. Likewise, for those under 40, jabs were effectively being rolled out in line with people in their 40s here in the UK. That means that many of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and airwomen who were in their late teens or 20s were getting their jab well ahead of their contemporaries.

I think many of us are shocked to hear some of the Minister’s comments today. He seems proud of the numbers testing positive in Mali. We should not have any testing positive at all because they should have received a double vaccination.

When we are sending troops into a conflict situation, they must be given appropriate personal protective equipment, including vaccination against whatever the threat is, and clearly covid is a big threat at the moment. The Government have a duty of care to those in the armed forces to ensure that they are able to carry out their duties and that operations are not threatened by illness. There is a potential threat to national security as well. Why have the Government not prioritised the armed forces for vaccination, regardless of whether they are serving at home or abroad? Can the Minister assure me that from this point on, personnel will not be deployed overseas without receiving both doses of vaccine? How many Royal Navy ships have had to restrict their operations due to covid outbreaks?

First, I would like to challenge the hon. Lady: I am not sure that correcting the assertion that there had been 80 positive cases with the fact that there had been 24 shows pride in that fact; it is just correcting the record in response to the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) in the first place.

It is certainly the case that everybody who is deploying on operations now has been jabbed. That goes without saying given that we are now at the stage where everybody under the age of 40 has had their jab. It is not necessarily the case that everybody has had two jabs and not necessarily possible to accelerate that. The Royal Anglian battlegroup, for example, who have just deployed to Mali, have had their first jab. They will receive their second when the appropriate period of time has passed between jabs. Otherwise there is no point in jabbing them because the effectiveness of the vaccination will not be as high as it should be. However, we have certainly reached a point in the vaccination programme where everybody who is being deployed has been vaccinated.

Clearly we must make sure that there is availability of vaccinations, and we must do everything we can to build public trust right across society, including our armed forces, in the effectiveness of the vaccinations. There has recently been some press comment about what the Government might do with those in the armed forces who refuse to accept the vaccine. I seek two reassurances from the Minister: first, that the maximum will be done to persuade them of the advisability of having a vaccination; and secondly, that they will not have their careers damaged because of their refusal to accept the vaccine.

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. It is not in our gift to order people to take a medication should they not wish to do so. Prior to deployments where we have been seeking to fully vaccinate beforehand, we have been having a conversation with those who have expressed concern to try to reassure them that the vaccine is entirely safe and that it is in their interest to take it. I can absolutely assure him that anybody who needs to be removed from an operational deployment because of their unwillingness to take a vaccine is not in any way career fouled as a consequence.

The reports of events in the Black sea remind us of why families worry when they have serving personnel at sea or serving abroad. Can my hon. Friend reassure the constituents who have contacted me on this issue that the vaccine roll-out programme to our brave men and women is going well and will hit the targets he has outlined?

I certainly can. The second doses will all be deployed so that everybody overseas gets them as soon after their first dose as is medically advisable. Achieving that is not without challenge: getting these doses forward can require quite a logistical effort given some of the locations in which our people serve, but that has gone well and it is testament to military planners in the Ministry of Defence and the Defence Medical Services that that is the case.

It is obviously deeply troubling, no matter how many service personnel who have been deployed have now got covid—whether the number is 80 or 28 or whatever the clarification the Minister has given—that there are also media reports that those personnel did not have enough test kits or enough space in order to self-isolate. Can the Minister clarify that he is doing all he can to get test kits out to those service personnel who are defending us, as it should be the first duty of Ministers to protect service personnel who are protecting us, and can he ensure that any troops deployed in the coming months on operations will have everything they need in terms of testing and space to self-isolate if, unfortunately, they contract covid-19?

We do not recognise the reports in the press about lack of access to testing equipment; I have been assured that testing equipment was available in all theatres. The article to which I think the hon. Gentleman refers was about Mali, and there was certainly sufficient testing equipment in Mali at the time the article refers to.