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Commons Chamber

Volume 698: debated on Wednesday 30 June 2021

House of Commons

Wednesday 30 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.]

Speaker’s Statement

Before we come to today’s business, I would like to remind the House that today is International Day of Parliamentarism. The Inter-Parliamentary Union’s Committee on the Human Rights of Parliamentarians, which protects MPs under threat, says it has found many examples of politicians being persecuted simply for doing their job. In recent experience, Members of this House, peers and others have faced sanctions from China for speaking out against the human rights violations of the Uyghur people. That is completely unacceptable— I stress, completely unacceptable. The ability to speak out on things that matter to us, however controversial, is a basic human right of every British citizen. Members of this House must be able to speak out fiercely on behalf of their constituents, and on important national and international issues. That is why, with colleagues from the British group of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, I was delighted to attend the flag raising in New Palace Yard this morning to mark this special day, the principles of which, I am sure, all Members will support.

Oral Answers to Questions

Wales

The Secretary of State was asked—

International Trade Policy

What recent discussions he has had with (a) the Welsh Government and (b) other devolved Administrations on the UK Government’s international trade policy. (901785)

May I align myself very much with your comments, Mr Speaker? I know the whole House will share the sentiments you expressed.

I have regular discussions with the Welsh Government and the First Minister on a wide range of subjects, including the UK Government’s international trade policy.

Does the Minister share my concern that the devolved Governments have had no democratic involvement or oversight in the negotiation and approval of the Australian trade deal, despite the disproportionate impact it will have on their areas? When does he think that this “Union of equals” will start working equally— or, like this Government’s post-Brexit promises to farmers, is this another empty set of words that will turn out to be all bull and no beef?

It will not surprise the hon. Gentleman that I do not agree with his comments. We have engaged devolved Administrations and numerous other stakeholders during the whole course of the various free trade agreements that have been reached, in particular the Australia trade deal. It would be nice if we could reach some kind of consensus between us about the opportunities that these trade deals offer, not only for businesses in Wales but for businesses in Scotland.

We all support new export opportunities for Welsh businesses, but free trade deals must also be fair. There really is widespread concern that this proposed deal with Australia will disadvantage Welsh farmers, because they will be forced to compete against producers with lower animal welfare and environmental standards. So I ask the Secretary of State again: if he is unable or unwilling to protect our farmers, why will he not let Welsh Government Ministers take part fully in trade talks, so they can stand up for them instead?

The hon. Lady makes an interesting point. Of course, we have involved numerous stakeholders in the preparation of these deals. That includes the Welsh Government and some very positive responses from farmers in Wales, who, by a majority, voted in favour of leaving the European Union in 2016. They accept, as I do, that there are numerous opportunities. We have built into this process some protections—a 15-year transition period—as well as taking note of the fact that the Australians themselves say they cannot even fulfil their existing markets, let alone start flooding ours.

It is not just selling out our farmers. Today, the Government are choosing to bury their head in the sand and pass up the last opportunity to renew vital steel safeguards. With our industry now dangerously exposed to cheap imports and the news that a deal is imminent that will grant exemption to EU exports going to the US, our steel exports are going to be desperately trying to compete. What will the Secretary of State now do to ensure that his Government negotiate a similar deal that will protect our steel exports and enable them to enter the US without tariffs? How soon can we have news on that?

The hon. Lady and colleagues across the House have been resolute champions of the steel industry in Wales. I hope the UK Government’s support of Celsa Steel in Cardiff during the pandemic is an indication that we, too, are prepared to put our money where our mouths are as far as supporting the industry, for all the reasons she has rightly highlighted. It would be rash of me to predict what the statement or announcement might be on this, other than to say that I expect it later today, so she, and colleagues across the House, should get clarity on this matter before close of play today.

Diolch yn fawr, Mr Speaker. There have been several instances in recent weeks where UK Government Ministers, including the Secretary of State for International Trade, have dismissed concerns from the agricultural community regarding food standards in this trade deal, especially Australia’s position on animal welfare. Can the Secretary of State explain to Welsh farmers how the UK Government will ensure fair competition and that imports from Australia will always match those expected of Welsh farmers?

The hon. Gentleman, like me, has significant agricultural interests in his constituency in west Wales. We have had local conversations as well as national ones to try to reassure farmers—I think successfully, in some respects—that the transition period and our commitments on animal welfare and environmental standards will not be compromised. I do not think there is anything I can say to him that suggests that that has changed in any respect, but I urge him—I know he will take this seriously—to look at the trade deal as a huge opportunity for food and drink producers in Wales. As we work to challenge some of the myths that have been written and spoken about the Australia deal, let us also use the platforms that we have to promote everything that is good about it and how it will provide access to new markets of the sort that we have not had before.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) said, this Government have until tonight to step in and temporarily retain crucial steel import safeguards to protect our steel industry from cheaper foreign imports. There is still no action from the Government. I hear what the Secretary of State says, but we will be waiting with keen interest. Is this what Ministers meant by promising to protect and champion our businesses post Brexit, and what exactly have Wales Office Ministers done to intervene and stop this?

I assure the hon. Lady that we have been in regular touch with our colleagues in Government on this, as well as with the industry itself, with whom, as the hon. Lady knows, we deal on a regular basis. I said earlier that our commitment to steel in Wales—as she knows, because we have talked about it so many times—is absolutely resolute, but I am afraid that she will have to wait until later this afternoon to have a statement or announcement of some sort, which I hope will clarify the situation.

Covid-19: Co-ordination of UK-wide Response

What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on co-ordinating a UK-wide response to the covid-19 outbreak. (901786)

What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on co-ordinating a UK-wide response to the covid-19 outbreak. (901791)

I have regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues as part of the UK Government response to covid-19. This includes weekly meetings with the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the Minister for Covid Vaccine Deployment and, of course, the First Minister of Wales.

I thank my right hon Friend for his answer. Clearly, cases of infection in Wales have dropped dramatically. Over the last seven days, they are roughly 50 to 55 per 100,000, compared with the previous highs of 500 per 100,000. In these circumstances, does he agree that it is about time that the Welsh Government gave Welsh businesses some certainty or vision for when they can start to rebuild their lives, and that the Welsh Government should come on board with the UK Government road map out of the lockdown?

My hon. Friend’s question reveals quite a sad contrast between the priorities of the Welsh Government and the priorities of the UK Government at this moment. We read in the papers this week that the Welsh Government are fixated on talking about new tourism taxes. They are talking about constitutional reform, even going as far as reform of the House of Lords. None of these seems to be consistent with the UK Government ambitions, which are jobs, livelihoods, investment and recovery, and they should be joining us in that endeavour.

Like my right hon. Friend, I hugely welcome the progress that has been made in Wales, but what frustrates many is that the Welsh Government seem to be in the habit of announcing extended lockdowns at short notice—[Laughter.]—without having due consultation with the Government. Does he agree that, should this practice continue, we should expect Cardiff Bay to meet the financial cost of supporting businesses to keep their heads above water during those lockdowns?

I notice the laughter stopped at the moment my hon. Friend raised that particular question. I will say again what I have often said from the Dispatch Box: certainty is crucial in all this. I have always preferred a UK-wide response to covid, in whatever respect that might come, because it inspires confidence and compliance. I think that some kind of further indication from the Welsh Government as to the unlocking process for businesses in Wales is overdue and I hope very much that we will hear more shortly.

Diolch yn fawr iawn, Llefarydd. With your permission, I would like to say thanks to Wales’s national football team. It was not to be this time, but fe godwn ni eto— we will rise again.

More than one in five households in Wales with a net income under £20,000 have seen their income drop since January. Nearly 110,000 families are struggling to cover essential costs. Labour’s leader in Wales complained yesterday that the key levers for tackling poverty are in the hands of the UK Government, but paradoxically he opposes the devolution of those powers to the Senedd. One Government have the levers but choose not to use them, while the other are content with not having those levers at all. Will the Secretary of State urge the Chancellor, please, to make use of his powers and make permanent the £20 uplift to universal credit?

I am absolutely happy to confirm, as I always do from the Dispatch Box, that the Chancellor is very focused on making sure that levelling up means exactly that, that economic recovery means exactly that, that nowhere gets left behind and that every decision we take in Government, in any Department, is always taken through the prism of levelling up and of equalising opportunity and job and life chances across Wales. That has been a really transformational development during covid, and I very much hope that the right hon. Lady can join me in congratulating the Chancellor on the work that he has done.

None the less, I am sure that for those families £20 would make a lot of difference.

Last week, I presented a Bill—the Crown Estate (Devolution to Wales) Bill—to devolve the management of the Crown Estate, and our natural resources in Wales, to Wales. Scotland gained those powers in 2017, and now it is reaping the benefits of the green offshore wind revolution. I am sure that the Secretary of State is aware that the value of the Crown Estate’s remaining seabed assets, which include those in Wales, has more than doubled over the past year, to more than £4 billion. Does he agree that Wales deserves equal treatment with Scotland as regards control over our natural resources?

I can confirm that I have conversations with the Crown Estate. Its proposals for offshore floating wind off the west Wales coast are extremely welcome. Where I think that I am in some form of disagreement with the right hon. Lady—she will not be remotely surprised by this—is on the fact that in order to achieve some success in the renewables sector, somehow we always have to go back to powers and further devolution. Of all the conversations that I have had with industries, sectors, individuals, voters—you name them—across the whole of the past 18 months, including and in particular at the Senedd elections, not one single person urged me to follow the route that the right hon. Lady has just set out. Of course, they urge us to pursue our renewables agenda, and that is what we are doing. We are doing it, as far as we can, as a UK-wide endeavour, because that is the way we will get to our targets the quickest.

Covid-19 Vaccine Programme: Role of Union

What recent assessment he has made of the role of the Union in the effectiveness of the covid-19 vaccine programme in Wales. (901787)

The UK Government’s vaccine taskforce has been the foundation for the success of our covid-19 vaccines programme. The research, development, acquisition, manufacture, payment and UK-wide distribution, supported by the UK armed forces, has demonstrated beyond doubt the value of our United Kingdom.

Can my right hon. Friend give an indication of just how many vaccines the UK Government have now supplied to the Welsh Government and the NHS in Wales so that they can continue to roll out this triumphant United Kingdom achievement, in which I am reliably told that my constituents in Dudley borough are leading the way?

To date, the UK Government have delivered more than 3.8 million doses of vaccine to the Welsh Government—free of charge, as should absolutely be the case. Of all the many examples that we could stand here and list of the strength of the Union, the value of the Union and where it has been such a reassuring force in the past 16 months, the success of this UK-wide programme is probably the best that we could ever turn to. I am grateful to have been given an opportunity to say so again.

Covid-19: Staff Safety at DVLA Offices

What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Transport on the safety of staff at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency’s offices in Swansea during the covid-19 outbreak. (901788)

We work very closely with the Department for Transport and share the view that the safety of staff at the DVLA is paramount. That is why the DFT has implemented weekly covid testing for everyone, hired more than 30 new cleaners and installed thermal imaging cameras to carry out temperature checks on all people entering the building.

I am glad to hear that the Minister is so in touch with the DVLA, but can I enlighten him on an issue? A staff rep at DVLA has been subjected to a tirade of online abuse for standing up for colleagues’ safety. Much of that abuse has been shared on the social media accounts of some DVLA managers. The DVLA is refusing to remove an online petition that includes threats to the rep’s safety. Will the Minister join me in condemning this abuse and, in his conversations with Department for Transport colleagues, encourage them to not only distance themselves from that abuse, but ensure that the DVLA removes all the abusive contact immediately?

I am not aware of the specific examples, but I am happy to join the hon. Lady in condemning all kinds of online abuse against absolutely anyone. I have been the victim of online abuse myself, and I am sure that the hon. Lady has—I assume that most of us have—and I would never ever support the abuse of anyone online, whatever their views or their position in some form of industrial dispute. I would just gently point out, though, that 60,000 items are received by the DVLA every day that have to be dealt with in person, and many of them are coming from the most vulnerable members of society, so I hope, notwithstanding the issues around online abuse, that the Public and Commercial Services Union will quickly draw this dispute to a close.

Jobs and Investment

Inward investment is central to the UK Government’s mission to level up the UK economy. Last year, Wales attracted 5% of all inward investment projects into the UK, creating over 1,500 new jobs and safeguarding almost 7,000. This strong performance will be boosted by the Welsh trade and investment hub, based in Tŷ William Morgan, which I was pleased to be able to visit last week.

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. Visitor destinations in Wales are, like Eastbourne, set for an unprecedented staycation summer this year, but to secure the long-term recovery of the sector, to remain internationally competitive and to fully realise the power of the visitor economy, the 5% VAT cut is key. Will he make representations to the Treasury to that effect?

The 5% cut in VAT for the hospitality industry has been a boost to tourism businesses across the whole of the United Kingdom, including in Eastbourne, and it has certainly benefited many businesses that I have had the pleasure of visiting in Wales, such as the National Slate Museum at Llanberis, the zip wire at Penrhyn and Surf Snowdonia at Dolgarrog. There are fantastic opportunities to go on holiday to north Wales, to south Wales and even to Eastbourne as a result of the cut in VAT, and I hope hon. Members will take advantage of it this summer.

The Welsh Labour Government’s business support funding has been a lifeline to many Welsh companies throughout the pandemic. Indeed, there are businesses that have been able to stay afloat solely because of the emergency grants and loans that they have received, but this business support is under threat due to this Conservative Government’s determination to make decisions about post-EU funding here in Whitehall instead of working with the newly elected Welsh Government. Will the Minister urgently reconsider this approach to the ending of 20 years of Welsh decision making on these issues, in order that businesses can have confidence that these vital Welsh Government programmes will have the funding to continue in the future?

I welcome the point made by the hon. Gentleman, because it is absolutely true that the £3 billion that the UK Government gave in support to businesses in Wales has been hugely beneficial in ensuring that those businesses survived, along with the £8.6 billion extra that the UK Government delivered to the Welsh Assembly Government. That commitment of those billions of pounds demonstrates the enormous commitment of the UK Government towards Wales. I can assure him that the new shared prosperity fund and the levelling-up funds will continue to support Welsh businesses, and of course we look forward to working with the Welsh Government to ensure that those funds are well spent.

The Minister will be aware that last week the Lloyds Banking Group announced the closure of 44 branches across England and Wales. For communities such as mine in Pontypridd and Taff Ely, these banks provide a vital service for residents and are important local employers. Can the Minister therefore confirm exactly what conversations he has had with the Chancellor about encouraging banks to remain open in Wales to protect these vital local jobs and services?

I have certainly had discussions about closures with Lloyds bank in my capacity as a constituency MP. We do not, of course, have the power to prevent independent commercial organisations from making such decisions, but it is regrettable that banks have closed down. Obviously, I would be happy to work with the hon. Lady, as I did last week when we visited the excellent Royal Mint in her constituency and met some of the kickstart workers who have benefited as a result of UK Government funding.

With its world heritage site, the Llangollen canal and the steam railway, tourism is vital for jobs and investment in Clwyd South. Does the Minister agree that the Labour Welsh Government’s plans for a tourism tax would be disastrous for the hospitality industry in Wales, particularly as we have just come out of the covid pandemic?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend and I look forward, I hope, to an invitation to visit his constituency at some point in the future to see some of the superb tourist attractions there. The UK Government have shown their commitment to the tourism industry by cutting VAT to 5%, whereas the Welsh Labour Government want to implement a tax on the tourism industry at a time when it is at its most fragile. The UK Government will always want to level up the economy, whereas Welsh Labour will always want to levy taxes.

Professional Qualifications Bill

What discussions he has had with the (a) Welsh Government and (b) Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on the potential effect of the Professional Qualifications Bill on professionals affected by that legislation in Wales. (901790)

I have regular discussions with the Welsh Government and the Business Secretary on a wide range of subjects, such as the impact of legislation on Wales. This Bill will ensure that any unnecessary and unclear barriers imposed on accessing professions—both for overseas-qualified professionals and UK nationals, including those in Wales, who are seeking to become qualified—are removed.

The Bill allows the Secretary of State to exercise powers concurrently over areas where Welsh Ministers normally exercise power. Does the Minister therefore agree that the devolved Administrations should be able to revoke these measures if they decide this is necessary in the future?

The UK Government have shown their commitment to devolution on numerous occasions and are always willing to work with the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish Administrations, but at the end of the day the Bill is about ensuring that highly qualified professionals in the hon. Lady’s constituency are able to work anywhere in the UK, and I would have thought that that is something she would support.

Renewable Energy Infrastructure Funding

I recently had the pleasure of visiting the Morlais tidal energy and Pembroke dock marine initiatives, both of which are part of the growth deals. Later this year, we will bring forward a net zero strategy and hold an auction for up to 12 GW of renewable energy funding.

The newly re-elected Welsh Labour Government have wasted no time in getting to work and have committed to building greener homes, hospitals and schools, which will develop new green jobs in a radical transition to a zero-carbon Wales. So will the Minister join me and the people of Newport West in welcoming these Welsh Labour Government commitments to build on their investment in Wales? What lessons does he think the Westminster Government can learn from these green, ecologically sound plans?

Of course I welcome Welsh Government commitments to support green energy and green jobs. I assure the hon. Lady that the Secretary of State and I will want to work with the Welsh Government to further that aim. These are issues we can agree on, which is why we have demonstrated that commitment through the £21.5 million going to the south Wales industrial cluster and the £15.9 million going to Meritor—or Lucas Girling as she and I would remember it—for electric powertrain integration. That will help many members of her constituency.

Political Neutrality in Positions of Faith

What discussions he has had with representatives of the Church in Wales on political neutrality in positions of faith. (901795)

I have recently been corresponding with the Archbishop of Canterbury regarding the Bishop of St Davids’ ill-advised and divisive comments on Twitter. I am sure we all agree that our religious leaders should promote tolerance and inclusiveness, and I am pleased that the Church in Wales has apologised for the bishop’s intemperate language.

I am very supportive of the actions taken by the Secretary of State involving the Bishop of St Davids, but does he agree that this issue of intolerance towards those who hold Conservative views is becoming more widespread throughout academia and public life, and that we need concerted efforts to address this?

As my hon. Friend knows, it appears that this sort of trolling habit is, sadly, not exclusive to the bishop; Professor Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones has also been busy dishing out abuse, with his most recent contribution being to describe Conservative voters as the “lowest form of life”. I cannot help but ask what the professor would have done and how he would have reacted if any of our colleagues had described university academics as the lowest form of life. It would have been as outrageous for him as it is for us, and I very much hope that Cardiff University will follow the example of the Archbishop of Canterbury and deal with this promptly.

Rail Infrastructure Funding

We have committed £2 billion to Network Rail for the current control period, and close to £60 million has been committed to upgrade Cardiff Central station and £76 million to electrify the Severn tunnel route. More locally, the Cambrian and Wrexham-Bidston lines and stations at Bow Street and St Clears are also set to receive additional funding.

In a previous answer, the Secretary of State said that the UK Government’s priority was investment. That clearly is not the case with Welsh railways: we have more than 11% of the track but have not had even 2% of funding over the past decade. It has been a lost decade for Welsh railway infrastructure. The Secretary of State needs to set out quickly with Department for Transport officials how he is going to address the lack of investment and ensure that Welsh railway gets the investment it deserves.

The hon. Gentleman is a great campaigner on this issue, but I can only repeat what I said in answer to the substantive question, which was a list of investment. It is all about levelling up and infrastructure—

It is all very well the hon. Gentleman shaking his head in disbelief, but the reality is that there has been more investment in all the infrastructure projects than at any stage in recent history. That is largely thanks to the energy of this Government and our commitment to levelling up in Wales.

The Cefn bridge at Trewern is a bottleneck between mid-Wales and the west midlands economy. Will the Secretary of State meet me and stakeholders to ensure that the Union connectivity review, which I very much welcome, tackles this bottleneck?

Absolutely. My hon. Friend is the epitome of energetic campaigning on road improvement and other infrastructure schemes. Who will forget the Pant to Llanymynech bypass as one of the great achievements of the MP for Montgomeryshire? I am happy to confirm that, so excited am I by that prospect, I will be there on Monday next week.

Speaker’s Statement

Before we move on to Prime Minister’s questions, I would like to pay tribute to a member of my staff who is retiring today from the House of Commons after 28 years’ service. Ian Davis, who took part in his final Speaker’s procession earlier, joined the House service in October 1993, having served in the Army across the world for 24 years, including the overseeing of a field hospital in northern Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf war.

On his retirement as Band Sergeant Major in the Scots Guards, Ian, a gifted musician who plays the French horn and violin, came to the Commons to be a senior Doorkeeper around the Chamber. He joined Speaker Michael Martin’s team in my office in 2001 as the Trainbearer, which is how he is dressed today, before his promotion to Assistant Secretary to the Speaker in 2011, which is the role he has held until now.

Ian’s military discipline, can-do attitude, friendship, sense of humour and expertise will be sorely missed by my team, and particularly by me. I have got to say: it is not an easy job to become Speaker, but the one thing that was easy for me was knowing that Ian Davis was there to advise me and the Speaker’s Secretary on the work that we do. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] I cannot thank Ian enough for the support and help that he has given to me personally, as well as to the office.

Of course, Ian was in the Scots Guards, and so was his father, so he has a great history of serving this country. After 52 years of public service and an MBE for services to Parliament, I would like to wish you, Ian, all the best and a very happy retirement with Linda, back home on the Isle of Wight. The Isle of Wight’s gain is the Commons’ loss. Thank you for everything you have done. [Applause.]

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.

May I begin, Mr Speaker, by echoing and supporting very much your fine tribute to Ian Davis? I thank him for all his service to this House and wish him all the very best in his retirement.

I know that Members from across the House will want to congratulate Gareth Southgate and his team on their 2-0 win against Germany at Wembley last night—the first time that the men’s team have beaten Germany in a knockout game in 55 years. We wish them all the best for their match against Ukraine on Saturday. We will all be hoping against hope that this time, finally, football is coming home.

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.

After yesterday’s game, many of our German friends are heading home, but, does my right hon. Friend agree that, as the song goes, if they want to stay here drinking all our beer, they need to join the 5.6 million people who have already successfully applied for the EU settlement scheme forthwith, before today’s deadline?

Yes. I thank my hon. Friend, who is absolutely right. I am thrilled that an astonishing 5.6 million EU nationals have already applied for this wonderful scheme. I encourage anybody who is still eligible to submit their applications today.

May I join your comments and sentiments about Ian Davis, Mr Speaker, and wish him the very best from all of us in this House? I also congratulate the England team on yesterday’s performance. Having been at Wembley for the Euro 96 semi-final and experienced at first hand the agony of that defeat, yesterday’s result was truly incredible. I know that the whole House will wish the team the very best of luck on Saturday—[Interruption.] The whole House will wish them the best of luck on Saturday, I am sure.

Why did the Prime Minister not sack the former Health Secretary on Friday morning?

I read this story in common with you, Mr Speaker, and everybody else on Friday, and we had a new Health Secretary in place by Saturday. Given that we have a pandemic, to move from one Health Secretary to the next with that speed was fast, but it was not as fast as the vaccine roll-out, which is now going so fast that, in this week, half of under-30s have now had their first jab. That is speed.

What a ridiculous answer. The Prime Minister must have been the only person in the country who looked at that photo on Friday morning and thought that the Health Secretary should not be sacked immediately. On Friday, the Prime Minister’s spokesperson said that the Prime Minister “considers the matter closed.” Minister after Minister were then sent out to defend the indefensible. It was briefed that the Prime Minister was “quite happy” for the Health Secretary to stay in his post. Can the Prime Minister clarify, now that he has the chance, did he sack the Health Secretary, or at any point ask him to resign—yes or no?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman will notice that the Health Secretary has changed in the past five days. He complains about the speed with which that happened. This Government moved at positively lightning speed by comparison with the right hon. and learned Gentleman, who spent three days trying and failing to sack his Deputy Leader, whom he then promoted. He fires and rehires!

The Deputy Leader is sitting beside me. The former Health Secretary has done a runner.

On Friday, the Prime Minister said that the case was closed. Then on Monday, he tried to take the credit for the Health Secretary resigning. In a minute, he will be telling us that he scored the winner last night. Let me press the Prime Minister a bit more on this. The person with whom the Health Secretary was in a relationship was his non-executive director. Let me remind the House: according to the Government’s own guidance, one of the roles of a non-executive director is to challenge the Secretary of State and the Department, and they receive taxpayers’ money for doing so. From the outset, it was blindingly obvious that there was a conflict of interest here and a whole host of unanswered questions. Why on earth did the Prime Minister judge that this matter was closed on Friday morning?

I hesitate to accuse the right hon. and learned Gentleman of repeating his question. I observe that the non-executive director in question is also no longer with the Department. What that continuity means is that that Department is getting on with the fastest vaccine roll-out of any European country. I am proud to tell this House that, in the past few days, this country has overtaken Israel in the proportion of people that we have vaccinated. I think that he might pay tribute to the Health Department for that achievement.

Let me get this right: the Prime Minister was happy to keep a Health Secretary in place during a pandemic who he not only thought was absolutely “hopeless”, but who he also knew had broken the rules and was in a relationship with somebody he was employing at the taxpayers’ expense. It does not sound like case closed to me.

I know that the Prime Minister is keen to sweep this under the carpet, but let me tell him why it matters: millions of people made huge and very difficult sacrifices to follow the rules that his Health Secretary had introduced. Prime Minister, take the case of Ollie Bibby—[Interruption.] I am sorry; you might want to listen. Ollie died of leukaemia on 5 May, the day before the photo of the former Health Secretary was taken. Ollie died, like so many other people in this pandemic, with his family and friends unable to spend time with him. When he was in hospital, he begged to see his family, but, following the rules, only one member of his family was allowed to see him. His mum said:

“I’m livid. We did everything we were told to do and the man that made the rules didn’t. How can that be right?”

I ask the Prime Minister again: how could he possibly think this matter was closed on Friday morning?

We all share the grief and pain of Ollie and his family, and millions of people up and down the country who have endured the privations that this country has been through in order to get the coronavirus pandemic under control. That is why we had a change of Health Secretary the day after the story appeared. It is why, actually, what we are doing as a Government, instead of focusing on stuff going on within the Westminster bubble, is focusing on rolling out the vaccines at a rate that will ensure that people such as Ollie and his family do not have to suffer in the future. I am proud to say that as a result of the efforts made by the NHS and the Department of Health, we will have vaccinated everybody by 19 July; every adult over 18 will have received one jab and everybody over 40 will have received two jabs. That is the priority of this Government—and quite right too.

I can hardly think that the Prime Minister thinks it is appropriate in response to a question about Ollie to suggest that this is, in his words, the “Westminster bubble”; the “Westminster bubble” in answer to that question, Prime Minister? Before Prime Minister’s questions this morning, I spoke to Ollie’s mum about the awful circumstances that she and her family have been through. She told me that every day she watched the press conferences—every day that they were on—and she hung on to every word that Government Ministers said, so that she would know what her family could and could not do. And then they followed the rules. This is not the Westminster bubble. She told me that for her and her family this case is not closed, and she speaks for millions of people. I ask the Prime Minister to withdraw that phrase when he gets up; it is the wrong response to Ollie’s case.

I cannot help concluding that the Prime Minister did not ask the relevant questions on Friday morning, either because he did not want to know the answers or because he knows full well that there is more to come out. [Interruption.] He says “nonsense”. I ask the Prime Minister, in response to his muttered “nonsense”: when he declared the case closed on Friday morning, had he asked the Health Secretary if he had broken any other rules—yes or no?

Let me be absolutely clear with the right hon. and learned Gentleman: I think the whole House and the whole country can see that we have a new Health Secretary in place and have had one since the day after the stories appeared. That was entirely right; it was the right response to the situation. Of course he is right in what he says about the sacrifice made by families up and down the land, but in my view the best response to their grief and pain, and the sufferings that they have endured, is to get on—with a new Health Secretary, which is what we have, and with all the energy and application that we have—and roll out those vaccines and allow the people of this country to work forwards towards freedom day, which I devoutly hope will come on 19 July. Never let it be forgotten that if we had followed the advice of the right hon. and learned Gentleman, that would not be possible because it was under his proposals that we would have stayed in the European Medicines Agency and been unable to deliver the vaccine roll-out at all.

Having failed to sack the former Health Secretary, the Prime Minister is trying to take credit for the fact that we have a new Health Secretary. [Interruption.] Well, he would not be there if the Prime Minister had had his way; the matter was closed.

It is no questions asked by the Prime Minister on Friday, and no questions answered today. There is a pattern here. When Dominic Cummings broke the rules by driving to Barnard Castle, the Prime Minister backed him; when the Housing Secretary unlawfully approved a £1 billion property deal for a Tory donor, the Prime Minister backed him; when the Home Secretary broke the ministerial code, the Prime Minister backed her; and when the Health Secretary broke covid rules, the Prime Minister tried and wanted to back him too. Every time it is the same old story. Is it not the case that while the British people are doing everything asked of them, it is one rule for them and another rule for everybody else?

There was a new Health Secretary the following day, and the whole country can see that. We are getting on with our agenda of vaccinating the population of this country through the energy and application of the new Secretary of State for Health and the Department of Health. I thank them and I congratulate them. It is as a result of that vaccine roll-out—which, as I say, would have been fatally impeded had we followed the policies of the Labour party—that we now have a higher wall of vaccination than virtually any other country in the world and are able to proceed with our cautious but, we hope, irreversible unlocking of the UK economy, with the result that growth is up to levels we have not seen since last July, and jobs are up. The Leader of the Opposition calls for us to act faster in removing Cabinet Ministers. It took him three days, as I say, to give the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne three new jobs—shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and shadow Secretary of State for the future of work. We create jobs; he creates non-jobs. He dithers; we deliver.

The steel industry is an asset of national strategic importance. Those are not just my words but the words of the Prime Minister, and I know he means it because when Greybull went into administration this Government supported British Steel until a new buyer was found. British Steel still employs more than 600 people in Redcar and Cleveland and more than 3,000 people in Scunthorpe. In the light of the Trade Remedies Authority’s recommendations to the International Trade Secretary, how will the Prime Minister ensure that steel remains a national strategic asset? (902018)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to campaign for British steel. We have an ambitious plan to transform our country with better use of British steel. As I said to the House a couple of weeks ago, there is a 7.6 million tonne pipeline of steel waiting to be bought over the next decade. As for the recommendations of the Trade Remedies Authority, the Government are considering them and the Department for International Trade will update the House later today.

I join you, Mr Speaker, in wishing Ian Davis all the best for his retirement and thank him for the service that he has given to the Scots Guards and in this House. He has truly been a friend and a sane voice to give guidance to those of us on these Benches when we have needed it, and I thank him very much for that.

Can I congratulate England on their victory last night and wish them all the best in the tournament ahead? Of course, they have done well: they have won most of their matches, with the exception of the game against Scotland, where they failed to even score a goal —nae luck.

In July 2019, the Prime Minister gave an unequivocal guarantee to EU nationals living in the UK. He said that they

“will have the absolute certainty of the right to live and remain.”

Less than two years later, hundreds of thousands of EU nationals have been left in limbo, including thousands of children. While the settlement scheme deadline falls today, we know there are hundreds of thousands of unprocessed cases. It is simply unacceptable that their rights will be diminished by the failures of this Government. Will the Prime Minister honour his word, give certainty, and scrap the disastrous settled status deadline before we face another Tory Windrush?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman, and I just repeat what I said earlier to my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Katherine Fletcher): I think it is fantastic that 5.6 million people have applied. We are processing all the applications as fast as we possibly can, and clearly the most important thing is for anybody who still has not applied to get their application in today.

The issue is that there is a backlog of hundreds of thousands of cases because of delays on decisions. Overnight, thousands of our friends and neighbours could become illegal immigrants. They are living in fear for their jobs, their families and their livelihoods, all because this Prime Minister will not keep his word. We know all too well the experience of this Government’s Home Office: dawn raids, vulnerable people deported, and a hostile environment for the Windrush generation.

Scotland’s message to EU citizens is: you are welcome here, we want you to stay, this is your home, but this UK Government are causing EU citizens untold stress. One woman who has been in the UK for 44 years says she feels suicidal. Another says she feels like a third-rate citizen. This is shameful. Will the Government now do the right thing and scrap the deadline and introduce automatically granted settled status, or will the Prime Minister’s legacy be the ridiculous removal of NHS staff, our local community workers, our teachers and many more who have made their homes here?

It is obvious from the statistics I have already quoted that this is an outstanding success, because we have had huge numbers of people applying. There may be people who still have to apply—there have been several extensions; it is five years now since the Brexit referendum—but we have funded 72 organisations to help vulnerable EU citizens understand what their rights are and make the applications. Anybody applying within the deadline will of course have their case dealt with, and I urge them to get on with it.

I pay tribute to the Government for the world-leading covid-19 vaccination programme. Can I encourage my right hon. Friend and the Government to press ahead with allowing those who are fully vaccinated greater international travel to save as many aviation and travel sector jobs as possible and help regrow our economy? (902019)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his long-standing and justified campaign for the aviation sector. That is why we have invested £7 billion already to support aviation since the start of the pandemic, but obviously what we hope is that the vaccine roll-out programme and the double-jabs programme will enable people to start flying and really give that industry the prospect of a long-term, sustainable recovery.

Today, the Environmental Audit Committee, of which I am a member, has published a report calling for transformational change in the Government’s approach to restoring nature. It is not just about the 15% of UK species that are threatened with extinction—the cuckoos, the kittiwakes and the turtle doves—but the ebbing away of so much of our natural world. The Conservative Chair of our Committee, the right hon. Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne), says that Government policies too often remain

“grandiose statements lacking teeth and devoid of effective delivery mechanisms”,

so I want to ask the Prime Minister something very specific. Will he look again at the Government amendment to the Environment Bill, which refers only to measures “to further the objective” of halting species decline rather than actually meeting that objective. A one-word change from “furthering” to “meeting” would make a world of difference by introducing the legally binding target to halt biodiversity loss by 2030 that his Government have promised, so will he do it? Will he make that change? Yes or no?

This Government are committed not just to halting, but to reversing biodiversity loss not only in this country, but around the world. The hon. Lady can see that from the conclusions of the G7 summit and everything that the Government do to promote biodiversity across our country.

Over the past few years, we have seen the proliferation of hate speech, harmful content and anti-vaccine conspiracy theories on social media. In response, the Government have published its world-leading draft online safety Bill. Can the Prime Minister say when Parliament will be given the opportunity to start the scrutiny of that draft Bill? (902022)

The Bill has been published in draft form and pre-legislative scrutiny will start as soon as a Joint Committee has been established. I am given to understand from my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip that my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) may be in a position to serve with advantage in the scrutiny of that Bill.

We all know that great sport starts at the grassroots, whether that is football or swimming, and we all need help and encouragement to live healthier lives post pandemic, yet since last March over 400 leisure and fitness facilities have permanently closed, including our much-loved swimming pool in West Denton, and many thousands more are under threat. Will the Prime Minister do two things about that today: expand and extend the national leisure recovery fund to fund these much-needed facilities; and back Newcastle’s bid for the Outer West leisure centre from the levelling-up fund? Everybody deserves a chance to live a healthier life and, one day perhaps, to play or swim for their country. (902016)

I thank the hon. Lady because I think it was a great question, and she is absolutely right to champion grassroots sport and what it can do for young people and for the health of this country. I certainly hope that the centre she champions will be successful in the levelling-up fund, but obviously I cannot control that myself. She must make that case herself, but I am wishing her every possible good fortune.

In Rochester, we are incredibly proud of our long-standing creative arts community and the contribution it makes to the Medway towns, so it has come as a huge blow that the board of directors at the University for the Creative Arts has decided to close Rochester campus after its 135-year history in the town and having inspired some of our most successful artists and designers such as Dame Zandra Rhodes, Karen Millen and Tracey Emin. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the university’s plan to close the site at such a difficult time for the sector will be detrimental to our levelling-up agenda locally, but also to the opportunities for so many working-class kids in Medway for whom this campus has always provided an instrumental route into further and higher education? (902023)

I thank my hon. Friend. She is right to campaign for higher education, particularly in her constituency. I know that she has been engaged with university leaders on the ground in Rochester, and I am sure that they will have listened carefully to what she has to say.

On Friday, I visited David McCutcheon, the chief executive of Bullet Express, which is a haulage firm in the Baillieston area of my constituency. Everybody in this House knows that there have been huge problems with the shortage of HGV drivers in this country, and that has only been compounded further by Brexit. So I have a simple question for the Prime Minister: why can we not add HGV drivers to the UK shortage occupation list? (902017)

I will certainly look at what the hon. Member is proposing, but I think the most important thing is to get our entire workforce back at work. There are currently millions of people still on furlough, and of course there are labour shortages at the moment, but we need to get people back into work, and that is why we have to continue to roll out the vaccines in the way that we are.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the counties of Cornwall, Devon, Somerset and Dorset have come together to form the great south-west to generate regional growth and prosperity in much the same way as the midlands engine and the northern powerhouse. It has the support of all local authorities, local enterprise partnerships and the business community, but we have now been waiting for recognition from Government for well over three years and frustration is reaching fever pitch. Can my right hon. Friend please look into this matter and give us the green light, so we can help the Government achieve their objectives of sustainable growth, prosperity and jobs? (902024)

I am a passionate supporter of the great south-west and the prospects that it brings. I understand that my hon. Friend has met the Minister for Regional Growth and Local Government to discuss these proposals, and I look forward to hearing their outcome.

Many of my constituents have been angered by the treatment of Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency staff and the disgraceful harassment of Public and Commercial Services Union rep Sarah Evans. With cases rising significantly in south Wales in the third wave of the pandemic, why does the Prime Minister feel it is so acceptable for the DVLA to have returned over 450 staff to its Swansea site, contrary to Government advice, as some of them can work and have been working effectively and safely from home? (902020)

As I understand it, rates of infection and disease have been declining at the DVLA site. I hope very much that everybody there can return to work in the normal way as soon as possible.

The high street has had a difficult time lately and Gedling’s has been no exception, but Gedling Borough Council’s levelling-up fund bid will help to kick-start high street regeneration, improve Arnold town centre and encourage healthy travel in Netherfield. Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking the council officers at Gedling Borough Council, particularly Mike Hill and Joelle Davies, who have put the bid together, and does he agree that the bid can help to make Gedling an even better place in which to live, work and raise a family? (902026)

Yes, and I thank Mike Hill and Joelle Davies for their efforts. I thank them also for what they are doing to call upon the levelling-up fund, which will indeed invest in infrastructure projects that improve life across the country, but particularly in my hon. Friend’s constituency.

Due to the Prime Minister’s failure to maintain strict border quarantine and the delay in adding India to the red list, cases of the delta variant are surging across the UK. As well as a marked regional variation, the biggest ongoing impact is on sectors such as hospitality, entertainment and aviation. So, rather than starting to reduce financial support from tomorrow, will the Prime Minister extend full furlough and business support beyond September, particularly for those geographical areas and businesses that are most affected? (902021)

No, because although the delta variant is indeed seeded and growing in at least 74 countries around the world, including this one, this is the country where the protection by immunity against the delta variant is the highest and the strongest. That is why we are going to continue with our cautious but irreversible road map, and I hope that it will command the hon. Lady’s support.

I thank my right hon. Friend for all that he is doing to level up our country. A rising tide must float all ships; to that end, will he commit to delivering the northern link road for Darlington, and will he further commit to helping to stop LNER’s great train robbery of services from our station? Finally, does my right hon. Friend agree that our levelling-up agenda, investing in the north, should provide the people of Batley and Spen with great confidence as they go to the polls? (902028)

Yes. It tells you all you need to know about the modern Labour party that when they heard there was going to be an economic campus in Darlington, they called it giving up; that is what the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) said. My hon. Friend is totally right to support Ryan Stephenson in his campaign for Batley and Spen tomorrow. I believe that Ryan will offer a strong local voice for change and progress in Batley and Spen.

I am sure that the Prime Minister is delighted that the High Court in Belfast this morning upheld the Government’s view on the Northern Ireland protocol. Later today we are also expecting a joint EU-UK agreement in relation to the extension of the grace periods around chilled meats. Does the Prime Minister accept that today may well be a watershed, after which we can stop talking about the protocol in constitutional and identity terms, and instead the UK and the EU jointly can work through the general problems to find pragmatic solutions? In doing so, will the Prime Minister also call for calm in Northern Ireland, ahead of the marching season? (902025)

Yes, and the best thing that the EU can do is to make sure that we remove all the problems that are currently associated with their application of the protocol—the ban on chilled meats, the restriction on the circulation of cancer drugs, and the fact that 20% of all the customs checks carried out in the whole of the EU are carried out in Northern Ireland. I do indeed hope that all of that can be fixed, and then we can move on.

Yesterday I was in Batley and Spen, campaigning with our fantastic candidate Ryan Stephenson. He is committed to delivering the police that we need on our streets. So from Brixham to Salcombe, Batley and Spen, will the Prime Minister commit to supporting initiatives such as the councillor advocate scheme that was launched by my police and crime commissioner, Alison Hernandez? (902029)

I am a big fan of Alison Hernandez and I think she is doing absolutely the right thing. To support her, we are, of course, increasing our policing presence on the streets of the city. We are rolling up county lines drugs gangs; we have tackled about a third of them so far. We have also instituted tougher penalties for serious sexual and violent offenders, which were opposed on a three-line Whip by the Labour party.

We are experiencing a knife crime epidemic in London. As many as 50 people have been killed by knife crime in our city, and a staggering 17 of these were young people, including one of my own young constituents. I fear that we are going to see more and more people, young people in particular, needlessly lose their lives and, with the summer approaching, more and more violence on our streets. The Prime Minister is aware just how important youth services are in the prevention of crime. Can he explain why his Government have cut over 70% of youth services in the past decade? Will he pledge to do more for the city’s young people, put his money where his mouth is and reverse his disastrous cuts? (902027)

We invested in youth services and will continue to do so, but it is quite extraordinary that the hon. Lady continues to avoid the Macavity-like performance of the Mayor of London, who is totally failing to grip this, to reduce serious crime and to stop knife crime. There was a previous Mayor of London who got the murder rate down by 50%, because we gripped it and we took responsibility in City Hall. I think it is shocking to see what Sadiq Khan is doing on this issue, but we will do everything we can to fill in the gap.

I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I associate all Northern Ireland Members with the tribute you made to Ian Davis, Mr Speaker.

Today, the Belfast High Court found that the Northern Ireland protocol does conflict with the Act of Union, although it does not break the law; that it has repealed aspects of the Act of Union, which is in direct contravention with the commitments that this Government have made to the people of this kingdom. The Prime Minister will be aware that litigation is ongoing in the High Court in England on a commercial case that could result in a loss of earnings claim of hundreds of millions of pounds by British businesses trading in Northern Ireland.

Under section 8 of the withdrawal agreement, the Parliament here is sovereign. The judgment today confirms that Parliament is sovereign. The Prime Minister has a solid majority on his Benches. Does he now have the will to finish this job, to reverse the mistakes of the Northern Ireland protocol, to seize the moment, to defend the Union and to unilaterally fix it, once and for all, to put Northern Ireland out of its commercial, social and political misery?

I thank the hon. Gentleman. We will, of course, study the ruling of the court in detail, but I can give him this general reassurance, which he knows to be true, that nothing will affect the position of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom. We will make sure that we uphold that.

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

Sitting suspended.

Covid-19: Impact on Attendance in Education Settings

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Education if he will make a statement on the impact of coronavirus on children and young people’s attendance in education settings.

I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. This Government are absolutely focused on returning society back to normal as soon as possible, and that includes in our schools, colleges and right across the education sector. As I have made clear throughout the pandemic, my top priority has been to keep children in school. Indeed, as I speak today, millions of children have been back in the classroom since 8 March, learning with their friends and teachers. As I am sure the House will agree, that is exactly where they belong. The vast majority of schools are open—99.8% of state-funded schools were open on 24 June—benefiting children who have given up so much during the pandemic.

Back in February, the Prime Minister set out an extensive road map. We need to continue to be careful to complete this cautious but irreversible road map to freedom. We understand the frustration of parents and pupils who may feel that they are being asked to isolate unnecessarily. As I have said throughout the pandemic, children are best off in school. As we continue with our educational recovery, it is vital that absence is minimised as far as possible, and that children and young people attend school. I am looking carefully every day at how we manage the balance between safeguarding children’s education and reducing transmission of the virus, because I know that too many children are still having their education disrupted, no matter how good the remote education they receive.

T he new Health Secretary and I have already discussed these matters, and I am working with him across my Department, as well as with scientists and public health experts, to take the next steps. However, as the House is aware, some restrictions remain in place in schools. I want to see those restrictions, including bubbles, removed as quickly as possible, along with wider restrictions in society. I do not think that it is acceptable for children to face restrictions over and above those on wider society, especially as they have given up so much to keep older generations safe over the past 18 months. Further steps will be taken to reduce the number of children who have to self-isolate, including looking at the outcomes of the daily contact testing trial, as we consider a new model for keeping children in schools and colleges. We constantly assess all available data, and we expect to be able to confirm plans to lift restrictions and bubbles as part of step 4. Once that decision has been made, we will issue guidance immediately to schools.

I would like once again to put on the record this Government’s sincere thanks to all teachers for their dedication and work at this time. My commitment to the House and to the children of Britain is that, as we open up wider society, we will stick to the principle that children’s education and freedom comes first.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting the urgent question.

Data published yesterday showed that 375,000 children were out of school last week because of coronavirus. It is nine weeks until the new academic year begins, but we have no idea what the Secretary of State plans to keep them in class. School leaders dread another last-minute announcement. They need time to put plans in place, and their staff desperately need a break over the summer.

The Secretary of State has briefed that the bubbles policy will be replaced with daily testing from September. Will testing take place in schools? If so, what support will they receive to do it? Can he tell the House the results of the pilots in schools using regular testing instead of bubbles? What impact has that had on the number of coronavirus cases in the school community and the number of hours that children and staff remain in class? Will he tell us why, if he believes he has a solution that will keep children safely in the classroom, he is waiting until September? What is he doing now to keep children in school before the summer holidays?

Time and again, Labour has called for mitigations to keep children learning, including ventilation and Nightingale classrooms. Why has that not happened? Will the Secretary of State clarify why he abandoned the policy of masks in schools when cases were rising and masks were still required in shops and indoor spaces? Will he share the scientific evidence that led to that decision?

Can the Secretary of State confirm that children who have to isolate over the summer and cannot attend the holiday activities and food programme will still receive free meals? Finally, will he tell us when he expects to receive Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation advice on vaccinating older children? Does he believe that they will begin receiving the vaccine before September?

Ministers’ negligence on letting the delta variant into our country is keeping hundreds of thousands of children out of the classroom. The Secretary of State must act now or make way for someone who will.

On daily contact testing, that is something that Public Health England has been running trials on. We expect it to report back to the Department of Health and Social Care and to us in the coming weeks. We are very clear that we want action to be taken, and that is why we very much want to see the lifting of more restrictions and of the bubbles in schools as part of the next step. As the hon. Lady will appreciate, that decision has to be made across Government as part of the next stage of our road map, but we will of course be informing schools and keeping them up to date as to progress in plenty of time before the start of the next term.

The Labour party deigns to give advice. Let us not forget that its advice was to join the European Union vaccine programme. Well, where would that have got us? It was the Labour party that said that it would not be possible for schools to deliver testing right across all our schools and colleges, yet that was what we were able to do. And it was the Labour party that opposed children going back into the classroom and did not support this Government’s efforts to ensure that children were able to get their education at the earliest possible stage. At every point, the Labour party has done everything it can to frustrate and stop the opportunities for children to be in school.

I thank my right hon. Friend for what he is doing to try to keep schools open, but we have 300,000 children being sent home. In addition, 93,500 children are missing 50% of school or more, as identified by the Centre for Social Justice this week in a hard-hitting report.

We are in danger of creating a generation of ghost children, denied a proper chance to climb the education ladder of opportunity. Will my right hon. Friend update the guidance and look to establish mobile testing units in schools as soon as possible, even before September, to stop the need for children to be sent home? Will he also set out a plan, galvanising the forces of the Department, local authorities and schools, for how these 100,000 ghost children are going to be returned to school properly so that we can bring their education back to life and do not damage their life chances for decades to come?

My right hon. Friend raises the important issue of children who are not attending school. That is why we have pulled together the REACT teams, which are a combination of DFE teams, regional schools commissioners, local authorities, the police and, crucially, schools themselves, to target those children, working alongside the supporting families initiative led by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that there is already extensive testing in schools. In fact, some 57 million tests have already been conducted in schools and colleges across the country, so we already have a well-established testing mechanism. The next stage, as we move to step 4 of the road map, is that we want schools to be able to operate more freely. We want all children to be able to be part of the summer activities, whether that is the holiday activity and food programmes or the additional summer schools that schools are laying on. That is why, as part of step 4, we are looking at lifting the restrictions and bubbles that schools currently have to operate, and we are looking at doing that at the very earliest opportunity, so children will be able to benefit through the summer.

Will the Secretary of State stop this dither and delay? On education matters, everyone in this House should be united, but there is a generation of young children who have missed education and will continue to miss education. Families, and parents particularly, want certainty. They want to know what the rules are and what they can expect, so that they can plan their everyday lives. Most of all, all of us who care about education know that the upcoming summer holiday could be an opportunity for a vast number of national volunteers to work with children, to give them the vital support they are missing because they have missed so much school education. Come on, Secretary of State, take the lead and do something positive, imaginative and bold.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his thoughts. We have already outlined, if he had listened to my answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), that we are looking towards lifting the restrictions, especially bubbles, as part of the next step of the road map. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the Government will, in the very near future, announce the next step of the road map, and lifting the restrictions will very much be part of that. It is important that all our actions, right across Government, are properly co-ordinated as part of a process of easing restrictions right across the country.

I am delighted that the Government prioritised the reopening of schools as we eased lockdown; I congratulate my right hon. Friend on all his efforts to make sure that children return to schools and get in-person education as much as possible. Does he agree that rolling out regular testing as we do so will ensure that we not only stop the spread of the virus, but prevent children from being unnecessarily sent home and missing out on their education? At the same time, we must make sure that the tests are carried out properly and appropriately.

I absolutely agree. My hon. Friend will probably have seen the figures: more than 50 million tests have already been conducted across schools and colleges. We are very much aware that testing has been an important part of getting schools reopened, and we continue to work with colleagues in the Department for Health and Social Care and in track and trace to ensure that testing is available to all pupils and their families.

The number of children missing school is rising every single day and families are at their wits’ end, while the Government are once again far too slow to react. Will the Government act now and establish a rapid taskforce with public health directors and school leaders, with a mandate to keep schools open safely?

It is fair to say that Liberal Democrats have never been very good at numbers. Actually, schools are open right across the country—they are welcoming children. Millions of children are in school, benefiting from being with their teachers, and we continue to take action to ensure we do everything we can to maximise the number of children there. As part of step 4, as I touched on earlier, we will be looking at lifting more restrictions; that will be announced in the near future.

I very much welcome my right hon. Friend’s work to keep schools open and his ambition to see the end of the bubble system, but may I ask him to look at a cohort of children who risk being caught up negatively by covid guidance and restrictions: those who are due to start primary school this September? I declare an interest in that my own son is due to start school this September. Under the current guidance, schools are unable to run the settling-in sessions that are essential for children to familiarise themselves with their new environment and have the best start in school life. Will my right hon. Friend take action to ensure that those settling-in sessions can happen?

I will share some of the guidance that we have. There is flexibility for schools, for those key transition years, to have some level of familiarisation with those children. I will organise it that my office shares that information with my hon. Friend.

The number of children self-isolating has quadrupled during this month because of increases in cases of covid. Following this sharp rise, more children are now able to learn online from home with the IT equipment and internet access provided to schools by the Government. Hundreds of families in my constituency of Birmingham, Hall Green have benefited from the scheme, but I am now hearing that many of the devices have been either disabled or taken back by the schools. That has a significant impact on learning, especially for those who are living in poverty. It is important that access to IT equipment should not be disrupted. Will the Secretary of State therefore ensure that children keep the laptops and return them only when they leave school at year 6 or 11?

The investment that we made in IT equipment is there to help pupils. Although those laptops are the property of the schools, we very much want the schools to prioritise using them to help children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. I will certainly take up the hon. Gentleman’s point and look in more detail at whether we can give more guidance and a stronger steer to schools to really emphasise that point.

We all know that the pandemic has caused many young people to miss out on vital learning experiences and I welcome the Government’s recovery strategy to help them catch up. In Cumbria, we have unique outdoor education centres, such as the Blencathra Centre and the Outward Bound centres, that offer life-affirming educational experiences both as day and residential activities, giving young people a chance to benefit from some of the vital opportunities they have missed out on. Does my right hon. Friend agree that these centres can be a key part of the solution, and will he look into his Department directly supporting and utilising these assets to achieve the educational recovery?

As part of step 3 of the road map, we lifted restrictions so that people could do overnight residential. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the benefits of outdoor education centres and the real value they bring to many young people. We will certainly continue to work with the sector on how we can promote that, especially as schools have more and more freedoms in the future.

The Government have consistently let down our children. To bring down case numbers and to reduce school closures, the likes of me advocated for teachers to be vaccinated, for a circuit break during half-term last year and for other sensible measures, but we were ignored. Now, shockingly, one child in 20 was out of school last week and case numbers are still rising. Will the Secretary of State commit to reviewing the use of the bubble system and to implementing the recommendations now, rather than waiting until the autumn?

I will happily pass on a copy of Hansard to the hon. Gentleman, so he can reference what I said earlier in response to this urgent question.

The Secretary of State is right to push back on the Labour party. I do not remember Labour Members being huge champions of getting schools back on 8 March, when we were campaigning so strongly for it. Their words are a little bit hollow now.

The Secretary of State is clearly indicating where he wants to go on getting rid of bubbles. I am not really sure, though, why we cannot do it now. We are going to cause a huge problem for the rest of term and we will not be giving a lot of time for teachers in schools to prepare for the autumn. What I really wanted to ask him was about testing. We have now vaccinated all adults at risk of being seriously ill from covid. Given that covid is going to be endemic, is he really suggesting that for the rest of time we are going to be testing our schoolchildren on a regular basis? I think we need to move back to normal. Once we have protected everyone who is vulnerable to covid—children are not, largely—we need to get back to normal, not ensuring our children have to be continuously tested for the entirety of their school careers.

My right hon. Friend raises a very interesting and thoughtful point. We want to see schools return to normality. We do not want children to feel as if there is an extra layer of things they have to do that we, as adults, do not have to do. That is very important. Testing has been an incredibly important tool in the armoury to get schools back, especially on 8 March when we saw the mass return of schools, but we do keep it under review. We take scientific advice from the Department of Health and Social Care, Public Health England and other scientific bodies. We are looking at this continuously and we have found it a useful tool, but in the much longer term do I see testing as something that we expect children to continuously do always in the future? No, I do not. Ideally, I want to move away from that at the earliest and most realistic possible stage.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) pointed out that there is a risk, as things stand, that children may have to isolate and stay at home when they should be taking part in the holiday activities and food programme over the summer. Can the Secretary of State give an assurance that, whatever happens, children who are entitled to access food support over the summer will still be able to do that?

I can absolutely assure the right hon. Gentleman that that is the case. Obviously, the Department for Work and Pensions has its covid support fund, which is available for local authorities to provide free school meals. Any changes as part of the road map that would lead to the lifting of further restrictions and of bubbles within schools would also take effect for the summer holidays, so children who wanted to take part in holiday activity and food programmes would be able to do so without operating within a bubble system.

Because of new variants, it is quite possible that long into the future the number of covid cases will increase from time to time. Is the Secretary of State aware that Professor Sir Andrew Pollard, who was behind the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, has said:

“If…high protection against hospitalisation continues despite spread in the community, the public health crisis is over”?

Does my right hon. Friend understand that we must move away from being concerned with the number of cases of covid and disrupting schools needlessly through testing and isolation, and focus squarely on hospitalisation?

I very much have that at the forefront of my mind. If my right hon. Friend has time, it would be very interesting to sit down with him, and with some of my team and some from the Department of Health and Social Care, to discuss this in greater detail. The key thing is making sure that people are not being hospitalised and people are not in danger of dying. The vaccine has had enormous success in doing that, but we cannot then have the brake on children’s lives in the future.

I commend and thank the Secretary of State for being here today and addressing the concerns of many of us. What happens here sets the direction for regional Administrations. Covid-19 has had a huge impact on the education of young people, with some not being able to access resources and many suffering as a result of the closure of schools. Mental health issues among pupils are rising at alarming levels, so what discussion has he had with school principals and with regional Assemblies to reduce the negative impact on our children’s academic development? What steps can he take to ensure that the education system is pandemic-ready for the future?

We have always, at all stages, done as much as possible to work with all devolved Administrations across the UK and we will continue to do so, be it on mental health issues, the awarding of grades, or education recovery. Let me take the opportunity to put on the record my thanks for the work that I had the opportunity to do with Peter Weir, who was the Minister for Education in Northern Ireland. We had a very close working relationship and I am very appreciative of all the work he undertook for the children and students in Northern Ireland in his time as Minister.

The metropolitan borough of Bury currently has more than 2,000 children self-isolating, which is negatively impacting on their social, emotional and educational development. I welcome and recognise my right hon. Friend’s commitment to keeping children in school, but does he recognise and agree—I am sure he does—that we cannot allow this situation to continue? Surely we must learn to live with covid-19 and remove the requirements for school bubbles, together with the current policy of self-isolation, at the earliest opportunity.

We are very much wanting to go down that course of easing restrictions and ensuring that, as we come out this pandemic, children are one of the greatest beneficiaries. My hon. Friend’s mind and mine are very much in the same place.

Children in the most disadvantaged areas are almost twice as likely to be those self-isolating, such as year 6 in St Mark’s Primary School in my constituency, but they are also likely to be on the wrong side of the digital divide, with 23 pupils at St Mark’s still without the kit and connectivity required to log in and learn from home when isolating. With every click widening the attainment gap, will the Secretary of State today back my campaign to ensure that every child entitled to free school meals has access to data and a device at home?

This is very much why we invested hundreds of millions of pounds in the roll-out of 1.3 million devices to be able to support schools, but most importantly to be able to support children, as the hon. Lady set out.

Can my right hon. Friend reassure me, as we look to 19 July and the end of the summer term, that there can be no question of a return to bubbles and self-isolation when children return in the autumn?

I do not want to pre-empt the decision across Government on the next stage, but our direction is very clear about lifting the restrictions and ensuring that children are not in a situation where they have to bubble. That is very much part of the course of the road map, and of course we would very much expect that our children would not be facing that in September, as my right hon. Friend has said.

The Secretary of State says that his priority is to keep children in school, yet hundreds of thousands of them are missing yet more precious time in the classroom as well as important end-of-term rituals, and families are angry and desperate. For many months, organisations such as the Health and Safety Executive and the Royal Society of Medicine have been saying that one of the basic things that needs to be done to protect our children is to ensure better ventilation in all classrooms. People who live in New York, for example, can consult a public website to see the ventilation status of every single classroom in the state, and there has been serious investment in ventilation and filtration there. Why has the Secretary of State not done something similar here to introduce those basic mitigation measures and fast-track the assessment of testing pilots? Living with covid must not mean dumping all the risk on our children because the Education Secretary has not acted with anything like the urgency and ambition this crisis demands.

At every stage, we have put in all the protective measures that are required in order to be able to keep children safe and ensure that they are back in the classroom and have the opportunity to learn.

The numbers of pupils self-isolating and therefore not at school have risen nationally from 40,000 to 300,000 in three weeks, and in the same period in Gloucestershire they have risen from a few hundred to almost 8,000, which is virtually 8% of all pupils. That is clearly not the direction that either the Education Secretary or any of us want.

We can therefore all agree with the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies’ children’s expert, Professor Russell Viner, who has said that we have to rethink all the rules around our schools. Schools are not the driver of transmission at the moment, and to my knowledge there is not a single child in Gloucestershire in any of our hospitals with the virus, so something needs to be done. My right hon. Friend has already given a clear steer that he wants to see children back at school as soon as possible and the benefits of summer school being enjoyed, so would he consider a pilot project in Gloucestershire to allow all these children who are self-isolating to get back to school as soon as possible?

Frankly, if there is going to be a pilot project, it is going to be in Staffordshire, not in Gloucestershire, but that was a good old punt.

Professor Marmot has reported today on the impacts of inequality in large parts of Greater Manchester, including my own constituency, and we know that covid has exacerbated these inequalities. We know that too many children have had and are still having their education disrupted. We all agree that we need to ensure that children and families are supported, not just during self-isolation, and that catch-up is intensified, so what work is the Secretary of State’s Department doing on the wider impact that covid may have on this cohort of children in school or college through the pandemic? How do we ensure that we properly tackle the inequalities created by covid on top of the pre-existing inequalities affecting the same children?

I would very much appreciate it if the hon. Gentleman forwarded that report, as it would be interesting to look at the details. We have been looking closely at the impact of covid on children’s learning right across the country. We have been doing a detailed study with Renaissance Learning to look at the lost learning, not just as a national cohort but very much in granular detail, and that is very much informing our policy development as to how we best address that.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answers today and for his commitment to remove self-isolation for schoolchildren as soon as possible. That will be widely welcomed across Wimbledon. Can he reassure me about what the Government are doing to ensure that disabled children get the support they need at home when they have been self-isolating and unable to attend school?

We very much expect the education to be delivered for all children remotely, whether they are in a mainstream school, a special school or alternative provision. We work with the sector to ensure that that happens, including on the provision of IT equipment and devices, which is so critical for all schools to be able to deliver that.

We remember the appalling free school meals debacle over Christmas, where the Opposition and football players had to try to force the Government to do the right thing. My Ilford South constituents, who are among some of the poorest in certain super-output wards, are extremely concerned that their holiday activities and food programme has not been guaranteed if they are going to be at home self-isolating. Will the Secretary of State please be crystal clear that nobody will go without food this summer?

The hon. Gentleman probably heard my earlier answer. Of course, the Department for Work and Pensions scheme is there to support children who are in receipt of free school meals over the summer period. The holiday activities and food programme is an extensive scheme across local authorities right across the country. This is an excellent scheme and we want to see all children able to take part in it because of the benefit of not just food, but, as importantly, the activity that is part of the scheme.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s commitment to end bubbles. Last week, some 74% of children who were isolating in England were doing so not because they had caught covid but because someone in their bubble had done so. This puts a huge strain on them and their parents. With that in mind between now and the terminus date, will my right hon. Friend consider accelerating the rapid testing programme to ensure that we see less self-isolating for children?

We always continue to work with the Department for Health and Social Care on testing and being able to maximise that so that we can catch people with covid at home, so they are not in a position of infecting their friends at school and the teachers.

With nearly 400,000 children and young people out of school just last week for covid-related reasons, the Government’s failure to secure our borders against the delta variant has demonstrated the damage that it is doing to children and their future. Given those failures and the incompetence, frankly, of the Secretary of State over the last year in getting a grip and supporting schoolchildren, is it not time that he worked with the Chancellor to get the funding that is needed for catch-up, as was recommended by the former catch-up tsar, Sir Kevan Collins? There is a shortfall of £13.6 billion. Is it not time that that money was provided so that children do not continue to suffer because of the mistakes of the Secretary of State’s Government?

The hon. Lady seems to be blissfully unaware that we have already invested over £3 billion in supporting children to be able to catch up in our schools. As she requested, we will continue to work closely with the Treasury—as we have been doing—as we approach the spending review to see what further action is needed to be able to support our children.

Last week, 375,000 pupils were off school through self-isolation and there has been a 40% increase in anti-depressants being prescribed to under-17-year-olds. Given that children are extremely unlikely to suffer serious ill health as a result of catching covid, and given the damage being done to their education and their mental health, is it not time we stopped this self-isolation madness and got all pupils back in the classroom where they belong?

My right hon. Friend raises a really important issue in terms of children’s mental health. This is why we have been so concerned to put interventions in place to be able to support children, as well as those who work in our schools and colleges, with their mental health at this incredibly difficult time. The best way of helping children and all people—all staff—with their mental health is by actually having schools functioning as normally as possible. That is why we have always been clear that when we are in a position to be able to remove those restrictions, and to be able to make those changes and make it easier for schools to operate as normally as possible, we will always take those steps at the earliest possible stage.

My constituent Stephen sums up the frustrations of parents and pupils when he tells me that his boy is now home again for a third time—10 days of isolation—because somebody has tested positive in his school, even though he wears a mask. He has tested negative on a PCR test, plus two further tests a week. Stephen asks how we can justify 40,000 people hugging each other at Wembley, but his son cannot see his friends. The effect on pupils has also been raised by my constituent Joe, who teaches and has seen the mental health effects to which the Secretary of State just referred. What additional support will be put in place to support Joe and the pupils that he supports during this mental health crisis?

The hon. Member is probably aware that both the Department of Health and Social Care and my Department have outlined support packages for schools to boost mental health provision, including training to ensure that there are people trained to deal with mental health issues in all schools, right across the country. He is probably also aware of the comments I made earlier about the lifting of restrictions and the removal of bubbles. That is the next step that we very much want to take, but it has to be done in line with the broader changes and steps to unlock the country that are part of the road map.

Getting children back into school without having to self-isolate cannot come soon enough, as there is no substitute for learning, attainment and keeping children in face-to-face education. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that keeping children in an educational setting whenever it is safe to do so remains his priority?

My hon. Friend is so right. The provisions—whether it was the roll-out of mass testing across all schools, or the restrictions and levels of safety that we had to put into schools—have all been designed around getting children into schools for the maximum amount of time, ensuring that they are in front of the teacher with their friends, having the very best classroom experience. That is the No. 1 priority. As we move out of this crisis, we want to lift as many of those restrictions as possible and liberate schools to be able to operate in the best possible way for themselves.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the Government’s failure to get border controls in place has enabled the delta variant to take hold in the UK, forcing children out of classrooms and away from their friends?

At every stage, the Government have been one of the first to act in order to keep this country safe; this was one of the first countries in Europe to impose travel restrictions on India as a result of the delta variant. The new Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, the Transport Secretary and the Prime Minister take that responsibility incredibly seriously.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s comments. I have recently finished a 10-day period of self-isolation following someone in my office testing positive for covid. However, the flatmate of that person was able to go about their daily life in a normal way, using the Government’s daily testing trial. As we learn to live with covid, surely it is time to move quickly to a more nuanced approach that does not endlessly interrupt children’s education, as it cannot be right to have learning continuously disrupted by unnecessary self-isolation.

There is nothing that I can really disagree with my hon. Friend about, so I had better just sit down, hadn’t I?

Too many schoolchildren across my constituency of Blaydon have faced disadvantage from being out of school under the current arrangements. Will the Secretary of State be absolutely clear with school leaders well in advance of any new arrangements to be put in place? It is vital that they have that information. Will he also talk about the support that can be given to disabled children to ensure that they have the chance to catch up on the education opportunities that they have missed?

I very much want to reassure the hon. Lady that we will give all schools good notice of any new arrangements. As I have committed to, we are aiming to issue guidance and advice to schools in conjunction with the details of step 4. On disabled children and children with special educational needs, we will continue to have a really strong emphasis in terms of how we support special schools or alternative provision. In particular, we will weight the level of support at a much higher level for those schools than we do for mainstream schools.

Like others, I would also like to see the immediate return of the daily testing that has been so successful in the pilot schools, so that pupils can remain in school. I agree with others that we should go back to normal as soon as possible, preferably in September. Yesterday, the Minister for School Standards stated that we are consulting parents, teachers and pupils about extending the school day. Will the Secretary of State make it clear during the consultation that the extended day should be for enrichment activities as well as time for extra tutoring where necessary?

I very much want to see children spending as much time in school as possible, although I do want them to have the opportunity to go home at certain points, Mr Speaker! As part of that extra time, I want them not only to be learning from a rigorous curriculum that has been carefully crafted by my right hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards—they will get a lot of fun out of learning from that rigorous and detailed curriculum—but to have more fun doing sporting activities, cultural activities, art and so much more as well.

Over the past few weeks, I have been touring secondary schools in my constituency. The current self-isolation policy, which, incidentally, resulted in a Twickenham secondary having to close its doors entirely last week for several days, combined with lockdowns is not just impacting academic progress; the No.1 issue, according to heads and safeguarding leads, is the mental health impact. As well as ensuring support for academic catch-up, may I urge the Secretary of State to do everything he can to speed up the roll-out of mental health support teams in schools? Will he also please speak to the Health Secretary to provide urgent additional capacity for tier 4 child and adolescent mental health services beds because too many children are being turned away? From the evidence that I am being presented with, it is not exaggeration to say that children’s lives are at risk because teachers and school counsellors just do not have the skills to deal with those cases.

The hon. Lady raises a very thoughtful and important issue. I am very much with her in that I want to see the roll-out of mental health support in schools as quickly as is feasibly possible. That also plays an incredibly important role in tackling some of the further pressure that is then put at the door of CAMHS services. I am very happy to take up the point that she raised with the Department for Health and Social Care, which runs CAMHS, as to how best we can support children in those early stages and, if there is a need for clinical intervention, how that can be best supported and swiftly supported in order to be able to deal with the problem early on.

The Government prioritised reopening schools above almost anything else. Schools in Stoke-on-Trent have been doing an absolutely amazing job in keeping education going, given the challenges that they have faced. I know that schools in my constituency are struggling with several covid cases right now. It is vital that we keep children in school as far as possible, especially those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. Will my right hon. Friend do everything possible to ensure that no more time is lost and that all our young people receive the good quality education that we want to see?

I know my hon. Friend has done so much for education in Stoke, including his efforts to secure a new free school for the Stoke-on-Trent South constituency. He is right: we constantly review what needs to be done to keep children in school for a maximum amount of time so that they can benefit from the education. We recognise that that delivers the best benefits for children not only in his constituency, but in all of our constituencies.

Teachers and school staff in Warrington North have moved heaven and earth over the past 18 months to try to support the education and welfare of our town’s young people in the face of last-minute, changing and often contradictory guidance. Nowhere is this more the case than in special educational needs and disability educational settings, especially as testing can be traumatic or, indeed, impossible for some children with special needs. When will schools know what is to happen in September and, can the Secretary of State confirm that this will be shared with schools well in advance of the summer holiday to ensure that staff are not required to work across their summer leave, and that specific guidance will be provided for SEND schools rather than their being an after-thought?

Specific guidance is always provided for special educational needs schools. I can ensure that the detail on the gov.uk website is available to the hon. Lady so she might be able to read it if she is interested in doing so. I absolutely assure her that, as I have said in answer to other questions, we will provide that information at the earliest possible stage.

I have been contacted by parents across Burnley and Padiham, some of whom have children who are off for the third time despite having never had coronavirus themselves, so I welcome the Secretary of State’s work to end isolation for students. One thing that will really help schools is getting the testing solution right. What conversations has the Secretary of State had with Public Health England and the Department of Health and Social Care about new types of testing, such as saliva testing, that would be far quicker and easier for schools to implement?

We always work with our colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care and Public Health England in respect of the very best forms of testing. We are always aware that there is new technology and innovation and we want to be able to use that to the best of our ability, to make sure that not only all my hon. Friend’s constituents in Burnley who want to attend school are able to do so but everyone throughout the country can do so as well.

I have had lots of emails from desperate parents in south Manchester whose children have suffered multiple periods of isolation and are worried about more. They all say that we need to review the isolation rules urgently. We now hear that the Secretary of State is looking at announcing plans as part of step 4, but there is no reason to wait for step 4: schools have a problem now and they need to know what to do about it. Every time I have met headteachers in the past year, their biggest complaint is always about the lateness of guidance from the Secretary of State’s Department. Why is it that the Department for Education is always so slow with advice? Why do pupils and schools always seem to be the after- thought in this crisis?

I assure the House that we always do everything we can to ensure that all guidance is available to schools at the very earliest opportunity.

As my right hon. Friend will be aware, in Keighley and Ilkley, we have been subject to restrictions since the pandemic began, whether under the local or regional approach. There is concern among some of my constituents that a regional approach to the implementation of restrictions may return at some point. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that if that was the case—I do not want to see it—we would not end up with a situation in which schools in Keighley and Ilkley were forced to close when others in the country were able to be open?

I assure my hon. Friend that I want schools in Keighley and Ilkley always to be open and never to be closed, and that is certainly something that we want to ensure happens. We do not want to see schools in different parts of the country having to close, which is why we will take all the measures that are required to ensure they stay open.

Schools will not stay open because the Secretary of State wills it—we need a long-term plan. The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care told the House on Monday that we are going to have to live with the virus. What does that mean for schools? Where is the plan for improved ventilation and Nightingale classrooms so that children can socially distance in schools and not have to be sent home in bubbles? The virus is not going away—where is the plan?

The hon. Gentleman seems to have paid little heed to some of the measures we have put in place to ensure that children can get back into school. That is probably not surprising given that his party’s policy seems very rarely to be to encourage and make sure that schools are open—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman had the opportunity to ask his question—

We will continue to do everything that we can to ensure that children are able to benefit from a great education. That is what we have been doing. We have seen schools open up and down the country—99.8% of schools are open—and we will continue to take the measures required to keep schools open.

Parents, pupils and, of course, teachers have borne the brunt of difficulties in respect of bubbles and the self-isolation of children, but it now feels that the whole country is a goal for progress on these issues. Has the Secretary of State heard today, as I have heard, that the Labour party would now support him if he felt able to go where it feels his spirit wishes to lead him and make progress on ending self-isolation and bubbles? Can he now count on their support?

I would probably count the Opposition as a rather unreliable ally, but I certainly hope that they will not do the usual flip-flop that we are accustomed to seeing from the Leader of the Opposition.

The Secretary of State has again been found sleeping at the wheel. One in 20 pupils were self-isolating last week, and today my office was told of another Coventry school being forced to close. Teachers are doing the best they can, but with mitigation rules relaxed and without additional resources, the delta variant will continue to rip through schools. Why were masks required in class in April but not now, given that case rates were lower then than they are now? Will he abandon his “feeble” catch-up plan—not my words, but those of his former adviser? Will he now put in the resources needed to mitigate covid and for educational catch-up—that is £15 billion—as his adviser recommended?

I am not sure whether the hon. Lady is arguing for more restrictions or fewer—her question did not seem to be that coherent. Perhaps if she can write to me to clarify whether she is pro restrictions or against then, I would be happy to answer.

I thank the Secretary of State for his update, and for the promise of ending bubbles and school isolation. Does he agree that it is surprising to hear the Labour party’s latest change in position on pupils attending schools, especially given that only earlier this month it was advocating moving away from formal learning, rather than catching up on crucial lost lessons?

I suppose one of the great advantages of opposition is that consistency is not something that has to be adhered to. There has been an element of inconsistency there. What we are focused on, as we come out of the pandemic, is ensuring that we do everything possible to support schools, teachers and, most importantly, children, to help them catch up on what they have missed over the last year and a half.

Points of Order

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. On Monday, in a point of order, I queried the apparent discrepancy between the Secretary of State’s insistence to the House on 21 June that 6 million children will benefit from tutoring, and information given by his officials to Schools Week that the Government had pledged to provide 6 million courses. In yesterday’s estimates day debate, the Minister for School Standards again referred to 6 million courses. We now have two Ministers saying two different things. However, despite Mr Deputy Speaker’s response to my point of order on Monday, no ministerial correction has so far been issued. Can you assist me by inviting the Secretary of State to clarify the matter?

I thank the hon. Lady for giving notice of her point of order. It is of course essential that ministerial statements to the House are accurate, but the content of a speech, as she knows, is a matter for the Member or Minister themselves. I do not know whether anyone wishes to make a further point. The Secretary of State and his Ministers are here and will have heard the hon. Lady’s point of order, so I am sure that she will find some clarity forthcoming.

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Ahead of my Westminster Hall debate this afternoon regarding my constituent Jagtar Singh Johal, it has come to my attention that Members of this House have been sent briefings originating from the Indian high commission here in London. This is something, as you will be aware, that diplomatic delegations are entitled to do, but in this instance it would seem that they have included details that would seek to prejudge what is a live criminal case in that country. I am sure you will agree this is a most unusual state of affairs when one considers the separation of the judiciary from other branches of government, which is seen as a cornerstone of a well-functioning liberal democracy, and a position that flies in the face of the fundamental truth of being innocent until proven guilty. During the three and a half years of his imprisonment, I have sought myself to not prejudge the case against my constituent as it is, as you will appreciate, a matter for the Indian courts. I have only asked that transparency, due process and the rule of law be abided by—something that in this instance it would seem has been denied to Jagtar and is another indication that the growing calls for the UK Government to define his detention as an arbitrary one should now be listened to. Could you advise me and the House: what recourse is open to Members of this place on diplomatic missions to the Court of St James with regard to their ongoing business with this House?

I thank the hon. Member for his courtesy in giving notice of his point of order. I do not think it appropriate that Members of this House should be lobbied in this way, nor that judicial processes should be interfered with. I thank him for putting his concerns on the record and for giving me the opportunity to express our concerns as well.

I now suspend the House for three minutes to make arrangements for the next business.

Sitting suspended.

Bill Presented

Subsidy Control

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, supported by the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Michael Gove, Secretary George Eustice, Secretary Robert Jenrick, Secretary Oliver Dowden, Secretary Alister Jack, Secretary Brandon Lewis, Secretary Simon Hart and Paul Scully, presented a Bill to make provision regulating the giving of subsidies out of public resources; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 135) with explanatory notes (Bill 135-EN).

Flexible Working

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to give workers the right to flexible working from the first day of employment except in exceptional circumstances; to require employers to offer flexible working arrangements in employment contracts and advertise the available types of such flexibility in vacancy notices; and for connected purposes.

Before the pandemic, about 60% of the workforce said that they had some flexibility when it came to working. Leading organisations in the field, such as the commercial law firm Hill Dickinson, and astonishing organisations in my constituency, such as Synergy Vision, have talked about bringing in flexible working for their employers and increasing happiness in the workforce. Synergy Vision has been recognised for that with a UK’s Best Workplaces 2020 award. When I asked its chief executive, Ffyona Dawber, what benefits had come out of introducing flexible working, she said that it was a win-win for the employers and the employees.

During the pandemic, things have changed and there has been a 6% increase in the workforce who work from home, but there is a myth that during coronavirus everyone had flexible working and everyone worked from home. Actually, that is not true. The truth is that people who were on higher incomes and earning more were able to work from home and work flexibly, but that was not the case for everyone. People on low incomes either did not have the flexibility at work or had to retain working from home and could not change their working lifestyle at all.

In fact, from March 2020, flexible ways of working other than working from home, including compressed hours, job sharing and part-time working, all declined gradually. The organisation Pregnant Then Screwed said that phone calls to its hotline from women who had been refused when they asked for flexible working had more than doubled, and about two thirds of requests for flexible working had been turned down.

Four out of five people want to work flexibly in future. There are organisations that are already doing that work; the Royal Air Force, for example, was recognised as a leading practitioner with an award for best practice in flexible working. There are other organisations that believe that putting the mental health of their employees first is important.

For those of us who were able to work from home and work flexibly during coronavirus, it was a life-changing experience. I spoke to parents who said that they had never felt more connected to their children. There were mothers who talked about the relief of not being the last to pick up their child from nursery—sitting on the step of shame, as we call it. I can relate to that. I spoke to disabled workers who said that it was such a relief that they did not have to commute to work in the morning and that they could sit in their own living room, log on and speak in Zoom meetings. I spoke to carers who said that it was such a relief not to have to worry about whether the pharmacy was closing and whether they could get to it in time to get urgent medication for the elderly relative they were looking after.

There were people who benefited massively. The truth is that flexible working disproportionately benefits people who are women, people who are disabled, people who are carers, people who are from low-income backgrounds and people from a black and minority ethnic background, because the intolerant office culture still exists. There are also massive mental health benefits from flexible working—in a survey, 96% of employees said that their happiness levels had risen since agile working was introduced—not to mention the benefits for retention and recruitment in the workplace. EY has said that the productivity of workplaces when they introduce flexible working is quantified at £15 million per year. Infrastructure and construction companies said that when they started talking about and promoting flexible working, 38% more people started applying to the jobs that they advertised.

There is also the benefit that there is a wider talent pool of people to pick from once employers have advertised flexible working, but overall the impact of flexible working is mostly on women—that is something that we cannot deny. In this country, the responsibilities for childcare and looking after children largely fall on women. The statistics show that if women can flexibly work and go back to their jobs, they are twice as likely not to quit their jobs after they have had a child, and to go back to their careers. Men can work flexibly, too, and the statistics show that women are twice as likely to excel in their career if their husband is helping them with childcare. McKinsey has pointed out that if we fully utilise women in the UK economy, by 2030 we would be adding £150 billion to our economy. A lot of that depends on widening flexible working and making sure people buy into it.

Despite the benefit to the economy, the impact on mental health, the benefit to disabled people, the benefit to people on low incomes and the benefit to people from BAME backgrounds, there still is not a culture of flexible working in this country. Since 2020, only 17% of jobs advertised have said that those who apply can work flexibly. A third of requests for flexible working are turned down. This problem is that companies can use a wide range of business reasons for not granting a request for flexible working. The problem is that companies are given a blank cheque. They are not told they will face some sort of legal restriction if they say people cannot work flexibly. There is no point saying that coronavirus has completely changed office work culture and that everyone will be able to work flexibly from now on.

I have a million case studies at my fingertips, but I will use just one. It is of a mother who looks after a five-year-old child, has a disabled husband and has caring responsibilities for her 80-year-old father. During the pandemic, she worked flexibly and her productivity increased, which was reflected in her bonus. She went to her employer when the pandemic sort of came to an end and they were all going back to the office, and her boss said, “You can’t continue working flexibly.” That goes to show that we cannot leave it up to offices to make their own decisions. We have to bring in robust legislation if we want to change the culture and if we want to make some amount of change.

I welcome the fact that the Government are consulting on making flexible working the default, but I have been in politics far too long and know that consultations can drag on. They may have the veneer of being true and that action will be taken in the end, but they drag on and nothing changes. We in this Parliament have the privilege of changing the law so that flexible working becomes something that everyone can enjoy and to which everyone has the right, not just the privileged few who have the perk of enjoying it.

I ask the Government to pay attention to the fact that I have cross-party support for my Bill. Members will have received numerous emails from constituents about flexible working. I also ask the Government to take this seriously, to bring in robust legislation and to make a difference to the way we work in this country.

I thank some of the organisations that have pushed for the change for years and have helped me with my Bill: Pregnant Then Screwed, the TUC, the Fawcett Society, Mother Pukka, Young Women’s Trust, Gingerbread, the Fatherhood Institute, and Working Families. I hope the Government will listen to me, to their colleagues who support this Bill and to voices across the House by introducing legislation that changes the way we work in this country once and for all.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Tulip Siddiq, Laura Farris, Layla Moran, Christine Jardine, Caroline Lucas, Dr Philippa Whitford, Claire Hanna, Jim Shannon, Mary Kelly Foy, Kevin Brennan, John McDonnell and Dawn Butler present the Bill.

Tulip Siddiq accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 19 November, and to be printed (Bill 136).

Estimates Day

[2nd Allotted Day]

Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office

Official Development Assistance and the British Council

[Relevant documents: Written evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee, on the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s Main Estimate 2021-22, reported to the House on 18 May; International Development Committee correspondence with the Permanent Under-Secretary, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office on FCDO Main Estimate 2021-22, reported to the House on 15 June and 22 June; Fourth Report of the International Development Committee, Session 2019-21, Effectiveness of UK aid: potential impact of FCO/DFID merger, HC 596; and the Government Response, HC 820; International Development Committee correspondence with the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs on cuts to the UK Official Development Assistance (ODA) Budget, reported to the House on 15 December 2020, 13 April, 27 April, Session 2019-21, and 7 June; oral evidence taken before the International Development Committee on 26 January, 13 April and 22 April, Session 2019-21, on the Future of UK aid, HC 1141; written evidence to the International Development Committee, on the Future of UK aid, reported to the House on 26 January, 23 February, and 22 April, Session 2019-21 (HC 1141) and 18 May, and 15 June (HC 100); International Development Committee and International Development Sub-Committee on the Work of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact correspondence with the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs on the Independent Commission for Aid Impact’s budget, reported to the House on 14 April, 27 May, and 22 June; and oral evidence taken before the International Development Committee on 20 April, Session 2019-21, on Humanitarian crises monitoring: UK aid to Yemen, HC 1353.]

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That, for the year ending with 31 March 2022, for expenditure by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office:

(1) further resources, not exceeding £2,516,113,000 be authorised for use for current purposes as set out in HC 14 of Session 2021-22,

(2) further resources, not exceeding £739,069,000 be authorised for use for capital purposes as so set out, and

(3) a further sum, not exceeding £3,725,498,000 be granted to Her Majesty to be issued by the Treasury out of the Consolidated Fund and applied for expenditure on the use of resources authorised by Parliament.—(Rebecca Harris.)

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing us this estimates debate on official development assistance, more commonly known as foreign aid, and the British Council. It is clear how much passion and interest there is across parties on this topic.

Over the last two years, there have been considerable and brutal reductions in overseas development aid at a time of unprecedented global need. When other nations across the globe are stepping up, the UK seems to be walking away, and that is why today’s debate is so important. Public and parliamentary interest in aid has never been greater.

I wanted to spend the debate looking in detail at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s spending plans. I wanted to scrutinise how UK aid, cut drastically to 0.5% of GNI at a time when more aid is needed, is being spent in the most effective way possible. However, the information needed to carefully check that spending simply is not being shared by the FCDO.

The Select Committee on International Development has had to fight tooth and nail to extract whatever information it can from the Government. A pattern of behaviour is emerging that demonstrates this Government’s contempt for parliamentary scrutiny. That cannot be allowed to continue.