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Speaker’s Statement

Volume 698: debated on Wednesday 30 June 2021

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.