House of Commons
Wednesday 7 July 2021
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Orders, 4 June and 30 December 2020).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Oral Answers to Questions
Women and Equalities
The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—
Conversion Therapy: Support for Victims
Conversion therapy is an abhorrent practice that this Government will ban. We are launching a consultation in September to ensure the action we take is informed and effective.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his campaigning work on this issue. I am proud that we have announced the UK’s first ever global LGBT conference, Safe To Be Me. It will take place in June next year, and it will bring the world together to end persecution, violence and discrimination against LGBT people everywhere.
Children from Disadvantaged Backgrounds: Geographic Equality of Opportunity
Every child, no matter what their background, should have access to world-class education that opens up opportunities for their future. Our pupil premium is targeted at schools based on the number of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. It has helped to close the attainment gap over the past decade, and it is expected to increase to more than £2.5 billion this year.
I am most grateful to the Minister for her reply. Early years education plays a key role in supporting children from disadvantaged backgrounds, but there is a concern that the current funding arrangements are skewed against providers operating in deprived areas such as parts of Lowestoft in my constituency. I have corresponded with her on this issue, and we will hopefully meet shortly, but does she agree it is vital that all children, whatever their background, have ready access to high-quality and properly funded early years education? Will the Government take steps to ensure this happens?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. High-quality early years education is important, which is why the Government have invested over £3.5 billion every year for the past three years in supporting education for two, three and four-year-olds. Our recent education recovery announcement included increased investment in early years teaching.
I urge my hon. Friend and, indeed, all hon. Members to encourage families from lower-income backgrounds to take up the Government’s generous offer of 15 hours of free childcare for their two-year-olds. Children who take it up do better at school, and it gives them the vital skills that set them up for life.
We are considering the recommendations of the Select Committee on Education very carefully, and all the evidence shows that high-quality teaching is the single most effective way to improve education outcomes for disadvantaged pupils. That is why it is so important that the pupil premium is used to support continuing professional development, as well as academic programmes and pastoral support. It is also why so much of our recovery funding is tilted towards top-quality teaching and tutoring for disadvantaged pupils.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right—sex abuse is not acceptable. The Government are taking action through the child sex abuse strategy and the violence against women and girls strategy, and we have published strengthened guidance for schools on peer-on-peer abuse and updated relationships, sex and health education. In addition, we have asked every local safe- guarding partnership across the country to review how they work to support schools to tackle this issue.
Pregnancy and Maternity Discrimination
The Government recognise the importance of tackling pregnancy and maternity discrimination, which is why we will extend the redundancy protection period for six months once a new mother has returned to work and provide similar protections for those parents taking adoption leave and shared parental leave. We will bring these measures forward as soon as parliamentary time allows.
As a devastating Equality and Human Rights Commission report highlighted some five years ago, and certainly given the experience of too many of my constituents, discrimination against pregnant women and new mothers is still widespread. When will the Government actually get their act together and bring in the legislation they have promised to stop employers making women redundant during pregnancy, and until at least six months after they have returned from maternity leave?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, but legislation can only ever be part of the answer, which is why we have committed to bring together key business and family representative groups to tackle the questions on organisational culture and to ensure that women and employers know their rights. We will introduce legislative measures when parliamentary time allows.
EHRC research in 2016 found disturbingly high levels of pregnancy and maternity discrimination in UK workplaces, and the Select Committee on Women and Equalities report highlighted that discriminatory practices towards pregnant women and those on maternity leave during the pandemic should have been
“better anticipated by the government”
and that “preventative actions” should have been taken. So will Ministers tell me what representations they have made to Cabinet colleagues to urgently legislate to extend redundancy protection and finally put an end to this unacceptable discrimination?
As I said, when parliamentary time allows we will bring legislation forward. I value the hon. Lady’s work and the conversation we had with Pregnant Then Screwed and Maternity Action. We continue to have plans for roundtables to understand the issues better, bringing those two groups together again, along with businesses.
Tragically, maternity discrimination does not just happen in the labour market—it also happens in labour wards. What work is the Minister doing across government to make sure that we drive down the horrific death toll that sees black women four times as likely to die in childbirth than their white counterparts?
The Minister for Equalities is doing a lot of work in this area, as is our Department of Health and Social Care. We are committed to reducing inequalities in health outcomes, and Professor Jacqueline Dunkley-Bent OBE, the chief midwifery officer, is leading work to understand why mortality rates are high, consider evidence and bring action together, because this is a complex situation. It is not just within maternity; it is far more holistic than that, for instance on whether people are accessing health services in the first place, and with the fact that we had some of the highest rates in the EU of obesity and underweight issues going into maternity and the highest rates of smoking in pregnancy in the EU—indeed, our level is even higher than America’s.
Research from the TUC has found that one in four pregnant women and new mums experienced unfair treatment or discrimination at work during the pandemic, including being singled out for redundancy or furlough. The imminent tapering off of furlough prompts serious concern about unequal redundancies. Will the Minister follow Labour’s lead and, instead of the Government simply extending their ineffective and complicated laws, make things simpler and more robust for mothers and businesses alike by introducing a German-style ban on making a pregnant woman or new mother redundant from notification of pregnancy to six months after they return to work?
We believe that extending the MAPLE—Maternity and Parental Leave etc. Regulations 1999—provisions is a better way of doing it that goes with the grain of the tribunal system that we have within this country. That is why, after due consideration, we will be bringing that forward as soon as parliamentary time allows.
Maternity Action highlights the fact that pregnant women and new mothers cannot devote their energy and finances to pursuing employment tribunal claims. The Minister says he wants to take steps to understand, but I can tell him that the thousands of women who have lost wages, entitlements or their job because of the pandemic, or the more who will unfortunately follow, need effective access now to justice and more time to enforce their rights. The Minister has also says he is committed to action. So what is the hold-up, and what does it say about this Government’s priorities?
I said earlier that legislation can only ever be part of the answer. There are robust laws at the moment whereby employers have to maintain their duty of care to their workforce, but, as I say, we are taking a different approach rather than bringing in an almost outright ban on making pregnant women and new mothers redundant. We are working with the grain of the existing UK approach, and this will happen soon as parliamentary time allows.
Covid-19: Disabled People on Legacy Benefits
The Government are committed to supporting disabled people affected by the covid-19 outbreak, including those who claim legacy benefits. We have delivered an unprecedented package of support, injecting billions into the welfare system, and we continue to monitor the impact on disabled people while ensuring that they are able to access the support that they need.
The Minister claims that legacy payments were not increased because disabled people have not faced additional costs during the pandemic, but the Disability Benefits Consortium found that 82% of disabled people have had to spend more money than they normally would during the pandemic. So will he set out for the House what evidence he is basing his assumptions on, because disabled people really do deserve better from this Government?
I will get the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work to write to the hon. Gentleman, but he will be aware that we spend £57 billion on benefits to support disabled people and people with health conditions. At the same time, we have reformed employment and support allowance in the light of covid and brought in supportive changes to statutory sick pay, local housing allowance and the Access to Work programme. We continue to support the disabled into work.
Covid-19 Vaccine: Ethnic Minority Communities
My third quarterly report to the Prime Minister on covid disparities summarises the unprecedented measures taken to promote vaccine uptake among ethnic minorities. This work includes establishing vaccination centres at around 50 different religious venues, with many more acting as pop-up sites, and, more recently, an NHS partnership with the Caribbean & African Health Network, which co-produced a toolkit to increase vaccine confidence and uptake. Thanks to such initiatives we saw an increase in both positive vaccine sentiment and vaccine uptake across all ethnic groups over the last quarter.
On Friday, I was delighted to visit the Al-Manaar mosque in North Kensington, which has administered more than 750 vaccines in pop-up clinics and done vaccine information sessions in English, Arabic and Somali. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is an excellent model for encouraging vaccination in our diverse communities?
I do agree. I thank my hon. Friend for her engagement on this issue and for so effectively representing a very diverse constituency and its complex needs. I pay tribute to religious leaders in Kensington and everywhere else who have played such an important role in encouraging their congregations to be vaccinated. Initiatives such as the one that my hon. Friend mentioned and the NHS’s plan for Ramadan, which includes the use of twilight jabbing, all help to build trust, increase vaccine confidence and tackle misinformation.
From speaking to care home operators in my constituency, I know that there is concern among ethnic minority groups, and particularly women, about their fertility chances being affected by their taking up the vaccine. What reassurances can my hon. Friend give to those ladies that their fertility will not be affected, and that it is entirely safe to take up the vaccine?
I should start by reiterating that the covid-19 vaccines are safe and there is no evidence that they affect fertility. I recognise that there is much information about the vaccines, as my hon. Friend describes. We are working with Professor Jacqueline Dunkley-Bent, the Chief Midwifery Officer in England, and others such as Media Medics, Dr Hazel Wallace and Dr Philippa Kaye, to encourage women to be vaccinated.
Official Development Assistance: Gender Equality
Tackling gender inequality is a core part of the Government’s mission. The integrated review confirms our commitment to tackling the discrimination, violence and inequality that hold women back. Girls’ education is one of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s seven key priorities for ODA spending, and this year we will invest £430 million in girls’ education, helping to achieve the global target to get 40 million girls into education.
We continue to demonstrate the UK’s leadership in reducing gender-based violence. At the recent Generation Equality Forum, we launched the £67.5 million What Works to Prevent Violence: Impact at Scale programme, which is the first global effort systematically to scale up proven violence-prevention approaches worldwide.
The Gender Equality Advisory Council recently recommended to G7 leaders that they renew their commitment to the 0.7% of GNI target for overseas development assistance and urged them to ring-fence any funding for gender equality projects. Will the Minister assure us that she has assessed the effect on such projects of the recent cut of ODA to 0.5% of GNI, and that she is working with Cabinet colleagues to mitigate that harm?
It is important to recognise that the UK will still spend more than £10 billion on ODA in 2021, and we will return to spending 0.7% as soon as the fiscal situation allows. On impacts and equality assessments, I assure the hon. Lady that officials considered any impacts on women and girls, the most marginalised and vulnerable, people with disabilities and people from other protected groups when they developed their advice to Ministers as part of our decision-making process.
Online Abuse and Hate towards Women
Online abuse and hate towards women is completely unacceptable, and no one should have to experience threats to their safety or abuse online—and even offline. Under our groundbreaking online safety legislation, companies will need to take swift and effective action not only on illegal content, but on legal but harmful content, including abuse and hate speech.
Involuntary celibate groups—incel groups, as they are known—are increasingly on the rise. This online community understands society to be hierarchised along the lines of sexual attractiveness, and these misogynists blame women for their own lack of status and for forcing them into involuntary celibacy. The harbouring of hate and resentment towards women has manifested itself in a spate of deadly terrorist attacks across the Atlantic, with at least two cases of terrorism here in the UK motivated by incel ideas. Will the Minister commit to having discussions with the Home Secretary to identify, and proscribe where necessary, any forms of this deadly misogynist hate group? Moreover, as most of this hate occurs online, can the Minister tell us what steps the online harms Bill will take to end this online abuse against women, when it will be introduced and when its measures will take effect?
I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for the work that she is doing to call out online abuse. She is absolutely right: there is no place for this sort of behaviour online. The online harms Bill will make much clearer the links between what online companies say they do and what they actually do, and women will be better supported to report abuse and should expect to receive appropriate, swift action from the platform. In addition, we have sponsored the Law Commission review on harmful online communications, looking at whether the law needs to be tightened around this issue; that will be reporting back shortly.
Employment Gap: Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority People
The Government are committed to supporting people from all backgrounds to move into work. Clearly, £2 billion has been spent on kickstart. There are 13,000 extra job coaches, and the job entry targeted support scheme is also being rolled out. For black, Asian and minority ethnic claimants specifically, we are taking action in 20 local authority areas with high populations of ethnic minority people.
With the Office for National Statistics finding that in coronavirus, black and minority ethnic people are less likely to be in management positions, more likely to be unemployed and more likely to earn less, confirming the Government’s own McGregor [Inaudible.] report, when will the Government implement its 26 recommendations?
I am happy to write to the hon. Lady through the Department when she gives me a more detailed version. I can just answer that we have 500 kickstart jobs per day, and from 20 locations—from Bradford to Barnet, Glasgow to Leicester, and Manchester to her own Ealing community—jobcentres are specifically helping BAME people.
Equality of opportunity for talented young people across the country is one of the Government’s highest priorities. We are focused on giving people, whatever their background, ethnicity or circumstances, the high-quality education and skills that they deserve to succeed.
I am very pleased to hear that, but the reality in terms of the results is that those policies are not working. Most black and ethnic minority groups improve educational attainment relative to white students up to the age of 16, but from the age of 16 there is a drop off in every single group. Whether it be Chinese, who are the highest-performing, or the lowest-performing groups, all of them do less well relative to white students after the age of 16. While I recognise and welcome the Government’s rhetoric, what actual policies are there to do something about that alarming decline?
We recognise that raising educational standards is absolutely key to levelling up opportunity, providing £14 billion in over three years, the biggest uplift to school funding in a decade, investing it in early years education and targeting more than £3 billion in recovery funding. That is why, compared with 2009-10, the proportion achieving A-levels and equivalent improved across all ethnic groups, with the largest improvement in the black and black British ethnic group.
As we look to build back better, we want to make it easier for people to work flexibly. Normalising flexible working will help turbocharge opportunities for women, boost employment outside major cities and support a diverse workforce. We have already reconvened the flexible working taskforce, and I am working with ministerial colleagues to champion flexible working practices.
I can tell my hon. Friend that we have commissioned the equality data programme to look specifically at the issue of geographical inequality. We will be announcing the early results of that programme in July, and the Department for Education has already announced an £80 million extension of the opportunity areas programme, including helping coastal towns.
Disabled people account for two thirds of deaths from covid, and recent research by the BBC showed that 78% of disabled people said that their mental health had got worse during the pandemic and 72% said that their disability had deteriorated. This Government’s failure to comply with their public sector equality duty and undertake equality impact assessments has cost disabled lives. Does the Minister acknowledge the extent of those failures? When will her Government finally bring forward the delayed national strategy for disabled people, and will they finally treat disabled people with dignity and respect and tackle those fatal inequalities?
I will get the Disability Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), to write to the hon. Lady with a specific answer to her specific questions, but I can assure her that yes, when the consultation is responded to, it will be in full detail and will address the points that she raised.
A third of people who use social care are working-aged disabled adults, and the Equalities and Human Rights Commission recently recommended that the Government enshrine in law article 19 of the UN convention on the rights of people with disabilities, to support them to live independently. It has now been over 700 days since the Prime Minister stood on the steps of Downing Street and promised that he would fix social care, yet there are still no plans, so what steps is the Minister taking with her colleagues to guarantee that the long-overdue plans for social care will adequately support disabled people to live independently, as recommended by the EHRC?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to this issue. As part of its review of harmful online communications, the Law Commission is considering offences around the sharing of intimate images, including things like cyber-flashing, which she mentioned, and is looking to identify whether there are any gaps in existing legislation. It will publish the results of the review very shortly, and we will consider them all very carefully.
First, I want to welcome the new hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Kim Leadbeater) and commend her for her dignity in standing up to intimidation during the campaign. I do agree with my right hon. Friend about the very divisive nature of the leaflet that she talks about. Politicians should not be stoking division: instead, we should be working together to unite and level up our country.
I wholeheartedly reject the comment by the hon. Gentleman. The state pension has gone up dramatically under the triple lock—by £2,000 since 2010 —by the coalition and Conservative Governments. We have a system that is taking forward real change and making a real difference to state pensioners.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Today marks the 16th anniversary of the 7/7 London bombings. We remember the 52 innocent people who lost their lives and those who were injured, and pay tribute to the city’s emergency services for their heroic response.
I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in sending condolences to the family and friends of Sislin Fay Allen, who died earlier this week. She was the UK’s first black female police officer, and she served in the Metropolitan police.
I am sure colleagues will also want to join me in wishing the England football team the best of luck for tonight’s semi-final against Denmark.
This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
Prime Minister, we hear a great deal in this place about the rule of law and injustice. Can the Prime Minister tell me what he is going to do about the injustice that my constituents in Falkirk, and indeed families up and down the UK, are facing every day because of the retrospective loan charge, which is fast turning into the next Post Office scandal? The hounding by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs—clearly out of control, accountable to no one—has managed to hoodwink and mislead his own Treasury Ministers and now, according to the head of HMRC, the retrospective loan charge appears to be without any legal basis or justification. Therefore, will the Prime Minister accept that this matter needs further and immediate investigation?
I am acutely aware, as I think all colleagues are around the House, of the pain suffered by those who entered into loan charge schemes. I think, alas, that they were misguided to do so, but I think that the line taken by the Treasury, I am afraid, is right on this.
I thank my hon. Friend for his excellent question. I think he should not have too long to wait for the final recommendations from Sir Peter Hendy about the A75 and other great features of Union connectivity that this Government hope to support, but we have already agreed £5 million from the UK and the Scottish Governments to support the extension of the Edinburgh-Tweedbank borders railway to Carlisle.
May I join the Prime Minister in his remarks about the 7/7 anniversary? I remember where I was on that day and will never forget it, and I am sure that is the same for everybody. We will never forget all those affected, especially the family and friends of all those who died.
May I join the Prime Minister in his comments about Fay Allen as well, and also about football, and wish the very best of luck to the England football team this evening? I am sure the whole country, with the possible exception of the Conservative MP the hon. Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson), will be watching this evening and cheering England on.
May I also extend a special welcome to the new Member for Batley and Spen (Kim Leadbeater)? I hope Conservative Members will forgive me if I turn around to look at my new hon. Friend, as she sits on these Benches beneath the plaque for Jo Cox, her sister? That is a special and emotional moment for all of us on the Labour Benches and I think for everybody across this House. It takes incredible courage and bravery to stand in that constituency and to sit on these Benches beneath that plaque.
We all want our economy to open and to get back to normal; the question is whether we do it in a controlled way or a chaotic way. The Health Secretary told the House yesterday that under the Government’s plan,
“infections could go as high as 100,000 a day.”—[Official Report, 6 July 2021; Vol. 698, c. 755.]
A number of key questions fall from that. First, if infections reach that level of 100,000 per day what does the Prime Minister expect the number of hospitalisations and deaths and the number of people with long covid will be in that eventuality?
There are a number of projections, and they are available from the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling graphs. It is certainly true that we are seeing a wave of cases because of the delta variant, but scientists are also absolutely clear that we have severed the link between infection and serious disease and death. Currently there are only one thirtieth of the deaths that we were seeing at an equivalent position in previous waves of this pandemic, which has been made possible thanks to the vaccine roll-out, the fastest of any European country, and I think what people would like to hear from the Labour party, because I was not quite clear from that opening question, is whether or not it will support the progress that this country is intending to make on 19 July. The right hon. and learned Gentleman says it is reckless to go ahead; does that mean he is opposing it?
We know that the link between infection rates and deaths has been weakened but it hasn’t been broken, and the Prime Minister must, and certainly should, know the answer to the question I asked him. That he will not answer it here in the House hardly inspires confidence in his plan. Let us be clear why infection rates are so high: it is because the Prime Minister let the delta—or we can call it the Johnson—variant into the country. And let us be clear why the number of cases will surge so quickly: it is because he is taking all protections off in one go. That is reckless. The SAGE papers yesterday made it clear that with high infection rates there is a greater chance of new variants emerging, and there will be greater pressure on the NHS, more people will get long covid and test and trace will be less effective. Knowing all that, is the Prime Minister really comfortable with a plan that means 100,000 people catching this virus every day and everything that that entails?
I really think we need to hear from the right hon. and learned Gentleman what he actually supports. We will continue with a balanced and reasonable approach, and I have given the reasons. This country has rolled out the fastest vaccination programme anywhere in Europe; the vaccines—both of them—provide more than 90% protection against hospitalisation and, by 19 July we will have vaccinated every adult, with all having been offered one vaccination and everybody over 40 having been offered two vaccinations. That is an extraordinary achievement, and that is allowing us to go ahead. Last week, or earlier this week, the right hon. and learned Gentleman seemed to support opening up and getting rid of the 1 metre rule—he seemed to support getting back into nightclubs and getting back into pubs without masks—but if he does not support it, perhaps he could clear that up now: is it reckless or not?
We should open up in a controlled way, keeping baseline protections such as masks on public transport, improving ventilation, making sure the test and trace system remains effective, and ensuring proper payments for self-isolation. The Prime Minister cannot just wish away the practical problems that 100,000 infections a day are going to cause; he cannot wish them away.
The next obvious one is the huge number of people who will be asked to isolate. If there are 100,000 infections a day, that means hundreds of thousands—perhaps millions—of people are going to be pinged to isolate. The Financial Times estimates this morning that that could be around 2 million people per week. The Daily Mail says 3.5 million people a week. Either way, it is a massive number. It means huge disruption to families and businesses just as the summer holidays begin. We know what the FT thinks; we know what the Mail thinks—we know what their estimates are. Can the Prime Minister tell us: how many people does he expect will be asked to isolate if infection rates continue to rise at this rate?
I want to thank everybody who self-isolates. They are doing the right thing. They are a vital part of this country’s protection against the disease. We will be moving away from self-isolation towards testing in the course of the next few weeks. That is the prudent approach, because we will have vaccinated even more people.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman cannot have it both ways. He says it is reckless to open up, yet he attacks self-isolation, which is one of the key protections that this country has. Let me ask him again. On Monday, he seemed to say he was in favour of opening up on 19 July; now he is saying it is reckless. Which is it, Mr Speaker?
The question was simply how many people are going to be asked to self-isolate if there are 100,000 infections a day, and the Prime Minister will not answer it. We know why he will not answer it and pretends I am asking a different question. He ignored the problems in schools; now there are 700,000 children off per week because he ignored them. Now he is ignoring the next big problem that is heading down the track and is going to affect millions of people who have to self-isolate.
It will not feel like freedom day to those who have to isolate when they have to cancel their holidays and they cannot go to the pub or even to their kids’ sports day, and it will not feel like freedom day, Prime Minister, to the businesses that are already warning of carnage because of the loss of staff and customers. It must be obvious, with case rates that high, that the Prime Minister’s plan risks undermining the track and trace system on which he has spent billions and billions of pounds.
There are already too many stories of people deleting the NHS app. The Prime Minister must have seen those stories. They are doing it because they can see what is coming down the track. Of course we do not support that, but under his plan it is entirely predictable. What is the Prime Minister going to do to stop people deleting the NHS app because they can see precisely what he cannot see, which is that millions of them are going to be pinged this summer to self-isolate?
Of course we are going to continue with the programme of self-isolation for as long as that is necessary. I thank all those who are doing it. But of course we are also moving to a system of testing rather than self-isolation, and we can do that because of the massive roll-out of the vaccine programme. It is still not clear—I think this is about the fourth or fifth time, Mr Speaker—whether the right hon. and learned Gentleman is actually in favour of this country moving forward to step 4 on the basis of the massive roll-out of vaccines. This is unlike the law, where you can attack from lots of different positions at once. To oppose, you must have a credible and clear alternative, and I simply do not hear one. Is he in favour of us moving forward—yes or no? It is completely impossible to tell.
If the Prime Minister stopped mumbling and listened, he would have heard the answer the first time. We want to open in a controlled way and keep baseline protections that can keep down infections, such as mandatory face masks on public transport. We know that that will protect people, reduce the speed of the virus and the spread of the virus, and it will not harm the economy. It is common sense. Why can the Prime Minister not see that?
Of course we can see that it is common sense for people in confined spaces to wear a face mask out of respect and courtesy to others, such as on the tube, but what we are doing is cautiously, prudently moving from legal diktat to allowing people to take personal responsibility for their actions. That is the right way forward. I must say that if that is really the only difference between us, if the right hon. and learned Gentleman supports absolutely everything else—opening pubs, opening nightclubs, getting rid of the 1 metre rule, getting people back to work—and it is all about the difference between making face masks mandatory or advisory on the tube, then that is good news, but I would like to hear him clarify that.
The Prime Minister agrees it is common sense because it protects the public, but he will not make it mandatory—it is ridiculous. It is clear what this is all about: he has lost a Health Secretary, he has lost a by-election and he is getting flak from his own MPs, so he is doing what he always does—crashing over to the other side of the aisle, chasing headlines and coming up with a plan that has not been thought through. We all want restrictions lifted. We want our economy open. We want to get back to normal. But we have been here too many times before. Is it not the case that, once again, instead of a careful, controlled approach, we are heading for a summer of chaos and confusion?
No, is the answer to that. Of course these are difficult decisions. They need to be taken in a balanced way, and that is what we are doing. Throughout the pandemic, to do all these things, frankly, takes a great deal of drive, and it takes a great deal of leadership to get things done. If we followed the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s advice, we would still be in the European Medicines Agency and we would never have rolled out the vaccines as fast. If we followed his advice, we would never have got schools open again, with all the damage to kids’ education. Frankly, if we had listened to him, we would not now be proceeding cautiously, pragmatically, sensibly to reopen our society and our economy, and giving people back the chance to enjoy the freedoms they love. We are getting on with taking the tough decisions to take this country forward. We vaccinate, they vacillate. We inoculate, while they are invertebrate.
Yes, I believe that the north-west, in addition to the rest of the country, will be a world leader in hydrogen technology. The HyNet project is an excellent example. We have already put £45 million into supporting the HyNet project, kickstarting our hydrogen capture and storage, and I thank my hon. Friend for his support.
Can I wish England all the best for the football match tonight against Denmark? I associate myself with the remarks of the Prime Minister on the tragedy of the 7/7 bombing, which we all remember so vividly. Also, yesterday was the 33rd anniversary of the Piper Alpha disaster, where 167 people cruelly lost their lives. Our thoughts are very much with friends and family who are still grieving over the terrors of that event. Finally, before I move on, this is also Srebrenica Memorial Week. We should remember those who have suffered genocide, whether in Bosnia, the holocaust, Rwanda or in many other places. Perhaps the Prime Minister will meet me to discuss how we can help the Srebrenica charity here in the UK.
This week, the Tory Government introduced their so-called electoral integrity Bill. In reality, the Bill is designed to do anything but increase the integrity of our elections. It is a solution in desperate search of a problem that simply does not exist. What the Bill will do is to impose, for the first time, Trumpian voter ID laws in the UK. The Electoral Reform Society says it could lead to voter
“disenfranchisement on an industrial scale”,
disenfranchising people from working-class communities, black and minority ethnic communities, and others already marginalised in society, creating barriers to vote. Prime Minister, why are the Tory Government trying to rob people of their democratic right to vote?
What we are trying to protect is the democratic right of people to have a one person, one vote system. I am afraid that I have personal experience and remember vividly what used to go on in Tower Hamlets, and it is important that we move to some sort of voter ID. Plenty of other countries have it. It is eminently sensible, and I think people will be reassured that their votes matter. That is what this Bill is about.
Goodness gracious, Prime Minister, come on! There were 34 allegations of impersonation in 2019. This is a problem that does not exist. It is a British Prime Minister seeking to make it harder to vote because it is easier for the Government to get re-elected if they can choose the voters rather than letting the voters choose their Government. Three and a half million people in the United Kingdom do not have a form of photo ID, and 11 million people do not have a passport or driver’s licence. Those millions of people will be directly impacted by seeing their right to vote curtailed. It is not just the Opposition saying that. Members of the Prime Minister’s own party have called his plans
“an illogical and illiberal solution to a non-existent problem”.
Will he withdraw these vote-rigging proposals immediately or continue down the path of being a tinpot dictator?
The right hon. Member is making a bit of a mountain out of a molehill, if I may I respectfully suggest. Councils will be under an obligation to provide free photo ID to anybody who wants it, and I do think it reasonable to protect the public in our elections from the idea of voter fraud. Nobody wants to see it. By the way, I do not think that elections in this country should be in any way clouded or contaminated by the suspicion of voter fraud. That is what we are trying to prevent.
Through my hon. Friend, I thank again the people of South East Cornwall and everywhere in Cornwall. The G7 had wonderful hospitality. I assure her that I am aware of the problem of flooding in Looe. I can tell her that my right hon. Friend the Environment Secretary has met Cornwall Council to discuss the matter, and we will do everything we can to sort it out.
On behalf of the Alba party, I add my voice to the comments about 7/7. On the morning of 7/7, I was in a meeting at University College London Hospital A&E as the information started coming through, and I pay tribute to every single one of the frontline staff I worked alongside on that day. It was a long shift and it was a long walk home that evening.
The Prime Minister talks about vaccines. Accurate surveillance is also really important—it is equally important. On 15 March, the Department of Health of Social Care Minister Lord Bethell said on Twitter that Omega Diagnostics and Mologic were in line for an order of 2 million lateral flow devices per week by the end of May, and promised jobs and security. Will the Prime Minister explain why his Government are undermining superior domestic diagnostics tests while propping up discredited Chinese imports to the tune of £3 billion?
This country has led the world in condemning human rights abuses in Xinjiang, in putting sanctions on those responsible and in holding companies to account that import goods made with forced labour in Xinjiang. I will certainly consider the proposals debated, but I must say that I am instinctively, and always have been, against sporting boycotts.
My right hon. Friend is, sadly, completely right in his analysis. There remain very serious problems in what I believe is the misapplication—the excessively legally purist application—of that protocol. What we are hoping for is some progress from the European Commission—some repairs that I think that they should make to the way this is working—but to echo what he has said, we certainly rule nothing out in our approach.
I sympathise deeply with anybody who has suffered the loss of a baby by miscarriage, of course. What I can tell the hon. Lady is that we did introduce, in 2020, paid parental bereavement leave. That entitles those who lose a child after 24 weeks of pregnancy to some payment, but, of course, nothing I can say, and no payment we could make, would be any consolation to those who experience a miscarriage in that way.
I thank my hon. Friend for his excellent question. I want to thank Mr Foxley for his whistleblowing, because he has seen justice done. The trouble is that we do not normally compensate whistle- blowers in the way that my hon. Friend recommends, but I know that my right hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor General has offered to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the matter further.
With great respect to the hon. Lady, I do not think that I have ever heard a question that was more inversely related to reality. This is a Government that from the beginning invested the biggest amount in the NHS for a generation. Then, in the last year, we put another £92 billion into frontline care. We have increased nurses’ starting pay by 12.8% over the last three years. Above all, not only are we building 48 more hospitals, but there are another 59,000 people working in the NHS this year than there were this time last year. This is a Government who are putting our NHS first.
I am sure that the whole House welcomes the fantastic news of Nissan’s investment in an electric battery gigafactory in Sunderland, but does the Prime Minister agree that batteries are only part of the solution in pursuit of net zero by 2050, and that zero-carbon hydrogen combustion engines, such as those recently developed by Midlands-based JCB, have an important role to play in our country’s decarbonisation plans?
My hon. Friend is completely right. The investments that we have seen in just the last week or so—Nissan’s investment in a gigafactory in Sunderland and what Stellantis is doing at Ellesmere Port—are tremendously exciting for battery-powered vehicles. It is fantastic, but we must not forget hydrogen. As I said in an earlier answer, we want this country to be a world leader in hydrogen technology as well.
I know that the Prime Minister is aware of the fatal and serious road accidents that have taken place on St Albans Road and Redbourn Road in my constituency. Will he advise the House on what more the Government are doing to improve road safety, not just in the case of fatal accidents but where there are serious accidents or near misses, because this is an issue that is of growing concern to many of my constituents and, I believe, to many across the country?
My hon. Friend is right to raise this. Although the number of those who have been killed or seriously injured on the roads has been coming down over a long period, it is vital that we invest in this area. We have put another £100 million through the safer roads fund to invest in 50 of the most dangerous stretches on A roads. I also draw his attention to the THINK! campaign, which can play a huge role in reducing deaths and serious injuries on our roads.
That is not accurate. We are continuing to support all those who have to remediate their buildings. I remind Members that the £5 billion that we have provided is five times what Labour offered for support in their last manifesto. We will ensure that all the leaseholders—the people who have suffered from the consequences of the Grenfell conflagration—get the advice and support that they need.
My right hon. Friend will recognise the huge service done by independent hospices to those at the end of their lives, to their families and to the NHS, because those people would be likely to otherwise be in hospital. He will also understand the huge impact that the covid pandemic has had on the fundraising capacity of those hospice charities, so may I ask him to consider carefully and personally the case that is being made by independent hospices for greater Government support for their clinical costs—costs which, if they were no longer there, would undoubtedly be borne by the taxpayer and by the hard- pressed NHS?
My right hon. and learned Friend is totally right to draw attention to the incredible selfless work of hospices up and down the country. Charitable hospices receive £350 million of Government funding annually, but he is also right to draw attention to the difficulties they have had in fundraising this year and over the pandemic. That is why they have received an additional £257 million in national grant funding arrangements.
Of course I know how tough it has been for millions of people up and down the country and for business. That is why this Government put in an extraordinary £407 billion to support jobs and livelihoods across the country throughout the pandemic. The single most important thing we can do now for the individuals and families that the hon. Gentleman represents and is rightly talking about today is to help our country to get back on its feet by cautiously opening up in the way that we are on 19 July, if we can take that step, which I very much hope we will. I hope that it may command the support, if not of the Leader of the Opposition, then at least of the hon. Gentleman.
The River Test is one of the finest chalk streams in the world, but since May, diesel has been spilling into the river. What matters most is that the flow is stopped and that there is an effective clean-up, but there are many agencies involved, which has made a co-ordinated response challenging. Please will my right hon. Friend ensure that the Environment Agency, Natural England, Southern Water, local authorities and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are all involved in solving this environmental catastrophe together?
This year thousands of children will die because of the Government’s dramatic cuts in international aid. Top lawyers in the country advise us that this policy is unlawful, and it has never been presented to this House for approval. When the Prime Minister was previously asked about this by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), he suggested that the estimates vote would be the appropriate vote, but that does not allow us to increase the amount of spending on this aid. I ask the Prime Minister again: when are we going to get a binding vote on the Government’s aid policy?
Perhaps the best thing I can say is how deeply I, the Government and everybody sympathise with those who have gone through the suffering described by the hon. Gentleman. No one who has not been through something like that can imagine what it must feel like to be deprived of the ability to mourn properly and to hold the hands of a loved one in their last moments in the way that the hon. Gentleman describes. I know how much sympathy there will be with him.
I take the hon. Gentleman’s criticisms of the Government and everything we have done most sincerely, but all I can say is that we have tried throughout this pandemic to minimise human suffering and to minimise loss of life. He asks me to apologise and, as I have said before, I do: I apologise for the suffering that the people of this country have endured. All I can say is that nothing that I can say or do can take back the lost lives and the lost time spent with loved ones that he describes. I am deeply, deeply sorry for that.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. On 23 June, my colleague my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) asked the Prime Minister whether article 6 of the Act of Union (Ireland) 1800 had been impliedly repealed when the Northern Ireland protocol was approved by the House of Commons. The Prime Minister answered emphatically no.
Last Thursday, the High Court, responding to a case made by the Government’s lawyers, said that the Northern Ireland protocol was not in conflict with the 1800 Act because article 6, which guaranteed equal trade across the United Kingdom, had been impliedly repealed when the withdrawal Act was passed through the House of Commons. Mr Justice Colton agreed that indeed article 6 had been overridden by the passing of the withdrawal Acts here in the House of Commons.
Here is the point, Mr Speaker: the Government’s case was approved, presented and argued before the Prime Minister gave the answer to my right hon. Friend in the House of Commons. That answer therefore must have been misleading to the House.
Inadvertently misleading to the House. I would like to know whether the Prime Minister can be called to apologise for inadvertently misleading the House. What steps does he intend to take to undo the damage that the change to the Act of Union has caused constitutionally and economically to Northern Ireland?
I am grateful to the right hon. Member for giving me notice of this point of order. He raises the issue of legal interpretation, which is not a matter for the Chair. He will know, too, that the Speaker is not responsible for Ministers’ answers. The Prime Minister and the Minister will have heard the right hon. Gentleman’s comments. If the Prime Minister believes his answer requires a correction, there are processes by which one can make that happen, although he may take a different view from the right hon. Member about the facts of the case. In any event, the right hon. Member has put his point on the record, and I am sure he will find other ways of pursuing it. I do not think this is the end of the matter for now, but it is just for this moment.
I am now suspending the House for three minutes in order for the necessary arrangements to be made for the next business.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I have received a number of representations from those seeking to find work on sites such as LinkedIn about not being able to see even a minimum salary that would be available to them were they to secure the position. The Employment Bill is obviously the right piece of legislation to raise these issues with Ministers, but as yet there appears to be no sign of it appearing. I wonder whether you have heard any evidence as to when it might emerge.
As the hon. Gentleman can probably guess, I have not been made aware of that. It is on the record, and I am sure the Government have picked up on that point. Hopefully they will be in touch.
Israel Arms Trade (Prohibition)
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Richard Burgon, supported by Caroline Lucas, Liz Saville Roberts and Tommy Sheppard, presented a Bill to prohibit the sale of arms to Israel and the purchase of arms from Israel; to make associated provision about an inquiry in relation to Israel into the end use of arms sold from the UK or authorised for sale by the UK Government; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 10 September, and to be printed (Bill 144).
Dogs (DNA Databases)
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 require dog keepers to register a dog’s DNA on a database; to make provision about such databases and about the information held on them; and for connected purposes.
There are not many days when we in this House can bring joy to so many families and individuals, fight crime, improve biosecurity, help the UK’s leadership in animal genomics and repay the loyalty of the nation’s faithful four-legged friends. This is one such day, and I believe we can do so united on both sides of the House.
One in three households across the UK is home to a furry four-legged canine friend. This Bill seeks to create a national register of doggy DNA as a more secure, more humane and better long-term alternative to microchipping. I am grateful for the feedback from the many parties I consulted in developing this Bill, including dog shelters, police forces, vets, academics, members of the public and genomic industry professionals. I am also grateful for the support of the RSPCA, the largest and oldest animal welfare organisation in the world.
Under the Microchipping of Dogs (England) Regulations 2015, all dogs must already be microchipped. If there is a canine libertarian movement, that pass has already been sold. Although microchips have been a big step forward and have produced many successes in reuniting dogs with their loving owners, they are not infallible. Some dogs have health conditions making them unable to be microchipped. Microchips can be inserted incorrectly, causing suffering, or sometimes migrate to other parts of the body. Increasingly, they can be found and cut out by unscrupulous thieves.
Registration itself is fragmented, with many databases offered by competing suppliers, each of which hold data in a variety of formats. Unlike microchipping, a simple DNA swab inside a dog’s mouth is non-invasive. It is a modern solution whose time has come.
There is a particular problem right now of dog theft, which reportedly increased by 250% in 2020, but a database, once set up, will have a number of additional benefits and solutions for policy questions related to dog welfare and ownership. In March, my colleague Katy Bourne, police and crime commissioner for Sussex, ran a survey that received almost 125,000 responses, revealing fear of dog theft was a “serious problem”.
Earlier this year Gloucestershire constabulary gave us a proof of concept, having set up its own opt-in DNA register. I am grateful to Gloucestershire’s adviser, Kim Mowday, who examined everything from nose prints to paw prints before concluding that DNA was the most robust and reliable identifier. I know from farmers in my constituency, that a register would protect not just dogs but other animals, too. SheepWatch UK estimates that, in 2016 alone, over 15,000 farm animals were killed by out-of-control dogs.
A register would also improve our city parks and public spaces by tackling dog fouling, which has been linked to toxocariasis, a parasite that is a particular risk to the youngest children. Trials by Barking and Dagenham Council showed that DNA testing drove down fouling by over 60% once owners realised that they could or would be traced. A DNA database would also have immense research value, putting Britain at the cutting edge, and allowing for canine genetic diseases to be tracked and traced. In 2018, whole genome sequencing allowed researchers in Helsinki to identify a gene that causes congenital eye disease in dogs, and such a wide and deep data pool would only generate more advances in veterinary science.
I come to the second major function of the Bill: it seeks to unify the existing microchip registers and merge them into a nationally standardised format. Several organisations I consulted when developing this Bill already advocate for that, including Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, the Dogs Trust and the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons. I draw the House’s attention to the 13 June 2013 debate on compulsory microchipping, in which the then Minister said:
“We are working with database operators and the microchip manufacturers and implanters to address standards and ensure quality and consistency”.—[Official Report, 13 June 2013; Vol. 564, c. 156WH.]
He was thereby acknowledging the problem that, eight years on, has still sadly not been solved. The Bill would simplify that by providing a single, consistent point of contact for updates, in much the same way as drivers know they must inform the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency when they change vehicle. The RSPCA has welcomed the Bill, which it says will
“streamline the process of registering dogs, making this easier for owners and authorities and vets to get the information they need.”
Nor is the cost of DNA tests a meaningful objection. The Bill does not seek to bring this in overnight, and would instead see a phased introduction over a decade. That would allow for the expanding provision of DNA testing to drive down cost. The cost of genome sequencing has fallen so rapidly that it has outpaced Moore’s law. Today, a whole human genome can be sequenced for less than $300, and this is expected to fall further. A dog DNA test today can cost as little as £40, depending on the purpose. Given that pet testing is a completely new market and is growing rapidly, we can be sure the price will drop much further over the next decade. The original debates about microchipping featured concerns about the cost burden to owners of making microchipping compulsory. Despite the legal requirement having been in place for five years, there has been no collapse in demand for pet dogs—quite the opposite. Dog ownership has soared from 7.8 million in the year of that debate to more than 10 million last year. The 10-year phasing in would also allow the existing microchip databases to regularise their formatting ahead of unification and to avoid existing owners being penalised.
This will be an effective solution for a number of dog-related problems. Although the list I have given today, including pet theft, puppy farms, dog fouling, wildlife protection, livestock worrying and veterinary research, is not exhaustive—although it sounds it—once the basic framework is set up, any number of other applications can follow. It is clear that a DNA-based approach will become the standard sooner or later. It is surely easier to start now, sorting the scaling problems earlier, so that we make this a long-term fix.
Let me conclude by addressing my final remarks to the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis). This is a change that is coming. The only question is when and how. We can be sure that the departmental brief written for her will raise no end of objections as to why this is the wrong change at the wrong time. Although our civil service is a fine machine in many respects, the status quo has no better or more skilled advocate for inertia and inactivity. This is that rare thing, a Bill for which there is political consensus and that requires no Treasury funding. So I urge her, for the sake of pet owners, and for the much-loved dogs that will be stolen today, tomorrow and the next day, let us fast forward to the point where the Government agree to pick up this Bill and legislate. Please go back to the Department, challenge the advice and seek action this day on this very important issue.
Question put and agreed to.
That Andrew Griffith, Virginia Crosbie, Siobhan Baillie, James Sunderland, Sir David Amess, Sir Roger Gale, Mr Robert Goodwill, Robert Halfon, Jane Hunt, Dr Julian Lewis, Andrew Selous and Suzanne Webb present the Bill.
Andrew Griffith accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 18 March 2022, and to be printed (Bill 145).
[4th Allotted Day]
Covid-19: Contracts and Public Inquiry
I beg to move,
That this House believes the Government has failed to give full details of the process behind the issuing of emergency covid-19 contracts; and therefore calls on the Government immediately to commence the covid-19 public inquiry, announced by the Prime Minister on 12 May 2021.
There have been many instances during this covid-19 pandemic when we have seen the very best in our society, from our frontline workers keeping food on supermarket shelves, to our extraordinary scientific community who have produced life-saving vaccines, to, of course, our NHS heroes who have been so deserving of the George Cross. The pandemic has also led to opportunism, greed, and covid profits being put above accountability. This Tory Government are guilty of funnelling covid cash from the frontline into the pockets of their rich friends. We are talking about endemic cronyism during a global pandemic, the misuse of funds, and covid profiteers raking in billions of pounds for services that have often been too substandard or irrelevant in the fight against the virus. Yes, Mr Speaker, it is billions of pounds that we are talking about—billions of pounds while millions in our society have been excluded from any help from the Government.
Today, the SNP is saying enough, no more dodgy dealings, no more undeclared meetings, and no more billion-pound contracts to friends. The Prime Minister promised an inquiry into the UK Government’s handling of the pandemic; it must start right now.
I have the greatest respect for the right hon. Gentleman and I understand why he is bringing this debate forward, but he must realise that we have just had a week where his own country’s newspapers are full of headlines saying that Scotland is becoming the covid capital of Europe. Who is responsible for that?
We really should not be playing political football—[Laughter.] I have to say, Mr Speaker, that says it all. [Laughter.] They should just keep going, because, friends, we are talking about people who are getting a serious illness, we are talking about people who are getting long covid, we are talking about people who are going on ventilators, we are talking about people who are losing their lives, and that is the behaviour that we get from the Conservatives. They ought to be utterly, utterly ashamed of themselves.
When it comes to the covid numbers in Scotland, let me give those Members a reality check. The reason that covid numbers are rising so dramatically right across the United Kingdom—and we have seen the projections this morning of what is going to happen here over the coming weeks—is largely down to what has happened with the delta variant. My Government in Edinburgh told the Government in London that we had to lock the door on the delta variant. It is the UK Government who have been asleep at the wheel, so we take no lectures about our responsibilities when there is a Prime Minister who talks about letting the bodies pile high. We know where the blame lies and the blame lies at the door of No.10 Downing Street.
Order. Let us just calm down. Two of you cannot be standing at the same time. If the hon. Gentleman wants the Member to give way, he will give way. If the hon. Gentleman really felt that it was so bad, he could have made a point of order. The fact is that we need to calm it down. We need to get on with this debate, as it is important for all. People are watching it and we need to be able to hear all sides, and I am struggling at times. With so few Members here, it is amazing how much noise is being generated; I see Mr Shelbrooke is back in town. Carry on, Ian Blackford.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. These are important matters and we need to be able to deal with them respectfully.
Last week, I asked an urgent question in this House regarding the misuse of covid funds for political campaigning. The Secretary of State ordered the use of a £560,000 emergency covid contract to conduct constitutional campaigning on the Union. That was taxpayers’ funds, which were earmarked for the NHS to protect supplies of personal protective equipment but were instead used to order political polling. [Interruption.] I can hear an hon. Friend asking whether they can do that; no, it is not permissible to engage in such behaviour. We are talking about taxpayers’ funds that were earmarked for the NHS to order PPE but were instead used to order political polling.
At Prime Minister’s questions on the Wednesday prior to my urgent question, the Prime Minister told me that he was unaware of the contracts. The accusation of misusing covid contracts was not media speculation; nor was it a political accusation: it was a plain fact. It came directly from the official evidence published in the High Court judgment on the Good Law Project v. the Minister for the Cabinet Office, which revealed that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster instructed—instructed—officials to commission research on
“attitudes to the UK Union”
using the emergency contract given to Public First for pandemic research. As I have stated, that is a fact admitted in a court of law, but in this very Chamber last week the Government sought to deny that any such spending took place and said that the Minister had no part to play in it. These are serious matters and we need honesty and transparency from the Government. Perhaps today the Minister on the Front Bench—the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, the hon. Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill)—could put the record straight on the fact that it was admitted in court that that had happened.
We are dealing with a Government acting in a sleekit manner and in a covert way, using covid funds for research on attitudes to the Union without authority. For the UK Government to funnel funds earmarked for emergency covid spending into party political research is jaw-dropping and morally reprehensible. Can we imagine the reaction if the Scottish Government had used emergency covid funds to conduct polling on independence? There would have been justifiable outrage from Government Members.
In another court case, the failure to publish details of contracts within the required 30 days led the judge to rule that the then Health Secretary, the right hon. Member for West Suffolk (Matt Hancock), had acted unlawfully. It took the Government until last month to publish the details of 40 PPE contracts worth £4.2 billion, despite the contracts having been awarded a year before and despite the Government claiming months earlier that all PPE contracts had already been published. In documents seen by the BBC, Government lawyers admitted in February that 100 contracts for suppliers and services relating to covid-19, signed before October last year, had yet to be published. Yet three days earlier, the Prime Minister told MPs that the contracts were
“on the record for everybody to see.”—[Official Report, 22 February 2021; Vol. 689, c. 638.]
Was this yet another example of the Prime Minister being unaware of the situation that his Government had found themselves in? The alternative is—and can only be—that the Prime Minister willingly misled the House and the public. There is no other conclusion that can be drawn—
Order. I went through this earlier with other Members. “Inadvertently”—we do not use the direct accusation that somebody misled the House, but “inadvertently” I will accept. We have to use the right language, which is the language that we expect, and I am sure that the leader of the SNP would not want to break with the good manners of this House.
I will be generous to colleagues and the Prime Minister and for the purposes of this place I will respectfully do so.
The court cases highlighted that the covid contracts were not published on time, and poor records left big unknowns, such as why some companies won multi-million-pound contracts and others did not. Clarity on the latter has been provided through the revelation that civil servants were requested to triage contract proposals into high-priority lanes. That means that proposals from a supplier recommended by Ministers, Government officials, or MPs and Members of the House of Lords were given preferential treatment. That was crucial to the success of those seeking procurement deals: a National Audit Office report found that up to July 2020, one in 10 suppliers that had been put in the high-priority lane were awarded a contract, while the figure was less than one in 100 for those outside that lane. It is not what you know, or what you can provide: it is who you know in Government. These priority lanes created a tale of friends and family fortunes.
I am extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way, and for outlining his case forensically. What does this so-called VIP lane indicate about the priorities of the British Government, when we compare it with the fact that when the Welsh Government, the Scottish Government and the Northern Irish Government together asked for extra borrowing capacity to deal with the covid crisis, they were turned down? What does that say about the priorities of the British Government, and—more to the point, perhaps—what does it say about the nature of the relationships among Governments within the British state?
My hon. Friend is quite correct. There have been a number of occasions on which all the devolved Administrations have sought support from the UK Government for borrowing, and have been frustrated in that, but for friends of the UK Government, it is a case of “Come in, there are contracts to be had.”
Let me give a few examples. There was the neighbour and local pub landlord of the former Health Secretary, the right hon. Member for West Suffolk (Matt Hancock), who supplied tens of millions of vials for covid-19 tests despite not having had any previous experience of providing medical supplies: off the street, no experience whatsoever, but he was a friend of the Government. There was the small Stroud-based company which, despite making a loss in 2019, was awarded a £156 million contract for PPE. Wait for it: the company was run by a Tory councillor, and no evidence—none whatsoever—was ever found of its supplying PPE previously.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. I respectfully suggest that before he starts throwing stones at the UK Government, he looks at his own Government’s record in Edinburgh. Over 160 contracts awarded by the Scottish Government, worth £539 million from NHS Scotland, the Scottish Government and Scottish local authorities, were awarded during the pandemic to suppliers with no competitive process. It is quite clear that every Government on these islands and around the world were dealing with an unprecedented situation and rushing to save lives. Exactly the same was going on in Edinburgh as was happening in London, and for him to stand up and claim it is “Tory cronyism” does not dignify him or this place.
I am afraid to say that the lack of dignity in the Conservative Government is what is at stake here. The Scottish Government’s processes on procurement were open and transparent—that is the difference with what has taken place in this place.
Let me give a couple of other examples. A company run by a former business associate of the Tory peer Baroness Mone was awarded a £122 million contract seven weeks after the company was formed—my goodness, who has ever heard of such a thing? Another company, owned by a Tory donor, that supplied beauty products to high street stores was awarded a £65 million contract to produce face masks. Public First, which was awarded a £560,000 contract by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to conduct polling on the Union, was run by a former employee of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. Colleagues, right hon. and hon. Members, there is a thread that runs right through this. Incidentally, we have yet to see any of the research into support for Scottish independence: perhaps the Government did not like what they found.
My right hon. Friend is making a valid point. Is he aware of the recent report from openDemocracy that another person who helped to run Public First was Rachel Wolf, who was also a non-executive director at the Department for Work and Pensions at the time? Not only are Tory cronies getting contracts, but they have placemen who are supposed to challenge the Government but are actually helping to get contracts.
My hon. Friend is quite correct. I am delighted that we have an opportunity today to shine a light on all this, but it demonstrates that we need to get on with the public inquiry. The public deserve to know what has been happening with this Government as we have come through the pandemic.
We have heard excuses from the Prime Minister and the former Health Secretary that some of these contracts were fast-tracked because there was no time to be wasted in such urgent circumstances. Well, some basic due diligence might have been useful. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the lack of expertise of some of those securing the covid procurement contracts, there have been numerous issues with the orders.
As reported by the BBC, 50 million face masks bought in April 2020 could not be used by the NHS because they did not meet its specifications. The use of 10 million surgical gowns for frontline NHS staff was suspended because of how the items were packaged. Millions of medical gowns were never used, having been bought for the NHS at the end of the first lockdown for £122 million. A million high-grade masks used in the NHS did not meet the right safety standards and have been withdrawn. What a waste of taxpayers’ money. What a shambles. At the same time, 3 million of our constituents have been left with no financial support. Those are the warped priorities of the Government.
There are, of course, numerous further examples of Tory sleaze in the Government’s response to the pandemic, of which we are all too aware. There was David Cameron’s lobbying of Cabinet Ministers to benefit Greensill Capital, of which he was a shareholder. We had Dido Harding, wife of a Tory MP, put in charge of the disastrous and costly Test and Trace despite a lack of experience in public health. And of course there is the issue of the £37 billion that has been spent on it. Where is the value for money? Money wasted. [Interruption.] I suggest to the right hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) that this is a debate where he is permitted to put in to speak, but—[Interruption.]
If the right hon. Gentleman tries, he might catch your eye later on in the debate, Mr Speaker. I think we have heard enough of him from a sedentary position. [Interruption.] Government Members can carry on—there might not be that many of them, but my goodness they make a hullabaloo as they try to shut down and shout down the representatives of Scotland who are here to stand up for our constituents. [Interruption.] Yeah, carry on, carry on.
Well, well, well. We are not the representatives of the people of Scotland? Let me remind the hon. Gentleman that we have just won an election to the Scottish Parliament. Thank goodness that we have a Parliament that has a majority that can take Scotland out of this Union, into the future of an independent Scotland back in the European Union and away from the Tory sleaze and corruption that I am outlining this afternoon.
It was just last week that I asked my urgent question from this spot on the misuse of public funds in covid contracts, but since then the revelations of cronyism have continued. As revealed by The Sunday Times, Lord Bethell has something in common with his close friend the former Health Secretary: he failed to declare meetings—27 meetings that we know of, with companies that went on to receive £1 billion-worth of covid contracts. Puzzlingly, despite having had—wait for it—no relevant experience, Lord Bethell took ministerial responsibility for Test and Trace. His only qualification seemed to be that he was a long-time close friend of the then Health Secretary who happened to chair and donate thousands of pounds to his failed Tory leadership campaign. Lord Bethell also provided Ms Coladangelo with a parliamentary pass to the Houses of Parliament despite her not undertaking any work for the peer. This has rightly been referred to the House of Lords Commissioners for Standards. It prompts the question: why is Lord Bethell still in post?
Such examples of Tory cronyism and multimillion-pound deals in the pockets of Tory friends are difficult to digest. It is hard, looking at this covid contracts scandal, to conclude anything other than that Westminster is rotten to the core. As well as unlawful covid contracts, we have seen dodgy donations to refurbish the Downing Street flat, peerages handed to billionaire Tory donors, and offers of tax breaks by text. The Scottish Government have committed to a public inquiry on the covid pandemic to start this year. The UK Government must do the same.
Those of us on these Benches know Scotland can do better. We are doing better and we could go further still with the powers of independence. While NHS heroes received a measly and insulting 1% pay rise from the UK Government, the Scottish Government pledged 4% with a £500 one-off thank you. While 3 million people are excluded from UK Government support, the SNP will continue to argue for them and stand up for them. While Tory aid cuts mean that the global fight against the virus is hindered, we will continue to make the case that none of us will be free from the threat of covid-19 until it is eradicated from all around the world.
Support in Scotland for the First Minister remains steadfast, while the Prime Minister continues to be incredibly unpopular. A recent Ashcroft poll of Scottish voters found support for Nicola Sturgeon to be the highest of all party leaders, and common descriptions used for the First Minister were “determined” and “competent”. By comparison, the Prime Minister was commonly referred to as being dishonest, arrogant, out of touch and out of his depth. When it comes to our recovery from the pandemic, the question for Scots will be: who do you trust to lead us? For many Scots, the answer is becoming clearer and clearer with every passing day.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for the opportunity to speak in this Opposition day debate on covid-19 contracts and the public inquiry into the handling of the outbreak.
Possibly the only two sentences that I could agree with in what, unfortunately, was largely just smear—[Interruption.] Mr Blackford—[Interruption.] I am frightfully sorry. I would just gently say this to the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford): I sat quietly, with respect, listening to what you had to say. I would be really grateful for that same courtesy.
Order. Let me just say that we do not call Members by their names; we use their constituency. We need to take the tension out and take the heat out. Everybody should quite rightly be listened to. The same that I expected for the leader of the SNP I certainly expect for the Minister.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.
I agree that we have seen, totally, the best of people—our frontline workers and our NHS workers. They have really stepped up. They need to know that we did everything we could in exceptional circumstances. I remember the weekend I went to Liverpool to meet the plane that flew back from Wuhan with those very first individuals who were carrying the virus. We knew nothing of it at the time, so how far have we come?
The other point on which I would agree with the right hon. Member is that very pithy sentence, “Those of us on these Benches know Scotland can do better.” As he will appreciate, covid-19 has presented this country with one of the most unprecedented challenges we have ever faced. It has been imperative for us to work together closely throughout this pandemic. In particular, the Government recognise the key role devolved Administrations have played in this, and I have been incredibly grateful for the meetings I have had with my counterparts not only on issues relating to the pandemic but on other issues—there was a meeting last week in which we spoke about how we might address the challenge of those going through the journey of cancer. We are very grateful for that.
It is thanks to that close collaboration and co-ordination that we have been able as a United Kingdom to achieve success in our vaccine roll-out programme. Over three quarters of adults in the UK have received at least one dose and well over half have received both doses. Our job was to protect the weakest and most vulnerable, and that goes for all of us.
Had we remained in the EU scheme, which has not performed as well as ours, we would not be here at this point, and I am proud of the work of the vaccines taskforce and proud of the leadership that Kate Bingham showed. I seem to remember these debates revolving around that at one time; I do not see anybody now denying and saying, “No, don’t give me a vaccine.” That work was led and driven by Kate Bingham and her team, who worked ceaselessly—longer days for longer weeks for longer months—to find our pathway out of this.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, and totally share in the point she just made about the vaccine. As she will have seen, when I intervened on the SNP spokesperson earlier I raised the point that Scotland has been described recently as the covid capital of Europe, and the SNP is refusing to take responsibility, and indeed is blaming the UK Government because of the delta variant. But is it not the case that since it became identified as a variant of concern, England played Scotland and the Scottish Government could have stopped thousands of Scots travelling south of the border? There was nothing to stop them doing that; they must take some responsibility for the fact that there are so many covid cases in Scotland.
I thank my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour. The right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber referred to his leader, who early on in the pandemic spoke about elimination, yet now the World Health Organisation says six out of 10 of the highest rates across Europe are currently in Scotland. That is why I think that if selective lines are picked out, and people are used as battering rams against each other rather than us looking sensibly at the facts, that means that we do not get the perspective we need to make sure that we come through this and that we stand shoulder to shoulder with the population and deliver the vaccine programme.
As I said, I am proud of the work that the UK Government have done in driving the vaccine. At the beginning of the pandemic we were told this would be a 10-year process; we got there in a year. That is utterly phenomenal, and there were great academics from Scotland who joined in; there were academics from across the world. We can deliver this, and the NHS is getting on with the job of vaccinating and allowing us that road to freedom.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. Does she agree that, because of the investment the UK Government made in the AstraZeneca vaccine and the Government’s worldwide collaborations and investment, not only have we been able to produce the vaccine in 10% of the predicted time but we unlocked technology that will serve the health service and people of this country for many years to come?
I could not agree more. The vibrancy and quality of the life sciences industry, the pharmaceutical industry and the academic ecosystem in Scotland, in Wales, in Northern Ireland and in the UK really does unleash a bright future for us. It is thanks to that joint working that we have been able to procure at speed vital goods and services, such as ventilators and PPE, which have been so critical to our response in the pandemic. To date, every patient who has needed a ventilator has had access to one. I am sure that the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber will celebrate the jobs that have been created—I think it is 450 of them—at the Honeywell factory in Motherwell, producing PPE for the frontline. We now have a home-grown industry that provides 70% of all PPE, apart from gloves, and we are working hard to find the right materials so that we can have a glove industry as well. That is what I call a success story, from a standing start back in April.
I will give way in a minute. The right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber is well aware of the public contract regulations, which existed before the pandemic and which allow the Government to procure at speed in times of emergency. There was no need to suspend or relax the procurement rules in order to use those regulations. I gently say that these were the same systems as in Scotland and Wales. We had an unprecedented global crisis and, quite rightly, people had to use existing regulation that allows them to flex in order to deliver for their populations.
The use of the emergency contracting procedures has reduced since the early days of the pandemic. That contingency procedure is, however, still available to Departments provided the key tests are met. The Government have always understood the scale of the challenges that we have faced as a nation, and that is why, from the start of the pandemic, we were clear with public authorities that they would need to act extremely quickly to meet the challenge of covid-19. We have also been clear about the continued need to use good commercial judgment and to publish the details of awards made, in line with Government transparency guidance.
I thank the Minister for giving way. The emergency tender procedure that she highlights is the one that was previously used to award a ferry contract to a company with no ferries, so we know how bad the governance is from this Government. On governance, openDemocracy recently confirmed that 16 non-executive directors appointed to various Departments are Vote Leave compadres, Tory chums and Tory donors. They are the ones who are supposed to hold the Government to account. Can she explain the selection process for these non-executive director roles?
No, I will not. Those non-executive directors are selected through a selection procedure because they hold skills—commercial skills, legal skills and so on—from the outside world. If the hon. Gentleman is telling me that the way someone votes in an election makes them unable to scrutinise, that makes a mockery of the way that we set up Select Committees and so on. It is important that people are enabled to come in with their skills from the outside world to scrutinise.
That being said, we are committed to looking for opportunities to improve the way that we work. The first independent Boardman review of procurement processes, looking at a small number of contracts in the Government Communication Service, has reported to Government. Twenty-four of the 28 recommendations have already been implemented, and the remainder will be met by the end of the calendar year. A second review by Nigel Boardman into pandemic planning and procurement across Government identified further recommended improvements to the procurement process. Work is under way to progress them, and an update will be given to the Public Accounts Committee this month—a double layer of making sure that we are doing the right thing. The Cabinet Office Green Paper “Transforming public procurement” also sets out proposals to update the rules on procuring in times of extreme urgency or crisis to include lessons learned from the pandemic.
Procurement has been and is being extensively reviewed, including by the independent National Audit Office report published last year on Government procurement during the covid-19 pandemic, but the Government know that there is so much more to learn from the experience of the pandemic. That is why the Prime Minister confirmed a public inquiry into covid-19, which will begin its work next spring. I hear the calls for that inquiry to be brought forward, but I believe it would be irresponsible. A premature inquiry risks distracting Ministers, officials and Departments from the ongoing pandemic response, slowing down action and diverting the very people we need to be focused on each delicate stage of our ongoing response. I would also gently say that with six out of 10 of the highest-rate areas in Scotland and the pandemic still very visible in the north-west, north-east, Yorkshire and Humber, it is incumbent on us to deal with the pandemic as our first priority.
This was a global pandemic. It impacted all of us: individuals, friends, businesses and our own families across the UK and across the world. We have to recover as one team, team UK, or else we are weakened. It is right that we learn these lessons together. We will continue to work with the devolved Administrations as we develop the inquiry. I know that they, too, will welcome the scrutiny and the diligence that an inquiry will bring not only to England, but also to Scotland.
I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker, for missing the first couple of minutes of the debate. I did, however, hear the excellent contribution by the leader of the SNP, the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford). It is no reflection on my feeling about the importance of this debate not just for us as Opposition parties, but for the people of the whole of Britain who are listening to these questions and who want more answers than those we have just heard. Maybe we will have them at the end of this debate.
On the Opposition Benches, we share the conclusion that the right hon. Gentleman came to in his remarks, which is that Government procurement over the past 16 months has been marred by huge waste to the taxpayer and brazen cronyism. That is not to say that the vaccine roll-out has not been an enormous success, but if that is all we going to hear from Conservative Members we will not get to the heart of the debate. At the same time as we were rolling out the vaccine, these crony covid contracts were being made and there are questions that must be answered for contracts being given now and for the future, as well as those given last year.
The hon. Lady will have heard the Minister suggest that the same processes have been followed in Scotland and Wales as were followed by the British Government; but does she agree with me that it is only the British Government who have been found, twice, to have acted unlawfully?
I agree with the hon. and learned Lady. This is not about the processes and whether they have been followed, but about what undue weight was given to the resulting contracts that came out of those processes. Some of them have been taken up in court, so there are questions to be answered.
For over 12 months now, my colleagues and I in the shadow Cabinet Office team have been asking some very simple questions again and again of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office, the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), and his team over their procurement policy during the pandemic. Every time, we have been met with deflection and non-answers. Those questions have not been getting an answer, so I will try again today. That is not very impressive for the Department responsible for increasing transparency across Whitehall, and it is transparency that we are talking about today. But it is not only about transparency. Were those contracts given to the right companies to save lives at the right time? Without question, we needed speed. Without question, we needed the best companies to be chosen. The question is, when it comes to another emergency, pandemic or crisis, do the Government throw due transparency out of the window and just start talking to their friends?
The hon. Lady said that shadow Cabinet Office Ministers have been asking the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster questions about the things going on. However, I warn the hon. Lady—I say this to draw us back to where we were 12 or 15 months ago —that the then shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves), wrote to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster saying that he was not awarding PPE contracts quickly enough, and that he should be bypassing the system to get them out there. She then gave a list of companies in my city of Leeds that had offered support, and they included a football agent, an historical clothing company, an events company in Surrey and a private legal practice in Birmingham. All I say to the hon. Lady is that there are lessons to be learned, but in terms of what she is trying to say, please do not think that Opposition Members were all innocent and that the Government were guilty and need to follow some lesson, because the reality is that the then shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster put it in writing.
Of course there are questions to be asked, and that is what we are doing—we are asking these questions. I hope that there is a real-time review going on right now, and I hope that all the questions we are asking will be in the public inquiry to come. All these questions need to be looked into.
I have 15 questions for the Minister today, which I hope she will be able to answer. Question 1: what assessment has she made of the accuracy of the Prime Minister’s official spokesperson’s statement on 28 June 2021 on the conduct of ministerial Government business through departmental email addresses? The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Julia Lopez), said, only two hours after the statement that day, that
“a huge volume of correspondence was coming to Ministers via their personal email addresses”.—[Official Report, 28 June 2021; Vol. 698, c. 33.]
The Minister will have seen the leaked minutes from the Department of Health and Social Care meeting on 9 December, confirming that. So was the Prime Minister’s spokesperson not telling the truth, or just wrong, and will the Prime Minister be correcting the record? The use of private email addresses, how it all came to be and the murky times around that time need to be opened up to transparency.
It is hugely welcome news that the Information Commissioner’s Office will be investigating that point. The Government must co-operate fully. It is not just about freedom of information law and data protection law, important as that is; it is about taxpayers’ money being dished out secretly on private emails. Labour expects the Government to ensure that they come clean on private email use in other Departments, and that anyone found to have acted unlawfully or inappropriately in ministerial office faces the consequences.
Question 2: in her response to last week’s urgent question, the Parliamentary Secretary said that 47 offers of PPE supplies were processed through the Government’s priority mailbox. The Government have said that the details of all contracts will be published, but have refused to name the 47 companies. Who are those 47 companies, why are they not being named, and will those names be published now?
Question 3: can the Minister tell us which Ministers formally approved contracts awarded under the emergency procurement process during the covid pandemic? The Minister will have no doubt read the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee’s recent report on decision making during the pandemic, and it has a whole slew of other questions. It concluded:
“Ministers have passed responsibility between the Cabinet Office and Department of Health and Social Care”.
So who was responsible for actually signing off those contracts?
That leads me to question 4: which Minister made the decision to award a contract to Public First for contact focus group testing in March 2020? The Cabinet Office has stated that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster did not personally sign off the decision, so if he did not, who did?
Question 5, which was raised earlier in this debate: what role do the army of non-executive directors currently employed across Whitehall have in influencing the award of contracts? Did they have a say in the process or the decisions behind the award of those contracts? For instance, how can the Minister explain the fact that Kate Lampard, the lead non-executive director on the Department of Health and Social Care board, is also a senior associate at the consultancy firm Verita, which in May was awarded a contract by the same Department, worth £35,000, to assist Public Health England? It is not just about how people vote when they are awarded these positions. It is not about their voting tendency. It is their closeness to Ministers and others, and their closeness to some of the contracts being given out, that the public need to know more about.
This brings me nicely on to question 6. What steps were taken by the Department to identify and address conflicts of interest in relation to the contracts awarded through the VIP lane? Is the Minister confident that all meetings between Ministers and companies that were awarded contracts have been fully disclosed and added to the transparency data? Can we be assured of that today?
Question 7: I mentioned the leaked minutes of the December meeting of the Department of Health and Social Care. In that meeting the second permanent secretary used the term “sub-approval”. Can the Minister enlighten us on the sub-approval process? What does it mean in relation to Government covid contracts? The public have so many questions about what was going on in the contracting last year.
Question 8: the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Hornchurch and Upminster, spoke in a Westminster Hall debate on Monday 21 June, which I attended, about the market conditions facing suppliers in China. There have been questions about links with China. In that same debate, I referenced evidence uncovered by the Good Law Project that showed officials in the Department of Health and Social Care were aware that an agent working for PestFix, the pest company that got a covid contract, may have been bribing officials in China. The point was not addressed by the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, in that debate, so I ask the Minister to comment on it today. Is she aware of this allegation? Does she agree that, no matter how difficult market conditions were at the time, it warrants urgent investigation?
Question 9: I also asked in that debate whether the Cabinet Office would commit to auditing in detail all the contracts identified by Transparency International as raising red flags for possible corruption, and to commit to publishing the outcome of that audit. This would go a long way to restoring public trust. If it cannot be done, why not? What do the Government have to hide? I am afraid this is a question to which I did not receive an answer in that debate, so I hope to receive an answer this afternoon.
Question 10: the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, said she believes there are cases where clawback is taking place, and other Ministers have mentioned it, too, but we do not know when it has happened and what was in the contracts for those that failed, by millions of pounds in some cases. Is the Minister in a position to provide more detail?
In the past 12 months, the Government have awarded £280 million of contracts for masks that did not meet the required standards, at a time when we were crying out for PPE that would save lives. I presume those masks had to be mothballed. I do not know where they are.
The Government spent £100 million on gowns without carrying out technical checks, so they could not be used. It is incredibly important that as much of this taxpayers’ money as possible is retrieved as soon as possible. Perhaps the Minister can explain to the nurses facing a pay cut, and to the 3 million who have been excluded from any help, that the money has gone to boost the profits of the firms that received these contracts, rather than coming back to the public purse.
Similarly, my eleventh question is about how much money the Government have spent defending themselves in court against the unlawful decisions that have been made.
I do not know how much further investigations will cost, but that does not preclude from needing to investigate this point. We cannot deflect by looking at other investigations; we need to have an investigation into this point.
Hundreds of millions of pounds have been spent on masks that have been mothballed and on gowns that could not be used because the contracts were not good enough. At a time of public emergency, we need the Government to be excellent in their competence in contracting, and not to throw the rules out of the window and end up with these failed contracts.
Question 12: why, despite all the evidence uncovered this year, will the Government still not commit to ensuring these contracts are in the public inquiry? I hope to hear confirmation that this will happen.
The hon. Lady is asking a series of highly pertinent questions, and I wonder whether we will receive the answers with any haste. Does she agree that we also need an urgent inquiry in Wales, where it has become apparent that almost 2,000 deaths occurred from infections that probably, or definitely, took place in hospitals and were therefore the responsibility of the Welsh Government, and that we need that inquiry urgently?
Inquiries need to happen in real time, as we are learning, because we are making decisions all the time that affect our lives. There also need to be major Government inquiries, and I hope that all of this will be included in the Government inquiry to come.
The Minister made much of the Boardman review, saying, “There has been an inquiry. Don’t worry. The Boardman review has done it,” but this is my thirteenth question. It is, again, a question that I have asked before and received no answer to: does she seriously believe that the Boardman review is an independent and unbiased review, and good enough? How can she think that when Mr Boardman’s law firm has been the recipient of Government contracts in the past year, and given that Mr Boardman once ran to be a Conservative councillor—far more than just voting for one party or another? It looks more and more as if the Conservatives are set on glossing over the cronyism in their ranks, so that they can carry on as if nothing has happened.
I have two more questions, and then I will close. Question 14: when will we see a return of all public sector procurement to open competitive contracting as a default? The Minister said that emergency procurement procedures are still continuing, but they do not need to anymore. We need a way of having a contract in good time but with all the open competitiveness that the public need to see. There is no justification for the continuation of emergency procedures. They should be wound down immediately, and ways found to make contracting work without being secretive.
Finally, my fifteenth question: where is the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to answer these questions? The Cabinet Office is responsible for overseeing transparency across Government, and these are the fundamental questions that we have today. Why has he once again dodged an opportunity to explain the decisions made by his Department? Will he ever take responsibility and stop getting other Ministers to do his explaining for him, as has happened in many previous debates on this issue? The public will not stop asking these questions. We on the Opposition Benches will not stop asking these questions. We need some answers.
I have a lot of sympathy for the Minister, who will have to field some incredibly difficult questions about serious allegations. When such debates come up I can imagine that the conversation that Ministers have about who will reply is not a pleasant one. There are some very serious allegations, and I hope to hear the answers this afternoon.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this Opposition day debate on the awarding of covid contracts. It is probably worth starting with where we were 16 or 17 months ago. At the time, we were just hearing about the covid-19 pandemic and what it meant for our lives. With the benefit of hindsight, things may have been done slightly differently, but we should not use our experience over the past 16 or 17 months to prejudge the decisions that we had to make very quickly as a nation back in February and March last year.
I had the honour of sitting on the Public Accounts Committee earlier in my parliamentary term. Under the stewardship of Gareth Davies, the Committee works hand in glove with the National Audit Office. I know that the Committee, ably chaired by the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), has done various investigations into the response to the pandemic, with a particular focus on procurement and money. Scottish National party Members will be grateful to know that their colleague the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) is a vocal member of the Committee and, I am sure, will give wise counsel in future debates.
When I saw the topic of the debate, I was a bit surprised that the SNP had decided to call for it. I refer to its manifesto earlier this year in the local government elections that we had up in Scotland.
Sorry—the national Holyrood elections. The manifesto, on page 9, committed to a Scotland covid review. Unfortunately, the leadership up there has now done a U-turn and has not committed to that, so on behalf of the Royal College of Nurses and the GMB union, I urge them to have a rethink and hopefully commit to delivering what was promised in the manifesto.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) referred to the disappointing news that Edinburgh is regarded as the covid capital of Europe. I will not be political on this one; I just think that it is a disappointment and that all colleagues across the House will hope that, with our heated debate and constructive criticism, we will get a better result quickly. With that sentiment in mind, I urge colleagues: where Government Members can help, please do not be shy about asking.
Let me go back 16 or 17 months, with the benefit of hindsight—unfortunately the Leader of the official Opposition is not in his place; he uses hindsight a lot. There was a real fear that, as a country, we were potentially running out of PPE. It was this Conservative Government who gave a call to arms and said, “Actually, the United Kingdom needs a national effort”. We did that to ensure that we had the right PPE and other things in place for those on our frontline. Reference has been made to not using the normal procurement process and I urge colleagues to look at the Public Contracts Regulations 2015, which allow the accelerated procurement that has been used during this global pandemic—an event that fortunately happens only once every 100 years, approximately.
Colleagues on both sides of the House refer to the quantum of PPE and I think we need to put that in context. We have an additional 22,000 ventilators, 11 billion pieces of PPE and 507 million doses of vaccine. Those are phenomenal figures. Did each procurement absolutely hit the spot? No, but the figures quoted earlier in this House, I suggest, were a very small percentage of poor delivery, and I am sure that the National Audit Office, the Public Accounts Committee and various other bodies in this House and in the Palace will look into that further.
There have been various accusations about relationships that Conservative Members of Parliament may have with business owners or others involved in procurement. I gently urge Members to be mindful that there have been multiple independent investigations, including some in this House and from the National Audit Office, that have all shown that there was no conflict of interest with Members of Parliament, and that if there were, they were properly declared at the time.
Reference has been made to the Boardman review, which reported at the back end of last year and the 28 recommendations that the Government have already committed to implementing. I know that Opposition Members were urging a quicker review and investigation on the pandemic, but the deputy chief medical officer has argued that this would be regarded as “an extra burden” and a “distraction” from the successful vaccine roll-out.
Reference has been made to the SNP Scottish Government’s procurement processes and the fact that £539 million of grants and contracts were awarded without a competitive process or proper scrutiny. I urge colleagues to have a look at the Audit Scotland review, which has investigated the three separate pandemic preparedness exercises that were undertaken, with some of the lessons that should and need to be learned from that. I will leave it there; I look forward to other contributions.
If you type the words “covid contract” into Google, the first suggested return is “corruption”, so this Government are fooling nobody. There is no denying that the pandemic was unprecedented. There is no denying that every single Government across the globe have made mistakes, even in countries regarded as having a high degree of covid success, ahead of that of the UK—and there are many countries ahead of the UK in that respect. But the havoc wreaked on the UK by this Government is unforgivable. Efforts to secure contracts for friends and jobs for associates were their priority. That is the epitome of sleaze, and makes the cash-for-questions scandal that engulfed the same Tory party in the 1990s seem like a teardrop in the ocean. Many tears have been shed over the past 14 months, and I would like to pay my respects to the devastated families across these islands whose loved ones have succumbed long before their time as a result of this pandemic.
The UK is currently at the wrong end of the European table, with 1,952 deaths per million, compared with Ireland at 1,011, and Japan—the benchmark—at 127. That is an unforgivable outcome for an island nation with a developed economy and a developed, highly functioning health service. British exceptionalism lies at the heart of this Tory Government’s failed response, combined with delay, dithering and distraction by financial considerations and commercial opportunity. That saw an inevitable UK covid death toll expand to the actual UK covid death toll, and we need to see the gap between those two figures quantified in a public inquiry.
We must also inquire why it was only recently that such an inept Health Secretary was replaced. He presided over a litany of judgments as arrogant as they were poor and over decisions that, when taken together, allowed the covid death toll to reach more than 128,000 people during the pandemic in the UK. He was a Health Secretary whom the Prime Minister himself described as useless. We need the public inquiry to commence immediately.
The Prime Minister’s watery defence that we are fighting the pandemic and must wait till next spring was weak when he announced it and it has collapsed completely now. If he thinks it is time to remove face coverings— and it is not—then it is time for a public inquiry. No more time must be afforded to this dodgy, delinquent Administration of clientelism to tidy up their loose ends and administer away their inconvenient paper trails—where paper trails exist at all.
These Ministers are quite prepared to break domestic and international law if it suits their objectives—“Why let the law get in the way of Tory ideology?” is what I take to be their mantra. Let me provide three examples: the preparedness to breach the Northern Ireland protocol, the unlawful prorogation of Parliament in 2019 and Ministers now unlawfully refusing to publish a full list of covid contracts. What we do know is that billions have gone to politically connected companies, to former Ministers and Government advisers, and to others who donated to the Tory party; billions have gone to companies that had no prior experience in supplying PPE, from fashion designers, to pest controllers and jewellers; and billions have gone to companies with a controversial history, from tax evasion to fraud, corruption and human rights abuses.
In November, the National Audit Office revealed that this Tory Government had awarded £10.5 billion-worth of pandemic-related contracts, without a competitive tender process, in a VIP lane—how very Tory—and that companies with the right political connections were 10 times more likely to win than those outwith. The attitude at the heart of this UK Government was so demonstrably rotten, so bold and so unashamedly opportunistic that the Chancellor of the Duchy of the Lancaster felt that he could simply spend vital covid moneys on political polling on the state of the Union in Scotland. He could have asked me, because I would have told him for nothing: the Union is a busted flush in Scotland. He even made sure that his pals, the private fund Public First, got the contract into the bargain.
On track and trace, quite how this Government have budgeted £37 billion—a cost described as “unimaginable” by the Public Accounts Committee—to a system that has singularly failed to do its solitary job of helping to avoid a second lockdown, when we have now just emerged from a third, is simply incomprehensible. The UK Government have committed to wasting more than the entire budget of the Scottish Government in 1920 on a project that has failed miserably. For context, let me say that £37 billion would buy 148 Type 31 frigates from Babcock in Rosyth. That is the colossal scale of what we are talking about, but that is the Tory way, and they have no opposition in this place, as we can see from a depressingly empty set of Labour Benches—we might have thought that Her Majesty’s Opposition would front up to talk in detail about some of these important issues. That is the Tory way, where patronage and cronyism are rife and are upheld by privilege that starts at Eton and Harrow, and gets refined at Oxford and Cambridge, before reaping its entitlement off a weary population of taxpayers.
But that is not Scotland’s way. When the public inquiry reports, if it does, Scotland will take a different way. We take one look at the posh old pals’ network masquerading as a Government—for the next 30 years, unopposed—and Scotland says no. We have already rejected their so-called Union, we will have our referendum and we will be independent, forever turning our back on unending Tory sleaze.
As a comprehensive schoolboy, that privilege really runs right through me! However, let us be serious. First, let me say that we are dealing with a subject that has cost hundreds of thousands of people their lives. Millions of people around the world have died from a disease that nobody had even heard of, because it probably did not exist, two years ago. In that short time, we have had to do things, in the developed world and across all of the world, including in this country, that nobody would ever have dreamed of. We had to react very quickly to those things.
It is worth taking a step back to where we were, because short memories do not serve us well for the future. As I mentioned to the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson), at that time several people were coming to MPs, from all over, with suggestions, and not to make a quick buck; a lot of them answered the call to help out in the crisis the country and the world were in—one that not only affected this country, but created a worldwide shortage of the very equipment and supplies that the world needed. Of course, what has come out of this pandemic is a look at the global supply chains and how they have to change, and that is tearing up the convention that has existed for many decades across many parts of the world. It took the crisis to say, “When we stretch out your supply chains like that in a world crisis, they are not going to work in the best way possible.” The pressure for personal protective equipment was enormous.
Again, I make the point about the letter that the shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster sent to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, which covered two aspects. First, it said, “All these people are offering you PPE. Why haven’t you bought it? Why are you taking so long to buy it?” That is there in black and white, in an official letter sent to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. The letter then listed other companies that had come to the shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and said that they could supply things; as I said before, there were football agents, historical clothing companies, events companies and private legal practices in Birmingham. I am not saying that in a sense of mockery; I am saying that to make the point that Members of Parliament from all parties—from across the House—received several emails and representations from those trying to supply PPE to deal with the crisis. It was the responsibility of Members of Parliament to pass those emails and those contacts into the system to see what would happen.
I equally understand that the shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster had a frustration about the length of time it was taking for those contracts to be awarded, because we were all desperately trying to solve a problem that the world was facing to get PPE to where it needed to be. Of course we can name contracts that went wrong. We can do that in any walk of life and for any contract. It does not mean there was an endemic failure. Things were happening in a very short space of time and certain procurements did not meet the standards, but the last figure I heard showed they amounted to less than 1% of all the PPE that was procured. That is not a bad hit rate when there was not time to fill in the paperwork.
It is important that we bring these issues out in these debates, but why we do that is being lost in this one. There are, quite rightly, calls for an inquiry, but do we want it so that the country can learn, move forward and understand how to tackle things in the future, or is it for cheap political points? What I have heard so far is, pretty much, “If we had independence, we wouldn’t have any problems.” From almost the first sentence that came out of the mouth of the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) there was the argument for independence, and it has gone on and on. We have heard, “If Scotland was independent, it would be different.” Well, it would not be that different, because Scotland would not be in the EU and it would not have had a chance to take part in the UK-wide procurement that supplied the vaccine programme. Let us not forget that the British armed forces have also contributed a huge amount to the fight against the pandemic. There has been a UK-wide force—the strength of this Union—delivering for every adult in the country. It does no service at all to try to make what has happened in the last 18 months into an argument about independence. It should stop this afternoon.
Since the right hon. Member has taken us on to the Union, why did the Government seek to poll Scottish attitudes to it if its benefits were so self-evident throughout? Why were public funds that were intended for covid procurement misdirected to pay for that polling?
I despair. I literally just said that we are supposed to be examining the procurement of PPE and when the inquiry comes, and yet we go back to those allegations. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General will once again give the answers that were given previously. Stop it! Grow up! The reality is that we are dealing with an issue that has caused the deaths of millions of people across the world, including tens of thousands of people in this country. Today we need to explore where things went wrong—that is important —why the inquiry should wait and how it should take place.
By profession I am a mechanical engineer and, as somebody who flies around the world, I have an interest—a morbid interest, I suppose—in the programme “Air Crash Investigation”, which my wife will not watch under any circumstances, given her fear of flying. Aircraft safety has improved immensely in the past decades, and that is because there is a no-blame culture. That ties straight in with the report published this week by the Health and Social Care Committee on deaths in natal care and having a no-blame culture. We may want to get to the analysis of what went wrong and why it went wrong, but we cannot do that from a position of wondering, “Am I covering my political back? Am I covering my professional back? Can I have an honest conversation?”
We have to understand what went wrong. Things did go wrong. There cannot be a single person in the Chamber or indeed across the country who felt that everything went really well and was fine. Nobody says that. Nobody believes that. It is self-evidently not true that everything went fine. We do have to learn lessons, and it is important that we learn them though the matrix of what went wrong. As we have said, plenty of preparation was done for a flu pandemic, but that turned out not to be able to handle this pandemic. It is therefore important that we analyse the pressures caused by different diseases that can come forward. [Interruption.] I heard things from a sedentary position, but I did not notice what was said.
Ultimately, we have not had any sense of the SNP taking responsibility where they have responsibility—indeed, it was noticeable that the leader of the SNP just dismissed the intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge), mocked it and tried to put the blame back on the UK Government. Quite simply, if people are really taking notice of this debate this afternoon, they will think that it needs to be a lot more mature and serious than it has been so far.
I begin by remembering those who have lost their lives over the last year and a half. Like many Members in the House, I have lost loved ones. I am sure that many people who have lost loved ones will be watching this and will be interested to note the manner in which parliamentarians are conducting themselves.
“Gesture politics”—if the Home Secretary claims that taking the knee in a football match is gesture politics, I have news for this Government: clapping hands for the NHS rather than giving them an adequate pay rise is a gesture. Rather than providing financial assistance to those, such as NHS staff, who risk their lives, the Government are lining the pockets of their rich friends.
As a relatively new Member of this place, I was informed of the seven standards of public life—the Nolan principles. As an elected Member, I must hold myself to these standards, as must all Members, including those on the Government Benches. Let us take a moment to examine these seven principles and see just how this Tory Government fit in. “Selflessness”: Members must
“act solely in terms of the public interest.”
Instead, the Minister for the Cabinet Office used taxpayers’ money intended for covid recovery on examining attitudes towards the Union. “Integrity”: Members
“should not act or take decisions in order to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family, or their friends.”
Well, where do I start? “Objectivity”: Members
“must act and take decisions impartially, fairly and on merit”.
But we know that judges ruled that the UK Government had acted unlawfully in awarding a contract worth over half a million pounds to a firm known to associates of Government Ministers. “Accountability”: Members
“are accountable to the public for their decisions and actions”.
Yet the Department of Health and Social Care failed to declare 27 meetings of a Minister in the other place at the outset of the pandemic. The companies involved in those meetings went on to acquire public service contracts worth over £1 billion. “Openness”:
“Information should not be withheld from the public unless there are clear and lawful reasons for so doing.”
In May 2020, the former Health Secretary was found guilty of a minor technical breach of the ministerial code after initially failing to declare his stake in an NHS supplier—a company run by his sister and his brother-in-law. Members must also “be truthful”. The former Health Secretary used private email accounts to communicate and award substantial covid-related contracts to his friends.
Finally, there is “Leadership”: Members
“should exhibit these principles in their own behaviour.”
I am not sure whether we are seeing that.
When we consider the record of this Tory Government, we see that they have failed to uphold a single one of the seven principles of public life to which we are bound. They have failed to act selflessly, placing the financial prosperity of their friends and colleagues above the needs of our NHS. They have lacked integrity, indebting themselves to private companies and exchanging contracts for donations and favours. They have lacked objectivity, handing out contract to their friends while some of the most vulnerable in society suffer under their policies. And now they are delaying this public inquiry, denying the country the openness, honesty and accountability that the electorate deserve.
However, we in Scotland have a choice to escape this Tory sleaze and build a fairer and more democratic future as an independent nation. Scotland taking the reins and becoming an independent nation is not just for the sake of independence: I truly believe that with independence, we can build a fairer Scotland, a Scotland that is reflective of all those who choose to make it their home. We can build a society that invests in our people; we can build a stronger, more diverse economy; and we can finally ensure that power resides in Scotland, with a Government that the people of Scotland have elected.
It is a pleasure to speak in this Opposition day debate, and I will address the motion—which I am not sure has anything to do with Scottish independence, which is what we heard about in the last speech. It calls on the Government to immediately commence the covid-19 public inquiry.
The hon. Member says that the motion has nothing to do with Scottish independence, so why did the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and the Cabinet Office put forward a contract that specifically looked for Scottish views on independence? What was the purpose of that, if not to understand independence?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but as I said, I am going to speak to the motion that his party has tabled today for discussion.
The Prime Minister has already confirmed that an independent inquiry into the handling of the pandemic is expected to begin in the spring of 2022. This inquiry will be on a statutory basis, with full powers under the Inquiries Act 2005, including the ability to compel the production of all relevant materials and take oral evidence under public oath. Every part of the state pulled together to tackle this virus, and as we recover as one United Kingdom, we must learn the lessons together in the same spirit. That is why the Government will consult the devolved Administrations before finalising the scope and details of the arrangements of this inquiry.
Given the scale of the inquiry and the resources required to carry it out, from identifying and disclosing all relevant information to giving that oral evidence, launching an inquiry would place a significant burden on our NHS and scientific advisers at a time when focus must still be on the fight against the virus. We are still rolling out the vaccine project; we have booster jabs to get into arms in the autumn; we will have winter pressures on the NHS; and, as we have discussed in recent days, we are rightly focused on addressing all of those missed appointments for other health concerns. Our deputy chief medical officer has said that an inquiry now would be an unnecessary extra burden that would distract the NHS from the vaccine roll-out:
“Personally, would an inquiry be an unwelcome distraction for me personally, at the moment, when I’m very focussed on the vaccine programme and the vaccine programme we might need in the autumn? Who knows, I think it would be an extra burden that wasn’t necessary.”